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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Etienne Pivert de SENANCOURT published in 1799 his Reveries


The

germs of new literary growths were in the soil; but the spring came slowly, and after the storms of Revolution were spent, a chill was in the air. Measureless hopes, and what had come of them? infinite desire, and so poor an attainment! A disciple of Rousseau, who shared in his sentiment without his optimistic faith, and who, like Rousseau, felt the beauty of external nature without Rousseau's sense of its joy, Etienne Pivert de SENANCOURT published in 1799 his _Reveries_, a book of disillusion, melancholy atheism, and stoical resistance to sadness, a resistance which he was unable to sustain. It was followed in 1804 by _Obermann_, a romance in epistolary form, in which the writer, disguised in the character of his hero, expresses a fixed and sterile grief, knowing not what he needs, nor what he loves, nor what he wills, lamenting without a cause and desiring without an object. The glories of Swiss landscape, which quicken his imagination, do not suffice to fill the void that is in his soul; yet perhaps in old age--if ever it come--he may resign himself to the infinite illusion of life. It is an indication of the current of the time that fifteen years later, when the _Libres Meditations_ appeared, Senancourt had found his way through a vague theopathy to autumnal brightness, late-born hope, and tranquil reconcilement with existence.

The work of the professional critics of the time--Geoffroy, De Feletz, Dussault, Hoffman--counts now for less than

the words of one who was only an amateur of letters, and a moralist who never moralised in public. JOSEPH JOUBERT (1754-1824), the friend of Fontanes and of Chateaubriand, a delicate spirit, filled with curiosity for ideas, and possessing the finest sense of the beauty of literature, lacked the strength and self-confidence needful in a literary career. He read everything; he published nothing; but the _Pensees_, which were collected from his manuscripts by Chateaubriand, and his letters reveal a thinker who loved the light, a studious dilettante charmed by literary grace, a writer tormented by the passion to put a volume in a page, a page in a phrase, a phrase in a word. Plato in philosophy, Virgil in poetry, satisfy his feeling for beauty and refinement of style. From Voltaire and Rousseau he turns away, offended by their lack of moral feeling, of sanity, of wisdom, of delicacy. A man of the eighteenth century, Joubert had lifted himself into thin clear heights of middle air, where he saw much of the past and something of the future; but the middle air is better suited for speculation than for action.

II

The movement towards the romantic theory and practice of art was fostered in the early years of the nineteenth century by two eminent writers--one a woman with a virile intellect, the other a man with more than a woman's imaginative sensibility--by GERMAINE DE STAEL and by Chateaubriand. The one exhibits the eighteenth century passing into the nineteenth, receiving new developments, yet without a breach of continuity; the other represents a reaction against the ideas of the age of the philosophers. Both opened new horizons--one, by the divinations of her ardent intelligence; the other, by his creative genius. Madame de Stael interpreted new ideas and defined a new theory of art. Chateaubriand was himself an extraordinary literary artist. The style of the one is that of an admirable improvisator, a brilliant and incessant converser; that of the other is at its best a miracle of studied invention, a harmony of colour and of sound. The genius of the one was quickened in brilliant social gatherings; a Parisian _salon_ was her true seat of empire. The genius of the other was nursed in solitude by the tempestuous sea or on the wild and melancholy moors.


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