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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

During his lifetime Beyle was isolated


Hugo's

narratives are eminent by virtue of his imagination as a poet; they are lyrical, dramatic, epic; as a reconstitution of history their value is little or is none. The historical novel fell into the hands of Alexandre Dumas. No one can deny the brilliance, the animation, the bustle, the audacity, the inexhaustible invention of _Les Trois Mousquetaires_ and its high-spirited fellows. There were times when no company was so inspiriting to us as that of the gallant Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Let the critics assure us that Dumas' history is untrue, his characters superficial, his action incredible; we admit it, and we are caught again by the flash of life, the fanfaronade of adventure. We throw Eugene Sue to the critics that we may save Alexandre Dumas. But Dumas' brain worked faster than his hand--or any human hand--could obey its orders; the mine of his inventive faculty needed a commercial company and an army of diggers for its exploitation. He constituted himself the managing director of this company; twelve hundred volumes are said to have been the output of the chief and his subordinates; the work ceased to be literature, and became mere commerce. The money that Dumas accumulated he recklessly squandered. Half genius, half charlatan, his genius decayed, and his charlatanry grew to enormous proportions. Protected by his son, he died a poor man amid the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war.

II

HENRI BEYLE, who

wrote under the pseudonym of Stendhal, not popular among his contemporaries, though winning the admiration of Merimee and the praise of Balzac, predicted that he would be understood about 1880. If to be studied and admired is to be understood, the prediction has been fulfilled. Taine pronounced him the greatest psychologist of the century; M. Zola, doing violence to facts, claimed him as a literary ancestor; M. Bourget discovered in him the author of a nineteenth-century Bible and a founder of cosmopolitanism in letters. During his lifetime Beyle was isolated, and had a pride in isolation. Born at Grenoble in 1783, he had learnt, during an unhappy childhood, to conceal his natural sensibility; in later years this reserve was pushed to affectation. He served under Napoleon with coolness and energy; he hated the Restoration, and, a lover of Italian manners and Italian music, he chose Milan for his place of abode. The eighteenth-century materialists were the masters of his intellect; "the only excuse for God," he declared, "is that he does not exist"; in man he saw a being whose end is pleasure, whose law is egoism, and who affords a curious field for studying the dynamics of the passions. He honoured Napoleon as an incarnation of force, the greatest of the _condottieri_. He loved the Italian character because the passions in Italy manifest themselves with the sudden outbreaks of nature. He indulged his own passions as a refuge from ennui, and turned the scrutiny of his intelligence upon every operation of his heart. Fearing to be duped, he became the dupe of his own philosophy. He aided the romantic movement by the paradox that all the true classical writers were romantic in their own day--they sought to please their time; the pseudo-classical writers attempt to maintain a lifeless tradition. But he had little in common with the romantic school, except a love for Shakespeare, a certain feeling for local colour, and an interest in the study of passion; the effusion and exaltation of romance repelled him; he laboured to be "dry," and often succeeded to perfection.


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