« PreviousContinue »
stories gained an immense popularity in France, but they did not long retain their original character. In the crucible of the facile and successful CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES, who wrote towards the close of the twelfth century, they assumed a new complexion; their mystical strangeness became transmuted into the more commonplace magic of wizards and conjurers, while their elevated, immaterial conception of love was replaced by the superfine affectations of a mundane gallantry. Nothing shows more clearly at what an early date, and with what strength, the most characteristic qualities of French literature were developed, than the way in which the vague imaginations of the Celtic romances were metamorphosed by French writers into the unambiguous elegances of civilised life.
Both the Chansons de Geste and the Romans Bretons were aristocratic literature: they were concerned with the life and ideals—the martial prowess, the chivalric devotion, the soaring honour—of the great nobles of the age. But now another form of literature arose which depicted, in short verse narratives, the more ordinary conditions of middle-class life. These Fabliaux, as they were called, are on the whole of no great value as works of art; their poetical form is usually poor, and their substance exceedingly gross. Their chief interest lies in the fact that they reveal, no less clearly than the aristocratic Chansons, some of the most abiding qualities of the French genius. Its innate love of absolute realism and its peculiar capacity for cutting satire—these characteristics appear in the Fabliaux in all their completeness. In one or two of the stories, when the writer possesses a true vein of sensibility and taste, we find a surprising vigour of perception and a remarkable psychological power. Resembling the Fabliaux in their realism and their bourgeois outlook, but far more delicate and witty, the group of poems known as the Roman de Renard takes a high place in the literature of the age. The humanity, the dramatic skill, and the command of narrative power displayed in some of these pleasant satires, where the foibles and the cunning of men and women are thinly veiled under the disguise of animal life, give a foretaste of the charming art which was to blossom forth so wonderfully four centuries later in the Fables of La Fontaine.
One other work has come down to us from this early epoch, which presents a complete contrast, both with the rough, bold spirit of the Chansons de Geste and the literal realism of the Fabliaux. This is the “chante-fable"
(or mingled narrative in verse and prose) of Aucassin et Nicolete. Here all is delicacy and exquisiteness—the beauty, at once fragile and imperishable, of an enchanting work of art. The unknown author has created, in his light, clear verse and his still more graceful and poetical prose, a delicious atmosphere of delicate romance. It is “the tender eye-dawn of aurorean love" that he shows us—the happy, sweet, almost childish passion of two young creatures who move, in absolute innocence and beauty, through a wondrous world of their own. The youth Aucassin, who rides into the fight dreaming of his beloved, who sees her shining among the stars in heaven
“Estoilette, je te voi,
(“Little star, I see thee there,
That the moon draws close to her!
who disdains the joys of Paradise, since they exclude the joys of loving
“En paradis qu'ai-je a faire? Je n'i quier entrer, mais que j'aie Nicolete, ma très douce amie que j'aime tant. . . . Mais en enfer voil jou aler. Car en enfer vont li bel clerc et li bel cevalier, qui sont mort as tournois et as rices guerres, et li bien sergant, et li franc homme. Avec ciax voil jou aler, mais que j'aie Nicolete, ma très douce amie, avec moi.” (“What have I to do in Paradise? I seek not to enter there, so that I have Nicolette, my most sweet friend, whom I love so well. . But to Hell will I go. For to Hell go the fine clerks and the fine knights, who have died in tourneys and in rich wars, and the brave soldiers and the free-born men. ..
With these will I go, so that I have Nicolette, my most sweet friend, with me.”)
-Aucassin, at once brave and naïf, sensuous and spiritual, is as much the type of the perfect medieval lover as Romeo, with his ardour and his vitality, is of the Renaissance one. But the poem-for in spite of the prose passages, the little work is in effect simply a poem-is not all sentiment and dreams. With admirable art the author has interspersed here and there contrasting episodes of realism or of absurdity; he has
woven into his story a succession of vivid dialogues, and by means of an acute sense of observation he has succeeded in keeping his airy fantasy in touch with actual things. The description of Nicolette, escaping from her prison, and stepping out over the grass in her naked feet, with the daisies, as she treads on them, showing black against her whiteness is a wonderful example of his power of combining imagination with detail, beauty with truth. Together with the Chanson de Roland
-though in such an infinitely different style -Aucassin et Nicolete represents the most valuable elements in the French poetry of this
With the thirteenth century a new development began, and one of the highest importance the development of Prose. Conquête de Constantinople, by VILLEHARDOUIN, written at the beginning of the century, is the earliest example of those historical memoirs which were afterwards to become so abundant in French literature; and it is written, not in the poetical prose of Aucassin et Nicolete, but in the simple, plain style of straightforward narrative. The book cannot be ranked among the masterpieces; but it has the charm of sincerity and that kind of pleasant flavour which belongs to innocent an