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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Criticism and the Essay
V. The Composition of a Criticism
By Dr. Ernest Bernbaum
OF the critical essays not discussed in the previous lectures the most important are those by Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, Renan, Taine, and Mazzini. As their doctrines are quite obviously related to those expounded in the foregoing pages, it seems desirable to consider here the manner in which their opinions are expressed. The critical essays published in this series are classics, not merely because they contain significant doctrines about literature but also because they are in themselves literary works. They confer pleasure as well as profit. What distinguishes them from the journalistic book review on the one hand, and the pedantic study on the other, is their artistic composition. By what methods are their artistic effects produced?  1

  The title of a work cited by Sainte-Beuve suggests what a literary criticism should not be. It runs as follows: “Michel de Montaigne, a collection of unedited or little-known facts about the author of the Essays, his book and other writings, about his family, his friends, his admirers, his detractors.” Sainte-Beuve, Taine, and the other masters never present us with a “collection.” They marshal their numerous facts into a system, and dominate them with a thought which, however complex, is coherent. Most of us arise from the perusal of an author with a chaotic throng of impressions. But in the mind of a true literary critic the chaos becomes order. Renan, in his “Poetry of the Celtic Races,” 1 “giving a voice to races that are no more,” lets us hear not a confusion of tongues but an intelligible unity of national utterance—sad, gentle, and imaginative. Hugo, surveying in his “Preface to Cromwell” 2 the highly intricate romantic movement, sees therein the harmonious union of the grotesque and the sublime. Sainte-Beuve answers his sweeping question, “What is a Classic?” with the succinct definition—a work that reveals in a beautiful and individual manner an eternal truth or emotion. Mazzini characterizes Byron as a subjective individualist, and Goethe as an objective one. Taine, prefacing his “History of English Literature,” 3 unlocks the riddle of literary growth with the keys “race, environment, and epoch.” The truth of these doctrines does not for the moment concern us. What is important for us is that each of these long essays may be summed up in a single sentence; for in each a powerful mind grasps and expresses a single idea.
  When a critic has conceived the leading idea of his essay, he is still in danger of obscuring its presentation. The more richly informed he is, the more he is tempted to introduce facts not strictly related to his dominant thought. But the great critical essayists, resisting that temptation, subordinate all details to the general design. Hugo, in sketching the development of the world’s literature, selects only those phases which forecast the timeliness of romanticism. Sainte-Beuve and Mazzini, in dealing with the lives of Montaigne 4 and Byron, 5 which offer many opportunities for recounting interesting but irrelevant incidents, mention only those which illustrate their conception of the authors.  3

  In the arrangement of the materials, the same conscious art is observable. Each of the sections of the essays of Taine and Renan is a firm and necessary foundation for those that succeed it. Not until Renan has described the secluded national existence of the Celts does he draw the resultant national traits of character, which thereupon we are ready to trace intelligently in the various branches of Celtic literature. The method of Taine’s essay is even more admirably logical. To understand the growth of literature, he tells us, we must know first “the visible man,” next “the invisible man,” then the race, environment, and epoch which determined his character, and finally the way in which those causes distribute their effects. Thus is our progress through unknown fields made easy: we are not asked to leap from point to point, or to retrace our way; our guide takes us step by step along the path of his discovery.

  The sustained and methodically expounded idea which is the basis of every great critical essay would, however, like all abstractions, seem dull or unintelligible if it were not constantly and vividly illustrated. The logical must flower in the picturesque. This even the great critics occasionally forget: one or two passages in Mazzini’s essay would be more convincing if more fully illustrated by references to Goethe’s works; and the only pages of Hugo where our interest flags a little are those in which he describes, without examples, the character of romantic verse. But such lapses are highly exceptional. Taine, the most intellectual and least emotional of these men, makes it a rule to clothe the skeleton of his theory in flesh and blood. To show what he means by “the visible man,” he clearly portrays a modern poet, a seventeenth-century dramatist, a Greek citizen, and an Indian Purana. Renan, to exhibit the Celtic love of animals and nature, tells the story of Kilhwch and Olwen; and to explain Celtic Christianity, recounts the legend of St. Brandan. Sainte-Beuve states his definition of classicism in a few lines, and devotes the rest of his essay to applying it to particular authors.
  All these masters have the gift of happy quotation. Montaigne’s “I commend a gliding, solitary, and silent life,” quoted by Sainte-Beuve, and Goethe’s “I allow objects to act tranquilly upon me,” quoted by Mazzini, clarify and confirm out of the authors’ own mouths those impressions which the critics wish to impart. The astonishing effectiveness of the close of Hugo’s essay is due to his apt quotations from Aristotle and Boileau, which seem to bring over those great classicists to Hugo’s romantic party.  6
  The illustrations are not derived only from literary works. Taine, insisting upon the delicacy with which a literature records changes in national character, likens it to the sensitive instrument of a physicist. The similes of Hugo are exceptionally frequent and elaborate. “To make clear by a metaphor the ideas that we have ventured to put forth,” he writes, “we will compare early lyric poetry to a placid lake which reflects the clouds and stars; the epic is the stream which flows from the lake, and rushes on, reflecting its banks, forests, fields, and cities, until it throws itself into the ocean of the drama. Like the lake, the drama reflects the sky; like the stream, it reflects its banks; but it alone has tempests and measureless depths.” His poet “is a tree that may be blown about by all winds and watered by every fall of dew; and bears his works as his fruits, as the fablier of old bore his fables. Why attach one’s self to a master, or graft one’s self upon a model? It were better to be a bramble or a thistle, fed by the same earth as the cedar and the palm, than the fungus or the lichen of those noble trees.” Mazzini begins his comparison of Byron and Goethe by contrasting an Alpine falcon bravely floating in the midst of a storm, with a tranquil stork impassive amid the warring elements; and Renan prepares us for his conception of Celtic literature by giving us at the outset the characteristic tone of the Breton landscape. What the intellect has firmly outlined, fancy and imagination paint in lively colors.  7

  An essay which has by these means achieved clearness may be pleasant to read but still lacking in power. To give force to his ideas about an author or a literature, the masterful critic exhibits the peculiarity of his subject by the use of contrast. The brilliancy of Mazzini’s essay proceeds largely from its striking antithesis between Byron and Goethe. Renan enforces his doctrine of the individuality of Celtic literature by emphasizing the differences between the French “Roland” and the Celtic “Peredur,” between the gentle Isolde and the “Scandinavian furies, Gudrun and Cirimhilde.” Hugo intensifies our conviction of the complex character of modern life by describing the simplicity of the ancients.
  If a critic does not observe this principle, we may say of his essay: “These ideas are, to be sure, clear and enjoyable; but what do they matter?” The great critics do not leave us calmly indifferent; they are on occasion critics militant. Even the gentle Sainte-Beuve admonishes the “Montaignologues,” who, he feels, do not understand the spirit of Montaigne. Taine manifests the novelty and importance of his method of criticism by mentioning the imperfections of the eighteenth-century method. Mazzini reproves the enemies and misinterpreters of Byron. Hugo above all shows the stimulating value of pitting one’s ideas against those of others. He calls his essay his “sling and stone against the classical Goliaths”; and by making his opponents utter their arguments against him gives to his work the force of dramatic combat. Critical essays that thus add vigor to lucidity arouse and delight our minds. When we recognize how skillfully they fuse logic, imagination, and emotion, we perceive the superficiality of the distinction between so-called criticism and so-called creative literature. Good criticism is indeed creative, and its composition is a high art.  9
Note 1. Harvard Classics, xxxii, 137. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xxxix, 337. [back]
Note 3. H. C., xxxix, 410. [back]
Note 4. H. C., xxxii, 105. [back]
Note 5. H. C., xxxii, 377. [back]


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