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During the years from 1861 to 1865, had any one desiring to renew his subscription to the Paris “Constitutionnel” happened to have gone to the office of that journal, of a Sunday
a afternoon, say from two to three o'clock — no impossible occurrence in Paris, by the way - he would have espied behind the iron fencing to the desk-tops but a solitary individual. Absorbed in his occupation, that individual would have discovered to the visitor only his calotte, or little black cap which covers the top of his head, whence escaped a few locks of gray hair, which must have been blond before silvered with age. The person in question was M. SainteBeuve, busied at correcting the proof of his causerie to appear in Monday's, paper. After having revised the proof with minute attention and untiring pains - in the lonely silence of that great hall, with its vast ceiling, painted by one of the Coypels, which is the outer office of the establishment — M. Sainte-Beuve — l'oncle Beuve, as the poet Beaudélaire used familiarly to call him — returned to the little circle of his fellow-contributors to the “ Constitutionnel” and others, which formed for an hour or so in the rear office, on the afternoon of the day mentioned. Besides Sainte-Beuve, the group regularly comprised Nestor Roqueplan and Paulin Limayrac, a trio which, of all Paris, was perhaps as well fitted as any to inspect and appreciate the literature, and judge the politics of France of the nineteenth century. Laurentjean, Achard, Aubert, and other lesser, but still considerable lights, swelled the coterie of which Sainte-Beuve was an idol and the oracle. Théophile Gautier, Philarête Chasles, Edmond About, Jouvin, A. Duchesne, Jules Janin, Aug. Villemot, Fiorentino, Sarcy, Paul St. Victor, Claretie, Aubryet, and scores of others most of whom are, or were, popular authors and well-known journalists—are names which represent a force in matters of literary and art criticism unequalled in the world, and a guild which acknowledged Sainte-Beuve as its illustrious leader.
Criticism in France is a fine art by itself, of which no mere pedagogue can pass professor. A long, serious apprenticeship, with native and manifest ability at the outset, are the
first acquirements for the humblest of its grades. Not in France, as in America, and frequently enough in England, does some bookish knight, his visor down, yet invested with all a critic's might, vault into the arena of literature and art, and bluster forth his dicta with undisputed force; nor, as here, can the flippant sciolist qualify with lofty doubt, or befog with sapient phrase, the opinions of a plastic or indiscriminating class of readers. The public which Sainte-Beuve addressed have long been accustomed to criticise the critic; competent to refute, or quick to modify an unjust judgment, the cultured community has a voice which, whenever raised, is never passed by unheeded. French criticism does not merely expose the faults, but, in friendly temper, it ferrets out, and in an intelligible manner examines, de vous à mois, the beauties of a production. It classifies with signs and numbers understood by all. Satire and art, if apt to be over-estimated, are, on the other hand, never confounded with baser stuff; whilst sterling erudition, and that homely, often traceless, toiling after fact, are recognised and duly prized. As the most confident charlatan could not withstand the scrutiny of the average-educated French classes, so no prestige, however lustrous, would blind them to a writer's positive imperfections.
Few men have been more criticised than the prince of critics, Sainte-Beuve himself, and perhaps no author was ever more sensitive to censure or derision. The Duchess d'Abrantès nicknamed him Sainte Bevue; and in the "Figaro" of the day, referring to his secession from Victor Hugo and the romanesques, Alphonse Karr, in an anonymous article headed, “l'Affreux Bonhomme,” berated him with claws and beak, and followed him up with irony and bitter fun-phrases from which diatribe are still extant, as for years the subject of it was often dubbed by witty haters, l'affreux bonhomme “That good soul of a critic," said the “Rivarol newspaper, in 1842, reviewing Sainte-Beuve's first numbers of the “Historie de Port Royal," " who plucks and pecks at the works of others, in all the wisdom and charity in which a dévote plucks and pecks at the acts of her less self-delighted neighbor.” And again : “ That Jansenist who dares to chant his yellow and sickish prose only under cover of the arches of Port Royal," are Sainte-Beuve and his book graciously yclept.
The French critics of the day, with no assumption of infallibility, are acute, cultivated, and, in the main, conscientious men. Indiscriminate praise, or sweeping censure, is their horror, as the balance of defect and merit, patiently sought for and brought down, is their real and only test. The society of mutual admiration, as we know it in America — especially in the “modern Athens” – there keeps low its well-cuffed head, though if reciprocal puff be rarer as a systematised thing, the records of French criticism do not show the fraternity to have always been immaculate. The Cid had its Scuderi, and for a long time Corneille was persecuted by a d’Aubignac; whilst Bossuet, and Fénelon too, had a Faidit—unfit or knavish judges. Racine was condemned by clever rivals, and as England had a Denny, so France was infested by a Desfontaines, who excused his cunning, but illiterate abuse, upon the plea that he had to live in some way. Janin and Fiorentius (an Italian), of our time, plausibly explained acts of theirs which had been stigmatised as corrupt—where their interest was said to have colored their verdict--but a spot on both will always linger. “An excellent critic should be an artist, one with much science and taste, and without prejudice and envy,” says Voltaire, but he adds that it would be difficult to find such. So difficult, indeed, that even the great satirist, all critic hors ligne, that he set up to be, was possessed by what he should have lacked to personify his compact formula, for he assuredly had envy. The French standard of the present century, as maintained by Gautier, Nillemot, and Jouvin, is one of fundamental laws, with purity, experience, taste, and common sense as articles of faith. Without being Quintilians, perhaps, these are three veteran masters we have named, whom none who know them would deny to be such, not even the witty sneerer at Rousseau, could he wake up and scan their model yet thorough and impartial examinations. Masters, too, of a temper and a justice superior to the measure of Voltaire's
pen, and of the plainest prose wherewith to render
an exquisite perception; masters, by the side of whose swift and simple style the commentaries of Ruskin are tangled and profuse, Mathew Arnold is labored and common-place, and Colley Cibber a pretentious drone.
In France, then, where there is no Paternoster Row and few mere panygerists like Brimley, or finical inutiles like Helps—in France all who are recognized as critics are held by a fastidious public to the code. All, with rare exceptions, are tested, reliable and potential men in their various departments, and all, with Sainte-Beuve to head the list, have a large and important place in French belles lettres.
The function of criticism he inculcated as he exercised it with a single-minded order and devotion, which, to the reviewers of the paper-knife school, who can cut up a book which they have not cut open, would appear fanatical and fabulous. Yet his indulgence went hand in hand with his sincerity, and both kept company with his distinctive canons of taste which presided over all his interpretations. His facial expression prompted, and his incomparable talent, his tact, and his unpedantic learning legitimatized the deference paid hím by old and young of his own and other cliques. There was in his countenance a certain combination of the prelate and the diplomatist, denoting an absence of animosity, and that ever-present delicacy which marked his sallies and his conversation. His large, pointed nose indicated the sturdy inquirer and examiner; whilst another shade to his features, and a rapid movement of his nostrils showed little he brooked opposition to, or even divergence from, his literary rescript. Skittish like a blood-horse, irritable like a
a poet, individual like a pretty woman, the least thrust or reflection straightened him upon his members and put him on his defence. He has also been likened to one of those great iron boilers with the exterior painted white or black, which appear to the ordinary spectator to be cold and calm, and inoffensive. But within their sides struggles a formidable, if prisoned'force, which is ever ready to break forth. From the smallest issue conceivable—one opened with the prick of "a pin—a jet of boiling vapor will spurt out, sharp and unexpected, to scald and sting the unwary trifler. Sainte-Beuve was something of that sort—that is Sainte-Beuve from fifty to sixty years of age, who, knowing the strength of his arm, rarely pardoned an emulous offender, but treated him as the Turk would the Moor. Yet, again, like a good-hearted woman, for a word that had touched him, or his suspicion that he had been over harsh, or that he had conquered, and the argument and the epigram gave way to social conference and the kindly jest. Opinions passed upon any man, great or small, inevitably disagree, but it was generally conceded that, by himself, the père critic was amiable and full of feeling. Proud and difficult with his literary equals, his consciousness of sovereignty taught him a winning consideration for his inferiors.
In the life and times of Louis XIV. he learned the theory of war.
With Ampère he studied mathematics, and political economy with Proudhon--two friends whom he ever lovedand, save a speech or two in the senate, his public life outside of his lectures and his writings was zero. For the imperial family he had a true regard, and a strong bond of friendship existed between the princess Mathilde, that enlightened patron of the arts and letters, and their most brilliant devotee. Upon entering the senate he resigned his post with the “Constitutionnel” and a salary of 20,000 francs a year, (his other income amounted to a few hundred dollars only) and considering himself a rich man at present,* he made certain improvements in his modest residence of the rue du Montparnasse, where, with a single servant, he had lived for years. His study remained simple and unadorned as in his younger and poorer days, and was also used as his bed-chamber. Here he breathed his last, with barely the comforts of modern life about him, such was the primitive plainness of the man.
" Les Châtiments” of Victor Hugo, is by many considered his chef d'auvre; not only on account of the skill and sublime beauties of many of its passages, but because it is perhaps the only book where the passion of the author seems real. Elsewhere, when M. Hugo speaks of his affections, his children, or his reveries, one suspects that the native senti
* His pay as senator was about $8,000.