Page images

than a matter of learning to us; that they correspond to interests more real, more direct than those of historical erudition and criticism, to sentiments more general, more full of life than that of mere curiosity.

How can we be surprised at this? The twofold fact which I spoke of is exactly the result, and as it were a new form of the two essential characteristics of the middle ages, the two facts by which that epoch has held so great a place in the history of our civilization, and influenced posterior ages so powerfully.

On the one hand, it is impossible to overlook the fact that there is the cradle of modern societies and manners. Thence date-1. Modern languages, and especially our own. 2. Modern literatures, precisely in all that there is in them of the national, the original, of the foreign to all mere learning, to

11 imitation of other times, of other countries. 3. The greater portion of modern monuments, monuments in which, for many centuries, the people have assembled, and still continue to assemble, churches, palaces, town-halls, works of art and public utility of every kind. 4. Almost all historical families, families who have played a part and placed their name in the various phases of our destiny. 5. A large number of national events, important in themselves, and for a long time popular, the crusades, chivalry; in a word, almost everything which for centuries has filled and agitated the imagination of the French people.

This is evidently the heroic age of modern nations, among others, of France. What more natural than its poetical affluence and attraction?

By the side of this fact, however, we encounter another no less incontestable: the social state of the middle ages was constantly insupportable and odious, and especially so in France. Never did the cradle of a nation inspire it with such antipathy; the feudal system, its institutions and principles, never obtained that unhesitating adhesion, the result of habit, which nations have often given to the very worst systems of social organization. France constantly struggled to escape from them, to abolish them. Whosoever dealt them a blow, kings, jurisconsults, the church, was sanctioned and became popular; despotism itself, when it seemed a means of deliverance from them, was accepted as a benefit.

The eighteenth century and the French revolution have been for us the last phase, the definitive expression of this fact of our history. When they broke forth, the social state of the middle ages had long been changed, enervated, dissolved. Yet it was against its consequences and recollections that, in the popular mind and intention, this great shock was more especially accomplished. The society which then perished, was the society which the Germanic invasion had created in the west, and of which feudalism was the first and essential form. It was, in truth, no longer in existence: yet it was against it that the revolution was directed.

But precisely because of this fact, precisely because tho eighteenth century and the revolution were the definitive explosion of the national antipathy to the social state of the middle ages, two things were inevitably destined to happen, and in fact did happen: 1. In their violent efforts against the memory and remains of this epoch, the eighteenth century and the revolution would necessarily fail in impartiality towards it, and would not recognise the good which might be met with in it; and it would in like manner overlook its poetical character, its merit, and its attractions as the cradle of certain elements of the national life. The epochs in which the critical spirit dominates, that is to say, those which occupý themselves more especially with examining and demolishing, generally understand but little of the poetical times, those times when man complacently gives himself to the impulsion of his manners and the facts which surround him. They understand more especially little of what there is of the true and poetical in the times against which they make war. Open the writings of the eighteenth century, those at least which really have the character of the epoch, and contributed to the great revolution then accomplished; you will see that the human mind there shows itself very little sensible of the poetical merit of any social state much differing from the type which they then conceived and followed, especially of the poetical merit of the rude and unrefined times, and, among those times, of the middle ages. The Essa sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations is in this way the most faithful image of the general disposition of the age: look there for the history of the middle ages: you will see that Voltaire incessantly applied himself to the task of extracting all that is gross,


sbsurd, odious, calamitous, in this epoch. He was right, thoroughly right in the definitive judgment which he gave of it, and in his efforts to abolish its remains. But that is all that he sees of it; he thinks only of judging and abolishing, in his historical writings, that is to say, in his works of polemical criticism; for Voltaire has done other things than criticism. Voltaire was also a poet, and when he gave himself up to his imagination, to his poetical instincts, he found impressions greatly differing from his judgment. He has spoken of the middle ages elsewhere than in the Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, and how has he spoken of it?

“ Oh! l'heureux temps que celui de ces fables,
Des bons démons, des esprits familiers,
Des farfadets, aux mortels secourables !
On écoutait tous ces faits admirables
Dans son chateâu, pres d'un large foyer.
Le pere et l'oncle, et la mere et la fille,
Et les voisins, et toute la famille,
Ouvraient l'oreille à monsieur l'aumônier,
Qui leur faisait des contes de sorcier.
On a banni les démons et les fées ;
Sous la raison les graces étouffées
Livrent nos cœurs à l'insipidité;
Le raisonner tristement s'accrédité ;
On court, hélas ! après la vérité:

Ah! croyez moi, l'erreur a son merite." Voltaire is wrong to call the poetical side of these old times erreur; Poetry there doubtless associated herself with many errors; but in herself she was true, although of a truth very different from philosophical truth, and she answered to very legitimate wants of human nature. This incidental observation, however, is of but little importance; what is necessary to be remarked, is the singular contrast between Voltaire the poet, and Voltaire the critic. The poet acutely feels for the middle ages impressions to which the critic shows himself an entire stranger; the one deplores the loss of those impressions which the other applies himself to destroy: nothing, surely, better manifests that want of political impartiality and poeti. cal sympathy in the eighteenth century, of which I just now spoke.

We are now in the reaction against the tendency of the age which preceded us. This fact is evidenced in the direction now taken, at least for the most part, by historical studies, by works of general literature following the public taste, and also in the indignation of the exclusive partisans of the eighteenth century. Is this indignation legitimate? Is the danger denounced from this reaction so great? is there any danger at all?

In a literary point of view I shall not absolutely deny it. I would not say that there is not some exaggeration, something of mania in this return of the imagination towards the middle ages, and that good sense and good taste have not a little suffered from it. The reaction, followed with much talent, appears to me, upon the whole, a groping rather than a regeneration. In my opinion, it proceeds from very distinguished men, sometimes sincerely inspired, but who often deviate in seeking a good vein, rather than from people who have found one, and are working it with confidence. But in truth, in the actual state of society and mind, the evil cannot become very grave. Are not publicity and criticism always at hand in the literary world as well as in the political world, and always ready to render everywhere the same services, to warn, restrain, to combat, in fine to prevent us from falling under the exclusive domination of a coterie or system? They do not spare the new school; and the public, the genuine and general public, while receiving it with gentleness, does not seem disposed to become subjected by it. It judges it, and sometimes even rebukes it rather roughly. Nothing, therefore, seems to me to indicate that barbarism is about to resume sway over the national taste.

Besides, we must take life where life manifests itself; the wind, from whatever quarter it blows; talent, wherever it has pleased Heaven to bestow it. For we need above all things in the literary world talent and life. The worst that can happen to us here is immobility and sterility.

Is danger to political impartiality the character of the reaction which they deplore? This must be absolutely denied. Impartiality will never be a popular tendency, the error of the masses; they are governed by simple, exclusive ideas and passions: there is no fear of their ever judging too favourably of the middle ages and their social state. Present interests,

[ocr errors]

national traditions in this cespect preserve, if not all their potency, at least sufficient influence to prevent all excess The impartiality which is spoken of will scarcely penetrate below the regions of science and of philosophical discussion.

And what is it in these regions themselves, and among the very men who most pique themselves on it? Does it impel them in any way towards the doctrines of the middle ages? to any approbation of their institutions—of their social state? Not in the least degree. The principles upon which modern societies rest, the progress and the requirements of reason and of human liberty, have certainly not firmer more zealous defenders, than the partisans of historical impartiality; they are first in the breach, and more exposed than any others to the blows of their enemies. They have no esteem for the old forms, the fanatic and tyrannical classification of feudal France, the work of force, which ages and enormous labours have had such difficulty in reforming. What they claim is a full and free judgment of this past of the country. They do not believe ihat it was absolutely destitute of virtue, liberty, or reason, nor that we are entitled to contemn it for its errors and fallings off in a career in which, even in the present day, after such progress, so many victories, we are ourselves advancing so laboriously.

There is evidently therein no danger either for the liberty of the human mind, or for the good organization of society.

Might there not be, on the other hand, great advantages in this historical impartiality, this poetical sympathy for ancient France?

And first, is it nothing to have a source of emotions and pleasures opened to the imagination? All this long epoch, all this old history, in which one hitherto saw nothing but absurdity and barbarism, becomes for us rich in great memories, in noble adventures, in events and sentiments in which we feel a vivid interest. It is a domain restored to that need of emotion, of sympathy, which, thanks to God, nothing can stifle in our nature. The imagination plays an immense part in the life of men and of nations. In order to occupy it, to satisfy it, an actual energetic passion is neces. sary, like that which animated the eighteenth century and the revolution, a rich and varied spectacle. The present clone, the present without passion, the calm and regular pre

« PreviousContinue »