« PreviousContinue »
the entire evolution of a literary species; and Friedrich, with less scholarship but more genius, attempted in a brilliant sketch to seize the organic movement of the entire literature of the world; while in the philosophy of Schelling, their intimate and ally, the far-reaching literary synthesis of Romanticism seemed to acquire an imposing speculative basis. The universe was with him an organism-spirit in evolution; and poetry was the culminating form of nature, whose energies, elsewhere struggling for utterance, there alone found unimpeded expression. So lofty a conception of literature glorified at the same time the literary historian, whose privilege it thus was to narrate the communications of the liberated soul of the world.
This magnificent Romantic investiture of literary history had perhaps little practical effect. But the Romantic ideas of comparative literature, of literary evolution, and of the organic coherence between literature and all the aspects of culture and life, told powerfully during the next generation even among the assailants of Romanticism, and passed beyond the Rhine and beyond the North Sea. The German heart of Heine, and the Romantic fibre of his brain, had equally their way with him when the idol of Paris salons wrote his wonderful outline of the intellectual history of his country.† Coleridge and Carlyle both drank deeply of Romanticism; neither achieved literary history in the strict sense; but without the inspiration of Romantic ideas Coleridge's Shakespeare would have been less remote from the Shakespeare of Malone, and Carlyle's Heroes' less unlike the 'Lives' of Johnson. To the larger synthetic conceptions England on the whole, with her deeply ingrained individualism, remained impervious. It was otherwise in France. There the first ringing challenge in the name of German Romanticism-Mme de Stael's 'L'Allemagne (1810) coincided with a purely French movement to inspire interest in other literatures. Mme de Stael herself was the founder of comparative literary history in France. And in the next generation the supple and versatile critical sympathy of the Schlegels reappeared in
* F. Schlegel, 'Vorlesungen über Geschichte der alten und neuen Litteratur' (1815).
† 'Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland' (1834),
Edgar Quinet, the translator of Herder's Ideen,' and in A. F. Villemain, a Romantic who revealed Pindar to the classicists of France, and forced its chauvinists to recognise Burke.*
Hitherto the driving and fecundating forces in literary history had been derived from philosophy and poetry. In France, from the thirties onwards, it began to be submitted to the analogies of natural science. SainteBeuve had his roots, as he said, in the positive and scientific eighteenth century; † his exquisitely delicate critical analysis of minds he compared to dissection of the body; and there floated before him, as the final end of literary criticism, a natural history of spirits. The end was remote, perhaps unattainable; but his refined exploration of the affinities and distinctions between different minds had in view an ultimate synthesis like the ordered grouping of the plant or animal world. But it was by Taine, as is well known, that the naturalistic and physiological analogies of literature were for the first time fearlessly applied to literary history. Man was an animal who produced poems and philosophies as birds their nests; and the literary historian studied the animal by analysing its product. Taine's method appealed powerfully to the positive temper of his time, and it gave an imposing unity and continuity to his History of our literature, for his real subject was the mind of the English people, of which its literature was the 'document' or the 'sign.'
But it was soon apparent that this brilliant synthesis was largely illusory. Sainte-Beuve, in his review of the 'Littérature Anglaise,' already pointed out that literature could not be so directly derived from its milieu. In what sense was 'Paul et Virginie' a 'sign' of the corrupt and decadent France of Louis XV? Two brilliant younger critics, Émile Hennequin and Ferd. Brunetière, advanced important modifications of Taine's doctrine; but both, even in their antagonism, show how deeply his treatment of the society out of which literature springs as the true subject of literary history had impressed the French mind.
* Tableau de la littérature française au 18 siècle; id. au moyen âge' (1828).
+ Cf. his illuminating 'Confession,' and his comments on it in 'Port Royal,' vol. ii, Appendix 2.
Hennequin agreed in affirming that a people's literature expresses it; this, however, was not because it had produced the literature, but because it had adopted and admired it, literature which it did not admire failing in the long run to be produced. The nexus is kept, but it is now psychological or economic instead of biological; the book conforms to its social milieu, not because it grows out of it, but because it is written to please and to be bought. Brunetière did not thus set aside the biological standpoint of Taine; but he sought to overcome the anomalies incident to it by a more thorough-going application of biological analogies, in particular of those supplied by the discoveries of Darwin. The Darwinian doctrine of sporadic variations, which break up existing species and originate new ones, offered a real if incomplete parallel to the evolution of literature through the agency of a constant succession of fresh minds, each in its degree modifying or transforming, but never wholly escaping, the tradition it finds. In the course of the last twenty-five years both these lines of investigation in literary history have been pursued with brilliant results in France; the study of the literary audience in Beljame's masterly volume 'Le Publique et les Hommes de Lettres en Angleterre ;' the evolution of 'kinds' in Brunetière's history of French critical theory,† and the study of the evolution of the French Lyric carried out by his pupils; while the two procedures are employed together, with brilliant literary skill and admirable learning, in M. Jusserand's 'Literary History of the English People.'
The influence of Taine's work spread far beyond the bounds of France. Without it neither Georg Brandes's 'Main Currents of Nineteenth Century Literature,' nor Wilhelm Scherer's History of German Literature,' nor Ten Brink's History of English Literature' would have been fashioned as they are. But Germany, at least, had her independent canons and methods of literary history. The enthusiastic ideals of Romanticism had there too been subjected to the more positive and scientific conceptions of the twenties and thirties. But, whereas in France the scientific influence came from the
side of natural history, in Germany it came from that of comparative philology. And, if in France literary history was at once animated and warped by imperfectly relevant analogies, in Germany it tended rather to be impoverished by excessive rigour of method. The continuity which the Romantics divined between the literature of successive epochs hardened into the causal nexus between a work and its 'sources.' Quellenforschung (the research of sources), a pre-eminently German study, has enormously multiplied the known affiliations among literary facts; but in its preoccupation with the derivative side of literature it has tended to ignore the creative, or even to deny its existence. On the other hand, the assumption upon which Quellenforschung is groundedthat a literary work can be exhaustively analysed, and its separate elements accounted for-has led, in competent hands, to wonderfully delicate and penetrating studies of poetic experience,' such as Hehn's essay on Goethe, and the studies of Goethe, Lessing and Shakespeare in Dilthey's 'Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung.'
In England the German doctrine of sources,' like the French doctrine of the milieu, has never struck deep root. Sir Sidney Lee's account of the French Renaissance in England,' to be noticed in more detail below, is a conspicuous example of comparative literary history based upon a close and penetrating study of origins. The strength of literary history among us has lain less in synthetic grasp of the connexions and continuities among literary phenomena than in vigorous 'appreciation' of the individual writer and of the individual book. An extreme illustration (we had almost said a reductio ad absurdum) of this tendency is Mr Arthur Symons's Romantic Movement,' a collection of refined and subtle detached studies of the writers of an epoch arranged according to the dates of their birth. As a rule, our literary history is a loose mixture of biography and criticism in various proportions. But their rightful relative shares and mutual relations are still undefined. A school of critics once in high repute would have thrust biography out of literary history altogether, on the ground that a man's life was only superficially relevant to his writing; while in more popular work the literary features were often obscured by the interest of a career
of adventure, misfortune or crime. If we have examples of a better way than either, of an imaginative apprehension of a life and of its thought and speech together, as in Pater's wonderful 'Studies of the Renaissance,' the honour is mainly due to two great masters of literary biography-Goethe and Sainte-Beuve. Goethe's life of Winckelmann * (1805), the historian of classic art, the idol of his student days at Leipzig, is a memorable example of a man completely seen, so that his outer history and his inner growth, his early struggles and his mature triumphs, his passion for friendship and his passion for beauty, appear as features in the same face. Of SainteBeuve's exquisite sensibility to the finest vibrations of personality alike in literature and in life, it is needless to speak. If he has roots in science, if his ultimate aim is a scientific classification, a natural history of minds,' the delicate insight with which he feels out their infinitely varied nuances makes him the most consummate portrayer of the individual mind, the first of literary biographers as of literary critics. It is in his union of the utmost scientific refinement in the analysis of every order of fact with the acutest sense of literary values that SainteBeuve surpassed the English masters of critical appreciation in the previous generation, Lamb and Hazlitt. No one has ever reproduced the quality of a book, of a scene, of a character, of a speech, with more consummate felicity than they. The winged and joyous imagination found its voice in them; and this through their example has been the strength, though hardly the staple, of later English criticism and literary history. But literary portraiture, in Sainte-Beuve's sense, was as little within their compass as literary history itself. It is only in brilliance that the 'Spirit of the Age' can for a moment be compared with the 'Causeries du Lundi '; and Hazlitt's brilliance is here perpetually of the kind which puts a heightened colour upon truth, while Sainte-Beuve's is arrived at simply in the search for perfectly precise and adequate expression. And if we look to the normal level of achievement, the French are still the masters of Europe in this as in the other two branches of the literary historian's art.
* Werke (ed. Hempel), Bd xxviii, 197 f.