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- The Interdependence of Literature - 10/15 -
were some of the best known of modern romances. The word romance, which in the early history of France was used to distinguish the common dialect from the Latin, was later applied to all imaginative and inventive tales. Of this class was "Tristam de Leonois," written in 1190; the "San Graal," and "Lancelot." In the same century appeared "Alexander," a poem which became so celebrated that poetry, written in the same measure, is to this day called Alexandrine verse.
A poetess known as Marie of France, wrote twelve lays to celebrate the glories of the Round Table. She addresses herself to a king supposed to be Henry VI, and has made extensive use of early British legends. Chaucer and other English poets, have drawn many inspirations from her poems.
The Trouveres not only originated the romances of chivalry; but they also invented allegorical poems. The most celebrated is the "Romance of the Rose," written in the thirteenth century. It consisted of 20,000 verses, and although tedious, because of its length, it was universally admired, and became the foundation of all subsequent allegory among the different nations. The poetry of the Trouveres was unlike anything in antiquity, and unlike, too, to what came after it. It dealt with high-minded love and honor, the devotion of the strong to the weak, and the supernatural in fiction. All this, which formed part of its composition, has been attributed to both the Arabians and the Germans; but it was in truth a peculiar production of the Normans, the most active and enterprising people in Europe, a nation who pushed into Russia, Constantinople, England, France, Sicily and Syria. A treasury of a later date, from which the Trouveres drew their fabliaux in the thirteenth century, was a collection of Indian tales that had been translated into Latin in the tenth century. These fabliaux show that inventiveness, gaiety, and simple, yet delightful esprit, which is found nowhere but among the French. The Arabian tales, which had found their way into France, were also turned into verse, while the anecdotes that were picked up in the castles and towns of France, furnished other material for the fabliaux. These tales were the common property of the country at large, and are the source from which Boccaccio, La Fontaine, and others drew their inspiration. Some of them became famous and have been passed down from one age to another.
The Renard of Goethe, and the Zaire of Voltaire were taken from the old fabliaux. In the fourteenth century the coming of the Popes and the Roman Court to Avignon introduced an Italian element, and the language of Tuscany took the place of the Provencal among the upper classes.
La Fontaine, called the "Prince of Fablists," appeared in the seventeenth century. Many of his fables were borrowed from ancient sources; but clothed in a new dress. He has been closely imitated by his Confreres and by the fablists of other nations; but has easily remained the most renowned of them all.
The philosophy of Descartes in the sixteenth century prepared the way for Locke, Newton and Leibnitz; and his system, although now little used, was really the foundation of what followed. He is said to have given new and fresher impulse to mathematical and philosophical study than any other student, either ancient or modern.
Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes, is renowned for his Provencal Letters, a book that has become a classic in France. It is full of wit, and of exquisite beauty of language; but its teaching is pure sophistry. Pascal first set the example of writing about religion in a tone of mock levity, especially when by so doing, he could abuse the Jesuits. In the end this weapon of keen and delicate satire was turned against Christianity itself, when Voltaire in the eighteenth century recognized its possibilities, and made use of it.
The older French literature in the sixteenth century had become so neglected, and was so lacking in cultivation; so little adapted to poetry, that the nation seemed in danger of losing all its earlier traditions. For a hundred years France was given over to profane and light literature. Montaigne, Charyon, Ronsard and de Balzac are some of the names of this period. The death of a cat or dog was made the subject of a poem that was no real poetry. It is due to the women of France--to Madame de Rambouillet and her confreres, and to the literary coteries that arose in the middle of the seventeenth century--that French literature acquired a deeper and more serious tone. This period was followed by the founding of the French Academy, of which Cardinal Richelieu was the chief patron. The tragic dramatists, Corneille and Racine, now appeared on the literary horizon. Racine's language and versification was said to be far superior to either Milton in English or Virgil in Latin.
In tragedy the French stand pre-eminent; but it is matter for regret that their subjects are never taken from their own nation--they rarely represent French heroes; and it is a weakness of their literature that they make no direct appeal to the national feeling. There is a close connection between the classical dramas of Racine and Corneille, and such works as Pope's Iliad, Addison's Cato and Dryden's Alexander's Feast, showing the general interest in Greek and Roman subjects during their time.
The older poetry of the chivalric period was entirely discarded, though it would have been possible to unite the old chivalric spirit, the freedom and romance of mediaeval times, with the later renaissance, as was done by other nations. The French literature is more closely formed on the model of the earlier refined nations of antiquity, as the Roman was on the Greek.
The later French poetry of the seventeenth century came into opposition with the teaching of Rousseau, this gave birth to a taste for English poetry and the classic poetry of France was a copy of the descriptive poetry of England. In the eighteenth century prose writings superseded verse. At this time the English had taken the lead in literature, and modern French philosophy was built on that of Bacon and Locke. It was no part of the plan of the English philosophers, however, to inculcate such ideas as the French philosophers drew from their writings. Bacon, who was profoundly Christian, believed that man alone was the type of God, and nature the work of God's hands; but the French leaders in philosophy went beyond this, they deified nature, and threw aside as mysticism whatever could not be proved by sense. Voltaire made use of all the wonderful greatness of science, as revealed by Bacon and Newton, not to exalt the Creator; but to lower man to the level of the brute. Like the old Greek sophists, who defended first one side of a question, and then the one diametrically opposed to it, Voltaire would write one book in favor of God, and another to deny Him; but it is not difficult to see which is his real belief. This perverted philosophy of Voltaire in turn reacted on the English mind, and particularly on history. We see its workings in both Gibbon and Hume. The "little philosophy" which "inclineth a man's mind to atheism," led the eighteenth century philosophers to fancy that Newton's discoveries meant that everything could be attained without religion, and that the only true and wide vision could be reached by the senses alone. They taught a pure materialism, to their own undoing; for it is not possible to thus lightly throw aside our great links with the past, in which both Christian and heathen, knowingly and unknowingly, in mediaeval poetry, in heroic ballad, and in Egyptian prose, testified to the existence of God.
The nineteenth century in France has been rich in dramatists, novelists, historians and poets, as well as in science and learning of all kinds; but it has had no especial power, or aim, and its opinions are constantly changing. The early novelists were strongly directed by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, while later ones have sought to imitate Victor Hugo and George Sand. The literature of this period has had no effect outside of France. Poetry has not risen any higher than Alfred de Musset; and any further greatness in French poetry must come from a revival of their own ancient poems and legends.
Poetry that deals only with the present becomes local, and in the end is influenced by the constant caprice and change of fashion instead of by the deep, heart-stirring beliefs of a strong and united people.
The first general language of Italy was the Latin, and so strongly was the Italian mind dominated by the influence of ancient Rome that her earliest writers sought to keep alive the Roman tradition. This spirit of freedom led to the establishment of the Italian Republics, and after the Lombard cities threw off the yoke of Frederick Barbarossa they turned their chief attention to education and literature. The spirit of chivalry and chivalric poetry never took such root in Italy as it did in other European countries. Nevertheless, Italy was not uninfluenced by the Crusades, and the Arabs, establishing a celebrated school of medicine at Salerno, gave a new impetus to the study of the classics. In Bologna was opened a school of jurisprudence, where Roman law was studied, and these schools, or universities soon appeared in other parts of Italy.
The Italians devoted more time to the study of law and history, and to making translations from the Greek philosophers, than to the cultivation of chivalric poetry, although many of the Italian poets wrote in Provencal and French; and Italian Troubadours made journeys to the European Courts.
It has been said that the only poetry that has any real power over a people is that which is written or composed in their own language. This is especially true of Italy. Following this early Latin period came Dante, the most glorious, and inventive of the Italian poets, and indeed one of the greatest masters of verse in the world. He perfected the Tuscan, or Florentine dialect, which was gradually becoming the literary language of Italy. Petrarch, who succeeded Dante, is greatest in his Italian poems, and it is by these that he is best known, while his Latin works, which he hoped would bring him fame, have been almost forgotten.
In the fifteenth century the use of the national language in literature entirely died out, through the rise of the Humanists, and the craze for Greek and Latin classics; but toward the end of the fifteenth century, under Lorenzo de'Medici and Leo X, interest in their own literature among the Italians began to revive again. Ariosto and Tasso wrote their magnificent epics; and once more Italian poetry was read and appreciated, and reached the height of its renown. Again in the seventeenth century it declined under the influence of the Marini school; whose bad taste and labored and bombastic style, was unfortunately imitated in both France and Spain. In the
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