FRENCH LITERATURE - Part 2
"Making a book is a craft, like making a clock;
it needs more than native wit to be an author."
Jean de La Bruyère
(1645-96), French writer, moralist.
THE FRENCH RENAISSANCE
A third of the way
into the 16th century, François Rabelais, in one of the
great comic works of world literature, gave pointed expression to the
feeling of rebirth then being experienced by the European
intellectual community. In Gargantua (1534) his giant hero reports to
his son Pantagruel on the amazing intellectual progress that has
occurred in the course of just one generation thanks to the revival
of the literature and thought of antiquity. This was primarily due to
the popularization of printed books, which encouraged the translation
of ancient texts and the development of precise critical methods.
Behind the rollicking carnival-like story, the incoherence, the
coarse humor, and the symbolic exaggerations of Gargantua and the
associated Pantagruel volumes (1532, 1556; Eng. trans. of Rabelais's
Works, 1653-94) hid an immense learning and understanding of the
problems faced by Rabelais' contemporaries.
Out of such sources,
likely and unlikely, a new ideal of humankind in relation to God and
life, known as humanism, was being forged. In religion this found
expression in Protestantism, whose chief voice in France, during the
years it competed with Catholicism, was the great Genevan reformer
John Calvin. Calvin explained his complex doctrines in a
simple style in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541; Eng.
trans., 1813), which conquered for the French language the ability to
discuss religious subjects that had previously been reserved for
Humanism was perhaps
best exemplified by Michel de Montaigne, who in the second
half of the 16th century invented a genre, the familiar ESSAY, that
proved ideally suited both as a showcase for his learning and
urbanity and as a forum for the critical exploration of personality
and ideas. Although inspired by an enormous number of quotations, his
Essays (1580, 1588; Eng. trans., 1603) are nevertheless profoundly
original and together constitute one of the most honest and
ingratiating self-examinations ever conducted in a literary work.
With them Montaigne found a mode of expression that would be
imitated, if not surpassed, by scores of writers in innumerable
countries from the 17th to the 20th century.
French prose was not
alone in feeling the winds of change. The break with the past was
even more pronounced in poetry. New forms like the sonnet imported
from Italy, as well as Greek and Latin odes, all enjoyed popularity.
But French poets were also interested in making of their native
language a more supple instrument. In 1549, Joachim du Bellay
wrote a nationalistic manifesto calling for the enrichment of the
French language to insure its parity with ancient tongues. His poetic
works are delicate, melancholy, and sensitive. The prince of
Renaissance poets, however, was Pierre de Ronsard, the
uncontested leader of the constellation of poets called the PLEIADE.
With the lyric sonnets, light odes, and political verse of his later
career, he helped to free French poetry from the pedantry of the
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996.
Physician, Astrologer, Prophet