Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

. (page 11 of 21)
Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 11 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

There are, therefore, in "Paradise Lost" two
things which must be kept distinct : an epic poem
and a theodicy. Unluckily, these two elements —
answering to the two men of which Milton was him-
self made up, and to the two tendencies which his
age obeyed — these two elements, I say, were incap-
able of thorough fusion. Nay, they are at com-
plete variance, and from their juxtaposition there
results an undertone of contradiction which runs
through the whole work, affects its solidity, and
endangers its value. It would be vain to plead the
example of the classical epic. The Gods no doubt


hold a great place both in the "Iliad" and the
"iEneid" ; but Christianity is in this respect very
differently situated from Paganism. Christianity
is a religion which has been formally " redacted "
and settled ; and it is impossible, without doing it
violence, to add anything to it or subtract anything
from it. Moreover, Christianity is a religion seri-
ous in itself and insisting upon being taken seri-
ously, devoted to ideas the gravest, not to say the
saddest, that imagination can form : those of sin,
redemption, self-denial, good works — all of them
things which, as Boileau says, are not fitted for
being smartened up by ornament.

L'^vangile a 1' esprit n'offre de tous cotes
Que penitence a faire ettourments merites,
Et de vos fictions le melange coupable
Meme a ses verites donne I'air de la fable.i

But this is not all. Christianity is a religion of
dogma: in place of the fantastic and intangible
myths of which the Aryan religions were made up,
it has abstruse distinctions, paradoxical mysteries,
subtle teachings. In short, it amounts to a meta-
physic, or, to return to the expression I used at first,
a theology. And theology has never had the repu-
tation of being favorable to poetry. Lastly, and as
a climax, this theology is still alive. It is for

1 [In Gospel truth nought's by the mind discerned
But penance due and punishments well-earned ;
And when your art a blameful blend supplies
You give its very truths the air of lies. — Trans.]


thousands an object of faith and hope : it is not
'' to let," if I may so speak, there is no vacancy in
it ; and the poet who carries into it the creations of
his fantasy has all the appearance of committing

This, as it is, looks ill for Milton's poem ; but we
have not yet said all. " Paradise Lost " is not only
a theological poem — two words which cry out at
finding themselves united — but it is at the same
time a commentary on texts of Scripture. The
author has chosen for his subject the first chapters
of Genesis, that is to say a story, which the stout-
est or the simplest faith hesitates to take quite
literally, a story in which serpents are heard speak-
ing, and the ruin of the human race is seen to be
bound up with a fault merely childish in appear-
ance. In fixing on such a subject, Milton was
obliged to treat the whole story as a literal and
authentic history ; and, worse still, to take a side
on the questions which it starts. IsTow, these ques-
tions are the very thorniest in theology : and so it
comes about that Milton, who intended to instruct
us, merely launches us on a sea of difficulties.
What are we to understand by the Son of the Most
High, who, one fine day, is begotten and raised to
the rank of viceroy of creation ? How are we to
comprehend an angel who enters on a conflict with
God, that is to say, with a being whom he knows
to be omnipotent ? What kind of innocence is it
which does not prevent a man from eating forbidden


fruit ? How, again, can this fault extend its effects
to ourselves ? By what effort of imagination or of
faith can we regard the history of Adam as part of
our own history, and acknowledge solidarity with
his crime in ourselves ? And if Milton does not
succeed in arousing this feeling in us, what becomes
of his poem ? What is its value, what its interest ?
It becomes equally impossible to take it seriously
as a profession of faith (since this faith escapes us)
and even to regard it as the poetical expression of
a theodicy which is out of date, because that the-
odicy could only become poetic on the terms of being

"Paradise Lost" has shared the fate of its hero,
that is to say, of the devil. The idea of Satan is
a contradictory idea : for it is contradictory to know
God and yet attempt rivalry with Him. Accord-
ingly, the flourishing time of belief in the devil was
a time of logical impotence. The devil at this time
of day has been riddled through and through, he has
become a comic character, he supplies us with our
little jokes. ^ As for "Paradise Lost" it lives still,
but it is none the less true that its fundamental
conceptions have become strange to us, and that if
the work survives, it is in spite of the subject which
it celebrates.

1 [There is, however, a proverb in M. Scherer's language,
Rira Men qui rira le dernier ; and one may also think of Sandy
Mackaye's very pregnant and luminous protest against the pre-
mature interment of this personage. — Trans.]



Nor is this the only trick which Milton's theology
has played upon his poetry. The marvellous is an
essential part of classical poetry, and this is intel-
ligible enough. In a certain sense Paganism is more
religious than Christianity, and associates the Deity
with every act of human life more naturally and
more of necessity. From the very fact that it has
Gods for everything — for the domestic hearth, for
love, for marriage, for fighting — there is not a
circumstance in which these Gods have not a locus
standi. Much more is this so when the subject is a
hero whose valor is inconceivable without divine
protection, or a great historical event, whereof the
decrees of Zeus supply the sovereign explanation.
It is by no means the same with the moderns, in
whom the much more exalted, but much vaguer idea
of divine Providence has replaced the crowd of
special deities. If there is in this a metaphysical
progress, there is at the same time a poetical impov-
erishment. It is not that Christianity also has not
produced its own mythology : we have a whole
Catholic Olympus, pretty well populated. But the
attributes are uncertain, the parts ill distributed :
and, in spite of everything, there clings to these crea-
tions a sort of inborn spiritualism, which is proof
against the materialism of popular beliefs. Chris-
tianity, I have said, is a religion wanting in duc-
tility. Since it damns those who do not believe it


it perceives the necessity of offering them clearly-
defined doctrines. Everything in it is more or less
settled and agreed upon. Imagination, therefore,
can only assign very narrow limits, or, so to say, a
circle drawn beforehand, to the utterances of God
or the actions of angels. Hence the awkwardness
of poets who have tried to draw from the Christian
theology the marvels of which they had need. They
satisfy the demands neither of piety nor of poetry.
They are hampered by the fear of going too far ;
and, however timid they show themselves, they
still have an air of temerity. The " Gerusalemme
Liberata," the ''Henriade," the "Messiade," "Les
Martyrs," show the faults of the kind palpably.
Dante alone escapes, because with admirable tact
or, if anyone pleases, art, he has brought into play
only the sinners and the saved.

Yet Milton has been more fortunate than most of
the epic poets of the Christian period. Indeed, there
was no necessity for him to make a shift to supply
his epic with the element of the marvellous, since
the whole was already placed straight off in the
region of the supernatural. God and his Son, the
devils and the angels, were not kept in the back-
ground and reserved for the denouement. They
themselves filled the principal parts. Even our
first parents, placed as they were in the garden of
Eden and in a state of innocence, shared in a kind
of superior existence. Thus there was from the
first no need to introduce the divinity arbitrarily.


The author of "Paradise Lost" had but to remain
within the conditions of his subject and to extend
a little the outlines of the sacred history.

But if Milton avoided factitious marvels it was
at the cost of inconvenience elsewhere, of baldness
in story, of poverty in ethical quality. Not only is
the reader lifted into the sphere of religious abstrac-
tions, where the eye of man cannot see or his breast
draw breath ; but the whole action and actors alike
are too destitute of complexity. In strictness there
is but one personage in possession of the stage —
God the Father; since God cannot show Himself
without eclipsing all the rest, nor speak without
His will being done. The Son is but a double of
the Father. The angels and archangels are but
his messengers ; nay, they are even less — personi-
fications of his decrees, supers in a drama which
would have gone on equally well without them.

Milton did not yield without a struggle to the
conditions of his chosen subject. He tried to
evade them, and only made the defect more sen-
sible. The long discourses with which he fills the
gaps between the action are only sermons, and do
but make evident the absence of dramatic matter.
Then, since after all some sort of action, some sort
of contest was necessary, the poet had recourse to
the revolt of the angels. But, unluckily, the funda-
mental defects of the subject were such that this
expedient turned in a fashion against him. What
the drama gains in movement, it loses in verisimili-


tude. We see a battle, but we cannot take either
the fight or the fighters seriously. A God who can
be resisted is not a God. A struggle with Omnip-
otence is not only rash, but silly. Belial saw that
very well when, in the Infernal Council, he rejected
the idea of a contest, either open or concealed, with
Him who is all-seeing and all-powerful. Nor can
one, indeed, comprehend how his colleagues did
not at once give way to so self-evident a considera-
tion. But, I repeat, the poem only became possible
at the cost of this impossibility ; and so Milton
bravely made up his mind to it. He urged to the
last, he accepted, even in its uttermost conse-
quences, the most inadmissible of fictions. He pre-
sents to us Jehovah anxious for His omnipotence,
afraid of seeing His position turned. His palace
surprised. His throne usurped.^ He sketches for
us angels throwing mountains, and firing cannon,
at each other's heads. He shows us victory evenly
balanced till the Son arrives armed with thunder
and mounted on a car with four cherubs harnessed
to it.

We have still to inquire whether Milton had an
epic imagination, or whether his subject did not do
him good service by dispensing him from drawing

1 Paradise Lost, v. 719, et seq. In fact and in fine Satan has
won something, and has succeeded. His own lot is made no
worse, and, on the other hand, a great many men will be damned,
X. 375. It is useless, therefore, to represent Evil as merely pass-
ing, or even as a means to good, x. 629.


more largely on Ms own resources. As a matter
of fact, lie scarcely ever strays from this subject
without falling into burlesque. His prince of the
rebel angels, who changes himself into a toad and a
cormorant; his demons, who become dwarfs in
order to be less crowded in their Parliament house ;
the punishment inflicted on them, which consists of
being changed once a year into serpents ; the Para-
dise of Pools ; the famous, but extravagant allegory
of Sin and Death — all these fictions give us but a
feeble notion of Milton's inventive genius, and
make it permissible to think that he would not
have succeeded in a subject where he had to create
his heroes and imagine his situations.


Let me not be misunderstood. I do not reproach
Milton, because, with his sixteenth century Cal-
vinism, he is found out of harmony with nineteenth
century thought. I care very little about his believ-
ing in witches and in astrology. Where would
Homer be, where Dante, if, refusing to place our-
selves at their point of view, we judged them from
the level of our modern criticism ? Not a single
work of art could support such a trial. But the
position of Milton is not exactly this. Milton
wants to prove something, he is sustaining a thesis,
he means to do the work of a theologian as well as
of a poet. In a word, whether intentionally or


merely as a fact, "Paradise Lost" is a didactic
work, and, as a consequence, its form cannot be
separated from its matter. Now, it so happens
that the idea of the poem does not bear exami-
nation ; that its explanation of the problem of evil
verges on the burlesque ; that the characters of its
heroes, Jehovah and Satan, are incoherent ; that the
fate of Adam touches us little; and finally, that
the action passes in regions where the interests and
the passions of our common humanity have noth-
ing to do. I have already pointed out this contra-
diction in Milton's epic. The story on which it
rests has neither meaning nor value unless it
retains its dogmatic import, and at the same time
it cannot retain this import without falling into
theology, that is to say, into a domain foreign to
art. The subject of the poem is nothing unless it
is real, unless it touches us as the secret of our
destinies ; and the more the poet tries to grasp this
reality the more it escapes him.

So intangible in character are these conceptions,
that Milton knew not even where to pitch the
scene of his drama. He is obliged to forge a sys-
tem of the world on purpose, a system in which
he himself only half believes. He is hampered by
the science of his time. Men are no longer in the
fourteenth century, when Dante could image hell
as a great hole burrowing beneath the surface of
our globe. Copernicus and Galileo have inter-
vened. So the cosmology of the Scriptures must


be modified and accommodated to tlie enligMenment
of the day. Tliere is notliing more curious than to
read " Paradise Lost " from this point of view, and
to note the modifications imposed by science on
tradition. Milton regards space as infinite, but
divided into two regions, that of light or creation,
and that of darkness or of chaos. On earth, in the
country of Eden, is the Earthly Paradise, communi-
cating by a staircase with the abode of the Most
High, Chaos surrounds the whole of this created
world, but on the edge of chaos, in the twilight,
is the Limbo of vanity, and beyond chaos, in the
depths of uncreated space, is found Hell, with a
gate and a bridge constructed by Sin and Death,
over which is the road from earth to the abyss.^

A vague conception, half literal, half symbolic,
whereof the author had need as a scene for his per-
sonages, but in which he himself has no entire
confidence — a striking example of the kind of
antinomy with which I charge the whole poem, of
the combined necessity, and impossibility of taking
things at the foot of the letter.


Let us sum up. " Paradise Lost " is an unreal
poem, a grotesque poem, a tiresome poem. There

1 Milton introduced not merely his cosmology but also his
politics into his poem. See on republicanism and tyranny xii


is not one reader in a hundred who can read Books
Nine and Ten without a smile, or Books Eleven and
Twelve without a yawn. The thing does not hold
together : it is a pyramid balanced on its apex, the
most terrible of problems solved by the most child-
ish of means. And yet "Paradise Lost" is immor-
tal. It lives by virtue of some episodes which will
be for ever famous. In contrast with Dante, who
must be read as a whole if we wish really to grasp
his beauties, Milton ought not to be read except in
fragments ; but these fragments form a part of the
poetic patrimony of the human race. The invoca-
tion to Light, the character of Eve, the description
of the earthly Paradise, of the morning of the
world, of its first love, are all masterpieces. The
discourses of the Prince of Hell are incomparably
eloquent. Lord Brougham used to cite them as
worthy to be set side by side with the greatest
models of antiquity, and another orator of our
time, Mr. Bright, is said to be a constant reader
of Milton. " Paradise Lost " is, moreover, strewn
with incomparable lines. The poetry of Milton is
the very essence of poetry. The author seems to
think but in images, and these images are grand and
proud as his own soul — a marvellous mingling of
the sublime and the picturesque. Every word of
his vocabulary of expression is a discovery and
unique. " Darkness visible " is well known. If he
would paint night he shows us the fairies dancing
by the woodside :


while overhead the moon ^

Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth
Wheels her pale course.

The sun shines on the expanse of the deluge waters
and begins to evaporate them :

And the clear sun on his wide watery glass
Gaz'd hot, and of the fresh wave largely drew,
As after thirst.

Peace follows fighting :

The brazen throat of war had ceased to roar.

The chaste happiness of the wedded pair is drawn
in a word :

Imparadised in one another's arms.

Verses of this kind, always as exact as they are
beautiful, are innumerable in Milton, and one is
almost ashamed to cite them, so capricious does
choice seem in the midst of such riches.

Besides, all is not said when some verses of
Milton have been quoted. He has not only imagery
and vocabulary, but the period, the great musical
phrase, a little long, a little loaded with ornament
and convolved with inversions, but swaying all with
it in its superb undulation. After all, and above
all, he has an indefinable serenity and victorious-
ness, a sustained equality, an indomitable power;
one might almost say that he wraps us in the skirt


of liis robe and wafts us with him to the eternal
regions where he himself dwells.-^
November 1868.

1 Milton himself has given the rule of poetry. According to
him, it must be " simple, sensuous, and impassioned," which
comes to the three conditions of simplicity, fulness of imagery,
and movement.



The name of Sterne suggests not merely the
memory of a talent, but also the idea of a class :
Sterne is the representative of something definite.
Now, it is this representative value which in litera-
ture constitutes fame. The merits of Sterne may
be discussed as much as anyone likes, but he has a
substantive existence : he is there, with his own
character, and with a certain rank and prestige as
a founder.

Everything about him is odd — his life, his per-
sonality, his work. He was born in Ireland, of an
Irish mother, and, as far as concerns blood, the
Englishman in him is crossed with another race, a
careless race, and a light one. His father was merely
an ensign, had gone through the war in Flanders,
and when peace was made carried his wife and his
children from garrison to garrison. He died from
the results of a duel. Having picked a quarrel
with a certain Captain Philips, the fight came off
at once in the room where they were, and a story

'^Laurence Sterne: his Person and his Writings. By Paul
Stapfer. 1870.


is told on the subject. The adversaries had en-
gaged so furiously that Philips's sword, piercing
Eoger Sterne's body, actually stuck in the wall.
Thus pinned to it, the luckless wounded man lost
neither his presence of mind nor even a certain
humorous pleasantry ; for he begged his conqueror
to be so kind as to wipe the point of his sword and
take the plaster off before drawing it out of his

Young Sterne had been put to school in York-
shire at eleven years old, and after his father's
death he was taken charge of by a relation, who
sent him to finish his studies at the University of
Cambridge. As soon as he had graduated, he was
provided with a benefice ; for his uncle, the arch-
deacon, an uncle well to pass in the world, and
able to serve his nephew if his nephew would
let him, had destined him for the church. Once
provided for, Sterne lost no time in marrying, fall-
ing in love, like a sentimental person as he was,
with a girl in the neighborhood, and so finding
himself tied for life to an insignificant and un-
attractive woman. Let us run over these facts, for
we have already got the whole Sterne before us :
middle-class extraction ; garrison memories ; means,
those of a fairly well-off man of letters ; a rather
narrow domestic circle; the career of a country
parson. We ought to add the neighborship of
Hall Stevenson, a college friend, at whose house
Sterne met very lively, not to say very unreverend.


companions, with, a little later, some travels in
France and Italy ; and we shall have almost all the
elements of "Tristram Shandy" and the ''Senti-
mental Journey " before us. M. Montegut has
very neatly analyzed these influences in his study
on Sterne : — " The best passages of his story,
its most ingenious episodes, its most sympathetic
personages, are due to these reminiscences and
emotions of childhood. It was in the life of the
regiment, by the side of his father and his father's
comrades, that he succeeded in securing those sin-
gular and touching growths of honor and humanity
which the military career more than any other
fosters in souls well born."

And again : — "At least a good half of 'Tristram
Shandy' is incomprehensible, unless it is con-
sidered as the direct chronicle of an old English
family of the upper middle class, concerned for
some generations with the political disputes of the
country, and with su.fficient experience of life to
have more than once known the vicissitudes of
fortune. Old family stories handed down from
father to son, relics pathetic or comical, old receipts
for the cure of disease, treasured scraps of paper
yellowed by time, quaint and original opinions
founded on some immemorial adventure or some
distant experience — all these oddities fill ' Tristram
Shandy,' and constitute one of the principal charms
of the book."

Sterne long remained the obscure parson of an


obscure Yorkshire parish. It must be confessed
that a stranger minister of religion never climbed
a pulpit. With a flighty temperament, an ill-
regulated imagination, an invincible inclination to
drollery, few principles, and less dignity of be-
havior, it is hard to imagine such a preacher at his
task. As a matter of fact, Sterne's sermons are
not out of harmony with their author's eccentricity.
He published them : so that we know what we are
about. He is still the buffoon of genius, restrained,
no doubt, a little by the gown he wears, but in-
demnifying himself by the very strangeness of the
contrast between the tone of a religious harangue
and the liberties he takes. He has digressions on
polygamy, digressions on travel. The preacher
amuses himself by full descriptions of the disorders
and disappointments of the Prodigal Son. One day
he takes for his text this passage of Ecclesiastes :
" It is better to go to the house of mourning than
to the house of mirth," and starts his subject by
crying, " That I deny ! " At the same time he has
real merits, if they are not exactly the merits of a
sacred orator. " He knew," says M. Stapfer, " how
to be interesting without making people laugh: he
could even be serious and profound. He never, it is
true, has any Christian unction ; but he has a deli-
cacy of moral analysis, and a talent for putting
things before his audience, which show no common
knowledge of the human heart, together with dra-
matic aptitude still less common." For the rest —


still according to M. Stapfer — Sterne as a preacher
was only '' an amateur in sacred literature, study-
ing in the Bible stories the motives of the wicked
and the just with the disinterested curiosity of a
philosopher, and drawing little pictures of their
good and bad actions with the passionate imagina-
tion of an artist."

But with all this we must not fancy that Sterne
was a freethinker who preached only from the lips
outwards, and as a matter of business. On the con-

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 11 of 21)