Although the French people are of mixed origin, having Celtic and Germanic as well as Roman strains in their composition, it is the Roman that has counted most. The French language itself may be regarded as a modern form of Latin. The Latin genius, as it has often been called, has seemed to hover over the development of the French culture and determine its destinies. It has bestowed upon the French people their love of order, clarity and reasonableness, their instinctive avoidance of extremes--the very qualities which are most conspicuous in their literature. In all artistic matters the French are essentially conservative, despite the fact that they have often been initiators of new movements.
The French have always taken ideas and aesthetic matters seriously. Their literature is therefore the best from which to study literary movements. For that reason and because of its long and illustrious history and its influence on other literatures, French literature occupies, as it were, a central position.
The French have sometimes characterized themselves as possessing the esprit gaulois--the Gallic spirit, meaning by that a light-hearted gaiety, a tendency to mock, and a refusal to take life or men too seriously. This Gallic spirit can indeed be detected all through French literature. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental earnestness in the French outlook which foreigners have too frequently been prone to overlook. As a matter of fact, most of the great French writers do not markedly display this so-called Gallic spirit.
It will be impossible in such a brief sketch as this to do justice to so rich a literature. Many important names will have to be omitted. To most foreigners, especially those of English speech, French prose with its clearness, rapidity, and grace seems superior to French poetry. The French themselves would dissent vigorously from such a judgment. Their poetry, they claim, has cadences which the outsider cannot sufficiently detect; it has all the delicacy for which its sister, French prose, is so justly renowned; and, if the poetry seems to the foreigner to be rhetorical, that is in accordance with French tradition and is acceptable to French taste.