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French literature

Classicism: The Seventeenth Century

The 17th cent. produced the great academies and coteries of French literature. The elegant, controlled aesthetic of French classicism was the hallmark of the age: in the brilliant dramas of Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière; in the poetry and satire of Jean de La Fontaine and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux; in the prose of Blaise Pascal, Marie, marquise de Sévigné, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette, and François, duc de La Rochefoucauld. The works of the ecclesiastic François de la Mothe Fénelon, the social philosopher Claude Henri, comte de Saint-Simon, and the satirist and classical scholar Jean de La Bruyère belong to this illustrious period as well as to the 18th cent.

These great writers vary enormously in their attitudes and interests but share a style that is lucid, polished, and restrained. They are, as a group, chiefly concerned with observing the subtleties of human behavior. Their works display qualities that have become permanently identified with the best French writing: wit, sophistication, imagination, and delight in debate.

From the mid-1680s French prose writers honed their critical facility as poetical and theatrical works waned in number and distinction. Ecclesiastical writing abounded and among the foremost figures in this field were Fénelon, Esprit Fléchier, Pasquier Quesnel, and Richard Simon. Major precursors of the Enlightenment of the 18th cent. were the philosophers Bernard de Fontenelle and Pierre Bayle.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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