[(essay date 1977) In the following essay, Chadbourne provides an individual analysis of each of Sainte-Beuve's volumes of poetry, as well as a discussion of his overall poetic achievement.]
In a letter to an unidentified correspondent (it bears no date, but Bonnerot believes it was probably written in 1824), Sainte-Beuve confessed having composed poems for the past two years in an attempt to "define the vague fits of sadness" to which he was subject (B [Correspondance générale, ed. Jean Bonnerot and Alain Bonnerot (Paris and Toulouse, 1935-1975)] I, 56). It was not, however, until his momentous meeting with Hugo in 1827, and the beginning of their friendship and exchange of views on poetry, that he acquired enough confidence in himself to think of preparing his first book of verse. The result was the publication two years later of his Vie, poésies et pensées de Joseph Delorme. Although still to this day the best known of his poetic works, it was merely the first in a series of four major verse collections that he brought out between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine, the others being Les Consolations (1830), Pensées d'Août (1837), and, in a limited private printing, Livre d'amour (1843).
Before attempting to characterize each of these books, I should like to describe the general features that they share in common, so far as content is concerned. I shall return to their stylistic features later.
I The Poetic Work as a Whole
What links all four books together is that they are so many fragments of the poet's spiritual autobiography in his late twenties and early thirties, so many chapters of an intimate journal in verse form. The apparently haphazard way in which the poems were arranged was probably as much a matter of plan as of accident. Thomas Hardy, in one of his prefaces, wrote that much of his poetry "comprises a series of feelings and fancies written down in widely differing moods and circumstances, and at various dates." Yet he was not alarmed that this might produce on the reader the effect of "little cohesion of thought or harmony of colouring," because, as he argued, "unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change."1 Sainte-Beuve would, I think, have subscribed to this view. He in fact introduces his Pensées d'Août with a very similar concept, in the form of an epigraph from Goethe, who, in his Conversations with Eckermann, urged poets to render "all the little subjects that present themselves" from day to day and who described his own poems as "poems of circumstance issuing from everyday reality and finding in it their basis and support."2
The recurrence of certain stylistic traits and of certain preferred poetic genres (elegiac, pastoral, narrative, epistolary) contributes much to the unity of the four books, as does the "art poétique" (basically unchanged from...