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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The Clovis of Desmarets de Saint Sorlin


The

dainty trifles of the school of preciosity fluttered at least during the sunshine of a day. Its ambitious epics, whatever attention they may have attracted in their time, cannot be said to have ever possessed real life. The great style is not to be attained by tagging platitudes with points. The _Saint Louis_ of Lemoyne, the _Clovis_ of Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, the _Alaric_ of Scudery, the _Charlemagne_ of Louis le Laboureur remain only as evidences of the vanity of misplaced ambition. During twenty years JEAN CHAPELAIN, a man of no mean ability in other fields, was occupied with his _La Pucelle d'Orleans_; twelve cantos at length appeared magnificently in 1656, and won a brief applause; the remaining twelve cantos lie still inedited. The matter of history was too humble for Chapelain's genius; history is ennobled by an allegorical intention; France becomes the soul of man; Charles, swayed between good and evil, is the human will; the Maid of Orleans is divine grace. The satire of Boileau, just in its severity, was hardly needed to slay the slain.

In the prose romances, which are epics emancipated from the trammels of verse, there was more vitality. Bishop Camus, the friend of Francois de Sales, had attempted to sanctify the movement which d'Urfe had initiated; but the spirit of the _Astree_ would not unite in a single stream with the spirit of the _Introduction a la Vie Devote_. Gomberville is remembered rather for the remorseless war which

he waged against the innocent conjunction _car_, never to be admitted into polite literature, than for his encyclopaedic romance _Polexandre_, in which geography is illustrated by fiction, as copious as it is fantastic; yet it was something to annex for the first time the ocean, with all its marvels, to the scenery of adventure. Gombauld, the _Beau Tenebreux_ of the Hotel de Rambouillet, secured a reading for his unreadable _Endymion_ by the supposed transparence of his allusions to living persons. Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin relieved the amorous exaltations of his _Ariane_, a tale of the time of Nero, by excursions which touch the borders of comedy. These are books on which the dust gathers thick in ancient libraries.

But the romances of LA CALPRENEDE and of GEORGES and MADELEINE DE SCUDERY might well be taken down by any lover of literature who possesses the virtue of fortitude. Since d'Urfe's day the taste for pastoral had declined; the newer romance was gallant and heroic. Legend or history supplied its framework; but the central motive was ideal love at odds with circumstance, love the inspirer of limitless devotion and daring. The art of construction was imperfectly understood; the narratives are of portentous length; ten, twelve, twenty volumes were needed to deploy the sentiments and the adventures. In _Cassandre_, in _Cleopatre_, in _Pharamond_, La Calprenede exhibits a kind of universal history; the dissolution of the Macedonian empire, the decline of the empire of Rome, the beginnings of the French monarchy are successively presented. But the chief personages are idealised portraits drawn from the society of the author's time. The spirit of the Hotel de Rambouillet is transferred to the period when the Scythian Oroondate was the lover of Statira, daughter of Darius; the Prince de Conde masks in _Cleopatre_ as Coriolan; Pharamond is the Grand Monarch in disguise. Notwithstanding the faded gallantries and amorous casuistry of La Calprenede's interminable romances, a certain spirit of real heroism, offspring of the writer's ardent imagination and bright southern temper, breathes through them. They were the delight of Mme. de Sevigne and of La Fontaine; even in the eighteenth century they were the companions of Crebillon, and were not forgotten by Rousseau.


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