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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

For Rotrou the drama of Italy supplied material


La Fontaine's language escapes from the limitations of the classical school of the seventeenth century; his manifold reading in elder French literature enriched his vocabulary; he seems to light by instinct upon the most exact and happiest word. Yet we know that the perfection of his art was attained only as the result of untiring diligence; indolent and careless as he was in worldly affairs, he was an indefatigable craftsman in poetry. His verse is as free as it is fine; it can accomplish whatever it intends; now it is light and swift, but when needful it can be grave and even magnificent:

"_Aurait-il imprime sur le front des etoiles Ce que la nuit des temps enferme dans ses voiles?_"

It is verse which depends on no mechanical rules imposed from without; its life and movement come from within, and the lines vary, like a breeze straying among blossoms, with every stress or relaxation of the writer's mood. While La Fontaine derives much from antiquity, he may be regarded as incarnating more than any other writer of his century the genius of France, exquisite in the proportion of his feeling and the expression of feeling to its source and cause. If we do not name him, with some of his admirers, "the French Homer," we may at least describe him, with Nisard, as a second Montaigne, "mais plus doux, plus aimable, plus naif que le premier," and with all the charm of verse superadded.

CHAPTER VI COMEDY AND TRAGEDY--MOLIERE--RACINE

I

The history of comedy, from Larivey to Moliere, is one of arrested development, followed by hasty and ill-regulated growth. During the first twenty-five years of the seventeenth century, comedy can hardly be said to have existed; whatever tended to beauty or elevation, took the form of tragi-comedy or pastoral; what was rude and popular became a farce. From the farce Moliere's early work takes its origin, but of the repertory of his predecessors little survives. Much, indeed, in these performances was left to the improvisation of the burlesque actors. Gros-Guillaume, Gaultier-Garguille, Turlupin, Tabarin, rejoiced the heart of the populace; but the _farces tabariniques_ can hardly be dignified with the name of literature.

In 1632 the comedy of intrigue was advanced by Mairet in his _Galanteries du Duc d'Ossone_. The genius of Rotrou, follower though he was of Plautus, tended towards the tragic; if he is really gay, it is in _La Soeur_ (1645), a bright tangle of extravagant incidents. For Rotrou the drama of Italy supplied material; the way to the Spanish drama was opened by d'Ouville, the only writer of the time devoted specially to comedy, in _L'Esprit Follet_ (1641); once opened, it became a common highway. Scarron added to his Spanish originals in _Jodelet_ and _Don Japhet d'Armenie_ his own burlesque humour. The comedy of contemporary manners appears with grace and charm in Corneille's early plays; the comedy of character, in his admirable _Le Menteur_. Saint-Evremond satirised literary affectations in _La Comedie des Academistes_; these and other follies of the time are presented with spirit in Desmaret's remarkable comedy, _Les Visionnaires_. If we add, for sake of its study of the peasant in the character of Mathieu Gareau, the farcical _Pedant Joue_ of Cyrano, we have named the most notable comedies of the years which preceded _Les Precieuses Ridicules_.


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