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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

And once in opposition to Mirabeau


Song of a higher kind had been heard twice or thrice during the Revolution. The lesser Chenier's _Chanson du Depart_ has in it a stirring rhetoric for soldiers of the Republic sent forth to war with the acclaim of mother and wife and maiden, old men and little children. Lebrun-_Pindare_, in his ode _Sur le Vaisseau le Vengeur_, does not quite stifle the sense of heroism under his flowers of classical imagery. Rouget de Lisle's improvised verse and music, _La Marseillaise_ (1792), was an inspiration which equally lent itself to the enthusiasm of victory and the gallantries of despair. The pseudo-epics and the descriptive poetry of the Empire are laboured and lifeless. But Creuze de Lesser, in his _Chevaliers de la Table-Ronde_ (1812) and other poems, and Baour-Lormian, in his _Poesies Ossianiques_, widened the horizons of literature. The _Panhypocrisiade_ of Lemercier, published in 1819, but written several years earlier--an "infernal comedy of the sixteenth century"--is an amazing chaos of extravagance, incompetence, and genius; it bears to Hugo's _Legende des Siecles_ the relation which the megatherium or mastodon may bear to some less monstrous analogues.

If we are to look for a presentiment of Lamartine's poetry, we may find it in the harmonious melancholy of Chenedolle, in the grace of Fontanes' stanzas, in the timid elegiac strains of Millevoye. The special character of the poetry of the Empire lies in its combination of the tradition derived from the eighteenth century, with a certain reaching-forth to an ideal, by-and-by to be realised, which it could not attain. Its comparative sterility is not to be explained solely or chiefly by the vigilance of the imperial censure of publications. The preceding century had lost the large feeling for composition, for beauty and severity of form; attention was fixed upon details. If invention ceased to create, it must necessarily trick out what was commonplace in ingenuities of decorative periphrasis. Literature in the eighteenth century had almost ceased to be art, and had become a social and political weapon; under the imperial rule this militant function was withdrawn; what remained for literature but frigid ambitions or petty adornments, until a true sense of art was once again recovered?

The Revolution closed the _salons_ and weakened the influence of cultivated society upon literature. Journalism and the pamphlet filled the place left vacant by the _salons_. The _Decade Philosophique_ was the organ of the ideologists, who applied the conceptions of Condillac and his followers to literary and philosophical criticism. In 1789 the _Journal des Debats_ was founded. Much ardour of feeling, much vigour of intellect was expended in the columns of the public press. Among the contributors were Andre Chenier, Mallet du Pin, Suard, Rivarol. With a little ink and a guillotine, Camille Desmoulins hoped to render France happy, prosperous, and republican. Heady, vain, pleasure-loving, gay, bitter, sensitive, with outbreaks of generosity and moments of elevation, he did something to redeem his crimes and follies by pleas for justice and mercy in his journal, _Le Vieux Cordelier_, and died, with Danton as his companion, after a frenzy of resistance and despair.

The orators of the Revolution glorified doctrinaire abstractions, overflowed with sentimental humanity, and decorated their harangues with heroic examples of Roman virtue. The most abstract, colourless, and academic was Rousseau's disciple, who took the "Supreme Being" under his protection, Robespierre. The fervid spirit of the Girondins found its highest expression in Vergniaud, who, with infirm character, few ideas, and a hesitating policy, yet possessed a power of vibrating speech. Danton, the Mirabeau of the populace, was richer in ideas, and with sudden accesses of imagination thundered in words which tended to action; but in general the Mountain cared more for deeds than words. The young Saint-Just thrilled the Convention with icy apothegms which sounded each, short and sharp, like the fall of the knife. Barnave, impetuous in his temper, was clear and measured in discourse, and once in opposition to Mirabeau, defending the royal prerogative, rose beyond himself to the height of a great occasion.


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