Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

. (page 8 of 21)
Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 8 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to find its way through contrasts. And so Byron,
hailed in his day as the personification of the noblest
melancholy, ended by seeming artificial and shal-
low. Tired of grand — and false — sentiments, men
turned with delight to a writer whose simplicity
was not free from study, but whose very study had
often enabled him to reach profound thoughts and
a delicate interpretation of nature. Wordsworth
was in his turn proclaimed the greatest poet of the
time. And then, in his turn, he again was found
wanting. Coleridge — a logical enthusiast who
united speculative views to mystical intuitions, a
poet and a theologian — had given his fellow-coun-


trymen many new lights from the German side.
The wind of philosophical systems had made its
breath felt. Emotion was found insufficient ; ideas
were called for. And so Shelley, poor Shelley ! so
disdained and cried down in his lifetime, succeeded
Wordsworth in vogue. The amende honorable was
made to him : he was proclaimed one of the glories
of England. Men became passionately enamoured
of his ethereal, subtle, intangible poetry, and the
hollowness of his humanitarian dreams was for-
given him in virtue of the sublimity and beauty of
his imagination. After which he shared the fate
of his predecessors. As time went on his defects
became more apparent. There was not enough
human heart-beat, not enough life, not enough of
the dramatic within him. There came a new poet
who, to the science of rhythm, the resources of
expression, the gift of epic narration, the deep feel-
ing for nature, to all the caprices of a delightful
fancy, to all the favorite ideas, noble or morbid, of
modern thought, knew how to join the language
of manly passion. Thus, as it were summing up in
himself all his forerunners, he touched all hearts ;
he linked together all admirations; he has remained
the true representative, the last expression and
final, of the poetic period to which he belongs.
Tennyson reigns to-day almost alone in increasing
and uncontested glory .^ Such, at least, is the move-

1 The evolution of taste and of thought has continued siuce
these lines were written, and the supremacy of Tennyson has
received (1875) more than one attack.


ment of modern poetry in England as I understand
it. As for M. Taine, he finds nothing in Words-
worth- but limitless boredom, and nothing in Tenny-
son bnt an amiable dilettantism. It will be seen
that an understanding between us is not immedi-
ately likely.

But, if M. Taine's systematic views sometimes
lead him to misjudge the interconnection of literary
facts, they also lead him at times to exaggeration
and caricature. He must needs, to make his his-
torical deductions effective, hit upon individual
characters which represent an age. And then he
permits himself to endow his figures in a very curi-
ous fashion with heroic attitudes, with gigantic
stature, with mystical undermeaniug. So he did
long ago with Dickens, with Thackeray, with Carlyle ;
but I know no more notable example of this kind
of hallucination than the chapter in this book
which treats of Lord Byron.

Byron is one of our French superstitions. Thanks
to distance and to the obstacles which translation
sets in the way of familiar knowledge, we are still,
on this head, in the fashion of 1820. We insist
upon taking the noble poet seriously. His name
excites in us an idea of luxury on the great scale,
of brilliant debauchery, of chivalrous character, the
whole mingled with immortal poesy. Byron is to
us a Don Juan of genius, a splendid and mysterious
Lara, or, as M. de Lamartine sang of old, something
between an archan^jel and a demon.


M. Taine could not but find his account in accept-
ing the popular legend ; for such a figure must put
a magnificent crown to the edifice which he had
just been constructing. Here was the English
genius, after five centuries of history, on the point
of finding its last expression, its incomparable
emblem. Accordingly, see with what expense of
metaphors, of contrasts, of hyperboles our author
tries to invest his hero with superhuman signifi-

" The passion of the moment, be it great or small,
swooped down on his soul like a tempest, aroused
it, excited it to the pitch of folly or to the pitch of
genius. His journal, his familiar letters, all his
unpremeditated prose writings, quiver as it were
with wit, anger, enthusiasm. The cry of feeling
vibrates in the very least words. Since Saint-Simon
nothing has been so vividly confidential. All styles
seem dull and all souls seem sluggish beside his."
Further on we have a picture ''of that splendid
impetuosity of faculties, unbridled and let loose,
rushing where chance may lead them, and seeming
to hurry him without choice on his part to the
four corners of the horizon." Again : Byron ruined
himself by despising public opinion ; but, singularly
enough, this contempt of opinion, which clearly
could have done him no harm save in a public
which was slave to opinion, this very disdain of
the conventional, is one of the characteristics of
the Enarlish. ''This instinct of revolt is in the


race. It is nourished by a whole bundle of savage
passions born of the climate — a gloomy humor, a
violent imagination, an indomitable pride, the taste
for danger, the desire of battle, the thirst for excite-
ment which is only glutted by destruction, and the
sombre madness which used to urge the Scandi-
navian Berserkers when, in an open boat, under a
sky riven by lightning, they abandoned themselves
to the tempest whose fury they had breathed."

And so the features of the child are still visible
in the maturity of the adult. The Englishman
may measure cotton as he pleases, but he is still
the descendant of the ancient sea-kings, and the
finished ideal of an Englishman will be neither
more nor less than Byron. "Strange and thor-
oughly northern poetry," cries M. Taine, "with
its root in the Edda and its flower in Shakespeare,
born long ago under an inclement sky, beside a
stormy sea, wrought by a race only too self-willed,
too strong, and too sombre — a poetry which, after
lavishing images of desolation and of heroism,
ends by spreading over the whole life of nature,
like a sable veil, the vision of universal destruc-

According to M. Taine, the poet in Byron is not
less great than the man. He is the only one of
his contemporaries who has " reached the summit."
Manfred is a twin brother of Eaust. As for his
style, none has ever better expressed the soul,
" its labor, its expansion, are things visible. Ideas

taine's history of eistglisi-i literature 91

have boiled in it long and stormily, like the lumps
of metal piled np in the furnace. They have melted
under the stress of fervent heat, they have blended
their lava with quiverings and explosions, and now
at last the door opens, a heavy stream of fire falls
into the furrow prepared beforehand, setting the
shivering air on fire, while its blazing hues scorch
the eyes that too obstinately gaze at it."

Such is M. Taine's Byron. No phrase seems too
strong to express his greatness, no image too vivid
to indicate the splendor of his genius. But it
remains to inquire whether the portrait is as exactly
like as it is brilliantly painted. For my part, I
own that I can hardly recognize the real Byron in
it at all, and that M. Taine seems to me at once
to have magnified the man and overrated the poet.

Byron, doubtless, is no ordinary bard. He
possesses fecundity, eloquence, wit. Yet these
very qualities are confined within pretty narrow
limits. The wit of " Beppo " and of '' Don Juan "
is of the kind that consists in dissonance ; that is
to say, in the serio-comic, in an apparent gravity
which is contradicted every moment by drollery of
phrase. In the same way Byron's fecundity is
more apparent than real. He wrote a great deal —
poems serious and poems comic, epics and dramas,
visions and satires ; but, speaking strictly, he never
had more than a single subject — himself. No man
has ever pushed egotism farther than he. Childe
Harold, Lara, Don Juan, Manfred, the Deformed


Transformed, all the poet's heroes, are but so
many copies of the same original. Nor is it only
his own character that he reproduces continually.
It is his domestic misfortunes, his mother and the
education she gave him, his wife and the faults
which he thinks himself entitled to reproach her
with. Now there is in this obstinate determina-
tion to acquaint the public with his private life,
not only a want of taste and dignity, but also a
singular inability to rise to great art, to art which
is impersonal and disinterested.

Yet on this point, on the poetical genius of Byron,
M. Taine has glimpses of the truth. He begins
by extolling him as a giant, but he ends by reduc-
ing him to the proportions of an ordinary mortal.
At one moment he is a volcano vomiting lava ; a
little further we shall find him a merely logical
and spirited orator. We shall even find acknowl-
edgments that there are some glass beads among
the Orient jewelry, some opera choruses among
his sombre poetry. There is a confession that it
was time for "Don Juan " to come to an end, inas-
much as it was beginning to be a bore. The truth
is that Byron's talent is less poetical than oratorical ;
he has less of imagination than of rhetoric. He
always reminds me of the judgment which Schiller
passed on Mme. de Stael when he wrote to Goethe :
— "The sense of poetry as we understand it is
utterly absent in her ; she can only assimilate in
works of this kind the side which is passionate,


oratorical, and general." Exactly so. It is, indeed,
a mistake to confound eloquence with poetry. Elo-
quence is that kind of discourse which serves as an
expression for personal emotion; poetry, an infi-
nitely more varied and less interested thing, is the
making manifest by means of language of that ele-
ment of beauty which is in all things and which it
is its business to feel and to disengage. We
in France are wont to distinguish insufficiently
between the two arts. We find it hard to forget
ourselves, and give ourselves up to the proper
power of the object. We remain the slaves of
lyrical declamation. It is the same with Byron,
who is of the school of Pope, who himself is of
our school. The author of the " Corsair " was not
ignorant of the fact ; he makes no mystery of his
tastes ; his admiration for Pope is the fundamental
article of his poetical creed, and he is never tired
of extolling, as the final effort of genius, the smooth
and balanced verses of that artificial writer.

The man in Byron is of a nature even less sin-
cere than that of the poet. Underneath this Bel-
teuebros there is hidden a coxcomb. He posed all
through his life. He had every affectation — the
writer's, the roue's, the dandy's, the conspirator's.
He was constantly writing, and he pretends to de-
spise his writings. To believe himself, he was proud
of nothing but his skill in bodily exercises. An
Englishman, he affects Bonapartism ; a peer of the
realm, he speaks of the Universal Republic with


the enthusiasm of a schoolboy of fifteen. He plays
at misanthropy, at disillusion : he parades his vices;
he even tries to make us believe that he has com-
mitted a crime or two. Eead his letters — his let-
ers written nominally to friends, but handed about
from hand to hand in London. Read his journal —
a journal kept ostensibly for himself, but handed
over afterwards by him to Moore with authority
to publish it. The littleness which these things
show is amazing. You find things purely silly,
like this definition : — " Poetry is the sense of a
world past and a world to come." Women, he
holds, should only read prayer-books or cookery-
books. He will tell you how he met a friend, but
would not ask him to dinner because he wanted
to eat a whole turbot by himself. He makes entries
of his feeding his cats and his raven. He observes
that he has torn a button off his coat. He will
bewail the death of a barber or a dentist, and put
them high above the Duke of Wellington. All this
might be excused if it were sincere — I mean sin-
cere trifling, or sincere folly. But no : it was all an
affectation of trifling, a variety of pose and of mys-
tification. Kow this is what M, Taine has not seen
sufficiently or reckoned with enough. A score of
times as I read his eloquent pages on Byron's
stormy soul, I have felt tempted to whisper in his
ear Chamfort's saying, " The great art is the art of
not being taken in."

I have scarcely space to say a few words con-


cerning M. Taine's style, and yet I should liave
liked to study his fashion of writing — so full of
vigor, I had almost said of violence. I think that
by considering its processes closely, one might
again trace the effect of the author's ideas of
system. M. Taine is an artist beyond doubt, and a
very powerful one : but he is an artist bound appren-
tice to a savant. He is a man of thought first of
all ; he demonstrates, he describes because descrip-
tion is another way of demonstrating, but he does
not tell a story. The picture which he constructs
by means of innumerable strokes, ingeniously com-
bined, is only the visible image of his thesis itself.
His multiplied descriptions, his accumulated details,
his masses of words are but so many arguments
which he urges upon you. His very imagery smells
of logic. I can never read him without thinking
of those gigantic steam-hammers which strike
redoubled and resounding blows, which send out
myriads of sparks, and under the ceaseless blows of
which the solid steel is fashioned and wrought.
Everything gives an idea of power, a sensation of
force ; but it must be added that so much noise is
deafening, and that after all, if the style is as solid
and as flashing as metal, it is also sometimes as
heavy and as hard.



I HAVE just received three new volumes of M.
Emile Montegut's translation of Shakespeare's
works, containing the English history-plays. The
earlier volumes gave us the Comedies, and, with
three or four volumes more for the great dramas,
the pieces with ancient subjects, and the Poems,
the book will be finished. I have subjected M.
Montegut's work to a rigorous examination. I
have not been satisfied with turning it over, but
have re-read some of the original plays, comparing
the translation in all difficult places. And I have
been struck with the care and the success of the
rendering of these passages. It is no small task to
reproduce the good and bad jokes, the inexhaust-
ible plays on words, which the dramatist allows
himself even in the most pathetic situations. But
M. Montegut has, in the great majority of cases,
come out successful. I should add that in the
translation each piece is preceded by an introduc-
tion, and followed by notes, in both of which I have
found the best-established results of criticism. I
need hardly say that I do not invariably agree with
M. Monte'gut ; for instance, I could not give him


my adhesion on the meaning of "The Tempest" ;
for I cannot recognize in it the poet's last will and
testament, his farewell to the public, the summing
up of his dramatic work. But these are disagree-
ments of detail. As a rule, M. Montegut's judg-
ments are as solid as they are ingeniously supported.
It is to be hoped that the translator will not finish
his work without adding to it a general essay on
the English poet's genius : and I take pleasure in
the anticipation of seeing so subtle and so attrac-
tive a mind employed in the analysis of one of the
most complex geniuses which have ever existed.^

I am glad that Shakespeare supplies me with an
occasion for speaking of M. Courdaveaux, Profes-
sor in the Faculty of Letters at Douai, and author
of a volume^ of literary studies. Most of these
studies are devoted to Latin poets, and among
them to the Latin poets of love. But Shakespeare
also has two articles as his share. In all these
pieces the author gives evidence of an elegant
scholarship, shows knowledge of his texts, and
frames his presentation of them with observations
which show good taste and ingenuity. Unfortu-
nately M. Courdaveaux has a thesis. According
to him there is a close connection between a man's

1 (Euvres Completes de Shakespeare. Translated by Emile
Monte'gut. The translation is now completed in ten volumes;
but the author has not included the Introduction for which I

2 Caracteres et Talents : Etudes sur la Littirature Ancienne
et Moderne. Par V. Courdaveaux.


talent and his moral character. If Theocritus was
not a poet of the first class, it is because he was
deficient, not in intellectual, but in moral, qualities.
If Chenier is superior to Propertius, it is because
Chenier was a much better man. If Virgil and
Horace excelled the other flatterers of Augustus, it
is because they knew how, even in flattering, to
preserve a certain dignity. If, to conclude, Shake-
speare deserves to be set above all his contempora-
ries, it is first of all because he excelled them in
nobility of sentiment, in rectitude and elevation of
ideas. Even the enigmatical character of Hamlet
is explained in the most natural manner in the
world by the virtues of the poet. Shakespeare
would have been incapable of commiting a murder
in cold blood, however much circumstances might
have seemed to him to make vengeance a duty.
He would have hesitated and drawn back. Well,
then, Shakespeare has lent his own feelings to
Hamlet, and thence comes the irresolution of which
that personage has become the never-to-be-forgotten
type. Goethe, Schlegel, and all the rest have given
themselves much useless trouble because they forgot
that a great poet is a worthy man, and that a wor-
thy man necessarily portrays himself in his works.
I cannot stop to discuss a question which would
take me too far, and which does not seem to be well
formulated by M. Courdaveaux. There is on this
head a confusion of things which ought to be kept
distinct. I incline to think that a poet in the


most exalted sense of the word could not be a
knave or a fribble. The very cultivation of the art,
the direction of mind which it implies, the ideal
cast of thought imply a sort of moral life. The
conception of the beautiful is a pure thing, and all
impurity is damage done to the aesthetic perfection
of the work. Great poets are healthy by nature.
But this is a very different thing from saying that
the poet is a good man endowed with talent, or that
genius consists in worthily expressing noble sen-
timents. It is still less equivalent to saying that
the end of art is to disseminate good principles or
furnish fine examples. It must be clear how many
distinctions have to be made to settle completely
the old problem of the relations of the beautiful
and the good, of art and of morality. But I cannot
dwell on this, and I must pass to a book on Shake-
speare which seems to me to mark a new epoch in

There is no country where Shakespeare-worship
has been more fervently professed than in Germany.
All schools of philosophy and literature pay equal
homage to the mighty dramatist ; all have selected
his personality as the representative of the highest
poetry : and they differ only in the point of view
at which they place themselves for the purpose of
better exalting the genius of the poet. Thus the
different forms of admiration for Shakespeare be-
yond the Rhine give us a kind of abstract of the
vicissitudes of criticism in what is the classic land
of theory.


The Romantic School was the first to write the
name of Shakespeare on its banners. Lessing had
already set the example of the English drama in
opposition to the artificial rules of the French
tragedy. But the Romantics went further. They
put Shakespeare forward as the representative of
the middle ages, to which they had taken a fancy.
They sought and found in him all the elements of
art as they understood it. They acquitted him of
all the defects with which he was reproached —
slips in history and geography as well as mere faults
of taste. Their sun must have no spots ; their
Bible must remain infallible. Shakespeare had been
regarded as an unconscious poet. They claimed
for him the full and clear conviction of his own
genius and his own work. In short, the author of
" Hamlet " was proclaimed the universal poet, the
giant of the ages, the supreme exponent of his age,
of humanity, of the world.

Philosophical speculation succeeded Romantic
mysticism : yet without affecting the new cult,
to which it was satisfied with giving a different
meaning. Hegel in his " iEsthetic " followed the
development of the idea through the different
phases of art — the symbolic art of Asia, the clas-
sical art of the Greeks, and finally the romantic
art of the Moderns. This lattei', in obedience to
the ternary arrangement of the system, passed
from painting to mixsic, then from music to poetry,
and went through the three successive phases of


epic, lyric, and drama. Thus drama represented
the highest and completest form of art, and Shake-
speare, it will be understood, came in at this final
term of the demonstration as a personification of
the dramatic class. The English poet thus had
still to play pretty much the same part, and con-
tinued to hide himself from vulgar eyes in uncon-
tested and inaccessible supremacy.

Time brought with it a fresh reaction : the appar-
ent rigor of the Hegelian dialectic had succeeded
the fantasies of Romanticism ; but a day came
when this dialectic seemed hollow. The Germans
were suddenly seized with a great disgust for for-
mulas. They turned eagerly towards active life :
they stimulated themselves to become men of
action. Public and private virtues recovered in
their eyes the place too long usurped by contempla-
tion. Thenceforward nothing was fine unless it was
moral. Lucky Shakespeare to find the means of
preserving his royalty even in this third evolution !
An eminent critic, Herr Gervinus, hastened to
prove (in four volumes) that Shakespeare was the
greatest of moralists, the most eloquent defender
of the ways of Providence, the surest guide of man-
kind in the paths of virtue. Not a play of his but,
under the commentator's pen, ended by showing
some intention of high teaching.

Never had more ability been put at the service of
an unluckier thesis. It so happens that Shakespeare
is of all the great poets the furthest removed, not


merely from any thought of didactics, but from all
fixed ideas of the moral kind. A poet pure and
simple, he treats good and evil as impartially as
Nature herself. But G-ermany had a fit of utility
and. didactics upon her ; and it was necessary to
confirm her in this way of wisdom without disturb-
ing her faith in Shakespeare. This was the origin
of Herr Gervinus's book ; he gave a new opening
to the need for engouement which characterizes our
ingenious neighbors.

Up to this point, and through all these revolu-
tions of taste and thought, enthusiasm had remained
unaffected; the unconscious poet and the learned
poet, the unrestrained fantasist and the exalted
sage, had been admired by turns ; but the genius
had been unceasingly declared unique and incom-
parable. Each vied with other in extravagance of
praise ; there were no reserves. It would have
seemed indecent to pick out faults or even to set
degrees between beauties. Men were ready to say
with Victor Hugo, " The oak has an eccentric fashion
of growing — knotty boughs, sombre foliage, rough
and coarse bark — but he is the oak. And it is
because of all this that he is the oak." It would have
been thought a want of filial piety to treat the mas-
ter's works like those of any other mortal. But
alas ! no faith is so deeply rooted in the human
soul that it is not shaken at last. There is no
movement so unanimous that it does not sooner or
later provoke a reaction, and the more blind and


excessive the tide lias been the more certain is the
reflax. In no other way than this can the balance
to which all human affairs tend be established;

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 8 of 21)