Two Literary Studies

ABOUT Balzac, the man and the artist, there is a fascination as enduring as his works ; possibly more enduring. The spell is endless, and the thirst for further information concerning him, or rather for rearrangements of the old details and fresh utterances upon his quality and significance, is insatiable. Further justification is scarcely needed for the contribution 1 which Mr. Edgar Saltus has recently made to the literature of the subject: but it has, besides, the special merit of presenting within a small space a variety of material taken from scattered sources. Besides the Life by

Des Noiresterres, George Sand’s biographical notice, the memoirs and letters prepared by Balzac’s sister and Théophile Gautier, and the gossiping reminiscences of Léon Gozlan have been the principal sources open to readers ; but Mr. Saltus has ransacked journals and magazines for additional odds and ends, and has brought into effective combination various points that, without such aid, must have remained invisible to the majority. A skillful first chapter carries one through a narrative of the life, so well diversified and helped forward by picturesque anecdotes that it is freed from the restraints of formal biographizing. After this we have a review of the Comédie Humaine, an account of Balzac’s experiments in writing for the stage, and a sketch of his harassed and harassing pursuit of wealth. A short collection of epigrammatic or reflective extracts, in translation, illustrating the tendency of Balzac as a thinker, followed by a careful bibliography, closes this attractive little volume. It lays no claim to the character of a critical study, yet it is a little strange that the author should have made no allusion to the essays of Taine and Henry James. His own summary of the scope of the Comédie Humaine, however, contains some very good statement. Balzac, he remarks, by the conditions of his self-imposed task, “ was obliged to offer in clear relief the almost imperceptible differences of the types of yesterday and to-day ; ” but with a peculiar intuition “ he chose from among the physiognomies of his epoch an assortment of those fugitive traits which are imperceptible to the eyes of the vulgar,” and while in the first part of his great series he presented “individualities typified,” in the second he showed “ the same types individualized : ” making, for example, the individual Grandet the type of a miser, while in Maître Cornélius the typical quality of avarice is concentrated and incarnated in an individual. This distinction, if subtile, appears to be valid, and brings out sharply the double method and exhaustive power of Balzac. Mr. Saltus’s brief disquisition on realism and the present realistic school is also excellent in its concision, its clearness and facile grasp. Taine has declared that Balzac is, next to Shakespeare, “ our great repository of documents on human nature;” and though Mr. Saltus admits that in some of the earlier works an influence may be traced from Scott and Hoffman, he probably does not assert too much in saying that “ Balzac was totally without literary ancestry.” From what sources he drew his intellectual nutriment, and how he developed, the present writer explains, no doubt, as well as may be from the scanty data obtainable ; but, after all, hardly more can be done than to recite the circumstances of his childhood and youth, and then to add that this particular person turned out very differently from others who had the same surroundings. The growth of supreme genius is endogenous. What the man wrote of himself in Facino Cane furnishes the only clue, and that a vague one, to the growth and action of a faculty like his : “ Observation had become to me intuitive. It penetrated the spirit without neglecting the body, or rather it seized exterior details so clearly that it immediately went beyond them.” Such a mind divines the presence of recondite values in whatever may lie around it, as the competent geologist reads on the surface of the ground an index to the precious metals hidden below. But, however we may fail to unriddle the secret of the imaginative seer, the interest of watching him in the process of his art and trying to understand the magic of his vision never ceases. Balzac, moreover, is unique among the greatest writers in that imagination, with him, had as great an effect upon daily life as it had in forming his creations. Not the least delightful portions of this monograph are those which detail his eccentricities, at times almost involving hallucination ; his schemes for gaining sudden wealth by cutting down a Norwegian forest and selling it in Paris, or digging for a buried treasure in the West indies, or hiring a shop which was to be painted black and yellow, and devoted to the sale of pineapples from his garden at Ville d’Avray, when as yet not a single pineapple had been raised. Equally amusing are the efforts he made to escape interruptions, by living under the name of the “ Widow Durand,” and establishing a system of mysterious passwords, through the use of which alone his friends could gain admittance to his rooms. Some of Balzac’s critics have rather roughly charged him with overweening conceit and pretension ; they think he rated too high the philosophical and " scientific ” elements in his own productions. But one should not judge the science and philosophy of Wilhelm Meister and the Elective Affinities as one would the inductions of Goethe’s Color Theory, or his treatise on the development of plants ; and, making a similar allowance in the case of Balzac’s fictions, a fair judgment will allow them a breadth, vigor, and suggestiveness on the speculative side which no other novelist has equaled. Of the Physiologie du Muriage and the Petites Misères Mr. Saltus says, not without reason, that they “ are as delicately analytical as the deductions of Leuwenhoeck and Schwammerdam.” But, granting that the great Frenchman appraised this part of his writings at more than its worth, we may account for the fact by that atmosphere of all-controlling imagination in which he enveloped himself, and which with regard to his own affairs resulted in self-deception. This same faculty sustained him through fifteen years of nearly incessant labor, at the rate of from fifteen to twenty-one hours’ work each day ; it prompted the amazing sanguineness which led him, while poorly paid and constantly in need, to believe that at some point of time, always a short distance ahead, he should be abundantly rich ; and Mr. Saltus explains how it incited him to a curious misrepresentation as to his debts. Balzac was indeed heavily in debt at one time, owing to his disastrous experiment as a publisher ; but long after the obligations thus incurred had been paid off, he continued to parade his debts, until — so Mr. Saltus puts it — they became as celebrated as himself, and accompanied him everywhere, like a glittering retinue. The secret of this, we are told, was that, being desirous to shine by means of his wealth, like Dumas, yet unwilling to confess how small were the sums yielded by his works, he kept up the fiction of fabulous indebtedness for effect and to account for his plain style of living. Again, he beheld his projected works so clearly that he confidently published lists of those that were yet to appear, with the year in which they would be forthcoming. Some of these were never written, but the announcement gave to them a sort of reality, and the mere titles are now preserved as religiously as if they represented existing books. This companionship of the unexecuted and the actual works is illustrated in the elaborate catalogue compiled by Mr. Saltus, which gives the names of the unwritten in italics. By an accident, one of the really existing volumes, Une Ténébreuse Affaire, has been entered as belonging to the shadowy group of those that were only planned. The bibliography otherwise is extremely useful ; it records all of Balzac’s fugitive, pseudonymous, and anonymous publications, with the dates of their original appearance (which are replaced by others in the standard edition of the Works), and entitles the editor to the thanks of all students. We could wish that he had indicated more exactly the number of volumes formed by the whole array of pieces, so far as they were collected at different times. Balzac himself, we know, computed that from 1827 to 1848 he had produced ninety-seven works, containing eleven thousand pages, twice as large as those of the ordinary octavo ; but Mr. Sallus’s bibliography goes back to 1822.

The chapter devoted to Balzac’s dramatic works, the history of their failures and successes, is bright with anecdote, impressive by its renewed testimony to Balzac’s marvelous industry and determination, and will be to most readers quite fresh. The least satisfactory chapter is that on The Thinker, containing isolated observations and ideas from the novelist’s pages; nor has Mr. Saltus anywhere succeeded in driving off that insidious impression which haunts us, that the vagaries of Balzac and his proneness to deliver himself over to fantastic theories vitiated in a degree the truth of the minutely accurate exposition of human nature which it was his aim to accomplish. We suspect that it is this doubt which, as a rule, places a certain reserve upon the enthusiasm even of those who have accorded to Balzac the greatest praise. But for one service we cannot be too grateful to our essayist: and that is the positiveness with which he has asserted Balzac’s personal purity and lofty devotion to an ideal which embraced, as a condition of artistic success, orderly living and a reverence for all that is finest in women. In alluding to the detractors of Balzac, by the way, Mr. Saltus stumbles upon a most ingenious mixed metaphor. He says, “ Among the host of enemies thus aroused were those who, not content with denying his genius, advanced their artillery into private life, and painted him in the possession of every vice.” Painting by means of artillery is a mode of warfare which we have never before seen mentioned. In the main, however, Mr. Saltus’s expression is as correct and neatly turned as it is agreeable.

We have said that the monograph is not critical; yet it is studious. Although carefully avoiding the tone of eulogy, the writer is wisely possessed with the dignity of his subject: he does not patronize, and he does not flourish the draughtsman’s compass with the ostentation of precise measurement; but he HAs contrived to give us on a reduced canvas a thoroughly vital fulllength portrait of Honoré de Balzac.

The task which Mr. Genung has undertaken in his analysis of In Memoriam 1 is of a different sort. It is not portraiture ; it is dissection. But in the study of literature it becomes important that some writers should devote themselves to the anatomy of poetry, in order that others should be able to reconstruct and depict with the greater correctness the features of the poet, and show the workings of the spirit which inspired him. Maceration has its office and its value, even in the treatment of a work of art. Besides, when the labor is well done, the result of reducing a poetical production to its structural lines has a kind of beauty peculiar to itself, like that revealed in a leaf from which, by an application of acid, everything lias been stripped except the stem and the tracery of veins which originally supplied its life. Therefore we shall not find fault with Mr. Genung for having followed out at considerable length, and with a reiteration perhaps excessive in places, the governing ideas of Tennyson’s memorial to Arthur Hallam, nor for bringing forward evidence that so remarkable a tribute of friendship was planned by a ripe artistic comprehension and wrought with the closest regard for the relation of every part to the whole. The first ninety-six pages of the essay, comprising about one half, are by far the most important; indeed, they convey the substance of the whole, the remainder being devoted to a proof in extenso, by reference to particular passages, of the theory advanced in the beginning. Many persons find In Memoriam monotonous by its verse, which Dr. Holmes once described as “ a series of stanzas with the pulp of two rhymes between the upper and lower crust of two others ; ” and many also incline to demur at the prolongation of a strain of bereavement through so many chords with so slight a varying of the key. Mr. Genung, on the contrary, is struck by the influence which the poem Has had upon some of the most thoughtful minds of this century. Noticing, too, that its author allowed seventeen years for its composition and its maturing, and that “ when it emerged from its period of secret growth it became at once the mould which, beyond any other single work of literature, has given shape to the religious thought of the time,” he is moved to examine the manner of its formation and to define its purpose. The purpose, he decides, is, " while giving grief its natural expression, to cherish with it that same love which death has invaded, . . . and so, following out love’s history into the unseen world on the one hand, and into the world of the nobler future on the other, to gather all the fruits it may yield.” These fruits are faith in God and an increased affection for one’s fellow-men. There are two periods, he points out, in the gestation of the work : the first one running through the eight years of almost unbroken silence on Tennyson’s part, which succeeded the death of Hallam ; the second comprising nine years more, during which he gave other poems to the world, but reserved In Memoriam to be rounded out into a fuller accord with the perfected design. The deepening of the poet’s thought during this term, as instanced in The Two Voices, Locksley Hall, and even in The Day-Dream, is attributed in large measure to the same activity, of reflection stirred by the loss of his friend, which gave rise to the elegy itself. The influence of current thinking and modern problems is also very skillfully traced,— an influence strongly airparent in The Princess, published in 1847, three years before In Memoriam came out. When Mr. Genung arrives at his analysis of the structure of the whole poem as bearing on the evolution of its crowning ideas, he for a moment succumbs to the peril of all analysts and theorizers. He divides the constituent parts into three cycles, — those of the Past, the Present, and the Future ; and, taking up the lines

“ Run out your measured arcs and lead
The closing cycle rich in good,”

he distorts the meaning so as to make them refer to a cycle of the poem. So great an error of art Tennyson would never have committed ; and Mr. Genung’s theory, which he sustains with a thoroughness leaving nothing to desire, does not need the support of a misconstruction. For the rest, it is a very interesting one, and we doubt if any reader can go along to its conclusion without acquiring a much better conception of In Memoriam than he had before, and a sensibly heightened enjoyment of Tennyson’s power of design; notwithstanding that the poem presents no great difficulties even to the average lover of poetry, and at first seems not to require formal expounding. Mr. Genung prefaces his main argument by an instructive comparison with Lycidas and Adonais, and with Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a memorial of friendship. But there is one significant trait of In Memoriam which he has not noticed. The worship of the dead, which among the ancients led to their deification, which in certain tribes makes it a sin to name them, and is continued in Catholic prayer to the saints, reappears in a modified form and joined to a larger ideal of the living world, in this work of a poet representing Protestantism and the age of science. This appeal of In Memoriam to a primal instinct of the race is one of the most striking things about it, and may account in part for the deep hold it has taken.

The appearance of two literary studies so well planned, so scholarly, and written with so much grace as these which Mr. Saltus and Mr. Genung have given us is encouraging; and it is to be noted with satisfaction that both books have been issued with a mechanical perfection and a choice of page and margin quite in keeping with their contents.

  1. Balzac. By EDGAR EVERTSON SALTUS. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1884.
  2. Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Its Purpose and its Structure. A Study. By JOHN F. GENUNG. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1884.