WITH the Empire thus exhausted, and Spain succumbing to a strange torpor, France was drilled by Richelieu, and afterwards by Colbert, into the most efficient State of the day. Her nobles kept their privileges, but were deprived of their powers. France had Turenne, the ablest commander of the century, and Vauban, its greatest military engineer. Roads, canals, and bridges were made, industries encouraged, and some order introduced into the financial system. Louis was capable of using the fruits of these measures in diplomacy and war, but after the deaths of Turenne and Colbert he failed to select good ministers and generals.
The social system of the period was mirrored in the art and
literature of France, and indeed in that of most of the civilised countries of Europe, whose writers and artists closely imitated French models. The regularity of the royal system, its subservience to authority, its hatred for " enthusiasm," its neglect of spiritual experiences, and its ceremonial grandeur found expression in some of Boileau's poetry and in that of his numerous followers. The favourite medium was, in France, the alexandrine (the six-foot line), in England the five-foot heroic couplet.
" Vulgar" subjects and strong epithets were banned;
much use was made of conventional adjectives and allusions to the Classics. In the drama, the three unities (of time, place, and action) were rigorously observed in most of the pieces of the French playwrights. The unities, of which only that of action is now considered essential, were taken from the ancient Greek philosopher-critic, Aristotle. Their adoption arose from a misconception of his meaning. For Aristotle did not mean to lay down a rule that the time covered in the action of a play should be the same as the duration of the play's performance; nor did he mean that there should be no change of scene. He was only describing a certain kind of play which was performed in Greece in his time.
As a consequence of adopting this convention, French classical drama is often unreal, but it was redeemed by two great dramatists, Corneille and Racine, whose plays, if they lack the richness and the myriad variety of Shakespeare's masterpieces, are nevertheless nobly conceived and magnificently executed; human passions are magnified, but they are not distorted. France also produced in this period one of the greatest comedy writers of any age, Moliere.
Milton, and after him Dryden, were the first to introduce the classical spirit into English poetry. Dryden, who forged the English heroic couplet into the instrument it was later to become in the hands of Pope and his eighteenth-century imitators, was completely imbued with the poetic formula of the Romans and their followers in the court of Louis XIV.;
Milton represents the transition stage; his poetry is more austere than Shakespeare's, but less limited in range, both of metre and subject, than that of Pope and his school.
It was, indeed, an age in which science and knowledge ranked before imagination and enthusiasm. The great intellectual shocks in which the sixteenth century had been prolific now came very rarely. The last new continent was discovered, and, though progress was made in many sciences, it called for calm persistence rather than for exuberance. A glory had passed away from the earth, and religious enthusiasm had apparently reduced itself to absurdity. Men found little to deplore, and nothing to aspire to except good manners and a rational conduct of life. A cheerful atheism made reason a substitute for conscience, and even the belief in witchcraft waned.:
But if the literary and religious impetus of the Renaissance was spent, its scientific effects were now perceptible. Copernicus, the great astronomer of Columbus's day, was succeeded a hundred years later by Kepler, Galileo, and Tycho Brahe. They were contemporary with Francis Bacon, who, though he did very little to advance natural science, wrote eloquently in favour of careful study of the matter-of-fact world of sense in preference to speculation on the mystery of existence, the nature of truth, and other topics of philosophy. Later, Descartes in France exemplified admirably the natural scientist and the philosopher; the great Leibnitz in Germany half a century afterwards continued the same tradition.
Scientific progress is illustrated by a series of English names of the seventeenth century: Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood; Halley, the astronomer; Napier, who discovered logarithms in algebra; Boyle of Boyle's Law;
Petty, the economist; Lord Worcester, who (possibly) projected the design of a steam engine; Wren, the architect and scientist; and, above all, the great name of Isaac Newton. In the company of such men, of prose writers like Defoe, the father of modern journalism, and of kings like Charles II., we are most distinctly approaching modern times. A gulf lies between us and Shakespeare, and these men are on our side of it.