France Literature: 17th Century
The new century opens with a reformer of the poetic language: François de Malherbe (1555-1628), who blames the poets of the Pléiade for the too many Latin neologisms they had used, for the too many Italian and Spanish borrowings, for not having sufficiently cared the form, invoking a drastic purge of the language and the adoption of precise rules in versification. Maynard (1582-1646) and Racan (1589-1670) immediately listened to it, others opposed it and Boileau (1636-1711) perfected it. Guez de Balzac (ca. 1595-1654) brought the same reform proposed for poetry into prose. The classical spirit that triumphed in the second half of the century was thus affirming, with a certain slowness. A tutelary deity, Louis XIV, a lover of letters, watched over this century full of turmoil, who took care of both writers, granting them pensions, and of the Academies, financing them (the Académie française was born in 1634 at the behest of Richelieu with the first task of preparing a dictionary and a code of rhetoric and poetics). At his court Corneille, Molière, Racine, Boileau, Lulli and many others were at home. There was no protocol for the artists, who could see the king and speak to him without difficulty. This “Sun”, to which all men of genius warmed, conditioned the arts a little, which became for the most part worldly. If at the court of Henry IV and Louis XIII one could not speak of a precious literature and language, it was precisely as a reaction that some salons were born where fine manners and good talk were cultivated (Hôtel de Rambouillet, Salon de M.lle de Scudéry), where great artists were not baptized and whose influence ceased shortly after the middle of the century, but which in turn stimulated a healthy reaction, paving the way for great works in which the form helped to give measure and incisiveness to the art and thought.
The first reaction was that of the burlesque writers. Worthy of mention are Ch. Sorel (ca. 1600-74) with his Berger extravagant, a tasty satire of pastoral literature, and P. Scarron (1610-60) with the very lively Roman comique. A second reaction was of a realist tone: A. Furetière (1619-88) neglected the courts, the precious poets, the fine ways of talking about the people of the city, the middle bourgeois in his Roman bourgeois.. At the base of these reactions there was already the rigorism of Descartes (1596-1650), who in 1637 had published the Discours de la Méthode. A scientist and philosopher, he introduced the mathematical method into philosophy, becoming the founder of modern scientific reasoning with its four essential rules: to admit as true only what is clearly true; proceed systematically in overcoming difficulties; proceed from the simple to the complex; summarize each problem faced. The Scholastica with its authoritarianism was beaten in breach. The thought of Descartes and his rationalism dominated the whole century. XVII. His main work also appeared as the first masterpiece of philosophical style, written in French and not in Latin, no longer for the use of the learned, as was the custom of philosophers, but of all men of common sense, including literati, who learned from him to speak with rigorous precision. Pascal (1623-62), another great thinker of the century. He too loved mathematics and geometry and Descartes admired his precocious genius. Pascal was soon attracted to the problems of man and the soul. His religion, however, was permeated with Jansenism and when he retired to Port-Royal des Champs, at the famous abbey that drew around him men of the highest talent such as the “great” Arnauld, Nicole, Lancelot and who had accepted the doctrine of grace professed by Giansenio, so as to attract the lightning of the Church and be annihilated by the king within half a century, Pascal entered the controversy. He wrote, with the name of Louis de Montalte, the Provinciales, attacking the Jesuits with enormous success. But his most important work, all his very high commitment was lavished in the Pensées, which he left unpublished to death, an analysis of the greatness and misery of man, an invitation to the Christian faith as the only source of salvation given the insufficiency of reason. Alongside the greatness and subtlety of the two philosophers, for importance and influence on future centuries, there are the great authors of theatrical works, the evocators of the great myths of man and of religious and historical themes such as Corneille and Racine and the painters and floggers of costumes such as Molière.
Before Corneille, the theater offered pastoral, tragic comedies, comedies and tragedies, all created without respecting any norms. The best known names are those of A. Hardy (ca. 1570-ca. 1632) and by J. Mairet (1604-86) who in 1634 had Sophonisbe represented , the first tragedy respectful of the Aristotelian rules of unity of time, place and action. Corneille (1606-84) did not have the same respect for the rules of Aristotle. In Corneille’s work only the great themes (often drawn from Roman history) and the great souls live: Le Cid (1636 or 1637), Horace and Cinna (both from 1640), Polyeucte (1642), a masterpiece of Corneillian art and stupendous exaltation of Christianity and conjugal love, La mort de Pompée (1643), Rodogune (1644), Nicomède (1651). And while Corneille still shared his theater successes with Ph. Quinault (1635-88), his greatest rival appeared on the scene: Racine (1639-99), who at first seems to imitate him but who with Andromaque (1667), his first masterpiece, clearly establishes his personality. Racine respects the rules, indeed transforms them into instruments of her own perfection and the passions of the soul are not subject to the dominion of reason as in Corneille, but freed from sensitivity, from passion. The drama of feeling is a profound psychological analysis. Man is seen in the highest moment of his life, in which passions dominate. After Andromaque, Racine triumphed with Bérénice (1670), Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673) and with Iphigénie (1674), while with Phèdre (1677), unquestionably his masterpiece, he had the first failure, mounted against him by a cabal of enemies of his genius, and left the theater. Having become the king’s historian, by invitation he wrote only two other works: Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). In one work Racine, that while he accepted the long duel with Corneille, wanted to engage in the kind of Molière: in Plaideurs (1668), a satirical comedy about the world of judges and legal disputes, however, where the memory of the Wasps of Aristophanes is well present. But if Racine does not lack liveliness, sarcasm, certainly in the comedy Molière (1622-73) maintains absolute primacy. Author and man of the theater, Molière often left the court to travel with his company. He acted, wrote 32 operas, farces and comedies of intrigue, character, costume. Many are masterpieces such as Les précieuses ridicules (1659), Le tartuffe (1664), Le misanthrope (1666), L’avare (1668), Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), Les femmes savantes (1672). His style is full of vivacity: with him the people entered the theater, with their colorful, savory, impertinent speech, and the experiences of the Latin, Italian, Spanish theater entered the theater. From Plautus to his contemporaries, such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Molière used and recreated everything. His comedy is a psychological study, from which the immediacy of his satire takes force. Certainly the century. XVII identifies with these great men, but other authors have contributed to consecrate their greatness in the minor genres. We cannot forget La Fontaine (1621-95) with his fables, which are miniature comedies, not written with the sole purpose of drawing a moral from them, but for the sake of telling, to let the whole society enter a microcosm and see it live without condemning it, only to underline their behavior with the superior smile of the sage. Nor can we overlook Boileau (1636-1711), author of Satires (1666-1711) on moral and literary themes, of Épîtres, one of which is dedicated to Racine to console him for the failure of the Phèdre, and above all of the Art poétique (1674), code of the great inspiring principles of the classical texts, a thesis that will be dear to him in the Querelle des anciens et des modernes, where he intervened in defense of the ancients who were about to be considered even inferior to the great authors of the present. The theses in favor of the moderns highlighted how Aristotle was overcome by Cartesian rationalism, which proclaimed the right of reason against authoritarianism, and that the moderns had more knowledge than the ancients, who represented the childhood of the world.
Perrault (1628-1703) supported these theses in his poem Le Siècle de Louis le Grand which he read at the Academy on January 27, 1687. A controversy arose which unleashed Boileau and all classical writers against Perrault. But the moderns, in retorting that nature can always produce geniuses and that technology is improving with time, finally got the better of the ancients, who in support of their faith indicated the judgment of time. The peace between Perrault and Boileau meant greater freedom for the authors and wider spaces for art that manifested itself in every genre with exceptional authors, such as Bossuet (1627-1704), defender of the Catholic tradition and unsurpassed author of sermons and of funeral orations, such as La Rochefoucault (1613-80), which he left with his Maximes (1665) a pessimistic but very acute analysis of man’s actions. Not to mention genres such as correspondence, in which Madame de Sévigné (1626-96) excelled, or memorialists, where names such as Cardinal de Retz (1613-79) and the Duke of Saint-Simon (1675-1755) reign., highly personal creators of portraits (the first) and evocators of court life and all its (hated) intrigues (the second). While Madame de La Fayette (1634-93) left the first classical psychological novel of French literature (La princesse de Clèves, 1678), costume and character painting found in La Bruyère (1645-96) its greatest observer, with the Caractères published in 1688 and republished several times with continuous additions. For his part, Fénelon (1651-1715), thirsty for religious and political reforms, for the former supports quietism, not realizing that he is turning to the heresy of the reformed, finding in himself a direct conversation with God outside of religious practices and mediations of the Church, and for the latter, while sharing the principle of monarchical absolutism, would like all those innovations such as to guarantee the rebirth of the country by now in a deplorable state due to the economic situation and the abuses of the nobility. But if his intentions are noble and his political works are numerous, the best of his thought must be sought in the work of an educator, in those Aventures de Télémaque (1699) with which he wants to train a loyal, courageous, God-fearing and just prince (such he made his pupil Duke of Burgundy), while to the women in the Traité sur l’éducation des filles (1687), he assigns the task of mothers of family and good Christians.