1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Periodical Literature and Criticism since 1830.

(Part 72)


Periodical Literature since 1830. Criticism.

One of the causes which led to this extensive composition of novels was the great spread of periodical literature in France, an the custom of including in almost all periodicals, daily, weekly, or monthly, a feuilleton or installment of fiction. The same spread of periodical literature, together with the increasing interest in the literature of the past, led also to a very great development of criticism. Almost all French authors of any eminence during the last half century have devoted themselves more or less to criticism of literature, of the theatre, or of art, and sometimes, as in the case of Janin and Gautier, the comparatively lucrative nature of journalism and the smaller demands which it made for labour and intellectual concentration have diverted to feuilleton-writing abilities which might perhaps have been better employed. At the same time it must be remembered that from this devotion of men of the best talents to critical work has arisen an immense elevation of the standard of such work. Before the romantic movement in France Diderot in that country, Lessing and some of his successors in Germany, Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Lamb in England, has been admirable critics and reviewers. But the theory of criticism, though these men’s principles and practice had set it aside, still remained more or less what it had been for centuries. The critic was merely the administrator of certain hard and fast rules. There were certain recognized kinds of literary composition; every new book was bound to class itself under one or other of these. There were certain recognized rules for each class; and the goodness of badness of a book consisted simply in its obedience or disobedience to these rules. Even the kinds of admissible subjects and the modes of admissible treatment were strictly noted and numbered. This was especially the case in France and with regard to French belles letters, so that, as we have seen, certain classes of composition had been reduced to unimportant variations of a registered pattern. The romantic protest against this absurdity was specially loud and completely victorious. It is said that a publisher advised the youthful Lamartine to try "to be like somebody else" if he wished to succeed. The romantic standard of success was, on the contrary, to be as individual as possible. Victor Hugo himself composed a good deal of criticism, and in the preface to his Orientales he states the critical principles of the new school clearly. The critic, he says, has nothing to do with the subject chosen, the colours employed, the materials used. Is the work, judges by itself and with regard only to the ideal which the worker had in his mind, good or bad? It will be seen that as a legitimate corollary of this theorem the critic becomes even more of an interpreter than of a judge. He can no more satisfy or his readers by comparing the work before him with some abstract and accepted standard, and marking off its shortcomings. He has to reconstruct, more or less conjecturally, the special ideal at which each of his authors aimed, and to do this he has to study their idiosyncracies with the utmost care, and set them before his readers in as full and attractive a fashion as he can manage. The first writer who thoroughly grasped this necessity and successfully dealt with it was Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869), who has indeed identified his name with the method of criticism just described. Sainte –Beuve’s first remarkable work (his poems and novels we may leave out of consideration) was the sketch of 16th century literature already alluded to which he contributed to the Globe. But it was not fill later that his style of criticism became fully developed and accentuated. During the first decade of Louis Philippe’s reign his critical papers, united under the title of Critiques et Portraits Littéraires, show a gradual advance. During the next ten years he was mainly occupied with his studies of the writers of the Port Royal school. But it was during the last twenty years of his life, when the famous Causeries du Lundi appeared weekly in the columns of the Constitutionnel and the Moniteur, that his most remarkable productions came out. Sainte-Beuve’s style of criticism (which is the key to so much of French literature of the last half century that it is necessary to dwell on it at some length), excellent and valuable as it is, lent itself to two corruptions. There is, in the first place, in making the careful investigations into the character and circumstances of each writer which it demands, a danger of paying too much attention to the man and too little to his work, and of substituting for a critical study a mere collection of personal anecdotes and traits, especially if the author dealt with be4longs to a foreign country or a past age. The other danger is that of connecting the genius and character of particular authors too much with their conditions and circumstances so as to regard them as merely so many products of the age. These faults, and especially the latter have been very noticeable in many of Sainte-Beuve’s successors, particularly in M. Henri Taine, the most brilliant of living French critics, and owing to his Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise, the best known in England. A large number of other critics during the period deserve notice because they have, though acting more or less on the newer system of criticism, manifested considerable originality in its application. As far as merely critical faculty goes, and still more in the power of giving literary expression to criticism, Théophile Gautier yields to no one. His Les Grotesques, an early work dealing with Villon, De Viau, and other enfants terribles of French literature, has served as a model to many subsequent writers, such as Charles Monselet and Charles Asselineau, the affectionate historian of the less famous promoters of the romantic movement. On the other hand, Gautier’s picture criticism, and his short reviews of books, obituary notices, and other things of the kind contributed to daily papers, are in point of style among the finest of all such fugitive compositions. Janin, chiefly a theatrical critic, excelled in light and easy journalism, but his work has neither weight of substance nor careful elaboration of manner sufficient to give it permanent value. This sort of light critical comment has become almost a specialty of the French press, and among its numerous practitioners the names of Armand de Pontmartin (an imitator and assailant of Sainte-Beuve), Arséne Houssaye, Fiorentino, may be mentioned. Edmond Scherer and Paul de St Victor—the former of whom was born in 1812, the latter in 1827—represent different sides of Sainte-Beuve’s style in literary criticism; and in theatrical censure Francisque Sarcey, an acute but somewhat severe judge, has succeeded to the good-natured sovereignty of Janin. The criticism of the Revue des Deux Mondes has played a sufficiently important part in French literature to deserve separate notice in passing. Founded in 1829, the Revue, after some vicissitudes, soon attained, under the direction of the Swiss Buloz, the Character of being one of the first of European critical periodicals. Its style of criticism has on the whole inclined rather to the classical side,—that is, to classicism as modified by, and possible after, the romantic movement. Besides some of the authors already named, its principal critical contributors have been Gustave Planche, an acute but somewhat truculent critic, Henri Etienne, St René Taillandier. Lastly we must notice the important section of professional or university critics, whose critical work has taken the form either of regular treatises or of courses of republished lectures, books somewhat academic and rhetorical in character, but often representing an amount of influence which has served largely to stir up attention to literature. The most prominent name among these is that if Villemain (1790-1870), who was one of the earliest critics of the literature of his own country that obtained a hearing out of it. M. Nisard (b. 1806) has perhaps been more fortunate in his dealings with Latin than with French, and in his History of the latter literature represents too much the classical tradition; Alexandre Vinet (1797-1847), a Swiss critic of considerable eminence, Saint-Marc-Girardin (1801-1873), whose Course de Littérature Dramatique is his chief work, and Eugène Géruzez (1799-1865), who is the author not only of an extremely useful and well-written handbook to French literature before the Revolution, but also of other works dealing with separate portions of the subject, must also be mentioned.

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