1902 Encyclopedia > Edgar Quinet

Edgar Quinet
French historian and intellectual

EDGAR QUINET (1803-1875) was born at Bourg-en-Bresse, in the department of the Ain, France, on February 17, 1803. His father, Jerome Quinet, had been a com-missary in the army, but being a strong republican and disgusted with Napoleon's usurpation, he gave up his post and resided either at Bourg or at a country house which lie possessed in the neighbourhood, devoting himself to scien-tific and mathematical study. Edgar, who was an only child, was much alone, but his mother (whose name was Eugénie Rozat Lagis, and who was a person of education and strong though somewhat unorthodox religious views) exercised great influence over him. He was sent to school first at Bourg and then at Lyons, where he took no part in a celebrated barring out which led to the expulsion of his schoolfellow Jules Janin. On leaving school his father wished him to go into the army and then suggested busi-ness. But Quinet was determined upon literature, and after a time got his way. His first publication, the Tab-lettes du Juif Errant, appeared in 1823. Being struck with Herder's Philosophic der Geschichte, he undertook to translate it, learnt German for the purpose, published his work in 1827, and obtained by it considerable credit. At this time he was introduced to Cousin and made the acquaintance of Michelet. He had visited Germany and England before the appearance of his book. Cousin pro-cured him a post on a Government mission to the Morea in 1829, and on his return he published in 1830 a book on La Grece Moderne. Some hopes of employment which he had after the revolution of February were frustrated by the reputation of speculative republicanism which he had acquired. But he joined the staff of the Revue des Deux Mondes, and for some years contributed to it numerous essays, the most remarkable of which was that on " Les Épopées Françaises du XHème Siècle, " an early though not by any means the earliest appreciation of the long-neglected chansons de geste. Ahasvérus, his first ori-ginal work of consequence, appeared in 1833. This is a singular prose poem in language sometimes rather bom-bastic but often beautiful. Shortly afterwards he married Minna More, a German girl with whom he had fallen in love some years before. Then he visited Italy, and, besides writing many essays, produced two poems, Napoleon (1835) and Promethée (1838), which being written in verse (of which he was not a master) are inferior to Ahasvérus. In 1838 he published a vigorous reply to Strauss's Life of Jesus, and in that year he received the Legion of Honour. In 1839 he was appointed professor of foreign literature at Lyons, where he began the brilliant course of lectures afterwards embodied in the Génie des Religions. Two years later he was transferred to the College de France and the Génie des Religions itself appeared (1842).

Quinet's Parisian professorship was more notorious than fortunate, owing, it must be said, to his own fault. His chair was one of Southern Literature, but, neglecting his proper subject, he chose, in conjunction with Michelet, to engage in a violent polemic with the Jesuits and with Ultramontanism. Two books bearing exactly these titles appeared in 1843 and 1844, and contained, as was usual with Quinet, the substance of his lectures. These excited so much disturbance and the author so obstinately refused to confine himself to literature proper that in 1846 the Government put an end to them—a course which was not disapproved try the majority of his colleagues. By this time Quinet was a pronounced republican and something of a revolutionist. He appeared in arms during the dis-turbances which overthrew Louis Philippe, and was elected by the department of the Ain to the Constituent and then to the Legislative Assembly, where he figured among the extreme Radical party. He had published in 1848 Les Révolutions d'Italie, one of his principal though not one of his best works. He wrote numerous pamphlets dur-ing the short-lived second republic, attacked the Roman expedition with all his strength, and was from the first an uncompromising opponent of Prince Louis Napoleon. He was banished from France after the coup d'état, and estab-lished himself at Brussels. His wife had died some time previously, and he now married Mademoiselle Assaki, the daughter of a Roumanian poet. At Brussels he lived for some seven years, during which he published Les Esclaves (1853), a dramatic poem, Marnix de Ste Aldégonde (1854), a study of that Reformer in which he very greatly exagger-ates Sainte Aldegonde's literary merit, and some other books. He then moved to Veytaux on the shore of the Lake of Geneva, where he continued to reside till the fall of the empire. Here his pen was busier than ever. In 1860 appeared a singular book somewhat after the fashion of Ahasvérus entitled Merlin l'Enchanteur, in 1862 a Histoire de la Campagne de 1815, in 1865 an elaborate book on the French Revolution, in which the author, republican as he was, blamed the acts of the revolutionists unsparingly, and by that means drew down on himself much wrath from more thoroughgoing partisans. Many pamphlets date from this period, as does La Création (1870), a third book of the class of Ahasvérus and Merlin, but even vaguer, dealing not with history, legend, or philosophy, but with physical science for the most part.

Quinet had refused to return to France to join the Liberal opposition against Napoleon III., but immediately after Sedan he returned. He was then restored to his professorship, and during the siege wrote vehemently against the Germans. He was elected deputy by the department of the Seine in 1871, and was one of the most obstinate opponents of the terms of peace between France and Germany. He continued to write till his death, which occurred at Versailles on the 27th March 1875. Le Siege de Paris et la Defense Nationale appeared in 1871, La République in 1872, Le Livre de l'Exilé in the year of its author's death and after it. This has been followed by three volumes of letters and some other work. Quinet had already in 1858 published a semi-biographic book called Histoire de nies Idées. The whole of his very numerous works, the chief of which have been already named, have appeared in a uniform edition of which some thirty volumes are now published. His second wife, in 1870, published certain Mémoires d'Exil. There is in English an elaborate Early Life and Writings of Edgar Quinet, by R. Heath (London, 1881), but it does not go beyond the year 1842.

Quinet's character was extremely amiable, and his letters to his mother, his accounts of his early life, and so forth are likely always to make him interesting. He was also a man of great moral con- scientiousness, and as far as intention went perfectly disinterested, though it may perhaps be questioned whether the disappointment which he met with for years after the revolution of February had not an insensible influence in determining his republicanism. But he never temporized, and, as has been said above, hesitated not to criticize his own party as severely as his opponents. He had, however, as a writer, a thinker, and a politician, drawbacks which prevented him from taking the first rank, and which will probably make his works, except those which are purely personal, less and less read in the future. As a writer his chief fault is want of concentration, as a thinker and politician vagueness and want of practical determination. His work is very extensive and abounds in passages of great beauty. But no single book of his can be called a master- piece, and none is of such a kind that the reader feels the subject to have been thoroughly treated in accordance with a definite and consistent principle or series of principles. Of verse he had but little command, and his abundance in a certain kind of effusive prose wants chastisement and criticism. The singular rhapsodies, of which in the three books Aliasvérus, Merlin, and La Creation he has left great store, are too diffuse, too inorganic, and too devoid of coherent and positive intention to rank very high. They are more like recorded dreams than anything else. His historical and philo- sophical works on the other hand, though showing much reading, fertile thought, abundant facility of expression, and occasionally, where prejudice does not come in, acute judgment, are rather (as not a few of them were in fact) reported lectures than formal treatises. His rhetorical power was altogether superior to his logical power, and the natural consequence is that his work is full of contradictions. These contradictions were, moreover, due not merely to an incapacity or an unwillingness to argue strictly, but also to the presence in his mind of a large number of inconsistent tastes and prejudices which he either could not or would not co- ordinate into an intelligible creed. Thus he has the strongest attraction for the picturesque side of medisevalism and catholicity, the strongest repulsion for the restrictions which medieval and Catholic institutions imposed on individual liberty. He refused to submit himself to any form of positive orthodoxy, yet when a man like Strauss pushed unorthodoxy to its extreme limits Quinet revolted. As a politician he acted with the extreme Radicals, yet universal suffrage, the cardinal doctrine of Radicalism, disgusted him as unreasonable in its principle and dangerous in its results. His pervading characteristic, therefore, is that of an eloquent vagueness, very stimulating and touching at times, but as deficient in coercive force of matter as it is in lasting precision and elegance of form. He is less inaccurate in fact than Michelet, but he is also much less one-ideaed, and the result is that he seldom attains to the vivid representation of which Michelet was a master. (G. SA.)

The above article was written by: George Saintsbury, M.A., author of Short History of French Literature.

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