Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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did not pay homage at once to the value of his work
and to the power of his talent. No doubt M. Taine
is of those writers who provoke one to contradict
them ; but no contradiction will hinder the "■ His-
tory of English Literature " from being, when all
is said, one of the most considerable books which
have appeared for the last ten years.

Moreover, there are in this book two things very
distinct from each other. There is not only a his-
tory, but also, and first of all, a certain fashion of
looking at history : the author has brought to the
study of his subject a mind positively made up on
matters of system. It is lucky that he has also
brought to it conscientious erudition and a feeling

1 Paris : Hachette. 3 vols. 8vo. 1863.


for literary beauty. The result is that, if his sys-
tem and his story have not fully succeeded in per-
meating each other, the reader will at worst still
find in M. Taine a series of critical studies in a
very great style.

As for his views on the nature of the historian's
task, M. Taine, after setting them forth often before,
has reproduced them now in his introduction with
a precision which makes it easy to master them
thoroughly, and to make a definite estimate of their
value. Behind the actions of a man there is the
man ; and behind the visible man who acts, there
is the inner man who thinks and wills. By going
back, then, from facts to causes, we arrive promptly
at the human soul. For what is man in reality ?
A living being in whose mind there is produced a
representation of things. This representation works
itself out and becomes an idea, or determines the
will and becomes a resolve. Let us add that this
transforming of sensation is carried out in manners
more or less clear, vivid, and simple, from which
difference arise all the other differences between
men. But on what does this first difference itself
depend ? On a general disposition, on an initial
moral state which may be referred to the action of
three causes : the race — that is to say, the heredi-
tary temperament, which varies in different peoples ;
the circumstances — for instance, climate, social
conditions, political surroundings ; and, lastly, the
point which the development, the progress of which


is under study, has reached. These ultimate causes,
these forces being once recognized, there is nothing
left before us but a question of mechanics. 'No
doubt the directions which are taken and the values
which are reached cannot be stated as rigidly as in
the exact sciences, and consequently the system of
notation will not be the same. But we have still
in our hands, none the less, the explanation of the
characteristics which separate one civilization from
another. And when we use the word civilization,
we mean religion, philosophy, institutions, arts :
everything that goes to make up social life. The
whole of it is the result of a moral state which it is
our business to discover and formally to describe.
Now that is the task of history. History seeks
out the laws which govern the life of societies, and
all the manifestations of that life. "History at
bottom is a pyschological problem." It will be un-
derstood from this what literary history will be like.
A literature is one of the documents which put
before our eyes the sentiments of preceding genera-
tions. It is the outward sign of a mental stage, the
manifestation of the inner and hidden world, which
is the proper subject of the historian. To write
history is to work from facts up to their psycholog-
ical causes ; but, as the study of a literature is the
best means of discovering these causes, literary
history will become the principal instrument of
history proper ; or, still better, it will be history
par excellence, the real history.


This argument appears to me faulty in two
points : it adulterates the notion of history, and it
does not completely answer to literary history as
M. Taine himself has written it. For history in
the sense which the word at once suggests to the
mind, and such as it has been at all times conceived
to be, is first of all a narrative. Its purpose is to
make the actions of men known to inquirers into
the causes of these actions, because that is a means
of producing a better understanding of them. But
its researches are limited to those causes which are
matter of documentary evidence. There History
stops. We cannot see in virtue of what principle
she can be asked to go back to the ultimate causes
of events, to consider facts in the light of a problem
proposed for solution, to refer them to psycholog-
ical or mechanical considerations. Besides, what
is to become of the story in the midst of these
researches, and what have science and literature to
gain by such a confusion of kinds ? The studies
which M. Taine sketches out for us belong not to
history but to philosophy. They even constitute a
social department of this latter called the philoso-
phy of history — a useful, I will say an important,
science, and one which men like Montesquieu, like
Herder, like Guizot, like Buckle, have made illustri-
ous ; but which cannot be confounded with the art
of the great historical narrators without doing vio-
lence alike to the interests of philosophy and of


What I have said of history in general is equally
true of literary history in particular. Former stu-
dents of this subject had subordinated general con-
siderations to the special study of authors ; and if
at any time they thought fit to draw from the state
of letters in a country conclusions relatiog to the
political or social condition of that country, it was,
so to speak, but a work of supererogation. With
M. Taine it is quite the contrary ; what was secon-
dary has become principal with him. His book is
in essence a history of the English race and of civil-
ization in England. The writer habitually starts
from the moral fact, from primary aptitudes, from
instinctive dispositions. He shows us conquerors
and conquered, blending and forming a new nation-
ality, richer and more complex than the old. Then
he puts us in presence of the great events, such
as the Eenaissance and the Eeformation, which
affected England as they affected Europe. This is
the thread of the story, the substance of the book.
The works of his authors, whether they be famous
or obscure, whether they be forgotten fabliaux or
immortal masterpieces, are merely evidence used
to support theories of the writer. Their literary
worth is far less in question than the light that
they can throw on the manners of an epoch. They
are treated, not as products of the art of writing,
but as historical documents. There is in this some-
thing very novel and very instructive : but, it must
also be clear, there is a way of looking at literary


history whicli is utterly unlike what has hitherto
been understood by it.

A " question of title " it may be said — " perhaps
the mere demand of a publisher ! " Besides, has
not M. Taine clearly declared his purpose ? Has
he not said that he undertakes an inquiry into the
pyschology of a people by means of the history of
its literature ? Has he not succeeded in this ? and
if he has succeeded, why quibble with him about
the precise use of a word, or the possibility of a
misunderstanding ?

I, should be the first to yield to these arguments
if it were a mere question of title. But there is
something more at stake here : there is the confu-
sion of two methods.

For M. Taine, in fact, has not been so faithful to
his first idea as not frequently to have slipped into
literary history in the common sense of the term.
In vain is his head full of peoples and races. He
is alive also to the greatness of individuals. His
strong and lively imagination is not less struck by
the physiognomy of a writer than by that of an
epoch, and he loves to render the one as well as
the other. He excels at sketching a character, at
defining a talent. He delights in laying hold of a
mighty or strange personality — a Shakespeare, a
Milton, a Byron — in magnifying it as though to
ascertain its nature better, in observing it in the
isolation which comes of genius, in discovering its
strength and its weakness, in seeking for the secret


tie which unites its different parts. At such times
he hits upon phrases, vividly picturesque or sculpt-
ural, to express the peculiar nature of each mind
and of each work. Noav all this biographical and
critical part of the work is at bottom but a hors
d'oeuvre; it does not enter into the primary plan,
it cannot be referred to the idee m^re. The indi-
vidual, considered in his proper genius — that is to
say, strictly as an individual — has no place in a
book which aims at being a philosophy of history.
One of two things must be true. Either the race
explains all, even individual character (and in that
case the product of general causes in these charac-
ters ought to have been pointed out), or else a man's
genius is a fact which we are powerless to explain,
which we must accept without attempting to deter-
mine its laws (and in that case it is proper to neg-
lect it in a treatise which underneath works of
literature proposes solely " to seek the physiology
of a people "). Besides, it must not be thought that
when M. Taine betakes himself to the study of the
individual he gives up his fixed ideas of system.
He makes a change in them, that is all. He has at
one moment been busy in identifying the instincts
of a race in the general characters of a literature.
He will at the next try to discover, in the genius of
a man, the dominant feature whence he thinks he
can deduce the others.

It is well known with what resourceful paradox
M. Taine once upheld a similar thesis on the sub-


ject of Livy. Now, the leaders of English litera-
ture are subjected to the same process. Is the
subject Shakespeare? "Let us seek the man,"
says our author, " and let us seek him in his style.
The style explains the work, and by showing the
chief features of the genius, it announces the
others. When you have once seized the master
faculty, you can see the whole artist developing
himself like a flower." A little further on it is
Milton's turn. " His emotions and his reasonings,
all the forces and all the actions of his soul, draw
together and array themselves under one single
sentiment, that of the sublime ; and the mighty
flood of lyric poesy runs from him, impetuous, un-
broken, in splendor like a sheet of gold." Obvi-
ously this process has nothing to do with that of
which I was speaking above. The one consists in
working back from the poetical creations of a
people to the natural dispositions characterizing
that people ; the other consists, on the contrary,
in a logical deduction of the qualities of a writer
from his predominant aptitude. To speak frankly,
these are two methods opposed to each other, con-
nected only by the author's fancy for abstract
reasoning, and possessing the special fault of being
heaped on one another here without interdepend-
ence and without mutual subordination.

Let me be understood. I do not reproach M.
Taine with the scientific airs which his thought
gives herself. He was entitled to give us a phil-


osophic treatise, even if we might perhaps have pre-
ferred a book with its edification better disguised,
with its solidity more adapted to the task of pleas-
ing. Nevertheless, and even if we place ourselves at
his own point of view, we may think that he might
have done more to win his readers' confidence. He
betrays his fixed ideas of system too naively and too
uniformly. Instead of consulting the writings of
a period so as to gather from them the strokes
with which he is to draw the picture of the epoch,
he begins by explanations, narratives, descriptions,
so that when literary history at last comes up, it
is only to supply examples in support of the
theory. The effect is that facts seem to bend to
what is asked of them ; that the author is (even
against one's will) suspected now of having in-
vented the general rule to explain the particular
phenomenon, now of having twisted historic fact
to suit the exigencies of general views. Let us
not mistake. The human mind and fact are two
matters which have a necessary tendency to draw
together, but which never entirely coincide. Reality
always exceeds our conceptions, and we cannot shut
it up in our private formulas except by mutilating it.
Hence comes a kind of dissembled war, which history
and philosophy have in all times waged against
each other — the war between the man who tries
to adjust facts to laws, and the man who, on the
other hand, busies himself with following men and
things across the eternal surprises of chance. M.


Taine has set himself to be at once philosopher
and historian ; he has shown in his work qualities
which are very rarely found in union. But he has
not succeeded in disguising that feature of his
undertaking which was necessarily doubtful, some
would say radically impossible. Nay, his methods
do not only excite doubt, they sometimes proceed
to open violence. Here are two sufficiently amus-
ing examples.

England in the ethnological theories of our au-
thor is essentially '' the moist country." There
earth and air are saturated with water, which
explains everything ; yes, everything, even to " the
enormous whiskers " of the men ; everything, even
to their "huge feet like those of wading birds,
solidly booted, admirable for walking in mud." It
will be admitted that this picture of an English-
man obliged to cross marshes, and acquiring the
feet of web in the process, pushes the doctrine of
the influence of milieux a little far.

A few pages later the author brings out in ener-
getic outline the combined habits of independence
and order which distinguish the English people.
Unluckily, when he is once " off," M. Taine lets him-
self go, and ends by throwing more than one doubt-
ful touch into the picture. Thus he attributes
to paternal authority in England "a degree of
authority and of dignity which is unknown to us."
He should have said exactly the contrary ; paternal
authority is with us much severer and much more


jealous ; but even this is not all. Among the evi-
dence which M. Taine brings in support of his
assertions, there is one item which cannot be read
without a smile. " The father," he says, is called
"the governor." Now this so-called title of
authority is, on the contrary, a piece of familiar
slang, a nickname which, without being exactly
disrespectful, is not easy to reconcile with our
notions of filial respect.-^

I am not certain whether I have made the objec-
tions which the idea and the method of M. Taine
raise in my mind entirely clear. They may be all
summed up thus. The author wished to set before
us the formation and the transformations of the
English national spirit. He sought out the expres-
sions of this spirit, the documents of this history, in
the literature of the people to whom he wished to
introduce us. On the other hand, such a literature
cannot be reduced altogether to the rather secon-
dary part of witness in support of a thesis, of testi-
mony in favor of an ethnological law. A literature
has a life proper to itself : it moves independently,
it obeys special influences. It furnishes, I admit,
important data to history : but that cannot prevent
it from being a literature first of all : that is to say,
art, the expression of the sense of beauty. That is
its essence : all the rest is, so to speak, but acci-

1 M. Taine, in his J^otes siir I'Anpleterre (p. 120), insists on
trying to find a social meaning in this familiar expression, and
deducing serious conclusions from it.


dental and indirect. Now M. Taine has felt this.
He has been unable to remain so faithful to his first
ideas as to study English literature solely as the
monument of a civilization. He has undergone the
charm of those mighty geniuses in whom he would
at first have seen nothing but mere samples of a
race ; he has allowed himself to consider them as
writers and as poets, to question them on the secret
of their conceptions, to describe their methods, to
characterize their style. In short, he has fre-
quently slipped in his own despite into literary
history, such as it is commonly understood and writ-
ten. And this creates two works within his work,
two plans which mutually cross and entangle, two
methods which by no means combine, but on the
contrary oppose each other. Obviously this is no
mere question of title. M. Taine, despite the
vigor with which he has realized the master-
thought of his work, has not arrived at an entire
unity of execution. There is something too much
in him and something too little. Had he been
nothing if not philosophical, we should not have
thought of demanding from him a complete view of
the history of letters in England : while, on the
other hand, when he permits himself so many ex-
cursions into the field of pure art, we feel obliged
to reproach him with omissions.

Shakespeare is a product of the Renaissance ;
Milton a representation of Puritanism ; the comic
authors of Charles II.'s time the expression of a


licentious reaction against absn.rd austerities. All
this is solidly deduced and set in strong relief. Yet
it was inevitable that M. Taine, in thus treating his
subject, should mix with it a crowd of views and
appreciations which run outside his first intention ;
and so in these pages one often loses sight of that
which was our starting point. We catch ourselves
forgetting that what we had to discover was a coun-
try and an epoch under the features of individual
genius. Then, our taste once whetted for literary
discussion, we begin to ask M. Taine for notice of
many things which he has not told us, of which his
plan did not oblige him to tell us, but which we
should have liked to find in these volumes, if only as
a kind of half concession and kindly inconsistency.
We are surprised, unreasonably I grant, but still
we are surprised, not to be put in the way of trac-
ing certain great schools and profound influences.
We do not learn what has been the action of the
chief English writers on- that English literature
which, however, forms after all the substance and
canvas of the book. And what is the result when
M. Taine finds himself in presence of an author
who has no very marked enthnological signification
— of Johnson, for instance ? Johnson is an original
figure : he published numerous works : he founded a
school : his style — half-forcible, half-pedantic —
long set the fashion. It is true that Johnson rep-
resents nothing, is the formula of nothing : and so
M. Taine gives not two pages to his writings, and


not a ■word to the traces lie has left. He is less
generous still to Young and to Macpherson, to
Hume, to Gibbon, to Robertson. Poetic influence,
philosophical action itself, innovations in thought or
style, all the capital facts of literary history, our
author neglects them when he does not find in
them the expression of a moral state of society.

We might indeed excuse mere gaps ; but the sys-
tem itself, as M. Taine applies it, sometimes runs
the risk of falsifying historic fact. I need no fur-
ther proof of this than his picture of modern poetry
in England. At the end of the last century appears
the English Eomantic school, "wholly similar to
ours by its doctrines, its origins, and its relation ;
by the truths it discovered, the exaggerations it
committed, the scandal it aroused." Erom this
school issue two kinds of poetry : historical poetry,
illustrated by Lamb, Campbell, Coleridge, Thomas
Moore, Southey, and Walter Scott ; and philosoph-
ical poetry, to which belong the works of Words-
worth, of Shelley, and of Byron. Here assuredly
we have great names. Walter Scott, not to mention
others, occupied a considerable place in the litera-
ture of his country and his time ; but Walter Scott
is a man of letters pure and simple, and will not
long occupy M. Taine. Indeed fifty pages will suf-
fice for all this great period of modern poetry in
England. The author is in a hurry : he has found
his " man-formula," he strews all the other reputa-
tions before his feet. One writer only counts in


his eyes, and that is Byron, Why Byron? Be-
cause Byron personifies something. "If Goethe
was the poet of the universe, Byron was the poet
of personality : and if the German spirit has found
its interpreter in the one, the English spirit has
found its interpreter in the other."

One thing is certain : the English spirit has not
been at all ready to acknowledge its interpreter.
But, setting this observation aside, how thoroughly
does such a manner of writing history disguise the
meaning and the march of facts ! I do not think it
is at all exact to speak of a " Romantic " school in
England. The English have had neither the word
nor the thing, neither the discussions which the
term recalls nor the innovations which hold so
great a place in the French and German literature
of this century. Besides, what connection can be
established in this respect between the two coun-
tries separated by the Channel ? English literature
started by independence, and it is in independence
that we have ended. Innovation in France has
inclined most of all to the theatrical side, while
modern English has made its principal effort in
narrative poems. And, to come to particular names,
who are to be the Lamartines, the Hugos, the Mus-
sets of our neighbors ? Who are to be our Scotts
and our Byrons, our Shelle3^s and our Words-
worths ? I have said that M. Taine divides the
recent poets of England into two classes — philoso-
phers and historians. The division is more con-


venient than accurate. A little arbitrary in itself,
it becomes still more so when all writers are forced
to enter one or other category. Is it '^ Gertrude "
to which Campbell owes the privilege of figuring
among historians ? Is it giving a very exact or a
very full idea of Thomas Moore, of that light and
elegant muse, of that inspiration at once sensual,
sentimental, and satirical, to make of him a traveller
or an antiquary masquerading as a poet ? And
Coleridge ? I have found it impossible even to
guess what procured him the honor of being labelled
historian. However all this is nothing beside the
verdict passed a little later on Carlyle. Carlyle
classed among the Puritans, " the real Puritans,"
by the side of Pascal and Cowper ! Shade of
Teufelsdroeckh ! I think I see a very curious smile
flitting over your cynical lips.

But, after all, these are only details. I attach
far more importance to the idea which the author
has formed of the development of modern poetry
in England, to the manner in which he describes
this mighty evolution of the national genius. M.
Taine, I have said, passes rapidly over other names
to get to Byron. Byron in his eyes is the last word
of English literature : his contemporaries are but
at most the di minores who follow in his train.
Now, has he not, in setting things forth after this
fashion, put his own literary predilections in the
place of facts ? Has he not rather interpreted
history than told it ? -»


For tlie moment the merits of Byron are not
in question. We shall return to them presently.
What we are looking for is the succession of ideas
and the linking together of influences. Now, it is
an established fact that the action of Byron on his
contemporaries was lively, but not durable — in-
deed, it hardly outlasted his own life. ''Don Juan"
— his last work — never has had on the other side
of the Channel the kind of symbolical importance
which it pleases us to attribute to it. Besides, men
were quick to be disgusted with the misanthropic
dandyism, the airs of a blase aristocrat, which the
author of " Childe Harold " was never tired of
ostentatiously affecting. The English genius is
much more active, and as a consequence much more
supple, than we suppose it to be. It passes rapidly
from one hobby to another, and unceasingly seeks

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 7 of 21)