The Freedom of French Classicism

The Freedom of French Classicism

The Freedom of French Classicism

The Freedom of French Classicism

Excerpt

Over a quarter of a century ago C. H. C. Wright said that the average university student's understanding of the nature of French Classicism was limited to something vague about the three unities. The students who created this impression in Mr. Wright's mind were not altogether to blame; they were the victims of a tradition which centered the theory of Classicism in formal distinctions and which based the history of its development in France upon the establishment of rules for literary composition.

There is probably less danger of this particular kind of oversimplification today, and yet it is surprising how doggedly the tradition lingers on in textbooks and in much teaching and criticism. French Classicism remains for the general reader a dogmatic, academic, absolutist organization of literature and art created out of a growing devotion to reason, to "la belle nature and to the rules, which progressively relegated the rationally undemonstrable and unanalyzable to a distinctly minor or off-center position in the Seventeenth Century's scale of aesthetic values. This is the conception formed by such critics as Saintsbury, Brunetière, and even to some extent Spingarn. Along with it goes the conclusion that the French Seventeenth Century had in fact two literatures: a pre-classic, or sub-classic one (sometimes called Baroque), and a classic one, with the year 1660 marking roughly the definitive victory of the latter over the former. Such a view was given final authority by Bray's capital work La Formation de la doctrine classique enFrance . . .

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