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The literature of France in the seventeenth century has always been regarded, both by other European peoples and (with the exception of a few writers whose influence is not perhaps of much weight) by the French themselves, as most thoroughly representative of the literature of which it forms part.

In no other period have the distinguishing characteristics of French intellect and genius—method, logical sequence of ideas, and lucidity of style—been so conspicuous. The classical tradition of Greece and Rome, followed by the great poets and prose-writers of the sixteenth century, with a zeal as overmastering as it was injudicious, and transmitted by them to those of the seventeenth, was handled by their successors with so fine an insight, so sure a sense of proportion, and so instinctive an art of combining national originality with the inspirations of classical tradition—in short, with such felicity and propriety and skill—as to have resulted in a success almost unparalleled in the whole history of literature.

Innumerable influences were intermingled and interwoven at this period of literary workmanship; but three of them, at least, proved so strong, so striking, and so continuous throughout the whole of the century, that a kind of authoritative rank ought to be assigned to them. These are the influence of Montaigne, that of Malherbe, and that of Descartes.

By virtue of the power which Montaigne exercised, he belongs rather to the seventeenth than to the sixteenth century. Every seventeenth century man of letters read his works incessantly and was deeply imbued with their spirit. In all these writers are to be found deep traces, echoes, imitations, and even plagiarisms, of Montaigne. It is a striking indication of this all-pervading influence that the two chief representatives in the seventeenth century of whatsoever in it was most Christian and most Catholic, the two most deeply religious men of the age, and therefore those furthest removed from the spirit of Montaigne—that is to say, Pascal and Bossuet—found Montaigne as it were blocking their way, and became intent upon refuting his principles. This proves how living was the influence exercised by Montaigne on the minds of men, and how those who differed from him in their ways of thought and feeling, still felt it incumbent on them to wage war against him as against a present, and indeed an omnipresent, adversary.

Although Montaigne represented the classical tradition in perfection, and borrowed from it all that was most refined and best suited to the French mind, he himself represented, or it might even be said evolved, the true French spirit. From him his compatriots learnt delicacy of treatment, and derived the taste for a searching but dexterously and gracefully conducted analysis of ideas, together with their love of the study of characters, pursued with ardour but not without the sure touch of the master’s hand—in short, every tendency proper to the humanist and the moralist who is at the same time a man of genius. The literature of the seventeenth century, which concerned itself almost exclusively with the study of man, owes its bent in large measure to him. In a word, Montaigne might almost be described as the literary father-confessor of the seventeenth century.

Descartes, himself a moralist (for we must not forget his marvellous Traité des Passions), bestowed on the seventeenth century those qualities which Montaigne either naturally lacked or did not deign to acquire—careful arrangement, a sense of order, the rectilinear sequence of ideas, the art of boldly tracing the grand outlines of general conceptions with a sure touch and a master-hand. Teacher, in this respect, of Bossuet, of Bourdaloue, of Boileau, even of Molière and of Racine, as well as of Malebranche, he mapped out the high-roads along which the French intellect was to travel; had Montaigne been the only writer to exercise a controlling influence over French minds, they might, perhaps, have become too much attached to winding by-paths; had Descartes been the sole influence, they might have fallen into the habit of keeping to the high-road. Thus, it is fortunate that one of those two great personalities revealed the charm of the labyrinths of literature through which the visitant strays, not however dropping the thread from his hand, while the other grandly opened out the royal highway straight through the forest intellectual.

Last, Malherbe, following in the footsteps of Ronsard, but with none of Ronsard’s defects, taught Frenchmen, first of all, the use of plain, clear, and concise language, which had rejected everything superfluous and bore no trace of piecing; more especially, he taught them rhetorical poetry, eloquence clothed in noble verse, the amplitude and the movement of stately sentences. He taught the French to become perfect orators in verse as well as in prose; for we learn from poets how to write prose; and his influence, which, in a measure, had long been latent, made itself felt to an enormous extent throughout the School of 1660, the central rallying-place of all French literary effort. The members of this School included orators in verse as well as orators in prose, who set forth abstract ideas in harmonious and ample style—in other words, in the style best fitted for them, since it placed their finest qualities in the strongest light.

In Montaigne, then, we find a delicacy of diction which is full at the same time of grace and of strength; in Descartes order and strength in composition; in Malherbe a sure and expressive oratorical form : and in one and all we find reasonableness. These qualifies in combination formed the essence of the classical French of 1660, which in its turn has exercised so profound and, all things considered, so salutary an influence on the different literatures of Europe.

The School of 1660 included at least a dozen writers of the first rank, each with his own distinctly defined originality, but each possessing qualities common to all, and each exhibiting close affinities to the rest. Only a few of the chief among these writers can be here mentioned and characterised.

The Classical School: Corneille.—Bossuet.

Corneille, who, however, preceded the others, and who only belongs to this group in the sense in which a father belongs to his family, was as much of a Stoic as was Montaigne; but, although he took delight in posing as such, he was, in the main, the poet of that doctrine of free will, of which Descartes was the convinced and eloquent exponent. Corneille sang of magnanimity, of loftiness of soul; though he was not thereby prevented from frequently drawing base and vile characters, or from displaying singular penetration in the analysis of complex individualities. But he is preeminently the poet of the human will. He pourtrays man struggling against the blows of Fate and prevailing against them, by means of his trust in himself and in the inward strength with which he feels himself endowed. He depicted those “warrior souls” whom Bossuet was later to call to mind; and at his bidding there passes before our eyes a long procession of combatant spirits. Corneille remains the very type of those artists who aspire towards the things that are great and who hold that the highest kind of beauty is to be found in the beauty of holiness.

Bossuet pressed the most powerful eloquence, and a “verbal”, but yet disciplined, “vehemence” into the service of the religion he expounded. The impetuous arguments with which he stormed the enemies’ citadel were tempered by order and method, and each was advanced in its own place and season. Indeed, he conveys the impression of a general who has weighty and powerful forces under his control, which he pushes to the front with equal rapidity and precision, in an assault that never breaks the ranks or mars the symmetry of their lines.

La Fontaine.—Boileau.—Molière.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695)

La Fontaine, the most self-contained and original of the poets and indeed of all the writers of the seventeenth century, owes little to Montaigne, little to Malherbe, although he loved him greatly, and little to Descartes, although he read him incessantly and rendered him worthy homage. He was a sixteenth century poet, matured by the ideas of the seventeenth century and the various influences that circulated round him. His ingenuity rises into elegance, while the freshness of his originality might have tempted him to superfluity, had it not been kept within nice and just limits by the good taste of the time, so that he actually became concise, while remaining easy and supple. He had at his command an inconceivable variety of turns of style and mannerisms, derived, in the first instance, from his own intellectual nature and, secondarily, from his wide reading of authors of every age, country, and style; above all else he had the quality of life—that sense which makes even the slightest of his stories a miniature drama and endows each of his characters with a physiognomy all its own in its features, actions, and bearing. The most poetical of French poets, he stands as it were alone, and seems beyond the reach of extraneous influences, because he outvies them all.

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711)

Boileau is, strictly speaking, the pupil of Malherbe, and—whether for better or for worse, just as one may view it—a pupil turned teacher, a pupil, that is to say, who fears to go further than his master and shrinks from nothing so much as from being original. Possessed of wit, especially of that satirical wit which is not the highest kind, he had good judgment, a logical mind and even eloquence; he knew how to draw a portrait or at least how to block out a sketch; his style, when defining literary precepts, was clear and fairly powerful; he discoursed on questions of morals as one possessing authority and capable of some emphasis; and he could be carried away by feverish indignation in rebuking an indifferent writer. He ought to be, although he probably is not, the idol of the “Aesthetic School,” since he exhibited against the writers of other Schools than his own a spirit of indignation which found its vent in invective such as is usually reserved for criminals. Thus he possessed all the qualities, together with the chief failing, of men of letters.

MOLIÈRE (1622 -1673)

Everything that can be said about Molière has been said—as to his wonderful gift for making even the most complex of his characters alive and real, until their conversation and even their very gestures have become proverbial; his comic power, or, in other words, his art of arousing, and of at the same time satisfying, more and more fully as he proceeds, the interest of curiosity seasoned by malice; his depth of conception, which is a very different thing from close observation of life, and which consists in the creation of characters capable of being viewed from ever fresh standpoints, and possessing an inexhaustible interest for those who subject them to analysis, so that they offer a new revelation to readers of each successive generation. But it has not been sufficiently pointed out that, like Corneille, like Boileau and like La Bruyere at later date, Moliere has often, indeed almost always, the dogmatism of a preacher; that his most important comedies are theses; that his aim was to teach, to exercise moral control, to impress his precepts on all who listened to him; and he too would have applauded the saying “Woe to him who is content with applause”. In common with most of the French writers of the seventeenth century, he was an eloquent expounder of morality; and such he intended to be.


Racine.—Influence on German literature.

Finally (for we must not unduly prolong this rapid survey) Racine showed throughout his work what Corneille showed only on occasion, that he was a delicate and subtle and profound painter of the passions. It is true that, strictly speaking, he only studied the three passions of love and jealousy and ambition; but he treated these with great skill in all their devious movements, he traced their development, and he depicted every shade in their operation, even the most fleeting, without, however, losing himself in a maze of detail, and never forgetting the broad outline. Hence his gallery of living portraits, admirably managed from the point of view of technique, which time will never obliterate or change or tarnish.

These great men were the admiration of all Europe in their day, and they exercised a very powerful influence over the European literatures of their times. In Germany this influence lasted for nearly a century—from the Thirty Years’ War until the middle of the eighteenth century. Mention must be made of Martin Opitz, who, copying the example of his Dutch master Daniel Heinsius, had imbibed the leading principles of French literature in such a degree as to earn for himself the name of the “German Malherbe”; he was a pronounced partisan of the system of imitation, and, far more like Ronsard than Malherbe, he strove to introduce into the literature of his own country the distinguishing beauties of every other literature.

We should also mention Fleming, who imitated the French, especially where they in their turn had borrowed from the Italian School;— Andreas Gryphius, a rather florid copyist of Corneille, a writer who, had he been French, would have found an acknowledged place between Rotrou and Ryer; the various imitators of the French Romances of the first half of the seventeenth century—imitators who really derive more from the Spanish influence in French literature than from French literature itself. Nor, above all, must we forget Gottsched, translator of Racine’s Iphigenie and author of The Dying Cato, the German ultra-classic, who was, at the same time, the most thorough-going of the imitators of the French School, and also the last, or nearly the last, of these copyists; and who was speedily dethroned by the National School. And, for a moment, we feel impelled to call from oblivion the worthy and genial fabulist Gellert, who derived almost as much inspiration from La Fontaine as from his own kindly nature, and who thus possessed two excellent sources, from which in point of fact he might have drawn far more than he did.

But the great name which dominates the whole of the period from 1650 to about 1750 is that of Leibniz. He was great enough to need no master; nevertheless, he owed to Descartes his first incentive, the foundation of his inspiration, more especially and beyond doubt the very tone of his mind, that wide and tolerant optimism which runs throughout the whole of his work, and animates it with confidence and with hope. Leibniz might almost be said to impersonate a French idea, which after sounding the depths of a German mind, comes forth the richer and fuller for the experience, while still retaining the distinctive style and characteristics of its origin.

After him, Lessing appeared above the literary horizon, who dealt the goût français such a blow that, after 1760, the influence of French on German literature practically ceased to exist—a fact which should not be treated as a grievance, since it is best for every nation to live its own life, both intellectually and morally.

Influence on Italian and Spanish literature.

Italy, too, came under French influence after 1650, having, in its day, exercised an immense effect upon the literature of France. The Seicentisti, from the middle of the century onwards, were strongly coloured with French influence. Guidi bears the stamp of Malherbe, but his style is more inflated; Testi, a faithful disciple of Horace, also possesses something of the grace of Maynard and of Racan; Chiabrera, “the Italian Pindar”, learns lessons from the French poets rather than copies them; but his confirmed habit of imitating the classics is very evidently traceable to French influence, and his pupils, Filicaya and Menzini, followed the same course, perhaps almost too faithfully. Finally, in 1713, Italian tragedy, after keeping silent long after the profound slumber in which it had been sunk during the whole of the seventeenth century, was reawakened by the inspiring touch of the Merope of Maffei, who was, like Voltaire, one of the most brilliant pupils of the French tragic writers of the seventeenth century.

The Spanish writers of the seventeenth century scarcely borrowed anything from the French; it was rather the French who imitated them. But, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, it might almost be said that Spain was a pupil of the French School. To Ignacio de Luzan y Guerra, the disciple of Descartes and of Port-Royal, Spain owed the Logic of Port-Royal, and he also introduced Milton to his countrymen; Moratin wrote both tragedies and comedies entirely in the French style; Cadalso, after finishing his student days in Paris, imitated the Lettres Persanes in his Cartas Marruecas, and Voltaire in his tragedy Don Sancho Garcia; Jove Llanos, who also translated Milton, produced in the same epoch on the Spanish stage his tragedy Pelage, written on French lines. Spain had to wait until the nineteenth century before she again reverted to her own literary idiosyncrasy— which (assuredly in no sense to her discredit) altogether differs from that of the French nation.

Influence on English literature.

Finally, from 1700 onwards, England came under French influence in a very clear and unmistakable manner. Addison is the pupil of Boileau, more gifted, more refined, and more brilliant than his master, but still never forgetful of his master’s teaching. Moralist, satirist, and critic, a poet equally at home in the romantic, allegorical, and tragic styles, he could turn with ease from French wit to English humour, and often seems even to combine, mix and blend the two together. Taking everything into account, we find Addison so exquisitely French in his methods that we are often tempted to say of him as Valentine of Milan said of Dunois: “He was stolen from us.”

Pope, who has inevitably been much imitated in France, owed much to her in his earlier days. The style and manner of his letters remind us of Balzac and of Voiture; his moral poems have the precise turn of wit characteristic of Boileau; he represents, as it were, the transition between Boileau and Voltaire; moreover, the Dunciad reads as though it were copied from the Lutrin, the evident relationship between the two poems being shown by their close similarity of style.

These great names must be supplemented by those of Waller, the friend of Saint-Évremond and the correspondent of La Fontaine, in whom we might almost say was revived all that was finest in our witty preckux of the seventeenth century; Garth, the amusing humorist, who recalls the French burlesques, and whose works Voltaire so highly appreciated as to translate some of them; Arbuthnot, Gay, Lord Bolingbroke, Lord Chesterfield. The name of Swift may be omitted from the list, inasmuch as, in the first instance, if he borrowed at all from the French, it was rather from the writers of the sixteenth than from those of the seventeenth century, and, secondly, because Swift’s was too original and too individual a nature to allow of his being cited as an example of any kind of external influence. But here it is necessary to stop—in view of the well-known fact that, if the English humorists of the early eighteenth century certainly owe much to the French, the English “Sentimentalists” of the middle of the eighteenth century no less certainly exercised a very strong and deep influence over Diderot, Rousseau, and Sedaine.

This outline—for it is nothing more—indicates the general characteristics of the great French writers of the seventeenth century, who made themselves heard and felt throughout the European world of letters of that century and the earlier years of its successor. It was a glorious era in French history, however diversely it may be regarded according to the national standpoint of the student; as had been her lot in the thirteenth century, so again in the seventeenth France was unanimously acclaimed the intellectual sovereign of Europe, all eyes being turned towards her, and all ears listening for her action.

The predominant influence of French literature is everywhere perceptible; for a time its prestige blocked the way and arrested the action of every individual impulse, every national movement, in the literary history of every nation. Especially was this the case in Italy and Spain; it was also partially true of Germany and England. Perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing, in the long run, for a people to put itself to school for a time to another nation, or rather (since this is never really done) to enter upon a period of diligent, careful, and devoted study of the literature of another people. The French nation ought to be aware of this truth, for not less than four times in its history a period of imitation of foreign work has been succeeded by a brilliant, and, in some ways, a glorious, literary revival, by no means to be explained as a mere coincidence. First, after a searching study of the classics, came the Pleiade; then came the literature of 1660, after an intimate study of Italian and Spanish writers; then the period of Diderot and Rousseau, after a salutary enthusiasm for English literature; and lastly, the French Romantic revival, after a time of devotion to English and German literature.

It may be (for on these inevitably obscure and extremely complex matters it is better not to dogmatise) that contact with a foreign influence enriches, in a general way, the national literary sense; or, again, certain sides of the national mind which were unaware of their own existence or at all events hardly suspected it may awake and become conscious of their existence when they recognise themselves in the literature of a foreign land; or, yet again, the real essence of a nation’s intellectual life may be distilled and acquire fresh strength by the very reaction against a foreign literature that has for a time been injudiciously worshipped; and in this case, too, good arises, though indirectly.

For example, English humour will endure for all time; but we have seen that it was developed to a singularly high degree in England after contact with French wit; and again, in Germany, the national revolution brought about by Lessing and the great literary results that ensued for German literature were stimulated by French influence, which not only invigorated German wit, but incited it to the assertion of its own independence.

We are reminded of the saying of La Bruyère concerning strong and sturdy children who fight their nurses. Nurses give sustenance to their foster-children for the very purpose of making them strong and able, if need be, to fight their foster-mothers. They perform this task in perfect consciousness, and cheerfully undertake the risk which it implies. Whatever the explanation may be, for nearly a hundred years France occupied a position towards every other European nation analogous to that of a nurse; and, on the whole, she cannot assert that, when she remembers this experience, it is wholly unsatisfactory to her.



Lear H.L. Sidney Bossuet and his contemporaries.


Ella Katherine Sanders Jacques Bénigne Bossuet; a study

Molière: His Life and His Works

Corneille and Racine in England: a study of the English translations of the two Corneilles and Racine, with especial reference to their presentation on the English stage

La Fontaine and other French Fabulists