Romanticism in France Essay

In France, romanticism is first of all a revolt against a firmly entrenched classicism. In this respect, French romanticism is markedly diflerent from romanticism in England, Germany, or Spain, where classicism had been less in accord with the national temper and had not risen to the glorious heights of the century of Corneille, Racine, and Moliere. It is not surprising therefore that classicism, having produced so rich a literature of profound psychological insight, should have prolonged its dominance in France, to aconsidcrable degree,even into the early years of the nineteenth century. It is significant too that in France, romanticism established itself first in prose with Rousseau and his successors, then in poetry with Lamartine, and only at last in drama with the final triumph of Hugo’s Hemam’ in 1830. This sequence corresponds to the degree of resistance in these three literary forms. The victory over the codified rules of classic tragedy could come in France only after a long fight extending over more than a hundred years. This explains why so much of French debate about the theories of romanticism turns about the drama.

acques-Louis David, Marat Assassinated

Jacques-Louis David, Marat Assassinated, 1793, oil on canvas, 165 x 64.96 cm (Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium)

The history of this battle of old and new tendencies through the eighteenth century has been many times recounted. Foreign influences, Shakespeare, Ossian, Goethe’s Werlher, and others, play their part. There are critics who, resenting the triumph of romanticism, see in it a movement alien to the French spirit, an unfortunate apostasy from classicism due to the bancful influence of the literatures of England and Germany. This, however, is an emotional reaction, not a sound historical viewpoint.

In refutation of such an interpretation, it may be pointed out that the eighteenth century in France early saw a resurgence of feeling in opposition to that rather perfect equilibrium between reason and sentiment which has been called classicism.‘ Already at the end of the seventeenth century, quietistic mysticism, the “torrents of tears” in Fénelon’s Télemaque (1699), are indications of a new orientation. Even before the Abbé Prévost, in a number of ways a forerunner of romanticism, had come in contact with England at the end of 1728, he had published the first volumes of his sentimental novel, the Mémoz’res d’un 110mm: tie quaIilé. His next work of fiction, Cléveland (1731—39), drew more tears of sympathy from Rousseau, as the Confessions‘ tell us, than even the lat- ter’s own poignant sufferings. Prévost himself lived in some measure the experiences of Des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut before he published in 1731 his masterpiece, which is one of the few French novels of the eighteenth century to live with a full life today. The ”weepy comedies” of La Chausst‘e are another important indication of tendencies changing from within. Even before foreign influences began to make themselves deeply felt, it appears, then, that the current in France was already setting in a new direction. Moreover, it is now clear to historians of litera- ture that the seeds of influence, foreign or domestic, do not take root and grow until the soil is prepared to receive them. The French found stimulus in foreign works, in many ways so strikingly difierent from their own; but they took from them only what was increasingly in accord with the gradually changing taste of the time. French romanticism still remained French: it did not become English or German.

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The influence of Rousseau’s personality as manifested in the posthumousCon/essians published on the eve of the French Revolution, the great vogue of the Nowell: Heloise (1761), are well known. Rousseau offers a natural background to the wave of autobiographical and subjective literature which characterizes in France, as in other countries of Europe, the first half of the nineteenth century. His contribution and that of his successor and disciple, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, to the development of a more colorful, more personal prose style need not he insisted upon. It is clear that much of what we now call romanticism is already in being, without the name, in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Théodore Géricault, Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy

Théodore Géricault, Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy, also known as The Hyena of the Salpêtrière, c. 1819-20, 72 x 58 cm (Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon)

But what of the origin of this word romantic, which had hardly yet ac quired literary existence? The word is found in the last quarter of the
seventeenth century in France with the meaning of “romanesque” in a derogatory sense.7 In 1745 the Abbe‘ Leblanc quotes the English word romantic, applies it to the new style of English garden, and translates it as “about the same as picturesque.” Rousseau, in his Réverier du Pra‘
mensur solitaire (written in 1777), describes the banks of Lake Bienne as “wilder and more romantic than those of Lake Geneva.” The word came to him apparently from an English correspondent, Davenport.” Admitted to the Academy Dictionary in 1798, the word romantic is there defined as applying “ordinarily to places and landscapes which recall to the imagination the descriptions of poems and novels.’”° It was only a step to reverse this application and employ the word to indicate poems, novels, works of art which evoke the type of picturesque or solitary scene generally thought of as romantic.“ But it was Germany, as it seems, which caused this word, introduced into France from England, to be used particularly in opposition to clarric. With such a meaning the word appears, for example, in Mme de Stael’s hook, De l’Allemagm, published after (leIay by the censor in 1813.12 During the next fifteen years, definitions of romanticism abound in France.

Meanwhile, however, the French Revolution had come and gone. The work of Rousseau, thediscussion of the Hamlet monologue with its theme of suicide, the vogue of Goethe’s Wmlm from 1776 on, the popularity of Young’s melancholy Night Thoughts, all show that it was not the great political upheaval of 1789 alone which produced that ma! du riécle, which is so important a characteristic of Chateaubriand and of his romantic successors. Literary as well as political change was already in the air.

Temporarily, indeed, the Revolution seems to have checked the (levelopment of romanticism. With the decline of Revolutionary ardor, Napoleon had fought his way to power and laid his iron hand upon thought and literature under the Empire. Although in earlier years he had paced up and down in his tent enthusiastically declaiming Ossian, later he threw his support to classic taste, which was already evident in
much of the oratory of the Revolution. The heroic characters of Corneille appealed to Bonaparte as the apotheosis of the dangerous love of glory which he wished to inspire in, or impose upon, his French subjects.“ The censorship ruled out free speech or discouraged startling innovations. Moreover, many a young man of potential genius left his bones on the battlefields of Europe. “For nineteen years,” as Dumas said, “the enemy’s cannon mowed down the ranks of the generation of men from fifteen to thirty-six years of age.”“ Of those who survived, how many must have used up all their energies in political or military activity!

But the Revolution had also a positive influence in sweeping away the dead wood of the past. The Salon: which had scorned Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul at Virginie (1787) could not prevent its popularity with the general public. They had lost their dominance of literary taste. Moreover, during the revolutionary years of turmoil, the conservative influence of the schools was temporarily suspended. A new public had been created by the Revolution, 3. public tired of the old forms of classic tragedy based upon the three unities, a public which preferred the rapid action, the sharp contrasts, and the new subjects of the melodrama of the boulevards, a public gradually preparing itself unconsciously for the Romantic theater of a Hugo or a Dumas.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, 2.6 x 3.25m, 1830 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, 2.6 x 3.25m, 1830 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

It is at this time, when the way had been so well prepared, that Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801) came suddenly before a public eager to receive it. This idyl of primitivism gave to Rousseau’s “noble savages” a charm with which even he, working through imagination alone, had not been able to invest them. Moreover, all the color of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre passes into Chateaubriand’s brief novel, plus some of his own.

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Homer, the Bible, Ossian have been fused into this idealized picture of the American wilderness. The sentences of Alala have a rhythm, a cadence, a beauty, which explain Chateaubriand’s profound influence upon Hugo and, through him, upon other great French stylists during
the rest of the century. It is evident that a new prose style, written for the eye and the ear, and not primarily for the intellect, has been born.
This is one of the first, and greatest, contributions of romanticism.

Following Atala, comes Rmé (1802), quite different in manner. Here the colorful descriptions of American exoticism are lacking, but Chateaubriand has done something else no less important. After Rousseau, after Wmlzer, after his own years of poverty and loneliness and near—suicide as an emigre in England, Chateaubriand gives the portrait of the tortured Romantic soul, a finite spirit fraught with longings for the infinite, cast adrift upon a world torn loose from its moorings by eighteenth-century scepticism and the terrible years of social and political revolution.

The romantic malady, the mal du siécle, the Wellschmerz of the age, found in Chateaubriand an eloquent analyst; and after him even fundamentally healthy spirits, like Hugo and the elder Dumas, must needs paint their Chateaubriand-esque and Byronic heroes, Hernani and Antony. In Chateaubriand’s Genie du Christianirme (1802) is found also the cult of medievalism, the admiration for the Gothic cathedral, which further characterize the romantic reaction against classic ideals of regularity and balance. Gothic becomes a term of admiration, no longer one of barbarisrn and reproach.

The influence of Mme de Stael, on the other hand, is greatest in the field of romantic theory. At the threshold of the new century (in 1800)
she published her work entitled: Dela lillérature camizlén‘e (Ian: 52: rapport: avec les instiluliom socialer. What are the relations between literature and social institutions? she asks. Since modern society after the French Revolution has greatly changed, Mme de Stael holds that literature, which is the expression of society, must change also. A new literature for a new age. Thus the classicist’s idea of the fixity of literary forms gives way before the concept of constant evolution. There are two main groups of literatures, the literature of the North and the literature of the South. Here Mme de Stael, after Montesquieu, brings into play the idea of the influence of climate. The literatures of the South are clear in their outlines, gay with the gaiety of the sun and the bright atmosphere of the Midi. The literatures of the North are melancholy, impregnated with the mystery of life, shaped by the environment of mist and rain and gloom of which Ossian represents the type. French literature should now open its doors to this literature from the north. It should become better acquainted with Shakespeare and should develop a drama based upon national history, abandoning the two unities of time and place, keeping only the unity of action, and giving expression to the complexity of good and evil, tragedy and comedy, in human life. The mileage dc: game: has triumphed, in theory at least. Unity of tragic tone will not he the goal of the romantic dramatist as it had been of his classic predecessors, although in France he will abandon the old practice timidly and not with the unhesitating naturalness of a Shakespeare. Here too the influence of the classic past still continues strong.

Except for Andi-é Chénier, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in French literature are almost bare of great lyric poetry. Hence Lamar- tine’s Méditalirm: in 1820 offered a sharp contrast to the pale, forgotten poets of the preceding century and of the Empire. The personal feeling, the inspiration linked with natural scenery, the vague mysticism and religiosity, the languorous cadences, the romantic melancholy due to a tragic love not too clearly revealed, all these caught the ear of the public. But it was not yet evident that romanticism as a new movement was born. The youthful Victor Hugo, still conservative in viewpoint, perceived only vaguely Lamartine’s qualities.“ Indeed, it was the classicists the ”bien-pensants,” who at first often best appreciated Lamartine as a defender of the throne and the altar against the scepticism of Voltaire  and the eighteenth century. The liberals, on the contrary, for political reasons showed themselves hesitant.” Lamartine and Hugo and Yigny were in fact themselves still politically conservative and were not yet conscious of being founders of a new literary movement.

But in 1823 the theories of the Italian Kfanzoni became known in France. Abandonment of the two unities of time and place, which have unfortunately cramped the development of French drama, the mingling of the tragic and the comic in a single play, these are the principles for which, after Mme de Steel and before Hugo, Manzoni took his stand.’

In 1823 also Stendhal, later more significant for his realistic than for his romantic qualities, appears for a moment as a standard bearer of revtlt against classicism. Ifis Racine el Shakespeare (1823-25) sets in opposition these two great figures, taken as types of the two schools.
What is classicism? What is romanticism? asks Stendhal, and answers his own questions with humorous irony: “Romanticism is the literature which pleases people today. Classicism is the literature which pleased their great-grand-fathers.”” So Stenlhal joins ifme de Stael in demandg g a new literature for a new age.

Yet in 1824, the year following, the twenty-two-year-old Hugo enavors s to continue “au-dessus de la melee.” He says that he still remains “profoundly ignorant of what is meant by classic and romantic.

… In literature, as in all else, there is only the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false.'”‘ Hugo at this time admires Shakespeare and Calderon, but also Racine and Boileau.’

In the next years, however, opinion moves rapidly forward. The glory of Byron” is definitely consecrated by his romantic death in Greece durg g the Greek war of independence against the Turks in 1824. During the decade from 1820 to 1830 the novels of Scott made a deep impression abroad as at home, appearing at Paris in French translation almost simultaneously with their pul>lication in English at Edinburgh. Thus the historical novel establishes itself in France. With Thierry, among others, and especially with Michelet, history itself takes on a new color which it had not l.nown before. An eiTort is made, not merely to narrate, to analyze, the past, but to evoke it, to make it spring to life before the reader’s eyes. This is another important accomplishment of romanticism.

Similar tendencies of course are to be noted in the field of drama. From 1820 to 1827, says M. Bray, it is Schiller who is most influential upon the French theater. Maria Stuart and the Maid of Orleans are the plays à la mode.” They did much to break down the prestige of the classical rules.”

Shakespeare, hissed by the French public seven years after Waterloo in 1822 as a “lieutenant de Wellington,”‘3‘ is applauded through a long, suecessful run in 1827 and 1828. His plays are presented in English by competent actors from London. After the timid adaptations of Ducis in the eighteenth century, here is a contrast indeed. It is the first revelation of the real Shakespeare on the French stage. The young romanticists are enthusiastic. Vigny translates Shylock in 1828, presents the Many of Venice in 1829. Shakespeare, if by no means very fully understood, becomes at any rate a rallying cry for the French romanticists.

Spain also plays its role. Spanish drama had been traditionally free of “rules.” Spanish local color of costume, setting, and character, howeve inaccurate it might be, was well fitted to captivate the romantics. Already in 1822 Abel Hugo, the brother of Victor, had published a translation of Spanish ballads.” Victor Hugo himself, it will be recalled, as a child of nine, had traversed Spain, passing by a little town called Ernani, and had gone to school for a year in Madrid. Whatever the memories of this brief and early experience beyond the Pyrenees, it is not surprising that Hugo’s two best plays, Hemam‘ and Ray Blur, should spring from a Spanish setting.

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As for Italy, Mme de Stael, not only the literary critic, but also the author of the novel Corinne, au l’Ilalie (1807), had done much to promote the vogue of the country across the Alps. Venice will soon become the city par excellence of romantic lovers, like George Sand and Alfred de Musset. The Italian Renaissance particularly will offer a colorful setting for play and story. To Stendhal, Italy will appear the very incarnation of romantic energy.

Under the force of influences at home and abroad, Hugo moves out of his neutrality. The romantic Ce‘nacle takes form about him as the strong, energetic chief for whom the new movement has been waiting. He publishes in 1827 the important romantic manifesto, the Préface to Cromwell. Like Mme de Stael, Hugo too seeks a national drama. This new drama will be inspired with the dualism found in Christianity.“ Hence Hugo’s celebrated theory of the Sublime and the Grotesque.” Classic unity of tone is to give place to the mélange des genres, thc sharp contrasts seen in life itself, the saints and gargoyles of the medieval cathedral. “All in Nature is in Art,” says Hugo.”

The triumph of Hugo’s colorful, romantic play, Hemam’, follows on February 25, 1830. The story of that battle between classicists and ro- manticists has been too many times narrated to be told again here. It is sufficient to remind ourselves that there were still ardent classicists in France and that the victory of romanticism was by no means assured.

The fight was hot. But, with the increasing popularity of Hemam’, it became evident that classic tragedy was at length dead. The great tragedies of Corneille and of Racine still live with a life of their own. But the power of the classic rules to impose their form upon all drama was gone forever. ”Romanticism,” said Hugo, “is Liberalism in literature.”” Let the nineteenth century, he had already written two years before, become identified with “Liberty in Art.”“ Here again is one of the outstanding accomplishments of romanticism in France. It is definitelyamovemcnt of liberation in literature.

But the greatest literary achievements of French romanticism are to be found neither on the stage nor in such colorful evocations of the past as Hugo’s historical novel, No!re»Dame dz Paris (1831). Most romantic novels and plays of the period are psychologically false, built to formula, rather than in accordance with the complex truths of human character. It is in lyric poetry that French romanticism, like that of other nations, found its most enduring triumphs. Here depth of personal feeling, power of expression, the revivification of the language, all united to produce the great poetry of Lamartine, Vigny, Hugo, and Musset. It is not without significance that, to the French, Hugo is primarily, not a dramatist, not a novelist, but a poet. In poetry, his infinite variety of expression and subject, his extraordinary mastery of language, the rich flow of his striking figures of speech, his remarkable ability to run the gamut from the most biting invective or the heights of epic grandeur to the depths of tenderness and sentiment or the whimsical indulgent love of agrandfather for the vagaries of childhood, these unique qualities made him, in spite of defects, the dominant French literary genius of his century.

There is no time to speak of the thoughtful, courageous pessimism of Vigny, of the Winsome, tragic charm of Musset. It is sufficient to remind ourselves of the lasting contributions made by romantic poetry to the rich pageant of French literature.

Briefly, and with many necessary omissions, we have followed the de- velopment of French romanticism to the moment of its triumph. To what conclusions may we come?

It is noteworthy that romanticism in France looks out upon the external world and at the same time inward upon man’s human and mystical longings. 0n the one hand, as never before to the same degree, is the emphasis upon local color, ”la couleur locale,” the sensitiveness to visual
detail, to the sense impressions of sound, and, to a lesser extent than later in the century, to those of odor and perfume. In this respect, the romanticists descend no doubt from Locke and the French ”sensationalists” like Condillac, but in description Rousseau, Bernardin de Saint—Pierre, and Chateaubriand have definitely shown the way. On the other hand, reacting against the rationalistic scepticism of the ”ideologues” of the eighteenth century, the romanticists are deeply conscious of the mystery of human life. The “frisson métaphysique” is frequently present in their work. A religion of feeling, if not of doctrine, is strongly evident among the typical romantics as it had been before them with Rousseau and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. In this respect, eighteenth-century deism continues its influence, but made more attractive by the color and emotion with which the great romantic writers were able to invest it.

If romanticism is in some respects to be regarded as a return to admiration ot‘ the Middle Ages, it is also a natural continuation of the freedom and exuberance of the Renaissance. Rousseau was a profound admirer of Montaigne, and Sainte-Beuve found in sixteenth-century French poetry the ancestry of his contemporaries, the great romantic poets of the nineteenth.‘ The individualism of the Renaissance reappears in the French romantic movement.

Yet classic order and logic persist also in French romanticism. The sense for balanced form and composition still remains strong. In this respect, there is less of subtle mystery, less wayward caprice in literary style and structure, during the French movement, than in England or
Germany.“ French romanticism, though varied, remains clear. The French of this period do not warmly welcome the metaphysical complexities of German romantic theory. The fantastic takes no deep hold upon the writers of outstanding genius. The great French romantics have no cult of obscurity, no great liking for the supernatural, no search or  the “Blue Flower.“ The classicism against which romanticism was so definitely a reaction still continued to exert a potent influence in France.

What of the results ofromanticism? Above all, romanticism established the right of a new literature to come into being. This in itself was a great achievement. It is henceforth to be admitted that literature must change with the times. New schools, even those directly opposed to romanti cism, owe it, then, a great debt. A cosmopolitan appreciation of exotic and foreign literatures, breadth of literary taste, are also anatural consequence. Moreover, romanticism does not end with the fall of Hugo’s Bmgnn-es in 1843. There is romantic “mal du siècle” in the tortured soul of Baudelaire, romantic color and yearning held in reluctant check in Flaubert. Zola‘s magnificent crowd scenes evoke the epic grandeur of similar scenes in Hugo’s Noire—Dame de Paris. In fact, it is generally agreed that many of Zola’s most striking qualities, particularly his power to seize the imagination with a kind of poetic vision of reality, his vivid personification of inanimate objects, are essentially romantic. Moreover, il realism is a reaction against romanticism, it is also a direct out—growth of it. The romantic local color of a Chateaubriand or of a Hugo needs only to become more accurate and to deal with contemporary settings in order to give rise to the realistic descriptions of a Balzac. At the end of the nineteenth century, symbolist poetry in France goes at length beyond romantic eloquence“5 to express more fully the mysticism and the sometimes obscure music which French romanticism, still inherently logical, as we have seen, under the long dominance of the Classic tradition, hinted at but did not completely accept, as it was more instinctively accepted in England and Germany.“ In this respect, the symbolists are a continuation and a natural culmination of the romantic
movement.

In the face of a certain number of violent enemies of romanticism, who have looked at it unhistorically’7 and too often have concentrated attention upon the “lunatic fringe” of eccentric and secondary figures, we need only to imagine French literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without a preceding romantic movement, in order to see how infinitely poorer modern literature would thus have been, less olorful, less concerned with emotion, less sensitive to all the deep mystery and complexity of human life.