The day of the prècteuses began, and Vincent Voiture was their laureate. There is no doubt that these amiable ladies exercised an influence on French literature that was not altogether for evil: for they admitted it to their salon on the understanding that it should behave well, -- or, at least, that it should avoid the grosser improprieties of language. The verse of Mathurin Regnier, for example, they would not tolerate, and though Voiture was quite as indecent, it was indecency with a difference. We owe to them much of the courtly grace and charm of eighteenth-century prose in the form of letters, maxims, and `characters', and an immense quantity of amusing light verse; epigrams, squibs, lampoons, and sonnets of love-sick shepherds who desire to end their days en l'amour d'Uranie. They were the foes of the libertins, -- of the unlucky Théophile who wrote the notorious couplet about the dagger that blushed to see the blood of its master; -- they required men of letters to be men of the world and not owlish persons in a dusty library, and thus they prepared the way for the realism of Molière. On the other hand, they were responsible for a gallantry that usurped the place of passion, for introducing the specious euphuism of Gongara and Guarini, and for making literature generally a social and impersonal art and so completely effacing the lyric. This last achievement of the Précieuses was consummated by Richelieu when he founded the Académie Française in 1635. The official recognition of impersonal literature had taken place; the Alexandrine rose to icy heights of classic dignity; the grand style was fixed, and the path was plain for the superb rhetoric of Corneille. The Cid was produced in 1637.

No man of genius was less of an innovator than Corneille, except, perhaps, Dryden. His method is the method of the contemporary dramatists: the grandees of Spain in the Cid are typical `sword and cloak' heroes, splendid and declamatory as their fellows in Hernani, but not vitally characterized; supreme phantoms, but aloof from human nature. The Stances de Don Rodrigue are immortal specimens of eloquence; but as examples of what a man should say when confronted with a hideous dilemma they are less satisfactory. Rodrigue, in fact, is a Superman, though he would scarcely have pleased Nietzsche; and this tendency to elevate its characters to the rank of demigods is the chief defect, to an English sense, of the `grand style'.

At the moment, however, when the dominion of this formal art seems to be complete, a writer appears who is content to abjure the austere regions of the classical drama and to devote his incomparable talent to fables and contes, each of them a little treasury of good sense and gay humour. La Fontaine realized that the language of his time was not the absolute property of a muse on stilts; the verse of Voiture, with all its defects, proved that it was still capable of an exquisite elegance, but so far no one had been adventurous enough to associate grace with simplicity. La Fontaine was able to extract all that was vital from the example of his predecessors, and to leave whatever was cold and fruitless; from Malherbe he acquired a certain dignity; a wise restraint that never wholly left him even in his most facetious conte; from Voiture and his school he derived felicity of expression, the sense of the mot juste. His work,

Une ample comédie, à cent actes divers,
  Et dont la scène est l'univers,
is a real return to nature--to human nature, for all his animals are really human, and in this quality lies his affinity with the great dramatists who were his friends. His characters are types of everyday, greedy, kind, harassed humanity; when we read him we are far from the tremendous personages of Corneille, but we are some distance, also, from Racine's stern presentment of human weakness and from the terrific clairvoyance of Molière.

Boileau, the draftsman of the poetical statutes of the seventeenth century, advised the ambitious poet to study nature and nature only; but this advice implies no liberty, it is qualified by restrictions which result in the study of nature becoming the study of certain moral types. No one can help admiring the good sense and powerful, if limited, logic of the redoubtable opponent of the Précieuses and champion of formalism; he has all the qualities of a splendid fighter, and in spite of his crushing power of invective he was far too wise to be bitter; but his enthusiasm for literary law and order makes him support all that is most unlyrical in poetry. His contempt for Ronsard (whom he did not read) is rather amusing when we remember all that Malherbe owed to the earlier poet.

The early part of the eighteenth century is remarkable only for its prose. The anaemic odes and allegories of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau are neat illustrations of the inevitable fate of formal verse, and Voltaire, the

  By PanEris using Melati.

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