Tuesday, 26 March 2013


 At the fortnightly meeting of the Alliance Francaise a lecture was delivered on "The Romantic Movement in France," by Monsieur Collot d'Herbois, . . .
 Monsieur Collot said that France had had the glory of giving to the world two great literary centuries, and, as the seventeenth was known as the Century of Louis XIV., so the nineteenth bade fair to be remembered as that of Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo was the chief of the romantic school, and this school and its work formed the subject of the evening's lecture.
 Between the years 1820 and 1848 France produced a great and durable school. All the younger generation of the Revolution, born amid the thunder of battles, and reared in a period of military glory and expansion, had to submit at the Restoration to the disgrace of the clerical reaction. The result was to intensify their aspirations towards freedom, to urge into revolt the poetic and artistic spirits, and to arouse in them a keen contempt for accepted opinion. It was difficult for our generation to realise the intense excitement of those times. Everything was fresh, joyous, new.
 Everything Breathed Forth Poetry.
 and challenged all the old beliefs and the old standards. A movement comparable to Renascence was in progress. Out of the grey basis of a feeble and degraded classicism arose a new art and literature filled with splendour and adoration, thrilled with passion, and scintillating with the glowing fire of genius. France at this epoch was in a state of intellectual ferment, imbued with great aspirations, loving the old, but ready to sweep aside the most venerable idols; childlike in its faith and its fickleness. It was an age of dreams and bold experiments. Literature, which at first, in accordance with the political conditions, had assumed in Chateaubriand an enthusiastic zeal for Catholicism and Royalty, became in 1820 revolutionary. A revolt arose against the ancient and the yoke of tradition. Now appeared that legion of Romanticists who proclaimed
 A New Gospel of Nature and Passion.
 It was poetry that first sounded the onslaught. Modern poetry dated from Chaucer. His fine verses exposed the sterility of the conventional descriptive and didactic poetry. Next came the influence of the English and German literatures. The result was a renovation not only of the literature but also of the language itself. The diction of the eighteenth century had grown feeble and unnatural; simple words had given place to stilted paraphrase. The Romantic poets aspired to change all this. Words were sought for the sake of their sound, for their intrinsic qualities. The rigid formalism of the classic constructions was thrown to the winds. The years 1820-22 were rendered memorable by the appearance of the "Meditations" of Lamartine, the "Odes" of Victor Hugo, the "Poems" of Alfred de Vigny, and the "Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie" of de Musset. Then was formed the group of literary celebrities that carried the Romantic movement to its triumphant conclusion, and Victor Hugo assumed its leadership in 1827. The literary pioneer of the movement was Lamartine, who in his verses essayed to interpret all the great lyric themes—God, Nature, Death, Glory, Solitude, Longing, Hope, and Love. His works were grand improvisations, but showed a distinct lack of careful elaboration. His finest work was his first "Meditatons," the best known of which was "Le Lac." "A literary revolution can succeed only through controversy, and there can exist no real controversy save in connection with a work of genius." Lamartine gave but the half of himself to letters; Chateaubriand, the father of Romantic prose, had no poet's pinions. Hugo alone was able to soar into the highest regions of the poetic blue, and give to the world his "Orientales." Glittering with the shimmer of silk and gold, trembling with the soft radiance of the silvery moon, this collection of poems, with their erratic and lawless beauty of metre, casting aside apparently all trammels of the classic bondage of numbered feet and regular pause, could not be exemplified better than by the weird piece entitled the "Djinns."
Hugo Dominated Literary France
for half a century. . .he died in 1885—a meteoric life, followed by a triumphal funeral. He was in all his work a past master of harmony and word-painting, and remained today the greatest lyric poet that France or the world had ever seen.
 Among the greatest of the Romanticists was Alfred de Musset, the poet of youth, the "enfant terrible" of Romanticism. He sang of youth and love and all the glorious burgeoning of the new movement. In Theophile Gautier the tendency to choose words for their picturesqueness attained its height. He wrote like a painter or carver of precious stones, combining his words into a superb harmony of sound. Perhaps his finest work, and one that would survive, was the "Emaux et Camees." The weak spot in the Romantic movement was specially visible in
 Its Dramatic Product.
 The magnificent dramatic programme of the Reformers, as set forth particularly in the preface to "Cromwell" they quite failed to carry out. The drama, said they, should, above all things, aim at truth. It must represent humanity as it was—heroic or mean, fine or revolting, sublime or grotesque. Art was but the picturing of reality. The unities of time and place were trammels to be cast aside, leaving only that of action in force. It was in "Hernani" that Hugo endeavoured first to put these principles into practice. The scene of its first performance was historic. The classic school in severe and respectable garb crowded the stalls and circle to condemn the piece; the Reformers, clad in every extravagant and fantastic costume, filled the other parts of the theatre. For seven hours they waited for the fray. At length the curtain rose, and thence till the end of the play the auditorium was a pandemonium of cheers and yells, hoots and applause. Victory at last crowned the efforts of the Romanticists. and "Hernani" was famous not less by its merit as a drama than by the battle of its production. Hugo was acclaimed by the younger generation as the Messiah of letters, the liberator of dramatic art from the empty phrases and declamatory verbiage of the classic school. . . . Among the Romantic dramatists the thinker was Vigny, who separated himself later from the movement; while the popular hero and prolific producer was Dumas. The Romantic drama, unfortunately, exceeded the limits of true art by mixing together the epic, the lyric, and the tragic, with a result that produced but chaos and extravagance.
 The Father of the Romantic Novel
was Stendhal. The first romance of the new school was "Cinq-Mars" by de Vigny, but the most important and the most marvellous was "Notre Dame de Paris" by Victor Hugo, which was a powerful etching. The popular historical novel became the peculiar appanage of Dumas. His best known work was "The Three Musketeers." Its history might be false, its characters superficial, its action incredible but its charm remained. We rushed along with d'Artagnan in his fantastic adventures, and to young and old the charm of the Gascon never lessened. Georges Sand was another prolific writer, but one whose books were read with pleasure and forgotten at once.
 The lecturer proceeded to trace the influence of the Romantic movement in music, sculpture, and painting, showing that in the first its principles were embodied typically in the work of Berlioz, who, after a long and little appreciated struggle for a newer and broader conception of his art, finally achieved his aim, and triumphed only in time to die. On sculpture the movement produced but little effect. Its most noteworthy exponent was Barye, whose masterpiece, "The Lion and the Serpent" caused a sensation on its appearance. It was in painting that the Romantic movement exercised its greatest and most saving influence.
The Cradle of Romanticism
 was to be found in the studio of Pierre Guerin, himself not a member of the school. There it was that De la Croix, Gericault, and Sheffer pursued their studies. There they began that great struggle, which, after a quarter of a century of privation and rejection, was crowned with triumph. For these painters of the nineteenth century there was no kindly patron to lend his aid and protection. They met only injustice, opposition, and bitter criticism. But the flame of art burned within them, urging them on towards that ideal which they had envisaged for themselves; and they worked on without bread, in their garrets—frozen perhaps, but near the stars, and serenely confident. It was in 1819 that Gericault exhibited in the Salon his "Raft of the Medusa," the first picture that incorporated in its composition the principles of the new movement. The great apostle, however, of romantic art was De la Croix—a genius, whose place in the history of art was on a level with that of Titian and Rubens, and who was to bear aloft the standard of a veritable new Renascence. His was undoubtedly in art the greatest figure of the last century. He dominated his age as Michael Angelo, Rembrandt, and Velasquez dominated theirs. . . .
 It had been blamed against the Romanticists that they were guilty of a pose, an exaggeration, a violence calculated to startle the bourgeoisie. There was a grain of truth in the charge. Among the group of reformers were some who carried the expression of their theories in art and literature beyond the bounds of reason, and into absurdity. But, at the same time, there was in this movement, even in its exaggerated efforts,
 A Sincere Reaction
 against the pseudo-classics in literature and in art; a spontaneous protest of the imagination against the banality of the recipes and precepts of the academic schools. The followers of Boileau and David had come to believe that literature and painting could be learned as the shoemaker learned his trade, and that for this only a good textbook and a good teacher were needed. Reflection, reasoning, calculation, were everything. It was necessary, only to notice what the masters had done, and to copy them. It was against this that the Romantic school raised its protest. It rendered a sensible service to our generation, and, its work finished, it disappeared.

The West Australian 10 October 1913,

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