Home  »  library  »  course  »  Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: French Literature from the Renaissance

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: French Literature from the Renaissance

By Adolphe Cohn (1851–1930)

FRANCE has had two languages and two literatures. Leaving aside the separate language and literature of Southern France, and also what was written on French soil in the international language of Europe, viz., Latin, we must acknowledge that Old French and Modern French are, although closely related to each other, two languages apart from each other and that the literature which hails as its masterpiece the ‘Song of Roland’ is not the same as the literature which presents to the world as its greatest figures Molière, Voltaire, and Victor Hugo.

The language in which this literature is written was created in the early part of the seventeenth century. What was written before that time at once sounds archaic to modern ears; what was written since then is written in the language spoken and written by the French of our own day. Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ became a grammatical puzzle to Charles Cotton, his English translator of the late seventeenth century. Descartes’s ‘Discourse on Method,’ written only half a century after the ‘Essays,’ remains to this day an admirably lucid specimen of Modern French.

First Period: Later Sixteenth Century (1560–1600)

This Modern French Literature begins, although its own idiom was not yet fully developed, in the latter half of the sixteenth century. It is mainly an outcome of the movement of the Renaissance. It is due to the quickening of the French mind by its contact with the masterpieces of Greek and Latin literature and to an ambition to emulate, equal, and possibly surpass them. Its chief figures are in poetry Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585), and in prose Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), to whom ought to be added Jacques Amyot (1513–1593), who gave the intellectual public just the kind of food it craved in his admirable translation of Plutarch’s works.

French society is then all in a ferment. It is ambitious; it has not yet brought itself to the condition of impressive unity which will be the chief characteristic of the next century; it is divided against itself; this is the period of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, or Huguenots. In literature, as in everything else, it tries to reach in every direction the very summit of achievement. No poet was ever more ambitious than Ronsard. He was to be, and by his contemporaries was actually considered as being, the equal of the Greek giants, of Homer and Pindar. He manfully strove to enable French poetry to express the grandest as well as the most pathetic moods, and he sometimes succeeded.

Montaigne, in appearance at least, is far less ambitious than Ronsard. He is certainly the most unpretentious of writers. He intends, so he says, to write only about himself so that his friends may remember him better after he is gone. But this self means to him mankind itself, because “each man carries in himself an exemplar of human nature.” He also represents his time, but in a way all his own. His contemporaries fly at each other’s throats on the slightest provocation; they have no hesitation in murdering each other for any difference of opinion, especially of religious belief. He is the bearer of the cure-all for such evil. His close acquaintance with all the great writers of classical antiquity, his rich experience of human life have taught him that men’s minds have always differed, will always differ from each other. Therefore, why attach so much importance to these differences? But violence is always lurking at our door. Let us therefore be undisturbed by it and remember that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Montaigne’s ‘Essays,’ which were originally published by him in 1580, but which did not appear in their complete form before the posthumous edition of 1595, and Amyot’s translation of Plutarch’s ‘Lives of Illustrious Men’ are the books which will provide the men and women of the succeeding age, the great period of Classical French Literature, with their chief and most universally digested intellectual pabulum.


  • 1549Du Bellay, publishes his ‘Defence and Illustration of the French Language.’
  • 1550Ronsard publishes his first ‘Odes.’
  • 1552Jodelle’s ‘Cleopatra’ performed.
  • 1559Amyot publishes his translation of Plutarch’s ‘Lives.’
  • 1560Ronsard publishes his collected works.
  • 1571, Aug. 24thMassacre of Saint-Bartholomew’s night.
  • 1580First two books of Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ published.
  • 1588Third book of same published.
  • 1589Henry III., King of France, murdered.
  • 1595Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ published complete.
  • 1610Henry IV., King of France, murdered.
  • Reading Recommended

  • Ronsard
  • Amyot
  • Montaigne
  • Second Period: The Great Age of Classical Literature

    I. Earlier Seventeenth Century (1600–1660)

    The seventeenth century is, in France, in everything except in what relates to unbounded admiration for the classical models of ancient times, a complete reaction against the preceding age. The sixteenth century is individualistic in the extreme; the seventeenth-century individual feels that he is never safe except when fulfilling the orders of some higher authority, the King, the Church, or simply human Reason. Just as the citizen, or rather the subject, must be guided by civil and political laws, so must the artist be bound to obedience to artistic laws and principles. Literature especially has no room for individual fantasy or for the expression of individual sentiment.

    Its first great writer is a philosopher, René Descartes (1596–1650), who was also a great mathematician. For Descartes, life is but an intellectual phenomenon. Another might say, “I suffer, therefore I am,” or “I love, therefore I am.” He says, “I think, therefore I am.” And the thinking faculty, the power to distinguish between truth and error, viz., Reason, must rule the human mind, and embodied in the Divine Person, rules the Universe. He wrote mostly in Latin, but in 1637 published in French his ‘Discourse on Method,’ from which all his contemporaries as well as their immediate descendants learned the art of thinking.

    The poet François de Malherbe (1555–1628), who slightly preceded him, is not exactly a great writer. And yet he occupies a great, a prominent place in French literature. This is due to the unswerving energy with which he followed, or rather pointed to, the main currents of the age. His mission he understood to be to make the French language absolutely translucent, French poetry law-abiding and as clear as prose, and to place correctness of diction and style not in the possession only of the few but within the reach of whoever cared to acquire it. So some of his stanzas, especially in his celebrated ‘Consolation to Du Périer,’ though composed three hundred years ago, read as if they had been written but yesterday.

    Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) follows both of these writers and opens the era of great literary masterpieces written in the language known as Modern French. Although far from unsuccessful in comedy, Corneille is essentially a tragic poet. In fact he is often called the Father of French Tragedy. He represents a generation which exalted the power and dignity of the human will. His characters refuse to be carried away by passion. They always have to justify their acts before the tribunal of Reason. One of his characters, Augustus in ‘Cinna,’ exclaims: “I am master of my own self as I am master of the universe, I am that; it is my will to be so!” This unbending will would not quite have befitted a spokesman of the courtly retainers of King Louis XIV.; but Louis XIV.’s influence cannot show itself in Corneille’s works for the very simple reason that every one of Corneille’s masterpieces had been written before the Great King was ten years old.

    His mind feasted on great deeds. These he found in history and mainly in that part of history with which Frenchmen in his time were most familiar, i.e., Roman history. It is to be noted, however, that the subject of the first great play that made him prominent, of the earliest play of his that has remained on the stage to the present day, ‘The Cid,’ is drawn from the legends of Spain; and also that one of his grandest tragic efforts, if not the grandest of all, ‘Polyeucte,’ was found by him in the inexhaustible treasure house of Christian martyrdom. In placing upon the stage men and women who by sheer force of reasoning lift their souls up to the level of heroic deeds, Corneille was a true representative of the generation to which the illustrious Cardinal Richelieu belonged and which in 1648, at the close of the Thirty Years’ War, made France the foremost power of Continental Europe. The men and women of that generation found just the types which they loved and admired in the characters of ‘Horace,’ ‘Cinna,’ ‘The Death of Pompey,’ ‘Nicomède,’ and ‘Polyeucte.’

    These men and women soon found a form of Christian doctrine, hostile to any form of self-indulgence, which admirably fitted in with their heroic instincts. It is the doctrine known as Jansenism, of which the most eloquent expounder was Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).

    Pascal owes his place in French literature, a place second to none, to two works, the latter of them posthumous, ‘The Provincial Letters’ (1656–1658) and his ‘Thoughts’ (1670). The former is a series of eighteen imaginary letters, supposedly addressed to a provincial gentleman and intended to make him acquainted with the real purport of the struggle then going on between the Jansenists and their uncompromising enemies, the Jesuits. Through the ‘Letters’ better than by the help of any historical work we witness the condition of the families in the most educated part of the French middle class, having to decide for themselves between the easy-going religion of one set and the stern, uncompromising attitude of the other. Writing with the purpose of winning for his friends the support of French society, Pascal wrote with a wit, an eloquence, a clearness of statement, a seemingly naïve persuasiveness which made of his ‘Provincial Letters’ the first really great work of the newly formed French prose. Their influence upon the idiom was as great as their influence upon the ideas of the French people. Nothing in French journalism, for they represent to us what stood in the place of journalism in seventeenth-century France, has ever outshone their brilliance, which is as great to-day as two hundred and fifty years ago.

    Pascal’s ‘Thoughts’ appeared only in 1670; that is, eight years after the author’s death. This first edition, moreover, differs greatly from Pascal’s original text, which was not known until more than one hundred and fifty years later. They consist of fragments of a work which Pascal had planned, but never completed, a demonstration of the truth of the Christian religion which he intended to call an ‘Apology of the Christian Religion.’ His object was to confute all the objections raised against his view of religion by agnostics, Jews, and Protestants. It is directed mainly against scepticism, however, and intends to place Faith, as a heart instinct, above powerless human Reason, as a means of reaching the higher truths. His chief characteristics are eloquence and an astounding cleverness in exposing all the weak and selfish motives man may have in choosing for himself not the most correct but the most commodious forms of thinking.

    This review of the literature of the period would not be complete without mention being made of the ‘Memoirs’ of a man who at one time played a conspicuous political part, the celebrated, perhaps we had better say the notorious Cardinal de Retz (1613–1679). Far from absolutely truthful in the detail of events, these ‘Memoirs,’ which Retz wrote in his retirement, between 1671 and 1675, and which relate to events then more than twenty years old, give us nevertheless an admirable picture of the spirit of the time. They are the most complete picture of the period in French history which immediately precedes the assumption of absolute power by Louis XIV. It is only after the period thus closed that it becomes correct to enclose events, either political or literary, under the comprehensive but often misused term “The Century of Louis XIV.”


  • 1599Malherbe writes his ‘Consolation to Du Périer.’
  • 1608‘L’Astrée’ published by D’Urfé.
  • 1610Louis XIII. becomes King of France.
  • 1630The works of Malherbe published.
  • 1636First performance of ‘The Cid,’ by Corneille.
  • 1637Descartes publishes his ‘Discourse on Method.’
  • 1637The French Academy founded.
  • 1640Corneille produces ‘Horace’ and ‘Cinna.’
  • 1643Corneille produces ‘The Death of Pompey.’
  • 1643Louis XIV. becomes King of France.
  • 1648Treaties of Westphalia.
  • 1656–8Pascal publishes his ‘Provincial Letters.’
  • 1670First edition of Pascal’s ‘Thoughts.’
  • Reading Recommended

    The Classical Period (Continued)
    II. The Age of Louis XIV. (1660–1715)

    The latter part of the seventeenth century, especially the period from 1660 to 1691 is a period of extraordinary fecundity. Except in epic and lyric poetry, the former of which had had its great period in France during the Middle Ages, while the latter was not to reach the greatest heights until the Romantic period of the nineteenth century, it is great in practically every form of literature. It is conspicuously so in the drama in which it brought forth the greatest master of comedy that the world has ever known, Molière, and a tragic poet deserving to be considered a not unworthy rival of Corneille, Jean Racine.

    When we add to these names those of La Fontaine, who raised the Fable to the rank of a great literary form, of Boileau, one of the greatest masters of literary criticism, of Bossuet, perhaps unequaled anywhere and at any time as a religious orator, of delineators of human conduct like La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, of epistolary writers like Madame de Sévigné; when we remember that their period of literary productiveness coincided with a period of almost equal greatness in architecture, in sculpture, that it brought forth such painters as Rigaud, Lesueur, Poussin, and Claude Lorraine, that France, at the same time, reached a degree of internal wealth and external power such as no European nation had possessed since the downfall of the Roman Empire,—we can understand that Europe for a while should have stood aghast face to face with such dazzling brilliance, that the man then at the head of the French state should have struck the world as emphatically the Great King, and that his subjects, in all their utterances should have given expression to a feeling of reverence for the sacred royal person which marks this period in French history as the climax of the royal institution.

    This alone explains that writers such as those named above should have left out of their activity one of the most important subjects of thought, the political activity of their own country. Politics were the divinely allotted task of the King; like the rest of the nation they were satisfied to leave it entirely in his hands. What subject attracted them then? Man in the manifestations of his various moods, love, ambition, cupidity, vain-gloriousness, hypocrisy, or uncompromising sincerity, in fact all the various and often contradictory instincts the baffling repertory of which fills the pages of Montaigne’s immortal ‘Essays.’

    Nowhere, save in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, was man so faithfully portrayed as in the comedies of Jean Baptiste Poquelin, better known under his assumed name of Molière (1622–1673). Like all the other great writers of the period, with the exception of one or two who belonged to the aristocracy, Molière sprang from the well-to-do and hard-working middle class, which was then the mainstay of French prosperity. The decline of the aristocracy is already plainly visible. The time of the plain man of the people has not come yet. After a period of active vagrancy at the head of a company of comedians, all like himself stage-struck youths coming from good families, and in which he combined the activities of manager, chief performer and poet, he settles in Paris just a few years before Louis XIV. becomes, through the death of the all powerful prime minister Mazarin, the real head of the State. He undergoes then the refining influences of the Court and society, and his masterpieces follow each other in incredibly quick succession. Leaving out the early works, which belong to his formative period, and even his ‘Précieuses Ridicules’ (1659), his first Parisian production, a marvelously laughable one-act skit upon one of the most ridiculous fads of the time, all his great work is done between the year 1664 in which he begins his immortal portrait of the Hypocrite, Tartufe, and the year 1673 in the second month of which he dies just after the production of his ‘Malade Imaginaire.’ His portrayal, with the slight exaggeration required by stage optics, of all human foibles is remarkably faithful and at the same time irresistibly laughable. In ‘L’Avare,’ in the ‘Bourgeois Gentilhomme,’ in ‘Les Femmes Savantes’ he raises comedy to a plane which it had not known since the times of Aristophanes and Menander. But his chief glory lies in his indomitable fight against hypocrisy, which centres around the year 1666, and to which we owe three immortal masterpieces, one in prose, ‘Don Juan’ (1666), ‘Tartufe,’ begun in 1664 and completed in 1667, and the ‘Misanthrope’ (1666). But open Molière where you will, and, after welcoming with healthy laughter the ridiculous display of his characters, you will stop suddenly and wonder whether these ridiculous sides of human nature cannot be found lurking in some dark corner of your own beloved self.

    Jean Racine (1639–1699) is not, like Molière, a world poet; he does not represent all climes and all ages; he is essentially a Frenchman of the seventeenth century. He wrote for a courtly set and the court atmosphere is discoverable in all his writings. But wherever man is, the human heart can be studied and in this study Racine is one of the keenest specialists. He was ambitious, and also passionately fond of women, and thus it happens that ambition and love, overmastering love, are delineated with an expert hand in his harmonious Alexandrines. There is throbbing life in his tragedies, ‘Andromache,’ ‘Britannicus,’ ‘Mithridates,’ ‘Iphigenia’; his own evolution betrays itself in his work, and his ‘Phædra,’ the last play produced by him upon the stage, shows a more mature, more self-chastising moral sense than the preceding ones. And his last work, ‘Athalie,’ strongly religious and biblical as it is, betrays also great concern in the general questions upon which depends the happiness of the people. Add to this that as a poet he was strongly influenced by the noble harmony of the Greek poets whom he knew better than did any other of the great French masters, and we can see why he was called, and not erroneously, the most Greek of all French poets.

    There is one more poet in this galaxy of French writers, Jean de la Fontaine (1621–1695). He wrote a good deal, tales, comedies, narrative poems, but he lives mainly by his ‘Fables.’ The other fabulists, at least in European literature, are dry beside him; they are the slaves of their moral purpose. He knows how to forget it and to let his love of nature betray itself in the picture of his landscape and the portrayal of his characters. His animals and his plants, his wolves and his lambs, his foxes, his dogs, his lions, his donkeys, his oak trees, even, and his flexible reeds are men in rather transparent disguises, it is true; and yet they are also beasts and plants. How is the combination effected? Simply by the action of this subtle chemical, so easy to recognize, so hard to analyze, which has received the name of poetry. No need quoting titles here,—the catalogue would be too long. When you come across a fable of La Fontaine read it and you will at once hunt for another.

    Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711), known, too, as Boileau-Despréaux, also wrote in verse, and yet it would perhaps not be quite correct to call him a poet. Had he lived in the nineteenth century, when criticism had become an accepted form of literary expression, instead of the seventeenth, he would very likely have written in prose. Thus Sainte-Beuve, himself a poet of no small merit, was satisfied with prose for his labors as a literary critic, and to this he owes to-day his very high place in French Literature. But in Boileau’s time everything that related to pure literature had to be written in verse. Bearing this in mind, we will find in Boileau a great master of literary criticism. We shall not always, or even often, adopt the principles defended by him, but he had to an unusual degree a quality which his century rated very high and justly so, viz., good taste. We must remember that the great authors about whom we are writing were not without rivals, some of whom enjoyed extraordinary popularity. Boileau’s task it was to sort the wheat and the chaff of literature, to praise and encourage the great writers, and to flay the rest, and this, in his ‘Satires,’ in his ‘Epistles,’ in his ‘Art of Poetry’ he did so thoroughly that all his verdicts have been ratified by posterity, that the writers whom he praised are those whose works constitute the literary legacy of their times while those whom he assailed or ridiculed would have fallen into utter oblivion were it not for the place given by him to their names in his own verses.

    If from poetry we turn to prose, the first name we must write is that of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704). Bossuet is the great expounder of the religious, moral, social, and we might even say political ideas of his time. He was a priest, a bishop, and no other divine ever won for himself a place anywhere near Bossuet in French literature. He was not only a writer; he was also, we ought perhaps to say primarily, a speaker. As an orator he is second to none among those who have expressed themselves in French.

    He dealt with history first in his ‘Discourse upon Universal History,’ a masterly exposition of the facts of the history of the world from the earliest times to the death of Charlemagne viewed from the standpoint of a providential control of human events intended to bring about the triumph of the religion of Christ. Later, as part of his controversy with the adherents of Protestantism, he published a remarkable ‘History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches.’ It should be coupled with his ‘Exposition of the Christian Doctrine,’ which is, of course, a defense of the Roman Catholic view of religion. But to-day we look for him most in his funeral orations and his sermons. Among the former two stand pre-eminently as setting forth his view, which was shared by his contemporaries, of the government of the world and of the direction of human life. They are the funeral orations of ‘Henrietta of France, Queen of England,’ the daughter of Henry IV. of France and the wife of Charles I. of England, and of that of her daughter, ‘Henrietta of England, Duchess of Orleans.’ Add to these such sermons as those on ‘Death,’ on ‘The Dignity of the Poor in the Church,’ on ‘The Unity of the Church,’ and we will know which ideals guided the society of his time, when it obeyed principles and not simply, as too often happens in human affairs, passions and prejudices.

    He is not the only great divine of his time; others displayed great gifts as orators and expounders of religion: Bourdaloue, Fléchier, Massillon, Mascaron, and especially Fénelon (1651–1715), at first his disciple and later his rival and opponent. But more than by all his religious works Fénelon is remembered to-day for his ‘Adventures of Telemachus,’ a Utopian, political, and social romance written for the benefit of the author’s pupil, the Duke of Burgundy, grandson and prospective heir of Louis XIV.

    Laymen also, following the example set by Pascal, wrote upon morals and manners, two especially, La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680) and La Bruyère (1645–1696). ‘The Maxims and Moral Reflections’ of the former and the ‘Characters’ of the latter show us how deeply interested the men and women of the period were in everything that concerns human conduct. The author of the ‘Maxims’ saw nothing in the actions of men, even in those whom we extol as prodigies of heroism and self-denial, but the products of self-love and selfishness. La Bruyère is not so dogmatic. He draws a picture of society as he sees it, and knows how to express his admiration for what is beautiful and his contempt for what is not. La Bruyère, however, does not particularize facts, he moralizes about the general trend of things. For detailed pictures we must go to the epistolary writer and the memorialist. Of both of these we find admirable specimens among seventeenth-century writers.

    Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné (1626–1696) won a place for herself in literature by a voluminous correspondence which deals with nearly everything that happened in France during the last thirty or thirty-five years of her life. Nothing can be more vivid, more lifelike, more sprightly than her narratives. She informs us, she amuses us, and, as she was after all a noble nature, she makes us love her.

    The Duke de Saint-Simon (1675–1755) makes us respect him because of his sturdy uprightness. It cannot be said that he makes us love him. But what is certain is that he makes us hate his enemies. Chronologically he hardly belongs to the seventeenth century, but his cast of mind and his passions clearly place him among the men of that period. His ‘Memoirs,’ moreover, deal mostly with the reign of Louis XIV., which ended only in 1715 and protracted into the early eighteenth century the sway of the ideas of the preceding age. With two such witnesses as Madame de Sévigné and Saint-Simon, we know the stage, the scenery, the actors of the human drama better than through any two writers of any other period in history.

    In the permanent literature of the seventeenth century the novel occupies a very subordinate place. A number of novels were produced, however, beginning with ‘L’Astrée’ of Honoré d’Urfé, which met with extraordinary success, but they were made to meet only the temporary taste of the society of their time, and their vogue soon passed away. What happened to ‘L’Astrée’ happened also to the ‘Grand Cyrus’ and to the ‘Clélie’ of Mademoiselle de Scudéry, which appeared in the middle of the century. These novels are read, or rather consulted, to-day only by the close student of seventeenth-century moods and manners. The only novel of the period which still finds readers, which is reprinted to this day, is ‘The Princess of Cléves’ by Madame de La Fayette (1634–1693). It is a short psychological narrative, of a high moral, even heroic inspiration, and full, moreover, of the spirit of the times in which it was written. Chronologically speaking, it may be considered the first of modern French novels.


  • 1659Molière produces his ‘Précieuses Ridicules.’
  • 1661Mazarin dies and Louis XIV. assumes the government of France.
  • 1664The Palace of Versailles, just erected by Mansard, becomes the residence of the King of France.
  • 1666Molière’s ‘Misanthrope’ acted.
  • 1667Racine’s ‘Andromache’ acted.
  • 1669Bossuet delivers the Funeral Oration on Henrietta of England and becomes tutor of the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV.
  • 1669Molière’s ‘Tartufe’ and Racine’s ‘Britannicus’ acted.
  • 1677Racine’s ‘Phædra’ acted.
  • 1678La Fontaine’s ‘Fables’ completed.
  • 1678Treaty of Nimwegen signed. Climax of Louis XIV.’s power.
  • 1685Louis XIV. repeals the Edict of Nantes.
  • 1689Racine’s ‘Esther’ acted at Saint Cyr.
  • 1691Racine’s ‘Athalie’ printed and privately acted.
  • 1696First edition of the ‘Dictionary of the French Academy’ published.
  • 1715Death of Louis XIV.
  • Reading Recommended

    Third Period: The Era of Progress and Enlightenment

    I. Mid-Eighteenth Century (1715–1750)

    The seventeenth century is a period of stability; the eighteenth, an age of progress, not yet in institutions but in the ideas upon which they rest. Under Louis XIV., France, except in the last years of his reign, is fully satisfied with its condition and thinks, as it were, of everything in the world that does not concern politics and the organization of society. Under his successor the spirit of dissatisfaction is abroad and men very early begin to think of the social and political conditions required for the existence of happiness in the human race. Such a state of mind is sure to breed reformers, possibly revolutionary reformers, and the eighteenth century did indeed breed this kind of writers and serves as a preface to the French Revolution.

    The greatest literary name of the century, the name which stands pre-eminently before posterity as representative of the spirit of the period is the name of Voltaire. But it is only by degrees that the career of Voltaire became that of an intellectual reformer. In the earlier part of the century, among the intellectual forces turning the minds of the people into new channels of thought, the greatest name is that of Montesquieu.

    Charles de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu (1689–1755), such is the name of the celebrated author of the ‘Spirit of Laws’ published by him in 1748. He is the man of three books, ‘The Persian Letters,’ the ‘Considerations upon the Romans,’ and the famous ‘Spirit of Laws.’ The first is a satire of the manners of his own time; the second, an attempt to view history from a philosophical standpoint. The last, one of the greatest works of political philosophy, taught all Continental Europe the principles of civil and political liberty.

    During the same period François Marie Arouet, universally known by his assumed name of Voltaire (1694–1778) begins his astonishing literary career. Before 1750 he is mainly a man of letters, ambitious to make for himself a name by the side of Corneille and Racine. To this period belong his best tragedies, the best in French after the masterpieces of the preceding age, ‘Brutus,’ ‘Zaïre,’ ‘Mérope,’ some of which betray the influence of Shakespeare, and his epic poem, ‘The Henriad,’ not a great work by any means, but an eloquent plea for religious toleration, which was enthusiastically applauded by the public of his time. The same period shows him a remarkable historian in his ‘History of Charles XII., King of Sweden,’ and a thinker bold enough to present to the French the English nation as having managed to combine national power with the defense of liberty and public rights. This was done in his ‘Letters Concerning the English Nation.’

    At the same time Marivaux (1688–1763) introduces upon the stage a new form of comedy in which love conversations are carried on with a degree of subtlety unknown in previous periods, and the best specimens of which will be found in ‘The Legacy,’ ‘The False Confidences,’ and ‘The Play of Love and Chance.’

    From a purely literary standpoint the most curious development of the period will be found in the growing importance of the novel. In the eighteenth century we may almost say that every man of letters wrote novels. The ‘Persian Letters’ are in form a novel; Voltaire wrote novels; so did Diderot and Rousseau. No wonder that really great novelists, men who wrote novels, good novels, and little else, also appeared. We have two of them in the early eighteenth century, Lesage (1668–1747) and Prévost (1697–1763). Lesage, in his ‘Gil Blas’ gives us a wonderfully varied picture of human conditions, and Prévost, in his ‘Manon Lescaut,’ a love story in which the language of love is no longer made up, as in the novels of the previous century, of insipid exaggerations, but is throbbing with real life.


  • 1715Accession of Louis XV.; beginning of the Duke of Orleans’ Regency.
  • 1721Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’ published.
  • 1723End of the Regency.
  • 1726Voltaire an exile in England.
  • 1728Voltaire’s ‘Henriade’ published in England.
  • 1729Voltaire returns to France.
  • 1732Voltaire’s ‘Zaïre’ performed.
  • 1734Voltaire’s ‘Letters Concerning the English Nation’ published.
  • 1735Lesage’s ‘Gil Blas’ completed.
  • 1735Prévost’s ‘Manon Lescaut’ published.
  • 1748Montesquieu publishes his ‘Spirit of Laws.’
  • 1749Buffon publishes the first two volumes of his ‘Natural History.’
  • 1750Voltaire goes to Berlin.
  • Reading Recommended

    II. Before the Revolution (1750–1789)

    In 1749 Buffon (1707–1788), just one year after the appearance of Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of Laws,’ publishes the first two volumes of his ‘Natural History.’ In 1750 Diderot (1713–1784) and d’Alembert (1717–1783) undertake the publication of the ‘Encyclopædia’ in the pages of which new and potent ideas will be found expressed upon countless subjects by a veritable army of specialists. The time seems to have come for a general onslaught upon the ideas of previous ages.

    This onslaught is led by Voltaire. He ceases to be a mere man of letters; he becomes what his time calls a philosopher. He first revolutionized history, in his ‘Century of Louis XIV.’ and in his ‘Essay on Manners.’ He uses the form of the novel in ‘Zadig,’ in ‘Candide,’ in ‘Nicromegas,’ as a vehicle for his revolutionary ideas. He expresses them in philosophical poems, and finally in countless skits, essays, and parodies, which fill numerous volumes of his works under the comprehensive and meaningless title of ‘Miscellanies.’

    Diderot, at times, passes him in boldness, for instance in his ‘Nephew of Rameau,’ which, perhaps fortunately for him, was not published until after his death. Soon Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) advocates pure democracy in his ‘Social Compact,’ a return to nature in his treatise on education, ‘Émile,’ and the sovereign rights of passion in his novel, ‘Julia, or the New Héloïse’ in which love speaks with enthralling eloquence entirely new to French ears.

    Society, it is clear, no longer believes the same things as in the previous age. Old beliefs can be now ridiculed on the stage. This is done by Beaumarchais (1732–1799—the same dates as for George Washington) in his two plays ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘Figaro’s Wedding.’ The minds of men have changed. Institutions will change now. The last work that breathes the spirit of eighteenth-century society, the celebrated love romance of ‘Paul and Virginia’ of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814), is published in 1787. The times are ripe for the Revolution.


  • 1751Voltaire publishes ‘The Age of Louis XIV.’
  • 1751The ‘Encyclopædia’ begun.
  • 1756Voltaire publishes his ‘Essay on Manners.’
  • 1761Rousseau publishes ‘The New Héloïse.’
  • 1762Rousseau publishes ‘The Social Compact,’ and ‘Émile.’
  • 1764Voltaire undertakes the defense of the Calas family and publishes his ‘Philosophical Dictionary.’
  • 1774Louis XV. dies.
  • 1775Beaumarchais’ ‘Barber of Seville’ produced.
  • 1778Voltaire and Rousseau die.
  • 1784Beaumarchais’ ‘Figaro’s Wedding’ performed.
  • 1787Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s ‘Paul and Virginia’ published.
  • Reading Recommended

    III. The Revolutionary and Transition Period (1789–1820)

    During the Revolution the men of France acted more than they spoke or wrote. One form of literature, however, had to develop, viz., political oratory. In Mirabeau (1749–1791) we have the first, chronologically, of the great political orators in France. His speech on ‘Bankruptcy’ is perhaps the finest specimen of his oratory, when in a fighting mood. But literature proper had to wait for less troublous times. These times came after France had victoriously beaten back foreign invasion and settled down to what seemed for a short time a period of peaceful development under the sway of a man of genius, Napoleon Bonaparte. Then two great writers appeared ready to hail the coming of a new literature for a new society. Germaine Necker, better known by her married name as Madame de Staël (1766–1817), advocated the study of foreign models. In her novel of ‘Corinne’ she takes us to Italy, and in her book on ‘Germany,’ beyond the Rhine, thus introducing Lessing, Goethe, Schiller not to France alone but also to England.

    Chateaubriand (1768–1848) advocates turning to religion for æsthetic inspiration. This he does in his celebrated ‘Genius of Christianity’; but he advocates also, as it were, a broadening of nature itself. He has seen America and will describe its virgin forests and its majestic Father of the Waters, as well as he will poetize its Indians of both sexes in a series of narratives the most touching of which is called ‘Atala.’ But whatever be his theme, Religion, Nature, Love, History, he always thinks and speaks of himself, of a human heart waiting for a fullness of satisfaction which the whole universe is unable to provide for it. Chateaubriand’s career extends until 1848, but the only work of real importance published by him after 1820 is his ‘Memoirs from Beyond the Grave,’ which belong to the last, but speak only of the earlier, period of his life.

    The new tendencies which are visible in the works of Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël appear also in the works of a poet who died tragically on the scaffold on the last day of the Reign of Terror and whose lines were known only to the generation of the following period, André Chénier (1762–1794).


  • 1789Beginning of the French Revolution.
  • 1792The Republic established in France.
  • 1793Execution of Louis XVI.
  • 1793–5Reign of Terror.
  • 1799Napoleon Bonaparte becomes First Consul.
  • 1800Mme. de Staël publishes her work on ‘Literature.’
  • 1801Chateaubriand’s ‘Atala’ appears.
  • 1802Publication of his ‘Genius of Christianity.’
  • 1804His ‘René’ appears.
  • 1804Napoleon becomes Emperor.
  • 1807Mme. de Staël’s ‘Corinne’ published.
  • 1809Chateaubriand’s ‘Martyrs’ published.
  • 1810Mme. de Staël tries to publish her book on ‘Germany.’
  • 1813‘Germany’ published.
  • 1814First abdication of Napoleon and return of the Bourbons to France.
  • 1815The Hundred Days, Battle of Waterloo, Second Abdication of Napoleon, and Second Restoration of the Bourbons.
  • Reading Recommended

    I. The Period of Romanticism (1820–1850)

    French society after the Revolution was not what it had been before. Ranks had been leveled and the Bourbons when re-established on the throne were unable to restore the old order of things. A new society needs a new literature. Men’s utterances depend on their vision of things. And what had been the vision of the young Frenchmen of the new era! A sub-lieutenant of artillery becoming in a few years Emperor and master of the world, and then in a few more years a prisoner with the ocean for his jailer! And how many other men raised from the lowest ranks to the highest dignities in state and society, one of them a King in a far-off northern country, in Sweden! Before their eyes the dividing line between the real and the impossible was almost obliterated. Life had become a romance. Thence the literature known as Romanticism.

    The new age appeared suddenly, through the unheralded publication of the first ‘Meditations’ of Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869). The critics ignored the book or ridiculed it. The public devoured it. Lamartine’s poetical productiveness continued for a little more than a dozen years and then he gave himself to the making and writing of history, taking a high rank among the masters of French prose by his parliamentary speeches and his ‘History of the Girondists.’

    But other poets had already followed him, first of all Victor Hugo (1802–1885) whose first ‘Odes’ appeared in 1822, but two years after the first ‘Meditations.’ Hugo’s entrance into the literary arena was only the beginning of an extraordinary career in which all forms of poems, romances, dramas, literary disquisitions, and fiery political speeches followed each other almost uninterruptedly to the day of his death. Lamartine had expressed mostly the sentimental movements of the heart; Hugo summoned before the eyes of his contemporaries visions of startling and bewildering contrasts in the domain of history as well as in the domain of individual human experience. This is what Romanticism was, at least in France.

    In this array of poets, taking only the greater ones, we must mention also Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863), the spokesman of a kind of lofty pessimism; Béranger (1780–1857) whose ‘Chansons’ more than once gave their most pathetic expression to the sufferings of French patriots at the time of the Holy Alliance; and a little later Alfred de Musset (1810–1857). He was essentially the poet of the younger generation. Love, sorrow, recuperation, all this not unblended with wit and humor, were his themes, not only in his collections of poems, but also in his plays and short stories.

    But the eyes of that generation were not turned solely inward, into the hearts of men, or outward on the bewildering spectacle of nature and humanity; they look passionately backward in the almost obliterated records of ages known till then as the Dark Ages. François Guizot (1787–1874), renowned also as a political orator, wrote on the ‘History of Civilization in France’; Augustin Thierry (1795–1856) threw over the doings of the Norman Conquerors of England or of the Franks in conquered Gaul all the glamour the secret of which had been borrowed by him from Walter Scott; Jules Michelet (1798–1874), in a somewhat prophetic style, not unlike Thomas Carlyle’s, related to the French all the records of their eventful and dramatic history, from the earliest times to the close of their great Revolution. Other historians attracted more especially by recent periods were François Mignet (1796–1884) who chose for his themes the French Revolution and later the sixteenth century, and his life-long friend, Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877), destined, after writing, of the French Revolution and of the Consulate and Empire of Napoleon I., to be himself the first President of the third French Republic. Needless to say that such a political career as Adolphe Thiers’ could not have developed if Thiers had not been a great political orator as well as a historian.

    But great as it is in poetical and historical literature, the period of Romanticism is essentially the period of romance, the period of the novel. The greatest French novelists belong to it. First, Henri Beyle (1783–1842), better known by his nom de plume of Stendhal, exalts in his two novels, ‘The Red and the Black’ and ‘La Certosa of Pavia,’ individual energy as the greatest gift of man—no wonder since his real hero is no other than Napoleon. Prosper Mérimée (1803–1870) has a good deal in common with his friend Beyle, and his masterpiece, ‘Colomba,’ might have been written by the former almost as well as by the latter. Though as a master of style, Mérimée is by far the greater of the two, neither of them can be compared with the three great novelists of the time, Balzac, Dumas, and George Sand.

    Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) conceives the plan of a complete and detailed picture of the society of his time. But realistic as he is in the descriptions of his scenes and the delineation of his characters, in which he remains an unsurpassed master, he is ultra-romantic in the construction of his plots. Here again we trace the influence of the Napoleonic career. When his imagination is kept under control he writes almost perfect masterpieces, like ‘Eugénie Grandet.’ He has created more characters perhaps than any other French novelist.

    Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870) is not a creator of living beings, but the most entertaining, the liveliest of story tellers. History in his hands becomes a most amusing transformation play in which he acts as the great machinist. His ‘Three Musketeers’ and his ‘Count de Monte Christo’ stand unrivaled as collections of enthralling adventures.

    Aurore Dupin, Baroness Dudevant, has made famous the nom de plume of George Sand (1804–1876). She wrote the romance of the human heart. In her novels passion rules supreme; when sincere it is entitled to full satisfaction and it never fails to express itself with overwhelming eloquence and pathos. Select what you will; perhaps ‘Mauprat,’ ‘Consuelo,’ and the ‘Marquis of Villemer’ will best repay the reader.

    And let us not forget that two of the greatest novels of the age, ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ and ‘Les Misérables’ are mong Hugo’s masterpieces.


  • 1820Lamartine publishes his first ‘Meditations.’
  • 1822Victor Hugo publishes his first ‘Odes.’
  • 1830February: Hugo’s ‘Hernani’ performed.
  • 1830July: Revolution in France. Charles X. dethroned.
  • 1831Hugo publishes ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ and ‘Autumn Leaves.’
  • 1833Michelet begins the publication of his ‘History of France.’
  • 1843Hugo’s drama ‘Les Burgraves’ fails upon the stage.
  • 1847Lamartine’s ‘History of the Girondists’ published.
  • 1848Revolution in France. Lamartine President of the Provisional Government of the Republic.
  • Reading Recommended

    II. The Reaction against Romanticism (1850–1900)

    In 1843 Victor Hugo’s drama ‘Les Burgraves’ was a dismal failure. This event coming twelve years after the overwhelming success of Hugo’s first dramatic effort, ‘Hernani,’ clearly indicates that Romanticism is on the decline. By the middle of the century it had entirely lost its power of attraction. The memories of the Revolution were taking on the quiet tints of history; the actors and witnesses of the great drama were all dead. The extraordinary again struck the ordinary man as impossible, and literature again had to deal with real facts, or with facts not sufficiently removed from the real to awaken incredulousness.

    This reveals itself perhaps in the drama more than in any other form of literature. The two greatest dramatists of the period, and they are really great dramatists, Augier and Dumas fils, trust decidedly more to observation than to imagination.

    Émile Augier (1820–1889) describes society mostly as affected by political struggles and conditions. His masterpiece ‘Mr. Poirier’s Son-in-Law,’ written in collaboration with his friend Jules Sandeau (1811–1883), the author of another remarkable comedy, ‘Mademoiselle de la Seiglière,’ is an admirable picture of the conflict, in French society, of the ruling middle class with the dethroned aristocracy of the past.

    Alexandre Dumas, Jr. (1824–1895), son of the great novelist of the previous period, is more interested in the relations between man and woman and in the part played by money in modern society. One of his plays, his earliest great success, ‘Camille’ (La Dame aux Camélias) won for him worldwide fame. But it is hard to say whether it is in any way superior to a somewhat later and decidedly less pathetic effort, ‘Le Demi-Monde.’

    The novel also becomes strongly realistic, especially in the hands of Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), the author of that great masterpiece, ‘Madame Bovary,’ and of his most faithful disciple, Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893), the greatest master of the short story in French Literature. That poetry and realism can be happily blended in a literary production is demonstrated at the same time by the charming author, Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897), equally successful as a novelist and as a writer of tales or short stories. But if we want a picture of life entirely devoid of poetry we have only to turn to the master of the Naturalistic School, Émile Zola (1840–1902). For the most part he seems unwilling to turn his eyes away from the repulsive physical side of life, but sometimes he gives us pictures of unsurpassed power, as for instance, in ‘L’Assommoir,’ (The Dram Shop), and ‘Germinal.’

    The novel, moreover, was unquestionably then the most popular form of literature, welcomed by the public and attractive to the writer. Talented novelists were, therefore, exceedingly numerous, too numerous for mention in such a rapid sketch as this.

    First among the poets stood Hugo whose majestically developing career did not end until 1885 and who from his exile home in Guernsey sent to France such magnificent collections of poems as ‘The Chastisements,’ unequaled in French Literature in the domain of political poetry, and ‘The Legend of the Ages.’ Beside Hugo all the other French poets of the period look small indeed, and yet there is a good deal that is worth reading in the works of the Parnassian poets, Leconte de Lisle (1818–1894) and his disciples François Coppée (1842–1908), Sully Prudhomme (1839–1907), and José-Maria de Heredia (1842–1905).

    That the period, however, found a fitter medium of expression in prose than in poetry is shown by the great prominence of three men, each of whom combined in himself the functions of the literary critic, the philosopher, and the historian. They are Sainte-Beuve, Renan, and Taine.

    Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869) is essentially a great literary critic and as such reveals himself principally in his ‘Monday Chats’ and in his ‘New Mondays,’ all published during the last twenty years of his life. Literary criticism was raised by him to a high artistic plane. He was followed by men, mostly his disciples, the most powerful of whom was Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906).

    Ernest Renan (1823–1892) is the author of a large array of miscellaneous books on history, philology, philosophy, and literature. He is one of the greatest masters of French prose. His chief work is his ‘History of the Origin of Christianity,’ especially the opening volume thereof, his ‘Life of Jesus.’ Among his numerous disciples none equals the wonderfully versatile creator of ‘Monsieur Bergeret,’ the hero of four successive narratives, Anatole France (1844–1924).

    Hippolyte Taine (1823–1893) was a great exponent of positivistic philosophy and as such the philosophical leader of the generation that followed him. His masterpieces are his ‘History of English Literature’ and the first two volumes, ‘The Ancient Régime,’ of his perhaps overambitious ‘Origins of Contemporary France.’

    Literature still thrives in France: recent writers of poetry, drama, and fiction are given more particular notice in the Student’s Course on Early Twentieth-Century Literature. Of those who became prominent before the end of the nineteenth century mention may be made of the poet Paul Verlaine, the poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand, made celebrated by his ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ the philosopher Henri Bergson, the naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre and Maurice Barrès, whose novel ‘Colette Baudoche’ so strikingly, so pathetically describes the tense situation created between France and Germany by the annexation to the latter in 1871 of Alsace-Lorraine. These writers give promise of a new great literary era. Such eras, in France, moreover, always follow periods of political and national crisis. There are signs visible already of great things literary coming, after the turmoil of the present war has at last subsided. We may say, like Voltaire, “Young men, lucky will you be. You will see beautiful things.”


  • 1851Sainte-Beuve’s ‘Monday Chats’ begun.
  • 1851Dec. 2d: Coup d’État of Louis Napoleon.
  • 1852Dumas Fils’ ‘Camille’ acted.
  • 1852Louis Napoleon becomes Emperor Napoleon III.
  • 1853Hugo, then an exile, publishes his ‘Chastisements.’
  • 1854Augier’s ‘Mr. Poirier’s Son-in-Law’ acted.
  • 1856Hugo’s ‘Contemplations’ published.
  • 1857Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ published.
  • 1859Hugo’s ‘Legend of the Ages’ published.
  • 1862Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ published.
  • 1865Renan’s ‘Life of Jesus’ and Taine’s ‘History of English Literature’ published.
  • 1870Franco-German War begun; Napoleon III. dethroned; foundation of the French Republic.
  • 1871Zola begins his ‘Rougon-Macquart’ series of novels.
  • 1874Daudet’s ‘Sidonie’ published.
  • 1877Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’ published.
  • 1885Zola’s ‘Germinal’ published.
  • 1893de Heredia’s ‘Trophies’ published.
  • 1897Rostand’s ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ acted.
  • Reading Recommended