The Method of Sainte-Beuve

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Author: Marcel Proust
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 110. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,100 words

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[(essay date 1954) In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Proust takes issue with nearly every aspect of Sainte-Beuve's criticism but judges his poetry to be much more honest and authentic, if sometimes clumsy.]

I have reached a time or, if you like, I find myself in circumstances such that one may fear that the things one most wanted to say--or, failing those at least, if an enfeebled sensibility and the bankruptcy of talent no longer allow of that, those which came next, which one had been inclined, by comparison with that higher, more secret ideal, not greatly to esteem, but which one has not after all read anywhere, which one may think will not be said if one does not say them oneself, and which one notices stem all the same from an even shallower part of our minds--suddenly one is no longer able to say them. One sees oneself as no more than the trustee, who may depart at any moment, of intellectual secrets which will depart with one, and one would like to counter the force for inertia of an earlier indolence, by obeying Christ's beautiful commandment in St John: 'Work while ye have the light.' Thus it seems to me that I would have things that have their importance perhaps to say about Sainte-Beuve, and presently much more in connection with him than about him, that by showing where he sinned, in my view, both as writer and as critic, I should perhaps come to say some things about which I have often thought as to what criticism should be and what art is. In passing, and in his connection, as he does so often, I shall use him as the excuse for talking about certain forms of life ... I may say a few words about some of his contemporaries on whom I also have an opinion. And then, having criticized these others and this time letting go of Sainte-Beuve altogether, I shall try to say what art would have been for me if ...

For the definition and eulogy of Sainte-Beuve's method I have looked to the article by M. Paul Bourget, because the definition was short and the eulogy authoritative. I could have cited twenty other critics. To have written the natural history of minds, to have looked to the biography of the man, to the history of his family, to all his peculiarities, for an understanding of his work and the nature of his genius, that is what everyone recognizes to have been his originality, and what he recognized himself, in which moreover he was right. Taine himself, who dreamt of a more systematic and better codified natural history of men's minds and with whom as it happens Sainte-Beuve did not agree over questions of race, says no differently in his eulogy of Sainte-Beuve: 'M. Sainte-Beuve's method is no less valuable than his work. In this he was a pioneer. He imported into moral history the procedures of natural history....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100935