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The volumes which we are about nounced on an appeal to time—“ No to notice, form part of the course of doubt but we are the men, and wisdom lectures on the Literature of France, shall die with us," was, perhaps, the delivered by Villemain in his capacity only scriptural text to which the men of professor at the Faculté des Lettres of letters of the eighteenth century in Paris, in 1827. They embrace the gave their unqualified and universal first and the most interesting portion assent. And yet this complacent selfof the literature of the eighteenth cen. confidence has been found fallacious; tury; the period of invention and bold the criticism of the nineteenth century philosophical speculation, when litera- has not only lowered from their pride ture, suddenly emerging from the rank of place the popular favourites of the of an art, became in truth what Bo- eighteenth, but, as there is reason to nald calls “ the expression of society" believe, unduly degraded them below --a power in the state of vast and im- their just level, from the not unnamediate influence both for good and tural reaction produced by a total evil; the only power, indeed, which opposition of critical views. One lesson preserved its energy and activity amidst may at all events be gathered, even in à period of social decline. The three the outset, from these revolutions of volumes which complete the course, opinion. Let no nation, or age, flatter and in which the author traces the itself that it has succeeded in fixing literary history of the cighteenth cen- the standard of critical taste. The tury up to the period of the Revolu- canons of criticism may be, in their tion, when a new character was, in main points, invariable, as founded on many respects, impressed upon it, will universal principles of ournature, but it form the subject of a future article. is in their practical application that the
Looking back on the high preten- difficulty occurs. And there all experisions of the eighteenth century, and ence teaches us, that no one age can feel the self-complacent confidence which the least assurance that its judgments, its critics and writers seemed to en- derived as they are from a thousand tertain of their own superiority to all minute circumstances of manners, hawho had gone before, if not also to bits, and opinions, unknown to its preall who were to follow them, it is an decessors, can be in any way binding object of great interest to compare, on their successors; or that there is with the assistance of the lights de any impassable limit in critical georived from experience, their estimate graphy—any spot where the poet or of their own merits and pretensions, the philosopher may pause, as at the with the sentence which has been pro- Pillars of Hercules, and say
Cours de Littérature Française. Par M. Villemain, Membre de l'Académie Française, Professor à la Faculté des Lettres à Paris. Tableau du Dix-huitième Siècle. Première Partie, 2 tom. 1838,
NO, CCLXXXY, VOL. XLVI,
• Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit changes, in short, resulting only in orbis."
the conviction, that nothing has been The difficulty of forming an impar. substantially gained, and that the litial estimate of the literature of the berty enjoyed under a popular King eighteenth century in France, is still can scarcely be distinguished from the great; for the whole character of that despotism so falsely complained of literature was so closely connected under the restored dynasty, have with social and political changes, the taught men generally to distrust fine effects of which are still felt, that its theories, to look with doubt on highmerits or demerits become less a ques. sounding professions, to give greater tion of taste than of personal feeling, weight to experience, to be more to be decided according to the preju- tolerant of all opinions, and less disdices entertained by the critic in favour posed to identify themselves with any. of or against the changes themselves. They have created a spirit of indifferThirty years, for instance, after the ence, favourable to impartiality in death of Voltaire, the struggle between criticism, though not to original inhis admirers and the opponents of his vention ; which, by excluding or fime, was waged as fiercely and unre- weakening, in a great measure, the lentingly as at the moment when he influence of personal feelings, interclosed his career ; for he was still to ests, or political convictions, enables both parties, not so much the drama- the reader more distinctly to perceive tist, the historian, the poet, or the and to judge of the questions of liternovelist, as the apostle of opinions, to ature and taste, which the criticism of which the one party clung as essential the great writers of the last century to social progress and political im. involves. provement, and which the other more The total change, too, which has justly identified with the subversion of taken place in literature itself, affords all morality and all government. His another important aid in forming a reputation became like the dead body just estimation of that by which it was of Patroclus, the central object round preceded; for many of those novelties which the conflict of opinion was main- and experiments in taste which were tained. Political discussion, excluded then advocated, have now been practifrom actual life during the stern rule cally tried, and the result lies before us. of Napoleon, took the direction of We have lived to see the old barriers literary criticism, making the opinions of taste removed the wall of partiexpressed with regard to the literature tion, which separated the literature of of the preceding century, not judg. France from those of other countries, ments, but contradictory pleadings, broken down—the unities banished acrimonious, one-sided, or distorted. from the stage-conventional decorum
The changes which have taken has given way to wild force—an unplace in France since the fall of the regulated imagination has superseded dynasty of Bonaparte—the restoration philosophy—and the extreme of li. and second expulsion of the Bourbons cense has succeeded the extreme of -the establishment, amidst an all but caution. We shall not at present anuniversal exultation, of a monarchiy ticipate the answer to the question, Has owing its existence to a popular move. France been a gainer by the change? ment, and then labouring, from the Or has she exchanged a grave, dignis, first moment of its foundation, to tame fied, and tasteful, though not imaginaor crush the power by which it had tive, literature, which she had carried to been created ; on the one hand, the a high pitch of perfection, for one essengradual decline of popular enthusiasm, tially foreign to her national tastes, in consequent on disappointed expecta- which an appearance of originality is tions, however unreasonable ; on the attained only by the gross exaggeraother, the apprehensions of the more tion of the features which she has borsober and rational, that the barriers rowed from other quarters ? But, unof a steady and constitutional liberty doubtedly, the result of this series of have been already so shaken, or beaten experiments, particularly in the litedown, by the sacrifices made to the rature of imagination as displayed democratic impulse, and the false prin- in the later productions of France, ciple on which the existing monarchy admittedly unpromising, unsatisfacis based, that all hope of a firm and tory, and unnatural, enables us more settled government in France is for correctly to estimate the justice of some time at an end ;- all these those views on which the great works