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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edgar Quinet (1803–1875)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry Bérenger (1867–1952)
 
EDGAR QUINET belongs to that generation of great romantic French writers who were at the same time men of thought and men of action, poets and philosophers, historians and critics,—who were in a word models of the complete man, such as modern democracies too rarely succeed in creating. The life of Edgar Quinet was as full as his work is varied; but both are stamped with remarkable unity, both are the double and indissoluble expansion of a true and resolute genius, who was never inconsistent in any hour of his existence or in any line of his writings. Quinet is not only a great writer, he is a national character; and the new generations of France recognize, and will recognize for a long time to come, in him as in Lamartine, as in Victor Hugo, as in Michelet, an ancestor to whom they owe what is best in themselves.  1
  He was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, February 17th, 1803, on the southeast frontier of France, at Bourg in the Department of Ain. He seems to have had all his life the strong health and perfect equilibrium of body and mind which characterizes the races of the Jura and of Mâcon, and which was equally manifested by Victor Hugo, born at Besançon, and by Lamartine, born at Mâcon. He was descendant of an old bourgeois and parliamentary family. His father, Jérôme Quinet, who was war commissioner under both the Republic and the Empire, was also a scholar to whom we owe an important work on meteorology. His mother was a Protestant, with a mind both resolute and liberal, steadfast and sprightly, imbued with the ideas of the eighteenth century without having lost the religious gravity or her origin. Edgar Quinet evidently owes much to both his father and mother; but she who directed his early education seems to have exercised a profound moral and intellectual influence over him. He had from the start a healthy, well-endowed nature, uniting the obstinate tenacity of the combatant to an ideal sensibility of the solitary and the poet. Both frank and sagacious, ardent and acute, there were united within him talents apparently the most opposed; and it was this which gave his genius a character at the same time so practical and so mystical, so occupied with reality while soaring toward the ideal.  2
  After earnest studies, irregular enough, at the schools of Charolles and Bourg, then at the lycée of Lyon (1811 to 1817), and after a very fruitful stay in the paternal home at Certines, among majestic and attractive natural scenes, he started for England and Germany. It was there he discovered Herder, toward whom he was drawn in his first youthful musings upon the philosophy of history. His translation in 1825 of Herder’s chief work made a great sensation, and rendered him famous. In 1827 he returned to that Germany of which he loved the dreamy and philosophic genius; there he connected himself with the greatest minds of the time, scholars or poets,—Niebuhr, Uhland, Creuzer. In 1829 he left for Greece, from which he brought back his work upon ‘La Grèce Moderne,’ and above all, profounder views upon the historical evolution of humanity.  3
  The Revolution of 1830, first revival of the democratic spirit in France, thrust Quinet into action. He was a democrat by nature as well as by origin, but he dreamed of a democracy highly intellectual. His activity from 1830 to 1833 was enormous. He published numerous and remarkable political pamphlets; in philosophy and Romance literature he was the precursor of Fauriel and Paris; finally, after a trip to Italy, he published his noble and celebrated poem, ‘Ahasvérus,’ a work written in prose by a lyric genius of the first order,—a kind of pilgrimage of the human species across the ages, which made a great stir among the choice scholars of all Europe. He married in Germany, and returning to Paris, for six years he distinguished himself as one of the most brilliant controversialists of the French press; and collected his principal articles under the name of ‘Allemagne et Italie.’ Although he had shown himself almost hostile to the government of King Louis Philippe, and had already proclaimed his republican faith, it was due not less to his character than to his celebrity that he was appointed professor of literature in the Faculty of Letters of Lyons, in 1839. He exercised so potent an influence over intellectual youth that M. Villemain, then minister, had him appointed professor of the Collège de France in 1841. It was then that, together with his friends Michelet and Mickiewicz, he began that eloquent apostolate to the students of Paris, from which resulted two important works: ‘Les Révolutions d’Italie’ and ‘Les Jésuites.’ The character of his instruction was so liberal, so secularizing, and so republican, that in 1846 the government resolved to put an end to it.  4
  From 1847 Quinet entered active politics. He was one of the promoters and one of the founders of the Republic of 1848. Representative of the people in the Constituent Assembly and the Legislative Assembly, colonel of the National Guard in the days of June, he conducted himself like a wise and clear-sighted citizen. He foretold the Coup d’État of 1851, and vainly attempted to oppose the growing Cæsarism. He was exiled by Bonaparte after the Coup d’État, and remained, like Victor Hugo, nineteen years in exile, conscientiously protesting against the violation of law. This period of exile—first at Brussels (1852–1858), where he was married again, this time to the daughter of the poet Assaki; then at Veylaux in Switzerland (1858–1870)—was extremely fruitful for the thinker and the poet. It was then that he published ‘Marnix de Saint-Aldegonde’ (1856); ‘L’Histoire de Mes Idées’ (1858); ‘Merlin l’Enchanteur’ (1860); and above all, the admirable ‘Revolution Française’ (1865), which is perhaps the finest book ever written upon the subject, even when compared with the works of Thiers, Michelet, and Taine.  5
  After the fall of the Empire, and the disasters of 1870, Edgar Quinet returned to France. Elected deputy from Paris by two hundred thousand votes, he took a seat with Victor Hugo on the extreme left of the Chamber, and continued to vote against all the laws of clerical and monarchical reaction, and in favor of all the secularizing and democratic laws. Before his death in 1876 he was able to foresee the certain realization of his ideas by the generation whose parliamentary guides were Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta. In 1874 he had published ‘L’Esprit Nouveau,’ in which are solemnly affirmed the principal articles of his social, moral, and intellectual creed.  6
  Edgar Quinet as man and as author appears one of the most complete minds of France. By his poetic intuitions he created and rediscovered mysterious legends, in which are incarnated the spirit of the race; by his critical investigations he analyzed and revived the noblest epochs of modern Europe; by his constructive power of thought, he synthesized the evolutionary philosophy of the new humanity; finally, by his enthusiasm and political tenacity, he offered the noble sight of a citizen superior to the ephemeral passions of party. He lacked only a little more sobriety of style, and a little more precision of thought, to be a genius of the first order. Such as he is, he deserves to remain—what he wished to be and what he was to the youth of his time: the initiator of the new France and of the new humanity.  7
 
 
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