Page images

whole of the cultivated society of France would have been opposed to him, because he himself was so impregnated with those very theories that he failed to realise where the true bent of his genius lay. Thus it was that the type of drama which he impressed upon French literature was not the romantic type of the English Elizabethans, but the classical type of Senecan tragedy which Jodelle had imitated, and which was alone tolerable to the French critics of the seventeenth century. Instead of making the vital drama of Hardy artistic, he made the literary drama of Jodelle alive. Probably it was fortunate that he did so; for he thus led the way straight to the most characteristic product of the French genius—the tragedy of Racine. With Racine, the classical type of drama, which so ill befitted the romantic spirit of Corneille, found its perfect exponent; and it will be well therefore to postpone a more detailed examination of the nature of that type until we come to consider Racine himself, the value of whose work is inextricably interwoven with its form. The dominating qualities of Corneille may be more easily appreciated.

He was above all things a rhetorician; he was an instinctive master of those qualities in words which go to produce effects of passionate vehemence, vigorous precision, and culminating force. His great tirades carry forward the reader, or the listener (for indeed the verse of Corneille loses half its value when it is unheard), on a full-flowing tide of language, where the waves of the verse, following one another in a swift succession of everrising power, crash down at last with a roar. It is a strange kind of poetry: not that of imaginative vision, of plastic beauty, of subtle feeling; but that of intellectual excitement and spiritual strength. It is the poetry of Malherbe multiplied a thousandfold in vigour and in genius, and expressed in the form most appropriate to it—the dramatic Alexandrine verse. The stuff out of which it is woven, made up, not of the images of sense, but of the processes of thought, is, in fact, simply argument. One can understand how verse created from such material might be vigorous and impressive; it is difficult to imagine how it could also be passionate-until one has read Corneille. * Then one realises afresh the compelling power of genius. His tragic personages, standing forth without mystery, without “atmosphere," without local colour, but simply in the clear white light of reason, rivet our attention, and seem at last to seize upon

[ocr errors]

our very souls. Their sentences, balanced, weighty, and voluble, reveal the terrors of destiny, the furies of love, the exasperations of pride, with an intensity of intellectual precision that burns and blazes. The deeper these strange beings sink into their anguish, the more remorseless their arguments become. They prove their horror in dreadful syllogisms; every inference plunges them farther into the abyss; and their intelligence flames upward to its highest point, when they are finally engulfed.

Such is the singular passion that fills Corneille's tragedies. The creatures that give utterance to it are hardly human beings: they are embodiments of will, force, intellect, and pride. The situations in which they are placed are calculated to expose these qualities to the utmost; and all Corneille's masterpieces are concerned with the same subjectthe combat between indomitable egoism and the forces of Fate. It is in the meeting of these "fell incensed opposites” that the tragedy consists. In Le Cid Chimène's passion for Rodrigue struggles in a deathgrapple with the destiny that makes Rodrigue the slayer of her father. In Polyeucte it is the same passion struggling with the dictates of religion. In Les Horaces, patriotism, family love, and personal passion are all pitted against Fate. In Cinna, the conflict passes within the mind of Auguste, between the promptings of a noble magnanimity and the desire for revenge. In all these plays the central characters display a superhuman courage and constancy and self-control. They are ideal figures, speaking with a force and an elevation unknown in actual experience; they never blench, they never waver, but move adamantine to their doom. They are for ever asserting the strength of their own individuality.

'Je suis maître de moi comme de l'univers, Je le suis, je veux l'être,'

declares Auguste; and Médée, at the climax of her misfortunes, uses the same language

‘Dans un si grand revers que vous reste

Moi, dis-je, et c'est assez!'”

The word “moi" dominates these tragedies; and their heroes, bursting with this extraordinary egoism, assume even more towering proportions in their self-abnegation than in their pride. Then the thrilling clarionnotes of their defiances give way to the deep grand music of stern sublimity and stoic resignation. The gigantic spirit recoils upon itself, crushes itself, and reaches its last triumph.

Drama of this kind must, it is clear, lack many of the qualities which are usually associated with the dramatic art; there is no room in it for variety of character-drawing, for delicacy of feeling, or for the realistic presentation of the experiences of life. Corneille hardly attempted to produce such effects as these; and during his early years his great gifts of passion and rhetoric easily made up for the deficiency. As he grew older, however, his inspiration weakened; his command of his material left him; and he was no longer able to fill the figures of his creation with the old intellectual sublimity. His heroes and his heroines became mere mouthing puppets, pouring out an endless stream of elaborate, high-flown sentiments, wrapped up in a complicated jargon of argumentative verse. His. later plays are miserable failures. Not only do they illustrate the inherent weaknesses of Corneille's dramatic method, but they are also full of the characteristic bad taste and affectations of the age. The vital spirit once withdrawn, out sprang the noisome creatures

« PreviousContinue »