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society in all countries of Europe. The authority of Montesquieu purified the ostensible policy of the governments."
But while the energies which France had awakened by her literature continued to work thus powerfully, both for good and evil, among the other governments of Europe, that literature itself had ceased to display the vigour of maturity, and to those who looked beneath the surface, wore an appearance of exhaustion and decay. In fact, influences peculiarly calcu lated to lower the tone of national morality, and to paralyse the creative powers of the imagination, had been at work during the very period when France presented so imposing an aspect to other nations, and, in literature as well as manners, seemed to give laws to the world.
In every class of society, and in every institution, from the throne to the humblest department of literature, the progress of decline may be detected. Louis XIV. succeeding to a throne to which the policy of Richelieu, in crushing the power of the nobles, had lent a stability and authority hitherto unknown, had invested it with grace as well as dignity, by surrounding it in the days of his youth with the combined lustre of arts and arms. His patronage of literature, though in some measure resulting from the mere vanity of making even genius subservient to the splendour of the crown, was also unquestionably to some extent sincere. To his steady protection, Moliere was indebted for the discomfiture of more than one court intrigue against him. "Remember," he used to say to Boileau, “I shall always have half an hour at your service." The glories of that literature to which he had lent his patronage, indeed descended to his successor; but the earlier triumphs of arms had been tarnished by later reverses, till the very memory of those sieges which Boileau has pompously praised in the most prosaic of odes, had been effaced by the disasters of Ramilies and Blenheim, which Addison has commemorated in strains scarcely more poetical than those of his rival. On the whole, however, Louis had not merely sustained but raised the character and reputation of France: and if there was a want of true nobleness and simplicity in his charac ter, he must be admitted to have at least played the part of a dignified monarch
from first to last, with more than ordinary plausibility and address.
The character of Louis XV. was ill calculated to sustain the sinking dig. nity of the crown. Without the energy of his predecessor, who sincerely wished to elevate France, so far as that could be done without lowering the royal authority; without the strength of mind which Louis XIV. conspicuously developed in misfortune; indifferent to glory and to the arts, sunk in sensual pleasures, a prey to the intrigues and the favouritism of successive mistresses; he saw the foundations of the monarchy, and of society itself, undermined in all directions with unconsciousness or indiffer
The church, the best bulwark of the monarchy, had ceased to be the depository of the highest genius and virtue. The age of Louis XIV. had inherited that great secret by which the Papal power had so long supported the dignity of its hierarchy-that of making ecclesiastical promotion the reward of merit, independently of birth or interest. France could not have furnished names of more exalted ability or purer character thau Bossuet, Fenélon, Massillon, and Fléchier. The latter had commenced his humble career in the shop of a candlemaker : he closed it in the Episcopal chair of Nismes.
This principle of honest and impartial selection, which had conferred on the church the authority and influence resulting from the combination of genius, learning, and character, was soon abandoned under the short-sighted and selfish policy of Louis XV. Rank, influence, interest at court, the graces of manner, subserviency to the interests of the reigning favourite, sometimes even the production of compositions discreditable to any one, and doubly so to a minister of the church, became the passports to promotion. The natural result was, that the pulpit soon ceased to be illustrated by any superior talent; the impressive or affecting eloquence of Bossuet and Fénélon was succeeded by the dry moral discussions or academic theology of the Abbé Poulle or the Père Neuville; "The hungry sheep looked up and were not fed ;" and thus one of the chief pillars on which the monarchy should have rested in the hour of need, was itself crumbling to its fall.
Nor could the character and in
fluence of the other great bulwark of monarchical power, the nobility,supply that support to the throne which the church was no longer in a condition to afford; for they too had survived their greatness. In drawing them from their ancestral castles and their military governments in the provinces, where each had been a little monarch among his vassals, dispensing patronage and diffusing industry, to domesticate them as dependents of a court, and appendages to the splendour of the throne, Louis XIV. had deprived them of their real authority and influence on opinion. They themselves, now accustomed to court the smiles of a monarch, or even a mistress, and to employ the crooked arts of intrigue in order to distance each other in the race of royal favour, had lost that selfrespect, that confidence in their own rights and importance, in which the strength of such a privileged body resides. And the transition from the want of honourable employment and noble emulation to the adoption of all the vices of the court, was but too easy, where the church no longer ventured to speak the language of authoritative rebuke,
"And the prince of all the land
The judicial bodies which in the earlier days of French history had played so all-important a part, and either determined or influenced every change to which the monarchy had been subjected, had also shared in a great degree the fall of the nobility. The engross ing power of the crown under Louis XIV. had humbled the parliaments. They had become little more than instruments for registering the edicts and giving the appearance of a judicial sanction to the mandates of the sovereign, The show of independence evinced by their first step after the death of Louis XIV., that of annulling his testament, was followed up by no corresponding act of firmness. "Occupied with miserable theological disputes, sometimes combating the Molinists, sometimes the philosophers, the parliaments, who had become Jansenists through mere hatred to the Jesuits, were no longer influenced or guided by any great interest, social or political." Indecision in all cases marked their con duct; while in some instances, as in the celebrated case of La Barre, they seemed to have sanctioned acts of ju
dicial cruelty worthy of the darkest times, and against which the feelings of Europe, now rendered particularly sensitive on the subject of torture by the philanthropic maxims which were every where abroad, most powerfully revolted.
Something might perhaps have been done to infuse fresh vigour into the exhausted condition of French society, had the administration of affairs been guided by any man of commanding talent, able to perceive the consequen ces to which these corruptions and this confusion were tending, and determined to meet them by vigorous and unsparing remedies-"vincentem strepitus et natum rebus agendis." But the ministry of Choiseul was a ministry of expedients: he pursued no great or regular plan either of foreign policy or internal administration; he thought only of meeting the daily exigency, evading the immediate difficulty, escaping the most pressing danger. "We see him," says Villemain, "struggling with rebellious materials which would not yield to his hand; forming a thousand projects: now striving to arrest the progress of the Empress, now of the King of Prussia; trying to prop up the ancient colossus of Turkey, which was already medi tating his fall; and, in the midst of his diplomatic ambition, hurled from power by the most scandalous of palace intrigues; at the same time that the parliaments, which, in spite of their prejudices, were becoming too powerful for an expiring government, were suppressed by a coup d'etat of the chancellor Maupeau.'
Amidst this general progress towards decay, the state of literature and of literary men presented nothing which was of a more cheering and elevated character. At first, literature had been upheld by that very fanaticism in favour of change, which, operating as an animating principle, gave to its productions warmth and an air of reality. The infidel philosophy of France, by which all existing opinions and institutions were assailed, was indeed the only portion of its literature which at this time wore any thing like the stamp of conviction, or an appearance of power. For the instinct of destruction in some degree supplied, for a time, the want of that ancient inspiration derived from faith and reve rence for authority; and the number and strength of the forces "that durst
ennent du cœur!
defy the Omnipotent to arms"-their great resources, their discipline, and perfect unity of purpose-their confidence in themselves, their still increasing dominion over the public mind, by which that confidence was more and more exalted, presented a spectacle which it was impossible to contemplate without a feeling of awe.
"Apparent diræ facies inimicaque Troja Numina."
But when all the doctrines of infidelity andmaterialism had been promulgated —when the "Remunerateur Vengeur," whom even Voltaire scrupled to dispense with, had been cashiered by the more thorough-going Atheists of the Système de la Nature-when philosophy had ventilated her philanthropic wardrobe, till it had actually assumed the look of cast-off finery-when ridicule had been successively and successfully cast upon every thing as it was, and all imaginable schemes of impossible reform had been propounded-even this species of literature, stimulating as it had been, ceased to interest-the productive talent of the country gradually took another direction; and while the principles of the French philosophers were operating with all the force of novelty in other countries, and with fear of change perplexing monarchs, they had ceased in France to excite enthusiasm, and, to a superficial observer, might appear likely to pass away without any abiding effect either on society or government.
But, in truth, a permanent and incurable injury had been done to the national and to the literary character. The doctrines of selfishness which resulted from materialism, and which have ever been found to be the accompaniments of a state of social decline-the want of all fixed belief in a future state-the examples of servility to power, shameless flattery, mean rivalry, and intrigue, which had been set even by
such men as Voltaire-seemed to have
destroyed every source of inspiration springing from belief or enthusiasm of feeling; while the torpor in which society generally was plunged the drowsy current in which affairs seemed to run on-equally excluded the stimulus which might have been given to the imagination by the vicinity of great events and engrossing public interests. Just and striking is the remark of Vauvenargues, "Les grandes pensées vi
"Strange singularity!" says Villemain, "while French society was labouring with the hope of liberalizing and elevating itself, and seeking to regain a civic virtue, a party of writers were systematically employed in giving vent in their writings to opinions the most hostile to all dignity or independence of mind. But it is not the belief in personal interest and necessity; it is not the doctrine which deprives man of his soul, and makes him but the passive instrument of his own organs; it is not such a doctrine which can inspire the courage necessary for great devotion, the heroism necessary for great duties social reform and materialism seem contradictory terms.
"For when was public virtue ever found Where private was not? Can he love the whole
Who loves no part? He be a nation's friend Who is in truth the friend of no man there?
Can he be strenuous in his country's cause Who slights the charities for whose dear sake
That country, if at all, must be beloved?"
ed literature merely as a profession, or To the many, no doubt, who regarda means of rising in the world, such a state of things might seem tolerable enough. The regular Helots of literature continued to do their spiriting as before not gently indeed but equably-furnishing the daily tale of bricks as in better times; for theirs was a source of inspiration unaffected by the absence of faith or genuine feeling. But to minds of a better order, who had not wholly yielded to the degrading doctrines of the time, the prospect appeared in the last degree gloomy and uncheering; nor need we wonder that when the natural feelings of such men found vent in words, the sentiments expressed should be indicative of profound lifeweariness and contempt for a world which offered neither comfort here in youth in the hospital, tired of nor hope hereafter. Gilbert, dying
existence, tired even of fame, in one of the few strains of genuine feeling of which the poetry of this period has to boast, doubtless speaks the sentiments of many on whose hearts the aspect of all around pressed as heavily
as on his own:
"Au banquet de la vie, infortuné convive, J'apparus un jour, et je meurs,
Je meurs, et sur la tombe où lentement j'arrive
Nul ne viendra verser de pleurs. “Adieu, champs que j'amais, adieu, douce verdure,
Adieu, riant exil des bois;
Ciel, pavillon de l'homme, admirable nature,
Adieu pour la derniere fois!"
The effect of this absence of all that was calculated to stimulate the higher faculties of the mind, appeared in the form which literature, so far as it existed at all, now assumed. Henceforward, it became almost entirely critical; instead of adding to the stock of independent creations, it was content with analysing, comparing, comment ing upon what had been already written, or with translating and imitating the literature of other nations. is generally the direction which literature takes in periods of decline. The tendency, indeed, towards criticism, had become apparent even in the time of Diderot and Voltaire, and many of the happiest productions of the latter are of a purely analytical character ; but after his death the critical spirit in French literature became universal.
Before we advert, however, to particular productions in this department, let us bestow a few words on the gen. eral character of the criticism which arose under such circumstances; as contrasted with what criticism ought to be.
"Pour avoir du goût, il faut avoir de l'ame," is another of those just remarks of Vauvenargues which make us regret his early death. With out heart and imagination, there can be no elevated nor even useful criticism. The soaring inventive imagination of the poet is not indeed necessary to the critic; but that lower degree of imagination is essential, which enables him to step beyond the narrow circle of individual or even national habits and tastes-to follow the poet with a firm step, as Dante follows Virgil over the "vast abrupt," and through the regions where he marshals the way -to acknowledge the divinity of genius, though presented to him under unaccustomed forms, and to interpret its revelations with whatever novelty of language they may be uttered.
And to the gift of this imagination is necessarily allied the possession of pure and natural sensibility. the ready sympathy with human nature
and its generous feelings; for, as the imagination teaches us to apprehend the great, the heart enables us to appreciate the true. The full beauty of those reflections, which, being based in the everlasting nature of man, are felt at the present day as they were in the days of Homer-those strokes of feeling which, like an electric chain, make the world kin, can only be thoroughly perceived by those who, in an age of outworn civilisation, have yet preserved something of their youthfulness of spirit and simplicity of feeling.
The highest criticism, too, at least when applied to the productions of high art, must be reverential. The critic must not forget the infinite distance which separates the great creative artist from him who only judges of the creations of genius-the inter. preter from him whose oracles he expounds. It is the poet after all that makes the critic; it is from the genius of the former that the torch of the latter is kindled. He will approach his task, then, in the spirit of reverence
his praise will be warm and sympathetic his censure respectful; where he fails to apprehend completely the purpose of the artist, he will yet believe that the deficiency may be not in the poet but in himself. No spectacle can be more ridiculous than that of a self-satisfied critic reading a lecture ex cathedra to Homer or Shakspeare, on the barbarisms of their epic or dramatic poetry; perhaps bestowing on them a "Euge puer!" at the conclusion; or dismissing them, as the Archbishop of Granada dismissed his secretary, wishing them "all manner of good fortune, with a little more taste."
To such requisites criticism must add, of course, learning to correct her estimates that logic and good sense which constitutes the balance of ima gination-that delicacy of taste which exposes the ridiculous, as well as detects the beautiful in compositionand that spirit of conscientiousness, and absence of self-interest and selfdisplay, without which all criticism, however adorned by wit or ingenuity, is valueless. The foundations of all sound criticism must be laid in truth, and its superstructure must be reared, not merely by a logical head, but by a lively imagination and a loving heart.
The latter are precisely the requisites in which the French criticism of the eighteenth century is deficient. It brought neither the imagination nor the heart to bear upon the examination of the masterpieces of literature; for the spirit of reverence it substituted the spirit of ridicule-the critic looked down upon the artist whom he criticised, like a judge upon a criminal at the bar. Hence the whole tone of his even praise wore the appearance of supercilious condescension. The critical tendency of the time was patronising, dictatorial, depreciating, negative-more occupied with faults than beauties-more intent on particulars than on general views. Without imagination to enable them to rise beyond the conventional limitations which French opinions and the practice of French writers had apparently fixed as the laws of taste, and to perceive that excellence might exist under many other forms, all true to nature, and yet each growing out of the habits and feelings of different nations, and peculiarly suited to the people among which it was found, they identified the code of French taste with the eternal laws of nature, and praised or condemned all works according as they approximated to, or receded from, this artificial standard. The absence of simplicity of mind and genuine feeling, which as it prac tically existed in society was reflected in the artificial character of conversation and of literature, made them turn with a nervous horror from every expression which appeared to fall short of that decorum or elegance which the French canons of taste required to be preserved under all circumstances, though the words might be warmed with passion, and stamped with the very signet of Nature herself. "With us,' says La Harpe, while contrasting the liberty allowed by the Greek Dramatic Vocabulary with the irksome restraints affecting the French, "with us, the poet does not enjoy the use of more than a third of the national idiom; the rest is interdicted as unworthy of him. There exist for him only a certain number of received words ; and the genius of style consists in varying their combinations, and in constantly presenting to the mind and the imagination relations which are new without being
singular, and ingenious without being far-fetched." Such is the state of matters which La Harpe deprecates, but conceives it hopeless to attempt to alter. If at times a momentary expression of admiration was extorted from French criticism by some burst of natural feeling, either in a French poet or in a foreign writer, to which no heart could be insensible, it was generally accompanied by an expres. sion of regret, that while the sentiment was preserved, it had not been embellished by a more courtly and refined expression.
On the other hand certain advantages and certain merits must be conIceded to the French criticism of the eighteenth century, of which the more imaginative criticism of Germany and England is not equally entitled to boast. It is possible, for instance, to take too transcendental and cosmopolitan a view of literature-to fix our point of sight so high that the whole landscape beneath us becomes faint and confused-to labour after the universal, till the particular is neglected and overlooked. Thus, in striving to enlarge the circle to which poetry addresses itself, so as to deal with the most extended sympathies, the critics of Germany have sometimes neglected or overlooked the necessity of producing the first and strongest effect upon the poet's own nation; and have advocated systems in which poetry, like the abstract idea of a Lord Mayor, stripped of all that is local and individual, is sent wandering on a fruitless quest into the "void and formless infinite." Sound criticism, however, which is but another word for a wide and enlightened record of experience, teaches us that poetry, like charity, must begin at home; must have its foundation in the present, and be connected with realities with which men are then and there engrossed; and that the poet whose words come most home to the hearts of the wise and good of his own age and country, will speak with the most prevailing accents to the world and for all time.
This vagueness of aim French criticism has entirely escaped, for it proceeded on the just principle, that "to write for France, one must write as a Frenchman ;" * and to write for France was, in their view of the mat
*La Harpe-Cours de Littérature.