French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Literature Under The Empire 1852-1870
The Rise Of Realism
Literature Under The Republic-1870-1899
Read More Articles About: French Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve might have been included among the early Romanticists, but his valuable work was as a critic. He was one of the staff that made the "Globe" an engine of war against the classical. In its columns he wrote his first work (1827-28) the "Tableau de la Poésie Française au XVI Siècle." It is to be noted that the rise of journalism gave criticism its opportunity, may almost be said to have created it. This half-literary, half-historic sketch was designed to back up the Romantic revival with proofs that his comrades were worthy followers of the great poets of old. He linked their work with that of Ronsard, whom he pronounced king of all wielders of the French language, and with the other famous poets of that age. In this Sainte-Beuve displeased the Classics, whose national models were of later date. He also published a selection of Ronsard's poems in support of his contention. Then he ventured a book of his own poems, the "Vie, Poésies, et Pensées de Joseph Delorme" (Life, Poems and Thoughts of Joseph Delorme) in the introspective fashion of the hour. A year later saw his second venture "Consolations" (183o), pitched in the sane key. In 1834 he issued his solitary novel, "Volupte" (Pleasure) ; and in 1837 his last poetry book "Pensées d'Août" (Thoughts of August). He was not a success as poet. His vein of romance was drying up. Journalism with free play for his critical pen attracted him. He considered that French poetry, his own included, lacked body and soul as compared with that of the English singers, and his constant advice to his verse-making friends was to study English. He next undertook the first stages of a work on Port Royal. It was not finished for twenty years. This work, five volumes, was in part delivered as lectures before the Academy of Lausanne in 1837. As Brunetière pronounces this "beyond question one of the great books of the Century," it is well to cite his reasons. Its author, he says, displays in it these master qualities, examination of works, analysis of sentiments, appreciation of ideas. In the chapters on Pascal, Montaigne, St. Francis de Sales, Corneille and Boileau are seen the precision of the historian, the subtlety of the psychologist, and judicial firmness. Here, then, we get a first glimpse at the making of a critic.
Sainte-Beuve was appointed to the Mazarin Library in 1840, a comfortable post which allowed him time to master the Greek poets in the original, and earn an income by his pen. Between 1832 and 1848 he published seven volumes of his "Portraits Littéraires" and "Portraits Contemporains," afterward pronounced by himself youthful gush. In 1832 he had written of Hugo in these make-believe criticisms that the poet was "sublime," "adorable," but within four years the idol was pronounced "artificial," "theatrical" and "violent." The critical faculty was asserting itself. Steadily the depth and keenness of the work increased. The Revolution of 1848 indirectly caused his acceptance of the chair of French literature in the University of Liége, his lectures afterward forming two volumes on Chateaubriand and his group. When Napoleon III brought twenty years of stability to the country Sainte-Beuve began his famous series of "Causeries du Lundi," familiar talks on literary men and topics, appearing every Monday in the "Constitutionnel." These continued in the "Moniteur" until his death, and afterward were published in twenty-eight volumes. His allegiance to the Empire cost him friends and influence. He accepted offices of emolument from it and the cross of the Legion of Honor. In 1865 he was made a Senator, but his health was broken.
As a richly qualified and mellowed master in criticism, Sainte Beuve pronounced himself to be simply a searcher for truth. Having started on the track of the merely beautiful he wisely refused to be longer identified with a cult which he had become convinced was erroneous. "I hold very little to literary opinions; they occupy very little place in my life and thoughts. What does occupy me seriously is life itself and the object of it. I am accustomed to call my judgments in question anew, and to re-cast my opinions the moment I suspect them to be without validity." A man brave enough to follow this principle up is sure of enemies. Sainte-Beuve had plenty. His method created them, his courage embittered them. From Romanticism to Naturalism is a clean sweep to the opposite pole. His mode of work was first to ascertain the interesting thing about the book before him. This found, described, and explained, he then took its author in hand, seeking to know all about him and his environment that could illuminate his work, account for its quality and mainspring. Thus he would aim to enlarge the man and his book into the history, or an epitome and reflection of it, of a period or a movement. The method has its draw-backs even in the hands of so great and clearheaded a writer as Taine, who owned Sainte-Beuve as his master. Except the "Port Royal" and the early efforts, this great critic's works are monographs, "infinite riches in little room." Perhaps he was not always quite fair to some of his neighbors Balzac, for example. But he was a noble spirit, a finely equipped guide, philosopher and friend for the student of French literature and the literary genius at large. Not strictly the founder of a system or a school of his own choice, he was a leader whom the best are proud to follow.