Some Recent Volumes of French Criticism

THE first thing which strikes a foreign reader, at a random glance through several volumes of French criticism of the day, is the activity of mind displayed in this department; the perennial interest in questions of art, of workmanship, of literary truth; the variety of topics upon which an equal curiosity, minuteness of examination, and vigor of intelligence are brought to hear ; and the number of agile minds employed at one moment, in the consideration of the same subject. We perceive that, among the things which they order better in France is this ancient problem of the making of many books ; that they find stimulus rather than weariness in much study, and, failing a creative atmosphere, are incited by the rush of the printing-press to literary effort. The phenomenon next in evidence is that passion for system which Mr. Dowden has justly pointed out in his admirable article on French criticism in a recent number of the Fortnightly Review. Each critic waves a banner in his preface, or unfurls it before he has covered many pages of his course. The literary conscript in France may be enrolled under the naturalistic, the psychological, the physiological, the analytic, or the poetic symbol; he may plant his own colors and fight lustily in their defense ; but to be without a badge in the buttonhole is to confess a bosom void of conviction. If a critic wishes to note simply the qualities and defects of the book before him, or if he is moved, like M. de Pomairols, to pay a tribute of loyal admiration to the memory of a great poet, he erects this laudable desire into a system designed beforehand to prove the error of any rash inquirer who may presume to examine the subject from a different point of view. M. Hennequin, the “ scientific critic ” by profession of faith, set out with a mission to discover the man in the author ; M. Brunetière engages on behalf of fact to prove not alone the tolerably obvious futility of searching in the Odyssey for a psychology of Homer, but the less apparent uselessness of endeavoring to disentangle the personality of Rabelais, Molière, or Bossuet from their respective works. M. Taine studies the author in the epoch, and both in an historical medium of his own invention. M. Weiss laments that in gauging the passion and instincts of an author, or determining the quantity of his talent and intellectual power, both the scientific and historical schools “ consider it idle to inquire to what degree the use which he has made of this talent and power is a legitimate one. This is because, for these empirical observers, there does not exist a type of perfection, relative to each art, which at times has been, reached, and to approach which as nearly as possible should be the end of all effort.” M. Weiss therefore takes his stand upon pure criticism. It is an admirably definite position ; it is one of great authority and of opportunity for innumerable niceties of detail; and if human achievement does not always receive its exact due by his system of measurements, if genius is now and then so awkward as to get in the way of the machinery, “ so much the worse for the coo.” Even the seductions of Madame Bernhardt, appealing as they do to his finest perceptions, do not move him a hair’s breadth from the line of critical conviction.

“ But leaving aside the supposition that she knows neither the rhetoric nor the grammar of her art ” (M. Weiss is in the midst of an appreciative notice of “ the glorious and victorious Sarah ” in her rôle of Fédora, and the italics are not his own), “ what a sense she has of its eloquence and its poetry ! How she loves her role when she does love it! How she pours it into the very tissues of her soul and into all her fibres ! She no longer exists apart from it. The whole universe, for her, is compassed in a few feet of boards, where she is living the drama which she is supposed to he acting. The most subtle, the finest, the most daring inspirations that the genius of her sex could conceive burst from her, the other evening, at every moment; simplicity, precision, audacity, she had them all. ... It is an inexhaustible series of incomparable trifles.”

It is interesting to inquire into the nature and principle of an art of which Madame Bernhardt is suspected of knowing “ neither the rhetoric nor the grammar.” Let us hear M. Weiss on her American tour, which ho watched through a telescope of Parisian construction : “ The other day — was it in Chicago, or was it Nebraska ? ” (he knows, this knowing M. Weiss, that it was nearer the Atlantic coast, but he makes no allusion either to Quakers or terrapin)—“Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt was to play Adrienne Lecouvreur. The hour arrives, and a full house. All the seats disposed of at a fancy price, and not one empty. Unfortunately, two of the artists cast for the play are missing, being kept from their engagement by some detention on the railroad. The announcement is made to an enthusiastic house that Phèdre will be substituted for Adrienne. For my part, I should have rubbed my hands at the change. I should have made a mistake. The American was not to be thus deceived ; with entire unanimity ” (the unanimity is such a smooth and even touch of exaggeration) “he took back his money and returned to his fireside.”

The conclusion drawn by M. Weiss is that the admiration for Madame Bernhardt in this country is a tribute to her personal grace rather than to her art, and that to us “ she appears accomplished, not because she is an actress, but because she is no longer acting; ” in short, that we like best the part in which she has least to assume. Not that the Sardou-Bernhardt combination of situation and temperament, in which the role is fitted to the actress as a dress to a form, is considered inartistic in France. On the contrary, M. Lemaitre has devoted to the analysis of its charm one of the cleverest chapters of Les Contemporains; M. Weiss, too, is fully sensible of its spell, of its artistic points. But apart from the inspirations even of genius, there is in the background of his criticism an art of acting, abstract, severe, and codified. The true actor, according to M. Weiss, is he who has patiently studied the effects which he aims to produce, and who produces varied and dissimilar ones by a perfect knowledge of the laws by which they are governed.” And the enjoyment of the spectator, like the skill of the actor, gains from a recognition of these laws.

A noticeable feature in the literary portion of the books before us is the preponderance of topics which are studies of yesterday. The constant comparison of the present with the past, the perennial readjustment of standards, is always a feature of French criticism, and the frequent reprints and theatrical revivals serve as texts for research, and do much for the preservation of intellectual standards; but the space given to bygone writers and literary creeds in these books of 1889 show that it was not a year of new inspirations. Le Théâtre et les Mœurs is put forth as a volume of reminiscence, and is preceded by an entertaining preface, in which autobiography and history are combined in a way that would hardly occur to a native of any other country. The Frenchman hitches his private wagon to the star of politics; public events rank among the crises of his own life ; his self-analysis or introspection shades into study of his environment, which is the mirror of his soul; and the state of society is felt and noted by him like a personal mood. France and la vie are personalities half identified with his own. The tie between author and reader is an intimate one in France, and the literature of the country is also in a peculiarly close sense a part of its history. M. Weiss’s collection of newspaper articles is a review of the nineteenth century. His material is grouped under the two dates 1830 and 1852. They are those of romantic and Second Empire literature, and are separated by a very sharp line of demarkation, the transition having taken place, according to M. Weiss, in a period of ten days following upon the coup d’état. The literature of the eighties falls under 1852, for M. Weiss recognizes no innovation in naturalism of a destructive and epoch-making character ; it is to him the ancient sentimental romance in a new guise, not the revival of Flaubert and Balzac nor the appearance of a new realism. M. Weiss was young in 1848, mature in 1852; nothing has happened since.

His romantic souvenirs attach themselves, not to Hernani, but to Henri III., and his outline of the career and influence of this play, his hearty sympathy, may be compared with the attack upon it of that latter-day sinner M. Jules Lemaître, whom the Saturday Review accuses, with evident justice, of overlooking on this occasion the “ historic element.” When it comes to Hugo, M. Weiss’s reign of law is in accord with M. Lemaître’s caprice. The former demonstrates critically, with his eyes lifted to Racine, what the latter has already declared in Les Contemporains on the ground of personal preference and a livelier interest in younger bards, — that there is ennui in the boum-boum of the great poet. They both expend considerable pains to upset the primacy accorded to Hugo, and to prove that he ranks as a poet, “ though not first in the very first line,” where warmer admirers than Messieurs Weiss and Lemaître may he content to leave him. M. Weiss is right in his insistence upon the fact that in French literature no one figure stands out as does Shakespeare in English and Goethe in German literature. The solidarity of French letters is such that every writer is one of a troupe, and those who revolt against the traditions are like priests who unfrock; they carry the mark of the system into their freedom. Hugo lacked one of the most precious qualities of French literature, one which emanates perhaps from its solidarity,—that of intimacy, l’intime. But take any complete French anthology, and compare its selections one with another : there will he a touch of primacy every where in his favor, and the most perfect examples of lyrical expression will hear the old autocratic signature.

Dumas fils is also discussed by both critics, with free doses of blame administered in a spirit of admiration. M. Weiss scrutinizes keenly the use made of a talent for which he, like all his country, feels a tenderness that seems to he a lesser and modernized form of the Musset culte. Among M. Weiss’s most recent subjects are Sardou, whose dramatic machine he takes to pieces with triumphant deftness, and M. Edouard Pailleron. His article on this poet and dramatist of the salons — written before Ee Monde où l’on s’ennuie, but just as applicable afterwards — is a delicate example of M. Weiss’s métier of pure criticism. His recognition of the talent and opportunity of the poet, his regret that they are not reinforced by effort, his clear statement of the firmness of hand required for the production of delicate trifles, and his summing up, that “ one may be half a Scribe or half a Sardou, but one cannot he half a Musset or half a Marivaux,” is a clever bit of writing, and a morsel of literary truth as well.

In speaking of a number of bygone themes discussed in the books before us, we did not intend to give the impression that M. Lemaitre had donned the scholastic cap and gown. True, he begins with Æschylus, by way of giving a few points to the Porte St. Martin, and he serves Racine and Molière with Sarcey sauce, but be does not neglect Gyp nor harden his heart to the opéra bouffe. His writing is almost a marvel in its unflagging vivacity and ingenuity, its audacity and restraint; he is past master of the art of saying things, and his certificate of personal critic authorizes him to say what he pleases, the selection being, however, made with deliberation and knowledge of his world. He has not very exacting standards, but lie has a set of critical tentacles of considerable delicacy, and their touch is everywhere a fine one, though his element, like that of the asteroid, is not in the deepest waters. His critical method is of the pictorial order. He reproduces a book or a play with vividness and color ; manipulating it a little in accordance, with his own views, bestowing upon it a series of caressing touches or a running comment of irony, and producing a result which is clever, entertaining, and perfectly homogeneous. His liveliest sallies never take him out of his course or break the texture of his writing. His wit goes from high to low; it discovers Shakespearean affinities in Barbe Bleue and a spice of Tartarin in Voltaire ; it finds reasons for the admission of Meilhac and Halévy by St. Peter into the French Academy, and produces arguments for the claim to success of M. Jules Lemaître’s drama of Révoltée. Perhaps the moi employed is not in this instance quite the moi public, which is the title claimed by M. Lemaître for that of the personal critic.

There are no airs of cosmopolitanism, at all events, about M. Lemaître. He sees a play adapted from Dostoïevsky, Crime and Punishment, and gives an appreciative analysis of its motive; but he returns in a moment to Paris, to the Goncourt novels, which stir in him “ a compassion that reaches from the particular suffering described to the great human misery beyond, and thus takes on a religious character, — as well as if the text were a translation from the Russian,”— and to Gyp, who calls for no compassion, and to whose genius he surrenders himself “pieds et poings liés.” There is plenty of esprit in this article on the Théâtre des Marionettes, and the clever woman who is its inspiring genius. Critic and subject are here in accord, and the result ought to satisfy any reader who demands of his French literature that it should have what is generally recognized as the true Gallic flavor.

M. Lemaître closes a volume begun with Æschylus with an obituary of Victorine Demay, a prima donna of the cafés chantants, who stands out on the canvas as she stood before her audiences, large and cordial, opulent and gay, — her whole plenteous person compounded of enjoyment.” Critical curiosity and a penchant for contrasts led M. Lemaître to bring about a meeting between Madame Demay and M. Renan, who addressed to her a polite remark, indicating that her fame as a singer had reached his ears ; to which, duly impressed with the fact that a great man stood before her, and wishing to acquit herself with distinction, she replied, “ And I, monsieur, know all about you ! ”

Madame Demay makes the transition from M. Lemaitre’s vivacity to the serious papers of M. Deschanel, which open with M. Renan. If the critics of the literary philosopher do not know all about him, it is not for want of assistance on his part; from the Breton-Gascon key of his temperament, furnished by himself, to the latest phase of his thought, they have all the materials. Perhaps there is not much that is novel left to be added, at this date, to contemporary criticism of him, and M. Deschanel is not a writer who attempts the impossible; his book exhibits no marked cleverness or keenness of vision, but it is written with intelligence and moderation of tone, and with a sympathy which is that of conviction for the serious and aspiring element in French literature. His Figures Littdraires, who are more or less philosophic figures as well, stand to him for a certain hardihood and independence of thought, though M. Brunetifère would not allow him Rabelais on that ground, and the portrait of M. Paul Bourget might appear at first sight a curious pendant to that of Edgar Quinet. It is the solemnity of M. Bourget rather than his decadence that attracts M. Deschanel, who attributes the latter feature to the absorption by an impressionable and imitative nature of ideas already aired and in print, and concludes that “it is the very vivacity of his feeling and of his imagination winch gives him the appearance of being old at heart.” The picture of young France, with which the interesting paper on M. Bourget is concluded, would inspire more confidence if the catalogue of its virtues did not have the air of being drawn up by the deputy rather than the critic, though no one can doubt the existence of some such hopeful element of reaction; and it could hardly find a better programme than that furnished by M. Deschanel, in which the clause recommending resignation to the conditions of a private and insignificant existence strikes one as specially imbued with bon sens.

If the critical signs are inauspicious for the fame of Victor Hugo, even at the height of his popularity, the mild star of Lamartine, on the contrary, which seemed almost to have disappeared, is now in the ascendant. Lamartine staked his poetry with his politics, and lost; he is now having a political and poetical revanche. The tone of disparagement and indifference in regard to his work, which was perhaps natural enough, though manifestly exaggerated and unjust, has died away of late, and a reaction “ has set in with its usual severity,” as Horace Walpole said of the spring. It is not one or another trait of Lamartine which is held up to us to-day for reverence and admiration, but the man and the poet, his entire person washed and made whole, his cherished wings plumed and restored. After being attacked as a poseur and a chanter of sentimental measures, he is cited as sincere, fresh, inspired ; after despising his vanity and lack of independence, his compatriots are touched by his disinterestedness, and by the pathos of an outstretched hand to which his country owed so much and which it left empty.

There are not many reputations which could hear a stronger light than Lamartine’s, and his admirers could well afford to mix a little more scrutiny with their adoration. A stricter criticism will hardly be aide to dispose, as M. de Pomairols does, of his vanity by an occasional allusion with absolution, to wrap it in a rose leaf and set it aside. But neither egoism nor the sentimental nature of his poetry, which was both a personal trait and a necessary feature of his moment, could injure his sincerity. The feeling of his verse is as genuine as its harmony, and even his vanity had an ethereal quality, like the perversions and errors of Shelley.

M. de Pomairols’s Study in Morals and Æsthetics is not a general treatise on these subjects, but exclusively a study of the moral and æsthetic aspects of Lamartine’s life and poetry. There is something a little naive and wanting in perspective in the entire absence of any reference to other writers, interests, or ideas ; but this method, if it be a method, is not unsuited to the treatment of Lamartine, and brings out strongly the singleness of his nature, the simplicity of his ideal, and the unity of his achievement. “ Les ombres,” said Lamartine, “ n’ajoutent rien à la lumière.”This was his poetic creed and the conviction of his life ; it was the source or the explanation of his religious inspiration and of the pellucid loveliness of his verse ; it was also his great mistake, as any painter could have told him. Not only have strong literary effects been produced by contrast, but the writers who have sounded the human mind and given the truest pictures of human life have looked fearlessly into the shadow as into the light.

No reality, however, could have been a more grateful element in French literature, or have had a stronger or more immediate effect, than this absolute idealism of Lamartine. Matthew Arnold relates somewhere that he once remarked to Sainte-Beuve that Lamartine appeared to him an unimportant poet, to which the French critic replied, “ He was important for us.” Whether there was in this answer a suave suggestion of the difficulty of determining the values of a literature from the standpoint of a different language and environment, or whether it referred merely to the relations of life and literature in France, it is certain that, for a foreign eye, it is easier to overlook the importance of a poet like Lamartine than to exaggerate or even appreciate it. M. de Pomairols takes us back to the France of 1820, nourished on the ideas of the eighteenth century, but with the intellectual force that had inspired them already gone; with a mechanical and arid poetry still dominant amid the new enthusiasm stirred by the prose of Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël. Into this atmosphere the melody and tenderness of the first Méditations fell like summer rain. It was an infusion of new life rather than a new literary form. There were fragments of eighteenth-century expression here and there; and, in fact, Lamartine’s poetry belongs to the legitimate line of French verse rather than to the romantic school ; but its unlikeness to what had preceded was striking, and its freshness unmistakable. It is an almost impalpable essence of poetry, borrowing nothing, as M. de Pomairols shows, from the plastic arts, suggesting “ no medium save poetic speech, the direct expression of the soul. . . . His essential spirituality is rendered by an entire immateriality of style. Never were words more completely freed from weight; he chooses always the airiest and most translucent, and herein, perhaps, resides the secret of their harmony. His lines are not hammered out by a firm hand working upon resistant metal; they are the breathings of a spirit.”M. de Pomairols’s whole analysis of the poems, which is not confined to a general review of the style or argument, but enters minutely into discussion of the verse and seizes the most elusive traits, is an instance of what French criticism aims at and accomplishes, not alone in technical study, but in sympathy and delicacy both of perception and expression. There is a little overfine writing of this sort in the book, and a good deal that is sifted too fine for the enjoyment of any save enthusiastic amateurs of poetry; but it must not be forgotten in this connection that M. de Pomairols is himself a poet as well as a critic.

The impersonal nature of Lamartine’s poetry, everywhere apparent in his selection of feelings common to humanity as the theme of his verse, and in the affiliation of his own love or sorrow to the universal, comes out no less clearly in the circumstance, noted by M. de Pomairols, that in the retrospection so frequent in his poems Lamartine’s regret is never for his own former self, but always for those whom he loved. His affections were very strong. The friends of his boyhood, none of whom was distinguished or to the world at large specially interesting, were not only loved by him to the last, but loved with the old idealization and eagerness.

As regards the relative estimate of his work, we cannot agree with M. de Pomairols in placing the Harmonies above the Meditations; and we do not find its rightful supremacy accorded to “I’incomparable Lac,” as Sainte-Beuve calls it, though perhaps this most perfect of sentimental poems is rather taken for granted in M. de Pomairols’s survey. Jocelyn is the fullest expression of Lamartine’s genius, the most successful instance of that usually unsuccessful form, the novel in verse; and while M. de Pomairols’s characterization of it as “ the greatest, perhaps the only poem in our language,” though it finds support in the critical pages of M. Lemaitre, sounds tolerably sonorous, this idyl of passion merits at least the tenderness here bestowed upon it. M. Brunetière has wittily said of the banquets by which his country loves to do honor to the memory of its great authors, “ Ils out pensé pour nous, et nous mangeons pour eux ; ” and it is pleasant to find that there is still — or shall we say again ? — a feasting in homage to Lamartine.

  1. Le Théâtre et les Mœurs. Par J. J. WEISS. 3me. ed. Paris: Oalmann Lévy.
  2. Impressions de Théâtre. Par JULES LEMAÎTRE. Quatriemo Série, Paris: Lec&ène et Ondin.
  3. Figures Littéraires. Par PAUL. DESCHANEL, Député. Paris: Calmann Lévy.
  4. Lamartine. Etude de Morale et d’Esthétique. Par CHARLES DE POMAIKOLS. Paris: Hachette et Cie. Boston : Carl Schoenhof.