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26 June, 2013
The Interdependence of Literature
French Literature
by Curtis, Georgina Pell


It is in the first ages of national existence that the foundations of national character and poetry are laid; and the farther back that history is studied, the more closely do we find the different peoples of the world united in their literature. Its first history in France is undoubtedly that of the Troubadours. Provence, where it originated, early became an independent kingdom, while in the north the literature of the Trouveres became the foundation of the national literature of France. Latin was the language of the country after its conquest by Julius Caesar; then came the Northern hordes, when language became corrupted, until, in the time of Charlemagne, German was the Court language, Latin the written language, and the Romance dialect, still in its barbaric state, was the speech of the people. The Gauls in the North, who used the Romance, were also called the Roman-Wallons; they were distinguished from Charlemagne's German subjects, while in the South the natives were called the Romans-Provencaux.

In the tenth century the Normans invaded France, and infused another element in the language, which gradually became Norman- French; and from the twelfth century the two dialects were known as Provencal and French. The Provencal dialect, although much changed, is still spoken in Provence, Languedoc, Catalonia, Valencia, Majorca, and Minorca, while the French was brought, by gradual polish, to its present perfection.

The Troubadours who flourished for three centuries, from 950 to 1250, used the Romance language in their poems. The brilliance of this period of literature, its sudden rise, and as sudden disappearance, is not unlike the rise and fall of the Arabian literature.

Among the thousands of poets who flourished during this time, none ever wrote anything of any special note. The love, romance and imagination of these poems breathes that chivalry toward women, amounting almost to veneration, which was a feature of this class of poetry. It is therefore to be regretted that as actual tales, shorn of the poetical and chivalric setting, there was something left to be desired. The immorality of the incidents, and the coarseness of the language, makes this "Gay Science," as the Troubadours called it, unfit to be classed with the best literature. In 1092 the crown of Provence passing to the Count of Barcelona brought a more refined taste into the Provencal poetry; the arts and the sciences of the Arabians obtained a foothold in the country; rhyme--the method used in Arabian poetry, was adopted by the Troubadours, and from them has been handed down to the nations of modern Europe.

This period has been described as "one that shone out at once over Provence and all the south of Europe, like an electric flash in the midst of profound darkness, illuminating all things with the splendor of its flame."

During the Crusades many of the Troubadours departed for the Holy Land. In the history of the world there is no event that fired the poetry and imagination of the people like these holy wars, and religious enthusiasm began to influence the poetry of the time. When the Plantagenet kings of England assumed by right the sovereignty over Languedoc (as Provence was called), a new impetus was given to the Provencal poetry, as well as a wider scope, when it was introduced into England. Chaucer, the father of English literature, found in the Provencal literature all his first models.

With the decline of the Troubadours occurred the rise of the Trouveres in northern France.

In the tenth century Normany was invaded by Rollo the Dane, who incorporated himself and his followers with the Normans. They adopted the Norman-French; but gave it a power and scope it had hitherto lacked. While the Romance-Provencal in the South was a language of sweetness and beauty, the Northern language after the advent of Rollo, was strong and warlike. Its poetry, which differed from the love chansons of the South, was the song of brave warriors, recounting the heroic deeds of their ancestors.

The Langue d'oui, as this Northern speech was called, became, in the twelfth century, the universal medium of literature. The poets and story writers called themselves Trouveres, and they invented the fabliaux, the dramatic mysteries and romances of ancient chivalry. The first great literary work of this class is a marvellous history of the early kings of England, commencing with Brutus, a grandson of Aeneas, who, sailing among many enchanted Isles, at length settles in England, where he meets Arthur of the Round Table, and the old wizard, Merlin, one of the most popular creations of the Middle Ages. Born of this legend were some of the best known of modern romances. The word romance, which in the early history of France was used to distinguish the common dialect from the Latin, was later applied to all imaginative and inventive tales. Of this class was "Tristam de Leonois," written in 1190; the "San Graal," and "Lancelot." In the same century appeared "Alexander," a poem which became so celebrated that poetry, written in the same measure, is to this day called Alexandrine verse.

A poetess known as Marie of France, wrote twelve lays to celebrate the glories of the Round Table. She addresses herself to a king supposed to be Henry VI, and has made extensive use of early British legends. Chaucer and other English poets, have drawn many inspirations from her poems.

The Trouveres not only originated the romances of chivalry; but they also invented allegorical poems. The most celebrated is the "Romance of the Rose," written in the thirteenth century. It consisted of 20,000 verses, and although tedious, because of its length, it was universally admired, and became the foundation of all subsequent allegory among the different nations. The poetry of the Trouveres was unlike anything in antiquity, and unlike, too, to what came after it. It dealt with high-minded love and honor, the devotion of the strong to the weak, and the supernatural in fiction. All this, which formed part of its composition, has been attributed to both the Arabians and the Germans; but it was in truth a peculiar production of the Normans, the most active and enterprising people in Europe, a nation who pushed into Russia, Constantinople, England, France, Sicily and Syria. A treasury of a later date, from which the Trouveres drew their fabliaux in the thirteenth century, was a collection of Indian tales that had been translated into Latin in the tenth century. These fabliaux show that inventiveness, gaiety, and simple, yet delightful esprit, which is found nowhere but among the French. The Arabian tales, which had found their way into France, were also turned into verse, while the anecdotes that were picked up in the castles and towns of France, furnished other material for the fabliaux. These tales were the common property of the country at large, and are the source from which Boccaccio, La Fontaine, and others drew their inspiration. Some of them became famous and have been passed down from one age to another.

The Renard of Goethe, and the Zaire of Voltaire were taken from the old fabliaux. In the fourteenth century the coming of the Popes and the Roman Court to Avignon introduced an Italian element, and the language of Tuscany took the place of the Provencal among the upper classes.

La Fontaine, called the "Prince of Fablists," appeared in the seventeenth century. Many of his fables were borrowed from ancient sources; but clothed in a new dress. He has been closely imitated by his Confreres and by the fablists of other nations; but has easily remained the most renowned of them all.

The philosophy of Descartes in the sixteenth century prepared the way for Locke, Newton and Leibnitz; and his system, although now little used, was really the foundation of what followed. He is said to have given new and fresher impulse to mathematical and philosophical study than any other student, either ancient or modern.

Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes, is renowned for his Provencal Letters, a book that has become a classic in France. It is full of wit, and of exquisite beauty of language; but its teaching is pure sophistry. Pascal first set the example of writing about religion in a tone of mock levity, especially when by so doing, he could abuse the Jesuits. In the end this weapon of keen and delicate satire was turned against Christianity itself, when Voltaire in the eighteenth century recognized its possibilities, and made use of it.

The older French literature in the sixteenth century had become so neglected, and was so lacking in cultivation; so little adapted to poetry, that the nation seemed in danger of losing all its earlier traditions. For a hundred years France was given over to profane and light literature. Montaigne, Charyon, Ronsard and de Balzac are some of the names of this period. The death of a cat or dog was made the subject of a poem that was no real poetry. It is due to the women of France--to Madame de Rambouillet and her confreres, and to the literary coteries that arose in the middle of the seventeenth century--that French literature acquired a deeper and more serious tone. This period was followed by the founding of the French Academy, of which Cardinal Richelieu was the chief patron. The tragic dramatists, Corneille and Racine, now appeared on the literary horizon. Racine's language and versification was said to be far superior to either Milton in English or Virgil in Latin.

In tragedy the French stand pre-eminent; but it is matter for regret that their subjects are never taken from their own nation--they rarely represent French heroes; and it is a weakness of their literature that they make no direct appeal to the national feeling. There is a close connection between the classical dramas of Racine and Corneille, and such works as Pope's Iliad, Addison's Cato and Dryden's Alexander's Feast, showing the general interest in Greek and Roman subjects during their time.

The older poetry of the chivalric period was entirely discarded, though it would have been possible to unite the old chivalric spirit, the freedom and romance of mediaeval times, with the later renaissance, as was done by other nations. The French literature is more closely formed on the model of the earlier refined nations of antiquity, as the Roman was on the Greek.

The later French poetry of the seventeenth century came into opposition with the teaching of Rousseau, this gave birth to a taste for English poetry and the classic poetry of France was a copy of the descriptive poetry of England. In the eighteenth century prose writings superseded verse. At this time the English had taken the lead in literature, and modern French philosophy was built on that of Bacon and Locke. It was no part of the plan of the English philosophers, however, to inculcate such ideas as the French philosophers drew from their writings. Bacon, who was profoundly Christian, believed that man alone was the type of God, and nature the work of God's hands; but the French leaders in philosophy went beyond this, they deified nature, and threw aside as mysticism whatever could not be proved by sense. Voltaire made use of all the wonderful greatness of science, as revealed by Bacon and Newton, not to exalt the Creator; but to lower man to the level of the brute. Like the old Greek sophists, who defended first one side of a question, and then the one diametrically opposed to it, Voltaire would write one book in favor of God, and another to deny Him; but it is not difficult to see which is his real belief. This perverted philosophy of Voltaire in turn reacted on the English mind, and particularly on history. We see its workings in both Gibbon and Hume. The "little philosophy" which "inclineth a man's mind to atheism," led the eighteenth century philosophers to fancy that Newton's discoveries meant that everything could be attained without religion, and that the only true and wide vision could be reached by the senses alone. They taught a pure materialism, to their own undoing; for it is not possible to thus lightly throw aside our great links with the past, in which both Christian and heathen, knowingly and unknowingly, in mediaeval poetry, in heroic ballad, and in Egyptian prose, testified to the existence of God.

The nineteenth century in France has been rich in dramatists, novelists, historians and poets, as well as in science and learning of all kinds; but it has had no especial power, or aim, and its opinions are constantly changing. The early novelists were strongly directed by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, while later ones have sought to imitate Victor Hugo and George Sand. The literature of this period has had no effect outside of France. Poetry has not risen any higher than Alfred de Musset; and any further greatness in French poetry must come from a revival of their own ancient poems and legends.

Poetry that deals only with the present becomes local, and in the end is influenced by the constant caprice and change of fashion instead of by the deep, heart-stirring beliefs of a strong and united people.

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