Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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English Literature








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When I was asked by Mr, Stuart Eeid — to
whom M. Scherer himself had some years ago
indicated the essays in which he would like to
be presented to the English public — whether I
would undertake the present book, I was pleased
with the commission for three reasons, two private
and one public. In the first place, translation,
though there has been some dispute as to its effect
on the reader, is most undoubtedly good for the
soul of the translator, especially if he be a critic
by profession. Nothing creates, and nothing main-
tains, that sense of difference as between language
and language, which is one of the most important
points in criticism, so well as the effort to transfer
the effect of one into the other. In the second place
it had so happened that M. Scherer, not very long
before his own death, had written at some length
a criticism of a work of my own, which I think
I may describe at once naturally and sufficiently
by saying that it did not strike my perhaps prej-


udiced eyes as the happiest instance of his critical
powers. Now I should certainly have preferred
that M. Scherer should praise me. "Every fellow,"
as we know, " likes a hand." And I do not know
that I can plead guilty to the charge of being
pigeon-livered and lacking gall. But I had under-
stood, years before, the differences in point of
view, in taste, and so forth, which not only made it
impossible for M. Scherer to sympathize with my
criticism of the literature of his own language,
but made it even possible for him, a most accurate
and conscientious critic, to some extent to misrep-
resent it. Tout comprendre (as we also know) c'est
tout pardonner. And consequently I was very glad
to have an opportunity of raising a little pile of
coals of fire on M. Scherer's defunct head; an
occupation as interesting to the man of humor as
it is creditable in the eyes of the philosopher and
the divine.

But neither of these reasons would have induced
me to undertake a task which, however useful it
may be as an exercise and agreeable as a revanche,
is much more troublesome than original compo-
sition, if I had not also thought that such well-
nourished and robust criticism as M. Scherer's is


particularly suited for English reading at tlie
present day. This criticism is not faultless, and
I have in the introduction thought it the best
compliment I could pay to point out its faults
as well as to acknowledge its merits. But these
merits are such as particularly suit our present
condition. There is a real interest, if not always
an interest according to knowledge, in literature
among us. The way in which almost anybody
who will speak as one having authority on literary
questions is followed, the audience given to lectur-
ers on the subject, even the somewhat comical
institution of Societies, and such like crutches for
cripples, are evidences of the fact. But the inter-
est is too often divorced from thorough knowledge
— seems, indeed, sometimes as if it would try to
occupy the place of knowledge — and the authori-
tative exponents are not always careful so to
qualify themselves as to make up for the short-
comings of their disciples. Dogmatism without
reading at the back of it, aesthetic eccentricities
without reading at the back of them, are not
exactly unknown among the critics of to-day in
England, Now for such things, M. Scherer's criti-
cism is a very powerful corrective. When Mr.


Matthew Arnold praised it, I think he was a little
bribed, as we are all apt to be, by the fact that
it was so different in form and style from his own
that the two, to a certain extent, set off and set
out each other. But that it needs no illegitimate
or at least adventitious advantage of this kind the
examples which follow will show ; and I hope
that the introductory essay will at least not inter-
fere with the presentment. When M. Scherer was
approached by Mr. Eeid on the subject, he said,
I am told, " Why should I pour my little pailful
into the ocean of English literature ? " The meta-
phor was modest but not exact. I think it will be
found that the "pail" was rather used in drawing,
from no common depths, samples of that literature
to be analyzed with no common science.

It may be well to say that the essays are here
taken from the volumes of M. Scherer's "Etudes
sur la Litterature Contemporaine," and are placed
in the order in which they occur in those vol-
umes, references to the original being given in the
contents. That they are sometimes dated, and
sometimes not, is in strict observance of the
author's own practice. His notes are given with-
out any indication ; my own, which I have made as


few as possible, are bracketed and signed " Trans."
I should, perhaps, add that I have exercised a
certain discretion in inserting or omitting pas-
sages from his authors which M. Scherer gave
sometimes in the original, sometimes translated.
They appear wherever they are necessary for the
comprehension of the text ; where they are merely
illustrative or exemplary I have economized space
by omitting them. Sometimes M. Scherer allowed
himself a certain liberty of compression or para-
phrase, and in such cases I have generally restored
the original or omitted the citation, inasmuch as
a literal retranslation could serve no purpose for
English readers. But once or twice, where I could
not hit on the exact passage cited, I have so
retranslated. I have only to add that I have stuck
as close to my original as was possible. M. Scherer,
though writing strong, correct, and dignified
French, very seldom '^ sacrificed to the Graces " —
an aged phrase which has, I think, a new, a special,
and a rather humorous application to critical fine-
writing — and it was therefore deemed to be, not
only unnecessary, but in bad taste to trick or
frounce him in English. Nor have I endeavored
entirely to obliterate the Gallic forms and flavors


of the original. Unless I am mistaken, a trans-
lator, though he should never write what is not
the language into which he is translating, should,
in such a case as this, aim at conveying to those
who ex hypothesi cannot read the language from
which he translates some gust of its own savor.







George Eliot — "Silas Marner" {l^tudes sur

la Litter ature Gontemporaine, vol. i.) .



John Stuart Mill {Ibid. vol. i.) .



Shakespeare {Ibid. vol. iii.) ....



George Eliot — "Daniel Deronda" {Ibid.

vol. V.)



Taine's History op English Literature

{Und. vol. vi.)



Shakespeare and Criticism {Ibid. vol. vi.)



Milton and " Paradise Lost " {Ibid. vol. vi.),



Laurence Sterne, or the Humorist {Ibid.

vol. vi.)


y IX.

Wordsworth {Ibid. vol. vii.) ....




Thomas Carlyle {Ibid. vol. vii.)



" Endymion " (7Z)ifL vol. vii.) . . . .



George Eliot {Ibid. vol. viii.) ....




The life of Edmond Scherer, who was born in
April of the Waterloo year and died in March
1889, was a pretty long one, and it was, as regards
occupations and interests, rather curiously divided
into two widely separated parts. During about
thirty years — from the age of fifteen to the age of
forty-five — almost all M. Scherer's thoughts and
studies were directed to theology : first of all in
the mood of boyish doubt, then for many years in
that of fervent faith, then in that of rationalizing
but still confident criticism, and lastly in an active
and rather painful polemic on what may be called
offensive-defensive lines in regard to his own com-
plete though gradual abandonment of definite theo-
logical belief. After these jars ceased thirty other
years were occupied in literary and political jour-
nalism, and (after the war of 1870) in active parti-
cipation in politics. The first period left an inef-
faceable impression on the last, but the last period
cannot be said to have been in any respect prophe-
sied by the first. And I do not think it superfluous
or uncritical to observe that, excellent judge as M.
Scherer was of literature, and, in the main, acute
and sensible as were his views on politics, criticism,


both literary and political, was to him something
of a pis oiler. It was only when he was driven
from his theological studies that he resorted to
these others — to speak fancifully, they were a
sort of reverse cloister to which he turned weary
of things divine, as others have sought the real
cloister weary of things worldly. And though he
certainly never indulged in, and has, I think in one
of the very essays here translated, spoken scorn-
fully of, the habit of whining over lost faith, a
kind of nostalgia of his first loves and first studies
always clung to him. We can trace the theologian
within the publicist, the preacher underneath the
historian of so unexpected a hero as "Tyran le
Blanc," and the critic of Fromentin or of Baude-

The remarkable knowledge of English literature
and the English language which the contents of
this book display did not come to M. Scherer by
accident, nor can it be said to have been merely
the result of deliberate and personal fancy. He
was on his father's side descended from a Swiss
family which had been settled in France for about
a century, but his mother was an Englishwoman.
Moreover, when he was about sixteen, and was, as
became a schoolboy of sixteen in 1831, inclined to
Deism, self-destruction, and general despair, he
was sent to England to board with a certain Eev.
Thomas Loader at Monmouth. M. Gr^ard's ^ per-

1 Every writer on M. Scherer must acknowledge indebtedness
to M. Octave Gre'ard's Edmond Scherer (Paris, 1890).


haps pardonable ignorance of Englisli ecclesiastical
matters makes his account of this sojourn rather
vague, but it seems most probable (I have no
positive information) that the " Eev." Mr. Loader
belonged to some Dissenting sect. However this
may be, it is certain that he not only kept his
pupil hard at work, but induced in him a fervent
and, notwithstanding the final catastrophe, a solidly
founded piety. When Edmond returned to Paris
he studied law to please his family and philosophy
to please himself. But he was resolved to become
a pastor, and in his twenty-first year he obtained
permission to study theology at Strasburg. He
took his degrees, married early, and was ordained in
April 1840, being then a pronounced and thorough
believer in "I'autorite de la Bible et de la Croix."
He tarried, however, for several years longer in
Strasburg, and he does not seem to have under-
taken any directly pastoral work, though he
preached and wrote hymns with much unction.
In 1845, I think, he was appointed to a professor-
ship in the Ecole Libre de Theologie at G-eneva and
embarked, still in full confidence, on a course of
teaching designed to establish and defend a sort of
orthodox Protestanism, not admitting any ecclesi-
astical tradition, but solely founded on the Bible,
I have neither room nor desire to trace at length
what followed, nor does it concern us much. T
need only say that the result was what it was, to
any person having some tincture of theological


study and some knowledge of human nature, certain
to be in the case of a restless and inquiring spirit,
impatient of compromise, rejecting ah initio the
idea of the Church as the supernaturally appointed
depository of supernatural truth, and, indeed, insist-
ing generally that the supernatural shall allow
itself to be treated as if it were not supernatural.
By degrees Scherer's theology grew more and more
"free," less and less orthodox. But the "complete
theological shipwreck," as he has called it himself
in another case, was not reached in less than fifteen
years ; and it was not till 1860 or 1861 that he
made, as M. Greard says, his "profession de foi
hegelienne," in which I should myself see less of
Hegelianism positive than of anti-supernaturalism
negative. For the rest of his life M. Scherer clung,
indeed, to the Hegelian doctrine of the relativity of
all things, and carried on a truceless war with the
Ding an sich. But he had nothing in his nature of
the transcendentalism with which Hegel himself
was still penetrated, and which unites him to the
great succession of critical Pantheists. I am not
here reviewing him from the philosophical stand-
point, though it might be interesting to do so. The
important thing for us is to remember that we
have in the literary critic whom we are to survey a
naufragS, a man who has distinctly taken refuge
in another employment from the employment to
which he had at first given himself. Unless this is
remembered many points in M. Scherer's attitude,


both to politics and to literature — his two interests
thenceforward — will remain dark to ns, while if
it be remembered these things will, I think, become
reasonably plain.

To return to the course of M. Scherer's life, the
last thirty years, or nearly so, give us Paris for
scene, and literature and politics for subjects. The
" Revue des deux Mondes " was not shut to M.
Scherer, but almost the whole of his work in both
departments was given to the " Temps," then under
the direction of M. Nefftzer, who was akin to him
in race and general sentiments. The character of
this paper was very mainly formed and settled by
M. Scherer's collaboration. He was a very active
journalist, though he was not, I believe, obliged
to write in order to live ; and it may very likely be
that his literary activity was spurred as well by
some domestic troubles (of which we hear dimly)
as by the necessity of making good the lost ideals.
He had, as it were, at once summed up and said
good-bye to his interest in religious subjects proper
in his " Melanges d'Histoire Eeligieuse." Later he
contributed (I believe in English, which he wrote
excellently) to the "Daily News " on French politics.
This matter, which again would interest me very
much, again does not concern us directly here. He
began as a moderate and rational opponent of the
Empire. Against this he carried on a war at once
vigorous and free from the mere fronde to which
men of purely French blood are so liable, and


which, not uncommonly ends in such lamentable
things as the fate of his friend Prerost Paradol.
But in politics, as previously in religion, M. Scherer
exhibited certain weaknesses, for preservation
from which those who have escaped them should
rather thank their good fortune than their merits.
During the war he was called upon to play a most
difficult part, and played it in a manner which
cannot be too much admired, especially when we
remember that he was a literary recluse, fifty-
five years old, and with very little experience of
business. He, who never feared anything, was
the last man likely to be a pantouflard, and to
contemplate the agony of France from the safe
seclusion of Geneva or London. But it could
scarcely have been anticipated that he would
take up and discharge to admiration the hard
and hateful duty of administering the affairs of
Yersailles (his place of residence) during the
German occupation. He seems to have done
this necessary and odious work with the most
admirable good sense and fortitude, standing
between his countrymen and the invaders and
being proof alike against the unreasonable sensi-
tiveness of the former and the inconsiderate
roughness of the latter. Such work is not always
rewarded, but it speaks much for M. Scherer's
townsmen and the inhabitants of the department
of Seine-et-Oise generally that when the peace
came they at once selected him to represent them.


He very soon became a life Senator and retained
the position till his death. He was a member of the
Centre — rather of the Centre Gauche than other-
wise, but still centrical. And yet at the same time,
though universal suffrage is simply the be-all and
end-all of the Government which he supported, and
of which, in a way, he formed part, he grew more
and more disgusted with it. Almost at the open-
ing of his literary career, in an article here trans-
lated, he had — rather hastily, I think — given his
own case away by declaring the logical necessity of
this arrangement. But he had at the same time
manifested a strong objection to its practical
results. The acknowledgment weakened as time
went on and the objections strengthened till but
a very few years ago he published some positive
jeremiads on the subject; yet he always declared
himself a Republican. Here, too, we may observe
some peculiarities which will be of service to us
in our investigation proper — the investigation to
which we must now turn — of M. Scherer's position
as a literary critic. As we noted that his theolog-
ical studies and his relinquishment of them had
given a color to his work and impressed on it, what
he would himself call "preoccupations" — a tendency
to subordinate form to matter, a distinct inclina-
tion to the heresy of enseignement, and a certain
tone of bitterness — so it is observable that his
political disillusions reacted on his literary judg-
ments. He could not believe in progress, and he


would not believe in reaction, so that if it were
worth while a parcel of the most curiously contra-
dictory judgments on all subjects in which these
two things are concerned might be produced from

We must now go back a little, and imagine him
a man of forty-five, setting out in the year 1860,
or thereabouts, on his career of literary critic. He
had for thirty years been an omnivorous student,
though not in every direction. Readers of him
must have observed (what M. Greard, I think,
admits) that either his knowledge of or his incli-
nation to classical and mediaeval literature was
somewhat lacking in width and depth. He is said
to have studied scholastic philosophy, but I do
not see many signs of it, and I should imagine
that it must have been exclusively from the theo-
logical side. Even the earlier Renaissance appears
to have had few attractions for him, and it is only
from the seventeenth century onward that he is
really at home with literature. He knew — a very
rare thing with Frenchmen even now, and much
rarer then — English and German, the literatures
and the languages, very nearly as well as he knew
French, and was even more thoroughly at home
with them. I have sometimes thought, perhaps
wickedly, that his declaration of love for Racine
and some other specially French authors, though
no doubt quite honest (M. Scherer was nothing if
not honest), had a certain unconscious touch of


affiche in it. But he knew French literature of
the last three centuries thoroughly, and he had a
most pure and correct taste in it, while his famil-
iarity with the other literatures gave him that
power of comparison which Frenchmen have so
frequently lacked. His knowledge was extremely
exact and his acuteness (where he did not go
wrong for reasons presently to be mentioned, in
which case he never came right) was extraordi-
nary. Above all, he had the healthy mania of
always trying to bring his critical conclusions
under some general law : he was never satisfied
with informing the world that he liked this, and
did not like that. He never (at any rate in im-
portant cases) concluded from his ignorance to
someone else's knowledge, and, above all, and first
of all, he never made criticism an occasion for
cracking epigrams or unfurling fine writing. It is
impossible to read a criticism of M. Scherer's, even
when one most disagrees with it, without being
informed, exercised, "breathed," as our fathers
would have said. It may not be amusing, it may
be irritating ; you may think that you could upset
it beautifully ; but if you know enough about the
subject yourself to be able to see knowledge where
it exists you never can pronounce it unimportant.
And there is so much criticism which crackles to
deafening with epigram, which blazes to dazzling
with epithet, which amuses even while irritating,
and which yet is, alack ! absolutely unimportant.


The drawbacks of M. Scherer's criticism were
summed up not long ago in a really brilliant mot
by a writer of the new French school, for whom,
on the whole, M. Scherer had a much greater ad-
miration than I have myself, and who was in many
respects in sympathy with him. "II ne jugeait
pas les ecrits," says M. Edouard Eod, " avec son
intelligence ; il les jugeait avec son caractere." I
am not at all fond of critical fireworks, but this is
not a firework, it is a lamp. Intelligence adapts
itself, character does not ; intelligence is chari-
table, character is apt to be a little Pharisaic ;
intelligence has no prejudice, character has much.
It was probably to some extent because he did not
take to literary criticism till so late in life that
M. Scherer manifested the raideur with which he
has often been charged ; it was no doubt also
partly because of those vicissitudes and experi-
ences of soul which have been briefly noticed.
But there must have been in it much of personal
idiosyncrasy. We hear early of the " effet penible
et angoissant que font sur cet aimable Scherer les
nouvelles connaissances," and the amiable lady
who wrote this had cause to know it. She had
gone to meet him when he came on a preaching
errand and found him "un jeune homme d'un
abord glacial" who got into the carriage "sans
repondre a mon accueil" (this, we may trust, was
not set down to the tenue hritannique with which
he was also credited). Many years afterwards


most friendly critics liave expressed their regret
that Scherer did not mix more with younger men
of letters. One of the few unpublished personal
stories I have ever heard of him was to the effect
that a very few years ago, when he was in a Lon-
don drawing-room, a fellow guest came up to the
host and said, " Who is that Scotch clergyman ? "
All his life, except to a few very intimate friends,
he seems to have been more imposing than attrac-
tive, and the same may be said of his criticism.
M. Rod, who is, as I have said, a witness above
suspicion, records and deplores the small practical
effect which this criticism had, and the kind of
resentment with which it was received. One very
amiable and accomplished French man of letters
spoke of his Jiel Protestant. I remember a legend
set afloat by someone of the opposite school that
a practical joker once went round to the book-
sellers saying that he was a collector of second edi-
tions, and wished for copies of M. Scherer's
" Etudes " in that state, which nobody could give
him. It is certain that these "Etudes," though
containing by far the most valuable corpus of
criticism which France has produced since Sainte-
Beuve's " Causeries," and superior, if bulk, range,
and value be taken together, to anything to be
found in English literature for many years past,
have never been widely popular. Probably the
sale of the whole nine volumes has not equalled
that of a single one of some of the collections of


clever froth which, in M. Scherer's own latter
days and since, have caught the taste of French-
men and of those Englishmen who think that to
admire the latest French thing is to be dans le
mouvement, and not to admire that thing is to be
out of it.

As our chief business is with M. Scherer's essays
in English literature, it may be well to go through
the essays here translated before resuming their
author's critical position in general. Some of them
are already well known in England by the eulogies
of Mr. Matthew Arnold; all deserve, I think, to
be very well known indeed. Their excellence
increases as they go on both in writing and in

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 1 of 21)