The Belles Lettres
IT seems to be the fate of the Belles Lettres, an ingenious French writer observes, that they break out in all their splendour during some ages, and then are again doomed to decline into total neglect.
Athens long preserved a correct taste in Eloquence, in Philosophy, and in Poetry. At the same time, the Fine Arts flourished in all their beauty; but a frightful barbarism soon succeeded the refinement and the science of this ingenious nation.
The Romans, having vanquished the Greeks, awakened the Muses from their lethargy; and the Augustan age was for Italy what that of Pericles had been for Greece. The decline of that empire soon occasioned that of the Belles Lettres; and the invasions of those people who dismembered the Roman Empire threw all again into barbarism and ignorance. Charlemagne attempted to revive the sciences: he rewarded the learned; and he established schools in the principal cities of the empire. It was his command, that a number of volumes should be transcribed, to be dispersed throughout the kingdom.
Our illustrious Alfred began the same reformation in England. Engaged as he was in one continued war with the Danes, nothing could disturb the designs he had formed for the restoration of letters. He laments the ignorance of the times with all the indignation of the philosopher; and the resentment of a patriot prince.
The attempts of these great monarchs availed little: the clash of arms taught a melancholy silence to the Muses. Since those times, as the monarchical government became more firmly established, the Belles Lettres insensibly revived.
But it was chiefly under the pontificate of Leo the Tenth, that munificent patron of literature, that they sprung up in all their richest luxuriance. Assisted by the art of printing, which had been discovered some time before, they made those immense progresses, and formed those heroes of literature, who so forcibly claim our warmest admiration.