Part 2 out of 3
insight, a penetrating perception. The style of such men, even when
most vivacious, is never marked by geniality, by newness of turns, by
imaginative combinations, by rhythmical sweeps, and especially not by
freshness, of all which the fountain is originality, genius,
creativeness. It is related that after several of Carlyle's papers had
appeared in the "Edinburgh Review," Brougham, one of its founders and
controllers, protested that if that man were permitted to write any
more he should cease to be a contributor. And so the pages of the
Review were closed against the best writer it ever had. This arbitrary
proceeding of Brougham is to be mainly accounted for as betraying the
instinct of creeping talent in the presence of soaring genius.
Not less than men of talent men of genius need to cultivate style;
nay, from the copiousness and variousness of their material, and from
its very inwardness, the molds into which it is to be thrown need the
finest care. Coleridge, rich and incomparable as he is, would have
made many of his prose pages still more effective by a studious
supervision; and De Quincey tells us what labor his periods sometimes
cost him. The following advice, given in a letter from Maurice de
Guerin to his sister, may be addressed to all literary aspirants:
"Form for yourself a style which shall be the expression of
yourself. Study our French language by attentive reading, making it
your care to mark constructions, turns of expression, delicacies of
style, but without ever adopting the manner of any master. In the
works of these masters we must learn our language, but we must use it
each in our own fashion."
One of the first constituents of a good style is what Coleridge calls
"progressive transition," which implies a dynamic force, a propulsive
movement, behind the pen. Hazlitt, for example, somewhat lacked this
force, and hence De Quincey is justified to speak of his solitary
flashes of thought, his "brilliancy, seen chiefly in separate
splinterings of phrase or image, which throw upon the eye a vitreous
scintillation for a moment." One of the charms, in a high sense, of
Coleridge's page is that in him this dynamic force was present in
liveliest action. His intellect, ever enkindled by his emotions,
exacted logical sequence, and thus a rapid forward movement is
overspread by a glow of generous feeling, which, being refined by his
poetic sensibility made his style luminous and flowing.
De Quincey, treating of aphoristic writing, says, "Any man [he of
course means any man with good things in him] as he walks
through the streets may contrive to jot down an independent thought, a
short-hand memorandum of a great truth; but the labor of composition
begins when you have to put your separate threads of thought into a
loom; to weave them into a continuous whole; to connect, to introduce
them; to blow them out or expand them; to carry them to a close."
Buffon attached the greatest importance to sequence, to close
dependence, to continuous enchainment. He detested a chopped, jerky
style, that into which the French are prone to fall. Certain it is,
and from obvious causes, that much of the secret of style lies in
aptness of sequence, thought and word, through an irresistible
impulsion and pertinence, leaping forth nimbly, each taking its place
promptly, because naturally and necessarily. Through fusion and close
coherency and dependence, the flow is at once smooth and lively. The
grace as well as the strength of the living physical body depends
much, nay primarily, on the joints. So with the body of a good
writer's thoughts, that is, his mode of utterance. To the linking of
sentences and paragraphs (the links being self-wrought out of inward
sap) is due much of the buoyancy and force of style. The
springiness of the joints depends, in the body, on the quality of its
nervous life; in style, much on the marrow and validity of the
thoughts. By a sprightly stream of thought, fed from a full spring of
feeling, the current of words is kept lively and graceful. Words,
sentences, paragraphs, cannot be held closely, symmetrically,
attractively together, without the unction invisibly distilled from
brisk mental movement, movement starting from sentiment fresh and
true. Soul is the source of style. Not sensibility alone is a
prerequisite for style: the sensibility must be _active_, made active
by the fine aspiring urgency which ever demands the best. A good style
will have the sheen communicated by lubrication from within, not the
gloss of outward rubbing.
That style varies in pitch and tone according to the subject treated
ought to be self-evident. In every page of "The Merry Wives of
Windsor" we recognize Shakespeare not less palpably than in "King
Lear." In his "Recollections of Charles Lamb" De Quincey writes, "Far
be it from me to say one word in praise of those--people of how narrow
a sensibility--who imagine that a simple (that is, according to many
tastes, an unelevated and _unrhythmical_) style--take, for
instance, an Addisonian or a Swiftian style--is _unconditionally_
good. Not so: all depends upon the subject; and there is a style,
transcending these and all other modes of simplicity, by infinite
degrees, and, in the same proportion, impossible to most men, the
rhythmical, the continuous--what in French is called the
_soutenu_--which, to humbler styles stands in the relation of an organ
to a shepherd's pipe. This also finds its justification in its
subject; and the subject which _can_ justify it must be of a
corresponding quality--loftier--and therefore, rare."
I quote De Quincey because he has written more, and more profoundly as
well as more copiously, on style than any writer I know. To this
point,--the adaption of style to subject,--he returns, laying down
with clearness and truth the law which should here govern. In a paper
on Schlosser's "Literary History of the Eighteenth Century" he
reaffirms--what cannot be too strongly insisted on--the falsity of the
common opinion that Swift's style is, for all writers, a model of
excellence, showing how it is only fitted to the kind of subjects on
which Swift wrote, and concluding with this characteristic passage:
"That nearly all the blockheads with whom I have at any time had the
pleasure of conversing upon the subject of style (and pardon me for
saying that men of the most sense are apt, upon two subjects, viz.,
poetry and style, to talk _most_ like blockheads) have invariably
regarded Swift's style not as if _relatively_, (i.e., _given_ a proper
subject), but as if _absolutely_ good--good unconditionally, no matter
what the subject. Now, my friend, suppose the case, that the dean had
been required to write a pendant for Sir Walter Raleigh's immortal
apostrophe to Death, or to many passages in Sir Thomas Brown's
'Religio Medici' and his 'Urn-Burial,' or to Jeremy Taylor's inaugural
sections of his 'Holy Living and Dying,' do you know what would have
happened? Are you aware what sort of a ridiculous figure your poor
bald Jonathan would have cut? About the same that would be cut by a
forlorn scullion or waiter from a greasy eating-house at Rotterdam, if
suddenly called away in vision to act as seneschal to the festival of
Belshazzar the king, before a thousand of his lords."
That no writer of limited faculties can have a style of high
excellence ought to be a truism. Through a certain equilibrium among
his faculties, and assiduous literary culture, such a one may
excel colleagues who move on the same bounded plane; but that is all.
From the shallowest utterance, where, thoughts and feelings lying just
below the surface, there can be no strong lights and shadows, no
splendid play in the exposition, styles range, with the men who make
them, through all degrees of liveliness and significance and power, up
to that simple grandeur which conceals a vast volume of thought, and
implies a divine ruling of multiplicity.
In a good style, on whatever degree it stands, there must be a full
marriage between word and thought, so clean an adjustment of
expression to material as to leave no rough edges or nodes. The words
must not be too big or too shiny for the thought; they must not stand
out from the texture, embossing, as it were, the matter. A style can
hardly be too nervous; it can be too muscular, as, for example, was
sometimes that of Michael Angelo in sculpture and painting.
A primary requisite for a good style is that the man and the writer be
one; that is, that the man have a personal feeling for, a free
sympathy with, the theme the writer has taken in hand; his
subject must be fitted to him, and he to his subject. That he be
sincere is not enough; he must be cordial; then he will be magnetic,
attractive. You must love your work to do it well.
A good style is a stream, and a lively stream: it flows ever onward
actively. The worst vice a style can have is languor. With some
writers a full stop is a double full stop: the reader does not get
forward. Much writing consists of little more than sluggish eddies. In
many minds there is not leap enough for a style. Excellence in style
demands three vivacities, and rather exacting ones, for they involve a
somewhat rare mental apportionment; the vivacities of healthy and
poetic feeling, of intellectual nimbleness, and of inviolable
Writers there are who get to be partially self-enslaved by a routine
of phrases and words under the repetition of which thought is hardened
by its molds. Thence mechanical turns and forms, which cause numbness,
even when there is a current of intellectual activity. Writers most
liable to this subjection are they who have surrendered themselves to
set opinions and systems, who therefore cease to grow,--a sad
condition for man or writer.
Hypocrites in writing, as in talking and doing, end badly. A
writer who through his style aims to seem better or other than himself
is soon found out. The desire so to seem argues a literary incapacity;
it looks as though the very self--which will shine through the
style--lacked confidence in its own substance. And after all, in
writing as in doing and talking, a man must be himself, will be
himself in spite of himself. One cannot put on his neighbor's style
any more than he can put on his neighbor's limbs.
Not only has prose its melody as well as verse, but there is no
_style_ unless sentences are pervaded, I might say animated, by
rhythm; lacking appropriate movement, they are inelastic, inert,
drowsy. Rhythm implies a soul behind it and in it. The best style will
have a certain rotundity imparted by the ceaseless rocking of thought
in the deep ocean of sentiment. Without some music in them sentences
were torpid, impracticable. To put thoughts and words so together that
there shall be a charm in the presentation of them, there needs a
lively harmony among certain faculties, a rhythm in the mind. Hence
Cicero said that to write prose well, one must be able to write verse.
The utterance of music in song or tune, in artful melody or choral
harmony, is but the consummation of a power which is ever a sweetener
in life's healthily active exhibitions, the power of sound. Nature is
alive with music. In the fields, in the air, sound is a token of life.
On high, bare, or snow-covered mountains the sense of oppression comes
in great part from the absence of sound. But stand in spring under a
broad, sapful Norway maple, leafless as yet, its every twig and spray
clad in tender green flowerets, and listen to the musical murmur of
bees above you, full of life and promise, a heavenly harmony from
unseen choristers. Here is a symbol of the creative energy, unceasing,
unseen, and ever rhythmical.
The heartier and deeper the thought, the more melody will there be in
its fit expression, and thence the higher range of style is only
reached by poets, or by men who, though poetically minded, yet lack
"the accomplishment of verse." The sudden electric injection of light
into a thought or object or sentiment--in this consists the gift
poetical, a gift which implies a sensibility so keen and select as to
kindle the light, and an intellect fine and firm enough to hold and
transmit it. A writer in whom there is no poetic feeling can hardly
rise to a style. Whoever has tried to read a play of Scribe will
understand from this why Sainte-Beuve affirms of him that he is
utterly devoid of the faculty of style (_denue de la faculte du
style_). Contrast with Scribe his fellow-countryman, the great
Moliere. Thence, Joubert says, "Many of our poets having written in
prose, ordinary style has received from them a brilliancy and
audacities which it would not have had without them. Perhaps, too,
some prose writers, who were born poets without being born versifiers,
have contributed to adorn our language, even in its familiarities,
with those riches and that pomp which until then had been the
exclusive property of the poetic idiom."
A man of poetic sensibility is one born with a sleepless eye to the
better, an ear that craves the musical, a soul that is uneasy in
presence of the defective or the incomplete. This endowment implies a
mind not only susceptible of the higher and finer movements of
thought, but which eagerly demands them, and which thus makes the
writer exacting towards himself. Hence only he attains to a genuine
correctness; he was correct by instinct before he was so by
discipline. In the whole as well as the parts he requires finish and
proportion. Within him there is a momentum which fills out his thought
and its worded envelope to warm convexity. Only he has the fine tact
and discernment to know the full meaning of each word he uses. The
best style is organic in its details as well as its structure; it
shows modeling, a handling of words and phrases with the pliancy and
plastic effects of clay in the hands of the sculptor. Goethe says that
only poets and artists have method, because they require to see a
thing before them in a completed, rounded form. Writing is a fine art,
and one of the finest; and he who would be a master in this art must
unite genial gifts with conscientious culture.
Of style the highest examples, therefore, are to be found in the verse
of the great poets, of the deep rhythmic souls who make a sure, agile
intellect their willing Ariel; and no prose writer gets to be a master
in style but through kindred endowment. The compact, symmetrical
combination of gifts and acquirements, of genius with talent, demanded
for the putting forth of a fresh, priceless poem, this he need not
have; but his perceptions must be brightened by the light
whose fountain is the inward enjoyment of the more perfect in form,
deed, and sentiment, and his best thoughts suffused with that
fragrance whose only source is the ravishment of the beautiful.
DANTE AND HIS LATEST TRANSLATORS.
 Putnam's Magazine, 1868.
"Ghosts and witches are the best machinery for a modern epic." So said
Charles Fox, who fed his imagination on verse of this aspiring class.
Fox was no literary oracle, and his opinion is here cited only as
evidence that the superearthly is an acknowledged element in the
epopee. The term "machinery" implies ignorance of the import of the
super-earthly in epic poetry, an ignorance attendant on materialism
and a virtual unbelief. No poet who should accept the term could write
an epic, with or without the "machinery." Such acceptance would
betoken that weakness of the poetic pinion which surely follows a want
of faith in the invisible supervisive energies.
A genuine epic, of the first class, is a world-poem, a poem of depth
and height and breadth, narrating long-prepared ruin or foundation of
a race; and poetry, soaring beyond history, is bold to lay bare the
method of the divine intervention in the momentous work. The epic
poet, worthy of the lofty task, has such large sympathies, together
with such consciousness of power, that he takes on him to interpret
and incarnate the celestial cooperation. There are people, and some of
them even poets, whose consciousness is so smothered behind the
senses, that they come short of belief in spiritual potency. They are
what, with felicity of phrase, Mr. Matthew Arnold calls--
"Light half-believers in our casual creeds."
Homer and Milton were believers: they believed in the visible, active
presence on the earth of the god Mars, and the archangel Raphael. Had
they not, there would have been no "Iliad," no "Paradise Lost."
Dante, too, was a believer; and such warm, wide sympathies had he, and
an imagination so daring, that he undertook to unfold the divine
judgment on the multitudinous dead, ranging with inspired vision
through hell, and purgatory, and heaven. In his large, hot heart, he
lodged the racy, crude beliefs of his age, and with poetic pen wrought
them into immortal shapes. The then religious imaginations of
Christendom, positive, and gross, and very vivid; the politics of
Italy, then tumultuous and embittered; the theology and philosophy of
his time, fantastic, unfashioned--all this was his material. But all
this, and were it ten times as much, is but the skeleton, the frame.
The true material of a poem is the poet's own nature and thoughts, his
sentiment and his; judgment, his opinions, aspirations, imaginations,
his veriest self, the whole of him, especially the best of him.
Than imaginary journeys through the realms beyond the grave, which
were so much the vogue with the religious writers of the day,--and
literature then was chiefly, almost exclusively, religious,--no more
broad or tempting canvas could be offered to a poet, beset, as all
poets are apt to be, with the need of utterance, and possessed,
moreover, of a graphic genius that craved strong, glowing themes for
its play. The present teeming world to be transfigured into the world
to come, and the solicitation and temptation to do this brought to a
manly, powerful nature, passionate, creative, descriptive, to a
stirring realist, into whose breast, as a chief actor on the Italian
scene, ran, all warm from the wheels of their spinning, the threads of
Italian politics at the culmination of the papal imperial conflict;
and that breast throbbing with the fiery passions of republican Italy,
while behind the throb beat the measure of a poetic soul impelled to
tune the wide, variegated cacophony. Proud, passionate, and baffled,
the man Dante deeply swayed the poet. Much of his verse is directly
woven out of his indignations and burning personal griefs. At times,
contemporaneous history tyrannized over him.
Dante's high and various gifts, his supreme poetic gift, the noble
character and warm individuality of the man, with the pathos of his
personal story, the full, lively transcript he hands down of the
theology and philosophy of his age, his native literary force as
molder of the Italian language, his being the bold, adventurous
initiator, the august father of modern poetry--all this has combined
to keep him and his verse fresh in the minds of men through six
centuries. But even all this would not have made him one of the three
or four world-poets, would not have won for him the wreath of
universal European translation. What gave his rare qualities their
most advantageous field, not merely for the display of their peculiar
superiorities, but for keeping their fruit sound and sweet, was that
he is the historian of hell, purgatory, and heaven--of the world to
come such as it was pictured in his day, and as it has been pictured
more or less ever since--the word-painter of that visionary, awful
hereafter, the thought of which has ever been a spell.
Those imaginations as to future being--to the Middle Ages so vivid as
to become soul-realities--Dante, with his transcendent pictorial
mastership, clothed in words fresh and weighty from the mine of
popular speech, stamping them with his glittering imperial
superscription. Imaginations! there are imaginations of the future,
the reverse of poetical. Hunger will give you tormenting imaginations
of breakfasts and dinners; avarice enlivens some minds with pictures
of gains that are to be. But imaginations of the life beyond the
grave, these we cannot entertain without spirituality. The having them
with any urgency and persistence implies strong spiritual
prepossessions: men must be self-possessed with their higher self,
with their spirit. The very attempt to figure your disembodied state
is an attempt poetical. To succeed with any distinctness denotes some
power of creative projection: without wings, this domain cannot be
entered. In Dante's time these attempts were common. Through his
preeminent qualifications, crowned with the poetic faculty, the
faculty of sympathy with ideal excellence, his attempt was a great, a
To accompany Dante through his vast triple trans-terrestrial world,
would seem to demand in the reader a sustained effort of imagination.
But Dante is so graphic, and, we might add, corporeal in his pictures,
puts such a pulse into his figures, that the artistic illusion
wherewith we set out is exchanged for, or rather overborne by, an
illusion of the reality of what is represented. Yet from the opening
of the first canto he is ever in the super-earthly world, and every
line of the fourteen thousand has the benefit of a super-earthly, that
is, a poetic atmosphere, which lightens it, transfigures it, floats
it. One reads with the poetic prestige of the knowledge that every
scene is trans-terrestrial; and, at the same time, every scene is
presented with a physical realism, a visual and audible vividness,
which captivates and holds the perceptive faculty; so that the reader
finds himself grasped, as it were, in a vice, whose double handle is
mortised on one side in the senses, and on the other in the spiritual
Dante had it in him,--this hell, purgatory, and heaven--so full and
warm and large was his nature. Within his own breast he had felt, with
the keen intensity of the poetic temperament, the loves and hates, the
griefs and delights of life. Through his wealth of heart he had a
fellow-feeling for all the joys and sorrows of his brother-men, and,
added to this, an artist's will and want to reproduce them, and _to_
reproduce them a clear, outwelling, intellectual vivacity. He need
scarcely have told us that his poem, though treating of spirits,
relates to the passions and doings of men in the flesh. He chose a
theme that at once seized the attention of his readers, and gave to
himself a boundless scope. His field was all past history, around the
altitudes of which are clustered biographical traits and sketches of
famous sinners and famous saints, of heroes and lofty criminals; and,
along with this, contemporaneous Florentine and Italian history, with
its tumults and vicissitudes, its biographies and personalities, its
wraths and triumphs.
Dante exhibits great fertility in situations and conjunctions; but,
besides that many of them were ready to his hand, this kind of
inventiveness denotes of itself no fine creative faculty. It is the
necessary equipment of the voluminous novelist. In this facility and
abundance Goldsmith could not have coped with James and Bulwer; and
yet the "Vicar of Wakefield" (not to go so high as "Tristram Shandy"
and "Don Quixote") is worth all their hundred volumes of tales put
together. What insight, what weight, and faithfulness, and refinement,
and breadth, and truth, and elevation of character and conception,
does the framework of incident support and display? That is the
aesthetic question. The novels of every day bristle with this material
inventiveness, this small, abounding, tangled underwood of event and
sensation, which yields no timber and wherein birds will not build.
The invention exhibited in the punishments and tortures and conditions
of the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso," is not admirable for
their mere exuberance and diversity,--for that might have come from a
comparatively prosaic mind, especially when fed, as all minds then
were, with the passionate mediaeval beliefs,--but for the heart there
is in them, throbbing deeply in some, and for the human sympathy, and
thence, in part, the photographic fidelity, and for the paramount gift
poetically to portray. A consequence of the choice of subject, and, as
regards the epic quality of Dante's poem, an important consequence, is
that there is in it no unity of interest. The sympathies of the reader
are not engrossed by one great group of characters, acting and
reacting on one another through the whole sweep of the invention.
Instead of this, we have a long series of unconnected pictures, each
one awakening a new interest. Hereby the mind is distracted, the
attention being transferred at every hundred lines to a fresh figure
or group. We pass through a gallery of pictures and portraits,
classed, to be sure, by subjects, but distinct one from the other, and
separated by the projection of as many different frames. We are on a
weird, adventurous journey, and make but brief stops, however
attractive the strangers or acquaintance we meet. We go from person to
person, from scene to scene; so that at the end of the journey,
although the perception has been richly crowded, one impression has
effaced the other. Not carrying the weight, not pulsating in its every
limb with the power of a broad, deep, involved story, architecturally
reared on one foundation, whose parts are all subordinated to a great
unity, the "Divina Commedia," as an organic, artistic whole, is
inferior to the "Iliad" and "Paradise Lost," and to the Grecian and
The exclusive super-earthliness of his scenes and personages, and,
with this, his delight in picture-drawing, keep Dante close to his
page--fastened to it, we might say, by a twofold fascination. Among
the many faculties that equip him for his extraordinary task, most
active is that of form. Goethe says of him, "The great intellectual
and moral qualities of Dante being universally acknowledged, we shall
be furthered in a right estimate of his works, if we keep in view that
just in his life-time--Giotto being his contemporary--was the re-birth
of plastic art in all its natural strength. By this sensuous,
form-loving spirit of the age, working so widely and deeply, Dante,
too, was largely swayed. With the eye of his imagination he seized
objects so distinctly that he could reproduce them in sharp outline.
Thence we see before us the most abstruse and unusual, drawn, as it
were, after nature." In recognition of the same characteristic,
Coleridge says, "In picturesqueness Dante is beyond all other poets,
ancient or modern, and more in the stern style of Pindar than of any
other. Michael Angelo is said to have made a design for every page of
the 'Divina Commedia.'"
Dante, eminent in poetic gifts, has many sides, but this is his
strongest side: he is preeminently a poet of form. In his mind and in
his work there is a southern, an Italian, sensuousness. He is a poet
of thought, but more a poet of molds; he is a poet of sentiment, but
more a poet of pictures. Rising readily to generalization, still his
intellect is more specific than generic. His subject--chosen by the
concurrence of his aesthetic, moral, and intellectual needs--admits
of, nay, demands portraits, isolated sketches, unconnected
delineations. The personages of his poem are independent one of the
other, and are thence the more easily drawn. Nor does Dante abound in
transferable passages, sentences of universal application, from being
saturated with the perfumed essence of humanity. We say it with
diffidence, but to us it seems that there is a further poetic glance,
more idealized fidelity, in Milton; more significance and wisdom and
profound hint in Goethe. In Milton the mental reverberation is wider:
he rivets us through distant grand association, by great suggestion.
Thus, describing the darkened head of Satan, Milton says,--
"As when the sun new risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air,
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations,"
Setting aside the epithets "horizontal" and "disastrous," which are
poetically imaginative, the likening of Satan to the sun seen through
a mist, or in eclipse, is a direct, parallel comparison that aids us
to see Satan; and it is in such, immediate, not mediate,--not
involving likeness between physical and mental qualities, but merely
between physical, not between subtle, relations,--that Dante chiefly
deals, showing imaginative fertility, helpful, needful to the poet,
but different from, and altogether inferior to, poetic imagination.
The mind attains to the height of poetic imagination when the
intellect, urged by the purer sensibilities in alliance with
aspiration for the perfect, exerts its imaginative power to the
utmost, and, as the result of this exertion, discovers a thought or
image which, from its originality, fitness, and beauty, gives to the
reader a new delight. Of this, the lordliest mental exhibition, there
is a sovereign example in the words wherewith Milton concludes the
"and with fear of change
This fills the mind with the terror he wishes his Satan to inspire;
this gives its greatness to the passage.
Dante, by the distinctness of his outline, addresses himself more to
the reader's senses and perception; Milton rouses his higher
imaginative capacity. In the whole "Inferno," is there a sentence so
aglow as this line and a half of "Paradise Lost"?
"And the torrid clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with fire."
Or is there in Dante any sound so loud and terrible as that shout of
"That tore Hell's concave, and beyond
Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night"?
Here the unity of his theme stands Milton in stead for grandeur and
Dante is copious in similes. Such copiousness by no means proves
poetic genius; and a superior poet may have less command of similes
than one inferior to him. Wordsworth has much less of this command
than Moore. But when a poet does use similes, he will be likely often
to put of his best into them, for they are captivating instruments and
facilities for poetic expansion. When a poet is in warm sympathy with
the divine doings, there will be at times a flashing fitness in his
similitudes, which are then the sudden offspring of finest intuition.
In citing some of the most prominent in the "Divina Commedia," we at
once give brief samples of Dante and of the craft of his three latest
translators, using the version of Dr. Parsons for extracts from the
"Inferno," that of Mr. Dayman for those from the "Purgatorio," and
that of Mr. Longfellow for those from the "Paradiso."
"As well-filled sails, which in the tempest swell,
Drop, with folds flapping, if the mast be rent;
So to the earth that cruel monster fell,
And straightway down to Hell's Fourth Pit he went."
_Inferno_: Canto VII.
"Swept now amain those turbid waters o'er
A tumult of a dread portentous kind,
Which rocked with sudden spasms each trembling shore,
Like the mad rushing of a rapid wind;
As when, made furious by opposing heats,
Wild through the wood the unbridled tempest scours,
Dusty and proud, the cringing forest beats,
And scatters far the broken limbs and flowers;
Then fly the herds,--the swains to shelter scud.
Freeing mine eyes, 'Thy sight,' he said, 'direct
O'er the long-standing scum of yonder flood,
Where, most condense, its acrid streams collect.'"
_Inferno_: Canto IX.
"When, lo! there met us, close beside our track,
A troop of spirits. Each amid the band
Eyed us, as men at eve a passer-by
'Neath a new moon; as closely us they scanned,
As an old tailor doth a needle's eye."
_Inferno_: Canto XV.
"And just as frogs that stand, with noses out
On a pool's margin, but beneath it hide
Their feet and all their bodies but the snout,
So stood the sinners there on every side."
_Inferno_: Canto XXII.
"A cooper's vessel, that by chance hath been
Either of middle-piece or cant-piece reft,
Gapes not so wide as one that from his chin
I noticed lengthwise through his carcass cleft."
_Inferno_: Canto XXVIII.
"We tarried yet the ocean's brink upon,
Like unto people musing of their way,
Whose body lingers when the heart hath gone;
And lo! as near the dawning of the day,
Down in the west, upon the watery floor,
The vapor-fogs do Mars in red array,
Even such appeared to me a light that o'er
The sea so quickly came, no wing could match
Its moving. Be that vision mine once more."
_Purgatorio_: Canto II.
"And thou, remembering well, with eye that sees
The light, wilt know thee like the sickly one
That on her bed of down can find no ease,
But turns and turns again her ache to shun,"
_Purgatorio_: Canto VI.
"'T was now the hour the longing heart that bends
In voyagers, and meltingly doth sway,
Who bade farewell at morn to gentle friends;
And wounds the pilgrim newly bound his way
With poignant love, to hear some distant bell
That seems to mourn the dying of the day;
When I began to slight the sounds that fell
Upon my ear, one risen soul to view,
Whose beckoning hand our audience would compel."
_Purgatorio_: Canto VIII.
"There I the shades see hurrying up to kiss
Each with his mate from every part, nor stay,
Contenting them with momentary bliss.
So one with other, all their swart array
Along, do ants encounter snout with snout,
So haply probe their fortune and their way."
_Purgatorio_: Canto XXVI.
"Between two viands, equally removed
And tempting, a free man would die of hunger
Ere either he could bring unto his teeth.
So would a lamb between the ravenings
Of two fierce wolves stand fearing both alike;
And so would stand a dog between two does.
Hence, if I held my peace, myself I blame not,
Impelled in equal measure by my doubts,
Since it must be so, nor do I commend."
_Paradiso_: Canto IV.
"And as a lute and harp, accordant strung
With many strings, a dulcet tinkling make
To him by whom the notes are not distinguished,
So from the lights that there to me appeared
Upgathered through the cross a melody,
Which rapt me, not distinguishing the hymn."
_Paradiso_: Canto XIV.
"As through the pure and tranquil evening air
There shoots from time to time a sudden fire,
Moving the eyes that steadfast were before,
And seems to be a star that changeth place,
Except that in the part where it is kindled
Nothing is missed, and this endureth little;
So from the horn that to the right extends
Unto that cross's foot there ran a star
Out of the constellation shining there."
_Paradiso_: Canto XV.
"Even as remaineth splendid and serene
The hemisphere of air, when Boreas
Is blowing from that cheek where he is mildest,
Because is purified and resolved the rack
That erst disturbed it, till the welkin laughs
With all the beauties of its pageantry;
Thus did I likewise, after that my lady
Had me provided with a clear response,
And like a star in Heaven the truth was seen."
_Paradiso_: Canto XXVIII.
The first question to ask in regard to a simile found in verse is, Is
it poetical? Is there, as effect of its introduction, any heightening
of the reader's mood, any cleansing of his vision, any clarification
of the medium through which he is looking? Is there a sudden play of
light that warms, and, through this warmth, illuminates the
object before him? Few of those just quoted, put to such test, could
be called more than conventionally poetical--if this be not a
solecism. To illustrate one sensuous object by another does not
animate the mind enough to fulfill any one of the above conditions.
Such similitudes issuing from intellectual liveliness, there is
through them no steeping of intellectual perception in emotion. They
may help to make the object ocularly more apparent, but they do not
make the feeling a party to the movement. When this is done,--as in
the examples from Canto XV. of the "Inferno," and Canto VIII. of the
"Purgatorio,"--what an instantaneous vivification of the picture!
But in the best of them the poetic gleam is not so unlooked-for bright
as in the best of Shakespeare's. As one instance out of many: towards
the end of the great soliloquy of Henry V., after enumerating the
emblems and accompaniments of royalty, the king continues,--
"No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave;
Who, with a body filled, and vacant mind,
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell;
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set,
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day, after dawn,
Doth rise _and help Hyperion to his horse_"
What a sudden filling of the earth with light through that image, so
fresh and unexpected, of the rising sun, with its suggestion of beauty
and healthfulness! Then the far-reaching, transfiguring imagination,
that, in a twinkle, transmutes into the squire of Hyperion a stolid
rustic, making him suddenly radiant with the glory of morning. It is
by this union of unexpectedness with fitness, of solidity with
brilliancy, of remoteness with instantaneous presence, in his figures,
denoting overflow of resources, a divine plenitude, so that we feel
after Shakespeare has said his best things, that he could go on saying
more and better,--it is especially by this lustrous, ever-teeming
fullness of life, this creative readiness, that Shakespeare throws a
farther and whiter and a broader light than Dante. Nor does Dante's
page glisten, as Shakespeare's so often does, with metaphor, or
compressed similes, that at times with a word open the spiritual
sphere; not super-imposed as cold ornament, but inter-tissued with the
web of thought, upflashings from a deep sea of mind, to quiver on the
surface, as on the calm level of the Atlantic you may see a
circuit of shining ripple, caused by schools of fish that have come up
from the wealth in the depths below to help the sun to glisten,--a
sign of life, power, and abundance.
Like his great compeer, Milton, Dante fails of universality from want
of humor. Neither had any fun in him. This was the only fault
(liberally to interpret Can's conduct) that Dante's host, Can Grande
of Verona, had to find with him. The subjects of both poets
(unconsciously chosen perhaps from this very defect of humor) were
predominantly religious, and their theology, which was that of their
times, was crude and cruel. The deep, sympathetic earnestness, which
is the basis of the best humor, they had, but, to use an illustration
of Richter, they could not turn sublimity upside down,--a great feat,
only possible through sense of the comic, which, in its highest
manifestation of humor, pillows pain in the lap of absurdity, throws
such rays upon affliction as to make a grin to glimmer through gloom,
and, with the fool in "Lear," forces you, like a child, to smile
through warmest tears of sympathy. Humor imparts breadth and buoyancy
to tolerance, enabling it to dandle lovingly the faults and
follies of men; through humor the spiritual is calm and clear enough
to sport with and toss the sensual; it is a compassionate, tearful
delight; in its finest mood, an angelic laughter.
Of pathos Dante has given examples unsurpassed in literature. By the
story of Ugolino the chords of the heart are so thrilled that pity and
awe possess us wholly; and by that of Francesca they are touched to
tenderest sympathy. But Ugolino is to Lear what a single
fire-freighted cloud that discharges five or six terrific strokes is
to a night-long tempest, wherein the thundering heavens gape with a
All the personages of Dante's poem (unless we regard himself as one)
are spirits. Shakespeare, throughout his many works, gives only a few
glimpses into the world beyond the grave; but how grandly by these few
is the imagination expanded. Clarence's dream, "lengthened after
life," in which he passes "the melancholy flood," is almost
super-Dantesque, concentrating in a few ejaculative lines a fearful
foretaste of trans-earthly torment for a bad life on earth. And the
great ghost in "Hamlet," when you read of him, how shadowy real!
Dante's representation of disembodied humanity is too pagan, too
palpable, not ghostly enough, not spiritualized with hope and awe.
Profound, awakening, far-stretching, much enfolding, thought-breeding
thoughts, that can only grow in the soil of pure, large sensibilities,
and by them are cast up in the heave and glow of inward motion, to be
wrought by intellect and shaped in the light of the beautiful,--of
these, which are the test of poetic greatness, Dante, if we may
venture to say so, has not more or brighter examples than Milton, and
not so many as Goethe; while of such passages, compactly embodying as
they do the finer insights of a poetic mind, there are more in a
single one of the greater tragedies of Shakespeare, than in all the
three books of the "Divina Commedia."
Juxtaposition beside Shakespeare, even if it bring out the
superiorities of the English bard, is the highest honor paid to any
other great poet. Glory enough is it if admiration can lift Dante so
high as to take him into the same look that beholds Shakespeare; what
though the summit of the mighty Englishman shine alone in the sky, and
the taller giant carry up towards heaven a larger bulk and more varied
domains. The traveler, even if he come directly from wondering
at Mont Blanc in its sublime presence, will yet stand with earnest
delight before the majesty of the Yungfrau and the Eigher.
But it is time to speak of Dante in English.
"It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible, that you might
discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as to seek to
transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet."
Thus writes a great poet, Shelley, in his beautiful "Defense of
Poetry." But have we not in modern tongues the creations of Homer, and
of Plato, who Shelley, on the same page, says is essentially a poet?
And can we estimate the loss the modern mind would suffer by
deprivation of them in translated form? Pope's Homer--still Homer
though so Popish--has been a not insignificant chapter in the culture
of thousands, who without it would have known no more of Hector and
Achilles and the golden glowing cloud of passion and action through
which they are seen superbly shining, than what a few of them would
incidently have learnt from Lempriere. Lord Derby's Iliad has gone
through many editions already. And Job and the Psalms: what should we
have done without them in English? Translations are the
telegraphic conductors that bring us great messages from those in
other lands and times, whose souls were so rich and deep that from
their words their fellow-men, in all parts of the globe, draw truth
and wisdom forever. The flash on which the message was first launched
has lost some of its vividness by the way; but the purport of the
message we have distinctly, and the joy or grief wherewith it is
freighted, and even much of its beauty. Shall we not eat oranges,
because on being translated from Cuba to our palates they have lost
somewhat of their flavor? In reading a translated poem we wish to have
as much of the essence of the original, that is, as much of the
poetry, as possible. A poem it is we sit down to read, not a relation
of facts, or an historical or critical or philosophical or theological
exposition,--a poem, only in another dress. Thence a work in verse,
that has poetic quality enough to be worth translating, must be made
to lose by the process as little as may be of its worth; and its worth
every poem owes entirely to its poetic quality and the degree of that.
A prose translation of a poem is an aesthetic impertinence,
Shakespeare was at first opened to the people of the Continent
in prose, because there was not then culture enough to reproduce him
in verse. And in Shakespeare there is so much practical sense, so much
telling comment on life, so much wit, such animal spirits, such
touching stories so well told, that the great gain of having him even
in prose concealed the loss sustained by the absence of rhythmic
sound, and by the discoloration (impallidation, we should say, were
the word already there) of hundreds of liveliest tinted flowers, the
deflowering of many delicate stems. Forty years ago, Mr. Hay ward
translated the "Faust" of Goethe into prose; but let any one compare
the Hymn of the Archangels and other of the more highly-wrought
passages, as rendered by him, with any of the better translations in
verse,--with that of Mr. Brooks for example,--to perceive at once the
insufficiency, the flatness and meagreness of even so verbally
faithful a prose version. The effect on "Faust," or on any high
passionate poem, of attempting to put it into prose, is akin to what
would be the effect on an exquisite _bas-relief_ of reducing its
projection one half by a persevering application of pumice. In all
genuine verse (that is, in all poetic verse) the substance is so
inwrought into the form and sound, that if in translating you entirely
disregard these, rejecting both rhyme and measure, you subject the
verse to a second depletion right upon that which it has to suffer by
the transplanting of it into another soil.
The translator of a poem has a much higher and subtler duty than just
to take the words and through them attempt passively to render the
page into his own language. He must brace himself into an active
state, a creative mood, the most creative he can command, then
transport himself into the mind and mental attitude of the poet he
would translate, feeling and seeing as the poet saw and felt. To get
into the mood out of which the words sprang, he should go behind the
words, embracing them from within, not merely seizing them from
without. Having imbued himself with the thought and sentiment of the
original, let him, if he can, utter them in a still higher key. Such
surpassing excellence would be the truest fidelity to the original,
and any cordial poet would especially rejoice in such elevation of his
verse; for the aspiring writer will often fall short of his ideal, and
to see it more nearly approached by a translator who has been kindled
by himself, to find some delicate new flower revealed in a nook which
he had opened, could not but give him a delight akin to that
of his own first inspirations.
A poem, a genuine poem, assumes its form by an inward necessity.
"Paradise Lost," conceived in Milton's brain, could not utter itself
in any other mode than the unrhymed harmonies that have given to our
language a new music. It could not have been written in the Spenserian
stanza. What would the "Fairy Queen" be in blank verse? For his theme
and mood Dante felt the need of the delicate bond of rhyme, which
enlivens musical cadence with sweet reiteration. Rhyme was then a new
element in verse, a modern aesthetic creation; and it is a help and an
added beauty, if it be not obtrusive and too self-conscious, and if it
be not a target at which the line aims; for then it becomes a clog to
freedom of movement, and the pivot of factitious pauses, that are
offensive both to sense and to ear. Like buds that lie half-hidden in
leaves, rhymes should peep out, sparkling but modest, from the cover
of words, falling on the ear as though they were the irrepressible
strokes of a melodious pulse at the heart of the verse.
The _terza rima_--already in use--Dante adopted as suitable to
continuous narrative. With his feeling and aesthetic want
rhymed verse harmonized, the triple repetition offering no obstacle,
Italian being copious in endings of like sound. His measure is iambic,
free iambic, and every line consists, not of ten syllables, but of
eleven, his native tongue having none other than feminine rhymes. And
this weakness is so inherent in Italian speech, that every line even
of the blank verse in all the twenty-two tragedies of Alfieri ends
femininely, that is, with an unaccented eleventh syllable. In all
Italian rhyme there is thus always a double rhyme, the final syllable,
moreover, invariably ending with a vowel. This, besides being too much
rhyme and too much vowel, is, in iambic lines, metrically a defect,
the eleventh syllable being a superfluous syllable.
In these two prominent features English verse is different from
Italian: it has feminine rhymes, but the larger part of its rhymes are
masculine; and it has fewer than Italian. This second characteristic,
the comparative fewness of rhymes, is likewise one of its sources of
strength: it denotes musical richness and not poverty, as at first
aspect it seems to do, the paucity of like-sounding syllables implying
variety in its sounds. It has all the vocalic syllables and
endings it needs for softness, and incloses them mostly in consonants
for condensation, vigor, and emphasis.
Primarily the translator has to consider the resources and
individualities of his own tongue. In the case of Dante the rhythmical
basis is the same in both languages; for the iambic measure is our
chief poetic vehicle, wrought to perfection by Shakespeare and Milton.
There only remains, then, rhyme and the division into stanzas. Can the
_terza rima_, as used by Dante, be called a stanza? The lines are not
separated into trios, but run into one another, clinging very properly
to the rhymes, which, interlinking all the stanzas by carrying the
echo still onward, bind each canto into one whole, just as our
Spenserian form does each stanza into a whole of nine lines. Whether
stanzas, strictly speaking, or not, shall we say our mind frankly
about the _terza rima_? To us it seems not deserving of admiration
_for its own sake_; and we surmise that had it not been consecrated by
Dante, neither Byron nor Shelley would have used it for original
poems. We are not aware that Dante's example has been followed by any
poet of note in Italy. _Terza rima_ keeps the attention suspended too
long, keeps it ever on the stretch for something that is to
come, and never does come, until at the end of the canto, namely, the
last rhyme. The rhymes cannot be held down, but are ever escaping and
running ahead. It looks somewhat like an artificial contrivance of the
first rhymers of an uncultivated age. But Dante used it for his great
song; and there it stands forever, holding in its folds the "Divina
Now, in rendering into English the poem of Dante, is it essential,--in
order to fulfill the conditions of successful poetic translation,--to
preserve the triple rhyme? Not having in English a corresponding
number of rhymes, will not the translator have to resort to
transpositions, substitutions, forcings, indirections, in order to
compass the meaning and the poetry? Place the passages already cited
from Mr. Dayman beside the original, and the reader will be surprised
to see how direct and literal, how faithful at once to the Italian
thought and to English idiom in expressing it, Mr. Dayman is. His
harness of triplets seems hardly to constrain his movement, so
skillfully does he wear it. If we confront him with the spirited
version in quatrains of Dr. Parsons, in the passages cited
from the "Inferno," or with those from the "Paradiso," in Mr.
Longfellow's less free unrhymed version, the resources and flexibility
of Mr. Dayman in handling the difficult measure will be again
manifest. To enable our readers to compare the translations with the
original and with one another, we will give the Italian, and then the
three versions, of the latter part of the Francesca story, from Canto
V. of the "Inferno:"--
"Poi mi rivolsi a loro, e parlai io,
E cominciai: Francesca, i tuoi martiri
A lagrimar mi fanno tristo, e pio.
Ma dimmi: al tempo de' dolci sospiri,
A che, e come concedette Amore
Che conosceste i dubbiosi desiri?
Ed ella a me: nessun maggior dolore,
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria, e cio sa 'l tuo dottore.
Ma se a conoscer la prima radice
Del nostro amor tu hai cotanto affetto,
Faro come colui che piange, e dice.
Noi leggevamo un giorno per diletto
Di Lancilotto, come Amor lo strinse.
Soli eravamo, e senza alcun sospetto.
Per piu fiate gli occhi ci sospinse
Quella lettura, e scolorocci 'l viso:
Ma solo un punto fu quel, che ci vinse.
Qando leggemmo il disiato riso
Esser baciato da cotanto amante,
Questi, che mai da me non sia diviso,
La bocca mi bacio tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu il libro, e chi lo scrisse:
Quel giorno piu non vi leggemmo avante.
Mentre che l'uno spirito queste disse,
L'altro piangeva si, che di pietade
Io venni meno come s'io morisse,
E caddi, come corpo morto cade."
"Then toward them turned again: 'Thy racking woe,'
I said, 'Francesca, wrings from out mine eyes
The pious drops that sadden as they flow.
But tell me, in your hour of honeyed sighs,
By whom and how love pitying broke the spell,
And in your doubtful longings made too wise.'
And she to me: 'No keener pang hath hell,
Than to recall, amid some deep distress,
Our happier time: thy teacher knows it well.
Yet if desire so strong thy soul possess
To trace the root from whence our love was bred,
His part be mine, who tells and weeps no less.
'T was on a day when we for pastime read
Of Lancillot, how love snared him to ruin:
We were alone, nor knew suspicious dread.
Oft on that reading paused our eyes, renewing
Their glance; and from our cheeks the color started;
But one sole moment wrought for our undoing:
When that we read of lover so kind-hearted
Kissing the smile so coveted before,
He that from me shall never more be parted
Kissed me with lip to lip, trembling all o'er.
The broker of our vows, it was the lay,
And he who wrote--that day we read no more.'
The other spirit, while the first did say
These words, so moaned, that with soft remorse
As death had stricken me, I swooned away,
And down I fell, heavily as falls a corse."
"Then unto them I turned me, and I spake,
And I began: 'Thine agonies, Francesca,
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.
But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded
That you should know your dubious desires?'
And she to me: 'There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.
But if to recognize the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.
One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthrall.
Alone we were, and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the color from our faces;
But one point was it that o'ercame us.
Whenas we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne'er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.'
And all the while one spirit uttered this,
The other one did weep so, that, for pity,
I swooned away as if I had been dying,
And fell even as a dead body falls."
"Then, turning round to them, I thus began:
'Francesca! tears must overflow mine eyes:
My pitying soul thy martyr-throes unman;
But tell me,--in the time of happy sighs,
Your vague desires how gave Love utterance first?"
And she to me: "The mightiest of all woes
Is, in the midst of misery, to be cursed
With bliss remembered,--this thy teacher knows.
Yet, wouldst thou learn our passion's root and head,
As one may speak whose eyes with tears are dim,
So will I speak. Together once we read
The tale of Lancelot,--how Love bound him.
Alone we were without suspecting aught:
Oft in perusal paled our cheeks their hue,
And oft our eyes each other's glances caught;
But one sole passage 't was which both o'erthrew.
At reading of the longed-for smile,--to be
By such a lover's kissing so much blest,
This dearest--never shalt thou part from me!
His lips to mine, to mine, all trembling, pressed.
The writer was our Galeot with his book:--
That day we read no further on." She stopped:
Meanwhile he moaned so that compassion took
My sense away, and like a corse I dropped.
Observe that Dr. Parsons has put Dante's twenty-eight lines of eleven
syllables into twenty-four lines of ten syllables; and this without
losing a drop of the precious stream he undertakes to pour. But why
does he make Francesca address her companion personally, instead of
saying, "who shall never part from me?" And why does Mr. Dayman say,
"pious drops," instead of piteous? Mr. Dayman and Mr. Longfellow fill
up the twenty-eight lines. In neither of the three is there
any strain or wresting of the sense. But all three, and before them
Lord Byron and Carey, mistranslate this passage,--
"Per piu fiate gli occhi ci sospinse
All these translators interpret it to mean, that while they read,
their eyes often met; whereas Dante says, they read that passage over
more than once; or, literally rendered, several times that reading or
passage drew to it their eyes. To restore the meaning of the original
adds to the refinement of the scene.
Why does Mr. Longfellow use such long words as _compassionate_ instead
of _pitiful_ or _piteous_, _recognize_ for _know_, _palpitating_ for
_trembling_, _conceded that you should know_ for _gave you to know_?
By the resolution to translate line for line, Mr. Longfellow ties his
poetic hands. The first effect of this self-binding is, to oblige him
to use often long Latin-English instead of short Saxon-English words,
that is, words that in most cases lend themselves less readily to
poetic expression. Mr. Dayman, not translating line for line, is free
from this prosaic incumbrance; but as he makes it a rule to himself
that every English canto shall contain the same number of lines as its
original, he is obliged, much more often than Mr. Longfellow,
to throw in epithets or words not in the Italian. And Dr. Parsons,
who, happily freeing himself from either verbal or numerical bond, in
several instances compresses a canto into two or three lines less than
the Italian, and the XXXI. into nine lines less, might with advantage
have curtailed each canto ten or twelve lines.
Do what we will, poetic translation is brought about more from without
than from within, and hence there is apt to be a dryness of surface, a
lack of that sheen, that spontaneous warm emanation, which, in good
original work, comes from free inward impulsion. To counteract, in so
far as may be, this proneness to a mechanical inflexibility, the
translator should keep himself free to wield boldly and with full
swing his own native speech. By his line-for-line allegiance, Mr.
Longfellow forfeits much of this freedom. He is too intent on the
words; he sacrifices the spirit to the letter; he overlays the poetry
with a verbal literalness; he deprives himself of scope to give a
billowy motion, a heightened color, a girded vigor, to choice
passages. The rhythmical languor consequent on this verbal conformity,
this lineal servility, is increased by a frequent looseness in
the endings of lines, some of which on every page, and many on some
pages, have--contrary to all good usage--the superfluous eleventh
syllable. Milton never allows himself this liberty, nor Mr. Tennyson
in epic verse so little pretentious as "Idyls of the King." Nor do
good blank-verse translators give in to it. Cowper does not in his
Iliad, nor Lord Derby, nor Mr. Bryant in his version of the fifth book
of the Odyssey, nor Mr. Carey in his Dante. Permissible at times in
dramatic blank verse, it is in epic rejected by the best artists as a
weakness. Can it be that Mr. Longfellow hereby aims to be more close
to the form of Dante? Whatever the cause of its use, the effect is
still farther to weaken his translation. These loose poetic
endings--and on most pages one third of the lines have eleven
syllables and on some pages more than a third--do a part in causing
Mr. Longfellow's Dante to lack the clean outline, the tonic ring, the
chiseled edge of the original, and in making his cantos read as would
sound a high passionate tune played on a harp whose strings are
Looking at the printed Italian Dante beside the English, in a volume
where opposite each English page is the corresponding page of
the original, as in Mr. Dayman's, one cannot fail to be struck with
the comparative narrowness of the Italian column. This comes of the
comparative shortness of Italian syllables. For instance, as the
strongest exemplification, the ever-recurring _and_, and the
often-repeated _is_, are both expressed in Italian by a single letter,
_e_. And this shortness comes of the numerousness of vowels. In lines
of thirty letters Dante will have on an average sixteen consonants to
fourteen vowels, nearly half and half; while his translators have
about twenty consonants to ten vowels, or two to one. From this
comparative rejection of consonants, Italian cannot, as English can,
bind into one syllable words of seven or eight letters, like _friends_
and _straight_, nor even words of six letters, like _chimed_,
_shoots_, _thwart_, _spring_; nor does Italian abound as English does
in monosyllables, and the few it has are mostly of but two or three
letters. In combination its syllables sometimes get to four letters,
as in _fronte_ and _braccia_. As a consequence hereof, Dante's lines,
although always of eleven syllables, average about twenty-nine
letters, while those of the three translators about thirty-three.
Hence, the poem in their versions carries more weight than the
original; its soul is more cumbered with body.
In order to the faithful reproduction of Dante, to the giving the best
transcript, possible in English, of his thought and feeling, should
not regard be had to the essential difference between the syllabic
constitutions of the two languages, what may be called the physical
basis of the two mediums of utterance? Here is the Francesca story,
translated in the spirit of this suggestion:--
I turned to them, and then I spake:
"Francesca! tears o'erfill mine eyes,
Such pity thy keen pangs awake.
But say: in th' hour of sweetest sighs,
By what and how found Love relief
And broke thy doubtful longing's spell?"
And she: "There is no greater grief
Than joy in sorrow to retell.
But if so urgently one seeks
To know our Love's first root, I will
Do as he does who weeps and speaks.
One day of Lancelot we still
Read o'er, how love held him enchained.
Without mistrust we were alone.
Our cheeks oft were of color drained:
One passage vanquished us, but one.
When we read of lips longed for pressed
By such a lover with a kiss,
This one whom naught from me shall wrest,
All trembling kissed my mouth. To this
That book and writer brought us. We
No farther read that day." While she
Thus spake, the other spirit wept
So bitterly, with pity I
Fell motionless, my senses swept
By swoon, as one about to die.
In the very first line two Italian trisyllables, _rivolsi_ and
_parlai_, are given in English with literal fidelity by two
monosyllables, _turned_ and _spake_. In the fourth observe how, in a
word-for-word rendering, the eleven Italian syllables become, without
any forcing, eight English:
"Ma dimmi: al tempo de' dolci sospiri:"
"But tell me: in th' hour of sweet sighs."
For the sake of a more musical cadence, this line is slightly
modified. Again, in the line,--
"Than joy in sorrow to retell,"
_joy_ represents, and represents faithfully, three words containing
six syllables, _del tempo felice_: _retell_ stands for _ricordarsi_,
and _in sorrow_ for _nella miseria_, or, three syllables for six; so
that, by means of eight syllables, is given a full and complete
translation of what in Italian takes up seventeen. English the most
simple, direct, idiomatic, is needed in order that a translation of
Dante be faithful to his simplicity and naturalness; and this is the
first fidelity his translator should feel himself bound to. Owing to
the fundamental difference between the syllabic structures of
the two languages, we are enabled to put into English lines of eight
syllables the whole meaning of Dante's lines of eleven. In the above
experiment even more has been done. The twenty-eight lines of Dante
are given in twenty-six lines of eight syllables each, and this
without any sacrifice of the thought or feeling; for the "this thy
teacher knows," which is omitted, besides that the commentators cannot
agree on its meaning, is parenthetical in sense, and with reverence be
it said, in so far a defect in such a relation. As to the form of
Dante, what is essential in that has been preserved, namely, the
iambic measure and the rhyme.
Let us try if this curtailment of syllables will be successful when
applied to the terrible words, written in blackest color, over the
gate of Hell, at the beginning of the third canto of the "Inferno":--
Through me the path to place of wail:
Through me the path to endless sigh:
Through me the path to souls in bale.
'Twas Justice moved my Maker high:
Wisdom supreme, and Might divine,
And primal Love established me.
Created birth was none ere mine,
And I endure eternally:
Ye who pass in, all hope resign.
Has anything been lost in the transit from Italian words to English?
English speech being organically more concentrated than Italian, does
not the reduction of eleven syllables to eight especially subserve
what ought to be the twofold aim of all poetic translation, namely,
along with fidelity to the thought and spirit of the original,
fidelity to the idiom, and cast and play of the translator's own
Here is another short passage in a different key,--the opening of the
last canto of the "Paradiso":--
Maid-mother, daughter of thy Son,
Meek, yet above all things create,
Fair aim of the Eternal one,
'Tis thou who so our human state
Ennobledst, that its Maker deigned
Himself his creature's son to be.
This flower, in th' endless peace, was gained
Through kindling of God's love in thee.
In this passage nine Italian lines of eleven syllables are converted
into eight lines of eight syllables each. We submit it to the candid
reader of Italian to say, whether aught of the original has been
sacrificed to brevity.
The rejection of all superfluity, the conciseness and simplicity to
which the translator is obliged by octosyllabic verse, compensate for
the partial loss of that breadth of sweep for which decasyllabic
verse gives more room, but of which the translator of Dante does
not feel the want.
One more short passage of four lines,--the famous figure of the lark
in the twentieth Canto of the "Paradiso":--
Like lark that through the air careers,
First singing, then, silent his heart,
Feeds on the sweetness in his ears,
Such joy to th' image did impart
Th' eternal will.
This paper has exceeded the length we designed to give it; but,
nevertheless, we beg the reader's indulgence for a few moments longer,
while we conclude with an octosyllabic version of the last thirty
lines of the celebrated Ugolino story. It is unrhymed; for that
terrible tale can dispense, in English, with soft echoes at the end of
When locked I heard the nether door
Of the dread tower, I without speech
Into my children's faces looked:
Nor wept, so inly turned to stone.
They wept: and my dear Anselm said,
"Thou look'st so, father, what hast thou?"
Still I nor wept nor answer made
That whole day through, nor the next night,
Till a new sun rose on the world.
As in our doleful prison came
A little glimmer, and I saw
On faces four my own pale stare,
Both of my hands for grief I bit;
And they, thinking it was from wish
To eat, rose suddenly and said:
"Father, less shall we feel of pain
If them wilt eat of us: from thee
Came this poor flesh: take it again."
I calmed me then, not to grieve them.
The next two days we spake no word.
Oh! obdurate earth, why didst not ope?
When we had come to the fourth day
Gaddo threw him stretched at my feet,
Saying, "Father, why dost not help me?"
There died he; and, as thou seest me,
I saw the three fall one by one
The fifth and sixth day; then I groped,
Now blind, o'er each; and two whole days
I called them after they were dead:
Then hunger did what grief could not.
SAINTE-BEUVE, THE CRITIC.
A literary critic, a genuine one, should carry in his brain an arsenal
of opposites. He should combine common sense with tact, integrity with
indulgence, breadth with keenness, vigor with delicacy, largeness with
subtlety, knowledge with geniality, inflexibility with sinuousness,
severity with suavity; and, that all these counter qualities be
effective, he will need constant culture and vigilance, besides the
union of reason with warmth, of enthusiasm with self-control, of wit
with philosophy,--but hold: at this rate, in order to fit out the
critic, human nature will have to set apart its highest and best. Dr.
Johnson declared, the poet ought to know everything and to have seen
everything, and the ancients required the like of an orator. Truly,
the supreme poet should have manifold gifts, be humanly indued as
generously and completely as is the bust of Homer, ideally shaped by
the light of the infallible artistic instinct and insight of the
Greeks. The poet, it is true, must be born a poet, and the
critic is the child of culture. But as the poet, to perfect his
birthright, has need of culture, so the man whom culture can shape and
sharpen to the good critic, must be born with many gifts, to be
susceptible of such shaping. And when we reflect that the task of the
critic is to see clearly into the subtlest and deepest mind, to
measure its hollows and its elevations, to weigh all its individual
and its composite powers, and, that from every one of the throbbing
aggregates, whom it is his office to analyze and portray, issue lines
that run on all sides into the infinite, we must conclude that he who
is to be the accomplished interpreter, the trusted judge, should be
able swiftly to follow these lines.
Long and exacting as is our roll of what is wanted to equip a
veritable sure critic, we have yet to add two cardinal qualifications,
which by the subject of our present paper are possessed in liberal
allotment. The first is, joy in life, from which the pages of M.
Sainte-Beuve derive, not a superficial sprightliness merely, but a
mellow, radiant geniality. The other, which is of still deeper
account, is the capacity of admiration; a virtue--for so it deserves
to be called--born directly of the nobler sensibilities, those
in whose presence only can be recognized and enjoyed the lofty and the
profound, the beautiful and the true. He who is not well endowed with
these higher senses is not a bad critic; he is no critic at all. Not
only can he not discern the good there is in a man or a work, he can
as little discover and expose the bad; for, deficiencies implying
failures to reach a certain fullness, implying a falling short of the
complete, to say where and what are deficiencies, involves the having
in the mind an idea of the full and complete. The man so meagrely
furnished as to hold no such idea is but a carper, not a critic. To
know the bad denotes knowledge of the good; in criticism as in morals,
a righteous indignation can only flash from a shock to pure feelings.
In a notice of M. Thiers' chapter on St. Helena, M. Sainte-Beuve,
after expressing his admiration of the commentaries of Napoleon on the
campaigns of Turenne, Frederic, and Caesar, adds: "A man of letters
smiles at first involuntarily to see Napoleon apply to each of these
famous campaigns a methodical criticism, just as we would proceed with
a work of the mind, with an epic or tragic poem. But is not a
campaign of a great captain equally a work of genius? Napoleon is here
the high sovereign critic, the Goethe in this department, as the
Feuquieres, the Jominis, the St. Cyrs are the La Harpes or the
Fontanes, the Lessings or the Schlegels, all good and expert critics;
but he is the first of all, nor, if you reflect on it, could it have
been otherwise. And who then would say better things of Homer than
Milton?"--Goethe supreme in literary criticism, Milton on Homer; this
touches the root of the matter; sympathy with the writer and his work
the critic must have,--sympathy as one of the sources of good
judgment, and even of knowledge. You cannot know, and therefore not
judge of a man or book or thing, unless you have some fellow-feeling
with him or it; and to judge well you must have much fellow-feeling.
The critic must, moreover, be a thinker; reason is the critic's sun.
Scott and Byron could say just and fresh things about poets and
poetry; but neither could command the whole field, nor dig deep into
the soil. Witness Byron's deliberate exaltation of Pope. Whereas
Wordsworth and Coleridge were among the soundest of critics, because,
besides being poets, they were both profound thinkers.
For the perfecting of the literary critic the especial
sympathy needed is that with excellence; for high literature is the
outcome of the best there is in humanity, the finished expression of
healthiest aspirations, of choicest thoughts, the ripened fruit of
noble, of refined growths, the perfected fruit, with all the perfume
and beauty of the flower upon it. Of this sympathy M. Sainte-Beuve,
throughout his many volumes, gives overflowing evidence, in addition
to that primary proof of having himself written good poems. Besides
the love, he has the instinct, of literature, and this instinct draws
him to what is its bloom and fullest manifestation, and his love is
the more warm and constant for being discriminative and refined.
Through variety of knowledge, with intellectual keenness, he enjoys
excellence in the diversified forms that literature assumes. His pages
abound in illustrations of his versatility, which is nowhere more
strikingly exhibited than in the contrast between two successive
papers (both equally admirable) in the very first volume of the
"Causeries du Lundi," the one on Madame Recamier, the other on
Napoleon. Read especially the series of paragraphs beginning, "Some
natures are born pure, and have received _quand meme_ the gift
of innocence," to see how gracefully, subtly, delicately, with what a
feminine tenderness, he draws the portrait of this most fascinating of
women, this beautiful creature, for whom grace and sweetness did even
still more than beauty, this fairy-queen of France, this refined
coquette, who drew to her hundreds of hearts, this kindly magician,
who turned all her lovers into friends. Then pass directly to the next
paper, on the terrible Corsican, "who weakened his greatness by the
gigantic--who loved to astonish--who delighted too much in what was
his forte, war,--who was too much a bold adventurer." And further on,
the account of Napoleon's conversation with Goethe at Weimar, in which
account M. Sainte-Beuve shows how fully he values the largeness and
truthfulness and penetration of the great German. The impression thus
made on the reader as to the variousness of M. Sainte-Beuve's power is
deepened by another paper in the same volume, that on M. Guizot and
his historic school, a masterly paper, which reasons convincingly
against those historians "who strain humanity, who make the lesson that
history teaches too direct and stiff, who put themselves in the place
of Providence," which, as is said in another place (vol. v. p.
150), "is often but a deification of our own thought."
In a paper published in 1862, M. Sainte-Beuve--who had then, for more
than thirty years, been plying zealously and continuously the function
of critic--describes what is a fundamental feature of his method in
arriving at a judgment on books and authors. "Literature, literary
production, is in my eyes not distinct, or at least not separable,
from the rest of the man and his organization. I can enjoy a work, but
it is difficult for me to form a judgment on it independently of the
man himself; and I readily say, _as is the tree so is the fruit_.
Literary study thus leads me quite naturally to moral study." This, of
course, he can apply but partially to the ancients; but with the
moderns the first thing to do in order to know the work is to know the
man who did it, to get at his primary organization, his interior
beginnings and proclivities; and to learn this, one of the best means
is, to make yourself acquainted with his race, his family, his
predecessors. "You are sure to recognize the superior man, in part at
least, in his parents, especially in his mother, the most direct and
certain of his parents; also in his sisters and his brothers,
even in his children. In these one discovers important features which,
from being too condensed, too closely joined in the eminent
individual, are masked; but whereof the basis, the _fond_, is found in
others of his blood in a more naked, a more simple state."
Hereby is shown with what thoroughness and professional
conscientiousness M. Sainte-Beuve sets himself to his work of critic.
Partially applying to himself his method, we discover in part the
cause of his sympathy for feminine nature, and of his tact in
delineating it. His father died before he was born; and thence all
living parental influence on him was maternal. None of his volumes is
more captivating than his "Portraits de Femmes," a translation of
which we are glad to see announced.
Of Sainte-Beuve's love for excellence there is, in the third volume of
the "Nouveaux Lundis," an illustration, eloquently disclosing how deep
is his sympathy with the most excellent that human kind has known. For
the London Exposition of 1862 a magnificent folio of the New Testament
was prepared at the Imperial Press of Paris. The critic takes the
occasion to write a paper on "Les saints Evangiles," especially the
Sermon on the Mount. After quoting and commenting on the Beatitudes,
he continues: "Had there ever before been heard in the world such
accents, such a love of poverty, of self-divestment, such a hunger and
thirst for justice, such eagerness to suffer for it, to be cursed of
men in behalf of it, such an intrepid confidence in celestial
recompense, such a forgiveness of injuries, and not simply forgiveness
but a livelier feeling of charity for those who have injured you, who
persecute and calumniate you, such a form of prayer and of familiar
address to the Father who is in heaven? Was there ever before anything
like to that, so encouraging, so consoling, in the teaching and the
precepts of the sages? Was that not truly a revelation in the midst of
human morals; and if there be joined to it, what cannot be separated
from it, the totality of such a life, spent in doing good, and that
predication of about three years, crowned by the crucifixion, have we
not a right to say that here was a 'new ideal of a soul perfectly
heroic,' which, under this half Jewish, Galilean form was set before
all coming generations?
"Who talks to us of _myth_, of the realization, more or less
instinctive or philosophical, of the human conscience reflecting
itself in a being who only supplied the pretext and who hardly
existed. What! do you not feel the reality, the living, vibrating,
bleeding, compassionate personality, which, independently of
what belief and enthusiasm may have added, exists and throbs behind
such words? What more convincing demonstration of the beauty and truth
of the entirely historic personage, Jesus, than the Sermon on the
Alluding, then, to the denial of originality in the moral doctrines of
Christianity, M. Sainte-Beuve, after citing from Socrates, Marcus
Aurelius, and others, passages wherein is recommended "charity toward
the human race," declares that all these examples and precepts, all
that makes a fine body of social and philosophical morality, is not
Christianity itself as beheld at its source and in its spirit. "What
characterizes," he proceeds, "the discourse on the mount and the other
sayings and parables of Jesus, is not the charity that relates to
equity and strict justice, to which, with a sound heart and upright
spirit, one attains; it is something unknown to flesh and blood and to
simple reason, it is a kind of innocent and pure exaltation, freed
from rule and superior to law, holily improvident, a stranger
to all calculation, to all positive prevision, unreservedly reliant on
Him who sees and knows all things, and as a last reward counting on
the coming of that kingdom of God, the promise of which cannot fail:--
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever
shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy
coat, let him have thy cloak also....
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow
of thee turn not thou away....
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one,
and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and
despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what
ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body,
what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the
body than raiment?...
"Nothing of this is to be found in the ancient sages and moralists,
not in Hesiod, nor in the maxims of Greece any more than in Confucius.
It is not in Cicero, nor in Aristotle, nor even in Socrates any more
than in the modern Franklin. The principle of inspiration is
different, if indeed it be not opposite: the paths may come together
for a moment, but they cross one another. And it is this delicate
ideal of devotedness, of moral purification, of continual renouncement
and self-sacrifice, breathing in the words and embodied in the person
and life of Christ, which constitutes the entire novelty as well as
the sublimity of Christianity taken at its source."
Of M. Sainte-Beuve's delight in what is the most excellent product of
literature, poetry, testimony is borne by many papers, ranging over
the whole field of French poetry, from its birth to its latest page.
"Poetry," says he, "is the essence of things, and we should be careful
not to spread the drop of essence through a mass of water or floods of
color. The task of poetry is not to say everything, but to make us
dream everything." And he cites a similar judgment of Fenelon: "The
poet should take only the flower of each object, and never touch but
what can be beautified." In a critique of Alfred de Musset he speaks
of the youthful poems of Milton: "'Il Penseroso' is the masterpiece of
meditative and contemplative poetry; it is like a magnificent oratorio
in which prayer ascends slowly toward the Eternal. I make no
comparison; let us never take august names from their sphere. All that
is beautiful in Milton stands by itself; one feels the tranquil habit
of the upper regions, and continuity in power." In a paper on
the letters of Ducis, he proves that he apprehends the proportions of
Shakespeare. He asks: "Have we then got him at last? Is our stomach up
to him? Are we strong enough to digest this marrow of lion (_cette
moelle de lion_)?" And again, in an article on the men of the
eighteenth century, he writes: "One may be born a sailor, but there is
nothing for it like seeing a storm, nor for a soldier like seeing a
battle. A Shakespeare, you will say, very nearly did without all that,
and yet he knew it all. But Nature never but once made a Shakespeare."
Like most writers, of whatever country, M. Sainte-Beuve has formed
himself on native models, and the French having no poet of the highest
class, no Dante, no Shakespeare, no Goethe, it is a further proof of
his breadth and insight that he should so highly value the treasures
in the deeper mines opened by these foreigners. Seeing, too, how
catholic he is, and liberal toward all other greatness, one even takes
pleasure in his occasional exuberance of national complacency.
Whenever he speaks of Montaigne or La Fontaine or Moliere, his words
flame with a tempered enthusiasm. But he throws no dust in
his own eyes: his is a healthy rapture, a torch lighted by the
feelings, but which the reason holds upright and steady. His native
favorites he enjoys as no Englishman or German could, but he does not
overrate them. Nor does he overrate Voltaire, whom he calls "the
Frenchman par excellence," and of whom he is proud as the literary
sovereign of his age. At the same time, in articles directly devoted
to Joubert, as well as by frequent citations of his judgments, he
lauds this spiritually-minded thinker as one of the best of critics.
And yet of Voltaire, Joubert says the hardest things: "Voltaire is
sometimes sad; he is excited; but he is never serious. His graces even
are impudent.--There are defects difficult to perceive, that have not
been classed or defined, and have no names. Voltaire is full of them."
In a paper on Louise Labe, a poetess of the sixteenth century, he
reproduces some of her poems and several passages of prose, and then
adds: "These passages prove, once more, the marked superiority that,
at almost all times, French prose has over French poetry." No German
or English or Italian critic could say this of his native literature,
and the saying of it by the foremost of French critics is not an
exaltation of French prose, it is a depression of French
poetry. In this judgment there is a reach and severity of which
possibly the eminent critic was not fully conscious; for it amounts to
an acknowledgment that the nature and language of the French are not
capable of producing and embodying the highest poetry.
Goethe, M. Sainte-Beuve always mentions with deference. On Eckerman's
"Conversations with Goethe" he has a series of three papers, wherein
he deals chiefly with the critic and sage, exhibiting with honest
pride Goethe's admiration of some of the chief French writers, and his
acknowledgment of what he owed them. To a passage relating to the
French translation of Eckerman, M. Sainte-Beuve has the following
note, which we, on this side the Atlantic, may cherish as a high
tribute to our distinguished countrywoman: "The English translation is
by Miss Fuller, afterwards Marchioness Ossoli, who perished so
unhappily by shipwreck. An excellent preface precedes this
translation, and I must say that for elevated comprehension of the
subject and for justness of appreciation it leaves our preface far
behind it. Miss Fuller, an American lady of Boston, was a
person of true merit and of great intellectual vigor." A sympathetic
student of Goethe, Margaret Fuller purposed to write a life of him;
and seeing what critical capacity and what insight into the nature of
Goethe she has shown in this preface, we may be confident that she
would have made a genuine contribution to the Goethe "literature," had
she lived to do that and other high literary work. Her many friends
had nearer and warmer motives for deploring the early loss of this
gifted, generous, noble-hearted woman.
One of the busiest functions of the critic being to sift the
multifarious harvest of contemporaneous literature, he must have a
hand that can shake hard,--and hit hard, too, at times. For fifteen
years M. Sainte-Beuve furnished once a week, under the title of
"Causeries du Lundi," a critical paper, to a Paris daily journal; not
short, rapid notices, but articles that would cover seven or eight
pages of one of our double-columned monthly magazines. He was thus
ever in the thick of the literary _melee_. Attractions and repulsions,
sympathies and antipathies, there will be wherever men do congregate;
the aesthetic plane is as open as any other to personal preferences
and friendships. A literary circle as large as that of Paris,
if too miscellaneous and extensive to become one multitudinous
mutual-admiration-society, will, through cliques and coteries, betray
some of its vices. In this voluminous series of papers the critical
pen, when most earnestly eulogistic or most sharply incisive, is
wielded with so much skill and art and fine temper, that personality
is seldom transpicuous. The Parisian reader will no doubt often
perceive, in this or that paragraph or paper, a heightening or a
subduing of color not visible to the foreigner, who cannot so well
trace the marks of political, religious, or personal influences. His
perfected praise M. Sainte-Beuve reserves for those of the illustrious
dead who are embalmed in their own excellence. Besides devoting many
papers (among the most valuable of the series) to these magnates of
literature, he delights in frequent illustrative reference to them,--a
sign this of ripe culture in a critic, and of trustworthiness.
Out of the severe things occasionally said, the sting is mostly taken
by the temper in which they are said, or by the frank recognition of
virtues and beauties beside vices and blemishes. In the general tone
there is a clear humanity, a seemly gentlemanliness. Of the
humane spirit wherewith M. Sainte-Beuve tempers condemnation, take the
following as one of many instances. In the correspondence of Lamennais
there is laid bare such contradictions between his earlier and his
later sentiments on religious questions, that the reader is thus
feelingly guarded against being too harsh in his censure: "Let us cast
a look on ourselves, and ask if in our lives, in our hearts, from
youth to our latter years, there are none of these boundless
distances, these secret abysses, these moral ruins, perhaps, which,
for being hidden, are none the less real and profound."
Writing weekly for the _feuilleton_ of a Paris daily journal, M.
Sainte-Beuve cannot but be sometimes diffuse; but his diffuseness is
always animated, never languid. Fluent, conversational, ever polished,
he is full of happy turns and of Gallic sprightliness. When the
occasion offers, he is concise, condensed even in the utterance of a
principle or of a comprehensive thought. "Admiration is a much finer
test of literary talent, a sign much more sure and delicate, than all
the art of satire." By the side of this may be placed a sentence he
cites from Grimm: "People who so easily admire bad things are
not in a state to enjoy good." How true and cheering is this: "There
is in each of us a primitive ideal being, whom Nature has wrought with
her finest and most maternal hand, but whom man too often covers up,
smothers, or corrupts." Speaking of the sixteenth century, he says:
"What it wanted was taste, if by taste we understand choice clean and
perfect, the disengagement of the elements of the beautiful." When, to
give a paragraph its fit ending, the thought allows of an epigrammatic
point, if he does not happen to have one of his own he knows where to
borrow just what is wanted. Speaking of embellished oratorical
diction, he quotes Talleyrand on some polished oration that was
discussed in his presence: "It is not enough to have fine sentences:
you must have something to put into them." Commenting on the
hyper-spirituality of M. Laprade, he says: "M. Laprade starts from the
_absolute notion of being_. For him the following is the principle of
Art,--'to manifest what we feel of the Absolute Being, of the
Infinite, of God, to make him known and felt by other men, such in its
generality is the end of Art.' Is this true, is it false? I know not:
at this elevation one always gets into the clouds. Like the most of
those who pride themselves on metaphysics, he contents himself
with words (_il se paye de mots_)." Here is a grand thought, that
flashes out of the upper air of poetry: "Humanity, that eternal child
that has never done growing."
M. Sainte-Beuve's irony, keen and delicate, is a sprightly medium of
truth: witness this passage on a new volume of M. Michelet:
"Narrative, properly so called, which never was his forte, is almost
entirely sacrificed. Seek here no historical highway, well laid,
solid, and continuous; the method adopted is absolute points of view;
you run with him on summits, peaks, on needles of granite, which he
selects at his pleasure to gets views from. The reader leaps from
steeple to steeple. M. Michelet seems to have proposed to himself an
impossible wager, which, however, he has won,--to write history with a
series of flashes." Could there be a more subtle, covert way of saying
of a man that he is hardened by self-esteem than the following on M.
Guizot: "The consciousness that he has of himself, and a natural
principle of pride, place him easily above the little susceptibilities
of self-love." M. Sainte-Beuve is not an admirer of Louis Philippe,
and among other sly hits gives him the following: "Louis
Philippe was too much like a _bourgeois_ himself to be long respected
by the _bourgeoisie_. Just as in former times the King of France was
only the first gentleman of the kingdom, he was nothing but the first
_bourgeois_ of the country." What witty satire on Lamartine he
introduces, with a recognition of popularity that, with one who takes
so much joy in applause as Lamartine does, is enough to take the
poison out of the sting: "Those who knew his verses by heart (and the
number who do is large among the men of our age) meet, not without
regret, with whole strips of them spread out, drowned, as it were, in
his prose. This prose is, in 'Les Confidences,' too often but the
paraphrase of his verses, which were themselves become, toward the
last, paraphrases of his feelings." Amends are made to Lamartine on
another occasion, when, citing some recent French sonnets, he says:
"Neither Lamartine nor Hugo nor Vigny wrote sonnets. The swans and the
eagles, in trying to enter this cage, would have broken their wings.
That was for us, birds of a less lofty flight and less amplitude of
wing." This is better as modesty than as criticism. Shakespeare,
Milton, Wordsworth, had wings of vaster sweep as well as of
more gorgeous plumage than these French soarers, and they enjoyed
getting into the cage of the sonnet, and sang therein some of their
strongest as well as sweetest notes.
A thorough Frenchman, M. Sainte-Beuve delights in French minds, just
as a beauty delights in her mirror, which throws back an image of
herself. His excellence as a critic is primarily owing to this joy in
things French. Through means of it he knows them through and through:
they are become transparent; and while his feelings are aglow, his
intellect looks calmly right through them, and sees on the other side
the shadows cast by the spots and opacities which frustrate more or
less the fullest illumination. Freely he exhibits these shadows.
Neither Bossuet nor Louis XIV., neither Voltaire nor Beranger, is
spared, nor the French character, with its proneness to frivolity and
broad jest, its thirst for superficial excitement. Whatever his
individual preferences, his mental organization is so large and happy,
that he enjoys, and can do equal justice to, Father Lacordaire and M.
Michelet, to Madame de Stael and M. Guizot, to Corneille and Goethe,
to Fenelon and M. Renan, to Marie Antoinette and Mirabeau.
Have you then for M. Sainte-Beuve, some reader will be
impatient to ask, nothing but praise? Not much else. Commencing his
literary career in 1827, when only in his twenty-third year, from that
date to 1849 his writings, chiefly in the shape of literary portraits,
fill several thousand pages. Between his forty-fifth to his sixtieth
year he wrote twenty-three volumes, containing about eleven thousand
pages, on four or five hundred different authors and subjects. This is
the period of his critical maturity, the period of the "Causeries du
Lundi," followed by the "Nouveaux Lundis." Many men write
voluminously, but most of these only write _about_ a subject, not
_into_ it. Only the few who can write into their subject add something
to literature. One of these few is M. Sainte-Beuve. In his mind there
is vitality to animate his large acquirement, to make his many
chapters buoyant and stimulant. All through his writings is the
sparkle of original life.
But let us now cheer the reader who is impatient of much praise, and
at the same time perform the negative part of our task.
Well, then, to be bold, as befits a critic of the critic, we beard the
lion in his very den. We challenge a definition he gives of the
critic. In the seventh volume of the "Causeries," article
"Grimm," he says: "When Nature has endowed some one with this vivacity
of feeling, with this susceptibility to impression, and that the
creative imagination be wanting, this some one is a born critic, that
is to say, a lover and judge of the creations of others." Why did M.
Sainte-Beuve make Goethe sovereign in criticism? Why did he think
Milton peculiarly qualified to interpret Homer? From the deep
principle of like unto like; only spirit can know spirit. What were
the worth of a comment of John Locke on "Paradise Lost," except to
reveal the mental composition of John Locke? The critic should be what
Locke was, a thinker, but to be a judge of the highest form of
literature, poetry, he must moreover carry within him, inborn, some
share of that whereby poetry is fledged, "creative imagination." He
may "want the accomplishment of verse," or the constructive faculty,
but more than the common allowance of sensibility to the beautiful he
must have. But do not the presence of "vivacity of feeling with
susceptibility to impression" imply the imaginative temperament? If
not, then we confidently assure M. Sainte-Beuve that had his
definition fitted himself, his "Causeries du Lundi" would never have
been rescued from the quick oblivion of the _feuilleton._
Now and then there are betrayals of that predominant French weakness,
which the French will persist in cherishing as a virtue,--the love of
glory. M. Sainte-Beuve thinks Buffon's passion for glory saved him in
his latter years from ennui, from "that languor of the soul which
follows the age of the passions." Where are to be found men more the
victims of disgust with life than that eminent pair, not more
distinguished for literary brilliancy and contemporaneous success than
for insatiable greed of glory,--Byron and Chateaubriand? No form of
self-seeking is morally more weakening than this quenchless craving,
which makes the soul hang its satisfaction on what is utterly beyond
its sway, on praise and admiration. These stimulants--withdrawn more
or less even from the most successful in latter years--leave a void
which becomes the very nursery of ennui, or even of self-disgust.
Instead of glory being "the potent motive-power in all great souls,"
as M. Sainte-Beuve approvingly quotes, it is, with a surer moral
instinct, called by Milton,--
"That last infirmity of noble mind."
In some of the noblest and greatest, so subordinate is it as
hardly to be traceable in their careers. Love of glory was not the
spring that set and kept in motion Kepler and Newton, any more than
Shakespeare and Pascal or William of Orange and Washington.
The military glory wherewith Napoleon fed and flattered the French
nation for fifteen years, and the astonishing intellectual and animal
vigor of the conqueror's mind, dazzle even M. Sainte-Beuve, so that he
does not perceive the gaping chasms in Napoleon's moral nature, and
the consequent one-sidedness of his intellectual action, nor the
unmanning effects of his despotism. The words used to describe the
moral side of the Imperial career are as insufficient as would be the
strokes of a gray crayon to depict a conflagration or a sunset. In the
paper from which has already been quoted he speaks of the "rare good
sense" of Napoleon, of "his instinct of justice." But was it not a
compact array of the selfish impulses against a weak instinct of
justice, backed by a Titan's will, wielding a mighty intellect, that
enabled Napoleon to be the disloyal usurper, then the hardened despot
and the merciless devastator? Again, can it be said of Napoleon that
he possessed good sense in a rare degree? Good sense is an instinctive
insight into all the bearings of act or thought, an intuitive
discernment of the relations and consequences of conduct or purpose, a
soundness of judgment, resulting from the soundness of, and
equilibrium among, the upper powers of reason and sensibility. The
moral side is at least the half of it: Napoleon's moral endowment was
but fractional. Good sense, it may be added, lies solidly at the basis
of all good work, except such as is purely professional or technical,
or in its action one-sided; and even in such its presence must be
felt. In whatever reaches general human interests, whether as
practical act or imaginative creation, good sense must be, for their
prosperity, a primary ingredient. "The Tempest" and "Don Quixote"
shoot up into shining, imperishable beauty because their roots draw
their first nourishment from this hearty, inexhaustible substratum.
And let us say, that in M. Sainte-Beuve himself good sense is the
foundation of his eminent critical ability. He has been led, we
conceive, to attribute more of it to Napoleon than is his due by the
blinding splendor of Napoleon's military genius, through which, with
such swiftness and cumulative effect, he adapted means to ends on the
purely material plane.
When Murray applied to Lord Byron to write a book about the
life and manners of the upper class in Italy, Byron declined the
proposal from personal regards, and then added, that were he to write
such a book it would be misjudged in England; for, said he, "their
moral is not your moral." Such international misinterpretations and
exaggerations are instinctive and involuntary. A nation from its being
a nation, has a certain one-sidedness. To the Italian (even to one who
carries a stiletto) the English practice of boxing is a sheer
brutality; while to an Englishman (himself perhaps not a Joseph) the
_cavaliere servente_ is looked upon with reprobation tempered by
scorn. To this misjudgment from the foreign side and over-estimation
on the domestic, books, too, are liable; but to books as being more
abstract than usages, more ideal than manners, an absolute moral
standard can with less difficulty be applied. Applying it to Gil Blas,
is not M. Sainte-Beuve subject to arraignment when he speaks of this
and the other writings of Le Sage as being "the mirror of the world?"
Moliere, too, is a satirist, and from his breadth a great one; and
surely the world he holds a mirror before is a much purer world than
that of Le Sage; and what of the Shakespearean world? The world of Le
Sage is a nether world. "Of Gil Blas it has been well said that the
book is moral like experience." The experience one may get in brothels
and "hells," in consorting with pimps and knaves, has in it lessons of
virtue and morality,--for those who can extract them; but even for
these few it is a very partial teaching; and for the many who cannot
read so spiritually, whether in the book or the brothel, the
experience is demoralizing and deadening. But toward the end of the
paper the critic lets it appear that he does not place Le Sage so high
as some of his phrases prompt us to infer; and he quotes this judgment
of Joubert: "Of the novels of Le Sage it may be said that they seem to
have been written in a _cafe_, by a player of dominoes, on coming out
of the comic theatre."
Without being over-diffident, we may feel our footing not perfectly
secure on French ground when we differ from a Frenchman; we are
therefore not sorry to catch M. Sainte-Beuve tripping on English
ground. In a review of the translation of the celebrated Letters of
Lord Chesterfield--whom he calls the La Rochefoucauld of England--he
refers to, and in part quotes, the passages in which Chesterfield
gives his son advice as to his _liaisons_; and he adds: "All
Chesterfield's morality, on this head, is resumed in a line of
"Il n'est jamais de mal en bonne compagnie."
It is these passages that make the grave Dr. Johnson blush: we only
smile at them." For ourselves, we blush with Johnson, not that the man
of the world should give to his youthful son, living at a corrupt
Continental court, counsel as to relations which were regarded as
inevitable in such a circle; but that the heart of the father should
not have poured (were it but parenthetically) through the pen of the
worldling some single sentence like this: "Writing to you, my son, as
an experienced man of the world to one inexperienced, I recommend the
good taste in such matters and the delicacy which become a gentleman;
but to his dear boy, your father says, avoid, if possible, such
_liaisons_; preserve your purity; nothing will give you such a return
throughout the whole of the future." But, a single sentence like this
would _vitiate_ the entire Chesterfieldian correspondence.
How fully and warmly M. Sainte-Beuve prizes moral worth may be learnt
from many passages. Not the least animated and cordial of his
papers is one on the Abbe Gerbet, in the sixth volume, a paper which
shows, as Gustave Planche said of him, that "he studies with his
heart, as women do;" and one in the second volume on Malesherbes, whom
he describes as being "separated, on the moral side, from the
Mirabeaus and the Condorcets not by a shade, but by an abyss," and
whom he sums up as "great magistrate, minister too sensitive and too
easily discouraged, heroic advocate, and sublime victim." Of this
noble, deeply dutiful, self-sacrificing Frenchman, this exemplar of
moral greatness, Lord Lansdowne wrote many years before the French
Revolution: "I have seen for the first time in my life what I did not
believe could exist, that is, a man _who is exempt from fear and from
hope_, and who nevertheless is full of life and warmth. Nothing can
disturb his peace; nothing is necessary to him, and he takes a lively
interest in all that is good."
In a paper on a volume of miscellaneous prose essays by M. Laprade, M.
Sainte-Beuve has this sentence: "What strikes me above all and
everywhere is, that the author, whether he reasons or whether he
addresses himself to literary history, only understands his own mode
of being and his own individuality. Hereby he reveals to us
that he is not a critic." The first paragraph of a keen critique on M.
de Pontmartin ends thus: "To say of even those writers who are opposed
to us nothing which their judicious friends do not already think and
are obliged to admit, this is my highest ambition." Discussing the
proper method of dealing with the past, he writes: "For myself I
respect tradition and I like novelty: I am never happier than when I
can succeed in reconciling them together." Of Hoffman he says, in a
paper on literary criticism: "He has many of the qualities of a true
critic, conscientiousness, independence, ideas, an opinion of his
own." These sentences, with others of like import, are keys to the
character of the volumes from which they are taken. The office of the
critic M. Sainte-Beuve administers, not for temporary or personal
ends, but with a disinterested sense of its elevation and its
responsibilities. Through healthy sympathies and knowledge ample and
ripe, through firm sense with artistic flexibility, through largeness
of view and subtlety of insight, he enters upon it more than
ordinarily empowered for its due discharge. He is at once what the
French call _fin_ and what the English call "sound." In
literary work, in biographical work, in work aesthetical and critical,
he delights, and he has a wide capacity of appropriation. The spirit
of a book, a man, an age, he seizes quickly. With a nice perception of
shades he catches the individual color of a mind or a production; and
by the same faculty he grasps the determining principles in a
character. Delicately, strongly, variously endowed, there is a steady
equilibrium among his fine powers. Considering the bulk and vast
variety and general excellence of his critical work, is it too much to
say of him, that he is not only, as he has been called, the foremost
of living critics, but that he deserves to hold the first place among
all critics? No other has done so much so well. Goethe and Coleridge
are something more; they are critics incidentally; but M.
Sainte-Beuve, with poetical and philosophical qualities that lift him
to a high vantage-ground, has made criticism his life-work, and
through conscientious and symmetrical use of these qualities has done
his work well. Besides much else in his many and many-sided volumes,
there is to be read in them a full, spirited history of French
Our attempt to make M. Sainte-Beuve better known on this side
the Atlantic we cannot more fitly conclude than with a sketch of
him--a literary sketch--by himself. This we find in the fifth volume
of the "Nouveaux Lundis," in a paper on Moliere, published in July,
1863. A man who, in the autumnal ripeness of his powers, thus frankly
tells us his likes and dislikes, tells us what he is. While by
reflected action the passage becomes a self-portraiture, it is a
sample of finest criticism.
"To make Moliere loved by more people is in my judgment to do a public
"Indeed, to love Moliere--I mean to love him sincerely and with all
one's heart--it is, do you know? to have within one's self a guarantee
against many defects, much wrong-headedness. It is, in the first
place, to dislike what is incompatible with Moliere, all that was
counter to him in his day, and that would have been insupportable to
him in ours.
"To love Moliere is to be forever cured--do not say of base and
infamous hypocrisy, but of fanaticism, of intolerance, and of that
kind of hardness which makes one anathematize and curse; it is to
carry a corrective to admiration even of Bossuet, and for all who,
after his example, exult, were it only in words, over their
enemy dead or dying; who usurp I know not what holy speech, and
involuntarily believe themselves to be, with the thunderbolt in their
hand, in the region and place of the Most High. Men eloquent and
sublime, you are far too much so for me!
"To love Moliere, is to be sheltered against, and a thousand leagues
away from, that other fanaticism, the political, which is cold, dry,
cruel, which never laughs, which smells of the sectary, which, under
pretext of Puritanism, finds means to mix and knead all that is
bitter, and to combine in one sour doctrine the hates, the spites, and
the Jacobinism of all times. It is to be not less removed, on the
other hand, from those tame, dull souls who, in the very presence of
evil, cannot be roused to either indignation or hatred.
"To love Moliere, is to be secured against giving in to that pious and
boundless admiration for a humanity which worships itself, and which
forgets of what stuff it is made, and that, do what it will, it is
always poor human nature. It is, not to despise it too much, however,
this common humanity, at which one laughs, of which one is, and into
which we throw ourselves through a healthful hilarity whenever we are
"To love and cherish Moliere, is to detest all mannerism in
language and expression; it is, not to take pleasure in, or to be
arrested by, petty graces, elaborate subtlety, superfine finish,
excessive refinement of any kind, a tricky or artificial style.
"To love Moliere, it is to be disposed to like neither false wit nor
pedantic science; it is to know how to recognize at first sight our
_Trissotins_ and our _Vadius_ even under their rejuvenated jaunty
airs; it is, not to let one's self be captivated at present any more
than formerly by the everlasting _Philaminte_, that affected pretender
of all times, whose form only changes and whose plumage is incessantly
renewed; it is, to like soundness and directness of mind in others as
well as in ourselves. I only give the first movement and the pitch; on
this key one may continue, with variations.
 Trissotin, Vadius, and Philaminte, are personages in Moliere's
comedy of _Les Femmes Savantes_ (The Blue-Stockings).