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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Benjamin W. Wells (1856–1923)
 
CHARLES AUGUSTIN SAINTE-BEUVE, who was born at Boulagne-sur-Mer, December 23d, 1804, and died at Paris, October 13th, 1869, was one of the most brilliant French essayists and one of the finest critical minds of the world’s literature. He takes in the France of the nineteenth century the place that Dr. Johnson held in the England of the eighteenth; while his culture was as delicate as, and his sympathies wider than, those of Matthew Arnold, with whom it is natural to compare him in our own day. He gave himself so wholly to the humane life, to the joy that he found in books, and to the views of human nature that they opened to him, that his literary studies, his ‘Portraits’ and ‘Monday Chats,’ form his best biography, and almost make superfluous the recollections of his secretaries, Levallois, Pons, and Troubat, or the labored biography of his fellow academician Haussonville. It is worth noting however that his first studies were medical; for it was to this that he attributed “the spirit of philosophy, the love of exactness and physiological reality,” that always marked his critical method,—even in those first contributions to the Globe, the present ‘Premiers Lundis,’ where, as he said himself in later years, “youth painted youth.”  1
  The landmarks in Sainte-Beuve’s uneventful life are his meeting with Victor Hugo in 1827, his election to the Academy in 1845, his nominations as Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1859 and as Senator in 1865. For a half-century he was almost continuously a resident of Paris. Twice he left it, to lecture at Lausanne and at Liège; but wherever he was and whatever his functions,—journalist, professor, senator,—he was always the unwearied “naturalist of human minds,” the clear-sighted critic and generous advocate of literary freedom.  2
  To most men, Sainte-Beuve is known as the author of fifteen volumes of ‘Monday Chats’ (the ‘Causeries du Lundi’) and of their continuation in the thirteen volumes of the ‘New Monday Chats,’ the ‘Nouveaux Lundis.’ And it is for these that he best deserves to be known; but before we turn to an attempt to estimate their qualities and worth, the reader may be reminded that he is also the author of two volumes of poetry (originally three), which are very significant in the history of French prosody, where his signature can often be recognized in the verses of Baudelaire and Banville, and in that of the lyric of democracy as it afterward came to be represented by Manuel and Coppée. He wrote also a novel, ‘Volupté,’ which found “fit audience though few”; and a ‘History of Port-Royal,’ the Jansenist seminary made illustrious by Pascal, of which the seven volumes are a monument of astounding industry and critical acumen. But the ‘Monday Chats’ by no means exhaust his purely literary work; which under various titles—‘Literary Critiques and Portraits,’ ‘Literary Portraits,’ ‘Contemporary Portraits,’ ‘Portraits of Women,’ ‘Chateaubriand and his Literary Group’—makes up a total of from forty to fifty volumes.  3
  This imposing mass is divided by the Revolution of 1848. Before that date he is striving for the critical mastery, but making incursions also into other fields. After his return from Liège in 1849 he is the critical autocrat, always honored though not always beloved. Yet the work of his apprentice years was of great importance in its day. The portraits have not indeed the charm and winning grace of the mature artist who wrote the passages that have been chosen here to illustrate his genius; but they are full of art as well as scholarship, and constructed almost from the very first on the critical lines that he has laid down in his essay on Chateaubriand. To the young Sainte-Beuve is due, more than to any of his contemporaries, the revival of interest in the sixteenth century and in Ronsard. These studies influenced, and for a time guided, the development of romanticism, and stirred in Sainte-Beuve himself a faint poetic flame; but even in verse he was a critic of his own sensations, and wooed a refractory Muse.  4
  With the weekly ‘Monday Chats,’ begun in Le Constitutionnel newspaper in 1850, and continued in various journals with but one considerable interruption until his death, began the epoch-making work that will long keep his memory green among all lovers of the humanities. Already he had made criticism a fine art; but he had been too generous in his praise of his fellow romanticists. Now the critical touch became more precise, the shading more exact. Nor was the least remarkable thing about these essays the speed and regularity of their production. Week after week, for year after year, saw its acute and learned study of from 7,000 to 7,500 words, full of minute research and profound erudition, written, corrected, published. He became, as he said of himself, “a workman by the piece and the hour.” This method of production left no place for correction and repentance. As the tree fell so it must lie. But this only seemed to enhance the spontaneity of his essays. As a contemporary said, “He had no time to spoil them.” And under this pressure his style grew ever more supple, more concise and yet more popular, though it never ceased to be scholarly and profound.  5
  What other writing has ever appeared in daily journals at regular intervals for a score of years, and has left such a permanent impress on the world of letters as this? In France Sainte-Beuve’s works form the nucleus of every critical library. In England and in America selections continue to be translated and read; among which the most recent and perhaps the most representative are the ‘Essays on Men and Women’ edited by William Sharp (London, 1890), and ‘Select Essays’ translated by A. J. Butler (London, 1894); and the translation in eight volumes by E. J. Trechmann (New York, 1909–11). The references to Sainte-Beuve in the memoirs and critical writings of the nineteenth century are beyond numbering.  6
  The subjects of his criticism were as worldwide as literature; and into everything that he touched he put, as he said he sought to do, “a sort of charm and at the same time more reality.” To all his work he brought the calm temper of the scientific mind, rarely crossed by querulous clouds or heated by the passion of controversy, and not often roused to a glowing and self-forgetful enthusiasm. “I have but one diversion, one pursuit,” he said: “I analyze, I botanize. I am a naturalist of minds. What I would fain create is literary natural history.”  7
  This mood is naturally drawn to the serious and austere. And so Pascal, Bossuet, Shakespeare, and the Lake Poets attract Sainte-Beuve more than Rabelais and Molière, or Chaucer and Byron. But nothing human is wholly foreign to this collector of talents. He passes with easy flight from Firdawsī to General Jomini, from Madame Desbordes-Valmore to the Comte de Saxe. He is naturally tolerant of rising talent and of eccentric natures, and perhaps too stern to those contemporaries who have achieved success and need correction rather than encouragement. The unclassified attracts him; for to the last he remains essentially subjective in his judgments, praising what pleases him without measuring it on the procrustean bed of any critical code. And yet he felt that his method had in it the possibilities of an exact science; and with this prophetic vision he prepared the chosen people of literature to enter (with Taine for their Joshua) the Canaan of critical naturalism.  8
  Sainte-Beuve was more consistent in criticism than in ethics. Fundamentally he thought he had most in common with the materialists of the eighteenth century: but while he was under the romantic spell of Hugo, the smiles of a fair proselyter almost won him to Catholicism; and later his restless mind seemed to sympathize, now with the communism of Saint-Simon, now with the spiritual absolutism of Calvin, now with the liberalism of Lamennais. But from each of these moral experiments he came back to his first conception of life; and in it he found perhaps as much mental repose as so restless a mind could hope to enjoy or attain. He was not, and did not aspire to be, a model of the distinctively Christian virtues; but he was always honorable, single-minded, kindly, cheerful, and ready to make great sacrifices for the integrity of his critical independence. If his manifold ethical experiments suggest a facile morality, yet they contributed to give him a deep insight into human nature and a catholic sympathy with it. Men may differ in their judgment of the man, but they are constrained to unite in their admiration of the critic.  9
 
 
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