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The hour the mother loves!-for me beloved it hath not been,
A scene whose beauty o'er my soul through distant years will come;
"And farewell, mother!-I have borne in lonely silence long,
"Then fare thee well! I leave thee not in loneliness to pine,
And quench its thirst with Love's free tears!—'tis all a dream-farewell!"
"Farewell!"-the Echo died with that deep word,
Yet died not so the late repentant pang,
LIVING FRENCH POETS.-NO. IV.
Pierre Antoine Le Brun, &c.
It would be very difficult to select one from among the living French dramatic writers, to rank with those poets whom we have already noticed, were the choice to be influenced by considerations of mere poetical talent as confined to the stage. There is at this moment in France a number of authors whose powers are in full and constant display, and whose merits are so nicely balanced, as to make the choice of any in exclusion of the others an act of considerable injustice, were we not guided by reasons distinct from those which apply to several of M. Le Brun's successful contemporaries, and which will be developed as we go on.
National causes, which have been frequently explained, have at all
times turned the chief products of French poetry into theatrical channels. All the first-rate versifiers, with the exception of Boileau, La Fontaine, and one or two more, have founded their fame on playwriting, and have thus done serious injury to their drama, inasmuch as poetry, instead of passion, thereby became its chief ingredient; and great must be the merit of that poetry, let us think of it as we may, that could tame down into cool criticism, and satisfy with des beaux vers, the turbulent delight of the most theatrical nation in Europe. This point, although not proving much taste either in the people or the poets, seems generally misunderstood by English critics, when it is made a subject of exclusive reproach without any admission of praise; for it is clear that if the nation suffers itself to be dazzled by a minor dramatic merit, it at least must be considerable, to produce such an effect. After all that has been written in this country on the subject of French poetry, it would be vain to enter into an examination of it as opposed to our own or that of other nations. The merits of almost all things must certainly be judged by comparison. But among the exceptions is assuredly that poetry, the chief beauties of which avowedly lie in difficulties of construction, and to feel which a peculiar tact must be acquired, which the mass of foreigners never can possess. A few individuals of other countries may from long habit catch, as it were, this new sense, and be able to appreciate French versification, but in nine cases out of ten they would lose the relish for that of their own nation; and to judge of the former, in all its measured movements, by an ear familiar with the accented melody of English rhythm, would be, generally speaking, as impossible as to learn the science of fortification by the rules of musical composition. The feelings and habits which lead the two nations to their respective modes of poetical taste are utterly distinct, indefinable, and incapable of being blended together. It is, therefore, as useless, we conscientiously believe, to spend the breath of criticism on this subject, as it would be to turn the pow ers of chemistry to the vain attempt of forming a fusion between metals which are not susceptible of it by nature. We are not, however, to jump to a conclusion not warranted by the premises, and say that the boasted beauties of French poetry are merely imaginary, because we cannot comprehend them. We may, on the contrary, be certain that there is a charm, and a very powerful one, although for our particular parts we may not be conjurors enough to analyse it.
But, however dull our ears may be to the delicacies of the poetry, we may be fully capable of understanding the merits or demerits of the poet distinct from niceties of style. We can judge amply of his thoughts, his images, and touches of nature, although we may not seize upon the charms of their expression; and there is one defect of the standard dramatic writers of France too obvious for escape-that is, their constant effort to mingle the epic with the dramatic style, and by engrafting the pomp and declamation of the former upon the brevity and pith which are the soul of the latter, misplacing the one while overloading the other. That seems to be, after all, the most flagrant fault of French tragedy and French tragic writers. Their best poets, perceiving that the weakness of their versification was unable of itself to command the heart and lead the mind in epic productions, were forced
to associate it with scenic deception, and, not daring to rest on the sublimities of nature, sought aid in the intricacies of art. But this forced allance suited ill with the object of those poets. The author truly dramatic, is contented with this limited sphere of action. Debarred from speaking in his own person, or giving vent to his own emotions, he labours as much as possible to forget himself, to fancy himself in situations where he never could have been; and his great triumph is to produce touches of passion and traits of character, the most foreign, perhaps to his own. But this would never satisfy a French author. His amour propre takes the alarm, and its sensitiveness is fostered by the national taste. He must give declamation and description and sentiment, all plainly coming from him; and the nation enchanted with his efforts, because trick is more clever than reality, takes his quackery instead of wholesome food, and prefers his epic-tragic abortion to the healthiest offspring of the stage. All this is simply because the French are not a dramatic, though pre-eminently a theatrical people;-by which distinction we mean a people tenderly alive to all the eclat of recitation and spectacle, but unmoved by, and almost insensible to, the deep bursts of passion and nature which form the grand essentials of the drama.
Considerable efforts were made by La Motte, a man of very general talents, but of much deficiency in their application, to shake off, in a degree, the trammels imposed upon French rhyme. His efforts were, however, crushed by the counter-criticisms of Voltaire; and from that time to the present the measured monotony of tragedy has run its insipid career; producing occasionally those "miracles in art and treasons against nature," which have been common to French poetry since the days of Ben Jonson. The use of every incident and every expres sion which verged towards natural feeling, was rigidly discarded, in sympathy with the lamentations of Voltaire, La Harpe, and the rest; and Schlegel in his admirable work asserts, that up to the period of its publication, "Language and versification, which in the classification of dramatic excellence ought to hold a secondary place, are alone in France decisive of the fate of a piece." But a new era appears to have dawned, not only upon the discursive and unlimited efforts of French elegy and ode, but even in a faint degree upon the regular march of tragic formality. When we say in a faint degree, we mean as it may present itself to the notions of foreigners, more particularly to English, Germans, and Spaniards. But with regard to the French themselves, a prodigious stride seems to have been made, in that premier pas, which, according to their just proverb, most just when applied to their national movements, is the only one qui coute. That effort towards enfranchisement, which might be well considered chivalrous were it wildly planned or rashly executed, has certainly been made; and what is still more important, it has been tolerated. A poet has been found daring enough to plan the innovation, and prudent enough to venture it with temperance; and the public, following as it generally does, the impulse given by well-regulated genius, has not only sanctioned but sympathized with the great attempt.
The piece which was the instrument of this great change was the tragedy of "Marie Stuart;" and its author, the writer whose name stands at the head of this article. But before speaking particularly of
him, we shall shortly enumerate the names, and slightly notice the qualities of his most known contemporaries.
The veteran Lemercier acquired a reputation about twenty years ago by a translation into harsh but energetic verse of the " Agamemnon" of Alfieri. Since then he has sent forth ten tragedies, to which the word indifferent would be a gentle epithet, and one excellent drama in prose, entitled "Pinto." He has also written eight or ten poems that are absolutely unreadable, but from each of which might be extracted a hundred fine and powerful lines. With this irregular and unequal genius, M. Lemercier possesses an elevated and independent character, and he has the honour of being one of the very few who disdained to crouch at the feet of Napoleon when in the meridian of his power.
The two Arnaults, father and son, have obtained and are enjoying a very respectable share of popularity; the first by his own talent, and the latter by inferior powers, aided, however, by the splendid display of those of Talma, who is the representative of all his heroes. Of Viennet, Giroux, Liaderes, Ancelot, and Soumet, the latter is the most remarkable from having commenced his dramatic career by the success of two tragedies, represented for the first time at the rival theatres of The Français and The Odeon on the same night, we believe, but certainly in the same week. Ancelot is an elegant and harmonious versifier, but tame and inefficient as a dramatic writer; while Soumet, more elevated and striking, wants all the verve and animation so essential for success on the stage. His political opinions have gained him the place in the Academy, twice refused to his more popular rival Casimir Delavigne, whose varied talents, both in tragedy and comedy, have made him one of the most distinguished writers of the day. With the exception of "L'Ecole des Vieillards," of the last named author, comedy is in France nearly in the same lamentable state of degradation as it is with us. Duval, author of "Le Tyran Domestique," is a heavy and spiritless writer, whose productions are nevertheless applauded by the public, because the author was persecuted by the Censors. About eighteen years ago M. Etienne produced a satirical comedy, called "Les deux Gendres," imitated from a forgotten little piece, written by a Jesuit. The success of this play was as great as that of the recent tragedy of "Sylla," by M. Jouy; and, like it, much owing to some circumstances of the moment. M. Etienne is also author of "Joconde," and a number of other pleasant little operas, which have rendered his name very popular, particularly in the provinces. But the most remarkable of the comic writers is M. Scribe, who, not much exceeding thirty years of age, has produced probably a hundred small dramatic pieces, interspersed with songs. They are light and piquant sketches of existing manners, many of them abounding in grace, wit, delicacy of touch, and truth of colouring. Were it not for the lethargic indolence of the principal theatre, M. Scribe might have enriched French literature with half a dozen excellent five-act plays, for he is undoubtedly possessed of genuine comic talent. But not being opulent enough to sacrifice his personal interests for future fame, he has spread out his talent over innumerable Vaudevilles, which bring him in a sure and ample income.
Many names must necessarily be passed over, to allow us to keep within our limits, and do justice to the author to whom we are disposed
to assign the chief place in our notice. Returning then to M. Le Brun and his play of Marie Stuart," we will observe that, until its production, not one effectua! step had been made towards the object which it has accomplished-the introduction on the French stage, (as M. Le Brun says in his preface,) "sans blesser la severité de notre gout et de nos regles, des formes et des couleurs qui manquaient à notre littérature dramatique, et que je crois indispensable à la Tragedie Moderne." This was bold language, in the teeth of the longloved prejudices of the nation; and the success of the poet and his play goes a great way, in our opinions, to prove that the French are in point of true dramatic taste, about to undergo a revolution, that twenty years ago was considered as impossible. The plays of Ducis, which cannot be called either translations or imitations of Shakspeare, did nothing whatever towards the introduction of this taste into France. They are perfectly French in all their conventional defects, and they strengthened, rather than removed, the prejudice against Nature, as Shakspeare drew it, by proving (to the satisfaction of the nation) what it ought to have been, as daubed by Ducis. But the genius of Shakspeare was, nevertheless, destined to penetrate into France. Having probed to their inmost recesses the mysteries of nature, it was not to find insuperable obstacles in the factitious intricacies of art. False taste and frigid criticism had placed a boom before the harbour where the drama was blockaded, but Le Brun burst through it gallantly, under the feigned colours of Schiller, and freighted with the genius of England's immortal bard. His play was avowedly borrowed in all its essential parts from that of the German poet; and all the world allows that his inspiration was derived from the influence of Shakspeare. But to remove any doubt as to M. Le Brun having owed this impulsion towards the regeneration of French tragedy, to that source which is in our eyes the purest, we shall give a short sketch of his literary career and opinions, which may be relied on as coming from the best authority whence they could be derived.
Pierre Antoine Le Brun was born at Paris in the year 1786, and was placed early in the college of Saint-Cyr. He had, at a remarkably early age, shewed a strong disposition for poetry; and, even before he reached his tenth year, had attempted something in the shape of a dramatic effort. The early developement of his literary talents induced his family and the director of the college to refuse for him the offer of military patronage; and when Napoleon, on a visit made to Saint-Cyr, questioned the young poet as to the object which he would wish to pursue in life, Le Brun replied—“ Sire, je veux chanter votre glorie." The first production which he ventured before the public was a tragic pastoral, borrowed from Virgil, called "Pallas fils d'Evandre." This piece contained much promise, but it was never represented on the stage; and it could hardly command great attention from the public, being ushered by a preface, which contained the boyish vanity of asserting that it was written in eight days. The next effort of Le Brun was an ode "à la Grande Armée," which is written throughout with a vigorous hand, and unites to a high tone of triumph, quite in unison with the subject, the deep expression of hatred against England, which is doubly gratifying to Englishmen, while it gives proof of the poet's nationality, and adds to the pride of their own. This ode was