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French literature


French literature is literature written in the French language ; and especially, literature written in French by citizens of France ; see Francophone Literature for literature written in French by citizens of othernations.

Although the French people are of mixed origin, having Celtic and Germanic as well as Roman strains intheir composition, it is the Roman that has counted most. The French language itself may be regarded as a modern form of Latin . The Latin genius, as it has often been called, has seemed to hover over the development ofthe French culture and determine its destinies. It has bestowed upon the French people their love of order, clarity andreasonableness, their instinctive avoidance of extremes--the very qualities which are most conspicuous in their literature. Inall artistic matters the French are essentially conservative, despite the fact that they have often been initiators of newmovements.

The French have always taken ideas and aesthetic matters seriously. Theirliterature is therefore the best from which to study literary movements . For that reason and because of its long and illustrious history and itsinfluence on other literatures, French literature occupies, as it were, a central position.

The French have sometimes characterized themselves as possessing the esprit gaulois--the Gallic spirit, meaning by thata light-hearted gayety, a tendency to mock, and a refusal to take life or men too seriously. This Gallic spirit can indeed bedetected all through French literature. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental earnestness in the French outlook which foreignershave too frequently been prone to overlook. As a matter of fact, most of the great French writers do not markedly display thisso-called Gallic spirit.

It will be impossible in such a brief sketch as this to do justice to so rich a literature. Many important names will have tobe omitted. To most foreigners, especially those of English speech, French prose with its clearness, rapidity, and grace seemssuperior to French poetry. The French themselves would dissent vigorously from such a judgment. Their poetry, they claim, hascadences which the outsider cannot sufficiently detect; it has all the delicacy for which its sister, French prose, is so justlyrenowned; and, if the poetry seems to the foreigner to be rhetorical, that is in accordance with French tradition and isacceptable to French taste.

4 The Eighteenth Century: an age of reason
5 The Romantic Movement: a revolt againstclassicism
14 See also:

The Middle Ages produce varied types

The earliest French literature dates from the eleventh century. The Song of Roland , of unknown authorship, may be looked upon as the national epic of France, comparable with Beowulf in England and The Song of the Nibelungs in Germany. It is one of many chansons de gestes , or song of exploits, the subjects ofwhich were taken, as in the Song of Roland, from the stories current about Charlemagne (742-814), or else from the legend of KingArthur . The chief writer of Arthurian epics, which are filled with the spirit of chivalry and courtly love, was Chrétien de Troyes (twelfth century), the most famous of Frenchnarrative poets in the Middle Ages. Courtly love was also the principaltheme of the troubadours, the lyric poets of Provence in southern France, who weremore distinguished for their ingenuity and artificiality than for anything distinctively personal. It is not until the end of theMiddle Ages that we encounter a really great lyric poet in the person of François Villon (1431-1465?), a vagabond who had the merit of putting his heart and his life into hisverse.

French prose in the Middle Ages was employed mainly in chronicles and history. There is, however, an anonymous story from thetwelfth century called Aucassin and Nicolette , which is quite charming in an unpretentious way.

The drama in France, as in other countries in Europe, was in origin the offspring of the Church, though the two were destinedmuch later to become bitter foes. The earliest plays were simply dramatizations of the ritual, particularly that connected withChristmas and Easter. When the plays were transferred from the church to the open air and French was substituted for Latin, thedrama inevitably developed along lines of its own. Farces of a realistic, humorous, and even coarse type became popular. Inthese, as well as in the fabliaux, short narrative poems, we encounter the earliest expression of the Gallic spirit whichfinds nothing too sacred for satire.

The Sixteenth Century receives the impulse of the Renaissance

The Renaissance came to France in the reign of Francis I ( 1515 - 1547 ). The final disruption of feudalism, the introduction of the printing press, and the discoveryof Italian culture were amongst the most important causes. It looked for a time as if the Protestant Reformation would alsopermeate the country, but by the end of the century the French people had definitely decided to remain Catholic. In literaturethe influence of the Renaissance was in the direction of classicism. A group of writers known as the Pléiade published a manifesto in 1550 which laid down the program ofthe school. Pierre de Ronsard ( 1524 - 1585 ), the leading poet of the movement, was a genuine lyricist in hisshorter verses. Poetic tragedies were written, carefully observing the unities of plot, time, and place, and this type of playwas to flourish in France unchallenged for nearly three hundred years.

But the greatest French writers of the sixteenth century used prose. François Rabelais ( 1490 ?- 1553 ) wrote long, formless works in the manner of fiction; his best known work is Gargantua and Pantagruel . The subject manner isgrotesquely extravagant, the language is coarse and sometimes filthy, but beneath the buffoonery there is a strong undercurrentof keen satire, for Rabelais was an earnest and independent thinker. Michel de Montaigne ( 1533 - 1592 ), by contrast, is mature and staid, wishing to reflect on his experiences rather than live exuberantly. He is thefirst great essayist of modern times.

French culture of the Classical Period dominates Europe

France became thoroughly centralized in the seventeenth century, and the establishment of the French Academy, the most famousof all literary institutions, in 1635 led to the further centralization of culture. Classicism of the strictest kind was taughtby Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux ( 1636 - 1711 ), whose didactic poem, The Art of Poetry,laid down laws of composition which were considered infallible.

French classicism taught the dependence of modern literature upon theancients. The poet should avoid eccentricities and keep steadily to what is natural and reasonable. Strict rules were enjoinedfor verse forms and especially for the tragedy . It was within the framework of theselimitations that the greatest period of French literature expressed itself. This is the Classical Period, which coincides withthe long reign of Louis XIV ( 1643 - 1715 ). France was beyond question the leading country in Europe, bothpolitically and culturally. In government, religion, and literature the note of authority was confidently sounded. But theclassical ideas of order, clarity, sense of proportion, and good taste were, and still are, congenial to the French mind. Pierre Corneille ( 1606 - 1684 ) and Jean Racine ( 1639 - 1699 ) wrote their great poetic tragedies inconformity with these ideals, the former dealing chiefly with the conflicts that arise out of honour, and the latter with thoseproceeding from love. The theologian and orator Jacques-Benigne Bossuet ( 1627 - 1704 ) seemed to embody the spirit of authority, though posterity hasaccorded more attention to another religious writer, Blaise Pascal ( 1623 - 1662 ), who, besides being a profound thinker,is perhaps the greatest master of French prose. The less austere side of the Great Age is represented by Molière ( 1622 - 1673 ), the writer of the most delightful comedies of modern times, and by Jean de La Fontaine ( 1621 - 1695 ), whose fables in verse all French children learn. François de la Rochefoucauld ( 1613 - 1680 ) was a master of prose maxims, a form which the French have cultivated with special success.

Literature in the Classical Period was essentially aristocratic in itsoutlook. It was a product of the capital and the court, and its appeal was consequently limited pretty much to the cultivatedfew. With the diffusion of education, the widening of social sympathies, and the multiplication of interests that have takenplace since then, this restricted outlook now necessarily appears as a grave shortcoming. Nevertheless, an understanding of thespirit of the Great Age and an appreciation of its masterpieces is still considered by the French to be the hall mark of trueculture.

The Eighteenth Century: an age of reason

The eighteenth century, particularly that portion of it between the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 , stands in startling contrast to the Great Age. It is the period of prose and reason,the period also of general ideas, many of which were to prove destructive to existing institutions of church and state. Itsspirit was critical, sceptical, and innovating. Ideas of liberty, toleration, humanitarianism, equality, and progress wereadvocated increasingly.

Some of these ideas came from England , whose intellectual influence on France wasof decisive importance during these years. The most characteristic literature of the century was of the nature of propaganda andwas designed to make war on authority, dogma, and tradition. The leading writers of this "philosophic party," as it was called,were Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu ( 1689 - 1755 ) satirized many of the institutions and social customs of his countryand praised the English constitution.

Voltaire ( 1694 - 1778 ) attacked bigotry and superstition, and championed the victims of religious persecution and of politicalinjustice. More than any other man he embodies the spirit of the age of reason. But most of his voluminous writings were too muchconcerned with questions of his own day to endure permanently. Only his letters and a few of his tales are now much read.

Denis Diderot ( 1713 - 1784 ) was the director-in-chief of the famous Encyclopédie , which was designed both as a storehouse of information and as an arsenal of weapons toattack ignorance, superstition, and intolerance. In purely literary matters the taste of the age was still classical. Voltaire'spoetic tragedies, for instance, were modelled largely on those of Corneille and Racine. Diderot was more of an innovator. Hisplays, in particular, testify to the ever-increasing importance and power of the middle class.

Pierre de Marivaux ( 1688 - 1763 ), in the earlier part of the century, and Pierre Beaumarchais ( 1732 - 1799 ), in the latter half, carried on the tradition of good comedy writing.Other works of pure literature unconnected with propaganda are such novels as Alain-René Le Sage 's Gil Blas ( 1715 ) and l'Abbé Prévost 's Manon Lescaut ( 1731 ). Toward the close of the century the poet Marie-Joseph de Chénier ( 1762 - 1794 ) sounded the first note of authentic lyricism that had been heard in France for many decades.

But the most significant writer of France during the eighteenth century was not Voltaire but the Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau ( 1712 - 1778 ). He taught the essential goodness of human nature, the rightness ofour instincts, and the corruption of civilised institutions. He was the man of feeling in an age when intellect was worshipped.He was a reformer of education, an inspirer of revolutionary ideas in government and economics, and in literature a forerunner ofromanticism. He has probably had more influence on ideas than any other man of the eighteenth century.

The Romantic Movement: a revolt against classicism

Between the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the final overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 , the minds of Frenchmen were turnedchiefly to outward events. Otherwise the full force of the Romantic Movement which was sweeping over Europe might have been feltearlier in France.

Romanticism, however, has ideals diametrically opposed to French classicism. In so far as it stands for the exaltation ofemotions above reason and of the individual above society, it is not wholly suited to the French mind. It made its firstappearance in the stories of François-René de Chateaubriand ( 1768 - 1848 ) and in Madame de Staël 'sinterpretation of Germany as the land of romantic ideals. It found expression also in the sentimental poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine ( 1790 - 1868 ).

But the real battle of romanticism in France was fought regarding poetic tragedy. The production of Victor Hugo 's Hernani in 1830 marked the triumph of the movement. The dramaticunities of time and place were abolished and metrical freedom was won. Victor Hugo ( 1802 - 1885 ) was the outstanding genius of the Romantic School and its recognizedleader. He was prolific alike in poetry, drama, and fiction, but is regarded now as supreme only in lyric poetry.

Other poets associated with the movement were the austere and pessimistic Alfred de Vigny ( 1799 - 1863 ), Théophile Gautier ( 1811 - 1872 ), a pagan devotee of beauty and art, and Alfred de Musset ( 1810 - 1857 ), who best exemplifies romantic melancholy. All three also wrote novels and short stories, andde Musset won a belated success with his plays. AlexandreDumas, père ( 1802 - 1870 ) wrote The Three Musketeers and other romances which have gainedworld fame.

Prosper Mérimée ( 1803 - 1870 ) was a master of shorter fiction. The most famous woman writer ofFrance, who adopted the pseudonym of George Sand ( 1804 - 1876 ), is seen at her best in her peasant stories. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve ( 1804 - 1869 ), the greatest of all French literary critics,showed romantic expansiveness in his hospitality to all ideas and in his unfailing endeavour to understand and interpret authorsrather than to judge them.

By the middle of the nineteenth century romanticism had spent its force. It had opened fresh sources of inspiration by freeingthe individual from artificial rules and conventions. It had revivified all branches of literature, but it undoubtedly left itsrichest legacy in poetry. Foreign influences played a big part in this renewal, especially those of Shakespeare , Sir Walter Scott , and Byron .

Realism develops along with science and industrialism

Romanticism was followed by realism , the attempt to depict life as it is. This waspartly due to a reaction against the extravagances of romanticism, but it was also in large measure the result of the developmentof science and the and the growth of industrialism and commerce .

The prevailing temper in literature was now its concern with actuality. Honoré de Balzac ( 1799 - 1850 )was the most prominent representative of realism in fiction. His Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine), as he called his vast collection of novels,was the most ambitious scheme ever devised by a writer of fiction--nothing less than a complete contemporary history of hiscountrymen. Realism appeared also in the prose dramas of the Alexandre Dumas fils and of Augier.

An attempt to be objective and scientific was made even in poetry by the group of writers known as the Parnassians , the most distinguished of whom was Leconte de Lisle ( 1818 - 1894 ).

The realists as a rule saw life without illusions and were apt to dwell on its more depressing and sordid aspects. Thistendency appears in an intensified degree in the morbid poetry of Charles Baudelaire ( 1821 - 1867 ), who stands somewhat apart from other writers of his day, but who was destined to have a great influence on thenext generation.

Realism becomes intensified as naturalism

With the growth of the scientific outlook, realism deepened into naturalism, which regards man as simply a part of nature tobe explained by purely physical laws. Hippolyte Taine ( 1828 - 1893 ) supplied much of the philosophy of naturalism. Hebelieved that every human being was determined by the forces of heredity and environment and by the time in which he lived.Naturalism is represented in Gustave Flaubert 's great novel Madame Bovary ( 1857 ), inthe short stories of Guy de Maupassant ( 1850 - 1893 ), and in the fiction of Emile Zola ( 1840 - 1902 ). The storiesof Alphonse Daudet ( 1840 - 1897 ), on the other hand, display a more moderate sort of realism. Theinfluence of certain Scandinavian and Russian writers gave an added impulse to the naturalistic movement.

Symbolism again emphasizes mood and emotion

Inevitably there was a reaction against the pessimism and brutality of naturalism. A movement known as symbolism appeared in poetry. It seems in some respects like a revivalunder a changed form of the spirit of romanticism. The procedure was to use subtle suggestion instead of precise statement, toevoke moods and feelings by the magic of words and the cadence of verse. Stéphane Mallarmé ( 1842 - 1898 ) Paul Verlaine ( 1844 - 1896 ) were the two most gifted and popular of the symbolist poets. Themovement is also represented in prose by the Belgian MauriceMaeterlinck ( 1862 - 1949 ), who wrote in French. Thesymbolist movement has been responsible for much metrical experimentation and for many varieties of "free verse." As aconsequence, French poetry is by no means as strictly traditional in form as it once was.

Pre-World-War I French literature shows rich variety

The immense popular success of the poetic dramas of Edmond Rostand (1896-1918), especially Cyrano de Bergerac in 1897, madeit seem for a time as if another romantic movement were on the way. But this expectation was not fulfilled. In fact, Frenchliterature around the turn of the century was eclectic, with all kinds of tendencies represented, but with no single one dominantfor any great length of time. Anatole France (1844-1924) was for manyyears the leading author. He employed fiction chiefly as a convenient vehicle for his ideas about men and things. One of hismasters in thinking was the eminent scholar Renan (1823-1892), an intellectual influence of the first importance on educated Frenchmen of his day. Both Renan andAnatole France were convinced that absolute truth was forever beyond human reach and that consequently all questions should beregarded from many sides. In particular, the scepticism of the younger man seemed universal, sparing neither theology, norphilosophy, nor science. In more recent years, there has been a reaction against this "dilettantism," by which the French meanplaying with ideas without reaching firm conclusions. Literature today sounds a more positive note in matters of religion,ethics, and politics.

French literature since World-War I

Contemporary French literature affords the spectacle of many talented writers whose average of excellence is high, but of whomfew are outstanding above the others. Fiction, drama, poetry, and criticism are all cultivated; no form is neglected. Withoutattempting to appraise present reputations or to forecast future trends, we may safely say of such a literature that it showsevery sign of continued vitality and growth.

Among the developments of French literature in the 1950s is the experimental Nouveau roman ("new novel").

Fine examples include

Literary criticism


See also:

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