Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

From The Fortnightly Review. needed a fresh current of ideas about life LITERARY CRITICISM IN FRANCE.*

in its various provinces. But he included WHEN the curators of the Taylorian the province of literature, the importance Institution honored me with an invitation of which, and especially of poetry, no man to lecture on some subject connected with estimated more highly than did Mr. Arthe study of modern literature, I glanced nold. And as the essential prelude to a back over my recent reading, and I found better criticism, he made his gallant, and that a large part, perhaps an undue pro- far from unsuccessful, effort to disturb portion of it, had consisted of French lit. our national self-complacency, to make us erary history and French literary criticism. feel that Philistia is not a land which is The recent death of that eminent critic, very far off; he made the experiment, M. Scherer, had led me to make a survey which he regarded as in the best sense of his writings. I had found in M. Bru. patriotic, to rearrange for our uses the netière an instructor vigorous and severe tune of “Rule Britannia” in a minor key. in matters of literature; one who allies His contribution to our self-knowledge modern thought with classical tradition. was a valuable one, if wisely used. The I had beguiled some hours, not more elegant lamentations of the prophet over pleasantly than profitably, with M. Jules his people in captivity to the Philistines Lemaitre's bright if slender studies of were more than elegant, they were incontemporary writers, in which the play of spired by a fine ideal of intellectual freeideas is contrived with all the skill and dom, and were animated by a courageous grace of a decorative art. I had followed hope that the ideal might be, in part at M. Paul Bourget, as many of us have done, least, attained. Disciples, however, too through his more laborious analyses in often parody the master, and I am not which he investigates, by means of typical sure that success in any other affectation representatives in literature, the moral life is more cheaply won than in the affectaof our time. And I had in some measure tion of depreciating one's kinsfolk and possessed myself of the legacy of thought one's home. There is a Jacques-like mel

left to us by two young writers, ardent ancholy arising from the sundry contemstudents, interested in the philosophical plation of one's intellectual travel, which aspects of literature, whose premature loss disinclines its possessor for simple houseFrench letters must deplore, M. Guyau, hold tasks. Our British inaccessibility to the author of several volumes on ques. ideas, our wilfulness of temper, our cations of morals and ästhetics, and M. prices of intellect, our insular narrowness, Hennequin, whose attempt to draw the the provinciality of our thought, the bruoutlines of a system of scientific criticism tality of our journals, the banality of our bas at least the merit of bold ingenuity. popular teachers, our incapacity to gove It seemed to me that I had fresh in my ern, or at least to be gracious in governmind matter which must be of interest to ing — these are themes on which it has all who care for literature, and that I become easy to dilate : should not do ill if I were to try to gather Most can raise the flowers now, up some of my impressions on recent lit.

For all have got the seed. erary criticism, and especially on methods and with the aid of a happy eclecticism or proposed methods of criticism in which chooses for comparison the bright France.

abroad with the dark or dull at home, and Nearly a generation has passed since a

reserves all its amiable partiality and distinguished son of Oxford, Mr. Matthew dainty enthusiasm for our neighbors, it Arnold, declared that the chief need of really has not been difficult to acquire a our time — and especially the need of our

new and superior kind of complacency, own country was a truer and more en the complacency of national self-deprecialightened criticism. He did not speak tion. merely of literature; he meant that we

As regards the criticism of literature, * Read as the Taylorian Lecture, Oxford, Novem- Mr. Arnold did good service in directing ber 20th, 1889.

our eyes to France, and when we spoke of

[ocr errors]

French literary criticism any time in the part false, will be imposed by that authorfifties and sixties of this century, we ity, and as years go by this will become meant first of all Sainte-Beuve. Here Mr. traditional. So it was in France. The Arnold was surely right, nor did he depart Academy was precisely such a central from the balance and measure which he authority in matters intellectual, and from so highly valued when, in the “Encyclo- its origin it asserted a claim to be a tribupædia Britannica,” he described Sainte- nal in literary criticism. It imposed a Beuve as an unrivalled guide to bring us doctrine, and created a tradition. But to a knowledge of the French genius and even among writers who revolted from the literature “perfect, so far as a poor traditional or Academical manner in criti. mortal critic can be perfect, in knowledge cism, the spirit of system was often pres. of his subject, in tact, in tone." We are ent, for the spirit of system is character. all pupils of Sainte-Beuve. But to what istic of the intellect of France. An idea, Mr. Arnold has said of Sainte-Beuve, I a dogma was enounced, and the facts were should like to add this: that while the selected.or compelled to square with the great critic was French in his tact, French idea; an age was reduced to some formula in his art of finely insinuating opinions, in which was supposed to express the spirit his seeming bonhomie, and at the same of that age, and the writers of the time time in the delicate malice of his pen, were attenuated into proofs of a theory. French above all in his sense of the inti- Now Sainte-Beuve's method as a critic mate relations of literature with social life, was as far as possible removed from this his method as a critic was not the domi- abstract and doctrinaire method. He nant method of France; it was hardly loved ideas, but he feared the tyranny of characteristic of the French intellect; it an idea. He was on his guard against the was his own method, and it had been in spirit of system. Upon his seal was engreat measure our English method.* graved the English word “Truth," and

For, while possessing extraordinary mo the root of everything in his criticism, as bility within certain limits seldom over- Mr. Arnold said of him, is his simple. passed, the French intellect, as compared hearted devotion to truth. Mr. Arnold with that of England, is pre-eminently might have added that his method for the systematic, and to attain system, or meth. discovery of truth is the method character. od, or order in its ideas, it is often content istic of the best English minds, that of to view things in an abstract or generaliz- living and working in the closest relation ing way, or even to omit things which with facts, and incessantly revising his present a difficulty to the systematizer. opinions so that they may be in accord At the highest this order is a manifestation with facts. It will be in the memory of of reason, and when it imposes itself upon readers of Sainte-Beuve that in 1862, in our minds, it ibrings with it that sense of the articles on Chateaubriand, afterwards freedom which accompanies the recogni. included in the third volume of “ Noution of a law. But when by evading veaux Lundis,” he turned aside to give an difficulties a pseudo-order is established, exposition of his own critical method. and when this is found, as it inevitably He had been reproached with the fact that will be found in the course of time, to be he had no theory. " Those who deal most a tyranny, then the spirit of system be- favorably with me have been pleased to comes really an element of disorder, pro say that I am a sufficiently good judge, but voking the spirit of anarchy, and, as M. a judge who is without a code.” And Nisard has called it, the spirit of chimera. while admitting that there existed no code In a nation where the tendency towards Sainte-Beuve, he went on to maintain that centralization is strong, and a central au- he had a method, formed by practice, and thority has been constituted, an order of to explain what that method was. It was ideas, which is probably in part true, in that for which afterwards, when reviewing * Mr. Arnold's éloge does not apply to the earlier

a work by M. Deschanel, he accepted the writings of Sainte-Beuve, which were wanting in crite name of naturalistic criticism. He tells ical balance, and often in critical disinterestedness. us how we are inevitably carried from the

book under our view to the entire work of foundations on a solid groundwork of facts, the author, and so to the author himself ; but it was his whole purpose to rise from how we should study the author as form- these to general truths. And Sainteing one of a group with the other mem- Beuve looked forward to a time when as bers of his household, and in particular the result of countless observations, a that it is wise to look for his talent in the science might come into existence which mother, and, if there be sisters, in one or should be able to arrange into their varimore of the sisters; how we should seek ous species or families the varieties of for him in“ le premier milieu,” the group human intellect and character, so that the of friends and contemporaries who sur. dominant quality of a mind being ascerrounded him at the moment when his tained we might be able to infer from this genius first became full-fledged ; how a group of subordinate qualities. But again we should choose for special obser. even in his anticipations of a science of vation the moment when he begins to de criticism Sainte-Beuve would not permit cay, or decline, or deviate from his true the spirit of system to tyrannize over him. line of advance under the influences of Such a science, he says, can never be quite the world; for such a moment comes, says of the same kind as botany or zoology; Sainte-Beuve, to almost every man; how man has “what is called freedom of will,we should approach our author through which at all events presupposes a great his admirers and through his enemies; and complexity in possible combinations. And how, as the result of all these processes even if at some remote period, this science of study, sometimes the right word of human minds should be organized, it emerges which claims, beyond all power will always be so delicate and mobile, says of resistance, to be a definition of the Sainte-Beuve, that "it will exist only for author's peculiar talent; such an one is a those who have a natural calling for it, and “ rhetorician,” such an one an “improvis a true gift for observation; it will always ator of genius." Chateaubriand himself, be an art requiring a skilful artist, as the subject of Sainte-Beuve's causerie, is medicine requires medical tact in those “an Epicurean with the imagination of a who practise it.” There are numberless Catholic.” But, adds Sainte-Beuve, let obscure phenomena to be dealt with in the us wait for this characteristic name, let us criticism of literature, and they are the not hasten to give it.

phenomena of life, in perpetual process of This method of Sainte-Beuve, this in change; there are nuances to be caught, ductive or naturalistic method, which which, in the words of one who has tried advances cautiously from details to princi- to observe and record them, are ples, and which is ever on its guard against fugitive than the play of light on the the idols that deceive the mind, did not, waters.” Sainte-Beuve felt that to keep a as he says, quite satisfy even his admirers living mind in contact with life must for among his own countrymen. They termed the present be the chief effort of criticism, his criticism a negative criticism, without to touch here some vital point, and again a code of principles ; they demanded a some other point there. In that remarkatheory. But it is a method which accords ble volume, “ Le Roman Expérimental,” well with our English habits of thought; in which M. Zola deals with his fellow and the fact is perhaps worth noting that authors not so much in the manner of a wbile Mr. Arnold was engaged in indicat. judge as in that of a truculent gendarme, ing, for our use, the vices and the foibles he lays violent hold on Sainte-Beuve, of English criticism as compared with that claiming him as essentially a critic of his of France, Sainte-Beuve was thinking of own so-called experimental school; not, a great English philosopher as the best indeed, that Sainte-Beuve's was one of preparatory master for those who would those superior minds which comprehend acquire a sure judgment in literature. “To their age, for was he not rather repelled be in literary history and criticism a dis. than subdued by the genius of Balzac, and ciple of Bacon,” he wrote, “ seems to me did he not fail to perceive that the romantic the need of our time." Bacon laid his movement of 1830 was no more than the

[ocr errors]

more

cry for deliverance from dogma and tradi- | truth of to-day, trusting that it would tion of an age on its way to the naturalisin develop into the completer truth of toof M. Zola himself? Still, says M. Zola, morrow, to contribute something of sound in certain pages Sainte-Beuve formulated knowledge and well-considered opinion to with a tranquil daring the experimental the common fund, to work with all other method " which we put in practice.” And honest minds towards some common reit is true that there are points of contact sult, though what that result may be, none between Sainte-Beuve's criticism, with its of us as yet can be aware. He thought careful study of the author's milieu, and that he could perceive a logic in the gen. the doctrines proclaimed by M. Zola. But eral movement of the human mind, and he what a contrast between the spirits of the was content, for his own part, to contribute two men ; what a contrast in the applica- a fragment of truth here and a fragment tion to life even of the ideas which they there which might be taken up in the vast possessed in common ! M. Zola, whose inductions of that mighty logician, the mind is overridden, if ever a mind was, Zeit-Geist. by the spirit of system; whose work, mis- A critic of such a temper as this can named realistic, is one monstrous idealiz- hardly set up absolute standards by which ing of humanity under the types of the to judge, he can hardly make any one age man-brute and the woman-brute; and the final test of another, and condemn the Sainte-Beuve, who in his method would classic because it is not romantic, or the fain be the disciple of our English Bacon; romantic because it is not classic. Yet Sainte-Beuve, ever alert and mobile, ever be is far from being a sceptic either in fitting his mind to the nicenesses of fact, matters of faith or matters of literary conor tentatively grouping his facts in the viction; he may possess very clear and hope that he may ascertain their law; strong opinions, and indeed it becomes Sainte-Beuve, whom, if the word “real. his duty to give a decided expression to ism” be forced upon us, as it seems to be his own view of truth, even if it be but a at the present time, we may name a genu- partial view, for how otherwise can he ine realist in the inductive study of the assist in the general movement of thought? temperaments of all sorts and conditions The discomfiture of the absolute, as Scheof men.

rer has said, is an aid to tolerance, is even Of M. Scherer I spoke a few days after favorable to indulgence, but it need not his death in the pages of the Fortnightly and should not paralyze the judgment, or Review, and I shall only say here that he hopelessly perplex the literary conscience. resembled Sainte-Beuve at least in this, And Scherer himself was indeed at times that he too feared the tyranny of the spirit more inclined to severity than to indulof system. In his earlier years, indeed, gence; behind the man, who was the nomihe had aspired as a philosophical thinker nal subject of his criticism, he saw the and a theologian to the possession of a idea, and with an idea it is not necessary body of absolute beliefs; but he found, or to observe the punctilio of fine manners. thought he found, that all which he had He must at the same time make his own supposed to be fixed was inoving, was idea precise, must argue out his own thesis. altering its shape and position. He saw, Yet he feels all the while that his own or thought he saw, a sinking of the soil on idea, his own thesis, has only a relative which he had built his house as if to last value, and that his criticism is at best forever, a gaining of the tide upon the something tentative. Scherer's conviction solid land; he recognized, as so many that all our truths are only relative, and have had to recognize in this century of that none the less they are of the utmost moral difficulty, the processes of the evo- importance to us, gives in great measure lution, or at least the vicissitude, of beliefs. its special character, at once tentative and He ceased to hope for truth absolute, but full of decision, to his criticism. it was not as one disillusioned and disen. But Scherer came on his father's side chanted that he took refuge in the relative. from a Swiss family, and the Parisian He felt that his appointed task of truthcritic had been formed in the school of seeking had grown more serious and more Protestant Geneva ; Sainte-Beuve's mother full of promise. It seemed to him that was of English origin, and his reading as there was something childish in the play a boy was largely in our English books, of building up elaborate erections of These are facts which may fairly be noted dogma, ingenious toy.houses, to be tuin- by one who accepts Sainte-Beuve's princi: bled down presently by the trailing skirts ples of literary investigation. The critical of Time. The business of a man was methods characteristic of the French inrather, as he conceived it, to live by the I tellect as contrasted with the English intel

[graphic]

"

66

lect are not the methods which guide and he conducted with greater reserve from govert the work of these writers. Their within the stronghold of his own ideas. work lacks the large ordonnance, the rul. When the first volumes of his “ History ing logic, the vues d'ensemble in which of French Literature were written, M. the French mind, inheritor of Latin tradi. Nisard's doctrine and method were fully tion, delights. Without a moment's re- formed, and when, twenty years later, he sistance we yield ourselves to such guides, finished his task, it seemed never to have because the processes of their minds agree been interrupted ; and though the author with those to which we are accustomed, was of Voltaire's opinion that he who does only they are conducted by them with an not know how to correct, does not know ease and grace which with us are rare. how to write, there was nothing to alter in But perhaps we gain more, or at least essentials of the former part of the work. something more distinctive, from contact It is a work which cannot be popular, for with intellects of a type which differs its method is opposed to that which at essentially from the English type, minds present has the mastery, and its style has more speculative than ours, more apt in a magisterial, almost a monumental, conbringing masses of concrete fact under cision, which is not to the liking of the the rule and regimen of ideas. These crowd of torpid readers. It is, says a concharacteristics of the French intellect are temporary critic, a feature in common beexhibited in a very impressive way by two tween two writers, in other respects so well-known histories of literature, which, unlike, M. Nisard and M. Renan, that as regards methods and principles of crit. neither can be enjoyed by the common icism, stand as far apart from each other mass of readers, because they are equally as it is possible to conceive — Nisard's concerned, though in different ways, with “ History of French Literature," and the the effort to be sober and simple, to efface mucb more celebrated "History of En. colors that are over lively, and never to glish Literature" by Taine. The one is depart, in the temperate expression of of the elder school of criticism, dogmatic their thought, from that scrupulous preand traditional; the other is of the newer cision and exquisite netteté which Vauveschool, and claims to be considered scien- nargues has named le vernis des maitrės.' tific. Both are works over which ideas But though it cannot live the noisy life of preside or perhaps we might say domi, a popular book, M. Nisard's “ History nate with an excessive authority. A mind remains, and does its work, a work all the of the English type could hardly have pro. more valuable because it resists in many duced either of the two.

ways, the currents of opinion and taste in The name of M. Désiré Nisard seems

our age. to carry us far into the past. It is more What, then, is M. Nisard's method ? It than half a century since he made his is as far as possible removed from the masked attack on the romantic school, method of Sainte-Beuve, as far as possible then in its fervid youth, in his “ Latin removed from what I may call the English Poets of the Decadence,” and put forth method of criticism. A piece of literature bis famous manifesto against la littérature a poem, a novel, a play — carries Saintefacile. It was in 1840 that the first Beuve the other works of the author, volumes of his “ History of French Litera, whether they be of the same kind or not, ture" appeared; but twenty years passed and thence to the author himself, to the before that work was completed ; and it is little group of persons with whom he lived little more than twelve months since M. and acted, and to the general society of Nisard gave to the public his “ Souvenirs which he formed a member. M. Nisard et Notes biographiques," volumes fol. views the work apart from its author and lowed, perhaps unfortunately for his fame, apart from his other works, if those other

Ægri Somnia” of the present works be of a different literary species. year. Such a life of devotion to letters is He compares this book or that with other rare, and the unity of his career was no books of the same genre, or rather with less remarkable than its length. For sixty the type of the genre, which, by a process years M. Nisard was a guardian of the of abstraction, he has formed in his own dignity of French letters, a guardian of the mind; he brings it into comparison with purity of the French language, a main. his ideal of the peculiar genius of the na. tainer of the traditions of learning and tion, his ideal of the genius of France, if thought, an inflexible judge in matters of the book be French; he tests its language intellect and taste. The aggressive sallies by his ideal of the genius of the French of his earlier years were only part of the language; finally, he compares it with his system of defence which at a later time ideal of the genius of humanity as embod.

[ocr errors]

[ocr errors]

by the

a

[graphic]
« ElőzőTovább »