Their sentences were indeterminate—long, complex, drifting, and connected together by conjunctions into a loose aggregate.
Landmarks In French Literature
The 'Precious' writers had dimly realized the importance of form, but they had not realized at all the importance of simplicity. This was Pascal's great discovery. His sentences are clear, straightforward, and distinct; and they are bound together into a succession of definitely articulated paragraphs, which are constructed, not on the system of mere haphazard aggregation, but according to the logical development of the thought.
Thus Pascal's prose, like the verse of Malherbe and Corneille, is based upon reason; it is primarily intellectual. But, with Pascal, the intellect expresses itself even more exactly. The last vestiges of medieval ambiguities have been discarded; the style is perfectly modern. So wonderfully did Pascal master the resources of the great instrument which he had forged, that it is true to say that no reader who wishes to realize once for all the great qualities of French prose could do better than turn straight to the Lettres Provinciales.
Here he will find the lightness and the strength, the exquisite polish and the delicious wit, the lambent irony and the ordered movement, which no other language spoken by man has ever quite been able to produce. The Lettres are a work of controversy; their actual subject-matter—the ethical system of the Jesuits of the time—is remote from modern interests; yet such is the brilliance of Pascal's art that every page of them is fascinating to-day.
The vivacity of the opening letters is astonishing; the tone is the gay, easy tone of a man of the world; the attack is delivered in a rushing onslaught of raillery. Gradually, as the book proceeds, there are signs of a growing seriousness; we have a sense of graver issues, and round the small question of the Jesuits' morality we discern ranged all the vast forces of good and evil.
At last the veil of wit and laughter is entirely removed, and Pascal bursts forth into the full fury of invective. The vials of wrath are opened; a terrific denunciation rolls out in a thundering cataract; and at the close of the book there is hardly a note in the whole gamut of language, from the airiest badinage to the darkest objurgation, which has not been touched.
In sheer genius Pascal ranks among the very greatest writers who have lived upon this earth. And his genius was not simply artistic; it displayed itself no less in his character and in the quality of his thought. The style of many of these passages surpasses in brilliance and force even that of the Lettres Provinciales. In addition, one hears the intimate voice of Pascal, speaking upon the profoundest problems of existence—the most momentous topics which can agitate the minds of men.
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Two great themes compose his argument: the miserable insignificance of all that is human—human reason, human knowledge, human ambition; and the transcendent glory of God. Never was the wretchedness of mankind painted with a more passionate power. The whole infinitude of the physical universe is invoked in his sweeping sentences to crush the presumption of man. Man's intellectual greatness itself he seizes upon to point the moral of an innate contradiction, an essential imbecility.
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Modern as the style of Pascal's writing is, his thought is deeply impregnated with the spirit of the Middle Ages. He belonged, almost equally, to the future and to the past. He was a distinguished man of science, a brilliant mathematician; yet he shrank from a consideration of the theory of Copernicus: it was more important, he declared, to think of the immortal soul.
In the last years of his short life he sank into a torpor of superstition—ascetic, self-mortified, and rapt in a strange exaltation, like a medieval monk. A profound inquietude did indeed devour him. He turned desperately from the pride of his intellect to the consolations of his religion.
But even there—? Beneath him, as he sat or as he walked, a great gulf seemed to open darkly, into an impenetrable abyss. When Louis XIV assumed the reins of government France suddenly and wonderfully came to her maturity; it was as if the whole nation had burst into splendid flower.
In every branch of human activity—in war, in administration, in social life, in art, and in literature—the same energy was apparent, the same glorious success. At a bound France won the headship of Europe; and when at last, defeated in arms and politically shattered, she was forced to relinquish her dreams of worldly power, her pre-eminence in the arts of peace remained unshaken.
For more than a century she continued, through her literature and her manners, to dominate the civilized world. At no other time have the conditions of society exercised a more profound influence upon the works of great writers. Though, with the ascendancy of Louis, the political power of the nobles finally came to an end, France remained, in the whole complexion of her social life, completely aristocratic.
Louis, with deliberate policy, emphasized the existing rigidity of class-distinctions by centralizing society round his splendid palace of Versailles. Versailles is the clou to the age of Louis XIV. The huge, almost infinite building, so stately and so glorious, with its vast elaborate gardens, its great trees transported from distant forests, its amazing waterworks constructed in an arid soil at the cost of millions, its lesser satellite parks and palaces, its palpitating crowds of sumptuous courtiers, the whole accumulated mass of piled-up treasure and magnificence and power—this was something far more significant than the mere country residence of royalty; it was the summary, the crown, and the visible expression of the ideals of a great age.
And what were these ideals? The fact that the conception of society which made Versailles possible was narrow and unjust must not blind us to the real nobility and the real glory which it brought into being. It is true that behind and beyond the radiance of Louis and his courtiers lay the dark abyss of an impoverished France, a ruined peasantry, a whole system of intolerance, and privilege, and maladministration; yet it is none the less true that the radiance was a genuine radiance—no false and feeble glitter, but the warm, brilliant, intense illumination thrown out by the glow of a nation's life.
That life, with all it meant to those who lived it, has long since vanished from the earth—preserved to us now only in the pages of its poets, or strangely shadowed forth to the traveller in the illimitable desolation of Versailles. That it has gone so utterly is no doubt, on the whole, a cause for rejoicing; but, as we look back upon it, we may still feel something of the old enchantment, and feel it, perhaps, the more keenly for its strangeness—its dissimilarity to the experiences of our own days. We shall catch glimpses of a world of pomp and brilliance, of ceremony and decoration, a small, vital passionate world which has clothed itself in ordered beauty, learnt a fine way of easy, splendid living, and come under the spell of a devotion to what is, to us, no more than the gorgeous phantom of high imaginations—the divinity of a king.
When the morning sun was up and the horn was sounding down the long avenues, who would not wish, if only in fancy, to join the glittering cavalcade where the young Louis led the hunt in the days of his opening glory? When night fell there would be dancing and music in the gallery blazing with a thousand looking-glasses, or masquerades and feasting in the gardens, with the torches throwing strange shadows among the trees trimmed into artificial figures, and gay lords and proud ladies conversing together under the stars.
Such were the surroundings among which the classical literature of France came into existence, and by which it was profoundly influenced in a multitude of ways. This literature was, in its form and its essence, aristocratic literature, though its writers were, almost without exception, middle-class men brought into prominence by the royal favour. The great dramatists and poets and prose-writers of the epoch were in the position of artists working by special permission for the benefit and pleasure of a select public to which they themselves had no claim to belong.
They were in the world of high birth and splendid manners, but they were not of it; and thus it happened that their creations, while reflecting what was finest in the social ideals of the time, escaped the worst faults of the literary productions of persons of rank—superficiality and amateurishness. The literature of that age was, in fact, remarkable to an extraordinary degree for precisely contrary qualities—for the solidity of its psychological foundations and for the supreme excellence of its craftsmanship.
It was the work of profound and subtle artists writing for a small, leisured, distinguished, and critical audience, while retaining the larger outlook and sense of proportion which had come to them from their own experience of life. The fact, too, that this aristocratic audience was no longer concerned with the activities of political power, exercised a further influence upon the writers of the age.
The old interests of aristocracy—the romance of action, the exalted passions of chivalry and war—faded into the background, and their place was taken by the refined and intimate pursuits of peace and civilization. These tendencies were reflected in literature; and Corneille's tragedies of power were replaced by Racine's tragedies of the heart. Nor was it only in the broad outlines that the change was manifest; the whole temper of life, in all its details, took on the suave, decorous, dignified tone of good breeding, and it was impossible that men of letters should escape the infection.
Their works became remarkable for clarity and elegance, for a graceful simplicity, an easy strength; they were cast in the fine mould of perfect manners—majestic without pretension, expressive without emphasis, simple without carelessness, and subtle without affectation. These are the dominating qualities in the style of that great body of literature, which has rightly come to be distinguished as the Classical literature of France.
Yet there was a reverse to the medal; for such qualities necessarily involved defects, which, hardly perceptible and of small importance in the work of the early masters of the Classical school, became more prominent in the hands of lesser men, and eventually brought the whole tradition into disrepute. It was inevitable that there should be a certain narrowness in a literature which was in its very essence deliberate, refined, and select; omission is the beginning of all art; and the great French classicists, more supremely artistic, perhaps, than any other body of writers in the history of the world, practised with unsparing devotion the virtue of leaving out.
The beauties of clarity, simplicity, and ease were what they aimed at; and to attain them involved the abandonment of other beauties which, however attractive, were incompatible with those. Vague suggestion, complexity of thought, strangeness of imagination—to us the familiar ornaments of poetry—were qualities eschewed by the masters of the age of Louis XIV. They were willing to forgo comprehensiveness and elaboration, they were ready to forswear the great effects of curiosity and mystery; for the pursuit of these led away from the high path of their chosen endeavour—the creation, within the limits they had marked out, of works of flawless art.
To us, with our broader outlook, our more complicated interests, our more elusive moods, their small bright world is apt to seem uninteresting and out of date, unless we spend some patient sympathy in the discovery of the real charm and the real beauty that it contains. Nor is this our only difficulty: the classical tradition, like all traditions, became degenerate; its virtues hardened into mannerisms, its weaknesses expanded into dogmas; and it is sometimes hard for us to discriminate between the artist who has mastered the convention in which he works, and the artisan who is the slave of it.
The convention itself, if it is unfamiliar to us, is what fills our attention, so that we forget to look for the moving spirit behind. And indeed, in the work of the later classicists, there was too often no spirit to look for. The husk alone remained—a finicky pretentious framework, fluttering with the faded rags of ideals long outworn. Every great tradition has its own way of dying; and the classical tradition died of timidity. It grew afraid of the flesh and blood of life; it was too polite to face realities, too elevated to tread the common ground of fact and detail; it would touch nothing but generalities, for they alone are safe, harmless, and respectable; and, if they are also empty, how can that he helped?
Starving, it shrank into itself, muttering old incantations; and it continued to mutter them, automatically, some time after it had expired. But, in the heyday of the age of Louis XIV, literature showed no signs of such a malady—though no doubt it contained the latent germs of the disease; on the contrary, the masterpieces of that epoch are charged to the full with vitality and force.
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We may describe them, in one word, as worldly—worldly in the broadest and the highest acceptation of the term. They represent, in its perfect expression, the spirit of this world—its greatness, its splendour, its intensity, the human drama that animates it, the ordered beauty towards which it tends.
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For that was an age in which the world, in all the plenitude of its brilliance, had come into its own, when the sombre spirituality of the Middle Ages had been at last forgotten, when the literatures of Greece and Rome had delivered their benignant message, when civilization could enjoy for a space its new maturity, before a larger vision had brought questionings, and an inward vision aspirations unknown before. The literature of those days was founded upon a general acceptance—acceptance both in the sphere of politics and of philosophy.
It took for granted a fixed and autocratic society; it silently assumed the orthodox teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, compared with the literature of the eighteenth century, it was unspeculative; compared with that of the Middle Ages, unspiritual.
It was devoid of that perception of the marvellous and awful significance of Natural phenomena which dominates the literature of the Romantic Revival. Fate, Eternity, Nature, the destiny of Man, 'the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come'—such mysteries it almost absolutely ignored. Even Death seemed to lie a little beyond its vision. What a difference, in this respect, between the literature of Louis XIV and the literature of Elizabeth! The latter is obsessed by the smell of mortality; its imagination, penetrating to the depths and the heights, shows us mankind adrift amid eternities, and the whole universe the doubtful shadow of a dream.
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In the former, these magnificent obscurities find no place: they have been shut out, as it were, like a night of storm and darkness on the other side of the window. The night is there, no doubt; but it is outside, invisible and neglected, while within, the candles are lighted, the company is gathered together, and all is warmth and brilliance. To eyes which have grown accustomed to the elemental conflicts without, the room may seem at first confined, artificial, and insignificant.
But let us wait a little!