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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Criticism with Nisard is not a natural history of minds


While

such criticism as that of Villemain was maintained by Saint-Marc Girardin (1801-73), professor of French poetry at the Sorbonne, the dogmatic or doctrinaire school of criticism was represented with rare ability by DESIRE NISARD (1806-88). His capital work, the _Histoire de la Litterature Francaise_, the labour of many years, is distinguished by a magisterial application of ideas to the decision of literary questions. Criticism with Nisard is not a natural history of minds, nor a study of historical developments, so much as the judgment of literary art in the light of reason. He confronts each book on which he pronounces judgment with that ideal of its species which he has formed in his own mind: he compares it with the ideal of the genius of France, which attains its highest ends rather through discipline than through freedom; he compares it with the ideal of the French language; finally, he compares it with the ideal of humanity as seen in the best literature of the world. According to the result of the comparison he delivers condemnation or awards the crown. In French literature, at its best, he perceives a marvellous equilibrium of the faculties under the control of reason; it applies general ideas to life; it avoids individual caprice; it dreads the chimeras of imagination; it is eminently rational; it embodies ideas in just and measured form. Such literature Nisard found in the great age of Louis XIV. Certain gains there may have been in the eighteenth century, but these
gains were more than counterbalanced by losses. To disprove the saying that there is no disputing about tastes, to establish an order and a hierarchy in letters, to regulate intellectual pleasures, was Nisard's aim; but in attempting to constitute an exact science founded upon general principles, he too often derived those principles from the attractions and repulsions of his individual taste. Criticism retrograded in his hands; yet, in retrograding, it took up a strong position: the influence of such a teacher was not untimely when facile sympathies required the guidance or the check of a director.

The admirable critic of the romantic school, CHARLES-AUGUSTIN SAINTE-BEUVE (1804-69), developed, as time went on, into the great critic of the naturalistic method. In his _Tableau de la Poesie Francaise au XVIe Siecle_ he found ancestors for the romantic poets as much older than the ancestors of classical art in France as Ronsard is older than Malherbe. Wandering endlessly from author to author in his _Portraits Litteraires_ and _Portraits Contemporains_, he studied in all its details what we may term the physiology of each. The long research of spirits connected with his most sustained work, _Port-Royal_, led him to recognise certain types or families under which the various minds of men can be grouped and classified. During a quarter of a century he investigated, distinguished, defined in the vast collection of little monographs which form the _Causeries du Lundt_ and the _Nouveaux Lundis_. They formed, as it were, a natural history of intellects and temperaments; they established a new method, and illustrated that method by a multitude of examples.


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