French literature, Babbitt, Irving, 1865-1933. Rights: Public Domain, Google-digitized, 49 pages



THIS course has been prepared for those who wish to know more about French literature. It comprises a brief introduction to the subject and a guide to a few of the best books. The books should be available in any general library or may be obtained through any good bookstore.

If you wish to continue your reading in this field, the librarian of your Public Library will be glad to make suggestions. If you desire to increase your knowledge of other subjects, you are referred to the other courses in this Reading with a Purpose series and to your Public Library.

The American Library Association



PROBABLY no other modern literature, not even English, has been so richly and continuously productive from the medieval period to the present day, and has exercised so wide an influence as that of France. It would seem worth while to become acquainted with this literature even through the medium of translation. Familiarity with some of the great French writers will prove rewarding in itself; it will also put one on guard against preconceived notions, and enable one to some extent to form a first hand estimate of a great national culture. Certain traditional English views of the French, not entirely obsolete even now, are so unfair as partly to justify the French suspicion of « perfidious Albion. » At the very moment when France of the classical period was producing a series of literary masterpieces, Dryden accused the French of « want of genius. » Coleridge says that the French judgment on Shakespeare is that « of monkeys, by some wonderful phenomenon, put into the mouths of people shaped like men. » This Coleridgean prejudice is echoed at times by our own Emerson.

Instead of viewing the French too exclusively from our own angle, we should strive to grasp those very merits in French literature which are not exhibited to the same degree in the literature of the English-speaking peoples. The first of these merits is that of clear and consistent thinking. This logicality is closely related to what Pascal, the great French religious philosopher and mathematician, calls the « spirit of geometry. » France has not only produced great abstract reasoners, from the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages down, but also eminent geometricians like Lagrange and Laplace. The two aptitudes, the geometrical and the logical, are combined in Descartes, the father of modern philosophy (1596-1650).

To be sure, the French have often suffered, like the rest of us, from the « defects of their virtues. » Their undue confidence in logic reminds one at times of the character in Moliere who had acquired a knowledge of fencing that enabled him « to kill a man by demonstrative reasoning, » and who is at last disarmed by his servant-girl with a broomstick. One may admit the occasional logical excess of the French mind and yet not prefer the English habit of « muddling through, » or acquiesce in the half ironical praise bestowed by Walter Bagehot on the English; namely, that « in real sound stupidity they are unrivalled. »

The French have not only displayed a love of logic but also of discriminating and artistic speech. As a result, French prose, especially since the seventeenth century, has achieved a general level of excellence that has not been equalled by any other modern literature. Here again, as always in human nature, the defect is close to the virtue. It has been said that « what is not clear is not French. » Unfortunately the deepest things in life are not clear and the too exclusive pursuit of clearness has resulted at times in France in superficiality.

The keen and sensitive intelligence of the French, in combination with their artistic sense, has given them preeminence in another field, that of literary criticism. « Critic-learning flourished most in France, » says Pope. This saying is as true of the period that has followed Pope as of the one that preceded him. The older type of criticism, which aimed primarily at judgment, culminated in Boileau, the chief critical figure of the second half of the seventeenth century; the modern type, which aims primarily at breadth of comprehension and sympathy, has a supreme exponent in Sainte-Beuve, the great critic of the century just past. England has never had either a Boileau or a Sainte-Beuve.

As a result of the French clarity and logicality it is perhaps easier to trace in France than elsewhere the interplay, and at times conflict, of certain main conceptions of life from the Middle Ages to the present day. These main conceptions can be reduced to three: the religious, the humanistic and the naturalistic. One must, of course, allow for numerous sub-varieties of each conception and also keep in mind that a classification of this kind, if it is not to be misleading, must be used very flexibly. Practically, religion has in the Occident meant various types of Christianity, whereas humanism has appeared in greater or lesser degree in the varying conceptions of the gentleman. « Nothing is more certain, » says Burke, « than that our manners, our civilization and all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. » Naturalism does not become a major factor until the sixteenth century and does not threaten to overthrow the religious and humanistic points of view until the eighteenth century.



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