During the post-Renaissance period we notice a striking increase in popularity of “subjective” literature—that is to say, works in which man turns his attention inwards to his own thoughts and feelings, instead of preaching a doctrine or uttering conventional sentiments. Individual human reactions and the relations between small groups of individuals take on paramount importance; so much so that even in describing inanimate objects or external nature writers project their own feelings on to the thing described and give it human characteristics.
This development is, of course, part and parcel of the new spirit of free expansion and expression of the individual which in terms of economics meant unfettered competition.
Let us turn back to France and see how /the work of the Renaissance progressed there.
The seventeenth century in France is known as the Great Century, and its typical king as the Great Monarch. Its literature presents a dazzling array of famous names; its books are intoxicating in their diversity and verve. Yet through even the wittiest of them runs a streak of melancholy and disillusion. To comprehend this we have to examine the underlying structure of society. The French Renaissance, as we have seen, was as brilliant as any: but it heralded a growth whose maturity was to be long delayed. England, owing to the circumstances of being an island, had an efficient navy long before France; she utterly routed the fleet of Spain, her only serious trade rival, while France was still plunged in civil wars. Moreover, England had furnished since as early as the thirteenth century the main wool supply of Europe. France, though a much larger country, was undeveloped, having many tangled forests and wild mountains overrun with wolves, bears and bandits. Her economic development was retarded, but the power of the aristocracy was weakened, and a strong absolute monarchy was set up under Louis XIII and XIV, like the Tudor dynasty in England; unlike the latter, however, the French Bourbons were able to retain their authority unchallenged for nearly two hundred years. The Protestant Reformation was checked, and society remained fossilised in a semi-feudal structure. The work of the Renaissance and the influence of expanding England remained, however, to modify the trend of men’s ideas. New thought had been introduced into literature; knowledge was spreading.
In the thirties of the seventeenth century France produced a philosopher, Descartes, and a poet-dramatist, Corneille, who, in their different manners, expound similar ideas. Descartes is a materialist to this extent: he insists on the physical basis of emotions and the “soul”; but he urges very strongly the idea of free will and the power of mind to dominate matter. He is an anti-theologian, but finds room in his philosophy for “faith,” and keeps discreetly just within the shelter of Mother Church. The dramas of his contemporary Corneille are uniformly concerned with conflicts in individual beings or groups between their intellects and their passions; as, for example, the prolonged battle of love and duty in his tragedy “The Cid.”
Towards the middle of the century the Regency of Anne of Austria ended, and her son, Louis XIV, “the Sun King,” began his reign in earnest. There ensued the “classic” period of French literature, comparable with the “spacious times” of Elizabethan England, but surpassing that age in polish and sophistication. It was an aristocratic literature commissioned by a small leisured class, and, so far, typically feudal; all the classic poets uphold the divine right of kings and the sanctity of tradition. Their style is remarkable for its elegance and clarity; their subject-matter deals with problems of individual human beings, not with traditional “types”: here is the Renaissance at work, striving towards free personal expansion. Within the limits of their subjects they are startlingly real in their treatment; but those subjects, narrow and over-simple, soon become unreal and pretentious.
Perhaps the best-known author of this time is the actor-comedian, Molière. His satirical portraits of men and manners, his grim lack of faith in “human nature” reflect on the one hand the general dissatisfaction of the shackled bourgeoisie and on the other the writer’s personal misery. Although humorous, his work is very narrow and formalised; this is typical of the time. A similar but rather mellower outlook is expressed in the form of rhymed fables by the poet La Fontaine.
The writer of this age most esteemed in France, however, is the dramatist Racine. Each of his plays is a concentrated and flawless piece of craftsmanship; he has no trouble in abiding by the art-conventions of the time; he exalts the State and depicts devotion to it as the noblest of man’s passions. Yet even he, the idol of the court, retired disillusioned. The most disillusioned man of the great century is, however, that immortal cynic La Rochefoucauld, whose slender volume of Maxims and Thoughts compresses into a few pages all the soured weariness that lay behind the glories of the Sun King’s court. The brilliance of his penetration is in part due to personal disappointments; he attained popularity because his mood found an echo in many brains. A few examples from his epigrams will suffice to indicate his scope. “Our virtues are generally vices in disguise.” “We refuse praise in order to have it repeated.” “Virtue would not go so far if vanity did not keep it company.” “Love of Justice is generally fear of suffering injustice.” “However well men speak of us they teach us nothing new.” “We would rather vilify ourselves than not speak of ourselves at all.”
The close of this classic period brings an essayist. La Bruyere, and the beginnings of the novel. La Bruyere’s book of “Characters” is a series of pen-portraits in the manner of Molière and La Rochefoucauld. He was embittered by the constant necessity of toadying to an effete aristocracy who ignored or insulted him; so that his sarcasms are the very epitome of the slowly gathering feelings of revolt that were later expressed in the philosophic literature of the eighteenth century. The novel, at first a narrative of adventure imitated from the mariners’ accounts, was becoming more topical and realistic; soon, with the Gil Bias of Lesage, it developed strong satirical tendencies.
Meanwhile in England the restoration in 1660 of the Stuart line and the subsequent prosperity and relative tranquillity, gave at first a literature calm and courtly; in poetry there is the benign Andrew Marvell, with his flowers and gardens and his equable temperament; the religious but not fanatical Henry Vaughan; and the exuberant heroicisms of Dryden. In prose the continued interest in religion shows itself in Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress“; this sober work presents a lively contrast with the spate of wittily wanton plays by Wycherley and Congreve, soon to come into favour. These two opposing tendencies in literature have their political and economic backing in the Whig and Tory conflict just then taking shape owing to the hostility between the dominant court faction and the merchant class.
(To be continued.)