French Literature in the Seventeenth Century

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French Literature in the Seventeenth Century

Increasing Refinement.

In France, the beginning of the seventeenth century marked a distinctive break from the legacy of warfare and domestic religious violence that had punctuated the concluding forty years of the sixteenth century. To achieve this respite, Henri IV had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in 1595, and three years later he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, the royal decree that granted a limited religious toleration to the country's Huguenots (French Protestants). Religious controversy did not disappear from France's internal politics. In 1610, Henri was assassinated by a Catholic religious zealot, but the peace that he fashioned proved to be longstanding, lasting until Louis XIV revoked the edict in 1685, and forced French Protestants either to convert to Catholicism or to emigrate from the country. In the roughly three generations between these two dates, the distinctive patterns of French absolutism came to influence society and culture throughout the country. During these years royal patronage of the arts was organized around academies, the descendants of which have often persisted in France until modern times. Literary culture was greatly affected by the foundation of the Académie Française, an institution that Cardinal Richelieu organized in the 1630s to establish standards of usage and rhetoric in the language. It soon became a powerful organ for shaping literary French and the drama in the country, yet its rise to prominence had been prepared by an increasing refinement of rhetoric championed at court and among learned elites in France from the late sixteenth century.

D'UrfÉ and Malherbe.

In the works of Honoré D'Urfé (1567–1625) and François de Malherbe (1555–1628) this quest for an elegant style can be seen. D'Urfé was from southern France, near Lyons, where his family's château had long served as a center of elite culture and learning. In his youth, Honoré received a humanist-influenced education from the Jesuits, and after living through the dismal years of the Wars of Religion, he devoted his energies to the composition of a monumental work of pastoral fiction, L'Astrée. The pastoral was a literary tradition that had become increasingly popular in Spain and Italy in the later Renaissance; it often treated the conversations and innocent activities of shepherds and shepherdesses and was usually set in a beautiful and idyllic environment. The pastoral form inspired paintings, poetry, and prose, and works like this were also among the first texts to be set to music in early operas. In his search for a new style, D'Urfé came to be affected by these earlier usages of the pastoral, although he greatly expanded the scope of his fiction to encompass an enormous length and presentation of detail. His title derived from the ancient goddess of justice, Astraea, who, mythology taught, was the last of all the deities to abandon earth at the conclusion of the Golden Age. In writing his work, D'Urfé chose this figure to underscore the return to peace, prosperity, and justice he and other French aristocrats hoped might follow Henri IV's Edict of Nantes. L'Astrée was published in five separate volumes in the years between 1607 and 1627; eventually it grew to be a 5,000-page epic. Although his plot was often artificial, his elegant style and psychological insight hinted at the great literary resurgence that was soon to begin in France. At the same time, L'Astrée did not inspire other pastoral works, although its influence could be seen in a new longing for a sophisticated and beautiful style. François de Malherbe was one of the most important French authors to satisfy this growing desire, through his many classically inspired poems. Malherbe was a provincial, a native of Normandy, who eventually rose to become Henri IV's resident poet. Fueled with a powerful sense of what was correct in language, as well as a desire to purge courtly writing and conversation of colloquialism and dialect, Malherbe's own poems were widely imitated by members of the court and by Parisian educated society. He gathered around him a group of disciples, and imparted to them his personal vision of how French poetry should be written. In the year before his death he published an edition of his poetry, Collection of the Most Beautiful Verses of Messieurs de Malherbe, that made his teaching evident to his readers. His works would scarcely be called great art today, but they did rely on a vastly simplified vocabulary that was austere and classically inspired, even as he used the metrical Alexandrine verse, which consisted of a line of twelve syllables. Prompted by Malherbe's influence, other authors began to adopt Alexandrine verse, and it soon became the dominant form for French poetry used in the country's many seventeenth-century dramatic tragedies. Malherbe demonstrated the possibilities that reposed in this verse style; prompted by the forceful example of his advocacy of his own art, he helped to establish a grand and austere literary classicism.

French Academy.

Malherbe died before the foundation of the French Academy in 1634. Conceived by Richelieu, the academy was charged with the task of standardizing literary French. Soon after its foundation, though, its members were drawn into a controversy over Pierre Corneille's Le Cid. Richelieu and others had found the play morally troubling, although audiences admired Corneille's elevated verse. In an effort to put the controversy to rest, Richelieu referred the play to the members of the Académie Française, who agreed with Richelieu that the play's plot was wanting, even though they argued that it was filled with much good poetry. This was one of the few times, though, that the academy intervened in a matter of taste or moral judgment. Its charge was instead to work for the standardization of the French language, and to this end it began work on a comprehensive dictionary of the French language that was finally published in 1694. The number of scholars and literary figures who gained admittance into the French Academy was soon limited to forty members, who became known as "the immortals." Quite a large percentage of these figures also wrote literary criticism and theory in the course of the seventeenth century, much of which supported the development of French classicism. Claude Favre de Vaugelas (1585–1650), for instance, wrote an important text, Remarks on the French Language (1647), which recorded the forms of French used in aristocratic and polite societies. Vaugelas had understood that the forms of spoken and written languages changed over time as a reaction to changing circumstances. Yet Cardinal Richelieu and the most conservative members of the French Academy desired to establish an unchanging style, and so the observance of Vaugelas' rules could, in the hands of mediocre stylists, lead to much slavish imitation. Vaugelas' work, in other words, soon became known as the "bible of usage." Two other works produced by members of the Academy were also influential in supporting the rise of French literary classicism: the Poétique (Poetics) of La Mesnardière (1639) and Abbé d'Aubignac's Pratique du théâtre (Practice of Theater; 1657). Both advocated the use of classical forms and verse, but their influence was generally superseded by that of Jean Chapelain (1595–1674), a member of the Academy who played much the same role that Malherbe had in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. It was Chapelain who was asked to write the Academy's equivocating pronouncements about Corneille's play Le Cid. But generally, Chapelain played the role of literary arbiter in court circles from the 1630s onward, much as Malherbe had done a generation earlier. More accepting of deviations from his own rules than Malherbe, Chapelain nevertheless constructed many theories that were fundamental in the development of classicism. He promoted these views in articles, short tracts, and through his voluminous correspondence. Under the influence of Louis XIV's chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Chapelain was eventually entrusted with naming those French authors that should be honored with royal pensions, and in the practice of his office he engendered significant hatred from many literary figures. His own verse was far from magnificent, but as a literary arbiter he had few equals in mid-seventeenth-century France.

The Novel.

The elevated discussions of the Academy and its attempts to foster an austere classicism in French literature did not, at the same time, dampen enthusiasm for creative fiction. French readers of the mid-century evidenced a pronounced taste for novels, and the variety of texts that the country's authors produced is remarkable. Like D'Urfé's L'Astrée, many works of French fiction at the time were long and complex, but in the course of the seventeenth century they evidenced a preference for ancient rather than pastoral themes, or for comic, picaresque subjects. Among the many novelists the country produced at the time, Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701) was among the most widely read. Scudéry was the younger sister of a prominent French dramatist, who moved to Paris when she was quite young and soon captivated the city's most prominent literary salon, the circle surrounding the figure of the Marquise de Rambouillet. When Scudéry was 35, she published her first novel, Ibrahim or the Illustrious Bassa (1642). Other contributions followed, and her novels often grew to enormous lengths. Scudéry was a master of the genre of the roman à clef, a form in which the ancient characters that are depicted are in reality thinly-disguised references to men of affairs and prominent socialites in one's own day. Part of the excitement that reposed in Scudéry's fictions thus rested on the attempt to unearth or decode just who was being depicted as whom, and while many members of French polite society admired her work, she was criticized by others at the same time. By contrast, Cyrano de Bergerac's two novels, A Comic History of the States and Empires of the Moon and A Comic History of the States and Empires of the Sun were only published after his death. They tell of imaginary journeys to the moon and sun, and anticipate the quite later development of science fiction. Their purpose was to poke fun at religion and de Bergerac's contemporaries' reliance on traditional wisdom, rather than the insights offered by the new science. In place of such conservatism, de Bergerac advocated a kind of freewheeling materialism, a philosophy that he had derived from his own study of mathematics and the libertine or anti-absolutist political theory of the age. Where de Bergerac's works were literally set in another world, those of Paul Scarron (1610–1660) were very much located in contemporary, this-worldly circumstances. Scarron was a major figure in the French theater of the time, producing a series of comedies that were popular before the arrival of Corneille, Molière, and Racine on the Paris scene. In his three-volume The Comic Novel (1651–1659) Scarron parodied the lives of the members of a theatrical troupe in a way that was very much influenced by the picaresque novel tradition of sixteenth-century Spain. Those works' central characters were often vagrants or members of society's downtrodden, and authors used the form to spin fantastic webs of adventure. Scarron's comic works reveal a lighter side of French seventeenth-century literature than that being written by the elegant arbiters of taste in the French Academy. His wife, Françoise d'Aubigné, also played a major role in the aristocratic world of the seventeenth century, eventually becoming in the years following her husband's death the king's mistress and then secret wife. This position placed the pious Madame de Maintenon, as she became known at court, in a unique vantage point to influence the king's tastes in drama and literature.

The Honest Man.

Another genre of French literature that played an increasingly important role in the second half of the century treated the qualities men should display to participate in the life of court and aristocratic society generally. These works examining the "honest man" became particularly vital in the years following the Fronde, a series of revolts of nobles and Parisian councillors that had erupted in the years between 1648 and 1653. Eventually, these rebellions were brutally repressed, but not without producing significant fear among those in the royal government. At the time at which they began, the young king Louis XIV was only five years old. During the course of these disturbances Louis and his mother, Anne of Austria, were forced to flee the capital. In their exile from Paris, they even slept in a stable, and so the Fronde's disturbances left a lifelong impression on the king. In the years that followed, Louis XIV and his officials worked to domesticate the French nobility, eventually building the palace of Versailles and developing an intricate courtly etiquette that became a powerful means of disarming the class. They also sought to redirect the once bellicose spirit of the old French "nobility of the sword," those who descended from the medieval warrior nobles of the Middle Ages. Louis' government, in other words, championed an aristocratic ideal based on the concept of service to the king, rather than the demonstration of military prowess. In this regard the new genre of works about the qualities of the "honest man" reflects these changing realities. Works that treated the qualities of the "honest man" usually celebrated the virtues that were prized in the new "nobility of the robe," those who from the sixteenth century had received their noble titles as a reward for serving the king. The honest man was expected, like the behaviors recommended in earlier Renaissance conduct books, to master the arts of fine living, good conversation, and social refinement. François de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680) was one of the earlier figures that wrote a book in this vein. He had been a leader in the Fronde, but in the years that followed its disastrous conclusion, he devoted himself to a literary career, eventually publishing in 1665 his famous Maximes, which were short epigrams on matters of morality and truth. In these writings he celebrated self-preservation and self-interest as the only true source for moral action. Less suspicious and distrustful attitudes are to be found in other authors that turned to these themes, including Antoine Gombaud's On True Honesty, which celebrated the cult of "honest living" with its refinement and social graces as the true "art of living." In a similar vein one of the most famous of those who helped to define the "honest man" was Charles Saint-Évremond (1613/1614–1703). Like the sixteenth-century essayist Montaigne, Saint-Évremond's counsels included an emphasis on epicurean enjoyment of the good things the world had to offer, even as he similarly pleaded for religious toleration.


introduction: Blaise Pascal was one of France's great seventeenth-century literary stylists. An heir to the tradition of Montaigne, he nevertheless found that author's moral relativism troubling, even as he realized that the ideas of the developing Scientific Revolution represented a real challenge to traditional Christianity. Pascal spoke as an insider; he was a brilliant mathematician and helped to develop many of the mathematical techniques upon which later scientific thinkers relied. Always sickly, he underwent a "second birth" in 1654, and thereafter resolved to dedicate himself to the propagation of religious belief. In this regard he came to defend the positions of the Jansenists, France's Augustinian religious party, in his famous Provincial Letters, satires of the Jesuits that were filled with a biting wit that soon made these works bestsellers. They came to have a profound effect on literary French in the later seventeenth century. His Pensées were a record of his deepest thoughts. Maintained throughout his life, they were published by his admirers after his death. They reveal one of the keenest and most discriminating minds in the Western tradition and a limpid and elegant literary style.

What is the Ego?

Suppose a man puts himself at a window to see those who pass by. If I pass by, can I say that he placed himself there to see me? No; for he does not think of me in particular. But does he who loves someone on account of beauty really love that person? No; for the small-pox, which will kill beauty without killing the person, will cause him to love her no more.

And if one loves me for my judgment, memory, he does not love me, for I can lose these qualities without losing myself. Where then is this Ego, if it be neither in the body nor in the soul? And how love the body or the soul, except for these qualities which do not constitute me, since they are perishable? For it is impossible and would be unjust to love the soul of a person in the abstract and whatever qualities might be therein. We never then love a person, but only qualities.

Let us, then, jeer no more at those who are honoured on account of rank and office; for we love a person only on account of borrowed qualities.…

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.

source: Blaise Pascal, Pensées. Trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: Collier, 1910): 112–113, 120.

La Fayette and SÉvignÉ.

Two of the greatest prose masters of seventeenth-century French were women: Madame de La Fayette (1634–1693) and Madame de Sévigné (1626–1696). Both were aristocrats who were prominent in the salon life of later seventeenth-century Paris. Madame de La Fayette was a friend of the noble François de la Rochefoucauld, and together the two of them formed a literary circle that encouraged a restrained and commanding classical style. La Fayette became an author, and her masterpiece, The Princess of Cleves (1678), was first published anonymously. It is generally recognized as the finest French historical novel of the time. Set in the mid-sixteenth century, its plot revolves around the efforts of a young aristocratic wife to suppress her passion for another man. The illicit couple's love remains unrequited, a fact that provided La Fayette with a springboard for examining the passions and their psychological effects, a central preoccupation of many of the French authors of the age. By contrast, Madame de Sévigné did not devote her efforts to the writing of fiction. Instead she compiled a voluminous correspondence that is one of the remarkable literary artifacts of the age. A member of fashionable Parisian society for most of her life, she became an astute letter writer after her beloved daughter's marriage. In the years following their separation the two exchanged almost 1,700 letters. They are generally informal and newsy, but they show a keen and discerning mind that was aware of all the best literary canons of the day. Although they are not formal in the manner of much Baroque state and diplomatic correspondence, they were nevertheless carefully crafted with a fine eye and ear for eliciting the best responses of those that read them. Above all, they show modern readers a letter writer who must also have been an astute conversationalist since, much like the conventions of salon speech, they ramble elegantly from one topic to another.

Religious Writing.

In the final decades of the seventeenth century, new moral influences at Versailles' court led to a resurgence of religious and moralistic writing. Indeed much of French writing in the seventeenth century had been religious in tone, as elsewhere in Europe. The seventeenth century had opened with the great devotional works of François de Sales (1567–1622) and others who argued for a reform in the church and the amendment of individual lives. At mid-century the controversies between Jesuits and Jansenists had resulted in a steady outpouring of polemical tracts and satirical works like Blaise Pascal's famous Provincial Letters. Yet after 1680 a change in the tone in the literary circles surrounding King Louis XIV is also evident. In these years the king increasingly fell under the influence of his mistress, and later wife, Madame de Maintenon, an uncompromising moralist long credited with encouraging Louis to revoke the Edict of Nantes and to take other actions to uphold French Catholicism. At court, once gay theatrical comedies disappeared in favor of the new serious and "morally uplifting" operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Balls and other festivities disappeared, and many at court dedicated themselves to the devotional life. Among the great writers who took up this charge to moral perfection, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) had perhaps the broadest influence. Eventually, he rose to become a bishop, but in his mid-life he was also one of the ablest preachers in France, and in the years he spent preaching in Paris, he exercised a hold over his audience's imaginations similar to that of the great John Donne in England. In his later years as an important churchman, Bossuet intervened in a number of controversies, a fact that has often continued to mar his reputation. In his literary works, though, he produced a body of work that has consistently been lauded for its elevated style and good taste.

Ancients and Moderns.

At the end of the seventeenth century one debate that began in and around the French Academy was to spread far beyond France's borders. Disputes similar to this seventeenth-century battle between the "ancients" and the "moderns" had occurred throughout Europe since the Renaissance, with literary figures and critics weighing the relative merits of "contemporary" or "modern" literature when judged against the testimony of Antiquity. In France the debate that flared up on these themes at the end of the seventeenth century—the so-called "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns"—did not produce any decisive victory for either side. In this controversy, figures like Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711) supported imitation of the works of ancient authors as the only true path to sure and certain literary excellence. To these essentially conservative sentiments, Charles Perrault (1628–1703) answered with his Parallels of the Ancients and Moderns (1688–1697), a work that assured its readers that as human history progressed the mind of man expanded and grew. Thus Perrault argued contemporary literature might even surpass that of the ancient world. These two entries in the battle encouraged incessant pamphleteering by other French literary figures. One consequence of this otherwise pointless intellectual battle was important for the future. In downplaying the received canons of ancient literature, Perrault and his party provided an idea that was to be fruitfully expanded upon by eighteenth-century Enlightenment authors: their notion of progress and the steady expansion of the human mind. Thus this dispute over the relative merits of ancients and moderns helped to prepare the way for the Enlightenment's rich and innovative literary climate, a climate that argued that works written on contemporary, realistic and even "middle-class" themes might be as morally instructive and purposeful as the elevated concerns of ancient mythology and poetry.


C. K. Abraham, Enfin Malherbe: The Influence of Malherbe on French Lyric Prosody, 1605–1674 (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1971).

Joan DeJean, Libertine Strategies: Freedom and the Novel in Seventeenth-Century France (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981).

Maurice Lever, Le roman français au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1981).

Carolyn Lougee, Le Paradis des Femmes: Women, Salons, and Social Stratification in Seventeenth-Century France (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976).

H. J. Martin, Livres, pouvoirs et société à Paris au XVIIe siècle (1598–1701) (Geneva: Droz, 1969).

F. Warnke, Versions of Baroque (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972).

R. Winegarten, French Lyric Poetry in the Age of Malherbe (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1954).

see also Theater: Neoclassicism in Seventeenth-Century Paris

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French Literature in the Seventeenth Century

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