Sunday, September 16, 2018

Observations on French literature

Some notes on why French literature is important. Let us start with the Middle Ages, oddly omitted from one recent "comprehensive" history. As with most nations it begins with an epic, the Chanson de Roland. Yet there are other epics, the most resonant being the Arthurian cycle, imitated in other national literatures. The era sees the emergence of vernacular drama. Also, the first secular lyric poetry in Europe, the Troubadours (though technically this is written in Occitan). One way or another, most people are acquainted with the searing poetry of Franc,ois Villon. Marco Polo chose to write In French, as did a host of writers in Norman England. 

Continuing my rapid survey of French literature, I turn to the sixteenth century. Like all major literatures, that of France was receptive, as appropriate, to foreign influence. As Italy was the homeland of the Renaissance, so it supplied a number of significant features. In lyric poetry the foremost contribution was the sonnet. Around Ronsard (1524–1585), Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560) and Jean Antoine de Baïf (1532–1589), there formed a group of radical young poets (generally known today as La Pléiade), who began producing, among other forms of verse, Petrarchan sonnet cycles (centering around an amorous encounter or an idealized woman). They also introduced many allusions to classical mythology stemming from the new humanist emphasis on careful study of the Ancient Greek and Latin authors.
Orientation along these lines was afforded by Du Bellay's manifesto, the "Defense and Illustration of the French Language" (1549), which maintained that French (like the Tuscan of Petrarch and Dante) was a worthy vehicle for literary expression. In addition it promulgated a program of linguistic and literary production (including the imitation of Latin and Greek models and purification of vocabulary).
Classical allusions also abound in the Essays of Montaigne, though arguably he introduced a new genre, the free-wheeling essay.
While his endeavor is sometimes termed Menippean satire, the unique works of Rabelais, concerning Gargantua and Pantagruel, seem to derive almost entirely from indigenous popular sources. They have given rise to an adjective, Rabelaisian.

Continuing our itinerary, the French 18th century was dominated by the giants of the Enlightenment, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who require no embroidery from me. It also saw the rise of oppositional fiction, such as Dangerous Liaisons of 1782 by Pierre Chodelos de Laclos, an epistolatory novel several times filmed in recent years. Possibly the most important development, though not always recognized as such, was the clandestine literature, which I have discussed elsewhere in “French Erotic Writings of the 18th Century.

More on this theme later.


Post a Comment

<< Home