Faded Elegances in Faded Latin

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (Chp. 12):

Du Bellay’s thesis was this. It is unpatriotic for a Frenchman to write in Latin. It is an admission of inferiority for a Frenchman to write in French without trying to equal the grandest achievements of Greek and Latin literature. Therefore French poetry should loot the Roman city and the Delphic temple’, raising the literature of France to a higher power by importing into it themes, myths, stylistic devices, all the beauty of Greece and Rome. Abandon the old medieval mystery-plays and morality-plays. But also abandon the idea of writing plays in Latin. Write tragedies and comedies as fine as those of the classical dramatists, but in French. Abandon the old-style French lyrics, leave them to provincial festivals and folk-gatherings: they are ‘vulgar’. But also abandon the idea of writing lyrics in Latin or Greek. Write ‘odes still unknown to the French muse’ containing all that makes Pindar great, but in French.

Du Bellay was right. Nationalism narrows culture; extreme classicism desiccates it. To enrich a national literature by bringing into it the strength of the continent-wide and centuries-ripe culture to which it belongs is the best way to make it eternally great. This can be proved both positively and negatively in the Renaissance. It was this synthesis of national and classical elements that produced, in England, Shakespeare’s tragedies and the epics of Spenser and Milton. It was the same synthesis in France that, after a period of experiment, produced the lyrics of Ronsard, the satires of Boileau, the dramas not only of Racine and Corneille but of Molière. It was the failure to complete such a synthesis that kept the Germans and certain other nations from producing any great works of literature during the sixteenth century, and made them spend their efforts either on imitating other nations, writing folk-songs and folk-tales, or composing faded elegances in faded Latin.

One thought on “Faded Elegances in Faded Latin

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