Recent French and German Essays

THOSE who carry their researches into French literature any further back than to the novel-writers of this century will be delighted with the volume of Ferdinand Brunetière’s 1 essays. This author has been writing for a few years some valuable articles in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and these it is that he has collected, in some measure made over, and published in book-form. The position that he takes is that of the lover of letters, as distinguished from that of the scholar or of the scientific critic with a new-fangled theory. This is clearly seen in the very interesting essay with which the volume opens. In this paper he discusses the literary value of what we may for convenience call Old French, — the French, that is to say, of the Middle Ages,—and his opinion of it differs very much from that of the enthusiasts who are never tired of praising the Chanson de Roland, for instance, and comparing it not unfavorably with real masterpieces. Brunetière considers this as great exaggeration. In fact he is on bad terms with the modern school of critical scholarship, — with the German school, so to speak, — and he feels that the touch of pedantry which it contains is something that sits ill on the Frenchman. He says that a certain number of students transfer their admiration of an interesting period of a language to those early works, and exaggerate their literary merits. As for him, he cares only for solid worth, and does not believe in these early French and German Homers, Shakespeares, and Racines. That he finds many foolish outbursts of inappropriate praise to contradict we can readily believe. Indeed, we all know bow unduly the Nibelungenlied is lauded by enthusiasts, and how some people prefer the chilly Northern mythology to that of Greece.

For mediæval French Brunetière has but little praise. The chansons de geste he thinks but rude productions, and the fabliaux he denounces as they deserve for their grossness. What they are like the curious can find in some of Chaucer’s coarse tales, and they have survived in a different form in the undercurrent of French literature, as well as in some work of the best men, down to the end of the last century. The mysteries, too, he finds dull reading. It is really possible to agree with what Brunetière says without denying credit to those scholars who are doing good by informing the world of their discoveries in early French literature. The difference between these men and their critic is not so great as it might at first seem. Brunetière would simply lop off their extravagances, while he would hardly deny the value of the soberer part of their work ; yet one cannot help regretting the ground he has taken, for it appears as if he were merely grumbling about people whose tastes are different from his own. There would seem to be no great call for a man to arise and contradict any person who prefers the Chanson de Roland to the Iliad. Time has a very sure way of disposing of such assertions and those who make them, and the cause of literature is hardly well served by superfluously attacking them. Still, this essay is well worth reading. If it should make any one think that Brunetière cared only for entertainment and was indifferent to exactness, this false impression would be very soon removed by the other papers. That on Pascal, which is the next one in order, shows how much importance he attaches to careful editing, and in the article on a life of Montesquieu he detects a vast number of errors. This formal accuracy is the least of his merits. In writing about Pascal he not only discusses the text and the proposed variations with great intelligence, but he also incidentally defends Pascal from misconception in a very sensible way ; and, while he condemns most of the so-called versions of Pascal’s Pensées, he shows that it is hopeless for any one to try to fill up the gaps and arrange the scattered bits : the work is and must remain a fragment.

The long article on Voltaire is admirable. Brunetière gives us a full and clear sketch of the life of that man, whom facility and versatility of talent made a genius, and he lays bare the vanity that inspired almost everything that he did. This is done without ill-nature, but with most convincing certainty of touch. Brunetière meets the objections of those who might say that we have nothing to do with Voltaire’s private life by acknowledging that this would be true of many men ; that so long as our sense of what is becoming is not grossly outraged we should be very lenient in judging the faults of a man whose only relation to us is through his writings. " But when one has, like Voltaire, toiled for sixty years to play a part on the scene of history and politics, and, despising the calm pleasures of the artist, has done one’s best to become a public man ; when one has set everything to work, even the basest means, to confound the whole of a great century with one’s own history, it is not merely the writer, it is the man, who belongs to us, — and he belongs to us without reserves. He is not to be divided. We must decide to applaud him, if he has really devoted the rarest faculties a man has ever received from nature to the service of justice and truth ; to blame and condemn him, if, in almost every case, he has used them only in his own interest, — in behalf of his personal security, his fortune, and above all of his reputation.” This — and it is not the whole of the charge—is a serious accusation, but it is well borne out by the facts that Brunetière adduces, and facts too from Voltaire’s own pen. It is by his own words that Voltaire is judged.

This is the longest article in the volume, as well as one of the most important, but those on Madame de Sévigné, Racine, Moliere, and the literature of the First Empire, while devoted rather to special subjects, show the same abundance of accurate knowledge and of generous intelligence. Brunetière is a real lover of letters and of French letters, and his opinions are always carefully formed and very interesting. Bossuet is the writer whom he loses no opportunity of praising warmly, and from this we may see that he is that rare thing, a lover of the classical French literature. Yet he cannot be quietly shelved as one who merely repeats old-fashioned and exhausted truisms; far from it, he is a well-equipped contestant who knows the whole of French literature well, and he is certainly no pedant who wishes to impose obsolete shackles on the men of the present day. His book is full of keen perception, as when he calls La Fontaine, Racine, and Molière the naturalist writers of their day; and he throws light on many obscure points, as when he shows how much of the affected phraseology that in our minds is connected with all French tragedy belongs only to its decadence in the last century.

In a word, this volume of essays is one of the most important books of pure literature that has appeared in France for a long time, and is a welcome proof that literary criticism still lives there in a combination of good taste and full information which expresses itself without alliance with any scientific theory.

Our readers will not have forgotten the delightful letters of Doudan, and they will doubtless welcome with pleasure this volume,1 which contains some of his writing that had escaped the attention of those who edited the previous volumes. Their first and only regret will be that there is so little that is new. It seems that we have in it only a few scattered notes that he had written here and there, so that we no longer are charmed by the literary completeness which was so striking a quality of his letters. We have the gems, but they are not set.

At times, this incoherence, which we notice whenever detached thoughts are published, exists only to the eye. In the volume of the writings of Vauvenargues, for instance, the sayings have been classified, and the connection between them is sufficiently obvious; here, however, we have a series of really detached observations, which may be classified only under such general heads as Literature, Philosophy, Morality and Religion, etc. Yet those who know Doudan will be able to recognize his unmistakable charm. His way of expressing himself was remarkably exact and beautiful, and endowed with a poetic grace that, so far from being made much of, appeared, as it were, to be continually suppressed. In these latter days we are accustomed to a certain exuberance of language in English writers, especially when they are uttering rhapsodies about art; but this curious combination of alliteration and sing-song fails to be really valuable, because what we notice first, last, and continually is the mode of expression, not the thing expressed. Doudan’s style is the very opposite of this lax facility, and there is nothing more effective than its quiet, graceful precision.

Doudan’s literary judgment was extremely delicate, and his interest in literary matters was practically inexhaustible. His letters show how wide was his interest and how keen his perception. He never admired lavishly, but his criticisms were not the mere expression of prejudice. This volume contains a few addenda to the letters, and hardly anything more. Those who admire the letters will be glad to see this volume.

It is interesting to notice how much intelligence adds to the value of a book. There is certainly no lack of books written in the English language about German literature, yet there is not one along with which this volume of Mr. Hillebrand’s 2 may not well be read as a help in understanding the great movements of German thought. In the dearth of political life in Germany, its literature, moderate as it is in bulk, is the most important manifestation of the intellectual interests of that country, and if we look at the German books on our shelves as simply independent literary products, we fail to observe their intimate connection with the changes and growth of the whole German nation. This connection between the literature and the life of the nation is what Mr. Hillebrand has here expounded most clearly and forcibly.

To do this, a full knowledge of the facts is required, and to get the facts is the student’s first task. To arrange them and see beneath them the informing spirit is not given to every one, and the teacher who can expound this intelligibly and fairly deserves high praise. He classifies and detects the hidden laws, and shows the world the value of the painfully collected evidence. This is what Mr. Hillebrand has done. The title of the book defines its aim, so that the reader will understand that he need not look within its pages for dates and statistical information so much as for a sort of philosophical discussion of the principles underlying the facts which are presumed to be familiar.

He begins with describing the condition of Germany after the Thirty Years’ War, and then he traces the influence of each of the great writers upon their contemporaries and successors. It is Herder whom he especially names as a man who wrought greatly for Germany, not so much by the completeness of his work as by the intelligence of his suggestions and the enthusiasm with which he fired other men. To take a striking example of this, there is the good seed he sowe 1 in Goethe’s mind. While few teachers meet with such apt pupils, fewer still have so important lessons as he had to teach. He unfolded to Goethe the beauties of English literature, and he guided him to a fuller comprehension of Homer; and, iu a manner, he has moulded the whole course of German thought. In what way he did this is shown, too briefly, to be sure, but clearly, by Mr. Ilillebrand.

With the same broad outlines the author represents Goethe’s views of life, their influence, the inspiring principles of the Romantic school and their work, as well as the varying currents of philosophic thought. In short, he shows the relations of different men to one another, and the underlying principles that animated them in what they did. Moreover, since no one civilized nation can enjoy a high state of intellectual enthusiasm without affecting more or less other countries, Mr. Ilillebrand shows the influence of German thought on other nations. Thus, he says, page 201, “ When ... a reaction set in against the style empire, which had but been an exaggeration of Winckelmann’s theories ; when Chateaubriand in France and Walter Scott in England brought the Middle Ages into fashion, they only followed — unconsciously, of course — the impulse given by the German romanticists.” In this statement, however, we cannot help thinking that Mr. Hillebraud is certainly vague, if not indeed inexact. It would seem more precise to say that Germany and England followed parallel lines, rather than that one country inspired the whole movement iu the other. Although Scott was influenced by Burger, yet they both drew inspiration from Percy’s Reliques, and in tracing Scott’s intellectual lineage we must never forget Gray and Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. How much was Burns moved to song by the German romanticists ? Or what share did they have in giving Lamb an interest in the old English dramatists ? To be sure, Mr. Hillebrand leaves these men unmentioned, yet Scott was only a partaker in the same inspirations.

In other respects we readily acknowledge the justice of all that Mr. Hillebrand claims for Germany. In that country the history of the literature is more exclusively a history of the nation than in any other. This absence of practical life led to great devotion to the ideal, and that ideal has almost always been a high one. The attrition of vulgar circumstances has often been wanting, so that the reader misses the usual lack of harmony between theory and fact; but surely this is an error in an excellent direction. What the various theories have been and the methods of their application can nowhere in English be better studied than in Mr. Hillebrand’s volume, against which we can only say that it is too short.

There is no lack of histories of German literature, and some of these will be found most profitable and interesting reading. As entertaining as any, however, is the Deutsche Literaturgeschichte,1 by Robert Koenig, the eighth revised edition of which now lies before us. This is distinguished from other books of the kind by the appropriate illustrations, which are to be found in great abundance. These consist of fac-similes of old MSS., of autographs, of the title-pages of the original editions of famous books and of some of the cuts that have adorned them. There are, too, many portraits of the most celebrated writers, and frequently more than one of the same per-* son. Thus we have likenesses of Goethe’s father, mother, and sister, as well as several of Goethe himself, taken at different times, and of some of the women with whom he was in love. Schiller, too, is generously treated. The advantages of this treatment are obvious, for even the most reluctant student will feel tempted to examine the book, and he will find it hard to avoid reading the letterpress as he turns the pages. The literary part is well worth reading, so that the book would make a very valuable gift for young people who take an interest in German literature.

It would be hard to say why a book of this sort about English literature should not be interesting. The mere vastness of the subject would make equal thoroughness almost impossible, and the British Museum would have to be ransacked for rare first editions; yet a volume of the kind, if carefully prepared, could not fail to be interesting and instructive. To be sure, prophecies of this kind are as uncertain as predictions concerning the adult life of a child in the cradle, butsthere are many who would look at such a book with interest. It might begin with Chaucer, giving his portrait, fac-similes of some pages of MS. and of the newly-discovered writings that concern him. Abundant portraits could be given of later writers, and though about Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson little that is not already familiar could be given, more than enough material could be found to make a volume that should interest the scholar as well as the skimmer of books. For people who live in distant regions, remote from large libraries, the book would be invaluable. The work has been very thoroughly done for many of the most famous of English books, it is true, but a judicious selection might yet be made.

  1. Etudes Critiques sur l'Histoire de la Littèrature Française. Par FERDINAND BRUNETIERE. Paris" Hachette & Cie. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.
  2. X. Doudan. Peuséees, Essais, et Maximes. Paris: C. Lévy. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.
  3. Six Lectures on the History of German Thought, from the Seven Years' War to Goethe’s Death. Delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, May and June, 1879. By KARL. HILLEBRAND. London: Longmans, Green & Co. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1860.
  4. Deutsche Literaturgeschichte. Von ROBERT KOENIG. Achte Durchgesehene Auflage. Leipzig: Oelhagen und Klasing. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.