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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Gathered the young revolters among them Vigny


and of metre. The poetical diction of the eighteenth century had grown colourless and abstract; general terms had been preferred to particular; simple, direct, and vivid words had been replaced by periphrases--the cock was "the domestic bird that announces the day." The romantic poets sought for words--whether noble or vulgar--that were coloured, concrete, picturesque. The tendency culminated with Gautier, to whom words were valuable, like gems, for their gleam, their iridescence, and their hardness. Lost treasures of the language were recovered; at a later date new verbal inventions were made. By degrees, also, grammatical structure lost some of its rigidity; sentences and periods grew rather than were built; phrases were alive, and learnt, if there were a need, to leap and bound. Verse was moulded by the feeling that inspired it; the melodies were like those of an Eolian harp, long-drawn or retracted as the wind swept or touched the strings. Symmetry was slighted; harmony was valued for its own sake and for its spiritual significance. Rich rhymes satisfied or surprised the ear, and the poet sometimes suffered through his curiosity as a virtuoso. By internal licences--the mobile cesura, new variations and combinations--the power of the alexandrine was marvellously enlarged; it lost its monotony and became capable of every achievement; its external restraints were lightened; verse glided into verse as wave overtaking wave. The accomplishment of these changes was a gradual process, of which Hugo and Sainte-Beuve were the chief initiators. Gautier and, in his elder years, Hugo contributed to the later evolution of romantic verse. The influence on poetical form of Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, was of minor importance.

The year 1822 is memorable; it saw the appearance of Vigny's _Poemes_, the _Odes_ of Hugo, which announced a new power in literature, though the direction of that power was not yet defined, and almost to the same moment belongs the indictment of classical literature by Henri Beyle ("Stendhal") in his study entitled _Racine et Shakespeare_. Around Charles Nodier, in the library of the Arsenal, gathered the young revolters--among them Vigny, Sainte-Beuve, Emile Deschamps, afterwards the translator of _Romeo and Juliet_ and _Macbeth_, his brother Antony, afterwards the translator of the _Divine Comedy_. The first Cenacle was formed; in the _Muse Francaise_ and in the _Globe_ the principles of the new literary school were expounded and illustrated. Victor Hugo looked on with friendly intentions, but still held aloof.

JEAN-PIERRE DE BERANGER (1780-1857) was not one of this company of poets. A child of Paris, of humble parentage, he discovered, after various experiments, that his part was not that of a singer of large ambitions. In 1815 his first collection of _Chansons_ appeared; the fourth appeared in 1833. Standing between the bourgeoisie and the people, he mediated between the popular and the middle-class sentiment. His songs flew like town sparrows from garret to garden; impudent or discreet, they nested everywhere. They seemed to be the embodied wisdom of good sense, good temper, easy morals, love without its ardours, poverty without its pains, patriotism without its fatigues, a religion on familiar terms with the _Dieu des bonnes gens_. In his elder years a Beranger legend had evolved itself; he was the sage of democracy, the Socrates of the people, the patriarch to whom pilgrims travelled to receive the oracles of liberal and benevolent philosophy. Notwithstanding his faults in the pseudo-classic taste, Beranger was skilled in the art of popular song; he knew the virtue of concision; he knew how to evolve swiftly his little lyric drama; he knew how to wing his verses with a volant refrain; he could catch the sentiment of the moment and of the multitude; he could be gay with touches of tenderness, and smile through a tear reminiscent of departed youth and pleasure and Lisette. For the good bourgeois he was a liberal in politics and religion; for the people he was a democrat who hated the Restoration, loved equality more than liberty, and glorified the legendary Napoleon, representative of democratic absolutism. In the history of politics the songs of Beranger count for much; in the history of literature the poet has a little niche of his own, with which one may be content who, if he had not in elder years supposed himself the champion of a literary revolution, might be called modest.


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