Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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which I have already set up between his narrative
and his lyrical pieces, and especially between his
long poems, such as the " Excursion " and the
"Prelude," and the little pieces which are in all
men's memory. Unquestionably, the first are not
as popular as the second, and this has to do not
merely with their length. They are a little heavy,
a little monotonous, and, despite their incontesta-
ble beauties, it is hard to read them without ennui.
Something of this same ennui has finally clung to
the name of Wordsworth, and has injured his
glory. The fact is that our poet, when he writes
without the help or the restraints of rhyme, is sub-
ject to a drawback which is connected with his sys-
tem, and, one might almost say, with his genius.
Blank verse, which is, when rightly considered,


only cadenced prose — which lacks what I should
call the dramatic interest of the poet's struggle
with rhyme — needs to be relieved by the greatest
intensity of thought and expression. The creative
power of the author must reinforce the poverty of
the instrument he uses. This is the case, for in-
stance, with Milton, whose imagination triumphs
so victoriously both over the ungrateful character
of his subject and over the monotony inherent in
the versification he has chosen. As for Words-
worth, he cuts himself off from this resource. He
possesses, at a pinch, as we have seen, sublimity of
sentiment and of language ; but it is only as an ex-
ception, and by a kind of infraction of his principles.
For he has a theory, and, what is more, is the head
of a school. He undertook the mission of rehabili-
tating simplicity, as well in tone as in feeling. He
renounced the artificial diction of the classics, their
antitheses, their abundance of epithet ; attempting
to make up for the nakedness of his form by the
charm of an absolutely sincere emotion, and by the
originality of an absolutely natural language. Un-
luckily, his success is not invariable. His stories
of country incidents and his description of rustic
scenes did not always admit the beauties or the
ornaments which might have relieved their monot-
ony, and the consequence is that Wordsworth's
poetry, with the tendency which it already had to
the prosaic, sometimes falls bodily into it, and that
chiefly in the unrhymed poems.


Having made this distinction between the work
of our author in his prosaic and in his poetical
style, we can come to his poetic diction in the
narrow sense of the word. It is well known that
in this respect there are tv/o schools among con-
temporary poets. The one class has sincere and
genuine feeling, which expresses itself in a fashion
appropriate, and consequently original. Poetry,
with them, goes from within to without, from
thought to expression. With others, on the con-
trary, the first business is not profundity of senti-
ment or truth of idea, but rather the picturesque
effect possible to extract from the subject. This is
so true that the latter class does not even recoil
from the vulgar or the ignoble, provided that they
find in either material for descriptive novelty.
Poetry in their work goes from without to within ;
it is the expression which has to give value to the
thought. I need hardly say that the first of these
two manners is Wordsworth's. His feeling is
always genuine, and his expression always subordi-
nated to his idea. He never sacrifices anything to
the desire of showing his skill. His affectations —
for, as we have seen, he has such — are in the
other direction; they come from the desire of
remaining simple and humble, not from the wish
to appear a clever craftsman.

I have just distinguished between legitimate art,
which only speaks because it has something to say,
and art become ostentatious, which says nothing


except to show how well it can speak. There is a
final distinction to draw, this time between desires
which are equally legitimate, between ancient or
classic art, which attaches itself to the beauty and
nobility of things, and so even indulges in abstrac-
tion of individual traits, and modern art, which, on
the other hand, delights in throwing up the particu-
lar physiognomy, the characteristic feature, of the
model furnished to it by nature. There is this
remarkable thing about Wordsworth, that he unites
the two methods. His poetry is distinguished, and
that to a rare degree, by the interpenetration of the
two elements which are mingled in different propor-
tions in the temperament of all true artists, the
perception of the personal and real life of things,
and the sense of the general signification which
idealizes them.

Such contradictions are proper to rich natures.
Wordsworth, the prolific and discursive poet Avho
expands himself in slow and boundless strides, is
the same poet who condenses his thought in admir-
able sonnets. We shall find the dreamer, who
seems to have no eye but for natural objects, able
to define the genius of a Burns or a Milton in a few
words of rare felicity. The first verse of his mag-
nificent sonnet addressed to the author of "Para-
dise Lost " —

Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart — ii^ ^jfi^

has always seemed to me admirable at once for )//



exactness and for majesty. There is something
very special in the delicacy of the characterization
joined to the sublimity of the image.

Wordsworth is inexhaustible in passages which
depict now the scenes of nature, now the emotions
to which those scenes give rise. And the proof of
the fidelity with which he translates his feeling,
the proof that his fashion of speech has something
indefinably definite which forces itself on the reader,
is that many of his verses have passed into current
and, so to speak, proverbial quotation. He is an
attentive observer, his emotion is sincere, and,
finally, he has the faculty of expression, the divine
part of the art of writing. And so there comes
about in him the perfect fusion of the landscape, of
the feeling inspired by this landscape, and of the
trait by which the whole is expressed : —

At length towards the cottage I returned

Fondly, and traced with interest more mild

That secret spirit of humanity

Which, 'mid the calm oblivious tendencies

Of nature, 'mid her plants, and weeds, and flowers,

And silent overgrowings still survived.

Tlie Excursion.

Never has there been expressed as a whole, with
such puissant simplicity, and with plasticity so
sovereign, the whole gamut of sentiments which
nature awakes, from the thoughts

whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality,


to the inner ravishment, the secret enthusiasm,
experienced by man

when wedded to this goodly umverse
In love and holy passion.

I hope I have given some idea of Wordsworth's
merits. Taking him where he is pure and without
blemish — that is to say, somewhere half-way be-
tween his deliberate simplicity, between his propen-
sities of a somewhat didactic kind, and between the
lyrism, also too conscious and slightly declamatory,
of the great odes — you find something of alto-
gether superior quality. Wordsworth is a very
great poet, and at the same time one of those who
lend themselves best to everyday intercourse — a
puissant and beneficent writer who elevates us and
makes us happy. We must not be astonished if
his renown has passed through vicissitudes of admi-
ration and disdain, for his work is certainly unequal.
But we must also not be astonished if, after these
vicissitudes, he is in the way of taking rank among
the classics of his country ; for his beauties are of
those which time consecrates instead of aging
them. I should not be surprised if the selection of
his poems published by Mr. Matthew Arnold, and
the attention thus recalled to him, serve to fix his
place definitely in the heaven of British glories.
If Shakespeare, as I hold, remains absolutely and
forever peerless, Wordsworth seems to me to come
after Milton; decidedly, I think, below him, but
still first after him. He is of the stuff whereof the
immortals are made.


Carlyle has written a great deal, and in very-
different styles. There are some among his works
which belong to pure literature : and these are the
earliest in date, the "Life of Schiller," and the
critical articles which the author contributed to
reviews and collected later. Then come the great
historical compositions on the "French Eevolu-
tion," on " Cromwell," and on " Frederick the
Great." The fixed ideas which are customary with
the writer, and which appear in all these works,
found political and social application in the volume
on " Chartism," in " Past and Present," and in the
"Latter-day Pamphlets." As for the directer ex-
pression of Carlyle's philosophy, we must go to
"Heroes and Hero-worship" for that, adding, if
we please, " Sartor Eesartus," which is a philo-
sophical sally, as well as a literary fantasy, and the
" Life of John Sterling," in which the author has
put much of himself.

Thus Carlyle touches on very different subjects,

and yet in hardly any writer is there more unity.

In every work I have mentioned there is the same

special manner of feeling and of expression. I am



very far from denying that this originality is
sought for, is deliberate both in matter and form.
On the contrary, I shall have to insist on the feat-
ure of parti pris, which we cannot fail to recognize
in Carlyle without deceiving ourselves. But the
fact remains, all the same, that the writer is a
thinker, and that his teaching has founded a school.
As for bringing his ideas under any precise formula,
we must not think of it. The very property of
Carlyle's ideas is to set at defiance definitions, dis-
tinctions, all the logical and critical apparatus in
use with common folk, in order to take refuge in
the regions of imagination and sentiment. Carlyle
is a mystic. The world appears to him as clothed
in obscurity and bristling with problems. He can
see nothing but abysses. Nature, history, man,
everything gives him matter for wonder. His cus-
tomary mental attitude is veneration : and to adore
is necessary to him. This taste for the mysterious
and the sublime lends itself necessarily to exagger-
ation. Humanity is engaged in a titanic struggle
between good and evil. The littlenesses of real life
become a spectacle at once grotesque and hateful.
Modern society is abandoned in the lump to plati-
tude and lying. The nations seek their welfare in
constitutions, in balancings of power, in parliamen-
tary talk, in the devices of so-called liberalism and
so-called progress, while there is nothing real and
true in the way of government but the supremacy
of the strong man. The hero and the hero's right


— that is the sum of Carlyle's thought of human
things. He must have Mahomets, Cromwells,
Fredericks, Napoleons, the men who force their
way because they are tlae genuine and direct prod-
ucts of nature. It will be seen here what is the
link between Carlyle's theory of heroism and his
general views of the world. The man destined by
providence, with the superior gifts which mark him
out for sovereignty, is a natural reality set against
social fictions, and at the same time one of the
mysterious forces of the universe into the contem-
plation of which our author loves to plunge.

If it is natural to refer Carlyle's work to the
thought by which it is inspired, it would be unjust
to the author to insinuate that the whole merit of
his books lies in the mystical preaching which we
have just described. There is in him, speaking of
him as a man of letters, an historian, and there is
also a satirist. The historian is remarkable for con-
scientious research, and for the lively manner in
which he seizes and renders the physiognomy of
events. His power is beyond dispute. Through all
his oddities there appears the gift of evoking the
past, of making it live, of making out of it a drama
which cannot be seen without emotion. The truth
is that Carlyle, in spite of his would-be philosophy,
possesses a talent which is essentially dramatic
and picturesque. In the midst of all his moralizing
sallies, of his habit of denouncing, adjuring, and
objurgating, we see that his object in his histories


was but to tell his story, and to tell it so as to
please. He is an artist, and has done artist's work.
His airs of grandeur and solemnity are but part of
his style as a painter. They are but a refinement
— I had almost said a set-off or seasoning.

In two or three of his works Carlyle is a histo-
rian ; he is a satirist in all. His idealist prepos-
sessions, as I showed just now, peep through
everywhere, in the shape of perpetual and bitter
denunciation flung on the men and the things of
our time. He is inexhaustible in denouncing the
lack of manliness and sincerity, the meanness and
the slavishness, of the world which surrounds
him. There is a word which is always recur-
ring from his pen, as summing up the character of
the age — the word ^'sham," an untranslatable
expression, but one which designates at once false
appearances, vain pretensions, lying conventions,
and social hypocrisies. Carlyle has taken up a
mission ; he is a prophet, the prophet of sincerity.
This sincerity or earnestness he would have applied
everywhere ; he makes it the law, the healthy and
holy law, of art, of morals, of politics. The exalta-
tion of force into something divine, whereof we
spoke above, is nothing but a result of the need
which the writer feels of going back in every case to
the first and natural conditions. What is there, as a
fact, more real than power ? What more certain than
that action which mak:es itself felt whether we will
or no — than the personal authority, it may be of
the man of genius, it may be of the sword ?


Carlyle, however, never understood or tried to
understand his time. He is like women and chil-
dren who know no other form of expressing judg-
ment except " I like it " or " I hate it." He is hurt
in his sympathies (which are secret, and what is
more very narrow), and he avenges himself by
wrath or ridicule. Carlyle, who has been put for-
ward as a sage, is the very reverse of one. "What
is the good," as a witty woman once said, '' of los-
ing your temper with things in general, when you
know that it produces not the slightest effect on
them ? " But Carlyle does not feel the inevitable-
ness of the general transformation which we are
witnessing, of that raising of the social level which
indeed implies the lowering of the heights, which
sends mediocrity to the surface, which hands over
the world and the government of the world to
everybody — that is to say, to somebody ignorant
enough and vulgar enough — but which after all
has the one pretty sufficient justification that it is
fated. Let us grant that great art is no longer
possible ; that literature is condemned to decadence ;
that the time for fine things, things distinguished,
exquisite things, is past beyond recall ; that the
guidance of society henceforward belongs to heads
so coarse and to minds so uncultivated that our
traditional sentiments feel a sort of consterna-
tion. Let us admit that we are on the way to
an equality at once quite rational and hopelessly
uninteresting. ISTo doubt this is disagreeable


enough to the man whose roots, in virtue of his
early education, dive down to a different civiliza-
tion. But is it not a little childish to celebrate the
obsequies of the past so noisily ? The wheel of
history has crushed many a past before.

One of the numerous minor services which the
Hegelian philosophy has done is to have suppressed
the distinction between matter and form. Every
matter has its special form, and every form sup-
poses its appropriate matter. But the two things
have never been in more obvious relation than in
the case of Carlyle's thought and his style. I am
unable when I read him to get rid of the idea that
he has a settled attitude — to put it more bluntly,
an affectation. There is something histrionic in
his incessant declamation against the cant of the
age. His vast mystical views on the unknown
that wraps us round, and the universe which lies
beyond our sight, on the reverential spirit in which
we must contemplate the problems of existence,
have to me (I hope his devotees will pardon me ! )
an air of posing. If it is not the result of reflec-
tion and calculation, it at least looks like it. Now
it is exactly the same with the style in which these
thoughts are rendered. It is a dialect which the
writer has fashioned on purpose, and not without
knowing what he was about. For he owed a great
part of his success to it. Carlyle's vocabulary is
made up of long compounds in the German style,
of unusual forms, of comparatives and superlatives


of his own invention. He rejoices in odd phrases,
in recurring epithets, in nicknames, in catchwords.
His phraseology is broken and hammered out; it
has been said to resemble repousse metal-work.
He makes it, of set purpose, unmusical, unbalanced,
with sharp turns, with weak endings or mere lapses.
Add to this exclamations, interrogations, apostro-
phes to the characters, to the reader, to heaven and
earth, to things in general. It is impossible to con-
vey an idea of the way in which our author abuses
the words God, Infinite, Eternity, Profundity. It
is true that he freshens them up by putting them
in the plural, and saying " the Immensities," " the
Silences," " the Eternal Veracities."

Needless to say that this jumbled part of prophet
and buffoon, with its laborious eccentricities, pro-
duces the effect less of conviction and of something
natural than of a craving for attracting attention;
not to mention that this view has historical justi-
fication. Carlyle did not originally write in the
manner of which I have just spoken. His "Life
of Schiller" is ordinary English. If his first
articles of literary criticism in 1827 and the years
following, perhaps, let us guess what is coming,
they are still not sharply parted off from common
speech. " Sartor Kesartus," which is nearly of the
same date, already affects oddity, but it may be
said that there it was dictated by the subject. At
any rate, from that time forward the author takes
increasing delight in a manner which has the


double advantage of being easier than simplicity
and of tempting the curiosity of the public. As
we follow him, we can see him giving himself up
more and more to the style which he has created.
His 'Trench Eevolution," published in 1837, is
entirely cast in this mould. Unluckily it is the
nature of mannerism to fix and stereotype itself
always more and more, and it is not too much to say
that Carlyle's diction ended by becoming gibberish.
A less direct, but very curious, proof of the part
which we must acknowledge that purpose played in
fiDrming Carlyle's manner is an article which he
contributed in 1827 to the "Edinburgh Eeview"
on Jean Paul Priedrich Richter. The article be-
gins by a long and remarkable characterization of
the writer's genius ; but the odd thing is that
one would swear Carlyle himself had sat for the
portrait. I regret that space does not allow me to
translate these pages. There is not a line which
would not apply to the English author — nay, there
is not a line in which he has not the air of having
tried to paint himself, or at least has not betrayed
the figure which he was ambitious of making in
the world of letters. The influence of Carlyle's
mannerism has been considerable. He has given
birth to a whole generation of writers, disdainful
of that manliness of style which consists in saying
things worth saying in the best way possible, and
set above all on the refinements of the virtuoso or
even the tricks of the charlatan. Some great tal-


ents in England have been ruined in this deplorable
school. Mr. Euskin ended like Carlyle himself by-
passing from the recherche to the bizarre, and from
affectation to mere mystifying. Yet there are still
some who feel themselves strong enough to be
sincere and simple, and they are worth all the more
for it. Mr. Matthew Arnold has, I should think,
as many ideas in his head as Carlyle, and as much
poetry in his soul as Mr. Euskin, and yet he does
not think himself obliged to speak like a mysta-

The philosophical influence of Carlyle has not
been less than his literary influence, and it has been
wholesomer. His name will remain in the history
of English thought. He gave check to the suprem-
acy of the commonplace. Just as, for all the faults
of his style, he is an artist at bottom ; so, despite
the too great pretentiousness of his formulae, there
is in him, if not a philosopher, at least a " midwife
of minds." ^ He introduced thought to more than
one of those truths which are lost under logical
apparatus or hidden by social conventions. His
declamations against jargon, pretension, and char-
latanism may be tainted themselves with charla-
tanism and jargon. But all the same they helped
to put sincerity back in the place of honor.

. 1 [Socrates's well-known description of himself. It looks awk-
ward in English, and despite the wrath of precisians, I think
the adjective maieutic justifiable and even necessary. But, as
M. Scherer renders it literally, so do I. — Trans-I


To sum up, if I had to characterize the moral and
intellectual influence exercised by Carlyle, I should
say that he seems to me to have, above all things,
helped to loosen the fetters of positive creed in
which thought was imprisoned among his country-
men. Carlyle was a mystic, and mysticism here, as
elsewhere, discharged the function which belongs
to it in the chain of systems : to wit, that of dis-
solving dogma under pretence of spiritualizing it,
of shattering faith under pretence of enlarging it.
When men heard Carlyle speak so much of divinity
and eternity, of mystery and adoration, they hailed
him as the preacher of a religion higher and wider
than current belief. In vain did orthodoxy, more
keen-sighted, point out the negations which lay
hid under the writer's formulas. It is so pleasant to
free oneself without appearing to break too sharply
with consecrated words and institutions ! Since
then speculation has made much way in England.
The universal mysteries of our author have been
exchanged for exact research, precise definitions,
rigorous ascertainments. I do not know whether
Carlyle was aware of it, but he lived long enough
to see his influence exhausted, his teaching out of
date. It is true that, as consolation, he could take
himself to witness that he had served as the tran-
sition between the past and the present, and that
this is in the long run the best glory to which a
thinker can pretend here below.

February 1881.



"'Endymion/ by the author of 'Lothair.'"
Why of " Lothair " ? I can understand why Lord
Beaconsfield did not choose to sign his novel either
by the name of Disraeli, which he does not now
bear, or by the newer name which he has not yet
made illustrious in letters. But I ask myself what
made him prefer " Lothair " among the memories of
his literary career. It would have been more nat-
ural to put his latest work under the patronage of
" Vivian Grey," his earliest, or that of " Coningsby,"
the prototype of the political novels wherein the
author has made a style of his own. Unless, indeed,
Lord Beaconsfield desired to point out a nearer re-
lationship, a special resemblance of kind, between
" Lothair " and " Endymion " — a resemblance
which is, I grant, striking, but which is not exactly
a recommendation for the newcomer.

Indeed, everything in the title-page of this novel
is a riddle. The name given to the chief personage
makes it impossible to help looking for a symbolic
sense in it, and yet nobody has yet been able to
discover an analogy between the career of Mr.
Endymion Ferrers and the love passages in the

" ENDYMION " 237

cave of Latinos. The choice of the particular name
is, then, a whim on the author's part, and a whim
which looks like a trap for the reader. Nor is the
motto of the book more appropriate. "Quidquid
agunt homines " seems to promise a great composi-

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 16 of 21)