Edmund Gosse.

French profiles online

. (page 23 of 25)
Online LibraryEdmund GosseFrench profiles → online text (page 23 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

himself at the court of Philippe de Valois, should be
desired, in the presence of the prince and of his ladies,
to exhibit a specimen of his rough native art.

The subject of our inquiry to-day is not the nature
of the change which occurs when a new literature rises
out of the imitation of an older one, as occurred with
such splendid results when Latin poetry was deliberately
based on Greek poetry, in the second century before
Christ, or when, in the early Middle Ages, the vernacular
literatures of modern Europe sprang out of the decay
of Latin, In such cases as these the matter is simple ;
out of the old stock there springs a new bud, affiliated
to it, imitative and only gradually independent. It is
not difficult to see Ennius, in the dawn of Rome, sitting
with the Greek hexameter before him, and deliberately
fashioning a similar thing out of the stubbornness of
his own rough tongue. It is not difficult to see some
student-minstrel of the eleventh century debating within
himself whether he shall put down his thoughts in faded
Latin or in the delicate lingua Tusca, communis et
intelligibilis. Influences of this kind are a part of the
direct and natural evolution of literature, and their
phenomena are almost of a physical kind. When a
new language breaks away from an old language into
the forms of a creative literature, its earliest manifesta-
tions must be imitative. It is original in the very fact
that it copies into a new medium instead of continuing
in an old one.

But the problem is much more subtle and the phe-
nomena more delicate and elusive when we have to
deal with the influences mutually exercised on one
another by contemporary literatures of independent

French Influence 343

character and long-settled traditions. In the case
before^ us, we have one great people building up for
the expression of their joys and passions a language out
of Anglo-Saxon materials, and another great people
forging out of low Latin a vehicle for their complicated
thoughts. The literatures so created have enjoyed a
vivid and variegated vitality for century after century,
never tending the one towards the other, neither at
any time seriously taking a place subordinate to the
other, nor even closely related. The image that may
help to suggest to us what it is that we must look for
in observing the mutual influences of French and English
literature upon one another is that of two metallic
objects, of different colour, pursuing a long parallel
flight through space. We are not to count upon their
touching one another, or their affecting the direction
or speed of either, but we may expect, on occasion, to
observe along the burnished side of the one a dash of
colour reflected from the illuminated surface of the


It would take us too far from our proper theme this
afternoon— a theme which at best we can but very
hurriedly investigate — were I to dwell on the essential
differences which distinguish the poetry of England from
that of France. But it may be pointed out that these
differences make themselves most clearly felt exactly
wherever the national idiosyncrasy is most searchingly
defined. The extraordinary perfection of the verse of
Coleridge m its concentrated sweetness and harmony
of vision, has never appealed to any French student of
our literature. Perhaps no French ear could be trained
to understand what the sovereign music of Coleridge
means to us. In like manner it is probable that, with
all our efforts, English criticism has never understood,

344 French Profiles

and never will understand, what the effect of the aston-
ishing genius of Racine is upon the nerves and intelligence
of a Frenchman. On the other hand, it is easy to see
that Mr. Swinburne approaches thought and style from
a point of view eminently appreciable by the French,
while France contains one great poet, Charles Baudelaire,
whose oddity of mental attitude and whose peculiar
treatment of verse-music and of imagery are perhaps
more easily comprehended by an English reader than
by an academic Frenchman.

A matter which might be pursued, in connection
with this, but which time forbids me to do more than
indicate, is that, while in France poetry has been accus-
tomed to reflect the general tongue of the people, the
great poets of England have almost always had to
struggle against a complete dissonance between their
own aims and interests and those of the nation. The
result has been that England, the most inartistic of
modern races, has produced the largest number of
exquisite literary artists.

The expression of personal sensation has always been
dear to the English poets, and we meet with it in some
of the earliest babblings of our tongue. From Anglo-
Saxon times onward, the British bard never felt called
upon to express the esthetic emotions of a society
around him, as the Provencal troubadour or Carlo-
vingian jongleur did. He was driven to find inspiration
in nature and in himself. The mediaeval conquest of
England by the French language did not modify this
state of things in any degree. When the French wave
ebbed away from us in the fourteenth century, it left
our poets of pure English as individual, as salient, as
unrepresentative as ever. What every poet of delicate
genius, whether he be Chaucer or Milton, Gray or Keats,

French Influence 345

has felt in the existing world of England, has been the
pressure of a lack of the aesthetic sense. Our people
are not naturally sensitive to harmony, to proportion,
to the due relation of parts in a work of imaginative
artifice. But what is very curious is that our poets
have been peculiarly sensitive to these very qualities,
and that no finer or subtler artists in language have risen
in any country than precisely the poetic representatives
of the densely unpoetic England.

The result of this fantastic and almost incessant
discord between our poets and our people — a discord
dissolved into harmony only at one moment around the
genius of Shakespeare— the result of this has been to
make our poets, at critical epochs, sensitive to catch
the colour of literatures alien from their own. In the
healthier moments of our poetry we have gained bright-
ness by reflections from other literatures, from those of
Greece and Rome, from those of Italy and Spain and
France. In moments when our poetry was unhealthy
it has borrowed to its immediate and certain disadvantage
from these neighbours. But it will, I think, be seen
that in the latter case the borrowing has invariably been
of a coarser and more material kind, and has consisted
in a more or less vulgar imitation. The evil effect of
this will, I believe, be found to be as definite as the
effect of the higher and more illusive borrowing is bene-
ficial. For purposes of convenience I propose in the
following remarks to distinguish these forms of influence
as consisting in colour and in substance.

A few words may serve to define what I understand
here by " substance " and by " colour." By the first
of these I wish to indicate those cases in which influence
has taken a gross and slavish form, in which there has
been a more or less complete resignation of the individu-

34^ French Profiles

ality of the literature influenced. An instance of this
is the absolute bondage of Spanish drama to French
in the eighteenth century, when a play had no chance
on the stage of Madrid unless it were directly modelled
on Racine or Voltaire. We shall presently have to
point to something similar in the drama of our own
Restoration. These are cases where an exhausted
literature, in extreme decay, is kept alive by borrowing
its very body and essence from a foreign source, the
result being that such life as it presents is not really
its own, but provided for it, ready-made, by the genius
of another country. This species of influence I hold
to be invariably the sign of a diseased and weakly

On the other hand, it is precisely when the poets of
a country desire to clothe in new forms the personal
sensations which are driving them to creative expression,
that they are very likely to turn to a neighbouring
literature, which happens to be at a stage of aesthetic
development different from their own, for superficial
suggestions. The ornaments of form which they bring
back with them, when they are in this healthy and lively
condition, are what I describe as " colour." In the
early history of European poetry, none of the great
poetic powers disdained to import from Italy the radiance
and tincture of her executive skill. The introduction
of the sonnet to England and to France, that of blank
verse to England, that of prose comedy to France,
these were instances of the absorption by living and
vigorous literatures of elements in the literary art of
Italy which were instinctively felt by them to be
strengthening and refining, but not subjugating. In
these cases influence does nothing to lessen the import-
ance of that delicate distinction of individual style which

French Intiuence 347

is the very charm of poetry, but ratlier gives that
distinction a more powerful apparatus for making its
presence felt.

We have a very instructive example of this whole-
some reflex action of one literature upon another, in
the history of the fourteenth century. No one will
pretend that France possessed at that epoch, or indeed
had ever yet possessed, a poet of very high rank, with
the exception of the anonymous artist who bequeathed
to us the Chanson de Roland. But, in the thirteenth
century, she had produced that amazing work, Le Roman
de la Rose, half of it amatory, the other half of it satirical,
and the whole of it extraordinarily vivid and civilising.
It would be too much to call the Roman de la Rose a
great poem, or even two great poems fused into one.
But it certainly was one of the most influential works
which ever proceeded from the pen of man. Its in-
fluence, if we look at it broadly, was in the direction
of warmth and colour. It glowed like a fire, it flashed
like a sunrise. Guillaume de Lorris deserves our eternal
thanks for being the first in modern Europe to write
" pour esgaier les cceurs." He introduced into poetry
amenity, the pulse of life, the power of Earthly Love.

It is useful for us to compare the Roman de la Rose
with what the best English poets were writing at the
same time. What do we find ? We find a few dismal
fragments of Scriptural morality and one or two sermons
in verse. We may speculate in what spirit a dulled
English minstrel of the end of the thirteenth century
would read the bold and brilUant couplets of Jean de
Meung. He would certainly be dazzled, and perhaps
be scandalised. He would creep back to his own
clammy Ayenbite of Inwyt and his stony Cursor Mundi
to escape from so much dangerous warmth and colour.

34^ French Profiles

It seems as though for nearly a hundred years England
steadily refused to enter that fair orchard where Beauty
and Love were dancing hand in hand around the thorny
hedge that guarded the Rosebud of the World, But
the revelation came at last, and it is not too much to
say that English poetry, as it has since become, in the
hands of Shakespeare and Keats and Tennyson, sprang
into life when the English poets first became acquainted
with the gallant, courteous, and amatory allegory of
the Worship of the Rose.

It is very interesting to see that, apparently, it was
no less a person than Chaucer who led English readers
first to the grassy edge of the fountain of love. The
■^/^ ^ evidence is curiously obscure, and has greatly exercised
Chaucerian scholars. But the truth seems to be that
Chaucer translated Le Roman de la Rose, as he tells us
himself in The Legend of Good Women, but that of this
translation only a fragment now survives. The other
two fragments, always printed together with Chaucer's,
are now considered to be not his, and indeed to come
from two different hands. Into this vexed question we
must not go, but it is worth noticing that although
the three fragments which make up the fourteenth-
century Romaunt of the Rose only cover, together, one-
third of the French text, Chaucer constantly quotes
from and refers to passages from other parts of the
poem, showing that he was familiar with it all,

English poetry, we may observe, had more to learn
from Guillaume de Lorris than from Jean de Meung,
greater and more vigorous writer though the latter might
be. What modern English poetry, in fact, in its restless
adolescence, was leaning to France for was not so much
vigour as grace. It had satiric vigour of its own in its
apocalyptical Langland. But what beamed and glowed

French Influence 349

upon Chaucer from the Roman de la Rose was its human
sweetness, its perfume as of a bush of eglantine in April
sunshine. It was the first delicate and civilised poem
of modern Europe, and its refinement and elegance, its
decorated beauty and its close observation of the
human heart were the qualities which attracted to it
Chaucer, as he came starved from the chill allegories
and moralities of his formless native literature.

It was in the autumn of 1359 that Chaucer, as a
page in the retinue of Prince Lionel, paid what is sup-
posed to have been his earliest visit to France. He
took his part in the luckless invasion of Champagne,
and he was captured by the French, perhaps at Kethel.
Until March 1360, when King Edward III. ransomed
him for the sum of £16, he was a prisoner in France.
During these five or six months we have to think of
Chaucer as a joyous 3^outh of nineteen, little cast down
by the fortunes of war, but full of sentiment, poetry,
and passion. Up to that time, doubtless, he had read
few or none but French books. We cannot question
that he was familiar with the Roman de la Rose, and it
is just possible that it was at this time that he came
in contact with the lyrical writers whose personal poetry
affected him so much later on. I am inclined, however,
to think this unlikely, because Eustache Deschamps
was a youth of about Chaucer's own age, and although
Guillaume de Machault was considerably older, there
had been little public distribution of his verses so early
as 1360.

We must put the date of Chaucer's coming under
the influence of the French writers of chants royaux
and lais and ballades a little later. In the summer of
1369 he was once more in France, and this time, it
would appear, on some pacific embassage. Perhaps he

350 French Profiles

escaped from the plague which decimated England in
that year, and carried off even Queen Philippa herself.
Perhaps he was engaged on a diplomatic mission. We
have to walk carefully in the darkness of these mediaeval
dates, which offer difficulties even to the erudition of
M. Marcel Schwob. At all events, Chaucer was certainly
then " in partibus Franciae," and it can hardly but
have been now that he fell under the influence of
Machault, whom he admired so much, and of Eustache
Deschamps, in whom he awakened so enthusiastic a
friendship.^ There was an entente cordiale indeed when
Deschamps and Froissart complimented Chaucer, and
Chaucer imitated Machault and Oton de Granson. We
find the English poet passing through France again in
1373, and again in 1377. We have a vague and accidental
record of at least seven of these diplomatic journeys,
although after 1378 the French interest seems entirely
swallowed up in the far more vivid fascination which
Italy exercised over him.

To a poet who was privileged to come beneath the
intellectual sway of Petrarch and Boccaccio at the
glorious close of their careers, it might well be that
such suns would seem entirely to eclipse the tapers of
those who composed ballades and virelais in the rich
provinces north of the Loire. Himself a man of far
greater genius than any French writer of the fourteenth
century, we might be prepared to find Chaucer disdaining
the gentle balladists of France. He had, to a far
greater degree than any of them, vigour, originality,
fulness of invention. Eustache Deschamps is some-

^ Mr. Fitzmaurice-Kelly reminds me that, in liis celebrated
letter to the Constable of Portugal, the Spanish poet Santillana
goes into raptures about four of the writers whom Chaucer
admired — Guillaume de Lorris, Jean dc Meung, Machault, and
Granson .

French Influence


times a very forcible poet, but he sinks into insignificance
when we set him side by side with the giant who wrote
the Canterbury Tales. Yet if Chaucer brought vigour
to Enghsh poetry, he found in France, and among these
rhetorical lyrists, precisely the qualities which were
Tacking at home. What it was essential for England
to receive at that most critical moment of her intel-
lectual history was an external, almost a superficial,
matter. She did not require the body and bones of
genius, but the garments with which talent co\'ers
them. These robes are what we name grace, elegance,
melody and workmanship, and these deUcate textiles
were issuing in profusion from the looms of France.

This is the secret of the strong influence exercised
on a very great poet like Chaucer, and through him
upon the poetry of England, by a writer so essentially
mediocre as Guillaume de Machault. It was the
accomplished tradition, the picturesque and artistic
skill of the lesser poet, which so strongly attracted the
greater. From Machault English poetry took that
heroic couplet which had hitherto been unknown to it,
and which was to become one of its most abundant
and characteristic forms. In a variety of ways the
prosody of Great Britain was affected by that of France
between 1350 and 1370. The loose and languid forms
in which British poets had hitherto composed were
abandoned in delight at the close metre of the French,
and about 1350 John Gower produced his Cinquante
Balades not merely in the form but in the very language
of Eustache Deschamps. His Mironr de I'Omme, a
long and important poem first printed by Mr. Macaulay
in 1899, is an instance of pure Gallicisation. Chaucer
did not imitate the French thus grossly. Indeed, he
went to France for nothing interior or essential, but,

35^ French Profiles

sensitively conscious that his own country lacked most
of all the aesthetic graces, he borrowed from writers
like Machault and Granson the external colour and the
technical forms. But the substantial forces which
awakened the splendid bourgeois genius of Chaucer were
the aristocratic influences of Dante, Petrarch, and

Two hundred years later, at the next great crisis of
English literature, a very similar condition is apparent,
though exposed with less intensity. The mediseval
forms of poetry, allegorical, didactic, diffuse, had now
worn themselves out. There was a total abandonment
of " gardens " of rhetoric, of piaisances of morality.
These efforts of exhausted fancy continued to please
English readers longer than they did French ones,
and it is to be noted that their decay was sudden with
us, not gradual as with you. Not onl3^ for instance,
did the traditional rhetoricians of the beginning of the
sixteenth century exercise no influence on English
thought, but there is no evidence that a single person
in England read a line of Jean Le Maire des Beiges.
But a little later all is different. A recent critic has
said that the writings of Wyatt and Surrey, though
not epoch-making, were " epoch-marking." They were
not men of genius, but they were of eminently modern
taste. They perceived that everybody was tired of
long-winded allegory and rhetoric, and they set them-
selves to write verse " in short parcels," that is to say,
in brief lyrics. So they looked to France, where Wyatt
passed, probably, in 1532. What did he find ? Doubt-
less he found Clement Marot in the act of putting forth
L' Adolescence Clementine. It is probable that Marot,
with his " elegant badinage," was too gay for these
stiff English nobles, so solemn and rigid. His want

French Influence 353

of intellectual ambition would strike them, and they
passed on to Italy. But something of the perfume of
France was left upon their fingers, and they seem to
have borrowed, perhaps from Melin de Saint-Gelais,
but more probably from Marot, the sonnet-form,
hitherto unknown in England. It cannot be pretended
that in the great awakening of English lyrical poetry
in the middle of the sixteenth century France had any
great share, but what there was tended in the aesthetic
direction. The ugly hardness of the last mediaeval
poets was exchanged for a daintiness of expression, a
graceful lucidity, in the merit of which Clement I\Iarot's
rondeaux and epigrams had a distinct share.

We have now considered two instances — the one
important, the other slight — in which English poetry
received, at critical moments, a distinct colour from the
neighbouring art of France. In each case the influence
was exercised at a time when the poetic ambition of
our country greatly exceeded the technical skill of its
proficients, and when the verse-writers were glad to
go to school to masters more habituated to art and
grace than themselves. But we have now another and
a very curious phenomenon to note. Fifty years later
than the revival of Wyatt and Surrey, when Elizabethan
literature was beginning to rise into prominence, several
very strenuous efforts were made to take advantage of
contemporary French accomplishment, and with one
accord these attempts conspicuously failed. We find
in 1580 that the French were " highly regarded " by
the school of versifiers at Cambridge, and before this
Edmund Spenser had translated the Visions of Joachim
Du Bellay. It might be supposed that this would be
the beginning of a consistent imitation of the Pleiade
by the English poets — just, for instance, as modern


354 French Profiles

Swedish poetry was at this moment started by Rosen-
hane's imitations of Ronsard. But on the vast wave
of EHzabethan hterature, now sweeping up witli irre-
sistible force and volume, we find scarcely a trace of
the Pleiade. The one important writer who borrowed
from the French was Samuel Daniel, whose famous
Delia of 1592 obviously owes both its title and its form
to Maurice Sceve's Delie of 1544. Daniel also imitates
Baif and Pontus de Thyard, and had a vast admiration for
his more immediate contemporary, Philippe Desportes.^
The experiments of Jodelle and Garnier in Senecan
drama were examined by the English dramatists of
the end of the sixteenth century — by Kyd and Daniel
in particular — and were deliberately rejected. The
pathway taken by classical French tragedy was even
touched for a moment, in Titus Andronicus, by Shake-
speare himself, but it was instantly quitted for the
utterly divergent road which led to Othello and King
Lear. The sententious and rhetorical character of
French drama was rejected by all the great Elizabethans,
and the only contemporary influence accepted from
France by our poetry at this time was that of Du Bartas,
whose violent and grotesque style gratified a growing
taste for exaggeration among the courtiers. Du Bartas
pointed the way to that decadence which fell only too
swiftly for English poetry, like a plague of insects upon
some glorious summer garden. But it is interesting
to observe that from 1580 to 1620, that is to say during
the years in which the aesthetic sense was most widely
and most brilliantly developed in English poetry,
French influences of the best kind knocked at its door

^ Since this was written, however, Mr. Sidney Lee, in a valuable
essay on " The Elizabethan Sonnet-Literature " (printed in June
1904), has drawn attention to Lodge's indebtedness to Ronsard.

French Influence 355

4njvain. In its superfluous richness, it needed no further
gifts. It had colour enough and substance enougli to
spare for all the world.

Very different was the condition of things fifty years
later. English poetry in the Jacobean age was like a
plant in a hothouse, that runs violently to redundant
blossom, and bears the germs of swift decay in the
very splendour of its buds. Already, before the death
of James I., the freshness was all gone, and the tendency
to decline was obvious. Under Charles I. the develop-
ment of literature was considerably warped, and at
length completely arrested, by the pressure of political
events. Then the Civil War broke out, and the English
Court, with its artistic hangers-on, was dispersed in
foreign countries.

As early as 1624, on the occasion of the Marriage
Treaty, the attention of the English poets may probably
have been directed to Paris, but there had followed
grave estrangements between the Courts of France and

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 23 25

Online LibraryEdmund GosseFrench profiles → online text (page 23 of 25)