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goodness wells up clear and pure; and in the wonderful pages on Friendship, one sees, in all its charm and all its sweetness, that beautiful humanity which is the inward essence of Montaigne.
THE AGE OF TRANSITION
In the seventy years that elapsed between the death of Montaigne (1592) and the accession to power of Louis XIV, the tendencies in French literature were fluctuating and uncertain. It was a period of change, of hesitation, of retrogression even; and yet, below these doubtful, conflicting movements, a great new development was germinating, slowly, surely, and almost unobserved. From one point of view, indeed, this age may be considered the most important in the whole history of the literature, since it prepared the way for the most splendid and characteristic efflorescence in prose and poetry that France has ever known; without it, there would have been no Grand Siècle. In fact, it was during this age that the conception was gradually evolved which determined the lines upon
which all French literature in the future was to advance. It can hardly be doubted that if the fertile and varied Renaissance movement, which had given birth to the
Pléiade, to Rabelais, and to Montaigne, had continued to progress unbroken and unchecked, the future literature of France would have closely resembled the contemporary literatures of Spain and England—that it would have continued to be characterised by the experimental boldness and the loose exuberance of the masters of the sixteenth century. But in France the movement was checked; and the result was a body of literature, not only of the highest value, but also of a unique significance in European letters.
The break in the Renaissance movement was largely the result of political causes. The stability and peace which seemed to be so firmly established by the brilliant monarchy of Francis I vanished with the terrible outbreak of the Wars of Religion. For about sixty years, with a few intermissions, the nation was a prey to the horrors of civil strife. And when at last order was restored under the powerful rule of Cardinal Richelieu, and the art of writing began to be once more assiduously practised, the fresh rich glory of the Renaissance spirit had irrevocably passed away. Already, early in the seventeenth century, the poetry of MALHERBE had given expression to new theories and new ideals. A man of powerful though narrow intelligence,
a passionate theorist, and an ardent specialist in grammar and the use of words, Malherbe reacted violently both against the misplaced and artificial erudition of the Pléiade and their unforced outbursts of lyric song. His object was to purify the French tongue; to make it-even at the cost of diminishing its flavour and narrowing its range-strong, supple, accurate, and correct; to create a language which, though it might be incapable of expressing the fervours of personal passion or the airy fancies of dreamers, would be a perfect instrument for the enunciation of noble truths and fine imaginations, in forms at once simple, splendid, and sincere. Malherbe's importance lies rather in his influence than in his actual work. Some of his Odes-among which his great address to Louis XIII on the rebellion of La Rochelle deserves the highest place—are admirable examples of a restrained, measured, and weighty rhetoric, moving to the music not of individual emotion, but of a generalised feeling for the beauty and grandeur of high thoughts. He was essentially an oratorical poet; but unfortunately the only forms of verse ready to his hand were lyrical forms; so that his genius never found a full scope for its powers. Thus his precept outweighs his example. His poetical theories found their full justification only in the work of his greater and more fortunate successors; and the masters of the age of Louis XIV looked back to Malherbe as the intellectual father of their race.
Malherbe's immediate influence, however, was very limited. Upon the generation of writers that followed him, his doctrines of sobriety and simplicity made no impression whatever. Their tastes lay in an entirely different direction. For now, in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, there set in, with an extreme and sudden violence, a fashion for every kind of literary contortion, affectation, and trick. The value of a poet was measured by his capacity for turning a somersault in verse for constructing ingenious word-puzzles with which to express exaggerated sentiments; and no prose-writer was worth looking at who could not drag a complicated, ramifying simile through half-adozen pages at least. These artificialities lacked the saving grace of those of the Renaissance writers—their abounding vigour and their inventive skill. They were cold-blooded artificialities, evolved elaborately, simply for their own sake. The new school, with its twisted conceits and its super-subtle elegances, came to be known as the “Precious”