FRENCH POETS AND NOVELISTS.*
THE title which Mr. Henry James, Jun., has given to his book is vague and misleading. That book is a collection of essays which have already appeared in American periodicals, and the novelists and poets which it deals with are De Musset, Gautier, Baudelaire, Balzac, Sand, Flaubert, and Ivan Turgenieff. In addition to criticisms, more or less complete, of these writers, there are articles on the letters of the two Amperes, Madame de Sabran and Merimee, and an article on the Theatre Francais. Of this last we are not in a position to speak, our knowledge of the French Stage being on a par with Dr. Johnson's knowledge of the anatomy of a horse ; but a friend, a Frenchman, whose opinion we can trust, assures us that it is very good in- deed. But with regard to most of the remaining names on Mr. James's list, we know enough to be able to form an opinion about Mr. James's criticisms. And a very decided opinion, in- deed, we have formed. The title of the book is, as we have said, vague and misleading ; the book itself is precisely and completely the reverse. We have not often met with a volume of brighter, fresher, and juster criticism, and our satisfaction is not at all diminished by the fact that it reaches us from the other side of the Atlantic. It is a pleasure to read such a book, and a duty to praise it, and as there are one or two points where we differ slightly from Mr. James, and one or two (of importance) where we heartily agree with him, it may serve to call attention to this book if we notice them. To do that, to recommend in the strongest way an excellent volume of criticism to our readers, is the sole object of this article. We do not propose in any way to attempt a general criticism of modern French poets or modern French novelists.
• French Poets and Novelists. By Henry James, Jun. London: Macmillan and Co. 1878. Of the Essays themselves, though all are readable and all deserve to be read, we prefer the two on De Musset and Balzac. Mr. James is too unsympathetic to be able to judge George Sand quite fairly ; and although our own taste agrees completely with his own in the matter, we cannot expect that enthusiastic admirers of La Petite Fadette, to mention only one of George Sand's masterpieces, will be content to accept the following verdict :— " We cannot easily imagine posterity travelling with Valentine or Mauprat, Consuelo, or the Marquis de Wilmer, in its trunk. At the same time, we can imagine that if these delightful tales fall out of fashion, such of our own descendants as stray upon them in the dusty corners of old libraries will sit down on the bookcase ladder with the open volume, and turn it over with surprise and enchantment. What a beautiful mind! they will say ; what an extraordinary style! Why have we not known more about these things ? And as, when that time comes, we suppose the world will have been given over to a realism' that we have not as yet begun faintly to foreshadow, George Sand's novels will have, for the children of the twenty-first century. something of the same charm which Spenser's Faerie Queen has for those of the nineteenth. For a critic of to-day to pick and choose among them seems almost pedantic ; they all belong quite to the same intellectual family. They are the easy writing which makes hard reading."
Our own taste, we repeat, would lead us to assent, to say "yes" to this last sentence, but we feel that this is precisely one of the cases where we ought to distrust our own taste, and so far as we agree with it, to distrust Mr. James's judgment. To De Musset, however, Mr. James has done something more than justice, and his delicate appreciation of that ill-starred victim of love and absinthe will serve as a correction to the severe and in some re- spects unmerited castigation which " Cassandra " Greg adminis-
tered to the hero of Elle et Lid. Mr. James sums up the moral and literary cause celebre of Sand v. De Musset with judicious
brevity, and unpleasant as the whole affair is from what Mr. James calls the modest Saxon point of view, it was one that he could not avoid, and we cannot imagine how he could possibly have handled it better. We cannot, however, assent to his state- ment that De Musset is talked of nowadays in France very much as Byron is talked of among ourselves. Undoubtedly Byron's fame has seen its pahniest days, but who accuses him of having but half known his trade ? Byron was made of firmer and sterner stuff than De Musset, and there is a vein Of manly sense, which we are fond of calling English, in the former's poetry, which is conspicuous by its absence in the latter's. It was not without reason that one of his own country-
men nick-named De Musset Mademoiselle Byron. But we entirely assent to the almost extravagant praise which Mr. James has given to De Musset's "strange, fantastic, exquisite little comedies," and we should fail to do justice to Mr. James, if we did not quote his own beautiful words :—" It seems," he says, "at first a reckless thing to say, but we will risk it,—in the quality of his fancy, Musset always reminds us of Shakespeare. His little dramas go forward in the country of As You Like It and the Winter's Tale. The author is at home there, like Shakespeare himself, and he moves with something of the Shakespearean lightness and freedom. His fancy loves to play with human life, and in the tiny mirror that it holds up we find something of the depth and mystery of the object. Musset's dialogue, in its mingled gaiety and melancholy, its sweetness and
irony, its adhesions to real things, and its kinship with a romantic world, has an altogether indefinable magic." Space will not per- mit us to say more of this essay on De Musset, but we are sure that we are not exaggerating when we say that it is by far the best account of that unfortunate genius which we have met with, and will tell an English student every- thing that he needs to know, either before or after study-
ing the works of a poet whom Taine so roundly prefers to Tennyson. The French critic whom we have alluded to above tells us that some notice should have been taken of the resent- ment which Frenchmen feel for the indifference which De Musset showed to all questions of national interest, and it must be ad- mitted that this is just one of the points that a foreign critic would be likely to miss. The same gentleman also says that sufficient weight has not been given to the contempt which independent and thoughtful Frenchmen felt for the character of the subject of the second essay—Theophile Gautier. This gorgeous word-painter, or scene-painter in words, as our friend insists on calling him, was the scurra palati of the Second Empire, and merely to call him, as Mr. James does, a "compound of consistent levity," is to be more
merciful than just.
At some risk, we admit, of throwing away, as the Germans say,
the child with the bath, our advice to Englishmen about to read Gautier would be Punch's famous "Don't r Not from
motives of mere prudery alone, but life is short and books are many, and if we were to say, "Read all the French authors who are distinctly superior to Thitophile Gautier before you read him," as we should, of course, be fully. justified in saying, the advice would be practically the same.
Not a single word would we say about Charles Baudelaire, whom let no one who is not fond of gilded dunghills read, were it not that Mr. James, in his properly brief article, has hit the right nail on the head with a swift dexterity which is beyond all praise. We need not dwell on the literary sin and artistic blunder which he has smitten so vigorously. The honourable purity of the great trunk-stream of English literature is hardly sullied by the sewage which from time to time trickles into it, but the "sour smell" of the " drains " is not entirely absent in the production
of some recent English novelists and poets, and we are delighted with the way in which Mr. Henry James, Jun., flushes the sewers. Baudelaire calls his exhibition a la Dr. Kahn—a phrase, we are glad to say, which will be Greek to our younger readers—Les Fleurs du Mal. "Le Mel!" retorts our American novelist, "you
do yourself too much honour. This is not evil ; it is not the wrong ; it is simply the nasty. Our impatience is of the same order as that which we should feel if a poet, pretending to pluck the flowers of good,' should come and present us as specimens a rhapsody on plumcake and eau de Cologne." And further on he has the following excellent remarks, which we quote at length, to justify our praise of a book of whose merits they are a fair specimen, and also because of the importance which we attach to the truth which they inculcate. The heart of man is
desperately wicked. Well, be it so ; but even as Medea should not kill her children coram populo, so the heart of man, if we may
use so homely a metaphor, should wash its dirty linen at home. " Quod turpe factu eat, turpe idem est dictu," is a trite old saw, but not more trite than true ; and as some people choose to ignore it, under the pernicious plea of the claims of art, and other such-like nonsense, we are glad to see Mr. James take up a posi- tion where he can say, if he is as fond of quoting the Eton Latin Grammar as we are,—" Suo sibi gladio hunc jugulo." His remarks are these :—
" Baudelaire, of course, is a capital text for a discussion of the question as to the importance of the morality, or of the subject-matter in general, of a work of art ; for he offers a rare combination of technical zeal and patience and of vicious sentiment. But oven if we had space to enter upon such a discussion, we should spare our words, for argu- ment on this point wears, to our sense, a really ridiculous aspect. To deny the relevancy of the subject-matter and the importance of the moral quality of a work of art strikes us as, in two words, ineffably puerile. We do not know what the great moralists would say about the matter,—they would probably treat it very good-humouredly ; but that is not the question. There is very little doubt what the great artists would say. These geniuses feel that the whole thinking man is one, and that to count out the moral element in one's appreciation of an artistic total is exactly as sane as it would be (if the total were a poem) to eliminate all the words in three syllables, or to consider only such portions of it as had been written by candle-light. The crudity of sen- timent of the advocates of art for art ' is often a striking ex- ample of the fact that a great deal of what is called culture ' may fail to dissipate a well-seated provincialism of spirit. They talk of morality as Miss Edgeworth's infantine heroes and heroines talk of physic,' —they allude to its being put into and kept out of a work of art, put into and kept out of one's appreciation of the same, as if it were a coloured fluid, kept in a big-labelled bottle in some mysterious intel- lectual closet. It is in reality simply a part of the essential richness of inspiration,—it has nothing to do with the artistic process, and it has everything to do with the artistic effect. Tho more a work of art feels it at its source, the richer it is ; the loss it feels it, the poorer it is."
We have left ourselves no space to speak further of the con- tents of this admirable book. We can only say that the essay on Balzac is, to our thinking, the best ; and to repeat the expres- sion of our pleasure at receiving a volume of such excellent criticism from America. We welcome Mr. Henry James as a genuine and instructive critic. Not much, after all, it may be said by those who assent to Lord Beaconsfield's famous sneer in
Lothair. But the author of Lot/fair cannot afford to treat the author of Laokoon, de haul en has, and if the Premier thinks that the critics are the men who have failed in art and literature, we have Lessing's word for it that he never heard a word spoken in dis- paragement of criticism without feeling ashamed and annoyed.
And Leasing was indubitably right. The men who have succeeded in art, in literature—the genus irritabile vatum, and we may add, pictorum —are, with some magnificent exceptions, unduly sus- ceptible to praise and blame ; and we must, of course, admit that the name of false and fleeting and, in one sense, feigned
criticism, is legion. But honest, just, and enlightened criticism is good for art, as well as for literature ; and an honest, just, and enlightened critic like Mr. Henry James, Jun., will not wince at the gibe,—his withers are un wrung.