*Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin

Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve

Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve



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Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin

French, 1804–1869
Sainte-Beuve’s earliest essays appeared from 1824 to 1835 in several Parisian periodicals: the newspapers Le Globe and Le National, and the reviews Revue de Paris (Paris review) and Revue des Deux Mondes (Review of two worlds). They were published in book form posthumously in 1874–75 and given the title Premiers lundis by his editor to associate them with what in the meantime had become his most famous essay collections, the Causeries du lundi (1851–62; Monday Chats) and Nouveaux lundis (1863–70; New Mondays). As a former medical student, trying to earn his living as a journalist-critic, Sainte-Beuve found that his true ambition was to become a great poet and perhaps a great novelist as well. It was clear from these first pieces, which he called “my gropings and beginnings,” that he sought to use the books given him to review, which covered a great variety of subject matter, as the pretext for his own thought and— even more unusual—for his own artistic expression. His aim was to bring his subjects to life, as vividly as possible, to “paint” or “depict” them (the verb peindre recurs frequently), emulating not other critics so much as the novelists he admired, such as Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. Something highly original was stirring here:
no critic had ever spoken of his ambition “to depict mankind in all its variety of passions and circumstances,” like Shakespeare, Molière, or Scott, allowing himself, like them, “to be transformed into an infinite number of characters” (“Mort de Walter Scott” [1832; Death of Walter Scott]).
Between 1829 and 1846 Sainte-Beuve pursued two parallel, overlapping, and interdependent vocations: that of the critic and that of the poet/novelist. During these remarkably productive years he published his first and most famous verse volume (in reality a mixture of prose and verse), Vie, poésies et pensées de Joseph Delorme (1829; Life, poetry, and thoughts of Joseph Delorme), followed by three more books of verse;
his only completed novel, Volupté (1834); and three series of critical essays, Portraits littéraires (1844; Literary portraits), Portraits de femmes (1844; Portraits of Celebrated Women), and Portraits contemporains (1846; Contemporary portraits), in the Revue de Paris and the Revue des Deux Mondes. That he eventually abandoned poetry and fiction in favor of criticism was due less to his lack of success in these genres (he in fact enjoyed a modest success) than to his greater success as a critic and to his awareness (he was his own best critic) that he would never achieve the greatness he aspired to as poet and novelist. However, he made up for this loss by applying his imaginative gifts to his critical essays, in which erudition became imbued with poetic feeling, as several of his more astute contemporaries, including Victor Hugo, recognized.
The Portraits embrace a rich variety of primarily literary topics: authors both major and minor, professional writers as well as marginal ones who left nothing more than memoirs or letters. Literary criticism is broadened to include the study of human behavior traditionally associated in France with “le moraliste” (the student of mores, of mceurs).
Literary opinions, Sainte-Beuve wrote to a friend, mattered much less to him than reflections on “life itself, its purpose, the mystery of our own heart, the nature of happiness and holiness.” In the Portraits of Celebrated Women he states: “Literary criticism is never anything more for the mind of moralist bent than a point of departure, an opportunity.”
His method in these essays is primarily biographical and combines both the objective, impartial, sometimes clinical approach that he called “physiology” (assimilated perhaps from his medical studies) with poetic expression (“hidden poetry” is his term) of a somewhat elegiac nature. The fictionist’s art is also sometimes put to use, as when he calls the essay on Madame de Charrière one of his “little short stories with a single character.” In the second of his essays on Diderot (Portraits littéraires) he describes the process of re-creating his character-models and how it should ideally culminate in the magic moment when “analysis disappears into the act of creation, the portrait speaks and lives, one has found the man” (almost as often it is “the woman”). In overall form there is little resemblance in these pieces, or in other essays of the author, to the artful disorder or studied randomness of Montaigne, Marivaux, or the English essayists, for these qualities were alien to his basically neoclassical taste and sense of order. Nor did the intimate first-person style of the “personal” or “familiar” essay appeal to him. For his self-revelations one must turn to his poetry or to Volupté, or to his superb intimate journals, the Cahiers (wr. 1834–47, pub. 1973), selections of which have appeared under the titles Pensées et maximes (1955) and Mes Poisons (1926), admired and emulated by
Cyril Connolly in his The Unquiet Grave (1945). In the Portraits, as in his other essays, self-revelations are very subtly and indirectly presented. The style tends to be involved syntactically, is sometimes labored or clumsy, and is heavily laden with metaphors and other images; but at its best it is highly readable; the use of spatial images (topographical, landscape) in the analysis of his subjects is an original, striking feature.
Had Sainte-Beuve published only the Portraits his stature as an essayist of the first rank would be secure. However, in 1849, at age 45, he renewed himself in extraordinary fashion by launching a series of articles appearing each Monday in various journals and reviews, first in Le Constitutionnel (The constitutional) and then in Le Moniteur (The monitor), Le Temps (The times), and the Revue des Deux Mondes. They were interrupted only by his death in 1869. These Causeries du lundi and Nouveaux lundis (their titles in book form) consist of no less than 28 volumes containing roughly 600 separate titles and almost 400 different topics. Based for the most part on publications the critic was given to review, the majority concern French literature and history, especially contemporary works and those of the two preceding centuries. Others deal with Greco-Roman antiquity and English, German, Italian, and Spanish authors. Writers great and small are found beside royalty, aristocrats, magistrates, diplomats, statesmen, soldiers, women of polite society (femmes du salon), saints, and scientists, to name but a few, providing only that these “non-professional” writers left something worth reading. Women continue to figure prominently. The thematic range is also extraordinarily wide: purely literary or aesthetic questions form merely part of a vast inquiry into the nature of the writer (Thibaudet [1936] calls this Sainte-Beuve’s “Comédie littéraire”) and into the broader human drama of the “Comédie humaine.” Not unlike his arch-enemy and rival, Balzac, he carried whole societies in his head.
Several new elements not characteristic of the Portraits are introduced into the Lundis.
The style, as promised in the title Causeries, is more “oral,” more “conversational,” less laden with imagery, sharper and wittier than in the Portraits (in his preface the essayist describes it as “more concise and more unencumbered”). This “spoken” manner Jean Bonnerot (in Bibliographie de I’æuvre de Sainte-Beuve, vol. 3) attributes to the fact that the critic dictated many of these pieces to his secretary or “talked them out” before giving them a final form. Another new feature is the more authoritative tone, as the essayist, citing the examples of Nicolas Boileau, Samuel Johnson, and Jean-François de La Harpe, asserts his right to be a judge and an arbiter of taste, especially in regard to contemporary works. Finally, the critique-peintre and critique-moraliste are now enriched by the addition of the critique-naturaliste, a “naturalist of minds” whose aim is to found “the natural history of literature,” the classification of writers according to species, the “science of minds.” The assimilation of literary criticism to a science, however, takes place within distinct limits determined by the ultimately elusive and mysterious nature of creative genius. Criticism itself continues to be viewed by Sainte- Beuve as a form of creation (see “Diderot,” Causeries, vol. 3) in which the critic, paradoxically, “disappears” into his subjects, taking on their nature (“metamorphosis” is the term Sainte-Beuve uses), while at the same time sketching his own “profile” (his “apotheosis”).
Sainte-Beuve’s greatness as an essayist lies in his raising the periodical article, in the form of the critical essay, to a new level of creative power rivaling (as his admirer Matthew Arnold understood) all but the greatest of poets or novelists. The “Tenth Muse,” Thibaudet calls it. Among readers whom he influenced are such other essayists as Ernest Renan, Henry James, George Saintsbury, and Edmund Wilson. Sainte-Beuve had few models on which to draw: chiefly Plutarch’s Lives, Johnson’s Lives of the
Poets (1779–81; known most probably by reputation), Fontenelle’s biographical sketches or éloges, and Diderot’s art criticism. He devoted several fine essays to Montaigne, whom he acknowledged as one of his “masters,” but eschewed Montaigne’s type of selfportraiture and his capricious form. His collected essays, as remarkable for their sustained level of quality and readability as for their quantity, represent one of the most extraordinary feats in the history of journalism. Although they may be dipped into anywhere and read independently of one another, their author recommended that they best be read in the order of their appearance, so as to grasp the evolution of his thought and his revisions of opinion.

Born 23 December 1804 in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Studied at the Institut Landry and the College Charlemagne, Paris, 1818-21; Collége Bourbon (now the Lycée Condorcet), Paris, 1821–23, baccalauréat in letters, 1823; studied medicine in Paris, from 1823, baccalauréat in science, 1824. Contributor to many journals, from 1824, including Le Globe, Revue de Paris, and Revue des Deux Mondes. Close friends with Victor Hugo, 1827–34, and had an intermittent affair with Hugo’s wife Adèle, 1832–36. Lectured in Lausanne, 1837–38, Liège, 1848, Collège de France, Paris, 1854–55, and the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1857–61. Appointed conservateur, Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris, 1840–48. Elected to the French Academy, 1844. Columnist of “Les Lundis,” appearing in various periodicals, 1849–69. Made member of the Senate, 1865. Health deteriorated after an operation to ease an obstruction of the bladder, 1869. Died in Paris, 13 October 1869.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Critiques et portraits littéraires, 1832; enlarged edition, 5 vols., 1836–39
Portraits de fetnmes, 1844; as Portraits of Celebrated Women, translated by Harriet W.Preston, 1868; in Essays on Men and Women, edited by William Sharp, translated by William Matthews and Harriet W.Preston, 1890
Portraits littéraires, 2 vols., 1844; edited by Gerald Antoine, 1993
Portraits contemporains, 2 vols., 1846; enlarged editions, 3 vols., 1855, and 5 vols., 1869–71
Causeries du lundi, 15 vols., 1851–62; revised edition, 15 vols., 1857–62; enlarged edition, 16 vols., 1882–85; as Causeries du lundi, translated by E.J.Trechmann, 8 vols.,
1909–11; selection as English Portraits, translated an onymously, 1875; selection as Monday Chats, edited and translated by William Matthews, 1877; selections edited by George Saintsbury, 1885
Derniers portraits littéraires, 1852
Nouveaux lundis, 13 vols., 1863–70
Essays (selection), translated by Elizabeth Lee, 1869(?)
Premiers lundis, 3 vols., 1874–75
Chroniques parisiennes (1843–1845), 1876
Select Essays, translated by A.J.Butler, 1890
Essays on Men and Women, edited by William Sharp, translated by William Matthews and Harriet W.Preston, 1890
Portraits of Men, translated by Forsyth Edeveain, 1891
Portraits of the Eighteenth [Seventeenth] Century, Historic and Literary, translated by Katharine Wormeley and George Burnham Ives, 4 vols., 1904–05
OEuvres, edited by Maxime Leroy, 2 vols., 1951–56
Selected Essays, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller and Norbert Guterman, 1963
Literary Criticism, edited and translated by Emerson R.Marks, 1971

Other writings: poetry, the novel Volupté (1834), a five-volume history of Port-Royal (1840–59), correspondence, and journals.

Bonnerot, Jean, Bibliographie de I’osuvre de Sainte-Beuve, Paris: Giraud-Badin, 4 vols., 1937–52.
Bonnerot, Jean, Un demi-siède d’études sur Sainte-Beuve, 1904–1954, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1957
Phillips, E.M., “The Present State of Sainte-Beuve Studies,” French Studies 5 (1951):101–25
Regard, Maurice, “Esquisse d’un état présent des études sur SainteBeuve,” Information Littéraire 11 (1959):139–48

Further Reading
Arnold, Matthew, “Sainte-Beuve,” in his Complete Prose Works, vol. 5, edited by R.H.Super, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965 (article originally published 1869)
Babbitt, Irving, “Sainte-Beuve,” in his The Masters of Modern French Criticism, New York: Farrar Straus, 1963
Billy, André, Sainte-Beuve, sa vie et son temps, Paris: Flammarion, 2 vols., 1952
Bradford, Gamaliel, A Naturalist of Souls: Studies in Psychography, New York: Dodd Mead, 1917
Chadbourne, Richard, “Symbolic Landscapes in Sainte-Beuve’s Early Criticism,” PMLA 80 (1965):217–30
Chadbourne, Richard, “La Comédie humaine de Sainte-Beuve,” Édes Françaises 9 (1973):15–26
Chadbourne, Richard, “Criticism as Creation in Sainte-Beuve,” L’Esprit Créateur 14 (1974):44–54
Chadbourne, Richard, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Boston: Twayne, 1977
Chadbourne, Richard, “Sainte-Beuve and Samuel Johnson,” Transactions of the Samuel Johnson Society of the Northwest 9 (1980):1–14
James, Henry, “Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits,” “Sainte-Beuve’s First Articles,” and “Sainte- Beuve’s English Portraits,” in his Literary Reviews and Essays, edited by Albert Mordell, New York: Grove Press, 1957 (articles originally published 1868, 1875, 1875)
Lehmann, A.G., Sainte-Beuve: A Portrait of the Critic, 1804–1842, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962
MacClintock, Lander, Sainte-Beuve’s Critical Theory and Practice After 1849, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920
Molho, Raphaël, L’Ordre et les ténèbres, ou La Naissance d’un mythe du XVIIe siècle chez Sainte-Beuve, Paris: Colin, 1972
Mott, Lewis, Sainte-Beuve, New York: Appleton, 1925
Regard, Maurice, Sainte-Beuve, I’homme et l’oeuvre, Paris: Hatier, 1960
Richard, Jean-Pierre, “Sainte-Beuve et l’objet littéraire,” in his Études sur le romantisme, Paris: Seuil, 1970
Thibaudet, Albert, “Sainte-Beuve,” in his Histoire de la littérature française de 1789 à nos jours, Paris: Stock, 1936

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