The French literature reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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French literature

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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 other nations.

Although the French people are of mixed origin, having Celtic and Germanic as well as Roman strains in their 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 of the French culture and determine its destinies. It has bestowed upon the French people their love of order, clarity and reasonableness, their instinctive avoidance of extremes--the very qualities which are most conspicuous in their literature. In all artistic matters the French are essentially conservative, despite the fact that they have often been initiators of new movements.

The French have always taken ideas and aesthetic matters seriously. Their literature is therefore the best from which to study literary movements. For that reason and because of its long and illustrious history and its influence 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 that a light-hearted gayety, a tendency to mock, and a refusal to take life or men too seriously. This Gallic spirit can indeed be detected all through French literature. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental earnestness in the French outlook which foreigners have too frequently been prone to overlook. As a matter of fact, most of the great French writers do not markedly display this so-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 to be omitted. To most foreigners, especially those of English speech, French prose with its clearness, rapidity, and grace seems superior to French poetry. The French themselves would dissent vigorously from such a judgment. Their poetry, they claim, has cadences which the outsider cannot sufficiently detect; it has all the delicacy for which its sister, French prose, is so justly renowned; and, if the poetry seems to the foreigner to be rhetorical, that is in accordance with French tradition and is acceptable to French taste.

Table of contents
1 The Middle Ages produce varied types
2 The Sixteenth Century receives the impulse of the Renaissance
3 French culture of the Classical Period dominates Europe
4 The Eighteenth Century: an age of reason
5 The Romantic Movement: a revolt against classicism
6 Realism develops along with science and industrialism
7 Realism becomes intensified as naturalism
8 Symbolism again emphasizes mood and emotion
9 Pre-World-War I French literature shows rich variety
10 Fine examples include
11 Literary criticism
12 Poetry
13 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 of which were taken, as in the Song of Roland, from the stories current about Charlemagne (742-814), or else from the legend of King Arthur. 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 French narrative poets in the Middle Ages. Courtly love was also the principal theme of the troubadours, the lyric poets of Provence in southern France, who were more distinguished for their ingenuity and artificiality than for anything distinctively personal. It is not until the end of the Middle 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 his verse.

French prose in the Middle Ages was employed mainly in chronicles and history. There is, however, an anonymous story from the twelfth 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 destined much later to become bitter foes. The earliest plays were simply dramatizations of the ritual, particularly that connected with Christmas and Easter. When the plays were transferred from the church to the open air and French was substituted for Latin, the drama inevitably developed along lines of its own. Farces of a realistic, humorous, and even coarse type became popular. In these, as well as in the fabliaux, short narrative poems, we encounter the earliest expression of the Gallic spirit which finds 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 discovery of Italian culture were amongst the most important causes. It looked for a time as if the Protestant Reformation would also permeate the country, but by the end of the century the French people had definitely decided to remain Catholic. In literature the 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 of the school. Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), the leading poet of the movement, was a genuine lyricist in his shorter verses. Poetic tragedies were written, carefully observing the unities of plot, time, and place, and this type of play was 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 is grotesquely extravagant, the language is coarse and sometimes filthy, but beneath the buffoonery there is a strong undercurrent of 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 the first 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 famous of all literary institutions, in 1635 led to the further centralization of culture. Classicism of the strictest kind was taught by 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 the ancients. The poet should avoid eccentricities and keep steadily to what is natural and reasonable. Strict rules were enjoined for verse forms and especially for the tragedy. It was within the framework of these limitations that the greatest period of French literature expressed itself. This is the Classical Period, which coincides with the long reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). France was beyond question the leading country in Europe, both politically and culturally. In government, religion, and literature the note of authority was confidently sounded. But the classical 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 in conformity with these ideals, the former dealing chiefly with the conflicts that arise out of honour, and the latter with those proceeding from love. The theologian and orator Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) seemed to embody the spirit of authority, though posterity has accorded 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 its outlook. It was a product of the capital and the court, and its appeal was consequently limited pretty much to the cultivated few. With the diffusion of education, the widening of social sympathies, and the multiplication of interests that have taken place since then, this restricted outlook now necessarily appears as a grave shortcoming. Nevertheless, an understanding of the spirit of the Great Age and an appreciation of its masterpieces is still considered by the French to be the hall mark of true culture.

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. Its spirit was critical, sceptical, and innovating. Ideas of liberty, toleration, humanitarianism, equality, and progress were advocated increasingly.

Some of these ideas came from England, whose intellectual influence on France was of decisive importance during these years. The most characteristic literature of the century was of the nature of propaganda and was 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 country and praised the English constitution.

Voltaire (1694-1778) attacked bigotry and superstition, and championed the victims of religious persecution and of political injustice. More than any other man he embodies the spirit of the age of reason. But most of his voluminous writings were too much concerned 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 to attack ignorance, superstition, and intolerance. In purely literary matters the taste of the age was still classical. Voltaire's poetic tragedies, for instance, were modelled largely on those of Corneille and Racine. Diderot was more of an innovator. His plays, 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 of our 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 of romanticism. 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 turned chiefly to outward events. Otherwise the full force of the Romantic Movement which was sweeping over Europe might have been felt earlier in France.

Romanticism, however, has ideals diametrically opposed to French classicism. In so far as it stands for the exaltation of emotions above reason and of the individual above society, it is not wholly suited to the French mind. It made its first appearance in the stories of François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) and in Madame de Staël's interpretation 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 dramatic unities 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 recognized leader. 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, and de Musset won a belated success with his plays. Alexandre Dumas, père (1802-1870) wrote The Three Musketeers and other romances which have gained world fame.

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) was a master of shorter fiction. The most famous woman writer of France, 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 authors rather than to judge them.

By the middle of the nineteenth century romanticism had spent its force. It had opened fresh sources of inspiration by freeing the individual from artificial rules and conventions. It had revivified all branches of literature, but it undoubtedly left its richest 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 was partly due to a reaction against the extravagances of romanticism, but it was also in large measure the result of the development of 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 his countrymen. 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. This tendency 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 the next 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 to be explained by purely physical laws. Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) supplied much of the philosophy of naturalism. He believed 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), in the short stories of Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), and in the fiction of Emile Zola (1840-1902). The stories of Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), on the other hand, display a more moderate sort of realism. The influence 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 revival under a changed form of the spirit of romanticism. The procedure was to use subtle suggestion instead of precise statement, to evoke 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. The movement is also represented in prose by the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), who wrote in French. The symbolist movement has been responsible for much metrical experimentation and for many varieties of "free verse." As a consequence, 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 Rostand (1896-1918), especially Cyrano de Bergerac in 1897, made it seem for a time as if another romantic movement were on the way. But this expectation was not fulfilled. In fact, French literature around the turn of the century was eclectic, with all kinds of tendencies represented, but with no single one dominant for any great length of time. Anatole France (1844-1924) was for many years the leading author. He employed fiction chiefly as a convenient vehicle for his ideas about men and things. One of his masters in thinking was the eminent scholar Renan (1823-1892), an intellectual influence of the first importance on educated Frenchmen of his day. Both Renan and Anatole France were convinced that absolute truth was forever beyond human reach and that consequently all questions should be regarded from many sides. In particular, the scepticism of the younger man seemed universal, sparing neither theology, nor philosophy, nor science. In more recent years, there has been a reaction against this "dilettantism," by which the French mean playing with ideas without reaching firm conclusions. Literature today sounds a more positive note in matters of religion, ethics, and politics.

Contemporary French literature affords the spectacle of many talented writers whose average of excellence is high, but of whom few are outstanding above the others. Fiction, drama, poetry, and criticism are all cultivated; no form is neglected. Without attempting to appraise present reputations or to forecast future trends, we may safely say of such a literature that it shows every sign of continued vitality and growth.

Fine examples include

Literary criticism


See also:

List of French language poets, List of French language authors