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Sainte-beuve Post by :AndrewYKTo Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :2288

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Sainte-beuve

The vivacious, the in fact far too vivacious, Abbé Galiani, writing to Madame d'Épinay, observes with unwonted seriousness: 'Je remarque que le caractère dominant des Français perce toujours. Ils sont causeurs, raisonneurs, badins par essence; un mauvais tableau enfante une bonne brochure; ainsi, vous parlerez mieux des arts que vous n'en ferez jamais. Il se trouvera, au bout du compte, dans quelques siècles, que vous aurez le mieux raisonné, le mieux discuté ce que toutes les autres nations auront fait de mieux.' To affect to foretell the final balance of an account which is not to be closed for centuries demands either celestial assurance or Neapolitan impudence; but, regarded as a guess, the Abbé's was a shrewd one. The post-mortem may prove him wrong, but can hardly prove him absurdly wrong.

We owe much to the French--enlightenment, pleasure, variety, surprise; they have helped us in a great many ways: amongst others, to play an occasional game of hide-and-seek with Puritanism, a distraction in which there is no manner of harm; unless, indeed, the demure damsel were to turn huffy, and after we had hidden ourselves, refuse to find us again. Then, indeed--to use a colloquial expression--there would be the devil to pay.

But nowhere have the French been so helpful, in nothing else has the change from the native to the foreign article been so delightful, as in this very matter of criticism upon which the Abbé Galiani had seized more than a hundred years ago. Mr. David Stott has lately published two small volumes of translations from the writings of Sainte-Beuve, the famous critic, who so long has been accepted as the type of all that is excellent in French criticism. French turned into English is always a woful spectacle--the pale, smileless corpse of what was once rare and radiant; but it is a thousand times better to read Sainte-Beuve or any other good foreign author in English than not to read him at all. Everybody has not time to emulate the poet Rowe, who learned Spanish in order to qualify himself, as he fondly thought, for a snug berth at Madrid, only to be told by his scholarly patron that now he could read Don Quixote in the original.

We hope these two volumes may be widely read, as they deserve to be, and that they may set their readers thinking what it is that makes Sainte-Beuve so famous a critic and so delightful a writer. His volumes are very numerous. 'All Balzac's novels occupy a shelf,' says Browning's Bishop; Sainte-Beuve's criticisms take up quite as much room. The Causeries du Lundi and the Nouveaux Lundis fill some twenty-eight tomes. _À priori, one would be disposed to mutter, 'This is too much.' Can any man turned fifty truthfully declare that he wishes De Quincey had left thirty volumes behind him instead of fifteen? Great is De Quincey, but so elaborate are his movements, so tremendous his literary contortions, that when you have done with him you feel it would be cruelty to keep him stretched upon the rack of his own style for a moment longer. Sainte-Beuve is as easy as may be. Never before or since has there been an author so well content with his subject, whatever it might chance to be; so willing to be bound within its confines, and not to travel beyond it. In this excellent 'stay-at-home' quality, he reminds the English reader more of Addison than of any of our later critics and essayists. These latter are too anxious to please, far too disposed to believe that, apart from themselves and their flashing wits, their readers can have no possible interest in the subject they have in hand. They are ever seeking to adorn their theme instead of exploring it. They are always prancing, seldom willing to take a brisk constitutional along an honest, turnpike road. Even so admirable, so sensible a writer as Mr. Lowell is apt to worry us with his Elizabethan profusion of imagery, epithet, and wit. 'Something too much of this,' we cry out before we are half-way through. William Hazlitt, again, is really too witty. It is uncanny. Sainte-Beuve never teases his readers this way. You often catch yourself wondering, so matter-of-fact is his narrative, why it is you are interested. The dates of the births and deaths of his authors, the facts as to their parentage and education, are placed before you with stern simplicity, and without a single one of those quips and cranks which Carlyle ('God rest his soul!--he was a merry man') scattered with full hands over his explosive pages. But yet if you are interested, as for the most part you are, what a triumph for sobriety and good sense! A noisy author is as bad as a barrel-organ; a quiet one is as refreshing as a long pause in a foolish sermon.

Sainte-Beuve covered an enormous range in his criticism; he took the Whole Literature as his province. It is an amusing trait of many living authors whose odd craze it is to take themselves and what they are fond of calling their 'work'--by which, if you please, they mean their rhymes and stories--very seriously indeed, to believe that critics exist for the purpose of calling attention to them--these living solemnities--and pointing out their varied excellences, or promise of excellence, to an eager book-buying public. To detect in some infant's squall the rich futurity of a George Eliot, to predict a glorious career for Gus Hoskins--this it is to be a true critic. For my part, I think a critic better occupied, though he be destitute of the genius of Lamb or Coleridge, in calling attention to the real greatnesses or shortcomings of dead authors than in dictating to his neighbours what they ought to think about living ones. If you teach me or help me to think aright about Milton, you can leave me to deal with The Light of Asia on my own account. Addison was better employed expounding the beauties of Paradise Lost to an unappreciative age than when he was puffing Philips and belittling Pope, or even than he would have been had he puffed Pope and belittled Philips.

Sainte-Beuve was certainly happier snuffing the 'parfums du passée' than when ranging amongst the celebrities of his own day. His admiration for Victor Hugo, which so notoriously grew cool, is supposed to have been by no means remotely connected with an admiration for Victor Hugo's wife. These things cannot be helped, but if you confine yourself to the past they cannot happen.

The method pursued by this distinguished critic during the years he was producing his weekly Causerie, was to shut himself up alone with his selected author--that is, with his author's writings, letters, and cognate works--for five days in the week. This was his period of immersion, of saturation. On the sixth day he wrote his criticism. On the seventh he did no manner of work. The following day the Causerie appeared, and its author shut himself up again with another set of books to produce another criticism. This was a workmanlike method. Sainte-Beuve had a genuine zeal to be a good workman in his own trade--the true instinct of the craftsman, always honoured in France, not so honoured as it deserves to be in England.

Sainte-Beuve's most careless reader cannot fail to observe his contentment with his subject, his restraint, and his good sense--all workmanlike qualities: but a more careful study of his writings fully warrants his title to the possession of other qualities it would be rash to rank higher, but which, here in England, we are accustomed to reward with more lavish praise--namely, insight, sympathy, and feeling.

To begin with, he was endlessly curious about people, without being in the least bit a gossip or a tattler. His interest never fails him, yet never leads him astray. His skill in collecting the salient facts and in emphasising the important ones is marvellous. How unerring was his instinct in these matters the English reader is best able to judge by his handling of English authors, so diverse and so difficult as Cowper, Gibbon, and Chesterfield. He never so much as stumbles. He understands Olney as well as Lausanne, Lady Austen and Mrs. Unwin as well as Madame Neckar or the Hampshire Militia. One feels sure that he could have written a better paper on John Bunyan than Macaulay did, a wiser on John Wesley than anybody has ever done.

Next to his curiosity must be ranked his sympathy, a sympathy all the more contagious because so quietly expressed, and never purporting to be based on intellectual accord. He handles mankind tenderly though firmly. His interest in them is not merely scientific--his methods are scientific, but his heart is human. Read his three papers on Cowper over again, and you will agree with me. How thoroughly he appreciates the charm of Cowper's happy hours--his pleasant humour--his scholar-like fancies--his witty verse! No clumsy jesting about old women and balls of worsted. It is the mixture of insight with sympathy that is so peculiarly delightful.

Sainte-Beuve's feeling is displayed doubtless in many ways, but to me it is always most apparent when he is upholding modesty and grace and wisdom against their loud-mouthed opposites. When he is doing this, his words seem to quiver with emotion--the critic almost becomes the preacher. I gladly take an example from one of the volumes already referred to. It occurs at the close of a paper on Camille Desmoulins, of whom Sainte-Beuve does his best to speak kindly, but the reaction comes--powerful, overwhelming, sweeping all before it:

'What a longing we feel after reading these pages, encrusted with mire and blood--pages which are the living image of the disorder in the souls and morals of those times! What a need we experience of taking up some wise book, where common-sense predominates, and in which the good language is but the reflection of a delicate and honest soul, reared in habits of honour and virtue! We exclaim: Oh! for the style of honest men--of men who have revered everything worthy of respect; whose innate feelings have ever been governed by the principles of good taste! Oh! for the polished, pure, and moderate writers! Oh! for Nicole's Essays, for D'Aguesseau writing the Life of his Father. Oh! Vauvenargues! Oh! Pellisson!'

I have quoted from one volume; let me now quote from the other. I will take a passage from the paper on Madame de Souza:--

'In stirring times, in moments of incoherent and confused imagination like the present, it is natural to make for the most important point, to busy one's self with the general working, and everywhere, even in literature, to strike boldly, aim high, and shout through trumpets and speaking-tubes. The modest graces will perhaps come back after a while, and come with an expression appropriate to their new surroundings. I would fain believe it; but while hoping for the best, I feel sure that it will not be to-morrow that their sentiments and their speech will once more prevail.'

But I must conclude with a sentence from Sainte-Beuve's own pen. Of Joubert he says: 'Il a une manière qui fait qu'il ne dit rien, absolument rien comme un autre. Cela est sensible dans les lettres qu'il écrit, et ne laisse pas de fatiguer à la longue.' Of such a judgment, one can only scribble in the margin, 'How true!' Sainte-Beuve was always willing to write like another man. Joubert was not. And yet, strange paradox! there will be always more men able to write in the strained style of Joubert than in the natural style of Sainte-Beuve. It is easier to be odd, intense, over-wise, enigmatic, than to be sensible, simple, and to see the plain truth about things.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Sainte-Beuve

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