French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Poetry And The Drama
History, Philosophy, Criticism
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, born in 1828, had at twenty-five earned the degree of Doctor in Letters; in the year following the Academy crowned his essay on the historian Livy, and the public applauded his next effort, "Voyage aux Eaux des Pyrénées (Travels in the Pyrenees). In 1857 he showed a stronger hand in his "Philosophes Francais du XIX me Siecle," and in the "Essais de Critique et d'Histoire" (1858). He had formed a system of criticism for himself, influenced by the Positive philosophy, which suited his somewhat dry temperament. As the realistic school in poetry and romance eliminated considerations of sweetness and light, moral purpose or tendency, so his method should content itself with simple description of what it might find as a fact. Certain influences from the past operate to shape present conditions; men born under those conditions do but reflect them in their views and acts; writers only voice the average sentiments of their day,, and it is waste of brain to try and elevate them to the level of creators. Under these con-trolling convictions Taine produced his justly famous work, "History of English Literature," in 1863. What Renan was at the same instant doing for the author of Christianity Taine was doing for the kings of English literature, deposing them from the throne, supposed to be hedged round with divinity. It was a splendid attempt, to demonstrate that the great were only the small creatures of circumstance, but it was working a theory to death. The literary criticism was of itself masterly and, from a Frenchman's point of view, admirably conceived, but the backbone of logic seemed to have got a twist. Taine found it impossible to cover up every trace of originality in the great poets with his theory of environment. Within two years, when he was appointed professor of aesthetics and the history of art in 1865, he had developed broader views. Gradually he let it be seen that this hard and rigid naturalistic method was not working well. In his "Philosophie de l'Art" and "Voyage en Italie" (1865-66) he takes account of things below the surface. In his "Ideal dans l'Art" (1869) he admits not only the wisdom, but the duty of judging men and their works, not simply in themselves, but as influences. This was a departure from the doctrine of art for art's sake. He visited England in 1871, receiving honors from Oxford, and next year published his "Notes sur l'Angleterre," which testify to the enlarging of his perceptions. The result was a determination to write a history of Contemporary France and its beginning. The first volume appeared in 1876, "L'Ancien Régime;" then "La Revolution" (1878), and "La Conquêste Jacobine" (1881), with other volumes down to 1890. He died in 1893, not having completed his work.
When well-matured in years and thought Taine laid aside the machine standard of criticism in favor of one which should judge men according to their good or bad aims or tendencies. Hence his impartial distribution of praise and blame among royalists, republicans and revolutionists alike. It is not so important to fix on the precise technical classification of this method of criticism, whether and how far realistic or romantic. The grand mission of sound criticism is to discover all essentials to fair judgment, and having displayed them, assist the reader to discriminate wisely. Taine started out with the opposite theory, but came back to a more free method of rational adjudication. His impartiality struck the Academicians as a welcome progress in conservatism, where-upon he, with Renan, was admitted in 1878, after having suffered two rejections. Compared with Renan's the style of Taine, fine as it is, seems artificial. It has great force, surprising effectiveness, is occasionally eloquent by simplicity and more often by careful rhetoric. His work as an historian is probably superior in the higher qualities to his more strictly critical work, though the two are really one. As a philosophical thinker he must always rank among the most influential by virtue of his power in setting his readers to work out his conclusions for them-selves. His "English Literature" is one of the greatest, most instructive, and delightful reading books on that subject despite all drawbacks.