« ElőzőTovább »
Sound the trump for the Mighty!
Where sickles were swords!
INSCRIPTION IN THE NEW EDITION OF MRS HEMANS'S WORKS.
BY B. SIMMONS.
HIGH be their meed who here, at last, have heap'd
When rose thy poeans in Jehovah's praise:—
Babbles of sufferings which herself provoked-
To test their truth who mock the minstrel art,
FRENCH LITERATURE OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
We have traced, in a former article, the outline of French literature during the first or creative portion of the eighteenth century, when it was illustrated in different departments by the eloquence of Buffon, the ingenuity of Montesquieu, the fervid enthusiasm of Rousseau, and the universal talent of Voltaire. Of these, the three last impressed the deepest and most durable traces on the literature and the mind of Europe: Montesquieu, by the novelty and occasional sagacity which he mingled with much false taste in style, rash assumption of facts, and hasty generalisation in reasoning; Rousseau, by that semblance of conviction, that passionate exaggeration of sentiments and principles, derived from his own morbid propensities, which gave to his studied essays the appearance, and something of the influence, of unpremeditated popular orations, in which all Europe was his forum; and Voltaire, by his power of popularizing the most abstract discussions, insinuating philosophy into the fugitive literature of the day, making wit subservient to argument, and lending to every thing he touched the charm of a style conspicuous for its finish and simplicity. This portion of
the eighteenth century was the period of original and independent production, when France, instead of receiving the rules of taste or the models of composition from other countries, imposed her own laws on them, impressed the stamp of her habits of thought upon all Europe, and enjoyed a literary supremacy more absolute and universal than any which had existed since the age of Augustus.
The unhesitating and enthusiastic reception at first accorded to the French philosophy of the eighteenth century by the rest of Europe, now appears to us matter of astonishment. Under all the disguises of humanity, literature, zeal for improvement, removal of prejudices, and banishment of superstition, with which the aim of the French philosophers was studiously invested, the principle of determined hostility to monarchy, to the privileged classes, and to that religion by which the existing state of things was cemented and upheld, now appears so palpable, that we wonder how it could have been overlooked by those whose interests were so deeply involved in the change. To us it appears evident that the doctrines thus eagerly embraced by princes and nobles,
Were silently engendering of the day
This handwriting on the wall, warning kings and princes that their dominion was departing from them, which presented to them but unintelligible characters, has become abundantly significant when read by the collected light of the past. For the French Revolution has furnished the commentary of reality upon all the delusive doctrines of human perfectibility, and taught us the folly of expecting the regeneration of mankind by means of an infidel philosophy, which, while it flatters the vanity, overlooks entirely the inherent depravity, of man. But to the eighteenth century a new El Dorado appeared to
NO. CCLXXXVII. VOL. XLVI.
be opened, exciting curiosity, inviting experiment, holding out golden hopes of social amelioration, universal disinterestedness and philanthropy, political equality and primitive simplicity; pregnant, in short, with all those delusive visions of improvement which are found to recur at intervals in the progress of society; and of which, it would seem, man can hardly be cured even by the lessons of a sad and often recurring experience. Long accustomed to contemplate human nature as its selfish and savage character had been tamed and moulded by the salutary restraints of a longestablished faith and settled govern
ment, no one appears to have calculated the explosive force which would be developed when these barriers were removed, or the singe-tigre aspect under which the human character, left to the guidance of its own wild impulses, would present itself. The votaries of the new philosophy flattered themselves, that self-interest, rightly understood, was a sufficient guarantee for the continued peace and happiness of society; that as philosophy had raised the storm, she could always allay it at plea sure; and that henceforth all mankind were to be united under the peaceful sway of the Goddess of Reason. No one had foreseen the tempests which were to close the day, of which the morning had appeared so bright and promising; nor, perhaps, could even a deeper forecast have enabled any one to conjecture that opinions, many of which appeared so innocent, if not beneficent in their application, would result in the general corruption of society, the subversion of all order, the developement of a spirit of ferocity, which the incessant employment of the guillotine was unable to satiate without the aid of the more wholesale massacre of the Noyades, and the excitement of a bloody war of opinions, carried on under the revolutionary watchword-Fraternity or Death. "L'aimable siecle où l'homme dit à l'homme,
Soyons frères- ou je t'assomme!"*
But to whatever causes we are to impute the supremacy of French literature in Europe during the whole of the eighteenth century, its universal diffusion and powerful influence in all quarters are incontestable. If the spirit of bold speculation in morals and political science, which had been so characteristic of the French literature of this period, had received its first impulse from England, it soon reacted, with no common energy, upon the literature of our own country. Against the irreligious doctrines of the French school, though advocated with all the subtilty of Hume and the learning of Gibbon, a noble and effectual stand was made, and sophistry refuted with those very weapons of reasoning, and appeals to common sense, which it had been the first to invoke. But our school of philosophical historians was undoubtedly called into existence by the example
of Voltaire; and if Hobbes, Shaftesbury, and Bolingbroke, furnished hints for the Essai sur les Mœurs, or the Age of Louis XIV., the obligation was more than repaid by the. breadth of views, the lucid arrangement, the artful union ofreflexion with narrative, the skill in character drawing, and the elegance of composition, which the study of French models imparted to the histories of Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, and Ferguson. The influence of the French drama, again, over our own, during the period which ranges from the commencement of the reign of Anne down to the close of that of George II., appears in the declining taste for the older writers, the comparative unpopularity even of Shakspeare himself, whom Garrick or Tate were allowed to mutilate, not merely with impunity but with applause, and the growth of that so-called classic school, in which Addison, Thomson, Young, Phillips, and Murphy, were labour. ers the school of Roman fathers and Grecian daughters, and distressed mothers and rival brothers, most of them avowed translations, or slenderly disguised imitations of Racine and Voltaire; in which the want of simplicity and natural feeling was retained, while the tender ness or dramatic point of the original disappeared in the process of transla. tion. The other departments of poetry were not less unfavourably affected by French influence: for the return to a less artificial taste in Thomson was not followed out-wit, correctness, or a certain stilted and pseudo-classic tone continued to be the qualities aimed at; and the accents of nature, once so powerful in English poetry, like the successive reverberations of an echo, grew fainter and fainter, till they sunk
If we turn to Italy, we trace the ideas of Montesquieu and Voltaire, nay, even of Helvetius, in the political or moral speculations of Beccaria, Genovesi, Verri, and Filangieri. The reverence, indeed, with which Beccaria speaks of Helvetius and Holbach, appears at the present day not a little unaccountable. We see the principle of social, political, and even religi ous reform disseminated through the press, from Milan to Naples, licenza de superiori"-encouraged by absolute princes, and if not favoured,
*Le Brun Pindare.
at least not discountenanced, even by the possessors of the chair of St Peter; and France subduing to her opinions the countries which she was at no distant period to subject by her arms. In the literature of Italy, too, the same powerful influences are perceptible. Though Maffei criticised severely some of the works of Corneille, his Merope (the best of the Italian tragedies before Alfieri) is composed entirely in the taste of the French school. Goldoni is, in his whole spirit, essentially French-latterly, indeed, he wrote for the French stage; and Alfieri, while hating the French nation, adopts the conventional limitations of its drama, with a rigour which even French critics themselves had hardly exacted.
Even Spain, with all its strong nationality, yields to the general infec. tion, and submits its chivalrous drama and its oriental tastes, to the restraint of the rules and the studied decorum of French dramatic verse. During the 18th century that romantic theatre, so truly in unison with the national spirit, which Lope had created-to which the highest perfection of which its irregular character was susceptible, had been given by Calderon, and which, by the brilliant facility of its poetry, the picturesque and stately character of the manners represented, and the deep interest and curiosity which its plots awakened, had for a long time influenced the dramatic literature of all Europe, and strongly coloured that of France itself, as the Cid and Heraclius of Corneille, and Moliere's Festin de Pierre sufficiently show, was abandoned for lifeless imitations of the French drama, constructed on those principles of criticism which Luzan had borrowed, partly from the Poetics of Aristotle, partly from the prefaces of Corneille and Voltaire, until a feeble, and indeed unsuccessful, rally was made in 1778, in favour of the older drama by La Huerta in his Raquel. Even the political innovations of the French philosophers found a favourable reception at the Court of Charles III., and the policy of Aranda, Cam
pomanes, and Florida Blanca, both in its errors and in the advantages it conferred on Spain, may be traced to those theories of national education and reform of political institutions, to which the agitation of opinions in France had given birth; and thus Spain, with a singular contradiction, borrowed from that quarter at once the principles of political liberty and of poetical restraint.
Nearly the same state of things may be traced in Portugal under the reign of Joseph I. and the sombre administration of Pombal; who, filled with the ideas of French philosophy, advocated with a species of fanatical intolerance the doctrines of toleration, labouring, not to direct or restrain, but to subvert the power of the Jesuits, and to force upon the nation, by the unsparing use of arbitrary and oppressive means, the Utopian schemes of improvement which that philosophy had inspired.
In Germany, while the opinions of the French philosophers, so far as regarded religious indifference and experiments in government, found enthusiastic converts in Frederick the Great and Joseph II., and powerfully affected the policy of these sovereigns, the influence of French literature was far less felt. Frederick, imitating the sneer of Voltaire, was content to wish his countrymen more wit and fewer consonants; while he prac tically laboured to decry and discountenance his native literature and his native language. But, even under his military despotism, he could not render French literature "the order of the day;" his attempts to naturalize it in Prussia, only created a reaction which hastened the developement of that varied and inventive native literature which adorned in Germany the close of the 18th century and the commencement of the 19th.
"Von dem grossten Deutschen sohne, Von des grossen Friedrichs throne,
Ging sie schutzlos, ungeehrt. Rühmend darfs der Deutsche sagen, Höher darf das herz ihm schlagen,
Selbst erschuf er sich den werth."*
Schiller. Die Deutsche Muse. The greatest son of Germany, Even Frederick, bade her turn away Unhonour'd from his throne; Proudly the German bard can tell, And higher may his bosom swell, He form'd himself alone.
Traces of French influence are visible in Lessing, whose deistical views were undoubtedly derived from Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopedists; and in many of the second-rate German writers of the time, the imitation of the polish and coldness of the French models is sufficiently perceptible. But one man only, of superior ability as a classic writer, was completely formed in the school of the French. We refer to Wieland, whom the influence of Voltaire and the other sceptical philosophers of France, suddenly converted for a time from a religious mystic into the apologist of the Helvetian system of selfishness-the painter of voluptuous pictures the scandalous chronicler of antiquity-the imitator of that irony which pervades the lighter poetry of Voltaire, which throws disbelief or ridicule on all enthusiastic feeling, and all exertions of human virtue-but who lived long enough to become a sadder and a wiser man, and to make a tardy atonement to those virtuous sentiments which he had outraged or depreciated, by his beautiful poem of Oberon.
If the ascendency of France was thus felt in countries where science had long flourished, where literature had long assumed a settled and national form, and which had outstrip. ped even France itself in the earlier stages of the march of civilisation, it may easily be conceived that the great states of the North, still struggling with comparative barbarism of manners, and with a literature which yet remained to be created, should readily yield to the general contagion. France, accordingly, was the source from which Russia, Denmark, and Sweden, in the eighteenth century, borrowed refinement of manners and the impulse of scientific and social improvement. Such civilisation and literature as Russia possessed, were in truth entirely French. We see the Semiramis of the North, as she was styled by Voltaire (with a nearer approach to truth than was generally to be found in his compliments to crowned heads), creating academies on the French model, adopting the language and the manners of the court of France, affecting the character of a philosophic monarch, translating Belisarius, (the chapters of which she portioned out among her court favourites, reserving what she considered the most striking to her
self,) engaging in an interchange of flatteries with Voltaire, talking of liberating the serfs of Russia, and actually transmitting to Paris a copy of a grand code of laws for the Tartars and Cossacks, which she had not the most distant intention of ever carrying into effect. In the case of Catharine, this pretended zeal for toleration and political liberty was probably partly sincere, partly affected, as a blind to cover her ambitious designs against Poland and Turkey, and to secure the quiet enjoyment of a real despotism while pretending an anxious desire for the emancipation and improvement of her subjects. The same adoption of French philosophy and literature (and probably with more sincerity) as the reigning tone of the day, appears in the writings of the weak and unfortunate Gustavus III. of Sweden. To throw aside the native lan. guage, and the remains of its early literature, as relics of barbarism; to obliterate the traces of the homely and simple manners of old, as far as that was possible; and to convert the court of Sweden into a miniature representation of that of France, with all its vices, intrigues, and some portion of its external varnish of elegance-were objects after which he appears to have laboured with more energy than discretion. And in truth he had his reward: for, to the profligacy engendered by his own example, and the principles he had laboured to popularize, he probably owed the blow which terminated his existence.
Most extensive and imposing, then, was the influence of French literature on other countries from 1750 to the close of the eighteenth century. "The works of the French writers," says Villemain, "and particularly the work of Montesquieu, a genius combining boldness with moderation, issuing from Paris, became the reason of state' with most sovereigns, or at least the public official reason of state. The ancient Machiavelism, no doubt, remained as a concealed spring-as a secret of the cabinet; but what was avowed, what was proclaimed to the people, were the ideas of tolerance and humanity, professed by Montesquieu and Voltaire. Voltaire, the most popular of writers, whose profundity is concealed under his power of pleasing, whose audacity is masked by frivolity, exercised the more extended influence over the elevated ranks of