THE saying that the world knows nothing of its greatest men is one of the pet consolations of uneasy mediocrity; it contains a grain of truth, however, in spite of the sneers of those who worship only success. To be sure, the world takes a practical view of all such matters, and pays respect only to those who accomplish something definite in what they undertake. The adoration of unused power, therefore, will scarcely extend beyond the small circle of personal friends, and the public will be deprived of the enjoyment of great talents which lack of ambition and unfavorable circumstances may conspire to thwart and benumb. This is but natural; it is only the greatest men whose genius can be believed in from the report of others, and those who do nothing for the world at large need not waste regrets on the indifference of their contemporaries. Fortunately, since it is presumed that they have some intelligence, they are intelligent enough to expect nothing better, and are content to smile at the great ambitions and more or less satisfactory rewards of their hardier brethren. Once in a while some turn of fortune shows us what we have been near losing, although too often we are left with no more than a name. A certain number of such men, however, are allowed, by what is hardly more than a lucky chance, at least by no effort of their own, to convince the world that the adoration of their friends was well founded; and among these it would be hard to find one quicker to kindle sympathetic adoration in every true lover of literature than Ximenes Doudan.
A noticeable instance, by the way, of a person who owes much to this sort of reflected admiration is Dr. Johnson. How little is our feeling about him due to a study of his writings! They are most frequently quoted at second-hand as examples of amusing pomposity, and we can be certain that if Boswell had not written his immortal biography Dr. Johnson’s fame as a talker would have been to the people of this generation as vague a matter of tradition as is the voice of Malibran. But as it is, the exact picture given us of his bad manners, his overbearing ways, his bigotry, his arrogance, and yet of his sturdy kindness and of his unquenchable intellectual activity, makes him more truly a living human being than one half of our acquaintance. Then, too, with all the excellence of Lamb’s Essays, who can feel that he knows their author without familiarity with his correspondence ? Some men show best in their published writings, but there are others who are better than their books; who win our affection and admiration, not necessarily by the excellence of their moral character, but by such revelations of intellect as appear but obscurely in what they offer the world. It was a wise instinct in Johnson that made him set above everything else his desire to fold his legs and have his talk out, for that is what has preserved, though it did not make, his fame; and in Lamb’s letters we see his genuineness, — which is, after all, a moral characteristic, — the kindliness of his humor, and the intelligence of his criticism even more clearly than in his Essays. It was of something very different that Doudan spoke in mentioning the letters of Lamennais: he said that when he found a man keeping ah his best things to put into print, at the expense of dull letters, he was reminded of those houses in the country where the people live in the back rooms and open their parlors only when they are going to receive company.
Copyright, 1878, by HOUGHTON, OSGOOD & Co.
It is curious to mention Doudan and Dr. Johnson together, for it would be safe to say that two more dissimilar men could not be found, were if not true that each is but a representative of his generation, or at least of some of the prominent thoughts of his generation. It would be safer to draw a comparison between Lamb and Doudan, for they were alike full of humor; and just as truly as Lamb is one of the best, if not the very best, of English - writing critics, so is Doudan almost unequaled in acuteness of critical faculty. But comparisons of this sort are misleading, and can scarcely be made without sacrificing a bit here or a corner there, in order to make the resemblance life-like. Doudan can be best shown by las own writings.
Mention has been already made of him in the pages of this magazine,1 but it may yet, perhaps, be allowable to repeat some of the few incidents of his quiet life. He was born at Douai in the year 1800. He came to Paris to finish his studies, and afterwards became a teacher in the College Henri IV. While be held this position he was asked to take charge of the son of Madame de Staël by her second marriage. This brought him into the household of the Due de Broglie, and there he remained until he died, in 1872. When the duke was a minister Doudan was his secretary, so that he was not ignorant of public affairs, and at all times he was a valued, intimate friend of the family. He led a singularly retired life, devoting himself to literature; and his published correspondence forms one of the most thoroughly literary books that has appeared for a long time. Since their publication these letters have received criticisms of various kinds: it has been objected that solemn subjects have not always been treated with reverence, which is, after all, a frequent vice of humorists; and then it has been said that Doudan wrote his letters not so much for the pleasure of his correspondents as for the admiration of posterity. If this be true, posterity is to be congratulated on the excellence of its one-sided correspondence; but no malicious insinuation was ever less founded. It is, of course, impossible to prove that at the time of writing each letter Doudan thought only of the person who should receive it, but no one can read these volumes without perceiving clearly that the letters are written, not to a vague, impersonal thing, but to distinct people, and with very delicate appreciation of their different qualities. No one who has read the letters can have failed to sec, for instance, the different, ways in which the present Duc de Broglie and his brother are addressed by their former tutor. It would seem as if recent history justified Doudan’s comparative indifference to the older brother.
His special literary work is very moderate in amount. A few of his early essays, principally book reviews, are given in the first volume, but it is the fourth that contains his most important paper, a short essay entitled Des Revolutions du Gout. This brief essay — it covers only about one hundred pages — is an attempt to find a reason for the changes in the literary fashions of different times. Its very shortness does it injustice, so unaccustomed are we to condensed writings nowadays, and, possibly, many persons will be obliged to read it over two or three times before fully comprehending and appreciating it. It is the condensation of thought that is difficult; the style itself is remarkably clear and beautiful, with the poetical charm that is to be found so much more surely in the best French prose than in the average French poetry. To put it into English is to rob it of half its beauty; for although the worth of the article does not depend on its euphonious expression, this certainly adds much to the pleasure of reading it.
Doudan begins this paper, which can almost be called a scientific treatise on the elements of literary art, with a statement of our ignorance of the. past, and the general lack of interest in it except so far as it is illuminated by a writer’s imagination. “ Without this light the field of history is as gloomy as a ruin, and it grows gloomier the further back we go. It seems as if in that region one heard only confused words, and saw only vague shadows; as if one were wandering in a dim light, sub luce maligna. There I do not know the men I meet: I do not see their faces. I do not understand their ways, their tastes and habits.” Even with a contemporary, whom we may be supposed to understand, how much more we learn about him from an hour’s talk with him than from any amount of hearsay evidence! and if this is the ease with people with whose surroundings we are familiar, how great, must necessarily be our ignorance of the people we read about in history, which gives us but a crude and piecemeal representation of the past, without the delicate shades which win our sympathy in the accounts of our contemporaries! The single exception would seem to be the antiquities of Greece and Rome. Our education makes us feel as If we knew Cæsar, Cicero, Pericles, and Demosthenes, in their own Rome and Athens. The first glow of childish and youthful imagination “ has given to all these pictures of the life of antiquity precise forms, which erudition alone has never done. The first awakening of our mind has coincided with the study of these celebrated epochs, and we have early mixed with them our own visions. The Greeks and Romans have been given us at the threshold of life as types of wisdom, grandeur, force, and energy for both good and evil. As a result of our education, we have added to all these figures something of that romantic and grandiose tendency which is a quality of early youth; but how far all these images are from reality! This must be acknowledged ; for I notice that the histories that deal with antiquity say incongruous things according to the taste of the time in which they were written. The old magistrates of the parliaments found in them authorities for fidelity to their masters; Rousseau and Madame Roland drew thence their passion for an ideal republic, and in the time of the Terror the busts of the old Romans inspired manifold crimes. The ideas we form of them depend much more on our mental disposition than on definite information. They are the serious romances of our youth. . . . Do you ask for proof? When, after having long dreamt of Rome, in all manner of confused and brilliant images, you find yourself within the walls of the city, you feel that you must read over again its historians and poets, whom you feel that you have misunderstood before. The mere sight of the places shows you the mistakes of your imagination, How would it be if the dust that once was that of the Romans should resume its first form, and the life of Sulla, of Cicero, of Cæsar, of Antony, of Octavius, should be again animate within these walls? Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt, ”
But all our study of the history of Greece and Rome fails to bring before us their past with anything like exactness. Our education gives it apparent familiarity, but only a slight examination is needed to show what is lacking to a full comprehension of the genius of these people; to the right understanding of their instincts, their manners, their institutions, and their language. “ Horace wanders carelessly about his charming country place at Tibur; he casts his eyes over the broad valley of the Tiber toward Rome, where he sees sparkling the gilded roof of the eapitol, and, in an outburst of melancholy, he says, —
“ All works of man must perish, all; everything built by the hands of the mighty dictator, the warlike camps and broad roads trodden by victorious armies, and the harbors where the sea gently sways the ships of Actium. . . . And not only the power of Rome will crumble, and the people of the senate turn to dust; not only will the ashes of the Cæsars be scattered; death will do much more. A time will come when men will only half understand the thoughts that Horace has set in brilliant lines. Night will fall, too, on the splendid images with which he colors his style. . . . Perhaps Horace himself would no longer recognize his thoughts and impressions beneath the learned commentaries that the schools of Paris, Oxford, and even of Home itself give to-day on his verses. New ideas and new sentiments will glide furtively under the words of his odes, and so the thought of man — that thought which he is pleased to consider imperishable — will by gradual alteration acquire a new sense.”Not, of course, Doudan goes on to explain, that we have no knowledge of the past; what he affirms is that our knowledge of bygone ages is very vague and unthorough, — a statement which no one would deny. We make up for our ignorance by our imagination, or by more or less erudition. " The delicate shades which form a precious part of the beautiful in literature and the arts vanish amid the change of manners, institutions, and language. The man of the past is for the man of the present a stranger speaking a strange tongue. ”
What then, he asks, is beautiful in literature? What age attains to it? Since what pleases one generation is no longer understood by another, is there nothing real, nothing absolute, in this fickle charm? Is beauty merely a thing of caprice? Or has it been given to one age and denied another? This we can hardly believe; nor is it easy to think that our predecessors have dreamt only chimeras, nor that what aroused their imagination deserves only our pitying smile. It is not impossible, he says, to explain why the literature of other ages, with but a few exceptions, appeals to us so little, nor why those very works which we are tempted to despise, have justly inspired in our ancestors feelings of admiration such as we should now find it hard to explain.
At this point, it may perhaps be allowed to ask the reader’s close attention to Doudan’s concise explanation of one of the curiosities of literary history, of something that every one has frequently felt in his study of the past, —the great discordance, namely, between not merely literary fashions, but the approved standard of different ages. A full answer to the natural expression of wonder at the variation of taste has never been made, if it has been attempted, and Doudan’s elucidation is that of a scholarly, thoughtful person. He begins by saying that it is not rash to affirm that the beautiful in its different possible manifestations exceeds greatly in grandeur, variety, and fertility the imagination of each man, and indeed of all men. “In whatever direction we turn our eyes, we see everywhere, on the heights, at the horizon, the sources of great ideas and of noble emotions.” Nature, in its graceful or terrible pictures, continually takes new forms, to the delight and confusion of the painter. Every landscape inspires us with new emotions. The outer world speaks always of the moral world. We see at once the beauty of nature, and the beauty greater than that of nature which it seems to declare. The whole infinite design of the universe appears to conceal a mystery which we can always perceive, but never seize. What imagination is capable of grasping the whole of this immense picture? A fragment of it suffices for the most active as well as for the deepest minds. Man himself is no less varied and no less profound than nature. Man offers as inexhaustible a study as does nature, and the fortunes of humanity have the same mysterious grandeur as the depths of the seas, or the skies above us. More than this, there is science, “ touching two infinities, teaching us that the created universe has no limits, and that the smallest atom is the work of the most subtile wisdom.” Science, he says with great truth, is above the head of the world at large, but it gives every one some new feeling about the great mystery of the universe.
These, briefly expressed, are the different phases of the unknown which surrounds us, each one far beyond the observation and comprehension of any man or generation of men. Besides these primary mysteries, there are those representations of them given in the fine arts, in painting, poetry, sculpture, and music, as well as history, which, where facts fail, arouses the imagination, for it. is in the unknown past that fancy is readiest to place a golden age. “ Bossuet saw in silent Egypt a people of sages: the colossal magnificence of its ruins, some fragment of its historians on the government of the nation, was all that was needed to call forth in his austere but fertile imagination a race of men such as the world has never known, of unequaled gravity and seriousness.” Tasso, at the time of the Renaissance, sees in the barbarism of the eleventh century waving banners, and hears the clatter of horses and cries of war, and they fill him with dreams of Clorinda, Armida, Tancredi, and Erminia. Every century draws material from the accumulations of the past; Racine and Corneille exhibit to us the French rendering of Greek themes. “ It seems as if books had the same fertility as races of men. It is even worthy of note that there are some chosen spirits who do not need to look at real things to rise into the ideal. A great deal of ridicule has been cast upon those who have seen no other forests than those Milton describes in the Paradise Lost, no other glowing skies than those in Dante’s Paradiso, no storms save those in Virgil; and although this exclusive devotion to the descriptions of nature makes one neglect other things worthy of study, it is yet true that life passed in the pure domain of art inspires one with true poetry. A sensitive mind, if aided by a vivid imagination, hears the wind moaning beneath the trees in the Garden of Eden, which Milton describes, as it moans in real forests, because what is really beautiful contains reality, just as reality contains the seeds of the beautiful.”
As has been said, no man is capable of receiving and imparting all these impressions of what goes on outside of him, and being the creature of habit he fails to understand those who are unlike himself, while he cares most for those who speak his own language, as it were, who reflect his image, who echo his words, and share his manners; he seeks new reasons for believing and for loving as he does. But circumstances are always changing; no one generation has precisely the same surroundings as the one that preceded it. Religions, manners, customs, and prejudices alter with time, or disappear, so that men’s imaginations are not always turned in the same direction. Different races, too, are affected by different external conditions, which of course complicate the religious and social influences. If we had space sufficient, it would be interesting to quote two or three paragraphs in which Doudan eloquently expounds this theme; he concludes it by drawing a comparison between the way in which the Northern poets write of the enigma of death, with their gloomy severity, and the way in which Dante treats the same question: “ The Florentine poet never fancied he saw phantoms about his bed, beneath his roof at Fiesole; the days are too glowing, the nights too clear; hence, when he writes about executed criminals, penitents, and saints, they seem not dead, but have all the energy of life. Shakespeare, Scott, and Byron speak of the dead with what may be called a more natural imagination. In reading them men of their own face can fancy they hear the vague, solemn sounds that arise at night-fall from the grave-yard near the church.” We must pass over with bare mention Doudan’s remarks on the influence of polities upon literature. How great this influence is he shows in other ways by the fate of Tacitus. “ The sentences of Tacitus,” he, says, “read as if they had been muttered low, by night, in the garden of a senator who revolted against his master’s yoke; and every time despotic government succeeds liberty, the taste of the best part of the public comes back to Tacitus, in spite of the objections of purists.” Again: “ The Middle Ages reflected on arts and letters the tyrannical confusion of its organization.” In describing the effect that language has upon thought, he attributes — and it is not mere fancifulness — more to its power than might at the first glance seem accurate. To the richness of the German idiom, and the confusion of its vocabulary, he lays part of the blame of the vagueness of German thought. Does not the natural pomp of the Spanish language, he asks, render still haughtier the haughty thought of a Castilian? The sound of the words acts like the trumpet on the war-horse, and doubles the feeling that he has of himself. But it is to be noticed that Doudan does not let himself be run away with by his comparison; he tempers the remark by saying that, while the language of a nation at any given time is the work of men’s minds at the time, the changes of style prepare a particular course for the thought, just as the waters follow, in the bed they have themselves dug out, the inclination that drives them on. " Man is so the slave of circumstances,” he says, “that he thinks most naturally what he can express most easily,” — a wise remark which could bear a good deal of exposition. When he begins to write about the tricks that are played with language, he says some things that ought always to be borne in mind, and that might be applied to English as well as to French literature. It is the words and phrases with which we are familiar from childhood, which are tinged with all the colors of our mental history, which alone are our image, and whose images we are, and which seem to understand us as we understand them. “A discreet archaism may please for a moment our weary ears, but what are the forms of the seventeenth century to us who belong to the nineteenth ? A new language has grown up, corresponding to the new facts and new feelings that have made us different from the men of the eighteenth century. Everything true and genuine within us is reflected in this new tongue, whether it he good or bad. You speak to me in the language of Port Royal,” — or, as we might say, of Chancer, — “ but your language bears no trace of the hundreds of years in which the world has altered, whether for better or worse; and this history is in the language, as it is in me, who am to some extent the result of the past. ’ ’
With all these different influences at work, is it strange that the products of the imagination grow pale with time, and that we fail to understand what our predecessors have done? Is it not rather a cause of wonder that some books should be banded down from one generation to another without exhausting admiration ? Does not the mobility of mankind sufficiently explain the mobility of literary taste? As a specific instance of a book that was lately much admired, but is now little read, and even that little mainly from a sense of duty, he takes up Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse, and apropos of this writes at some length and with great eloquence of the difference between the last century and the present one. Between that remote seeming past and now there is, of course, the great abyss of the French Revolution, and it is the fashion to express contempt for the eighteenth century. “ But,” says Doudan, “ if it had faults of which we are guiltless, it had also some virtues which we lack. It was morally corrupt, frivolous, declamatory, profane, proud, disdainful of the past, without moderation, reverence, or foresight. Is that enough, or are there any faults that I have forgotten? I acknowledge them at once; but I also insist that it was really animated by generous concern for the lot of men, —of all men; that it sincerely cared for justice and pity in this world; and earnestly demanded that charity should penetrate into the relations between men, where it had hitherto been persistently ignored.”
He then goes on to show how empty are some of the objections brought against that period by those who are repelled by the rhetorical flourish which was prominent at that time. He acknowledges the obvious objections which are so frequently made, but he defends that side of the time which showed itself in Rousseau in such passages as those for which Sainte-Beuve compared him to a prose Cowper. But, he goes on, society has become moderate, sensible, respectable; it is impartial, cultivated, without strong feelings; it cares but little for the empire of ideas, . . . and it reproaches its predecessors with the storms it has weathered. “ It has returned to a love of order like the Prodigal Son, and partly on account of the fatted calf. ’ ’ A sort of rationalism which can be moved by very sordid motives has succeeded the fever that urged the eighteenth century to violent deeds. “ Once novels held up some ideal for our imitation; if there are any such now they are treated with scorn. Perhaps they deserve this treatment ; but even if they were better they would have the same fate, for our interest at present is in comfortable, every-day life, without troubling ourselves about higher things.” But yet we are particular about manners, and there are many criticisms of Rousseau’s most admired characters for their roughness and crudity in this respect. “ Thus does the nineteenth century look down upon the greatness of the seventeenth century, because it is remote and does not have to be kept up, but speaking of it as a valet of a great house would speak of his masters, without any pretension of equaling them.” By going further back in literary history we shall find books once popular, it is true, which have owed what admiration they have received to what Doudan calls the hypocrisy of taste. The instance he chooses is Madame de Lafayette’s Princesse de Clèves, a book which he says is admired at present out of a sense of duty. “ There are at all times,” he goes on, “and especially in days of apathy, superficial tastes for everything which is contrary to the prevailing opinion. It is the little counter-current that one sees on the banks of a river, and that does not prevent the mass of the water from running to the sea. We are accustomed to be told by some literary leaders that we should like what is simple, colorless, and unadorned, and that the models of this are to be found especially in the seventeenth century. Whenever, out of a desire to belong to the great literary world, any one opens the books of these periods of noble simplicity, as soon as he feels a sort of gentle ennui he imagines that he is in the fine regions of simplicity, and thinks he does well to talk with great warmth of admiration of what has given only a lukewarm pleasure. We, nowadays, like detailed descriptions; we want to see the places inhabited by those whose adventures are recounted, the furniture of their rooms, their garden, their people, all the outside of their life, in a word. Such is the curiosity of languishing souls; such is especially the passion of our epoch, desirous of outside pleasures, precisely because it is without strong feeling, and its mind has no decided inclination. We seek indomitable passions, because nothing less than overdrawn pictures can excite our interest, wake us from our apathy. Somewhat cold dissections are demanded, in which shall be laid bare the most secret and most delicate fibres, — possibly, because we like to find good in evil and evil in good; and this singular combination is found possibly by very close examination of human beings. Now, the Princesse de Clèves is a novel without any background. There is only, so to speak, a table and two chairs in the front of the stage. The feelings are soft, gentle, simply drawn, without the deep line which a writer of the present day could not have failed to make from practice with the scalpel. All the signs of passion are indicated there with an amount of intelligence that was subtle in its day, but which is worn-out now, when we have made all impressions deeper. Our inquisitive, bold, profane imagination, which is sometimes even gross by dint of research, has no business there. It is only the pretense of superior intelligence which some assume that inspires them to pretend to take pleasure in these representations of a gentle, quiet, dimly drawn day, of a discreet and moderate coloring. What we consider beautiful is no longer there.”
Besides the characterization of part of the taste of the present day which the above extract contains, it is valuable for its description of a frequent form of literary affectation ; and although the seventeenth century in English literature was marked by anything rather than excessive simplicity, a literary affectation has frequently made its appearance, showing itself by ungenuine admiration and the imitation of obsolete virtues.
This might be misinterpreted to mean a denunciation of all sorts of merit that did not strictly follow the prevailing taste; but, it is hardly necessary to say, Doudan meant nothing of the sort. He merely found fault with insincerity in literary taste, and meant to make an accurate statement concerning the importance of those books which are not the most popular, although they may be the greatest, in their day, because they express the feelings current at the time of their composition. He goes on to ask in what books of the past we find that charm which we have known in some of the great books which have appeared in our own day? These alone speak to us our own language; in them alone do we breathe our native air. “Yes, it must be acknowledged, other times have had possibly more finished literatures, completer beauties. In the great men of the past are to be found qualities of primitive truth which will never be reproduced with the same force and simplicity; but yet this unrivaled greatness moves me less, — nay more,it transports me less toward the heights of beauty than the voice of the poets who have lived the same life as I, who have seen the days that I have seen. Homer said of Ulysses, ‘ He refused to marry the goddess that he might again see the smoke rising from his roof in Ithaca.’ . . . There are impressions that the talent of contemporaries can alone give, because, by their secret resemblance to me, it is given to them alone to know the most secret springs of my nature. But who in the future will understand this art of touching me? who will be sensitive to it ? No one, probably; and yet this forgotten writer may have done some of the real work of an artist; that is to say, he may have excited in me thoughts and feelings which at times raise the soul above the contemplation of the real. For even what passes from the mind is not necessarily without traces of absolute beauty. The signs of eternal beauty are variable. They may vanish and become unintelligible to those who shall come after us. The image of Ithaca, the thought of Penelope, might leave me perfectly cold. There are a thousand things in our time which are for us, in different degrees, what Ithaca and Penelope were for Ulysses. They are the secret attachments which make the sons of men weep, as Homer says. What will they be to our posterity?” Everyone will recognize the truth of these words, which certainly explain, and, it might almost be said, apologize satisfactorily for the frequent, preference the public shows for what is new to what is approved by the stamp of time. It would be too much to say that it is absolute beauty alone that attracts readers to the latest books; too often it is only a petty curiosity about contemporary gossip, about the small talk of literature, — as every one’s conscience will readily acknowledge, — that causes readers to seek what is new rather than what is good; but Doudan here explains our special fondness for what is good in the writing of our own times. This comprehension of contemporary writing is the reason that an old man so often fails to sympathize with new literary fashions, and surprises his successors by his attachment to the past. All the fervor of his aspiration for something better, all the reminiscences of his youth, are bound up with the words of this or that poet, whose language, allusions, and images, incomprehensible, perhaps, to the young, call up to this older man the fair regions of the ideal. “ The poet and he understand one another. They have perceived what you perceive, but by different signs; in spite of the dissimilarities which separate you, you are speaking of the same beauty. . . . The signs are infinite in number. Some are common to all generations, because they have their root in the primitive passions of humanity; while the greater number change with time, and correspond to the new developments and complications which time brings forth.”
“ There remains, then, to be considered the part played by the great artists who survive, so to speak, and by the great artists who pass out of mind.” In other words, What is the true relation of man to the past ? From what one generation contemplates with the most ardent emotion another will turn away its eyes to gaze at something else. Examples of this are manifold. Doudan brings up some faded flowers of Chateaubriand’s rhetoric, for which we can substitute Byron’s eloquence, which now falls cold on our own sympathetic ears. Even Scott’s romances, with all their generous ardor, call up a faint smile of contemptuous derision on the faces of those who take the world and themselves to pieces under the guidance of George Eliot. Who, nowadays, cares for Ossian ? Is there any one who can put his hand on his heart and say that he really enjoys Sir Charles Grandison? But, Doudan goes on, the flashes of beauty which have shone upon these books have not been wholly thrown away; the next generation has preserved something of the form of beauty which it despises, just as a love of nature survived when the fog and mist of Ossian had settled so thickly about the old bard himself. We are, he continues, like the generations of leaves of which Homer speaks. Those of one year die and fall, and the next year forms from them the sap which lends new life to the trees. So in us the spirit of our fathers lives confusedly ; in spite of our disdain, their thoughts and feelings mingle with our own. “ Even what we have forgotten and what we despise often governs and possesses us still.” We cannot rid ourselves from this hereditary influence, which is progress; and if one examines the ways of Providence one can see how man, with all the glow of an innovator, still preserves the fruit of all the efforts of the past. Man’s reason and imagination follow the instinct of sociability. In vain the poet seeks solitude; in vain he dreams alone ; in spite of himself he is in the company of the past and of his contemporaries. The personal originality of the artist combines with the thousand influences of the past and of the present, and in all fine works there is a sort of accompaniment of the distant chorus of humanity. " In every song, if we had but the ears to hear them, are distant echoes of Homer and Isaiah, of the wild songs of the Celts, of the confused sounds coming from the past history of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, Arabia, and old France. The whole universe has worked over the thought of each one, and this thought reflects the world like the fragrant crystal of the dewdrop.”
At every age, he says, there are but a few men who do the greatest part of this common task. The crude thoughts, so to speak, which are turned out confusedly in the great workshop of humanity take form and refinement among people of delicate and cultivated intelligence, each one of whom has his share in bringing the thought to its perfection. “Every epoch has its interpreters, who say distinctly, or vividly, or vigorously, what every one feels vaguely; they transform into intelligible thoughts the aspirations of the multitude; and by introducing, with the charm of talent, what had been but dull emotions, they give the world new instincts, and add thereto all that can be imparted of their personal originality, which passes into the crowd and becomes common to all by the contagion which affects all minds. But these interpreters are of two kinds : some leave little or no renown behind them; the others are the great men, properly so called, who dwell in the Pantheons of posterity, who are the great images of humanity, and, like magnificent statues, mark the path humanity has trod, and the whole line of its advance.” His account of the great men who fail of renown is interesting and full of sympathy, when he speaks of the men “ whom the future will probably not know, whose writings will then he read with indifference., but of whom it can be said that they have been the first to think all that is thought, to say with more fire what will be repeated with more authority.” He means the class of men who lack the ruggedness which great men must have. They have grace, but it is of a kind that is perishable; and although they have understood and explained, and have even gone in advance of their time, there are other men of less exquisite perceptions, often less deep, who boldly strike out a path into the future, because, with a little more force, they have less of the brilliancy and delicacy which give grace, but yet turn the more readily to dust. The first scouts, who are forgotten when the heavier battalions advance, who are admired only by their contemporaries, enjoy so brief fame merely because their discoveries, their first whisperings of novel truths, soon become commonplaces to the world at large, and it seems impossible that their words could ever have been new. What, for instance, could be more trite than two thirds of the Spectators. which seem to have drawn inspiration from the copy-books? We are told that procrastination is the thief of time; that rolling stones gather no moss, etc., ad infinitum; but, in their day, these essays doubtless seemed like models of wisdom, whereas they have been floated down to us only by the genuine humor of the Sir Roger de Coverley papers, and by the echoes of our grandfathers’ praise.
In addition, Doudan speaks of those who make no profession of art or literature, but who have pointed out to others, as with their finger, those eternal images of beauty which float unseen above our heads; their breath has driven away the fog that hides these great types from our sight. “ They are the chosen few whose graves Gray should have shown us in his Country Churchyard. They no longer live. No one will ever know all that they have been. They sleep in the same dust as their obscure contemporaries, — in the dust of almost all that has given light and joy to the world. It is amid these shades that there should be placed the statue of unknown genius. But, unknown or misunderstood, they have gradually civilized the world.” Can any one think less of this because Doudan indicates what had been the aim and glory of his own life ?
Along side of such men live another race, who are destined to give a last and definite form to these ideas, who burn out all transitory matter in the fire of their genius, and give them the right of citizenship in the civilized world. To this class belong the great men. In their works we find examples of everything which can and should survive. Such men deserve to be well treated; they have the just reason, the energy of the passions, the moderation, —in short, all the general and permanent traits of humanity in a perfection and equilibrium which are unknown to ordinary men. In a word, they are more men than other men. They say with force what the whole human family experiences, and will eternally experience. But from one age to another they have a wider vision, finer shades of sentiment, and greater moral purity, because from one age to another they live in a generation which exceeds its predecessor in delicacy, intelligence, and refinement. This refinement, this more intimate knowledge of the human heart, comes not so much from themselves as from their time. The qualities of genius of this sort are simplicity, force, wise sobriety; in its work we find the general traits of humanity as it advances, and it is because these artists paint the great lines of nature that they produce work of a beauty that does not fade. Those who gaze at it find within themselves the dim but complete image of primeval nature, to which they can compare it. This class of artists and writers bear the glow of imperishable beauty. Priam in the Grecian camp, the Agamemnon of Æschylus finding Ægisthus in his palace, the (Edipus of Sophocles in Thebes, Milton’s Adam in the Garden of Eden, the proud Farinata degli Uberti in Dante’s Inferno, Erminia in Tasso’s forest, Racine’s Phèdre, belong to this family. And in them all we may recognize the general advance of humanity, and perceive the new ideas that revolutions, wars, and discoveries have produced, the new truths that go to make up history and are unconsciously absorbed by the writer in the air he breathes.
All that precedes, Doudan says with modesty, he hopes is not a mere array of commonplaces. It would tend to disprove the common opinion that all nations are condemned to turn in a circle without going forward, and to show that there is no waste of effort; that man advances, although but slowly. It would also prove that there is no time of absolute stagnation, but that men always try to express beauty, although sometimes in language unintelligible to their successors; that the spark lives beneath the ashes to give birth to the eternal beauty which we call classical, which speaks clearly to all generations of men.
This ideal is the guiding principle of man: it is more or less distinct in different times, but it inspires all that is noble or great in the world. “ It leads battalions to the top of walls whence falls a rain of lead and fire, as in the peaceful plains of Italy it summons Virgil to wander with it behind the pale curtain of the poplars that border the Mincio.”
With time its manifestations change. Delicacy succeeds simplicity; whatever may have been the imperishable beauty of antiquity, we find in Raphael and Racine, if not more powerful drawing, at least more finished and more profoundly intelligent work. The men of modern times may lack the energetic naivete of remote days, but what they see and what they strive after is finer and greater than what the men of antiquity saw and strove after. Yet it may be said that the hand of the moderns is less firm, and that it trembles with emotion at the sight of radiant forms beneath thinner veils. The divine model has drawn closer, or rather man has advanced nearer, the summit of the Olympus where the Ideal dwells.
But as each generation widens the horizon of men, it may be that artists lose in distinctness what they gain in extent and grandeur. Hence it is that we are justified in regretting something that antiquity had, yet without pretending that we should do best to look into the past for inspiration, and that the best we can hope for is to equal our predecessors. It is the duty of a man of genius to look before him and to follow the thought which leads him onward. He should try to learn from antiquity how to put its simplicity and firmness into vaster pictures, but he should listen to new thoughts; for the genius of the ancients had its limits, like the narrow world it inhabited. “ The Greek saw from the hills of Taygetus, or from Mount Parnassus, the blue sea of the Cyclades, and, a little beyond, the coast of Asia. Now, from the lonely summit of the Cordilleras, the traveler can almost hear the roar of the great oceans that wash the whole vast globe. The deep and melancholy murmur of these great waters says many different things from the waves of the Mediterranean, as they beat on its myrtle and rose clad shores. Such, too, is the difference between the modern spirit, with its cares and mighty science, and the measured intelligence of the ancients, which was joyous, and saw only the smiling earth in the springtime of the life of nations.”
Without deliberately seeking out the past, it may be found in the heart of every man in the form of traditional and inherited feelings and sentiments, but its value is in its transformation and growth. “ There is to-day a noisy school,” he says, and he describes one of the affectations of contemporary English literature, “ which expresses without judgment and without intelligence its regrets for all the institutions and all the ideas of another time. It is true that one gets only a very moderate idea of the worth of such a superstition from seeing or listening to these bold defenders of the past. They confine themselves almost exclusively to saying stupid things in an old-fashioned way, more majorum. They do not know that the very spirit of their ancestors is in those who look forward, and that the military virtues of a Desaix remind one more of Turenne than do the lamentations of those who would like to recall the seventeenth century, which would despise them if Providence were to perform the miracle of placing them back there one day for this instruction. Hut let us be just; what we should regret about the past is that those great minds lived beneath a yoke of errors that we have not to endure; we should regret that they could not see the light which they would have so gladly hailed.”
Equally vain is the hope of standing still, of making no step forward. Those who preach that gospel have no proper notion of man’s position and duty. Who does not love the future does not love the past.
What this method of looking at the growth of intelligence teaches is greater fairness in looking at the works of genius iu other times, since in seeing how little we understand the effect they once produced, we may learn modesty in judging our own work, for we are sure that (lie time will come when new men will have a wider horizon bounding them, and will see clearly what is hidden from us. We shall learn to he tolerant in the expression of our opinions; for since man lives under the law of progress, all truth is not necessary for men at any one time.
“ Yes, the human race has been created to climb slowly the eternal heights. At every step its perspective has changed and widened, its ideal has grown purer and grander, ami our century can say of its predecessors, like the heroes of Homer: —
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It is hardly necessary to say that this abstract of Doudan’s essay fails to give an adequate idea of its great merit, since the original is written in such a condensed style as is ill suited for further condensation. We hope, however, that those who have had the patience to follow us thus far will not lay down this article without a feeling of admiration for Doudan’s critical ability, and a desire to read the original essay, as well as his charming letters; for acquaintance with them is necessary before one can form ail adequate opinion of his literary value.
To our thinking, these four volumes form one of the most important contributions to literature of the present century; and one cannot help rejoicing that a man who went through life without raising his hand to win the fame that he could easily have acquired should at. last, almost in spite of himself, have given the world tlie fruit of so much thought and wisdom.
Some few of our readers will not fail to be reminded of another man of similar power and like modesty, whose untimely death leaves a place in our struggling literature yet, and probably for a long time to remain, unfilled, — we mean John R. Dennett, a writer for The Nation in its palmy days, who has left scattered contributions in its pages that by their witty and careful criticism recall Doudan to the reader. Personally, there was much resemblance between tlie two men; this would be very clear if Dennett’s letters were ever published; and of them both it can be said with truth that they loved literature for itself, and not for what it could do for them. Their lives show, too, that delicate taste and admiration for the best things are rare qualities, which do not tend to make men popular, although they may make them great.
Thomas Sergeant Perry.
- See Atlantic Monthly for October, 1870, and November, 1877.↩