The Classic Zenith in French Literature



THE zenith in French classical literature was not coterminous with the age of Louis XIV; it came, rather, under the ministry of Mazarin and in the halcyon youth of the reign (1661–67), before Mars had sent the Muses to the rear. The initial stimulus to the literary outburst was given by Richelieu’s encouragement of drama and poetry; the second spur came from the martial triumphs at Rocroi (1643) and Lens (1648); the third flowed from the diplomatic victories of France in the treaties of Westphalia (1648) and the Pyrenees (1659); the fourth, from the association of men of letters with men of breeding and women of culture in the salons; only the final impulse was the patronage of literature by the King and the court. Many of the literary masterpieces of the reign—Pascal’s Letters(1656) and Thoughts, Molière’s Tartuffe (1664), Le Festin de pierre (1665), and Le Misanthrope (1666), La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims (1665), Boileau’s Satires (1667), Racine’s Andromaque (1667)—were written before 1667 by men who had grown up under Richelieu and Mazarin.

It remains nevertheless that Louis was the most lavish patron of literature in all history. Hardly two years after taking over the government (1662–63)—consequently before all but two of the works just mentioned—he asked Colbert and others to have competent persons draw up a list of authors, scholars, and scientists, of whatever land, who merited aid. From these lists forty-five Frenchmen and fifteen foreigners received royal pensions. 1 The Dutch scholars Heinsius and Vossius, the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens, the Florentine mathematician Viviani, and many other foreigners were surprised to receive letters from Colbert apprising them that they had been voted pensions by the French King, subject to approval by their own governments. Some of these pensions ran as high as three thousand livres per year. Boileau, the unofficial president of poetry, lived on his pensions like a grand seigneur, and left 286,000 francs in cash; Racine received 145,000 francs over a period of ten years as royal historian. 2 Probably the international pensions were motived in part by the wish to have a favorable press abroad; and the domestic gifts aimed to bring thought, like industry and art, under governmental co-ordination and control. This aim was achieved: all publication was subjected to state censorship, and the French mind submitted, with only sporadic and negligible resistance, to royal supervision of its printed expression. Moreover, the King was persuaded that these pensioned pens would sing his praises in prose and verse and send a rosy picture of him down to history. They did their best.

Louis not only pensioned men of letters, he protected and respected them, raised their social status, and welcomed them at court. “Remember,” he said to Boileau, “that I shall always have a half hour to give you.” 3 His literary taste may have leaned too far toward classical order, dignity, and good form; but these virtues seemed to him not only to stabilize government but to ennoble France. In some ways he was ahead of the people and the court in his literary judgments. We have seen him protecting Molière against noble and ecclesiastical sniping; we shall see him encouraging the highest flights of Racine.

Again at the suggestion of Colbert, and again following in the steps of Richelieu, Louis declared himself the personal protector of the French Academy, raised it to the rank of a major state institution, provided it with ample funds, and gave it lodgings in the Louvre. Colbert himself became a member. When an Academician who was also a grand seigneur had an easy chair installed in the Academy for his own comfort, Colbert sent for thirty-nine more such seats to maintain an equality of dignity above distinctions of class; so “les quarante fauteuils” became a synonym for the Académie Française. In 1663 a subsidiary Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres was organized to record the events of the reign.

Colbert saw to it that the forty Immortals earned their keep by dutiful attendance, and by work on the Dictionary. This undertaking, begun in 1638, was progressing so slowly that Boisrobert could express alphabetically his longing for longevity:

Six months they’ve been engaged on F;

Oh, that my fate would guarantee

That I should keep alive till G. 4

The plan of the Dictionary was elaborate: it proposed to trace each permissible word through the history of its uses and spellings, with abundant illustrative quotations; so fifty-six years elapsed between its inception and its first publication (1694). It screened too strictly the language of the people, the professions, and the arts; it pruned Rabelais, Amyot, and Montaigne; it outlawed a thousand expressions that favored vivid speech. The same logic, precision, and clarity that made geometry the ideal of seventeenth-century science and philosophy, the same authority and discipline by which Colbert ruled the economy and Le Brun the arts, the same dignity and refinement that governed the court of the King, the same classic cleaving to rules that molded the style of Bossuet, Fénelon, La Rochefoucauld, Racine, and Boileau—these dictated the Dictionary of the Academy. Periodically it has been revised and reissued, struggling to maintain order in a living growth, its classical citadel repeatedly assaulted, and often conquered, by the errors of the people, the terminology of the sciences, the jargon of the trades, the argot of the streets; a dictionary, like history and government, is a composition of forces between the weight of the many and the power of the few. Something was lost to the language in vitality, much was gained in purity, precision, elegance, and prestige. It produced no turbulent and wanton Shakespeare, but it became the most respected language in Europe, the medium of diplomacy, the speech of aristocracies. For a century and more, Europe aspired to be French.

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