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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Marie Joseph Chenier 1764 1811

In his _Eglogues_ and his epic fragments he is a Greek or a demi-Greek, who has learnt directly from Homer, from the pastoral and idyllic poets of antiquity, and from the Anthology. The Greece of Chenier's imagination is the ideal Greece of his time, more finely outlined, more delicately coloured, more exquisitely felt by him than was possible with his contemporaries in an age of prose. "It is the landscape-painter's Greece," writes M. Faguet, "the Greece of fair river-banks, of gracious hill-slopes, of comely groups around a well-head or a stream, of harmonious theories beside the voiceful sea, of dancing choirs upon the luminous heights, under the blue heavens, which lift to ecstasy his spirit, light as the light breathing of the Cyclades."

In the _Iambes_, inspired by the emotions of the Revolution during his months of imprisonment, Chenier united modern passion with the beauty of classic form; satire in these loses its critical temper, and becomes truly lyrical. In his versification he attained new and alluring harmonies; he escaped from the rhythmical uniformity of eighteenth-century verse, gliding sinuously from line to line and from strophe to strophe. He did over again for French poetry the work of the Pleiade, but he did this as one who was a careful student and a critic of Malherbe.

BOOK THE FIFTH 1789-1850



The literature of the Revolution and the Empire is that of a period of transition. Madame de Stael and Chateaubriand announce the future; the writers of an inferior rank represent with declining power the past, and give some faint presentiment of things to come. The great political concussion was not favourable to art. Abstract ideas united with the passions of the hour produced poetry which was of the nature of a declamatory pamphlet. Innumerable pieces were presented on the stage, but their literary value is insignificant.

Marie-Joseph Chenier (1764-1811), brother of the great poet who perished on the scaffold, attempted to inaugurate a school of national tragedy in his _Charles IX._; neither he nor the public knew history or possessed the historical sentiment--his tragedy was a revolutionary "school of kings." Arnault, Legouve, Nepomucene Lemercier were applauded for their classic dignity, or their depth of characterisation, or their pomp of language. The true tragedy of the time was enacted in the streets and in the clubs. Comedy was welcome in days of terror as at all other times. Collin d'Harleville drew mirth from the infirmities and follies of old age in _Le Vieux Celibataire_ (1792); Fabre d'Eglantine moralised Moliere to the taste of Rousseau by exhibiting a Philante debased by egoism and accommodations with the world; Louis Laya, during the trial of the King, satirised the pretenders to patriotism in _L'Ami des Lois_, yet escaped the vengeance of the Jacobins.

Historical comedy, a novelty in art, was seen in Lemercier's _Pinto_ (1799), where great events are reduced to petty dimensions, and the destiny of nations is satirically viewed as a vulgar game of trick-track. In his _Christophe Colomb_ of 1809 he dared to despise the unities of time and place, and excited a battle, not bloodless, among the spectators. Exotic heroes suited the imperial regime. Baour-Lormian, the translator of _Ossian_ (1801), converted the story of Joseph in Egypt into a frigid tragedy; Hector and Tippoo Sahib, Mahomet II., and Ninus II. (with scenes of Spanish history transported to Assyria) diversified the stage. The greatest success was that of Raynouard's _Les Templiers_ (1805); the learned author wisely applied his talents in later years to romance philology. Among the writers of comedy--Andrieux, Etienne, Duval, and others--Picard has the merit of reproducing the life of the day, satirising social classes and conditions with vivacity and careless mirth. In melodrama, Pixerecourt contributed unconsciously to prepare the way for the romantic stage. Desaugiers, with his gift for gay plebeian song, was the master of the vaudeville.

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