17th-century French literature  

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The Map of Tendre (Carte du Tendre) is a French map of an imaginary country called Tendre produced by several hands (including Catherine de Rambouillet). It appeared as an engraving (attributed to François Chauveau) in the first part of Madeleine de Scudéry's 1654-61 novel Clélie. It shows a geography entirely based around the theme of love according to the Précieuses of that era: the river of Inclination flows past the villages of "Billet Doux" (Love Letter), "Petits Soins" (Little Trinkets) and so forth.
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The Map of Tendre (Carte du Tendre) is a French map of an imaginary country called Tendre produced by several hands (including Catherine de Rambouillet). It appeared as an engraving (attributed to François Chauveau) in the first part of Madeleine de Scudéry's 1654-61 novel Clélie. It shows a geography entirely based around the theme of love according to the Précieuses of that era: the river of Inclination flows past the villages of "Billet Doux" (Love Letter), "Petits Soins" (Little Trinkets) and so forth.

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For the visual arts of the seventeenth century in France, see French Baroque and Classicism
17th century literature

French literature of the 17th century spans the reigns of Henry IV of France, the Regency of Marie de Medici, Louis XIII of France, the Regency of Anne of Austria (and the civil war called the Fronde) and the reign of Louis XIV of France. The literature of this period is often equated with the Classicism of Louis XIV's long reign, during which France led Europe in political and cultural development, and its authors expounded classical ideals of order, clarity, proportion, and good taste. In reality, 17th century French literature encompasses far more than just the classicist masterpieces of Jean Racine and Madame de Lafayette.

The seventeenth century was dominated by a profound moral and religious fervor unleashed by the Counter-Reformation. Of all literary works, books of devotion were the number one best sellers of the century. New religious organisations swept the country.

Nevertheless, the century had a number of writers who were considered "libertine"; these writers (like Théophile de Viau (1590-1626) and Charles de Saint-Evremond (1610-1703)), inspired by Epicurus and the publication of Petronius, professed doubts on religious or moral matters in a period of increasingly reactionary religious fervor.

René Descartes' (1596-1650) Discours de la méthode (1637) and Méditations marked a complete break with medieval philosophical reflection.


Contents

Society and literature in 17th century France

In Renaissance France, literature (in the broadest sense of the term) was largely the product of encyclopaedic humanism, and included works produced by an educated class of writers from religious and legal backgrounds. A new conception of nobility, modelled on the Italian Renaissance courts and their concept of the perfect courtier, was also beginning to form and evolve through French literature. This new image would, throughout the century, transform the image of a rude noble into the ideal of "honnête homme" ("the upright man") or the "bel esprit" {"beautiful spirit"), whose chief virtues included eloquent speech, skill at dance, refined manners, appreciation of the arts, intellectual curiosity, wit, a spiritual or platonic attitude in love, and the ability to write poetry.

Central to this transformation of literature and writers were the salons and literary academies that began to flourish in the first decades of the century. The expanded role of noble patronage was also significant. Production of literary works such as poems, plays, works of criticism or moral reflection was increasingly considered a necessary practice by nobles, and the creation or patronage of the arts served as a means of social advancement for both non-nobles and marginalized nobles. In the mid-seventeenth century, there were an estimated number of authors in France: 2,200 (half of whom were one half clergy and one fourth, noble) writing for a reading public of just a few tens of thousands.

Beginning under Cardinal Richelieu, both patronage of the arts and literary academies increasingly came under the control of the monarchy.

Salons and Academies

Henri IV's court was considered by contemporaries as a rude one, lacking the Italianate sophistication of the court of the Valois kings. The court also lacked a queen, who traditionally served as a focus or patron of a nation's authors and poets. Henri's literary tastes were largely limited to the chivalric novel Amadis of Gaul. In the absence of a national literary culture, private salons formed around upper-class women such as Marie de Medici and Marguerite de Valois and devoted themselves to the discussion of literature and society. In the 1620s, the most famous salon was held at the Hôtel de Rambouillet by Madame de Rambouillet, while a rival gathering was organized by Madeleine de Scudéry.

The word salon first appeared in French in 1664 from the Italian word sala, the large reception hall of a mansion. Before 1664, literary gatherings were often called by the name of the room in which they occurred -- cabinet, réduit, alcôve, and ruelle. For instance, the term ruelle derives from literary gatherings held in the bedroom, a practice popular even with Louis XIV. Nobles, lying on their beds, would receive close friends, and offer them seats on chairs or stools surrounding the bed. Ruelle, literally "little street" refers to the space between a bed and the wall in a bedroom, and became a name for these gatherings, and the intellectual and literary circles that evolved from them, often under the wing of formed educated women in the first half of the 17th century.

In the context of French scholastica, academies were scholarly societies which monitored, fostered, and critiqued French culture. Academies first appeared in France during the Renaissance, when Jean-Antoine de Baïf created one devoted to poetry and music, inspired by the academy of Italian Marsilio Ficino. The first half of the seventeenth century was marked by a phenomenal growth in private academies, organised around a half-dozen or a dozen individuals meeting regularly. Academies were more generally formal and focused on criticism and analysis than salons, which encouraged pleasurable discourse in society. However, certain salons such that of Marguerite de Valois were close to the academic spirit.

In the mid-century, academies gradually came under government control and sponsorship and the number of private academies decreased The first private academy to fall under governmental control was L'Académie française, which remains the most prestigious governmental academy in France. Founded in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu, L'Académie française focuses on the French language.

Aristocratic codes

In certain instances, the values of 17th century nobility played a major part in literature of the time. Most notable of these values are the aristocratic obsession with glory ("la gloire") and majesty ("la grandeur"). The spectacle of power, prestige and luxury found in 17th century literature may be distasteful or even offensive. Corneille's heroes, for example, have been labeled by modern critics as vain-glorious, extravagant, or prideful; contemporaries aristocratic readers would have these same characters and their actions as representative of a noble station.

The château of Versailles, court ballets, noble portraits, triumphal arches --- all of these were representations of glory and prestige. The notion of glory, be it artistic or military, was not vanity or boastfulness or hubris, rather a moral imperative for the aristocratic class. Nobles were required to be "generous" and "magnanamous" and to perform great deeds disinterestedly (i.e. because their status demanded it and without expecting financial or political gain), and to master their own emotions (especially fear, jealousy and the desire for vengeance).

One's status in the world demanded appropriate externalisation ( or "conspicuous consumption"). Nobles indebted themselves to build prestigious urban mansions ("hôtels particuliers") and to buy clothes, paintings, silverware, dishes and other furnishings befitting their rank. They were also required to show liberality by hosting sumptuous parties and by funding the arts. Conversely, social parvenues who took on the external trappings of the noble classes (such as the wearing of a sword) were severely criticised, sometimes by legal action (laws on sumptuous clothing worn by bourgeois existed since the Middle Ages). (This kind of expenditure mandated by social status has been studied by sociologists such as Norbert Elias (The Court Society. First English language edition: Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.); there are also many links to the theories of sociologist Marcel Mauss on the "gift". Another key analysis of these values can be found in the work of Paul Bénichou (Morales du Grand siècle. Paris: Gallimard, 1948.).)

These aristocratic values began to be criticised in the mid 17th century: Blaise Pascal for example offered a ferocious analysis of the spectacle of power and François de la Rochefoucauld posited that no human act -- however generous is pretended to be -- could be considered disinterested.

Classicism

In an attempt to restrict the proliferation of private centers of intellectual or literary life, so as to impose the royal court as the artistic center of France, Cardinal Richelieu took an existing literary gathering (around Valentin Conrart) and designated it as the official Académie française in 1634 (other original members included Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, Jean Ogier de Gombauld, Jean Chapelain, François le Métel de Boisrobert, François Maynard, Marin le Roy de Gomberville and Nicolas Faret; members added at the time of its official creation included Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Claude Favre de Vaugelas and Vincent Voiture). This process of state control of the arts and literature would be expanded even more during the reign of Louis XIV.

The expression classicism as it applies to literature implies notions of order, clarity, moral purpose and good taste. Many of these notions are directly inspired by the works of Aristotle and Horace and by classical Greek and Roman masterpieces.

In theater, a play should follow the Three Unities:

  • Unity of place : the setting should not change. In practice, this lead to the frequent "Castle, interior". Battles take place off stage.
  • Unity of time: ideally the entire play should take place in 24 hours.
  • Unity of action: there should be one central story and all secondary plots should be linked to it.

Although based on classical examples, the unities of place and time were seen as essential for the spectator's complete absorption into the dramatic action; wildly dispersed scenes in China or Africa, or over many years would -- critics maintained -- break the theatrical illusion. Sometimes grouped with the unity of action is the notion that no character should appear unexpectedly late in the drama.

Linked with the theatrical unities are the following concepts:

  • "Les bienséances" (decorum) : literature should respect moral codes and good taste; nothing should be presented that flouts these codes, even if they are historical events.
  • "La vraisemblance" : actions should be believable. When historical events contradict believability, some critics counselled the latter. The criterion of believability was sometimes also used to criticize soliloquy, and in late classical plays characters are almost invariably supplied with confidants (valets, friends, nurses) to whom they reveal their emotions.

These rules precluded many elements common in the baroque "tragi-comedy": flying horses, chivalric battles, magical trips to foreign lands and the deus ex machina. The mauling of Hippolyte by a monster in Phèdre could only take place offstage.

  • Finally, literature and art should consciously follow Horace's precept "to please and educate" (Template:Lang).

These "rules" or "codes" were seldom completely followed, and many of the centuries masterpieces broke these rules intentionally to heighten emotional effect:

  • Corneille's "Le Cid" was criticised for having Rodrigue appear before Chimène after having killed her father, a violation of moral codes.
  • "La Princesse de Clèves"'s revelation to his husband of her adulterous feelings for the Duc de Nemours was criticized for being unbelievable.

In 1674 there erupted an intellectual debate -- "la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes" -- on whether the arts and literature of the modern era had achieved more than the illustrious writers and artists of antiquity. The Académy was dominated by the "Moderns" (Charles Perrault, Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin) and Perrault's poem "Le Siècle de Louis le Grand" ("The Century of Louis the Great") (1687) was the strongest expression of their conviction that the reign of Louis XIV was the equal of Augustus. As a great lover of the classics, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux found himself pushed into the role of champion of the "Anciens" (his severe criticisms of Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin's poems did not help), and Jean Racine, Jean de La Fontaine and Jean de La Bruyère took his defense. Meanwhile, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and the gazette "Mercure galant" joined the "Moderns". The debate would last until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The expression "classicism" is also linked to the visual arts and architecture of the period, and most specifically to the construction of the château of Versailles, the crowning achievement of an official program of propaganda and royal glory. Although originally just a country retreat used for special festivities -- and known more for André Le Nôtre's gardens and fountains -- Versailles eventually became the permanent home of the king. By relocating to Versailles, Louis effectively avoided the dangers of Paris (in his youth, Louis XIV had suffered during the civil and parliamentary insurrection known as the Fronde) and could also keep his eye very closely on the affairs of the nobles and play them off against each other and against the newer "noblesse de robe". Versailles became a gilded cage: to leave spelled disaster for a noble, for all official charges and appointments were made there. A strict etiquette was imposed: a word or glance from the king could make or destroy a career. The king himself followed a strict daily program, and there was little privacy. Through his wars and the glory of Versailles, Louis became, to a certain degree, the arbiter of taste and power in Europe and both his château and the etiquette in Versailles were copied by the other European courts. Yet the difficult wars at the end of his long reign and the religious problems created by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes made the last years dark ones.

Prose fiction

"Les Amours" and "Les histoires tragiques"

In France, the period following the Wars of Religion saw the appearance of a new form of narrative fiction – that some critics have since termed the "sentimental novel" – which very quickly became a literary sensation thanks to the enthusiasm of a reading public searching for delight after so many years of conflict.

These relatively short (and often realistic) novels of love (or "amours" as they are frequently called in the titles) included extensive examples of gallant letters and polite discourse, amorous dialogues, letters and poems inserted in the story; gallant conceits and other rhetorical figures. These texts played an important role in the elaboration of new modes of civility and discourse of the upper classes (leading to the notion of the noble "honnête homme"). None of these novels have been republished since the early part of the seventeenth century and they remain largely unknown today. Authors associated with "les Amours": Antoine de Nervèze, Nicolas des Escuteaux and François du Souhait.

Meanwhile, the tradition of the dark tale - coming from the tragic short story ("histoire tragique") associated with Bandello and frequently ending in suicide or murder - continued in the works of Jean-Pierre Camus and François de Rosset.

The Baroque adventure novel

By 1610, the short novel of love had largely disappeared as tastes returned to longer adventure novels ("romans d'aventures") and their clichés (pirates, storms, kidnapped maidens) that had been popular since the Valois court (Amadis of Gaul was the favorite reading matter of Henri IV; Béroalde de Verville was still writing and Nicolas de Montreux had just died in 1608). Both Nervèze and Des Escuteaux, in their later works, attempted multi-volume adventure novels, and over the next twenty years the priest Jean-Pierre Camus adapted the form to tell harrowing moral tales heavily influenced by the "histoire tragique". But the best known of these long adventure novels is perhaps Polexandre (1629-49) by the young author Marin le Roy de Gomberville.

All of these authors were eclipsed however by the international success of Honoré d'Urfé's immense novel l'Astrée (1607-1633) -- centered around the shepherd Céladon and his love Astrée -- which combined a frame tale device of shepherds and maidens meeting each other and telling their stories and philosophizing on love (a form derived from the ancient Greek novel "the Aethiopica" by Heliodorus of Emesa) and a pastoral setting (derived from the Spanish and Italian pastoral tradition from such writers as Jacopo Sannazaro, Jorge de Montemayor, Torquato Tasso and Giambattista Guarini) of noble and idealized shepherds and maidens tending their sheep and falling in and out of love.

The influence of d'Urfé's novel was immense, especially in its discursive structure which permitted an infinite number of separate stories and characters to be introduced and their resolution to be constantly delayed for thousands of pages. D'Urfé's novel also promoted a rarefied neo-Platonism which differed profoundly with the frequent physicality of the knights in the Renaissance novel (such as Amadis of Gaul). The only element of d'Urfé's work which did not produce countless imitations was in its "roman pastoral" setting.

In theorizing the origins of the novel, the early seventeenth century conceived of the novel as "an epic in prose", and in truth the epic poem at the end of the Renaissance had few thematic differences from the novel: novelistic love had spilled into the epic and adventurous knights had become the subject of novels. The novels from 1640 to 1660 would make this melding complete. These novels extended to multiple volumes and were structurally complicated, using the same techniques of inserted stories and tale-within-a-tale dialogues as d'Urfé. Often called "romans de longue haleine" (or "deep-breath books"), they usually took place in an ancient historical period like Rome, Egypt or ancient Persia, used historical characters (for this reason they are called "romans héroiques" heroic romances) and told the adventures of a series of perfect lovers separated by accident or misfortune to the four corners of the world. Unlike the chivalric romance, magical elements and creatures were relatively rare. Furthermore, there was a concentration in these works on psychological analysis and on moral and sentimental questions that the Renaissance novel lacked. Many of these novels were actually "romans à clé" which described actual contemporary relationships under disguised novelistic names and characters. The most famous of these authors and novels are:

Baroque comic fiction

Not all fiction from the first half of the century was a wild flight of fancy in far-flung lands and rarefied adventurous love stories. Influenced by the international success of the picaresque novel from Spain (such as the novel Lazarillo de Tormes), and by Miguel de Cervantes's short story collection Exemplary Tales (French translations started to appear in 1614) and Don Quixote de la Mancha (French translation 1614-1618), the French novelists of the first half of the century also chose to describe and satirize their own era and its excesses. Other important models of satire were provided by Fernando de Rojas's Celestina and John Barclay's (1582-1621) two satirical works in Latin Euphormio sive Satiricon (1602) and Argenis (1621).

Agrippa d'Aubigné's Les Aventures du baron de Faeneste portrays the rude manners and comic adventures of a Gascon in the royal court.

Charles Sorel's L'histoire comique de Francion is a picaresque inspired story of the ruses and amorous dealings of a young gentleman, and his Le Berger extravagant is a satire of the d'Urfé-inspired pastoral, which (taking a clue from the end of Don Quixote) has a young man take on the life of a shepherd. Despite its "realism", Sorel's works remain, nonetheless, highly baroque with dream sequences and inserted narrations (for example, when Francion tells of his years at school) typical of the adventure novel. This use of inserted stories also follows Cervantes who inserted a number of nearly autonomous stories into his Quixote.

Paul Scarron's most famous work, Le Roman comique, uses the narrative frame of a group of ambulant actors in the provinces to present both scenes of farcical comedy and sophisticated inserted tales.

Cyrano de Bergerac -- made famous by the 19th century play by Edmond Rostand -- wrote two novels that, sixty years before Gulliver's Travels or Voltaire (not to mention science-fiction), use a journey to magical lands (the moon and the sun) as pretexts for satirizing contemporary philosophy and morals. By the end of the century, Cyrano's works would inspire a number of philosophical novels in which Frenchmen travel to foreign lands and strange utopias.

The early half of the century also saw the continued popularity of the comic short story and collections of humorous discussions, such as in the Histoires comiques of François du Souhait; the playful, chaotic, sometimes obscene and almost unreadable Moyen de parvenir by Béroalde de Verville (a parody of books of "table talk", of Rabelais and of Michel de Montaigne's The Essays); the anonymous Caquets de l'accouchée (1622); and Molière d'Essertine's Semaine amoureuse (a collection of short stories).

Select list of baroque comique writers and works:

In the latter half of the century, a contemporary setting would be also used in many classical "nouvelles" (or short novels), especially as a form of moral critique of contemporary society.

The "Nouvelle classique"

By 1660, the multi-volume baroque historical novel had largely fallen out of fashion. The tendency was for much shorter works ("nouvelles" or "petits romans") without the complex structure or adventurous elements (pirates, shipwrecks, kidnappings). This movement away from the baroque novel was supported by theoretical discussions on the novel that sought to apply the same Aristotelian and Horacian concepts of the three unities, decorum and verisimilitude that writers had imposed on the theater. For example, Georges de Scudéry, in his preface to Ibrahim (1641), suggested that a "reasonable limit" for a novel's plot (a form of "unity of time") would be one year. Similarly, in his discussion on La Princesse de Clèves, the chevalier de Valincourt criticized the inclusion of ancillary stories within the main plot (a form of "unity of action").

An interest in love, psychological analysis, moral dilemmas and social constraints permeates these novels. When the action was placed in an historical setting, this was increasingly a setting in the recent past, and although still filled with anachronisms, these novels showed an interest in historical detail; these are generally called "nouvelles historiques". A number of these short novels recounted the "secret history" of a famous event (like Villedieu's "Annales galantes"), linking the action generally to an amorous intrigue; these were called "histoires galantes". Some of these short novels told stories of the contemporary world (like Préchac's "L'Illustre Parisienne").

Important "nouvelles classiques":

The most famous of all of these is clearly Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves. Reduced to essentially three characters, the short novel tells the story of a married noble woman in the time of Henri II who falls in love with another man, but who reveals her passion to her husband. Although the novel includes a couple of inserted stories, on the whole the narration concentrates on the unspoken doubts and fears of the two individuals living in a social setting dominated by etiquette and moral correctness; despite the historical setting, Lafayette was clearly describing her contemporary world. The psychological analysis is close to the pessimism of La Rochefoucauld, and the abnegation of the main character leads ultimately to a refusal of a conventional happy ending. For all of its force however, Madame de Lafayette's novel is not the first to have a recent historical setting or psychological depth, as some critics state; these elements can be found in novels of the decade before, and in fact are already present in certain of the "Amours" at the beginning of the century.

Other novelistic forms after 1660

The obsessions of the "nouvelle classique" (an interest in love, psychological analysis, moral dilemmas and social constraints) are also apparent in the anonymous epistolary novel Lettres d'une religieuse portugaise (Letters of a Portuguese Nun) (1668), attributed to Guilleragues, which were a major sensation when they were published, in part because of their perceived authenticity. These letters written by a scorned woman to her absent lover were a powerful representation of amorous passion with many similarities to the language of Racine. Other epistolary novels followed, written by Claude Barbin, Vincent Voiture, Edmé Boursault, Fontenelle (who used the form to introduce discussion of philosophical and moral matters, prefiguring Montesquieu's Lettres persanes in the 18th century) and others; actual love letters written by noble ladies (Madame de Bussy-Lameth, Madame de Coligny) were also published.

Antoine Furetière (1619-1688) is responsible for a longer comic novel which pokes fun at a bourgeois family: Le Roman bourgeois (1666). The choice of the bourgeois "arriviste" or "parvenu" (a "social climber" trying to ape the manners and style of the noble classes) as a source of mockery appears in a number of short stories and in theater of the period (such as Molière's Bourgeois Gentihomme).

The long adventurous novel of love continued to exist after 1660, albeit in a far shorter form than the novels of the 1640s. Influenced as much by the "nouvelles historiques" and the "nouvelles galantes" as by the "roman d'aventures" and the "roman historique", these galant and historical novels -- whose settings range from ancient Rome to Renaissance Castille or France -- were published in to the first decades of the 18th century. Authors include: Madame Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy, Mlle Charlotte-Rose de Caumont La Force, Mlle Anne de La Roche-Guilhem, Catherine Bernard, Catherine Bédacier-Durand.

An important history of the novel was written by Pierre Daniel Huet, Traitté de l'origine des romans (1670), which (much like theoretical discussions on theatrical "vraisemblance", "bienséance" and the nature of tragedy and comedy) stressed the need for moral utility and made important distinctions between history and the novel, and between the epic (which treats of politics and war) and the novel (which treats of love).

The first half of the century had seen the development of the biographical mémoire (see below), and by the 1670s this form began to be used in novels. Madame de Villedieu (her real name was Marie-Catherine Desjardins), author of a number of "nouvelles", was also the author of a longer realistic work that represented (and satirized) the contemporary world via the fictionalized "mémoires" of young woman telling her amorous and economic hardships: Mémoires de la vie d'Henriette Sylvie de Molière (1672-1674).

The fictional "mémoire" form was used by other novelists as well. Courtilz de Sandras's novels -- Mémoires de M.L.C.D.R. (1687), Mémoires de M. d'Artagnan (1700), Mémoires de M. de B. (1711) -- describe the world of Richelieu and Mazarin without gallant clichés: spies, kidnappings, political machinations predominate. Among the other "mémoires" of the period, the most famous was the work of an Englishman Anthony Hamilton, whose Mémoires de la vie du comte de Grammont... was published in France in 1713 and tells of his years in the French court from 1643-1663. Many of these works were published anonymously; in some cases it is difficult to tell whether they are fictionlized or biographical. Other authors include: abbé Cavard, abbé de Villiers, abbé Olivier, le sieur de Grandchamp. The realism and occasional irony of these novels would lead directly to the novels of Alain-René Lesage, Pierre de Marivaux and Abbé Prévost in the 18th century.

In the 1690s, the fairy tale began to appear in French literature. The most famous collection of traditional tales (liberally adapted) was by Charles Perrault (1697), although many others were published (such as those by Henriette-Julie de Murat and Madame d'Aulnoy). A major revolution would occur however with the appearance of Antoine Galland's first French (and indeed modern) translation of the Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights) (from 1704; another translation appeared in 1710-12), which would influence the 18th century short stories of Voltaire, Diderot and countless others.

The period also saw several novels with voyages and utopian descriptions of foreign cultures (in imitation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Thomas More and Francis Bacon):

  • Denis Veiras - Histoire de Sévarambes (1677)
  • Gabriel de Foigny - Les Avantures de Jacques Sadeur dans la découverte et le voyage de la Terre australe (or la Terre australe connue (1676)
  • Tyssot de Patot - Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé (1710)

Of similar didactic aims was Fénelon's Les Aventures de Télémaque (1694-6), which represents a classicist's attempt to overcome the excesses of the baroque novel: using a structure of travels and adventures (grafted onto Telemachus the son of Ulysses) Fénelon exposes his moral philosophy. This novel would be copied by numerous didactic novels in the 18th century.

Poetry

Because of the new conception of "l'honnête homme" or "the honest or upright man", poetry became one of the principle modes of literary production of noble gentlemen and of non-noble professional writers in their patronage in the 17th century.

Poetry was used for all purposes. A great deal of 17th and 18th century poetry was "occasional", meaning that it was written to celebrate a particular event (a marriage, birth, military victory) or to solemnize a tragic occurrence (a death, militray defeat), and this kind of poetry was frequent with gentlemen in the service of a noble or the king. Poetry was the chief form of seventeenth century theater: the vast majority of scripted plays were written in verse (see "Theater" below). Poetry was used in satires (Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux is famous for his Satires (1666)) and in epics (inspired by the Renaissance epic tradition and by Tasso) like Jean Chapelain's La Pucelle.

Although French poetry during the reign of Henri IV and Louis XIII was still largely inspired by the poets of the late Valois court, some of their excesses and poetic liberties found censure, especially in the work of François de Malherbe who criticized La Pléiade's and Philippe Desportes's irregularities of meter or form (the suppression of the cesura by a hiatus, sentences clauses spilling over into the next line "enjambement", neologisms constructed from Greek words, etc.). The later 17th century would see Malherbe as the grandfather of poetic classicism.

The Pléiade poems of the natural world (fields and streams) were continued in the first half of the century -- but the tone was often elegiac or melancholy (an "ode to solitude"), and the natural world presented was sometimes the wild sea coast or some other rugged environment -- by poets who have been grouped by later critics with the "baroque" label (notably Théophile de Viau and Antoine Gérard de Saint-Amant).

Poetry came to be a part of the social games in noble salons (see "salons" above), where epigrams, satirical verse, and poetic descriptions were all common (the most famous example is "La Guirlande de Julie" (1641) at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, a collection of floral poems written by the salon members for the birthday of the host's daughter). The linguistic aspects of the phenomenon associated with the "précieuses" (similar to Euphuism in England, Gongorism in Spain and Marinism in Italy) -- the use of highly metaphorical (sometimes obscure) language, the purification of socially unacceptable vocabulary -- was tied to this poetic salon spirit and would have an enormous impact on French poetic and courtly language. Although "préciosité" was often mocked (especially in the later 1660s when the phenomenon had spread to the provinces) for its linguistic and romantic excesses (often linked to a misogynistic disdain for intellectual women), the French language and social manners of the seventeenth century were permanently changed by it.

From the 1660s, three poets stand out. Jean de La Fontaine gained enormous celebrity through his Aesop and Phaedrus inspired "Fables" (1668-1693) which were written in an irregular verse form (different meter lengths are used in a poem). Jean Racine was seen as the greatest tragedy writer of his age. Finally, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux became the theorizer of poetic classicism: his "Art poétique" (1674) praised reason and logic (Boileau elevated Malherbe as the first of the rational poets), believability, moral usefulness and moral correctness; it elevated tragedy and the poetic epic as the great genres and recommended imitation of the poets of antiquity.

"Classicism" in poetry would dominate until the pre-romantics and the French Revolution.

Select list of French poets of the 17th century:

Theater

Theaters and theatrical companies

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, public theatrical representations in Paris were under the control of guilds, but in the last decades of the sixteenth century only one of these continued to exist: although "les Confrères de la Passion" no longer had the right to perform mystery plays (1548), they were given exclusive rights to oversee all theatrical productions in the capital and rented out their theater (the Hôtel de Bourgogne) to theatrical troupes at a high price. In 1599, this guild abandoned its privilege which permitted other theaters and theatrical companies to eventually open in the capital.

In addition to public theaters, plays were produced in private residences, before the court and in the university. In the first half of the century, the public, the humanist theater of the colleges and the theater performed at court showed extremely divergent tastes. For example, while the tragicomedy was fashionable at the court in the first decade, the public was more interested in tragedy.

The early theaters in Paris were often placed in existing structures like tennis courts; their stages were extremely narrow, and facilities for sets and scene changes were often non-existent (this would encourage the development of the unity of place). Eventually, theaters would develop systems of elaborate machines and decors, fashionable for the chevaleresque flights of knights found in the tragicomedies of the first half of the century.

In the early part of the century, the theater performances took place twice a week starting at two or three o'clock. Theatrical representations often encompassed several works, beginning with a comic prologue, then a tragedy or tragicomedy, then a farce and finally a song. Nobles sometimes sat on the side of the stage during the performance. Given that it was impossible to lower the house lights, the audience was always aware of each other and spectators were notably vocal during performances. The place directly in front of the stage, without seats -- the "parterre" -- was reserved for men, but being the cheapest tickets, the parterre was usually a mix of social groups. Elegant people watched the show from the galleries. Princes, musketeers and royal pages were given free entry. Before 1630, an honest woman did not go to the theater.

Unlike England, France placed no restrictions on women performing on stage, but the career of actors of either sex was seen as morally wrong by the Catholic church (actors were excommunicated) and by the ascetic religious Janseanist movement. Actors typically had fantastic stage names that described typical roles or stereotypical characters.

In addition to scripted comedies and tragedies, Parisians were also great fans of the Italian acting troupe who performed their Commedia dell'arte, a kind of improvised theater based on types. The characters from the Commedia dell'arte would have a profound effect on French theater, and one finds echoes of them in the braggarts, fools, lovers, old men and wily servants that populate French theater.

Finally, opera came to France in the second half of the century.

The most important theaters and troupes in Paris:

  • Hôtel de Bourgogne - until 1629, this theater was occupied by various troupes, including the ("Comédiens du Roi") directed by Vallerin Lecomte and, at his death, by Bellerose (Pierre Le Messier). The troupe became the official "Troupe Royale" in 1629. Actors included: Turlupin, Gros-Guillaume, Gautier-Gargouille, Floridor, Monfleury, la Champmeslé.
  • Théâtre du Marais (1600-1673) - this rival theater of the Hôtel de Bourgogne housed the troupe "Vieux Comédiens du Roi" around Claude Deschamps and the troupe of Jodelet.
  • 'La troupe de Monsieur" - under the protection of Louis XIV's brother, this was Molière's first Paris troupe. They moved to several theaters in Paris (the Petit-Bourbon, the Palais-Royal) before combining in 1673 with the troupe of the Théâtre du Marais and becoming the troupe of the Hôtel Guénégaud.
  • La Comédie française - in 1689 Louis XIV united the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Hôtel Guénégaud into one official troupe.

Outside of Paris, in the suburbs and in the provinces, there were many wandering theatrical troupes. Molière got his start in a such a troupe.

The royal court and other noble houses were also important organizers of theatrical representations, ballets de cour, mock battles and other sorts of "divertissement" for their festivities, and in the some cases the roles of dancers and actors were held by the nobles themselves. The early years at Versailles -- before the massive expansion of the residence -- were entirely consecrated to such pleasures, and similar spectacles continued throughout the reign. Engravings show Louis XIV and the court seating outside before the "Cour du marbre" of Versailles watching the performance of a play.

The great majority of scripted plays in the seventeenth century were written in verse (notable exceptions include some of Molière's comedies. Samuel Chappuzeau, author of Le Théâtre François printed one comedy play in both prose and verse at different times). Except for lyric passages in these plays, the meter used was a twelve-syllable line (the "alexandrine") with a regular pause or "cesura" after the sixth syllable; these lines were put into rhymed couplets; couplets alternated between "feminine" (i.e. ending in a mute e) and "masculine" (i.e. ending in a vowel other than a mute e, or in a consonant or a nasal) rhymes.

Baroque theater

French theater from the seventeenth century is often reduced to three great names -- Pierre Corneille, Molière and Jean Racine -- and to the triumph of "classicism"; the truth is however far more complicated.

Theater at the beginning of the century was dominated by the genres and dramatists of the previous generation. Most influential in this respect was Robert Garnier. Although the royal court had grown tired of the tragedy (preferring the more escapist tragicomedy), the theater going public preferred the former. This would change in the 1630s and 1640s when, influenced by the long baroque novels of the period, the tragicomedy -- a heroic and magical adventure of knights and maidens -- became the dominant genre. The amazing success of Corneille's Le Cid in 1637 and Horace in 1640 would bring the tragedy back into fashion, where it would remain for the rest of the century.

The most important source for tragic theater was Seneca and the precepts of Horace and Aristotle (and modern commentaries by Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro), although plots were taken from classical authors such as Plutarch, Suetonius, etc. and from short story collections (Italian, French and Spanish). The Greek tragic authors (Sophocles, Euripides) would become increasingly important by the middle of the century. Important models for both comedy, tragedy and tragicomedy of the century were also supplied by the Spanish playwrights Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega, many of whose works were translated and adapted for the French stage. Important theatrical models were also supplied by the Italian stage (including the pastoral), and Italy was also an important source for theoretical discussions on theater, especially with regards to decorum (see for example the debates on Sperone Speroni's play Canace and Giovanni Battista Giraldi's play Orbecche).

Regular comedies (i.e. comedies in five acts modeled on Plautus or Terence and the precepts of Aelius Donatus) were less frequent on the stage than tragedies and tragicomedies at the turn of the century, as the comedic element of the early stage was dominated by the farce, the satirical monologue and by the Italian commedia dell'arte. Jean Rotrou and Pierre Corneille would return to the regular comedy shortly before 1630.

Corneille's tragedies were strangely un-tragic (his first version of "Le Cid" was even listed as a tragicomedy), for they had happy endings. In his theoretical works on theater, Corneille redefined both comedy and tragedy around the following suppositions:

  • The stage -- in both comedy and tragedy -- should feature noble characters (this would eliminate many low-characters, typical of the farce, from Corneille's comedies). Noble characters should not be depicted as vile (reprehensible actions are generally due to non-noble characters in Corneille's plays).
  • Tragedy deals with affairs of the state (wars, dynastic marriages); comedy deals with love. For a work to be tragic, it need not have a tragic ending.
  • Although Aristotle says that catharsis (purgation of emotion) should be the goal of tragedy, this is only an ideal. In conformity with the moral codes of the period, plays should not show evil being rewarded or nobility being degraded.

The history of the public and critical reaction to Corneille's "Le Cid" can be found in other articles (he was criticized for his use of sources, for his violation of good taste, and for other irregularities that did not conform to Aristotian or Horacian rules), but its impact was stunning. Cardinal Richelieu asked the newly formed Académie française to investigate and pronounce on the criticisms (it was the Academy's first official judgement), and the controversy reveals a growing attempt to control and regulate theater and theatrical forms. This would be the beginning of seventeenth century "classicism".

Corneille continued to write plays through 1674 (mainly tragedies, but also something he called "heroic comedies") and many continued to be successes, although the "irregularities" of his theatrical methods were increasingly criticized (notably by François Hédelin, abbé d'Aubignac) and the success of Jean Racine from the late 1660s signaled the end of his preeminence.

Select list of dramatists and plays, with indication of genre (dates are often approximate, as date of publication was usually long after the date of first performance):

  • Antoine de Montchrestien (c.1575-1621)
    • Sophonisbe a/k/a La Cathaginoise a/k/a La Liberté (tragedy) - 1596
    • La Reine d'Ecosse a/k/a L'Ecossaise (tragedy) - 1601
    • Aman (tragedy) - 1601
    • La Bergerie (pastoral) - 1601
    • Hector (tragedy) - 1604
  • Jean de Schelandre (c. 1585-1635)
    • Tyr et Sidon, ou les funestes amours de Belcar et Méliane (1608)
  • Alexandre Hardy (1572-c.1632) - Hardy reputedly wrote 600 plays; only 34 have come down to us.
    • Scédase, ou l'hospitalité violée (tragedy) - 1624
    • La Force du sang (tragicomedy) - 1625 (the plot is taken from a Cervantes short story)
    • Lucrèce, ou l'Adultère puni (tragedy) - 1628
  • Honorat de Bueil, seigneur de Racan (1589-1670)
    • Les Bergeries (pastoral) - 1625
  • Théophile de Viau (1590-1626)
    • Les Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé (tragedy) - 1621
  • François le Métel de Boisrobert (1592-1662)
    • Didon la chaste ou Les Amours de Hiarbas (tragedy) - 1642
  • Jean Mairet (1604-1686)
    • La Sylve (pastoral tragicomedy) - c.1626
    • La Silvanire, ou La Morte vive (pastoral tragicomedy) - 1630
    • Les Galanteries du Duc d'Ossonne Vice-Roi de Naples (comedy) - 1632
    • La Sophonisbe (tragedy) - 1634
    • La Virginie (tragicomedy) - 1636
  • Tristan L'Hermite (1601-1655)
    • Mariamne (tragedy) - 1636
    • Penthée (tragedy) - 1637
    • La Mort de Seneque (tragedy) - 1644
    • La Mort de Crispe (tragedy) - 1645
    • The Parasite - 1653
  • Jean Rotrou (1609-1650)
    • La Bague de l'oubli (comedy) - 1629
    • La Belle Alphrède (comedy) - 1639
    • Laure persécutée (tragicomedy) - 1637
    • Le Véritable saint Genest (tragedy) - 1645
    • Venceslas (tragicomedy) - 1647
    • Cosroès (tragedy) - 1648
  • Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)
    • Mélite (comedy) - 1629
    • Clitandre (tragicomedy, later changed to tragedy) - 1631
    • La Veuve (comedy) - 1631
    • La Place Royale (comedy) - 1633
    • Médée (tragedy) - 1635
    • L'Illusion comique (comedy) - 1636
    • Le Cid (tragicomedy, later changed to tragedy) - 1637
    • Horace (tragedy) - 1640
    • Cinna (tragedy) - 1640
    • Polyeucte ("Christian" tragedy) - c.1641
    • La Mort de Pompée (tragedy) - 1642
    • Le Menteur (comedy) - 1643
    • Rodogune, princesse des Parthes (tragedy) - 1644
    • Héraclius, empereur d'Orient (tragedy) - 1647
    • Don Sanche d'Aragon ("heroic" comedy) - 1649
    • Nicomède (tragedy) - 1650
    • Sertorius (tragedy) - 1662
    • Sophonisbe (tragedy) - 1663
    • Othon (tragedy) - 1664
    • Tite et Bérénice ("heroic" comedy) - 1670
    • Suréna, général des Parthes (tragedy) - 1674
  • Pierre du Ryer (1606-1658)
    • Lucrèce (tragedy) - 1636
    • Alcione - 1638
    • Scévola (tragedy) - 1644
  • Jean Desmarets (1595-1676)
    • Les Visionnaires (comedy) - 1637
    • Erigone (prose tragedy) - 1638
    • Scipion (verse tragedy) - 1639
  • François Hédelin, abbé d'Aubignac (1604-1676)
    • La Cyminde - 1642
    • La Pucelle d'Orléans - 1642
    • Zénobie (tragedy) - 1647, written with the intention of affording a model in which the strict rules of the drama were served.
    • Le Martyre de Sainte Catherine (tragedy) - 1650
  • Paul Scarron (1610-1660)
    • Jodelet - 1645
    • Don Japhel d'Arménie - 1653
  • Isaac de Benserade (c.1613-1691)
    • Cléopâtre (tragedy) - 1635

Theater under Louis XIV

By the 1660s, classicism had finally imposed itself on French theater. The key theoretical work on theater from this period was François Hedelin, abbé d'Aubignac's Pratique du théâtre (1657), and the dictates of this work reveal to what degre "French classicism" was willing to modify the rules of classical tragedy to maintain the unities and decorum (d'Aubignac for example saw the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone as unsuitable for the contemporary stage).

Although Pierre Corneille continued to produce tragedies to the end of his life, the works of Jean Racine from the late 1660s on totally ecplised the late plays of the elder dramatist. Racine's tragedies -- inspired by Greek myths, Euripides, Sophocles and Seneca -- condensed their plot into a tight set of passionate and duty-bound conflicts between a small group of noble characters, and concentrated on these characters' double-binds and the geometry of their unfulfilled desires and hatreds. Racine's poetic skill was in the representation of pathos and amorous passion (like Phèdre's love for her stepson) and his impact was such that emotional crisis would be the dominant mode of tragedy to the end of the century. Racine's two late plays (Esther and Athalie) opened new doors to biblical subject matter and to the use of theater in the education of young women.

Tragedy in the last two decades of the century and the first years of the eighteenth century was dominated by productions of classics from Pierre Corneille and Racine, but on the whole the public's enthusiasm for tragedy had greatly diminished: theatrical tragedy paled beside the dark economic and demographic problems at the end of the century and the "comedy of manners" (see below) had incorporated many of the moral goals of tragedy. Other later century tragedians include: Claude Boyer, Michel Le Clerc, Jacques Pradon, Jean Galbert de Campistron, Jean de la Chapelle, Antoine d'Aubigny de la Fosse, l'abbé Charles-Claude Geneste, Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. At the end of the century, in the plays of Crébillon in particular, there occasionally appeared a return to the theatricality of the beginning of the century: multiple episodes, extravagant fear and pity, and the representation of gruesome actions on the stage.

Early French opera was particularly popular with the royal court in this period, and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was extremely prolific (see the composer's article for more on court ballets and opera in this period). These musical works carried on in the tradition of tragicomedy (especially the "pièces à machines") and court ballet, and also occasionally presented tragic plots (or "tragédies en musique"). The dramatists that worked with Lully included Pierre Corneille and Molière, but the most important of these librettists was Philippe Quinault, a writer of comedies, tragedies, and tragicomedies.

Comedy in the second half of the century was dominated by Molière. A veteran actor, master of farce, slapstick, the Italian and Spanish theater (see above), and "regular" theater modeled on Plautus and Terence, Molière's output was large and varied. He is credited with giving the French "comedy of manners" ("comédie de mœurs") and the "comedy of character ("comédie de caractère") their modern form. His hilarious satires of avaricious fathers, "précieuses", social parvenues, doctors and pompous literary types were extremely successful, but his comedies on religious hypocrisy (Tartuffe) and libertinage (Dom Juan) brought him much criticism from the church, and Tartuffe was only performed through the intervention of the king. Many of Molière's comedies, like Tartuffe, Dom Juan and the Le Misanthrope could veer between farce and the darkest of dramas, and their endings are far from being purely comic. Molière's Les précieuses ridicules was certainly based on an earlier play by Samuel Chappuzeau, who is best known for his work Le Theatre Francois (1674) which contains the most detailed description of French theatre in this period.

Comedy to the end of the century would continue on the paths traced by Molière: the satire of contemporary morals and manners and the "regular" comedy would dominate, and the last great "comedy" of Louis XIV's reign, Alain-René Lesage's Turcaret, is an immensely dark play in which almost no character shows redeaming traits.

Select list of French theater after 1659:

  • Molière (pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) (1622-1673)
  • Thomas Corneille (1625-1709) - brother of Pierre Corneille
    • Timocrate (tragedy) - 1659, the longest run (80 nights) recorded of any play in the century
    • Ariane (tragedy) - 1672
    • Circée (tragicomedy) - 1675 (cowritten with Donneau de Visé)
    • La Devineresse (comedy) - 1679 (cowritten with Donneau de Visé)
    • Bellérophon (opéra) - 1679
  • Philippe Quinault (1635-1688).
    • Alceste (musical tragedy) - 1674
    • Proserpine (musical tragedy) - 1680
    • Amadis de Gaule (musical tragicomedy) - 1684, based on the Renaissance chivalric novel
    • Armide (musical tragicomedy) - 1686, based on Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered
  • Jean Racine (1639-1699)
    • Andromaque (tragedy) - 1667
    • Les plaideurs (comedy) - 1668, Racine's only comedy
    • Bérénice (tragedy) - 1670
    • Bajazet (tragedy) - 1672
    • Iphigénie en Aulide (tragedy) - 1674
    • Phèdre (tragedy) - 1677
    • Britannicus (tragedy) - 1689
    • Esther (tragedy) - 1689
    • Athalie (tragedy) - 1691
  • Jacques Pradon (1632-1698)
    • Pyrame et Thisbé (tragedy) - 1674
    • Tamerlan, ou la mort de Bajazet (tragedy) - 1676
    • Phèdre et Hippolyte (tragedy) - 1677, this play, released at the same time as Racine's, had a momentary success
  • Jean-François Regnard (1655-1709)
    • Le Joueur (comedy) - 1696
    • Le Distrait (comedy) - 1697
  • Jean Galbert de Campistron (1656-1723)
    • Andronic (tragedy) - 1685
    • Tiridate (tragedy) - 1691
  • Florent Carton Dancourt (1661-1725)
    • Le Chevalier à la mode (comedy) - 1687
    • Les Bourgeoises à la mode (comedy) - 1693
    • Les Bourgeoises de qualité (comedy) - 1700
  • Alain-René Lesage (1668-1747)
    • Turcaret (comedy) - 1708
  • Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674-1762)
    • Idomnée (tragedy) - 1705
    • Atrée et Thyeste (tragedy) - 1707
    • Electre (tragedy) - 1709
    • Rhadamiste et Zénobie (tragedy) - 1711
    • Xerxes (tragedy) - 1714
    • Sémiramis (tragedy) -1717

Other genres

Briefly, here are some of the other literary achievements of the period.

Moral and philosophical reflection

The seventeenth century was dominated by a profound moral and religious fervor unleashed by the Counter-Reformation. Of all literary works, books of devotion were the number one best sellers of the century. New religious organisations swept the country (see for example the work of Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Francis de Sales). The preacher Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704) was famous for his sermons. The theologian and orator Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) composed a number of celebrated funeral orations.

Nevertheless, the century had a number of writers who were considered "libertine"; these writers (like Théophile de Viau (1590-1626) and Charles de Saint-Evremond (1610-1703)), inspired by Epicurus and the publication of Petronius, professed doubts on religious or moral matters in a period of increasingly reactionary religious fervor.

René Descartes' (1596-1650) Discours de la méthode (1637) and Méditations marked a complete break with medieval philosophical reflection.

An outgrowth of counter reformation catholicism, Jansenism advocated a profound moral and spiritual interrogation of the soul. This movement would attract writers such as Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine, but would eventually come under attack as being heretical (they maintained a doctrine bordering on predestination), and their monastery at Port-Royal was suppressed. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a great satirist for their cause (in his Lettres provinciales (1656-57)), but his greatest moral and religious work was his unfinished and fragmentary collection of thoughts justifying the Chrisian religion called Pensées (Thoughts) (the most famous section being his discussion of the "pari" or "wager" on the possible eternity of the soul).

Another outgrowth of the religious fervor of the period was "Quietism" which taught practitioners a kind of spiritual trance state.

François de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) wrote a collection of prose "Maximes" ("maxims") (1665) that analyzed human actions with a severe moral pessimism. Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696) -- inspired by Theophrastus's characters, composed his own collection of Characters (1688), describing contemporary moral types. François de La Mothe-Le-Vayer wrote numerous pedagogical works for the education of the royal prince.

Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1695-1697; enlarged 1702) with its multiplicity of marginalia and interpretations offered a uniquely discursive and multifaceted view of knowledge (distinctly at odds with French classicism) and would be a major inspiration for the Enlightenment and Diderot's Encyclopédie.

Mémoires and Letters

The seventeenth century is the century of biographical "mémoires". The first great outpouring of these comes from the participants of the Fronde (like the Cardinal de Retz) who used the genre as a form of political justification combined with novelistic adventure.

Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy (called "Bussy-Rabutin") is responsible for the scandalous Histoire amoureuse des Gaules, a series of sketches of the amorous intrigues of the chief ladies of the court. Paul Pellisson, historian to the king, wrote a Histoire de Louis XIV covering the years 1660 to 1670. Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux wrote Les Historiettes, a collection of short biographical sketches of his contemporaries.

Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac's collected letters are credited with executing in French prose a reform parallel to Francois de Malherbe's in verse. Madame de Sévigné's (1626-1696) letters are considered an important document of society and literary happenings under Louis XIV. The most celebrated Mémoires of the century were not published until over a century later, those of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755).




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