Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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very persons of whom it makes fun.

Besides this fundamental characteristic, which
is the property of humor, and which constitutes
Sterne's originality, he has a notable talent as a
moralist and a tale-teller. "He possessed" (I am
still quoting M. Stapfer) " a delicate psychological
faculty; the power of creating character and arrang-
ing situation ; the talent of drawing personages and
of making them speak ; a knack of sentiment,
noble, touching, or absurd ; pathos, color, truth,
nature, style." Indeed, M. Stapfer is never tired
of returning to Sterne's creative genius, and espe-
cially its finest instance, the two brothers Shandy.^

1 [Here M. Scherer inserted a long passage, or rather cento,
from M. Stapfer. — Trans.'\


For Sterne does not merely outline characters ; he
sets them at work, as I have already said, in de-
lightful scenes ; or rather his manner of showing
them is by making them speak or act. I have
mentioned my Uncle Toby and the fly ; but how
many little pictures of the same kind there are !
How charming a thing, for instance, is the history
of the adventure by the roadside between Nimes
and Lunel ! The traveller hears music, alights
from his mule, finds peasants dancing to the music
of the tambourine ; mixes with them, skips with
Nanette. " Why," cries he, " could I not live
and end my days thus ? Just Disposer of our joys
and sorrows, why could not a man sit down in the
lap of content here, and dance, and sing, and say
his prayers, and go to heaven with this nut-brown
maid." Elsewhere there are dialogues inimitable
in their droll spirit. Thus, the hero of the book
has been called Tristram instead of Trismegistus ;
it is the result of a mistake, and Tristram's father,
who attaches a superstitious importance to proper
names, takes the thing tragically. My Uncle Toby,
for his part, cannot share this feeling, and relieves
himself on the subject to his honest servant, who
is of his master's opinion.^

To all these qualities we must add those of style.

Sterne is no ordinary writer ; in his best passages

he has a fashion of writing — straightforward and

natural, and at the same time exact and picturesque

1 [The passage is well known. — Traris.]


— which implies either very true instinct or very
great art. There is within his smallest detail " a
certain grace of originality, which makes things
unexpected and delightful blossom in the midst of
exact pictures of reality." ^ Unluckily Sterne is
never natural for long; if he possesses a style of
his own, a substratum of real originality, he pos-
sesses also affectations, a method, and a great deal
of both. He is a mannerist. He tries to be odd,
which is the worst way of attaining oddity. He
lays himself out to astonish us, which is the worst
way of succeeding in doing so. He begins his
story by the first end he can catch hold of, and
then goes on anyhow, dropping the clue every
moment, piling up interruptions, digressions, dis-
cussions ; affecting not to know what he is going
to write next sentence ; building his theatre before
us, and insisting that we shall see its tricks and
dodges; appearing in person on the scene with

1 As I am speaking of Sterne's style, I will say a word of the
unpublished fragment which M. Stapfer has given us, and which
seems to him to be due to the author of the SentimentalJourney.
The handwriting of the original is said to be like that of Sterne,
but the piece is unsigned, and there is no sufficient information
as to its origin and its history. The manner and the style are
yet to be dealt with. I must say that I have difficulty in recog-
nizing therein the humorous writer we all know. It might, at a
pinch, be Sterne's; nothing makes the supposition impossible:
but I must add that nothing obliges us to accept it, for nothing
recalls the thought or the manner of the supposed author.

[This note referred to a fragment which had been supplied to
M. Stapfer by a Yorkshire friend in whose family the MS. had
long been. — Trans.}


fool's cap on head, and warning us tliat he is going
to do so ; jingling his bells, pirouetting, shouting
words of double meaning at us, playing tricks on
the audience. These devices are by no means
invariably amusing — very far from it. How is
one to be amused by chapters in reverse order,
blank pages, blacked pages, haphazard diagrams ?
Can Sterne possibly have thought all this quaint
and witty ? Can the exquisite author of the story
of Le Fevre have mistaken, as so often happens,
the strength and the weakness of his genius, hold-
ing as its true originality what was only slag and
dross ? What is certain is that Sterne keeps afloat
to-day on the current of literature with some diffi-
culty, and that it is the fault of the very eccentric-
ities on which he plumed himself. For he does
plume himself on them, and this is what sets us
against him; his drolleries are sought for, his
caprices deliberate. There is affectation in his
letting himself go ; he is the most learned of buf-
foons, the most sophisticated of simpletons, so
much so that you are sure of nothing in him,
neither of his tears nor of his laughter. But why
seek to grasp a personality so mobile, to define so
subtle a talent ? M. Stapfer has collected in
more than one fine passage the result of his study
on Sterne, and has really left nothing to be done
after him. It would be impossible to put in a
judgment a nobler conception of humanity, more
reason, or more grace.
May 1870.



I HAVE need of all the interest with which the
subject of this article inspires me to enable me to
surmount the difficulties which I foresee in it. It
is always hard to speak of a foreign poet, even
though he be a Shakespeare, a Goethe, or a Byron ;
for one cannot suppose all readers familiar with the
work which is to be the subject of discussion, and
yet it is impossible to discuss this work without
supposing it known already. How much greater
does the difficulty become when the writer to whom
it is desired to call attention has no European repu-
tation, when he has not been translated, and when
as a consequence his name carries no meaning with
it to the reader ! We must quote him to give any
idea of his genius, and to quote him we must trans-
late him, unless we wish merely to address the
small number of persons who understand his
language. Now, how are we to translate a poet ?
In verse ? My opinion on this point is known ; ^

1 [One of M. Scherer's very best critical essays (" De la Tra-
duction en Vers," Etudes, v. 319-341) is a vigorous defence of
the opinion here expressed. — 2Vans.]


it is only a Marc Monnier ^ who can allow himself
experiments of this kind, and even then this prince
of translators inspires us rather with admiration
for his skill as a virtuoso than with a feeling that
we really grasp the authors he has rendered. Shall
we have recourse to a prose version as more within
our reach, and at the same time able to keep closer
to the original ? Yes ; but if we then keep the
sense, we voluntarily give up the form ; and is not
the form in poetry the very essence of the thing ?
We sacrifice the color to keep the outline ; but what
becomes of a painting when the color has vanished ?
In such straits does the critic find himself when he
tries to serve as interpreter between two languages ;
and yet we must give him license to attempt it
sometimes. It is really not admissible that names
which are illustrious but a few leagues beyond our
frontiers should never be uttered in France, or
should be uttered without carrying with them even
a tolerably precise connotation. Now the name of
Wordsworth is incontestably one of the great
names of English literature.


I confess that my pleasure in speaking of Words-
worth is increased by the pleasure of mentioning

1 [A Genevese litterateur of great ability, erudition, and
elegance (&. 1829), who has died since M. Scherer's own death.
His translated Faust had pointed some remarks in the essay
noted above. — Transi]


the eminent writer to whom we owe the recent
publication of the poet's selected works. Mr. Mat-
thew Arnold himself occupies a high place in the
contemporary literature of his country. He pre-
sents a singular example of that modern curiosity
which explores all paths, touches all subjects, and
tries all ways of expression. He has been by turns
a theologian, a poet, and a critic, and (a rarer
thing) he has attempted nothing in which he has
not excelled. His religious conceptions are distin-
guished by a combination of freedom of thought,
historical intelligence of fact, and lively sentiment
of moral beauty. Christianity is for him only
a form of what he calls Hebraism ; but Hebraism
itself is one of humanity's titles of honor, Mr.
Arnold's theological essays have often made me
think of that most original enterprise of the Ger-
man Schleiermacher. With very different methods,
with less science and dialectical apparatus, but on
the other hand with far more lightness of touch,
fineness of perception, and sympathy for the needs
of the age, they present the same effort to disen-
gage from religious beliefs their divine and perma-
nent substratum, and to raise religious thought to
a height where it becomes equally independent of
critical investigation and speculative philosophy.

We have accustomed ourselves to paradoxes in
modern culture; and the same writer, the same
theologian, who has discussed so pertinently God
and the Bible, the authenticity of St. John's Gospel


and the teaching of St. Paul, is also a poet. Indeed
he began as such, and in this guise he has quite
recently showed himself again by publishing a com-
plete edition of his poetical works. Here, as every-
where, for the matter of that, his position is at
once high and peculiar. Mr. Arnold is neither the
disciple of a school nor the slave of his own man-
nerism; he possesses the originality which sincerity
gives when it is helped by natural and divine gifts.
I may add that in Mr. Arnold the poet has the
same elasticity as the thinker ; he takes all man-
ners and leaves them by turns, by turns he tries all
instruments. We have from him epic stories and
attempts in drama, elegies of no common savor,
great philosophical pieces. And in every style he
has a certain absolutely personal accent and note
of distinction. The language of verse has seldom
clothed thought at once so ample and so easy.

Have we done with him ? Not yet. From the
marriage of such a thinker and such a poet sprang
a critic — the liveliest, the most delicate, the most
elegant of critics, the critic who has given out most
ideas, has conferred upon them the most piquant
expression, and has most thoroughly shocked the
sluggishness of British thought by wholesome
audacities. There is one other point on which
everybody is agreed. Mr. Arnold is a delightful
writer; full of limpid clearness and unaffected
grace. We never catch him in the act of trying set
attitudes or ambitious tricks. It is refreshing to


open his books when one has just been reading the
great mannerists on whom the literature of our
neighbors so falsely prides itself — Carlyle, with
his conscious deliberate, calculated jargon: Euskin,
with his affectations of profundity, with his labo-
rious quest after expression, with all the studied
poses of a quackery saddening to see in conjunction
with merit which is often great, and constituting a
sin against true sincerity and lofty taste.

There is a kind of ingratitude in the way in which
we in France ignore the works of Mr. Arnold. For
there is no foreign writer who is better acquainted
with the literature of our country, or who has on
the whole such a sympathy (I had nearly said such
a weakness) for our ways of thinking, our manners,
our institutions. He envies us our political equal-
ity, and he even extols the services rendered by the
French Academy. His reading is not limited to
our classics; he enjoys our intermediate^ writers,
and has introduced to his countrymen, Senancour,
Joubert, Maurice de Guerin and his sister. I fear
it is true that he is less orthodox on the subject of
our poetry ; he has somewhere in one of his articles
an awkward phrase about Lamartine, and I should
not be surprised if Eacine did not appeal to him.
But far be it from me to owe him a grudge for this.
I have long laid my account with such matters, and
have seen without disgust the indifference of for-

1 [Intermediate, that is to say, between the Classical school
and the Romantic revival. — T7-ans.}


eigners to beauties which, from the very fact that
they are not generally perceived, are only dearer
and more sacred to their true adorers.

There is one idea — that of culture — which recurs
frequently in Mr. Matthew Arnold's works. He
has defined what he means by it. The man of culture
in his sense is not the man who possesses a mass
of erudition, nor the man who is distinguished by
more or less intellectual strength. Culture, as he
understands it, is that fineness, that delicacy, that
sureness of perception which is given by familiarity
with the great thinkers of all times, which is
produced by the knowledge of the best things which
have been said in the world. It is easy to under-
stand how at this level of thought literature connects
itself with morality ; how poetry finally blends with
religion ; and it is easy also to discern the higher
meaning of certain of the writer's assertions, which
seemed at the first blush to be mere genial eccentrici-
ties. Mr. Arnold, who is far from endowing himself
with any kind of mission, who is the simplest and
least affected of men, has none the less become in his
own country the representative of the higher func-
tion of letters. No one has recognized their human-
izing influence as he has, and no one was so fit as
he to become the apostle of what I may call intel-
lectual civilization. At the present moment Mr.
Arnold is the most seductive product that English
literature has to offer, by reason of his union of
thought and fancy, of solidity and grace, of self-
respect and liberty of mind.



In the graceful preface which he has set in front
of his selection from Wordsworth's works Mr.
Arnold endeavors to fix the poet's place. This to
his thinking is a very high one. Wordsworth seems
to him to have the marks of poetical greatness ; and
these marks Mr. Arnold accordingly defines.

The great poet, in our critic's sense, is the poet
who expresses the noblest and profoundest ideas
on the nature of man, who has a philosophy of life,
and who impresses it powerfully on the subjects he
treats. The definition is obviously rather vague.
It is true that Mr. Arnold adds that the philosophical
conception of things ought, in the poet's work, to
be produced within the eternal conditions of poetical
beauty and truth. Only, he does not tell us what
these conditions are, and it is exactly this that we
ought to know, in order to determine whether Words-
worth is an artist as well as a thinker.

What is poetry ? And what do we mean when
we say that a site, a picture, a book is poetical?
We must, indeed, observe that the word fits things
very different. It is with it as with another aesthetic
category, that of beauty. We apply the term beau-
tiful to the most diverse objects — a tree, ahorse,
a thought, a speech, an action, a character. There
must clearly be something in common between the
uses, different as they are, of the same term ; but in
what does this element of resemblance lie ? Is it


not that we call a thing beautiful wheu it approaches
the typical notion that we form by spontaneous
abstraction of individual traits ?

By proceeding in a similar manner we may, I
think, reach the conclusion that the poetical element
of things is the property they have of setting the
imagination in motion, of stimulating it, of suggest-
ing to it much more than is actually perceived or
expressed. The poet is he who sees through his
imagination, and the special quality of imagination
is to increase everything that it sees, everything
that it touches, to expand or to abolish limits, and
so to idealize. Yet we must not say that it embel-
lishes ; nor must we generally lend ourselves to the
confusion of the ideas of poetry and of beauty. A
cathedral, for instance, is more poetical than beauti-
ful ; and the Parthenon, on the other hand, is more
beautiful than poetical. Indeed, imagination can
increase horror as well as charm.

To speak shortly, then, and taking it by itself,
poetry is the sight of things through the eyes of
imagination ; and poetical expression is the repro-
duction of them under the form most capable of
arousing the imaginative powers of the reader. And
so imagery is the special language of poetry. Let
the reader try to recall the finest passages of his
favorite poets, and he will see that it is by the
choice and the charm of metaphors and comparisons
that they delight him. Why is the exclamation of
Antiochus, in Eacine, a favorite quotation ?


Dans 1' orient desert quel devint mon ennui !

What is it that makes this verse of Lamartine one
of the finest in the language ?

Dans I'liorizon desert Phgbfi monte sans bruit ?

Whence comes the admirable melancholy of this
passage of Victor Hugo ?

Qui pent savior combien toute douleur s'emousse

Et combien dans nos coeurs un jour d'herbe qui pousse

Efface des tombeaux ?

Join to the imaginative conception of things the
expression proper to arouse this conception in others,
submit this expression to the laws of rhythm, give
it the cadence which by a secret connection puts
nervous sensation in accord with the movement of
thought, and you will have poetry in the complete
and concrete sense of the word.


To enjoy a poet, there is no need to do more than
take his works and read them ; to judge and to
comprehend him (which is the proper task of the
critic) we must also place ourselves at the time
when he wrote, must explore the influences under
which he was formed, and those which in his turn
he exercised. We must, in short, assign him his
place in literary history.


One thing is clear at the first reading of Words-
worth, and this is that he belongs to the reaction
against the Classical school, the school personified
by the great names of Dryden and Pope, repre-
sented also honorably by Thomson, Groldsmith, and
Gray — the school which, with Cam]Dbell, Rogers,
and Byron himself, threw up suckers even in the
very heyday of the Romantic period. The charac-
teristics of the Classical school in England were
pretty much the same as among ourselves — in
point of matter, more rhetoric and eloquence than
feeling or fancy; in point of form, the sonorous-
ness of skilful periods and the surprises of a per-
petual antithesis. But if Wordsworth was the
most industrious and noteworthy of the innova-
tors he was by no means the earliest. That place
should rather be given to Cowper, whose chief
poem, ''The Task," dates from 1785, and really
marks an epoch in the destinies of English poetry
by setting the example of simplicity and nature,
by choosing very simple subjects, by adopting a
fluent and familiar versification. A curious thing,
indeed, that this hermit, with his sorrowful soul,
his morbid piety, his reason always struggling
with madness, should have left so unquestionable
a mark on the literature of his country ! There
can be no hesitation in connecting, if not with
Cowper's example yet with the same yearning for
innovation and the same general and hidden ten-
dencies, the tales of a poet, George Crabbe, whose


numerous works had immense popularity at the
beginning of this century, but who for his part
sinned by excess of simplicity. In his hands, the
natural style became merely and placidly prosaic,
and so we only make mention of the author of the
" Parish Register " as a matter of history. On the
other hand, we must take Burns as of the first im-
portance in respect of the influences which acted
on Wordsworth and help to explain him. Not
that this admirable lyric poet takes rank in the
pedigree which we are trying to draw up. He had
nothing to learn and nothing to unlearn ; he shot
up as spontaneously as the daisy of his own moun-
tains. Yet it is to the breath which was then
blowing on English letters that Burns owed the
welcome given to his poems, and being thus natu-
ralized on the south of the Tweed, he himself
became one of the authors of the revolution which
Wordsworth completed.

We now know Wordsworth's origins, the family
of which he sprung. His first poems, the " Lyrical
Ballads," date from the end of the eighteenth cen-
tury ; but he was not thirty when they appeared,
and he definitely belongs to the movement of poetic
renovation which has left glorious traces on the lit-
erature of his country during the first quarter of
the nineteenth. It is true that he continued, long
after this period, to be prolific without any notable
change of style, and without any sensible weak-
ening of his genius. In his life of eighty years,


he saw many a revolution in tlie conception of art,
and in the admirations of the public. His own
career, let me repeat, offers no appreciable distinc-
tion between the works of his youth and those of
his maturity, nor any of the transformations which
are observable in the life of some artists. His
poetic fame, on the other hand, had its phases
and its vicissitudes. Wordsworth first appears to
us as one of the most noted champions in the
struggle wherein his friends, the other Lakers, Col-
eridge, Southey, John Wilson, fought in a lower
rank than his ; but in which he also met noisier
and more brilliant competitors who eclipsed him
for a while. From this time forward he had his
admirers, even his devotees ; but he had also his
contemners. One side held him up as the prophet
of a new poetical religion, the other mocked at his
style. But these very controversies proved that
he had already excited and arrested public opinion ;
that is to say, that he was already famous. As
for fashion, which is a different thing, that was
for the moment entirely on the side of two writers,
one of whom, in a series of poems full of brilliancy
and music, poured forth an inexhaustible vein of
chivalry; while the other dressed up the gloomy
caprices of a blase in the turban and the caftan.
We in France are now too wont to forget, or, to
speak more exactly, we never quite knew, the
enthusiasm excited by Walter Scott's legendary
epics until their popularity was shadowed by the


stronger and more romantic conceptions of Lord
Byron, and by the prodigious success of Scott's
own prose stories.

The progress of literature, a subject hitherto
insufficiently studied, is dominated by three great
laws. The first turns on the modifications which
are produced in the moral and intellectual state of
the public. The point of view, especially in our
modern societies, changes incessantly, and with the
point of view in general everything changes like-
wise — taste as well as ideas, the starting points of
art as well as those of thought. Yet it sometimes
happens, and here we come to the second of the laws
of which I speak, that progress is brought about,
not by simple development of ideas, but, on the
contrary, by more or less pronounced reaction, the
human mind eagerly and willingly running in the
opposite direction to that which it had formerly
followed. The third and last law — one which
applies no less frequently than the others — con-
sists in the satiety produced by custom, and the
yearning for innovation which comes of satiety.
The human mind wants to be interested, and there
is no interest, or at least no forcible stimulant,
except in surprise. The intelligence demands
novelty as the body demands action : or else the
man falls into ennui — the most terrible of evils,
the evil which all seek to avoid, and do avoid at all
hazards. I must ask pardon for going back so far
in order to explain a thing simple enough in itself,

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 13 of 21)