« AnteriorContinuar »
ART. I.-1. Histoire Poétique de Charlemagne. Par Gaston Paris. Paris, 1865. 8vo.
2. La Chanson de Roland. Nach der Oxforder Handschrift, von neuen herausgegeben von Theodor Müller. Erste Hälfte. Göttingen, 1863. 8vo.
3. Renaus de Montauban, oder die Haimonskinder, herausgegeben von Dr. Heinrich Michelant. Stuttgart, 1862.
4. Li Romans de Berte aus grans Piés. Publié par M. Paulin Paris. Paris, 1832, in 12mo.
5. Li Romans de Garin le Loherain. Publié par M. Paulin Paris. Paris, 1833-36. 2 vols. 12mo.
6. Les Anciens Poëtes de la France; publiés sous les auspices de S. Exc. M. le Ministre de l'Instruction Publique et sous la direction de M. F. Guessard. Paris, 1859-65. 8 vols. 16mo. 7. Histoire Littéraire de la France par des religieux Benedictins de la Congregation de Saint Maur. Continuée par les Membres de l'Institut. Paris, 1733-1864. 24 vols.. 4to.
HEN Voltaire was writing the 'Henriade,' he was advised by a French nobleman, one of the arbiters of taste of his day, not to go on with his project. Les Français,' he said, 'n'ont pas la tête épique.' Until the last few years this aphorism passed as indisputable truth; and those most conversant with French literature remained entirely unaware of the existence of an immense body of epic poetry in the French language. Up to the time of the discovery of the 'Chanson de Roland,' French literature, it was believed, commenced with the 'Roman de la Rose.' Boileau speaks of the origin of French poetry in these lines:
Durant les premiers ans du Parnasse français,
Le caprice tout seul faisait toutes les lois,
Never, it has been truly said, was ignorance more unfortunately mistaken than in this fancy sketch of the old 'romanciers
Vol. 120.-No. 240.
by Boileau; for the versification of the old 'Trouvères' in their 'chansons' is nearly irreproachable, and the laws of rhythm and metre which they invented are carefully observed. Such obscure notions about the early state of French poetry and the French language were in part dissipated by the discovery, in 1822, by M. Bourdillon, of Geneva, of the Chanson de Roland,' which, as English readers know, was sung by the jongleur Taillefer at the battle of Hastings, when he rode beyond the ranks of the Normans, chanting the prowess of Roland and his peers with a loud voice, throwing his sword and lance aloft in the air, and catching them again as they fell. Taillefer is thus described on that occasion in the Roman de Brut of Wace. 'Taillefer, who was a skilful singer, mounted on a steed of swift pace, went before them all, singing of Charlemagne and of Roland, and of Olivier and of the vassals who died at Roncesvaux:'
Taillefer qui moult bien cantoit
Qui moururent à Roncesvaux.'
Till the discovery by M. Bourdillon of a MS. Chanson de Roland'-which had formerly been in the 'Bibliothèque du Roi' at Versailles- it was supposed that the song of Taillefer was some short ballad composition respecting the great disaster of Roncesvaux. However, it is clear now, from the knowledge obtained of the habits of the jongleurs, that this was the very poem of which short snatches were sung by the Norman minstrel at the battle of Hastings. Subsequently to M. Bourdillon's discovery, other manuscripts of the same poem have been found. One of them came to light at Oxford, and is called the Oxford Text, and is recognised as being of greater antiquity than the others and more correct. There are three printed texts now in existence, of which that of M. Genin deserves special notice.
The discovery of this poem-which is supposed to have been composed by the trouvère Theroulde*—in its primitive vigour and
*The question is by no means free from doubt. The last line of the poem is 'Ci falt (finit) la geste que Turoldus declinet.'
Some consider that 'declinet' means no more than transcribe,' others that it signifies to recite' only; these interpretations we think, however, not probable. M. Genin thinks Theroulde was in the service of William the Conqueror, and died Abbot of Peterborough. If so, his monastic character would account for the Latinisation of his name Turoldus.'
originality, roused a cry of admiration on all sides; and an entire Homeric age was brought to light in the early history of France of whose existence no one had any suspicion. The labours, besides, of some of the most eminent French men of letters in another important publication have recovered from the dust and neglect of five centuries an immense body of French epical poetry, of the same cycle as that of Roland, which has thrown a most unexpected light on the character and society of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries.
About the middle of the last century the learned congregation of the Benedictines of St. Maur engaged in as vast and important a literary enterprise as has ever been attempted in any country, namely, a collection and examination of all the original documents which concern in any way the literature of France, beginning from the dawn of French history. They began their undertaking and conducted their researches with immense patience, industry, and perseverance; but the age was not favourable to such archæological labours and looked coldly on them. They nevertheless produced eleven quarto volumes, when the general indifference of the literary world had its effect in arresting their progress, and their institution itself was dissolved, with all other monastic foundations, at the Revolution. Subsequently to the Restoration archæological studies were looked on with a more favourable eye, and the Académie des Inscriptions took in hand the unfinished work of the learned Benedictines, and have now brought the 'Histoire Littéraire de la France' up to the twenty-fourth volume and the commencement of the fourteenth century, and collected together a mass of materials which no student of history can afford to overlook. In the progress of this latter portion of the work it was imagined that three volumes would suffice for the literature of the thirteenth century; but so vast was the amount of new materials discovered that it has been found that it was necessary to occupy eight quarto volumes with their examination.*
As this Literary History of France quotes nearly one hundred 'Chansons de Geste,' belonging to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries alone, many of them containing ten thousand lines, and others ranging between that number and seventy thousand, it may be conceived how prodigiously active was the poetic faculty in France during those ages, as might, indeed, have been
M. Quinet was one of the first to call attention to this vast cycle of then inedited French epic poetry in a Report which he presented to the Minister of Public Works in 1831. The labours of M. Paulin Paris, and the recent work of his son, M. Gaston Paris, have laid all students of ancient literature under great obligations.
expected of the period of high thought which produced the majestic nave of the cathedral of Amiens and the glorious portail of Reims.
These Chansons de Geste '—of which the earlier are written in mixed monorhyme and assonance, and the latter in simple monorhyme *-embraced in historic cycle the whole of the Carlovingian reigns from Charles Martel to Hugues Capet inclusive. Parthenopex de Blois even takes us back to Merovingian times, and forms a sort of link with the wearisome series of Troie le Grand,' 'Jules Cæsar,' and 'Alexandre,' where classic subjects are strangely travestied by the aid not of real authors of Greece and Rome, but of apocryphal works of the Lower Empire. M. Vitet has observed that, of these Carlovingian romances, 'La Chanson de Roland' is the only veritable epic that the other compositions are, in fact, but romances. The romance element of them becomes, indeed, more and more developed in the course of time; so that 'Huon de Bordeaux,' one of the latest-to which Wieland is indebted for the plan of his 'Oberon,' and Shakespeare for the idea of the fairy kingafter a Carlovingian introduction becomes a simple romance of adventure; and in Fierabras' likewise - which was one of the books of chivalry which assisted in turning Don Quixote's brain-the romance character is almost equally developed. A great number of these poems-such as 'Gerard de Rousillon,' "Ogier le Danois,' 'Renaud de Montauban,'' Gaidon,' and nearly a score of other chansons-are historical narratives of the wars carried on by vassals against their Carlovingian suzerain, and in them can be studied the growth of the indomitable feudal spirit which so incessantly threatened the existence of France, and which was finally extinguished in its last terrible representative Charles Le Téméraire, the greatest of all the personifications of feudalism.
The examination of the 'Chanson de Roland' entirely overthrows, in our opinion, the theories of some of the most pedantic critics who have written on the subject of epic poetry, and who insist that all the primitive epics-those, indeed, which they alone deign to style such-have been created by a sort of spontaneous agglutination in the popular mind, and differ not only in character but in kind from the epical compositions of
*The best known example of monorime versification is the song of Malbrough, which, leaving out the refrain, runs :
'Madame à la tour monte, si haute qu'elle peut monter;
"Beau page, mon beau page, quelle nouvelle apportez ?"
cultivated times. The defeat of Roncesvaux-which was, in fact, the surprise of the rear-guard of Charlemagne by the Gascons in the Pyrenees-struck the popular imagination most strongly, not only because it was the single disaster of Charlemagne, but from the number of illustrious chiefs who fell on the occasion. The doleful echoes of the marvellous horn of Roland resounded for ages not only in the gorges of the Pyrenees but reached also the most distant countries of Europe and extended even to Iceland and to Asia. The simple facts of history are, that Charlemagne made a successful expedition to Spain, at the invitation of one of the Saracen chiefs, and suffered a partial disaster from an ambuscade of Gascon mountaineers in the Pyrenees on his way back to France. This happened in 778. For nearly three centuries after, this event was the subject of Teutonic ballad and popular song. Roland, styled by Eginhard Prefect of the March of Britanny,' Hrodlandus præfectus limitis Britannici, was doubtless as great a popular favourite as Murat or Ney or any of the most daring generals of Napoleon; and this one great tragic catastrophe predominated over all Carlovingian legend and ballad till the time that Theroulde took possession of it and threw the traditional song on the subject into a regular epic form. Whether he took it directly from the German, or whether the poem had, like the curious fragment 'Walther of Aquitaine,' assumed a Latin form, from which the trouvere derived his epic material, or whether it already existed in a French version, it is impossible in these times to discover; but the poem, as it is now read, evidently passed through the mould of a single mind, and that mind, in our opinion, was clearly acquainted with the great classic models of Rome. Theroulde took possession of the subject of the death of Roland, and made it his own three centuries after the event, in precisely the same way as Goethe appropriated the legend of Faust, after about an equal lapse of time; or as Ariosto seized upon Carlovingian legend for his province four centuries after Theroulde.
Another deduction from the study of these epical compositions is that to rely on popular tradition for fact after any lapse of time is to rely upon a quicksand. The greatest events of history become so entirely transformed that it is almost impossible to recognise them. Thus, in Garin li Loherain,' the defeat of the Wandres or Vandals has reference to one of the latest barbaric invasions, but these Vandals are transformed into Mahommedans, as also are the Saxons in Bodel's 'Chanson des Saxons,' and the incidents of the defeat of the Vandals are