M. SCHERER ON ENGLISH LITERATURE.*
ENGLISH readers owe Mr. Saintsbury thanks for the few richly laden sheaves he has gained from M. Scherer's extensive field of criticism. It is well to see our great authors as an intelligent foreign critic sees them, and it is both pleasant and useful when the writer's knowledge of his subject is as pro- found as his sympathy. Whether we agree or not with the judgments of M. Scherer, it is impossible to attribute them either to ignorance or to prejudice. He is at once thoughtful and enthusiastic, and had the advantage, the translator says, of knowing the literatures and languages of England and Germany "very nearly as well as he knew French, and was even more thoroughly at home with them."
Literature was not the critic's original calling. From the age of fifteen to the age of forty-five, his studies were given to theology, and his appearance to the end of life must have been that of a cleric, as he was mistaken a few years ago in a London drawing-room for a Scotch clergyman. From the introduction we learn that M. Scherer's mother was an Englishwoman ; that be married early; was ordained in 1810 ; "preached and wrote hymns with much unction ;" was appointed a Professor in the Ecole Libre de Theologie at Geneva ; became less and less orthodox, and at the end of fifteen years suffered, to use his own expression with regard to George Eliot, a "complete theological shipwreck." The result was what, in Mr. Saintsbury's judgment, it was certain to be in the case of an inquiring spirit, impatient of compro- mise, rejecting the idea of the Church " as the supernaturally appointed depository of supernatural truth, and insisting generally that the supernatural shall allow itself to be treated as if it were not supernatural." Mr. Saintsbury has previously said that M. Scherer's Protestantism was solidly and solely founded on the Bible, and would therefore seem to affirm that a faith so founded must result in the rejection of all Christian belief in the case of an inquiring spirit, a conclusion not only unreasonable but unhistoricaL Mr. Saintsbury does not dwell upon the long period of the critic's life in which he accepted and proclaimed the Christianity of the New Testament; but he observes that, if we forget that he was a man who took refuge in a different employment from that to which he had at first given himself, " many points in M. Scherer's attitude both to politics and to literature—his two interests thenceforward—will remain dark to us." As a journalist he was very active, wrote constantly for the Temps, and contributed articles (the translator thinks, in English) to the Daily News on French politics. During the German occupation, he is said to have discharged to admira- tion the hateful duty of administering the affairs of Versailles, and afterwards " became a life Senator, and retained the posi- tion till his death." M. Scherer always declared himself a Republican, but he was disgusted more and more as time went on with the results of universal suffrage, and "published some positive jeremiads on the subject." His critical essays have never been popular in France, and he is chiefly known in England from the praise awarded him by Matthew Arnold. How much that praise is deserved, this admirably translated voluine will prove. Mr. Saintsbury, himself a vigorous critic with strong and well-maintained judgments, never writes what is not worth reading, and his comments on M. Scherer, barring the hateful use of French words by which they are deformed, supply a luminous and agreeable introduction to the twelve essays selected for translation.
Three of these essays are devoted to George Eliot, for whom M. Scherer's admiration is profound. In the article on Silas Marner—in our judgment, the most artistic although not the most attractive of the author's works—the critic notes the efforts made by modern writers to gain " customers " through the aid of eccentricity. " After a certain period," said Warton, " in every country and ,in every language, men grow weary of the natural, and search after the singular." M. Scherer sees
Essays on English Literature. By Edmond Scherer. Translated by George Saintsbury. London ; Sampson Low and Co. 1891.
this defect " in the cunningly balanced antitheses of Macaulay, in the artistic paradoxes of Ruskin, in the intolerable jargon of Carlyle," and most of all in the modern English novel. Had he written thus in 1891, his remarks, so far as fiction is con- cerned, would have been even more applicable than they were thirty years ago. The effort to say fine things and to make a commonplace statement in involved language, is infecting our ablest writers, and the youthful novelist or versemaker whose obscurity demands a commentator considers that he has achieved a conquest. It is large praise indeed from a country- man of George Sand, that he should write of George Eliot as "inferior to no one of her sex, except Madame de Stael, in depth, brilliancy, and flexibility of genius." But M. Scherer is not blind to her defects, and in Middlentarch and Daniel Deronda he discovers that she too had caught the trick of the period, condensing her expression to the point of obscurity, and falling into a mixture of abstract ideas and minutely detailed images in which it is hard to seize the thought. " One would gladly cry out to her," he exclaims, " Pray what on earth are you thinking of ? Why so many efforts when what is wanted is just the contrary—straightforward language ? " In her earlier works, George Eliot is free from this defect, and in Adam Bede, which M. Scherer considers her master- piece, "readers passed from the heated atmosphere of an opera-house to the freshness of a country morning It was felt that the author had told her tale after the manner of the old bards, without listening to her own voice, without self-consciousness, and as it were yielding to the Muse who presides over immortal creations. What a joy for those who possessed taste and soul, to find at last •an artist who was thoroughly sincere !"
We do not know why M. Scherer finds it impossible to read Adam Bede without thinking of Jane Eyre, and when he asserts that after writing that novel, Charlotte Bronte merely repeated herself, he has made one of the amazing blunders to which even the ablest critics are liable. Villette, which is among the most remarkable of modern novels, and as a work of art superior to Jane Eyre, is no more a repetition of that story than Emma is a. repetition of Pride and Prejudice. The critic's review of Daniel Deronda is one of the ablest we have read; and how just are his comments on George Eliot's Life, and on the good taste and feeling which necessarily fettered her biographer ! In the pious utterances of Miss Evans in her youthful days he cannot find an accent of per- sonal emotion, and there is nothing in the history of a life like hers—for she was always serious—so inexplicable as the ease with which she seems to have passed from the most pro- nounced type of Evangelical belief to a total loss of faith in Christianity as a supernatural religion. There is no evidence of any sharp spiritual conflict, but she appears to have laid down her arms upon the first summons. M. Scherer, we may add, makes good use of Mr. Cross's three volumes, and in this essay no doubt tells his countrymen much of which they were ignorant. The final sentence, in which he endorses Lord Acton's opinion that George Eliot is the most considerable literary personality that has appeared since the death of Goethe, will be accepted as a true judgment by many readers. We confess that we have read the two chapters on Shake- speare without much interest, not because they are unworthy of the subject, but because all original criticism upon Shake- speare seems to be for the present exhausted. But M. Scherer, it must be remembered, did not write for English readers, but for Frenchmen. To them, many of the author's words of praise may come with the freshness of novelty. " Shakespeare," he says, "has enlarged the domain of the mind, and, take him all in all, I do not believe that any man has added more than he has to the patrimony of mankind." At the same time, he crushes remorselessly some of the superstitions due to Shakespeare-worship, and his manly sense is wholly out of sympathy with the theorists who find in Shakespeare all that they wish to find in him. This sagacity and clear-sightedness, we may observe in passing, are evident throughout, and especially in M. Scherer's review of Taine's History of English Literature, in which the able writer starts with a theory, and subordinates his facts to it.
M. Scherer's essay on "Milton and Paradise Lost" has many points which remind us that the writer, despite his liberality, is fettered by his belief, and even by the prejudices of his countrymen. Mr. Saintsbury, who observes that he should ;nclude the essay " in any collection of the best dozen or sixteen critical essays of the last half-century in Europe," admits that
M. Scherer is " inevitably too severe on Milton's theological views, and assumes divers things which he would have been
hard put to prove against an active and well-armed an- tagonist," and that he is also " too lenient to Milton's character, which seems to have had a great many points of contact with his own." This, however, is not all. It seems to
us that the tone of the essay shows that the writer fails to appreciate Milton's standing-point, and that, in a measure, he is incapable of feeling his sublimity. His sneer at what Mr. Saintsbury justly calla the " poetic magnificence of the Sin and Death passage," is not, as he oddly adds, a detail, and "of the merest!' On the contrary, it affords one illustration among several in this essay, that M. Scherer's sense of sublimity has its limitations. He admits that Paradise Lost is strewn with incomparable lines, but he calls it an unreal, grotesque, and tiresome poem, of which not one reader in a hundred can read Books ix. and x. without a smile, or Books xi. and xii. without a yawn. However, Milton's potent spirit prevails with M.
Scherer after all, and we forget what has irritated us pre- viously, when we read in the final passage that " he has an indefinable serenity and victoriousness, a sustained equality, an indomitable power; one might almost say that he wraps us in the skirts of his robe, and wafts us with him to the eternal regions where he himself dwells."
Passing from Milton to the fine essay on "Wordsworth and Modern Poetry," we may begin with a disagreement. Blank verse, according to M. Scherer, is monotonous, and is only
cadenced prose ; and he adds that the power of the author must reinforce the poverty of the instrument he uses. The critic in this instance writes as a Frenchman. The verse that he despises is the glory of English poetry, and some of our greatest poetical achievements have been made in it,—not, assuredly, because the instrument is poor, but because, of all poetical instruments, it is the most difficult and the most effective. To compare this measure to " cadenced prose," is to fall into a similar error with men who write of that impossible creation, the prose-poet. There is little in the enthusiastic and yet discriminating paper on Wordsworth that calls for
criticism. M. Scherer has studied this great poet with the ardour inspired by love, and this study places him in the posi-
tion in which all Englishmen stand who have breathed in his atmosphere, and felt his " healing calm :"—
" Wordsworth," he writes, " must not be confused with the descriptive poets, even though his works abound in description, and though these descriptions are fine and often picturesque. He had an observing eye ; he seizes the aspects of objects, the dis- tinctive character of things, and he marks them off with precise and personal strokes All the same we are with him a hundred leagues away from the descriptive school, whether of the older or the newer variety. Description in Wordsworth is not there for its own sake, intended to show the artist's craftsmanship, but is bound up with the impression which objects make upon him as a man, with the emotions that they arouse, the sentiments they inspire, the influence they exercise. For Wordsworth, once more, does not love Nature as a painter occupied with line and colour, but as a devotee. He approaches her with a pious inten- tion ; his love for her is a charm with which he saturates himself, a power to which he gives himself up, a life which he aspires to live."
It may be added that M. Scherer is as conscious of Words- worth's weakness as of his greatness, and observes that his
occasional sublimity of sentiment and of language is an infraction of his principles for which all his readers may be thankful. Much more might be said of this volume, which fulfils a wish expressed by the author in his lifetime ; but the book is too rich in sound literary qualities to need further criticism or commendation.