The Place of French Literature

THE preëminence of French literature over its modern rivals has been complacently taken for granted by most Frenchmen. There is something not unnatural — indeed, there is something worthy of respect — in this view, even though their manner of putting it may irritate or amuse. French national vanity has been gratified by many eminent writers, from Voltaire to M. Brunetière, at no small sacrifice of true perspective. Yet they have made brilliant and interesting comparisons between their own national literary product and that of Italy, Spain, Germany, and England, and one would hesitate to blame them for drawing chiefly self-flattering conclusions, if only they were less narrow in their methods, and did not follow one another so closely in their reading of foreign works. For what value has an estimate of Italian literature which is based almost entirely upon a knowledge of Tasso and Ariosto, with Dante omitted ? What ground of comparison is furnished by an acquaintance with English literature through Shakespeare, Pope, Addison, and Byron only ? And what are the chances of progress in the views of French critics, if they pursue merely the traditional round of English or Italian reading ?

A foreigner’s conception of the place of French literature may be equally ill balanced ; but if so, it will be from some other cause than inability to appreciate anything that is not French. There are several excellent reasons why it may be useful to make a survey of the general relations of French literature. It may be that we entertain a high opinion of its merits, and wish to review the grounds of our liking; or we may want to consider, in the presence of so many claims for various studies, whether it is worth while, as much as ever, to read French. To diminish the danger which such an attempt invites, we must guard against merely conventional estimates, and leave out of account those authors whom, in some mysterious way, we have come to hold in honor without having really felt their power, or perhaps even read them. We are concerned with only so much of our own and of foreign literature as is vital to us now for purposes of general culture. Of Italian literature, a well-educated Frenchman might say Boccaccio, Tasso, and Ariosto were vital to him ; but if he added Dante he would not be truly representative of his countrymen. We Americans and English, for our part, should perhaps say the Divine Comedy, parts of the Decameron, a very few of Petrarch’s sonnets, and something of Manzoni and Leopardi ; if we added Tasso and Ariosto it would be singular. Of French literature a much larger quantity is accessible to us and full of life, yet we must beware not to speak of even such great men as Pascal, Racine, Bossuet, and Saint-Simon as if their works were really our daily bread. And we must be careful not to take for granted that to Frenchmen all of English literature can mean what it does to us. Indeed, if we are frank, we shall admit that a large part of our literature has ceased to yield much sustenance even to us, whether through its remoteness or our own fault.

French literature possesses a signal advantage in the fact that a very large proportion of it is really vital to Frenchmen, and that most of what they enjoy we foreigners may also relish. It is easier in the case of French than in the case of English to say what is literature. The national genius has led to the maintenance of a rigid censorship by the highest courts of public opinion, — the Academy, the centralized system of education, and especially the most cultivated circles of Parisian readers. A few eminent critics and a succession of women distinguished for wit and taste have been the acknowledged jurists in these matters. The conventions thus established decide between excellent and inferior work, between the permanent and the ephemeral. The debates are long and minute ; but when once the boundaries are sharply fixed, no educated person in France is exempt from reading the approved authors. A time limit is also set, not so much by convention as by convenience; it is generally agreed that one is not obliged to be acquainted with much that was written before the seventeenth century, on the ground that the language of the sixteenth century was not yet really modern French.

One result of these exclusions has been to render possible and necessary for Frenchmen a comprehensiveness of reading which is relatively infrequent with us, and in this way to supply, as it were, a national subject of thought, a national topic of conversation, a national fund of common interests. You can seldom be sure that more than a small minority of an English or American audience will appreciate a literary allusion ; for though every one in the room may be well read, there is no telling just what he has read. In France you may quote from the canonized list of approved authors with full assurance of being understood by all educated persons.

Another result is that some tincture of literary taste and accomplishment has penetrated lower in the social mass than with us. Most French people, above the merely illiterate, do actually know something of their literature for the last three hundred years. They go to hear the plays of Racine, Corneille, Molière, Regnard, and Beaumarchais, as well as of Dumas fils and Augier. They are really acquainted at first-hand, however slightly, with Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Bossuet, La Bruyère, Madame de Sévigné, La Fontaine, Boileau, and Saint-Simon, with Montesquieu, Lesage, Voltaire, and Rousseau, as well as with the poets of 1830 and the recent novelists.

For the last three hundred years French literature has maintained a sort of corporate existence. We find in it less diversity of type than in ours ; and it has been possible for one great critic to prove it to be the homogeneous product of a singularly unified people, and for another to trace the evolution of its forms. There may indeed be in the dogmatism of Taine and M. Brunetière a ruthless severity which has blinded them to whatever did not accord with their theories ; but it is easy to see how the solidarity of French literature must tempt a speculative mind. For French literature is like a family dwelling in one great mansion. We advance to knock at the front door, and a troop of lively children flock about us on the steps. They are the gay farces and sparkling comedies and the sprightly stories which have enlivened the world from Molière’s time to the days of the elder Dumas, Scribe, and Labiche. At the portal, if we are wise, we shall place ourselves under the guidance of Sainte-Beuve ; for no one else is so well acquainted with the family history, ancient and modern, public and private, with genealogies and titles, with deeds of prowess, and with whispered scandals. He knows to a nicety the intricate relationships of every branch, and all degrees of cousinship. In his genial society we wander on, through quiet firelit rooms where easy-slippered old gentlemen are composing memoirs, — Joinville in his honorable eld, Sully unused but active in retirement, Saint-Simon indignant, resentful, his head smoking with fervor ; through the cold cells of austere Pascal and gentle François de Sales; through apartments bright with a hundred tapers, where the ladies of the Hôtel de Rambouillet, or Madame de La Fayette, or Madame Sophie Gay, or our guide’s friend, Madame R^camier, receive great wits and poets. He conducts us finally to the throne room, or hall of honor, where, on gilded chairs and with laurel-crowned brows, the family dignitaries sit in high confabulation : the king of comedy, sad-smiling Molière; the kings of tragedy, Corneille and Racine ; the prince of preachers, Bossuet, with warning hand ; Montaigne, asking hard questions ; Rabelais, himself a riddle; La Fontaine, who chafes at so much pomp ; Voltaire, whose vanity helps him endure it ; Hugo, lord of many realms ; noble Musset, bulky Balzac. In every countenance some lineament proclaims the family blood. Fathers here are proud to own renowned sons, and sons to claim high lineage from great sires. The marks of race are not to be mistaken. Of adopted children there are a few, and in them the family traits are wanting. Rousseau, for one, is plainly not of this blood, though he does honor to the house.

When we make the acquaintance of one member, we soon learn to know many. Introductions fly from lip to lip, and before long we are at home and hospitably entertained. There is much banter and anecdote and gossip. It is a world in itself, for many inmates have never stirred abroad, and these four walls hold everything they love. Others have traveled, but with reluctance, and have always been glad to return. There is a family hierarchy and an etiquette and order of precedence very definitely settled. Several members of the household, besides Sainte-Beuve, are enthusiastic antiquarians, and their researches are continually adding vitality to the family bond.

If no other literature presents to the world so solid a front, the reason probably is that French men and women of letters, with singularly few exceptions, have really lived in personal contact. Paris, at one time or another in their careers, has contained them all. Nor have social barriers been able, as a rule, to separate those whom common talents have joined together. And the traditions of each generation have passed, through groups of intimate acquaintances, to the next. In marked contrast to these circumstances, the hearthstone of English letters has been now London, now the northern Athens, now beside Grasmere, now Boston, and at times the flame has burned warm, but of various hues, on all at once. There is pathos indeed in Wordsworth’s lament at the grave of Burns : —

“ Huge Criffel’s hoary top ascends By Skiddaw seen, —
Neighbors we were, and loving friends We might have been.”

As the Brontës are of Yorkshire, so Jane Austen is of Hampshire. What an abyss of education and social feeling yawns between Charles Dickens and Walter Pater! What uncongenial couples would be Keats and Carlyle, Swinburne and Newman ! How vain to attempt a search for typical English features in Shelley, Browning, or Landor, whose chief racial trait seems to be the strong determination to have none. There is scarcely a French writer that cannot be classified. But who shall put a label on Izaak Walton, Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, or George Herbert, on Samuel Johnson, Gilbert White, Arthur Young, or William Blake, on Thomas Hood or Coleridge, on William Godwin or Harriet Martineau, on William Morris or the Rossettis, on George Borrow or Sir Richard Burton, on Emerson, on Thoreau, on Ruskin ?

This diversity of type is but a reflection of the complex political, social, and religious life of the English - speaking world. We are Englishmen, Americans, Irish, Scotch, Welsh, Canadians, Australians; we are democrats, socialists, frontiersmen, feudal lords; we are divided into a hundred stubborn sects. Local pride is often stronger in us than national patriotism.

As both cause and effect of the unity of French literature must be noted the peculiar zeal of the French people in literary controversy. They never weary of reading and writing about those matters which, as one of their critics declares, “ are always in order.” That Sainte - Beuve, for instance, has discoursed charmingly on some seventeenthcentury worthy is deemed no reason why M. Doumic should not approach the same subject from another side, even though, in the interval, Schérer has revealed its moral aspect, or Taine has made it illustrate his evolutionary theory. It is very properly assumed by the French that each generation, each literary school indeed, may refashion the past, because no single era can lay claim to complete knowledge or a perfect standard of judgment. And to systematize its knowledge is a necessity of the Gallic mind.

So then the French may be right in saying, as they often do, that their great authors truly represent the national life, and that in their literature has been drawn a faithful portrait of the ideal Frenchman and the ideal Frenchwoman. We are just as well pleased that no such statement can be for a moment maintained in regard to English literature. And indeed, to maintain it at all rigidly in regard to French literature leads to strange and amusing inconsistencies. Yet not a few eminent critics, among them Taine and the estimable Nisard, have made this contention the very backbone of their teaching, — with what curious results, sometimes, the latter’s History of French Literature may serve as an illustration. Still, it is undeniable that French literature is singularly homogeneous, and that France may well be proud of the very definite and in the main favorable representation which it gives of her character and life.

There must be something exhilarating to a Frenchman in the omnipresence of French books. In all civilized countries outside of France they enjoy a popularity second only to that of books in the native languages, if indeed they do not take the first place itself. I remember seeking Dutch books in the shops of Delft, and finding chiefly French. I recall that in a summer resort among the Apennines I could neither buy nor borrow an Italian novel, because everybody was reading Daudet and Zola, Bourget, Loti, and Maupassant. It is said that in the eastern states of Europe French works are even more prominent than in Holland and Italy ; that in Athens, Constantinople, and the cities of Russia they far exceed all others in sale and circulation. In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, in Spain and Portugal, in Egypt, in Mexico and South America, the French novel, the French comedy, the French book of travel or speculation, occupy at least the second rank. It is only where American, English, or German influence prevails that French writing is not thus almost or altogether paramount.

Connected with this great popularity, both as cause and effect, is the prevalence of the French language. No other modern tongue is so much studied by aliens. German is perhaps studied by a larger number of Americans, owing to the presence of a German population in our country, and to the influence of the German universities upon the last two generations of our choicest young scholars. But in Great Britain and throughout the rest of the world French is the favorite foreign language.

And there is another respect in which the ascendency of French letters is almost as great as this mere popular vogue. Our Anglo-Saxon civilization, by its antiquity, continuity, and vitality, is well adapted to resist foreign influence ; yet it is remarkable for how much of recent progress in literary workmanship we are indebted to France. Every new phenomenon in French literature, every fresh departure in method, occasions the development of theories in criticism. Our critics cannot afford to neglect these doctrines, and do in fact adopt them, with advantage. The French masters of the short story have given invaluable lessons to the world, in brevity, simplicity, and concentration. One has but to investigate the sources of half the new plays that appear in an English dress, to discover that they are adaptations from the French. English style is constantly being modified by French example, and often with good results in the direction of order and clearness.

In spite of these titles to our favor, perhaps it will seem that as much as has been claimed for French literature might be claimed for Italian or German. The Divine Comedy alone easily outweighs the entire mass of French poetry. Yet Italian literature is, as a whole, less effective than French literature. Its current has not been so continuously well supplied. In prose it is comparatively very poor. For much of Italian prose is singularly unlike what one would expect the thought of Dante’s countrymen to be ; it is languid and obscure, not quick and vigorous. Much of it is deficient in intellectual substance. Nevertheless, the one man Dante and his incomparable poem suffice to keep Italian literature forever in the front rank.

For all the charm of German poetry, — and its charm is deep, and clings in memory like music loved in childhood, — for all the tenderness and depth, the homely warmth and kind simplicity, which make German poetry so dear to us, I am not sure but that French prose is more likely to do us good. There is in our own poetry much that may enlarge our capacity for sentiment. And this, moreover, is not what we need so much as something to sharpen our purely intellectual faculties, — something not at all abundant in our own, but almost superabundant in French literature. To make precise distinctions, to observe rules, to cultivate artistic clearness, — these are habits which we may acquire by reading French prose.

Italian and German thought, especially as expressed in poetry, have again and again been the refuge and inspiration of our great English writers ; but the influence of French literature has been more constant and broader. It has reached us all. Considering both quantity and quality, both good effects and bad, it is surely no exaggeration to say that French ideas and French fashions of writing have invaded the English mind and English letters more than have the thoughts and style of any other nation except the Hebrew.

The preëminence of French literature in the non-English world has been so unquestioned that much of English literature, although at least as excellent, has been obscured and relegated to a second place. It would not be impossible, perhaps, to maintain the proposition that ours, in depth and seriousness, in scope and variety, is the greater literature of the two, and indeed superior to any other since the Greek. Yet whereas, for most educated people on the Continent, Milton is only a name, and Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Burke, Thackeray, Hawthorne, and Ruskin are but shadows, Montaigne, Molière, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Balzac, have wrought a mighty work in political and social life, and their thought is being woven, night and day, into the complex tissue of European civilization. There must be some peculiar quality in French literature which has made it thus universally pervasive. If it has been received by all other European peoples as their favorite foreign body of thought, the cause must be its adaptability to the minds of all men. It must be that it abounds in general and easily comprehended excellences. It must be closely connected with the unvarying realities of life. It must be remarkably normal to the average human intelligence. In short, if French literature is universally pervasive, it is because it is universally applicable.

The character of a thing depends upon its origin, its environment, and the special mode or instrument employed in its production. The origin of French literature is in the minds of Frenchmen, and when comparing general traits we may speak collectively of the French mind. The environment in which this literature has been created, and by which it has been modified, is the life of the French people. The special instrument employed is the French language. So, to apprehend the causes of the peculiar adaptability of French literature to the world’s need, we may, not unreasonably, seek them in these three factors, French character, French history,and the French tongue. And considering first the character of the average Frenchman to-day and in the past, and the nature of French society, we observe the same centrality which we have remarked in the literature. The French think straight. Their minds work along the lines of normal universal logic, in company with one another, above ground, in the full sunlight; not by labored processes, through subterranean caverns, as German minds do ; not erratically, like a river, now hiding in the sands, then sparkling forth again, as do Russian minds; not paddling along in personal seclusion, like tortoises, each with his own house on his back, as do the minds of Englishmen. French thought is simple and direct, and so are French manners. This is why the etiquette of French society has become the accepted form of intercourse in most other civilized countries. It is a mistake to think of the French as excessive or artificial in their expression of politeness. It is rather in German, Scandinavian, and Spanish social circles that unreasonable formalities persist. And two French traits — traits, moreover, which have a close connection with literary production — are the desire to please and the artistic instinct. The Frenchman is fond of producing satisfaction, — partly from genuine kindliness, and partly because it reflects credit upon himself. His artistic instinct comes to the aid of his love of pleasing, so that if he wishes to give flowers to a lady, he will not thrust them at her, in an awkward handful, but lay them gracefully at her feet, in a wellordered bouquet. If he has occasion to sing a song, or ride a horse, or write a letter, he will be at pains to avoid a shabby performance. He would be humiliated if he misspelled a word or wrote it illegibly. Thus the French seek for their thought an interesting form, lucid, readily diffusible, and therefore practical. They are led naturally to a dramatic rather than a philosophical expression of their thought, because the dramatic form is more immediately telling. Their thought is expressed also in general rather than technical terms, and is therefore more widely understood. It aims at simplicity rather than completeness, and thus avoids anything like pedantry. French thought may often be vague and peculiar enough before it has reached artistic expression, but when moulded into form it stands out free from eccentricity. Whatever is fantastic is not French. The French have also a horror of obtrusive individuality, and one of their strongest terms of reprobation is to say of a man, “ C’est un original.” It is in a measure true of them, and truer of them, perhaps, than of any other people, that

“ The individual withers, and the world is more and more.”

Of the second factor, the environment, determined chiefly by political change, by history, it is enough to say that in the three great phases of institutional development since the fall of the Roman Empire — feudalism, absolutism, democracy — France has been the initiatory and typical example. The feudal system was first and most fully developed in France, and introduced thence into England at the Conquest. It was Louis XI. who first broke the power of the barons, in which feudalism consisted, and Louis XIV. who perfected his work and became the most absolute personal sovereign that western Europe has known. It was the French philosophers of the eighteenth century who undermined the royal power in France, and through Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin effected the theoretical preparations for the American Revolution, which otherwise might indeed have been an armed protest against taxation, but would hardly have resulted in a refusal, on principle, of allegiance to King George. The slower process of reform by act of Parliament has, to be sure, given the England of to-day a freer government than republican France possesses or has ever possessed ; but it must not be forgotten that the American Revolution and the French Revolution forced the tardy hand of English legislation, and that many solid British liberties, acquired in peace and quietness, are indirectly due to the “ red fool-fury of the Seine.”

Until recently, French affairs have ever been foremost in European politics, and to write of French kings or French generals or French diplomacy has been to address the world on subjects in which it was interested. Thus we may attribute to French history the same quality of centrality which we found to belong to French character, and once more infer that this may well be a cause of the universal applicability and acceptability of French literature.

In one great historical movement, however, France has not occupied as prominent a place as Germany and England, namely, in the religious and moral Reformation which became widespread in the sixteenth century, and is still operative in all Teutonic countries. Every attempt to establish generally the reformed principles in France has been crushed by the arm of despotism, or thwarted by the folly and shallowness of Protestant nobles, or nullified by the lukewarmness and moral feebleness of the middle classes. To the failure of France to grasp her opportunities in this respect, I believe we must attribute a decadence, moral and physical, which is becoming precipitate, and which bids fair to reduce her to a secondary rank among nations.

A third cause of the universality and popularity of French literature is the fitness of the French language. To it, also, as to French character and French history, we may apply the words “ central ” and “normal.” Its grammar is simple, — though not so simple as that of Italian or Spanish. Its vocabulary, in which the Latin originals axe often clearly discernible, is easy to acquire and retain. Its orthography, while not phonetic, is based on rigid principles, the same combination of letters being, with rare exceptions, always pronounced alike. The firmness of its mechanism makes French a satisfactory language to foreigners. There is usually some one accepted way of expressing a given idea, and the idioms are so striking that, once thoroughly learned, they are never forgotten. It is only the degenerate writers of our own time, the so-called naturalists, who have gathered slang and thieves’ jargon from the gutters of Paris and attempted to force them into good company, and the half-crazed decadent poets who, in their ignoble scramble for notoriety, have invented meaningless phrases, — it is only through the deliberate efforts of these men that the French language has suffered any radical change in the last three hundred years. For the Romanticists of 1830, while, it is true, they enriched the vocabulary of poetry, did so mainly by reviving certain ancient and half-forgotten but thoroughly French expressions, and admitting these and many terms of the prose or colloquial language into the “ consecrated ” list of words allowable in verse. As a rule, they took no improper liberties with syntax, and did not cultivate either obscurity or slang. You can read Molière more easily than you can read Paul VerLaine ; and the vocabulary of Zola is vastly larger and more unfamiliar than that of Saint-Simon and Voltaire. In short, until the last forty years there was no very serious alteration in either the grammar or the vocabulary since the close of the sixteenth century ; so that it has been eminently worth while to know French, because a command of the language enabled one to read indiscriminately in the literature of the last three hundred years. It is interesting to observe that Old French, also, or the language as written from the middle of the eleventh to the beginning of the sixteenth century, preserved a character of remarkable uniformity for nearly five hundred years. The case of English has been quite different. A foreigner who can read Byron, Addison, and Washington Irving may not know the language well enough to understand Dickens or Carlyle, Shelley or Swinburne. Nor is the ability to read the simple love songs of Heine a guarantee that one can even make sense out of Schiller’s noble ballads or Goethe’s intricate and learned prose. It is not likely, however, that the modern innovators will be able to corrupt permanently the French language, so clear, facile, and solidly constructed. It will probably continue to resist the encroachments of personal and local idiosyncrasy. It is still amply protected by the Academy, and by the traditions of the University and the National Theatre.

We read in the writings of Wace, a Norman-English poet, that the French bard Taillefer went into the battle of Hastings singing of Charlemagne and Roland. What he sang was probably from the Chanson de Roland, composed most likely, in some form or other, before the middle of the eleventh century. And the Chanson de Roland was but one of many epic poems that grew up in France at the same time. Thus French literature is much more ancient than Italian literature and English literature. For it is fair to admit that English literature does not begin before the age of Chaucer. The Anglo-Saxon language, although modern English is bone of its bone, differs from modern English so widely that for practical purposes it is another tongue. We cannot read Beowulf or the Saxon Chronicle or Alfred without long and serious preparation, any more than we could read Dutch or Norwegian ; but this earliest French, the French of the Chanson de Roland, wears the physiognomy of modern French. A French schoolboy, with intelligence and patience, can make out its meaning. We do not have to give it another name, as we do Anglo-Saxon. It is French.

What is still more remarkable, from the earliest times of its history, eight hundred and fifty years ago, there has been no break in the seamless unity of French literature. Its characteristics have been the same from age to age. It has been a living organism, marked by the same excellences, the same defects, at all stages of its development. Take it at any point you will, and you must find it interesting, full of life, vividly concerning itself with contemporary history. M. Brunetière, in his fine essay entitled Le Caractère Essentiel de la Litérature Française, sums up the distinguishing quality of French literature in the word “ social; ” meaning that it has, in the main, and more than other literatures, been produced with direct consideration of the tastes and needs of an immediate circle of readers. The appropriateness of M. Brunetière’s remark becomes apparent when we consider what a large part of French literature consists of letters, memoirs, literary criticism, comedies, and dramas of private life. I would go a step farther than M. Brunetière, and say that French literature is not only social, but appeals to the taste of a high and aristocratic society. It is marked by a noble distinction and courtly grace. It has the urbane quality which comes from city life. It has that lucidity, that definiteness and positiveness, which seem also to be the results of high-pressure existence in a metropolis. On the other hand, its deficiencies, as compared with English literature, seem to be a want of variety and freedom, a want of depth too, which three qualities, I think, — variety, freedom, and depth, — are the glory of English literature. The remarkable thing is that it has maintained its character from first to last, so that one studying the poems of Charles d’Orleans and Villon in the fifteenth century finds them, in spirit and weight, curiously like the poems of Théophile Gautier and Alfred de Musset in our own day. This majestic fullness and this sustained identity of character are mainly due to the fact that the French have been, generally speaking, a very homogeneous and united people, — one in religion, in patriotic ideals, and in social impulses.

Moreover, it is not merely in recent times that French literature has maintained either the supremacy as compared with other modern literatures, or at least a position in the first rank. It has been of such a sort that if you wish to know what the choice spirits of the world were thinking, at any given time, about the most important contemporary happenings, you will not be far astray if you read the French books of that period. The position of French literature has all along been much like the geographical situation of the country, in the centre of western Europe, or like the political standing of the nation, in the forefront of progress. To be imbued with the French spirit has almost always meant to be near the heart of the age. And furthermore, French literature has shared with Italian the distinction of being a large part of the channel through which Greek and Roman civilization and the traditions of ancient scholarship have flowed downward into the modern world.

All this immense success has not been achieved without conscious effort. It has not all been due to impersonal causes. Nowhere has literary competition been so severe as in France. Nowhere has good work been so openly and dazzlingly rewarded. And nowhere, also, has failure been so quickly remarked and unhesitatingly derided. So that, in order to receive the stamp of authoritative approval, literary work in France has had to come up to a high standard. Frenchmen have the artistic conscience more highly developed than Englishmen or Germans, and are less likely to commend a badly written book or a poor painting. It is the carefulness resulting from such sharp competition and such outspoken criticism that, more than anything else, has made French prose so clear, until now it is perhaps a more easily handled instrument of expression than English, and certainly more facile than German, and more precise than Italian.

There are certain fields in which the preëminence of French literature is acknowledged. It holds the palm for memoirs and letters, for criticism, and for comedy. It is doubtful whether any other periods of history are so abundantly and entertainingly represented in correspondence and diaries as the age of Louis XIV., the Regency, and the reign of Louis XV. Something comparable, indeed, has been done for the age of Queen Anne by English men of letters ; but the feminine element here is not sufficiently prominent, and the scene, while not lacking in color, is too vaguely outlined. We have had one literary critic of the very first rank in Matthew Arnold, and many men of genius, like Coleride and Lamb, who were great critics occasionally. But in general criticism has not been viewed seriously among us, as one of the grand, natural, necessary, and distinct divisions of literature. Even Lowell, with his splendid critical gift, was too often willing to lower the tone of an essay by admitting a pun or other irrelevancy. What we need as much as we need great critics of the first rank, and what can be more easily supplied, is a sound tradition, in which minor reviewers may grow into usefulness ; a standard or standards which shall promote consistency, or at least define real issues. As compared with the chaos in America and England, criticism has, in France, reached the development of a fine art. What exalted names are Geoffroy, Villemain, Sainte-Beuve, Planche, Schérer, and Taine, to mention only the dead ! What an abundance, what a superabundance, what a pullulation, of schools and methods have we seen there even in our own day !

Yet we too have had some critics, as we have had some letter-writers and diarists. But what must be said of English comedy as compared with French comedy ? It is practically non-existent, so far as present vitality is concerned, except for Shakespeare and Sheridan. Meanwhile, for every phase in the development of French society, during the last three centuries, there has been an accompanying comment in the form of comedy, which is capable of being made the most useful of all arts, from a moral and social point of view. The history of the French people for the last three hundred years may be traced in their comedies. And their comedies have helped to make history. Le Mariage de Figaro was worth more to the Revolutionary cause than ten barricades or ten thousand bayonets. At every point, in this long period, we find French comedy still vital. The ancients are as popular as the moderns : Tartuffe, Le Joueur, Le Barbier de Séville, see the footlights as often as Le Fils de Giboyer and La Dame aux Camélias. Moreover, these lively creations appeal not only to the French, but to us all.

Perhaps it is that the French take more seriously to light things than we do, and make serious successes out of what with us are only light attempts ; whatever the cause, they excel us in comedy, criticism, and the epistolary art. But in spite of enormous effort and productiveness by the French in prose fiction, there can be little doubt that the English novel, and also the Russian novel, present nobler and more varied and especially truer types of men and women, and a vastly wider range of action. The almost exclusive preoccupation of French novelists has been and is the study of sexual relations, preferably immoral. The rest of life does not attract them. The spacious world of masculine strife for power seems to them small in comparison. The miniature world of home, vital and common to all, they have despised, in favor of a demimonde which one cannot help suspecting them of having rather created than observed. Woman they have abundantly, though discouragingly portrayed. But there is scarcely a man in French fiction, let alone a gentleman. Outdoor life, physical danger and prowess, the joy of muscular effort and victory over things, the glory of self-control, the intoxication of free movement amid nature’s terrible and fascinating sport, — all these are infinitely better and more copiously rendered by Gogol and Tolstoi, by Fielding, Scott, and Stevenson, than by any Frenchman ; for Dumas is unnatural, and Loti silly. Nor, apart from the description of sexual emotions, and apart from Balzac, has French literature a master of social synthesis to compare with Jane Austen, Thackeray, or Trollope, or with Turgenieff. And for novels of psychological analysis, with the same exceptions, there is no French diviner of the heart like Hawthorne and George Eliot; for Stendhal is dreary, and Bourget chooses to limit his fine powers to studying the outworn and wearisome question of illicit love. Balzac alone of French novelists is great in a world-wide sense, but the traveler through the city of his creation needs a cicerone to save time.

In the highest kind of dramatic writing, in tragedy, France is excelled by Germany, with her Goethe and Schiller, and by England, with her Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans, whom we should know better did he not overshadow them. This is almost pitiful, for in no field have the French so plumed themselves and made such determined effort. Perhaps the cause of their comparative failure here lies in the peculiar qualities of the language, — its want of natural rhythm, and the absence of a natural division in its diction between homely words and merely rhetorical words. Perhaps it lies deeper, — in the racial aversion to individuality. Parts of Corneille and Hugo, and all of Molière’s real tragedy, Le Misanthrope, and Alfred de Musset’s little proverbe, On ne Badine pas avec l’Amour, are tragic in a universal, and not merely French sense ; but even they cannot be named with Wallenstein or Macbeth.

In lyric poetry it is the same causes which account for the same or even a more marked inferiority. Life purely social may produce charming vers de société, exquisite émaux et camées, — may produce, even, as its fine flower, the fables of La Fontaine ; but only a land of intellectual and moral Protestantism, a land of warm personal religious conviction, a land where the individual feels himself standing alone, with the abyss of hell below him and the eternal heaven within his reach above, can give us the Divine Comedy, Faust, or the Ode to Duty. The French poems which can be compared, not with the poems of Dante, Goethe, and Wordsworth, or with those of Milton, Shelley, and Keats, but with the love songs of Germany, the plaintive monologues of Leopardi, the hundreds of minor English lyrics whose sweet undertone has been unbroken for six hundred years, are few indeed : three or four superb things by Villon in the fifteenth century, six or eight by Ronsard and du Bellay in the sixteenth, nothing in the seventeenth, nothing in the eighteenth till we come to André de Chénier, who was half a Greek ! In the nineteenth century, however, there has been a very extensive production of what the nonFrench world recognizes as poetry in a universal sense. To deny that France is great in poetry is to deny that she is great in the better half of literature. Yet in poetry English holds the primacy, with Italy a noble second, and Germany third.

It is unnecessary to dwell further on the importance of French literature. Even though it were not so valuable, it would be attractive still, and men would read it for its immense resources of entertainment. And having once made ourselves acquainted with it, we shall realize its nobler qualities, shall acknowledge how sane and curative it is, what an antidote to morbidness of many sorts, what an enemy of melancholy and fanaticism, how it will preserve the mind from vain excesses and confusion and dull sloth.

George McLean Harper.