Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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matter. But they are all good, and what may be
especially praised in them is the admirable critical
summaries — much resembling those of Jeffrey, a
critic who had many points of contact with M.
Scherer — of different periods of English literature.

The apparent disproportion of the space given to
George Eliot is, now that the essays are collected,
likely to strike most people, especially since the
somewhat extravagant estimate of the author of
" Adam Bede " which was common some years ago
among " thoughtful " Englishmen and foreigners
has subsided, as, indeed, is usual in such cases, to
a point perhaps almost as far below the just level
as the excess was above it. It is the very last
secret of criticism, the degree which few critics
reach, to be as independent of the charms of


novelty as of those of antiquity, and to look at
things new and things old from the combined
standpoint which things old and new together give.
But it must always be counted to M. Scherer that
in the later essays — that on '< Deronda " and the
final one on the " Biography " — he retracted not
a little, or, to speak more justly, readjusted to
sounder standards, a good deal of the rather effu-
sive and uncritical laudation of the paper which
opens this volume. It was, indeed, impossible
that he should not somewhat overvalue a writer
whose mental history was in so many respects
identical with his own, and whose final standpoint
(though he has indicated the interval very subtly
and accurately in the last essay) was so near
his. The weak point in both, (and this, naturally
enough, he has not indicated), was an insufiicient
devotion to the great god Nonsense, whether in his
Avatar of Frivolity or in his Avatar of Passion.
They could neither of them conjugate the verb
desipere; the delights of hearing the chimes at
midnight in the full metaphorical sense were shut off
from them ; they had no fine madness. They were
both (it is needless to say it in George Eliot's
case to an English audience, but it may be con-
fidently affirmed of M. Scherer also) susceptible
enough to certain kinds of wit and to certain kinds
of humor ; while one of them, as we know, could
create both humor and wit of those kinds. But
M. Scherer has wonderingly commented on the


not to nature, but to the encyclopaedia. In the
main no man has ever been sounder on Shake-
speare than he, and that is the articulus stantis aut
cadentis criticismi.

The sixth volume of the '':fitudes'' (we have
spoken of the essay on " Daniel Deronda," which,
though much later in date than those of which we
are going to speak, appeared in volume form
earlier) is peculiarly rich in papers on English
subjects. Here is the remarkable paper, written
many years before, on M. Taine's " History " ;
here that just discussed on "Shakespeare and
Criticism " ; here the famous " Milton," famous
not merely by Mr. Arnold's praise of it, but, with
the possible exception of that on Wordsworth, as
the chief example of M. Scherer's power in our
own subjects ; here the less valuable but interest-
ing paper on " Sterne." With the subject of this
last it might at first seem as if M. Scherer could
have been in but imperfect sympathy ; and I am not
prepared to deny that a desire to give a helping
hand to a young and very promising man of letters —
a member of the group of Swiss-French Protestant
men of letters, of which Vinet, M. Scherer himself,
the Monods, and others were pillars — may have
had something to do with the selection of it. But
Sterne, who loved the French nation, has always
had an attraction for them, the causes of which it
would not be difficult to work out, and a pas-
sage on humor here, though oddly prefaced, is one


of the best things in this volume. The other
two essays are of the very first quality. It can
scarcely be said that M. Scherer has not done
justice to M. Taine; but nowhere have the two
great faults of a book which, brilliant as it is, is
almost more faulty than brilliant — its false air
of method and its tapage — been more severely
handled. Indeed, M. Scherer, who, whatever the
faults of his own criticism, rarely saw things quite
out of focus or rendered them quite out of drawing,
could not but be scandalized at the prevalence of
these two eccentricities in M. Taine's work. As
for the " Milton " it is difficult to admire it too
much. Inevitably, M. Scherer is too severe on
Milton's theological views and assumes divers
things which he would have been hard put to
prove against an active and well-armed antagonist.
Inevitably, likewise, he is too lenient to Milton's
character, which seems to have had a great many
points of contact with his own. As a criticism " of
art" on "Paradise Lost" (it touches other matters
only incidentally) it is nearly impeccable. The
ineradicable differences of national taste may come
in a little, and may make us think that, for in-
stance, the poetic magnificence of the Sin and
Death passage should have saved it from M.
Scherer's condemnation. But these are details,
and of the merest. As a whole, I should include
the essay in any collection of the best dozen or
sixteen critical exercises of the last half-century


in Europe. Enthusiasm, old and new (for it is
impossible in reading it to forget the time when
M. Scherer himself saw, as they say, eye to eye
with Milton in religious matters), has aroused in
the critic a more glowing style than his usual
sober medium, and though once or twice this is a
little too " purple," the best examples of it are

The seventh volume also is pretty rich in our
material. The appearance of Lord Beaconsfield's
^'Endymion," the death of Mr. Carlyle, and the
publication of Mr. Matthew Arnold's " Selections
from Wordsworth " gave M. Scherer within a very
few months opportunities of speaking on English
literature, and he took them to his and our very
great advantage. The paper on Wordsworth is the
longest of his English, and one of the longest of all
his essays, and I do not know that he has anywhere
examined a subject more thoroughly or with greater
gusto. Here, again, the attraction of personal sym-
pathy is manifest. Wordsworth, like Milton, was
both in literary and in moral character thoroughly
congenial to M. Scherer. He might from his later
standpoint smile at the religious views of both as
childish, but he had gone through them, and in
Wordsworth's case there was, with all his orthodoxy,
also a sort of vague undogmatic theosophy which
appealed directly to the critic. Wordsworth's seri-
ousness, his austerity, his perpetual regard to con-
duct, were sure to conciliate M. Scherer ; and though


the latter as a Frencliman could not but deplore
the poet's lack of sense of the ridiculous, he was
probably more than consoled by his lack of frivol-
ity and by his total freedom from disorderly pas-
sion. Indeed, if M. Scherer had been a poet (he
had in his youth, like most critics, considerable
poetical velleities), and if instead of a French
Protestant he had been an Anglican, I really do
not know that it would have taken much more to
make him a Wordsworth. But as it was there
could be none of the jealousy which often arises
between likes, and none of the want of sympathy
which is commoner still between unlikes. Every-
thing made for righteousness and for unction com-
bined in the criticism, and the combination duly
appears in it. It is interesting also for its obiter
dicta on Mr. Arnold, and on the poetic succession
in England during this century — another of M.
Scherer's admirable surveys. This is, perhaps, not
the place to say much on the sympathy between
Mr. Arnold and M. Scherer, and it must be con-
fessed that, as we should expect, the French critic
is not quite sound upon Keats. It is, on the whole,
rather wonderful that he does him as much justice
as he actually does. Yet here also we find more
than one of those notes of purely personal or
national dissonance which no transcendence of
critical talent can ever wholly reconcile, which per-
haps none can ever even thoroughly comprehend.
M. Scherer says that Lamartine is " plus tragique,


plus sublime, plus grand " than Wordsworth, and
he produces these two lines as an example : —

Adore ici le Dieu qu'adorait Pythagore,
Prete avec lui I'oreille aux celestes concerts.

I have myself been upbraided with setting French
poetry too high ; I have thoroughly subdued my
" German paste " ; I honestly think that the read-
ing of millions of lines of French verse has attuned
my ear to any possible cadence of it from the
Chanson de Roland to ParallHement. But if there
is anything in this distich comparable to such
Wordsworthian passages as M. Scherer quotes, if
it is not a mere school exercise beside the great ode
or the Tintern Abbey, I consent to be written down
as other than a two-legged creature. Here, how-
ever, we come once more to the mysterium, the
"This is this to me and that to thee" beyond
which no criticism cm. get.

In the next essay, the necrology on Carlyle, we
find M. Scherer in part, though by no means
wholly, in his worse vein as a critic, in a vein not
otherwise obvious to the reader of this volume
merely, and less disastrous even here than in
regard to some French authors, but still character-
istic and not favorably characteristic. Not only
the date and circumstance of the essay, but prob-
ably also a real growth of critical faculty kept him
from bluntly dismissing Carlyle, as he had done
twenty years before, with the words "insupport-


able jargon," and there are excellent things in the
paper, short as it is. But we feel at once that
there is a thorough antagonism between author and
critic, and that the critic has not taken too much
pains to neutralize it. If there was one thing
which M. Scherer hated more than anything else it
was the bizarre. I am afraid that I excited his in-
dignation by describing him in the book which
he criticised so unfavorably as " an untrustworthy
judge of what is not commonplace," and I can see
now that the words are susceptible of a disobliging
interpretation which I had not myself attached to
them. I did not mean by them that M. Scherer
liked the commonplace, much less that he was
commonplace himself; but that anything distinctly
out of the commonplace, anything bizarre, outre,
fantastic, extravagant, baroque, and so forth, ex-
cited in him a sort of prejudice and mistrust which
deprived him for the time of his better critical
faculty. He could pardon a good deal of affecta-
tion if it was unassuming and urbane; he could
even in this same essay make that astonishing
selection of Mr. Arnold as " not affected," as " hav-
ing the courage to remain simple and sincere."
But he simply hated ostentatious paradox, neolo-
gism, oddity of style and thought — in fact, almost
everything that was characteristic of the form, and
much that was characteristic of the matter of Car-
lyle. This dislike had shown itself twenty years
earlier in the unadvised speaking with the lips of


his first essay on George Eliot; it showed itself
four years later in his last on her. It gathers
itself up here a little softened, as I have said, in
form by the occasion, but still evident in fact.

One is surprised, on the contrary, by the toler-
ance which M. Scherer shows to a very different
writer in the article on "Endymion." We might
have expected that Lord Beaconsfield's literature
and his politics alike would be Anathema Maran-
atha to M. Scherer, and that Mr. Gladstone would
in his political, if not in his literary, capacity be a
man after M. Scherer's own heart. Can it be that
the rigid orthodoxy of the Liberal and the pre-
sumed freethinking of the Tory had anything to
do with the critic's judgment ? Perhaps it was the
spectacle, always dear to French eyes, of a mere
man of letters, a mere gentleman of the press, forc-
ing himself, with a minimum of assistance from
birth, education, wealth, or friendship, to the very
topmost height, which allured him. I know not :
but the fact remains that his judgment on Mr.
Gladstone is anything but enthusiastic, and on
Lord Beaconsfield is positively lenient. That he
does not speak very highly of " Endymion " itself
is not surprising. I know very enthusiastic ad-
mirers of Lord Beaconsfield who are equally unkind
to it.

And so we come to the last essay of all, that on
Mr. Cross's life of George Eliot, which has been
already discussed, and of which we need say no


more than that it is not merely an excellent appre-
ciation and summary of the subject, but full of
side lights on the author himself. It exhibits in
particular that kind of Nihilism — of Nihilism not
exasperated or aggressive, but blank, hopeless, and
with even a point of bitterness piercing through
the even surface of its would-be Stoicism — which
distinguished M. Scherer's later years and later
writings. Even George Eliot is a little too posi-
tive, a little too credulous, for him, and he twitches
that nymph's last garment of childish faith off
with a rather icy gravity and apparently without
the slightest pleasure.

Here, however, we return to a subject which, if
not exactly taboo, and, indeed, to some extent
necessary to be touched upon, is not our main con-
cern. It will be better to finish with a general
summary of the main characteristics of M. Scherer's
literary criticism. They are well and favorably,
though not quite exhaustively, illustrated in these
essays on English writers, in which his French
friends sometimes thought that he showed an undue
partiality — a kind of xenomania. In the much
larger body of his work on French and other sub-
jects, we shall find nothing to alter, though some-
thing to supplement and fill out, the estimate
which may be formed from these only. In contra-
distinction to those of his friend and eulogist, Mr.
Arnold, his estimates never neglected the historic
element, and I cannot but think that this gave him


a decided advantage. We all know, of course, what
Mr. Arnold meant by his decryings of the historic
estimate ; and we know also that they were com-
patible in his own case with much fine criticism and
more delightful writing. They were also exceed-
ingly convenient as justifying the somewhat eclec-
tic character of Mr. Arnold's critical philosophy,
as enabling him to skip periods, authors, literatures,
that he did not care about, and as fortifying him in
those secure and extremely one-sided generaliza-
tions which he executed with such an incomparable
mixture of audacity and grace. To put the thing
bluntly and briefly, too many parts of Mr. Arnold's
stately pleasure domes of aesthetic elegance would
go down in half an hour's battering from the his-
toric estimate, and he showed wisdom in ruling
that estimate out. M. Scherer, on the other hand,
did not want to build stately pleasure domes ; he
never wanted, at least knowingly, to do anything
but comprehend ; and he saw the immense advan-
tage in comprehension which the historical approach
gives. Never abusing, never, indeed, accepting
without grave modifications the product-of-t he-cir-
cumstances theory, he always attended to circum-
stances, to origins, to the filiation of work and of
talent in the great literary pedigree.

He had, on the other hand, or fancied that he
had, a rather singular repugnance to another great
engine of criticism, the comparative method. I
say "fancied that he had," for, as a matter of fact,


he sometimes uses it ; but he seems to me to have
confused two different kinds of comparison — the
one a kind as bastard and as mischievous as possi-
ble, the other the secret of all really lasting and sat-
isfactory critical judgment. The comparison which
says, " What ! you like thatf /like this" and justi-
fies its dislike of That because it does not possess
the characteristics of This, is as idle, as uncritical,
as mischievous, as M. Scherer or anyone else
pleases. But the comparison which takes This and
That, puts them together, notes what This has and
That lacks, observes how This excels That in one
way, and That excels This in the other, appears to
me to be, on the contrary, the one method by which
you can get at really luminous results. These
results will be not, as the private impressions even
of culture are often, mere will-o'-the-wisps, or, as
a priori and positive theories are, lights too remote
and casting too long shadows to be safely used, but
honest hand-lanterns which will lead you about the
labyrinth of the world's literature with as few
chances as possible of losing your way. I think
that M. Scherer did use these lanterns, though he
affected to despise them ; and I think that the
careful reader of the following pages will find
traces of the use pretty frequently.

For the rest, that reader will certainly find here
many other things which belong to good — to the
best — criticism. It was out of M. Scherer's way
in the present essays to indulge in many of those


interesting discussions on the more abstract and
general points which, he has handled elsewhere, as,
for instance, in his capital discussion of the interest
and value of translations of poetry. Excellent
English scholar as he was, he had too keen a sense
of the fitness of things to descend into verbal criti-
cism, of which he was a great master, as witness
another capital essay of his on "La Deformation
de la Langue ErauQaise," an essay which has been
sometimes echoed as to English by those who do
not or will not see that in this respect the genius
of the two tongues is diametrically opposed. He
could not, of course, in this bare dozen of essays
show anything like the range of literary knowledge
and literary interest displayed in the entire collec-
tion of probably a dozen dozen, which has still to
be reinforced with his volumes on Diderot, on
Grimm, and others. But if he misses some oppor-
tunities he avoids some snares. I have spoken of
his greatest critical blunder, the unsparing damna-
tion of Baudelaire, not merely because of his faults,
which are great, but in spite of his merits, which
are greater. He was not likely, on any English
writer, to fall into the queer wrongheadedness of
his attack on Moliere. If his attitude towards Car-
lyle shows something of the same mistake as his
attitude towards Diderot, the half-score pages
which he has devoted to the one did not admit
anything like the development of the error which
was possible in the volume given to the other.


And here, as in all his work, the reader will find
certain qualities which are more rare than they
ought to be, or would seem at first sight likely to
be, among critics, that is to say, among persons who
deliberately set themselves to work to judge the
writings of others, and who publish their judgments.
The first and foremost of these qualities is an ample
preparation of study. The '' facetious and rejoicing
ignorance," as another great critic has said, which
takes for granted, first, that in this business an
ounce of mother-wit is worth more than a pound of
clergy, and, secondly, that so much more than an
ounce of mother-wit has fallen to its own lot that
it could dispense with clergy altogether, was not in
M. Scherer's way ; indeed, he hated few things so
much. In the second place, without giving him-
self any airs of sacerdoce, he knew very well, and
always acted on the principle, that to make an
avowedly critical study a mere stalking horse for
shooting random shots of pleasantry, a mere em-
broidery frame for elaborating patches of fine
writing, is a gross offence against art and a gross
dereliction of literary duty. If he was less proof
against prejudices of various kinds, he at least
never consciously and deliberately indulged them ;
and if his favorite principle, that a work of art
must have a philosophy, be wrong in itself, and
goes perilously near to the teaching heresy, he at
least never admitted this latter, and did not intend
that his own maxim should involve it. He has


been charged with lack of charm, and you certainly
do not read him merely for the sake of his style ;
but you have the compensatory advantage that he
himself never writes merely for the sake of it.
"II avait," says M. Greard, "des exaltations de
satisfaction intellectuelle quand il arrivait a se
prouver I'insuffisance des explications communes."
This is not an exceedingly cheerful business, nor
do I by any means contend that it is the whole
duty of critical man. But it is an elementary part
of that duty, and M. Scherer himself, Nihilist as
he sometimes seems to be, had in literature too
many and too ardent likes and dislikes to make his
pursuance of it a mere process of dull destruction.
The perfect critic, if he ever exists, will possess in
about equal parts the intimate grasp, the universal
range, the everlasting tolerance of Sainte-Beuve,
the literary grace and girlish charm of Mr. Arnold,
the intuition of Hazlitt, the sympathy of Lamb,
and, lastly, a certain quality, or set of qualities,
which confer solid and manly augmentative power,
not hesitating if necessary at dissolving analysis.
But this last quality will be of as much importance
to him as any of the others, and in surveying the
list of his intellectual ancestors he will see few
if any better representatives of it than Edmond



There are perhaps not a few of my readers who
have never heard the name of George Eliot : and
yet George Eliot is the first novelist of England.
Her works are regarded there as so many literary
events, and her talent, far from exhausting itself,
seems to show greater variety and greater vigor in
each new production.

There is a curious contrast between the general
manliness of English manners and the strain of
affectation which may often be remarked in them.
We are equally struck, as we survey our neighbors,
by the strong individuality of some of them and by
the pretentious childishness of others. Every kind
of affectation is to be found on the other side of
the Channel — the soldier's and the sportsman's,
that of the dandy and that of the man who is

1 Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe. [See introduction on
this essay. It is important, for numerous allusions in it, to
remember that it was written in 1861. — Trans.]



"used up," the affectation of fashion and the affec-
tation of Liberty Hall. One man has climbed every
peak in the Alps, another has hunted in the Sahara.
Here you meet girls who have travelled in India by
themselves, and they will be the lionesses of the
season till Major So-and-So comes to exhibit the
rifle with which he " dropped " so many Neapoli-
tans in the Sicilian campaign. This kind of thing
has slipped even into religion. Dissent is not be-
coming ; but Puseyism is as comme-il-faut as possi-
ble. I know ladies who, having lived at Rome,
have embraced Catholicism, and who make a dis-
play of their confessor and their oratory : I know
others who pique themselves on being freethinkers,
and stand up for "Essays and Reviews."

It will easily be understood that the region of
the arts has not escaped this invasion of deliberate
singularity. It was an English sculptor who con-
ceived the idea of tinting his statues, and it was
England that saw the birth of prse-Raphaelitism,
that grotesque compound of Byzantine naivete and
poetry after the fashion of M. Courbet. As for
English literature, it is with that as with a hand-
some woman who tries to hide the traces of age by
the artifices of the toilet. Writers set before them-
selves only one aim ; their business is to revive
jaded senses. Style, arrangement, everything, tes-
tifies to the desire of striking heavy blows. The
reader's mind must be kept in a perpetual state of
expectation and surprise. Hence comes the study


of singularity, the study which engenders preten-
tiousness, the pretentiousness which leads to char-
latanism. Eccentricity has become a means of
attracting customers, and even the most eloquent,
even the profoundest, are not free from calculation.
There is deliberation, scheme, set purpose, in the
cunningly balanced antitheses of Macaulay, in the

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 2 of 21)