« AnteriorContinuar »
WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS, 45, GEORGE STREET,
AND T. CADELL, STRAND, London.
To whom Communications (post paid) may be addressed.
THE volumes which we are about to notice, form part of the course of lectures on the Literature of France, delivered by Villemain in his capacity of professor at the Faculté des Lettres in Paris, in 1827. They embrace the first and the most interesting portion of the literature of the eighteenth century; the period of invention and bold philosophical speculation, when literature, suddenly emerging from the rank of an art, became in truth what Bonald calls "the expression of society" -a power in the state of vast and immediate influence both for good and evil; the only power, indeed, which preserved its energy and activity amidst a period of social decline. The three volumes which complete the course, and in which the author traces the literary history of the eighteenth century up to the period of the Revolution, when a new character was, in many respects, impressed upon it, will form the subject of a future article.
Looking back on the high pretensions of the eighteenth century, and the self-complacent confidence which its critics and writers seemed to entertain of their own superiority to all who had gone before, if not also to all who were to follow them, it is an object of great interest to compare, with the assistance of the lights derived from experience, their estimate of their own merits and pretensions, with the sentence which has been pro
nounced on an appeal to time-" No doubt but we are the men, and wisdom shall die with us," was, perhaps, the only scriptural text to which the men of letters of the eighteenth century gave their unqualified and universal assent. And yet this complacent selfconfidence has been found fallacious; the criticism of the nineteenth century has not only lowered from their pride of place the popular favourites of the eighteenth, but, as there is reason to believe, unduly degraded them below their just level, from the not unnatural reaction produced by a total opposition of critical views. One lesson may at all events be gathered, even in the outset, from these revolutions of opinion. Let no nation, or age, flatter itself that it has succeeded in fixing the standard of critical taste. The canons of criticism may be, in their main points, invariable, as founded on universal principles of our nature, but it is in their practical application that the difficulty occurs. And there all experience teaches us, that no one age can feel the least assurance that its judgments, derived as they are from a thousand minute circumstances of manners, habits, and opinions, unknown to its predecessors, can be in any way binding on their successors; or that there is any impassable limit in critical geography-any spot where the poet or the philosopher may pause, as at the Pillars of Hercules, and say—
Cours de Littérature Française. Par M. Villemain, Membre de l'Académie Française, Professor à la Faculté des Lettres à Paris. Tableau du Dix-huitième Siècle. Première Partie. 2 tom. 1838.
NO, CCLXXXV. VOL. XLVI.
"Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit
The difficulty of forming an impartial estimate of the literature of the eighteenth century in France, is still great; for the whole character of that literature was so closely connected with social and political changes, the effects of which are still felt, that its merits or demerits become less a question of taste than of personal feeling, to be decided according to the prejudices entertained by the critic in favour of or against the changes themselves. Thirty years, for instance, after the death of Voltaire, the struggle between his admirers and the opponents of his fame, was waged as fiercely and unrelentingly as at the moment when he closed his career; for he was still to both parties, not so much the dramatist, the historian, the poet, or the novelist, as the apostle of opinions, to which the one party clung as essential to social progress and political improvement, and which the other more justly identified with the subversion of all morality and all government. His reputation became like the dead body of Patroclus, the central object round which the conflict of opinion was maintained. Political discussion, excluded from actual life during the stern rule of Napoleon, took the direction of literary criticism, making the opinions expressed with regard to the literature of the preceding century, not judg. ments, but contradictory pleadings, acrimonious, one-sided, or distorted.
The changes which have taken place in France since the fall of the dynasty of Bonaparte-the restoration and second expulsion of the Bourbons -the establishment, amidst an all but universal exultation, of a monarchy owing its existence to a popular movement, and then labouring, from the first moment of its foundation, to tame or crush the power by which it had been created; on the one hand, the gradual decline of popular enthusiasm, consequent on disappointed expectations, however unreasonable; on the other, the apprehensions of the more sober and rational, that the barriers of a steady and constitutional liberty have been already so shaken, or beaten down, by the sacrifices made to the democratic impulse, and the false principle on which the existing monarchy is based, that all hope of a firm and settled government in France is for some time at an end; -all these
changes, in short, resulting only in the conviction, that nothing has been substantially gained, and that the liberty enjoyed under a popular King can scarcely be distinguished from the despotism so falsely complained of under the restored dynasty, have taught men generally to distrust fine theories, to look with doubt on highsounding professions, to give greater weight to experience, to be more tolerant of all opinions, and less disposed to identify themselves with any. They have created a spirit of indifference, favourable to impartiality in criticism, though not to original invention; which, by excluding or weakening, in a great measure, the influence of personal feelings, interests, or political convictions, enables the reader more distinctly to perceive and to judge of the questions of liter ature and taste, which the criticism of the great writers of the last century involves.
The total change, too, which has taken place in literature itself, affords another important aid in forming a just estimation of that by which it was preceded; for many of those novelties and experiments in taste which were then advocated, have now been practically tried, and the result lies before us. We have lived to see the old barriers of taste removed-the wall of partition, which separated the literature of France from those of other countries, broken down-the unities banished from the stage-conventional decorum has given way to wild force—an unregulated imagination has superseded philosophy-and the extreme of license has succeeded the extreme of caution. We shall not at present anticipate the answer to the question, Has France been a gainer by the change? Or has she exchanged a grave, dignified, and tasteful, though not imaginative, literature, which she had carried to a high pitch of perfection, for one essentially foreign to her national tastes, in which an appearance of originality is attained only by the gross exaggera tion of the features which she has borrowed from other quarters? But, undoubtedly, the result of this series of experiments, particularly in the lite rature of imagination as displayed in the later productions of France, admittedly unpromising, unsatisfactory, and unnatural, enables us more correctly to estimate the justice of those views on which the great works