1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sainte-Beuve, Charles Augustin
SAINTE-BEUVE, CHARLES AUGUSTIN (1804-1869), French critic, was born at Boulogne-sur-Mer (No. 16 Rue du Pot d' Etain) on the 23rd of December 1804. He was a posthumous child, his father, a native of Picardy, and controller of town-dues at Boulogne, having married in this same year, at the age of fiftytwo. The father was a man of literary tastes, and used to read, like his son, pencil in hand; his copy of the Elzevir edition of Virgil, covered with his notes, was in his son's possession, and is mentioned by him in one of his poems. Sainte-Beuve's mother was half English, her father, a mariner of Boulogne, having married .an Englishwoman. The little Charles Augustin was brought up by his mother, who never remarried, and an aunt, his father's sister, who lived with her. They were poor, but the boy, having learnt all he could at his first school at Boulogne, persuaded his mother to send him, when he was near the age of fourteen, to finish his education at Paris. 'He boarded with a M. Landry, and had fora fellow-boarder and intimate friend Charles Neate, afterwards fellow of Oriel College and member of parliament for the city of Oxford. From Landry's boarding-house he attended the classes, irst of the College Charlemagne, and-then of the College Bourbon, winning the head prize for history at the first, and for Latin verse at the second. In 1823 he began to study medicine, attending lectures on anatomy and physiology and walking the hospitals. But meanwhile a Liberal newspaper, the Globe, was founded in 1827 by Paul Francois Dubois, one of Sainte-Beuve's old teachers at the College Charlemagne. Dubois called to his aid his former pupil, who, now quitting the study of medicine, contributed historical and literary articles to the Globe, among them two, which attracted the notice of Goethe, on Victor Hugo's Odes et ballades. These articles led to a friendship with Victor Hugo and to Sainte-Beuve's connexion with the romantic school of poets, a school never entirely suited to his nature. In the Globe appeared also his interesting articles on the French poetry of the 16th century, which in 1828 were collected and published, and followed by a second volume containing selections from Ronsard. In 1829 he made his first venture as a poet with the Vie, poésies, et pensées de Joseph Delorme. His own name did not appear; but Joseph Delorme, that “Werther in the shape of Jacobin and medical student, ” as Guizot called him, was the Sainte-Beuve of those days himself. About the same time was founded the Revue de Paris, and Sainte-Beuve contributed the opening article, with Boileau for its subject. In 1830 came his second volume of poems, the Cousolations, a work on which Sainte-Beuve looked back in later life with a special affection. To himself it marked and expressed, he said, that epoch of his life to which he could with most pleasure return, and at which he could like best that others should see him. But the critic in him grew to. prevail more and more and pushed out the poet. In 1831 the Revue des deux morzdes was founded in rivalry with the Revue de Paris, and from the first Sainte-Beuve was one of the most active and important contributors. He brought out his novel of Volupté in 1834, his third and last volume of poetry, the Peusées d'aout, in 1837. He himself thought that the activity which he -had in the meanwhile exercised as a critic, and the offence which in some quarters his criticism had given, were the cause of the less favourable reception which this volume received. He had long meditated a book on Port-Royal. At the end of 1837 he quitted France, accepting an invitation from the academy of Lausanne, where in a series of lectures his work on Port-Royal came into its first form of being. In the summer of the next year he returned to Paris to revise and give the final shape to his work, which, however, was not completed for twenty years. In 1840 Victor Cousin, then minister of public instruction, appointed him one of the keepers of the Mazarin Library, an appointment which gave him rooms at the library, and, with the money earned by his pen, made him for the first time in his life easy in his circumstances, so that, as he afterwards used to say, he had to buy rare books in order to spend his income. A more important consequence of his easier circumstances was that he could study freely and largely. He returned to Greek, of which a French schoolboy brings from his lycée no great store. With a Greek teacher, M. Pantasides, he read and re-read the poets in the original, and thus acquired, not, perhaps, a philological scholar's knowledge of them, but a genuine and invaluable acquaintance with them as literature. His activity in the Revue des deux mondes continued, and articles on Homer, Theocritus, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Meleager were fruits of his new Greek studies. He wrote also a very good article in 1844 on the Italian poet Leopardi; but in general his subjects were taken from the great literature which he knew best, that of his own country—its literature both in the past and in the contemporary present. Seven volumes of Portraits, contributed to the Revue de Paris and the Revue des deux moudes, exhibit his work in the years from 1832 to 1848, a work constantly increasing in range and value. In 1844 he was elected to the French Academy as successor to Casimir Delavigne, and was received there at the beginning of 1845 by Victor Hugo.
From this settled and prosperous condition the revolution of February 1848 dislodged him. In March of that year was published an account of secret-service money distributed in the late reign, and Sainte-Beuve was put down as having received the sum of one hundred francs. The smallness of the sum would hardly seem to suggest corruption; it appears probable that the money was given to cure a smoky chimney in his room at the Mazarin Library, and was wrongly entered as secret-service money. But Sainte-Beuve, who piqued himself on his independence and on a punctilious delicacy in money matters, was indignant at the entry, and thought the proceedings of the minister of public instruction and his officials, when he demanded to have the matter sifted, tardy and equivocal. He resigned his post at the Mazarin and accepted an offer from the Belgian government of a chair of French literature in the university of Liége. There he gave the series of lectures on Chateaubriand and his contemporaries which was afterwards (in 1860) published in two volumes. He liked Liége, and the Belgians would have been glad to keep him; but the attraction of Paris carried him back there in the autumn of 1849. Louis Napoleon was then president. Disturbance was ceasing; a time of settled government, which lasted twenty years and corresponds with the second stage of Sainte-Beuve's literary activity, was beginning. Dr Véron, the editor of the Constilutionnel, proposed to him that he should supply that newspaper with a literary article for every Monday; and thus the Causeries du lundi were started. They at once succeeded, and “gave the signal, ” as Sainte-Beuve himself says with truth, “for the return of letters.” Sainte-Beuve now lived in the small house in the Rue Montparnasse (No. 11), which he occupied for the remainder of his life, and where in 1850 his mother, from whom he seems to have inherited his good sense, tact and finesse, died at the age of eighty-six. For three years he continued writing every Monday for the Constitutionnel; then he passed, with a similar engagement, to the M oniteur. In 1857 his Monday articles began to be published in volumes, and by 1862 formed a collection in fifteen volumes; they afterwards were resumed under the title of N ouveaux Zundis, which now make a collection of thirteen volumes more. In 1854 he was nominated to the chair of Latin poetry at the college of France. His first lecture there (in 1855) was received with interruptions and marks of disapprobation by many of the students, displeased at his adherence to the empire; at a second lecture the' interruption was renewed. Sainte-Beuve had no taste for public speaking and lecturing; his frontis mollifies, he said, unfitted him for it. He was not going to carry on a war with a party of turbulent students; he proposed to resign, and when the minister would not accept his resignation of his professorship he resigned its emoluments. The Etude sur Virgile, a volume published in 1857, contains what he had meant to be his first course of lectures. He was still a titular official of public instruction; and in 1858 his services were called for by Gustave Rouland, then minister of public instruction, as a lecturer (maitre de conferences) on French literature at the École Normale Supérieure. This work he discharged with assiduity and success for four years. In 1859 he was made commander of the Legion of Honour, having twice previously to 1848 refused the cross. During the years of his official engagement his Monday contributions to the Moniteur had no longer been continuous; but in 1862 an arrangement was proposed by which he was to return to the Conslitulionnel and again supply an article there every Monday. He consented, at the age of fifty-seven, to try this last pull, as he called it, this “dernier coup de collier”; he resigned his office at the École Normale and began the series of his Nouveaux lumiis. They show no falling off in vigour and resource from the Causeries. But the strain upon him of his weekly labour was great. “I am not a monsieur nor a gentleman, ” he writes in 1864, “ but a Workman by the piece and by the hour.” “ I look upon myself as a player forced to go on acting at an age when he ought to retire, and who can see no term to his engagement.” He had reason to hope for relief. Except himself, the foremost literary men in France had stood aloof from the empire and treated it with a hostility more or less bitter. He had not been hostile to it: he had accepted it with satisfaction, and had bestowed on its official journal, the M onitour, the lustre of his literature. The prince Napoleon and the princess Mathilde were his warm friends. A senator ship was mentioned; its income of £1600 a year would give him opulence and freedom. But its coming was delayed, and when at last in April 1865 he was made senator, his health was seriously compromised. The disease of which he died, but of which the doctors did not ascertain the presence until his body was opened after his death-the ston%began to distress and disable him. He could seldom attend the meetings of the senate; the part he took there, however, on two famous occasions-when the nomination of Ernest Renan to the college of France came under discussion in 1867, and the law on the press in the year following-provoked the indignation of the great majority in that conservative assembly. It delighted, however, all who “ belonged, ” to use his own phrase, “to the diocese of free thought ”; and he gave further pleasure in this diocese by leaving the M oniteur at the beginning of 1869, and contributing to a Liberal journal, the T emps.1 His literary activity suffered little abatement, but pain made him at last unable to sit to write; he could only stand or lie. He died in his house in the Rue Montparnasse on the 13th of October 1869.
The work of Sainte-Beuve divides itself into three portions—his ploetry, his criticism before 1848 and his criticism after that year. is novel of Volupté may properly go with his poetry. We-have seen his tender feeling for his poetry, and he always maintained that, when the “ integrating molecule, " the foundation of him as a man of letters, was reached, it would be found to have a poetic character. And yet he declares, too, that it is never without a sort of surprise and confusion' that he sees his verses detached gem their contexct argd quoid in pub¥hand(;n opjen day. They o not seem ma e or it, e says. is a mira e critic new indeed, the radical inadequacy of French poetry. It is to Englisli poetry that he resorts in order to find his term of comparison, and to award the praise which to French poetry he refuses. “ Since you are fond of the poets, ” he writes to a friend, “ l should like to see you read and look for poets in another language, in English for instance. There you will find the most rich, the most dulcet and the most new poetical literature. Our French poets are too soon read; they are too slight, too mixed, too corrupted for the most part, too poor in ideas even when they have the talent for strophe and line; to hold and occupy for long a serious mind. ” But, even as French poetry, Sainte-Beuve's poetry had faults of its own. Critics who found much in it to praise yet pronounced it a poetry “ narrow, puny and stifled, ” and its style “ slowly dragging and laborious " Here we touch on a want which must no doubt be recognized in him, which he recognized in himself, and whereby he is separated from the spirits who succeed in uttering their most highly inspired note and in giving their full measurwsome want of flame, of breath, of pinion. Perhaps we may look for the cause in a confession of his own: “I have my weaknesses; they are those which gave to King Solomon his disgust with everything and his satiety with life. I may have regretted sometimes that I was thus extinguishing my fire, but I did not ever pervert my heart." It is enough gor us to take his confession that he extinguished or imaired his re.
P Yet his poetry is characterized by merits which make it readable still and readable by foreigners. So far as it exhibits the endeavour of the romantic school in France to enlarge the vocabulary of poetry and to give reater freedom and variety to the alexandrine, it has interest chiegy for readers of hisown nation. But it exhibits more than this. It exhibits already the genuine Sainte-Beuve, the author. who, as M. Duvergier de Hauranne said in the Globe at the time, “ sent a sa maniere, écrit comme il sent, " the man who, even in the forms of an artificial poetry, remains always “ un penseur et un homme d'esprit." That his Joseph Delorme was not the Werther of romance, but a Werther in the shape of Jacobin and medical student, the only Werther whom Sainte-Beuve by his own practical experience really knew, was a novelty in French poetical literature, but was entirely charréctiristic ofhSainte-Bemge. All liislpoetry has this stamp of direct ea ing wit common t ings, o pain unpretending reality and sincerity; and this stamp at that time made it, as Béranger said, “ a kind of poetry absolutely new in France." lt has been the fashion to disparage the criticism of the Critiques et portraits littéraires, the criticism anterior to 1848, and to sacrifice it, in fact, to the criticism posterior to that date. Sainte-Beuve has himself indicated what considerations ought to be present with us in reading the Critiques et pzgtraits, Evithd wlhat reseryes I-TIC should read them. T ey are to e consi ere, e says, rat er as a dependency of the elegiac and Romanesque part of my work than as express criticisms." They have the copiousness and enthusiasm oct; youth the(y have also itsvexubelriince. He judgfzd in later li e hateau rian, amartine, ictor ugo more coo, judged them differently. But the Critiques et portraits contaih a number of articles on personages, other than contemporary French poets and romance-writers, which have much of the soundness of his later work, and, in addition, an abundance and fervour of their own which are not without their attraction. Many of these are delightful reading. The articles on- the Greek poets and on Leopardi have been already mentioned. Those on Boileau, Moliére, Pierre Daunou and Cllfarges glaude tlgauriil, on Madame de la Fa ette and Marlemoise e iss may e ta en as samp es of a whoie group which will be found to sufport perfectly the test of reading, even afterNwe hkave zgcustome doursekiles tohthe later work of the master. ay, is so erness an tact s ow t emse ves even in this earlier stage of his criticism, and even in treating the objects of his too fervid youthful enthusiasm. special ob)ect of this was Victor Huglo, and in thelfirstlarticle oin h1rr;11n the Portraits contem orains We ave certain p ent 0 ent usiasm, plen of exuberance. We have the gpithetsy“ adorable, " “ sub ime, X “ supreme, " given to Victor Hugo's poetry; we are told of " the majesty of its high and sombre philosophy." But 'the article next
1 This course of action definitely separated him from the Bonapartists and led to a quarrel with Princess Mathilde.-[ED.] following this, and written only four years later, in 1835, is the article of a critic, and takes the points of objection, seizes the weak side of Victor Hug'o's poetry, how much it has of what is “ creux," "sonore," “artificial," “voulu," “théatral," “violent," gas distinctly as the author of the Couseries could seize it. “The Frank, energetic and subtle, who has mastered to perfection the technical and rhetorical resources of the Latin literature of the decadence,” is a description never to be forgotten of Victor Hugo as a poet, and Sainte-Beuve launches it in this article, written when he was but thirty years old, and still a painter of “portraits de jeunesse" only. He had thus been steadily working and growing; nevertheless, 1848 is an epoch which divides two critics in him of very unequal value. When, after that year of revolution and his stage of seclusion and labour at Liége, he came back to Paris in the autumn of 1849 and commenced in the Constitutionnel the Causeries du lundi, he was astonishingly matured. Something of fervour, enthusiasm, poetry, he may have lost, but he had become a perfect' critic-a critic of measure, not exuberant; of the centre, not provincial; of keen industry and curiosity, with “ Truth " (the word engraved in English on his seal) for his motto; moreover, with gay and amiable temper, his manner as good as his matter-the “ critique souriant,” as, in Charles Monselet's dedication to him, he is called. The root of everything in his criticism is his single-hearted devotion to truth. What he called “ fictions ” in literature, in olitics, in religion, were not allowed to influence him. Some one had) talked on his being tenacious of a certain set of literary opinions. “I hold very little, " he answers, “ to literary opinions; literary opinions occupy very little place in my life and in my thou hts. What does occupy me seriously is life itself and the object ofgit." "I am accustomed incessantly to call my judgments in question anew, and to re-cast my opinions the moment I suspect them to be without validity." “ What I have wished " (in Port-Royal) " is to say not a word more than I thought, to stop even a. little short of what I believed in certain cases, in order that my words might acquire more weight as historical testimony." To all exaggeration and untruth, from whatever side it proceeded, he had an antipath . “ I turn my back upon the Michelets and Quinets, but I cannot hold out my hand to the Veuillots."
But Sainte-Beuve could not have been the great critic he was had he not had, at the service of this his love of truth and measure, the conscientious industry of a Benedictine. “I never have a holiday. On Monday towards noon I lift up my head, and breathe for about an hour; after that the wicket shuts again and I am in my prison cell for seven days." The Couseries were at this price. They came once a week, and to write one of them as he wrote it was indeed a week's work. The “ irresponsible indolent reviewer ” should read his notes to his friend and provider with books, M. Paul Chéron of the National Library. Here is a note dated the 2nd of January 185: “ Good-day and a happy New Year. To-day I set to work on Grimm. A little dry; but after St Francois cle Sales ” (his Monday article just finished) “ one requires a little relief from roses. l have of Grimm the edition of his Correspondance by M. Taschereau. I have also the Memoirs of Madame d'Epinay, where there are many letters of his. But it is possible that there may be notices of him mentioned in the bibliographical book of that German whose name I have forgotten. I should like, too, to have the first editions of his Correspondance; they came out in successive parts." Thus he prepared himself, not for a grand review article once a quarter, but for a newspaper review once a week. His adhesion to the empire caused him to be represented by the Orleanists and Republicans as without character and patriotism, and to be charged with baseness and corruption. The Orleanists had, in a great degree, possession of the higher press in France and of English opinion-ofp Liberal English opinion more especially. And with English Liberals his indifference to parliamentary government was indeed a grievous fault in him; “you Whigs, " as Croker happily says, “are like quack doctors, who have but one specific for all constitutions." To him either the doctrine of English Liberals, or the doctrine of Republicariism, applied absolutely, was what he called a “ fiction, " one of those fictions which “ always end by obscuring the truth.” Not even on M, de Tocqueville's authority would he consent to receive “les hypotheses dites les plus honor ables ”-“ the suppositions which ass for the most respectable. All suppositions he demanded to sifli, to see them at work, to know the place and time and men to which they were to be applied. For the France before his eyes in 1849 he thought' that something “ solid and stable "—un mur, “ a wall, " as he said—was requisite, and that the government of Louis Napoleon supplied this wall. But no one judged the empire more independently than he did, no one saw and enounced its faults more clearly; he described himself as being, in his own single person, “ the gauche of the empire, " and the description was just.
To these merits of mental inde endence, industry, measure, lucidity, his criticism adds the merit olp happy temper and disposition. Goethe long ago noticed that, whereas Germans reviewed one another as enemies whom they hated, the critics of the Globe reviewed one another as gentlemen. This arose from the higher social development of France and from the closer relations of literature with life there But Sainte-Beuve has more, as a. critic, than the external politeness which once at any rate distinguished his countrymen he has a personal charm of manner'due to a sweet and humane teméxer. He complained of un peu de dureté, “ a certain dose of har ness, " in the new generation of writers. The personality of an author had a peculiar importance for him; the poetical side of his subjects, however latent it might be, always attracted him and he always sought to extricate it. This was because he had the moderate, gracious, amiably human instincts of the true poetic nature. “ Let me beg of you, " he says in thanking a reviewer who praised him, “ to alter one or two expressions at any rate. I cannot bear to have it said that I am the first in anything whatever, as a writer least of all; it is not a thing which can be admitted, and' these ways of classing people give offence." Literary man and loyal to the French Academy as he was, he-can yet write to an old friend after his election: “ All these academies, between you and me, are pieces of childishness; at any rate the French Academy is. Our least quarter of an hour of solitary reverie or of serious talk, yours and mine, in our youth, was better employed; but, as one gets old, one falls back into the power of these nothings; only it is well to know that nothings they are.” x
Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the value and extent of the work done in the 'last twenty years of his life by the critic thus excellently endowed is to take a single volume of the causeries du lundi, to look through' its list of subjects, and to remember that with the qualities .above mentioned all these sub'ects are treated. Any volume will serve; let us take the fourth. This volume consists of articles on twenty-four subjects. Twenty of these are the following: Mirabeau and Sophie, Montaigne, Mirabeau and Comte, de la Ma rck, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, André Chénier as politician, Saint-Evremond and Ninon, Joseph de Maistre, Madame de Lambert, Madame Necker, the Abbé Maury, the Duc de Lauzun of Louis XVI.'s reign, Marie Antoinette, Buffon, Madame de Maintenon, De Bonald Amyot, Mallet du Pan, Marmontel, Chamfort, Rulhiere. Almost every personage 'is French, it is true; Sainte-Beuve had a maxim that the critic should prefer subjects which he possesses familiarly. The great place of France in the world is very much due to her eminent gift for social life and development; and this gift French literature has accompanied, fashioned, perfected, and continues to reflect. And nowhere shall we find such interest more completely and charmingly brought out than in Sainte-Beuve's Causeries du lundi and the Nouveoux lunolis. As a guide to bring us to a knowledge of the French genius and literature he is unrivaled.
Authorities.—See his “Ma Biographie" in Nouveaux lundis, xiii., Lettres d lo princess (1873); Correspondence (1877-1878) and Nouvelle Correspondence (1880); the Vicomte d'Haussonville's Sainte-Beuve (1875); Scherer, Etudes sur la littérature contemporaine, iv.; G. Michaut, Sainte-Beuve avant les Lundis (1903). Sainte-Beuve's centenary was celebrated in various ways; for centenary criticism see the Edinburgh Review (April 1905) (“Sainte-Beuve and the Romantics ); Monthly Review (April 1905) (by F. Brunetiére); Revue des Deux Mendes (March 1905) (by Victor Giraud). In the GEuvres choisies de Juste Olivier (1879) are some “ Souvenirs”; and in 1903 the Revue des Deux Mondes published several interesting articles on a correspondence of Sainte-Beuve with Olivier.
- 1 Tableau hislarique et critique de la poésie française au XVI siecle (2nd ed., 1842).
- Sainte-Beuve was at this time a devoted Catholic and a little later for a very short period a disciple of Lamennais. But he gradually separated from his Catholic friends, and at the same time a coldness grew up between him and Victor Hugo. He became the lover of Madame Hugo, and a definite separation between the former friends ensued in 1834. [ED.]
- Port-Royal (1840-1848, 5 vols.; 3rd and revised ed., 1866; 5th ed. with index, 1888-1891).
- He was a friend of Madame Récamier, at whose house he met Chateaubriand. He became an especially close friend of Louis Mathieu, Comte Molé, for whose niece, Mme d'Arbouvi11e, he conceived a lasting attachment. [F.D.]
- Chateaubriand et son groupe litléraire sous l'Empire.