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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
François Élie Jules Lemaître (1853–1914)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
“THE HISTORY of French literature,” says a fine observer, “is that of the perpetual storming of Paris by a handful of young adventurers, whose object is to demolish the existing formulæ of an always incomplete art, and to enthrone themselves victoriously in a new edifice which they propose to build upon the ruins. But no sooner has one set of innovators achieved success than another band begins to attack the victors of yesterday; and so battle follows battle, and revolution revolution.” Thus have appeared in turn the classicists, the romanticists, the naturalists, the Parnassians, the mystics, the symbolists, the decadents, the neo-Catholics, with the schismatics from each new cult.  1
  In such an environment, criticism must not only flourish but become a fine art. From Boileau to Sainte-Beuve, from Montaigne to Jules Janin, the line of literary critics is rich in shining names. In our own day, the objective and the subjective school of criticism has each its able adherents and proselytizers. Of the objective or scientific method, M. Brunetière may be called the foremost exemplar, the great Darwinian. Of the subjective or imaginative camp, the Renanists, M. Jules Lemaître is the authoritative interpreter, unless the charming and subtle Anatole France may be allowed an equal rank.
          “As it seems to me,” writes M. France, “criticism, like philosophy, like history, is in a way a novel, for the use of cautious and earnest minds; as every novel, rightly understood, becomes an autobiography. The good critic is he who makes you comprehend the adventures of his own soul in the midst of masterpieces. There can be no objective criticism, as there can be no objective art. Whoever imagines that he puts into his work anything whatever except himself is the victim of illusion. We can never get outside ourselves…. We are imprisoned for life, as it were, in our own personality. Let us then make the best of it,—which is to admit with a good grace our lamentable state, and to acknowledge that we are talking about ourselves whenever we have not the strength of mind not to talk at all. To be entirely candid the critic ought to say, ‘Gentlemen, it is my intention to speak about my attitude towards Shakespeare, Racine, Pascal, or Goethe. They furnish me a very good excuse.’” To which Lemaître himself adds: “A critic inevitably puts his temperament and his personal conception of life into his commentaries; for it is with his own mind that he deals with other men’s minds. Criticism is in reality a representation of the world, which is as personal, as relative, as baseless, and therefore as interesting, as that representation in any other branch of literature.”
  2
  Jules Lemaître was born at Vennecy, Department of the Loire, in 1853. He was educated for the profession of teaching; graduating with high honors from the École Normale in 1875, and filling the chair of rhetoric at Havre for the next five years. Two years in Algiers and a year at Besançon prepared him for a professorship in the faculty of Grenoble. But the Muse would have her own. In another year he resigned the safe dignity of the scholar’s chair for the uncertain shelter of the author’s garret. He had already published two volumes of poems—described by the reviewers as verses of the rhymer rather than the poet—and a few essays and stories, which obtained him a hearing in the Revue Bleue. In the course of three months he contributed three critical reviews on Renan, Ohnet, and Zola. The freshness, the insight, and the daring frankness of these papers conquered a place for him. A year or two later he was appointed dramatic critic to the Journal des Débats. Indefatigably industrious, he wrote critical essays, dramatic reviews, poems, stories, novels, and plays; and grew constantly in the favor of the public.  3
  In 1889 seven volumes of his critical essays were collected under the title ‘Les Contemporains’ (Men of the Time), and ten volumes of dramatic criticism called ‘Impressions de Théâtre.’ In 1895 he was elected to the Academy and his later critical work, on Rousseau (1907), Racine (1908), Fénélon (1910), Chateaubriand (1912), consisted of courses of lectures given at the Société des Conférences. Another charming series, which appeared between 1905 and 1914, the year of his death, was entitled ‘En Marge des Vieux Livres’ (On the Margin of Old Books).  4
  He has been criticized, on the ground that he is inconclusive, having no “absolute shall,” but presenting many points of view, and leaving the reader to form his own conclusions,—a process, Bagehot says, intensely painful to the multitude. He is accused of inconsistency, cynicism, and indifference. But as a matter of fact, he could be very severe, when occasion called for severity. He scored Ohnet without mercy, as the apostle of “smug routine and things allowed”; he arraigned Zola for misconceiving life; and was unsparing to offenses against literature. His attacks were the more formidable for their very grace and lightness. Yet he was one of the kindest of accusers, and his attitude cannot be better set forth than in his own words:—
          “To an author who has ever given me this immense pleasure [of sincere and able work] I am ready to pardon much. It is certainly a mark of stupidity to say to a critic who seems to you unduly severe toward a writer whom you love, ‘Attempt his work yourself—and see!’ But I could wish that that critic would say it to himself! Of course I acknowledge that authors, on their part, have too often a somewhat unintelligent contempt for critics. I have known a novelist to maintain, with less esprit than assurance; that the least of novelists and dramatists is greater than the first of critics and historians; and that, for example, the purveyor to the Petit Journal carries off the prize from M. Taine, who invents no stories. This young man did not know even that there are many kinds of invention. I bear him no ill-will on that account. It enters into the definition of a good critic, to comprehend more things than a young novelist, and to be more indulgent. Thus it is in a spirit of sympathy and charity that we should approach such of our contemporaries as are not wholly beneath criticism. First we should analyze the impression we receive from a book; then try to ‘define’ the author, describe his style, show what is permanent, what he seeks from preference, what the world means to him, what are his opinions on life, what the kind and degree of his sensibility,—in fact, how his brain is made! We should try to determine, according to the impression we receive from him, what is the impression he himself received from things. Thus we may arrive at so complete an identification with the author that although his faults cause us pain, real pain, we shall yet see how he allowed himself to fall into them, and how his defects make a part of himself, so that they will appear at first inevitable, and soon better than excusable—amusing.”
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