SAINTE-EV:WE was born a hundred years ago ; and the
gossips of the Press have taken advantage of his centenary to belittle his character, and to divulge the weaknesses which impaired' his dignity. Not only have we been told for the hundredth time of his foolish passion for Madame Hugo, but the squalid love-making of his later years has been set forth with tedious circumstance and reckless indiscretion, until Sainte-Beuve Intime has become a sort of bogey. In some respects the great essayist was. nnamiable. His vanity may have led him into unpardonable excesses. His awkwardness of demeanour no doubt exposed him to ridicule, and as a man he may not have won the regard of the best among his contemporaries. But we have not to deal with him as a man. Our only concern is with the works which he left behind him; and the busybodies who have made his centenary an excuse for much chatter would have been far wiser if they had forgotten his delinquencies, and remembered only the services which he rendered to literature.
In the years which have passed since his death Sainte-Beuve's reputation has steadily increased. The passions which some of his writings aroused fifty years ago have faded into nothing- . ness. Nobody will ever again attack him on the ground that he championed the Romantic movement too warmly, or that he was not constant in his admiration of Chateau- briand. We are far enough away from him to judge his work without prejudice or rancour, and we do him no more than justice when we say that he was indubitably the finest critic of his time. And by critic we do not mean a mere appraiser of this or that man's work, a mere castigator of this or that man's faults. In Sainte-Beuve's hands-criticism was creative. Though it pleased him, in accordance with the spirit of his age, to describe himself as a naturalist of minds, it was an art which he pursued rather than a science. The method which he thOught analytic is in reality a triumph of synthesis. He does not dissect ; he constructs ; he shows us, not nicely articulated skeletons, but living portraits.
His work was his life. For many years he contributed to Le Constitutionnel, or another journal, a weekly essay, at once luminous and exhaustive. It is difficult to overrate the strain imposed by this arduous task ; and Sainte-Beuve had so keen a conscience in literary matters, that he never shirked a difficulty or gave the world anything but his best. Wherever you turn in the many volumes of his collected works, you will find an intense understanding of the past combined with a scholarly judgment. Sainte-Beuve's style, moreover, never seems impaired by the hardship of writing for the press. It is always vivid, alert, and sincere. Better still, it is free from the exaggeration which is the certain sign of haste, and it gives a constant impression that the writer is deliberately expressing in the happiest terms an opinion at which lie has arrived after months of serene thought. Nor does he eke out the matter of his essays with the customary catch-words. He does not talk about "adventures among masterpieces," nor assert that he is, in Montaigne's phrase, " ondoyant et divers." He attacks the subject which he has chosen for his Causerie as though he had specialised in it all his life. And no subject, not even the highest, is beyond his scope. Indeed, few writers are comparable to Sainte-Beuve for universality of interest and appreciation. He knew the classics as real books. He could think of his favourites— Horace, Virgil, and Plautus—as living writers, though the austere perfection of Sophocles left him somewhat troubled : in his own phrase, "he could not take him from his purely • Portraits of the Seventeenth Century. Tly C. A. Sainte-Boure. Translated by K. P. Wormeley. London: G. P. Putnam's Sons. [21s. net.]
Greek pedestal." He was master of French literature from the fifteenth century to his own time, and few modern literatures were strange to him. At a time when Words- worth, Coleridge, and Shelley were entirely unknown in France, he revealed their beauties and explained their significance to his countrymen. Above all, he loved what- ever was best in humane letters. He did not shrink from admiration of the greatest masters, a virtue which is far rarer than it might seem to be. The critic too often attempts to show his ingenuity by appreciating what he deems to be unknown or obscure ; but Sainte-Beuve, while he had an intimate knowledge of the byways, did not disdain the broad high-road along which the masters have been passing for many centuries. Rabelais and Shakespeare, Cervantes and Moliere, the great creative minds of the world, are in the worthiest sense his intimates. And with the knowledge bred of intimacy, he can introduce them to us without adulation and without patronage, telling us with an easy candour how noble are their merits, and how frank should be our appreciation.
There is one other virtue of Sainte-Beuve's which must not be forgotten : his sense of history. His interest in life was as keen as his interest in literature. In order that his readers might the better understand their works, he delighted to put the writers of whom he discoursed in their proper environment, to show at what points they touched the activities of their time, and to suggest what influences affected their careers. There is not one of his Causeries which gives us the impression that its subject lived in vacuo, building his lofty rhyme, or chastening his austere prose, as though nothing happened without the four walls of his study. In the two volumes translated by Miss Wormeley, for instance, there is a moving picture of the seventeenth century. While Sainte-Beuve sets before us as they lived Corneille and Moliere, Pascal and Fenelon, he does not forget that it was a century of action, and he gives us also portraits of Richelieu and Mazarin, of Cardinal de Retz and Bussy- Rabutin, and even of the great King himself. And nothing shows his impartiality more clearly than the pages which he has devoted to Louis XIV. It was not fashionable in Sainte- Beuve's time to praise the Monarch who for so many years governed the destinies of France. If you compare, for instance, the foolish observations of Thackeray with the measured judgment of Sainte-Beuve, you will realise what it means to understand the lessons of history. But the truth is, Sainte-Beuve was never a pedant; he could appreciate the excellence even of those from whom he differed in politics, and after he had recovered from his early enthusiasm for the Romantic movement, be wrote always with a finality and absence of prejudice which are alike remarkable. His conception of history was not that which prevails to-day. He was content to accept as the basis of his investigations the printed books which were at hand ; but he had the faculty of divination, and he could look into the past with an eye sharpened by knowledge, and not darkened by spite or envy. His words remain to attest not merely his industry, but his happiness. A life devoted to the study of literature brings its own reward. And Sainte-Beuve did more than study literature; he re-created in his pages the poets and heroes who made France glorious ; and there is no better guide to the history of the French mind than the Causeries of Sainte-Beuve. To those who have no French Miss Wormeley's volumes may be commended. She has chosen wisely, and has translated accurately, if without distinction. At any rate, she has found a better method of doing honour to Sainte-Beuve in the year of his centenary than gabbling about Adele, and for this we owe her a debt of gratitude.