French Literature in 17th Century: Age of Classics Part I

Historical and cultural foundations

The government of Henry IV initiated a period of internal peace after the denominational disputes of the 16th century, but this was followed by renewed political instability after the king’s assassination in 1610. The politics of Richelieu and (after the uprisings of the Fronde) Mazarin as well as (since 1661) the personal government of Louis XIV. led to the establishment of absolutist royalty. This strongly promoted a literature that dictated behavior and taste norms for the cultural ruling class (“la cour et la ville”; “the court and the city”). Classical French literature (“classical” in the sense of orienting itself towards the ancient model and as the peak achievement of a national literature) shaped the desired social ideals of the Honnête Hommes and the “bienséance” (“propriety”) according to strict formal rules. Classical music, however, also includes a subversive undercurrent, which was less concerned with regularity than with individual forms of expression, the accuracy of psychological analysis and the quality of witty literary entertainment.

For the development of classical aesthetics, F. de Malherbe pointed the way through the “Commentaire sur Desportes” (1606), which emphasized regularity and reasonableness. The main requirements of his linguistic and poetry reform were logic, clarity and discipline, a representation appropriate to the intellectual content and a controlled linguistic form of expression (with the elimination of foreign words, archaisms, provincialisms, technical terms and words of a lower level of style). This poetry program, which was completely new to the Pléiade, evoked the “anti-classical” reaction of authors with a markedly individualistic understanding of poetry (e.g. by M. Régnier and T. de Viau) as early as the first half of the 17th century).

The salons and their literature

The salons that had a decisive influence on cultural life and were mostly founded by noble ladies (for example the Marquise Catherine de Rambouillet and the Madeleine de Scudéry) played an important role in the development of the classical style. The cultivation of sociable conversation resulted in a refined way of life, a culture of feeling and the ideal of taste of the Précieuses, as well as an artificial language that was characterized by selected expression and conscious stylization; this is also where the gallant social poetry originated (e.g. by V. Voiture and I. de Benserade). The exceptionally leading role of the female sex, which threatened the norms of the time, was a thorn in the side of many contemporaries; Molière mocked the overly artificial or learned appearing women in “Les précieuses ridicules” (1659; German: “The ridiculous precious”) and “Les femmes savantes” (1672; German “The learned women”). The shepherd novels (mostly based on Italian models), particularly “L’Astrée” (1607–27; German “Von der Lieb Astreae und Celadonis”) by H. d’Urfé and “Artamène ou le grand Cyrus” also had a strong influence on salon culture «(1649–53; German» Artamenes or The Great Cyrus «) by Madeleine de Scudéry. These novels offered a poetically exaggerated portrayal of aristocratic manners and conveyed – in a context unrealistic – the equally platonic and gallant love concept of a sophisticated society. Check to see more about France and other countries in the world.

The formation of the classical doctrine

The term “baroque” for 17th century French literature is problematic. It applies to salon culture as well as to the theater of the first few decades, which was characterized by complicated dramatic action, extreme plot changes, improbable episodes and a mixture of styles (including A. Hardy, T. de Viau and H. de Racan). Richelieu but strove to subordinate the particularist interests of the various political and religious groups to the absolute monarchy, and promoted cultural and political centralization, for example through the establishment of the Académie française (1635), which developed rules for the French language as an instrument with a normative function, a dictionary and should publish a grammar and take a position in literary disputes. The “Remarques sur la langue française” (1647) by C. F. de Vaugelas, which declared the language of the court and distinguished authors and thus a high level of style (“bon usage”) to be linguistically binding, gained importance as stylistic recommendations.

Essential elements of the French classical period are already in the first philosophical work in French, the “Discours de la méthode…” (1637; German among other things as “Treatise on the method of the correct use of reason and scientific research”) by R. Descartes, pre-shaped, in which reason (“raison”), which is also manifested in doubt, is raised to the standard of the establishment of truth.

The development of an aesthetic regularity becomes clear in the development of drama as the literary genre that enjoyed great social interest in the 17th century. On the basis of Aristotelian poetics, among others, J. de La Taille, J. Chapelain and F. d’Aubignac provided the theoretical basis of classical French drama. It should correspond to the requirements of the »vraisemblance« (probability) as well as the precepts of the »bienséance« and the three units (time, place and action), which is a rejection of the essential characteristics of the baroque drama in the name of » raison «was the same.

French Literature in 17th Century 1