Sainte-Beuve and Pope

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Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 110)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,872 words

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[(essay date June 1926) In the following essay, MacClintock argues that while there are important similarities between the critical thinking of Sainte-Beuve and Alexander Pope, there are also important differences and little evidence for the claim that Pope had a significant direct influence on Sainte-Beuve.]

It was late in life that Sainte-Beuve wrote to a correspondent:

Je suis resté, malgré tout, de l'école d'Horace, du chantre de la forêt de Windsor, et même en n'y mettant plus de tout de passion, je reste obstiné par ce côté de mon esprit et dans ce for intérieur de mon sentiment.1

This declaration is often cited as a sort of summary and synthesis of his critical theory and experience, witnessing his fixed and final preference for the Classical manner, a preference which he promptly and constantly declared after his conclusive break with the Romantics in 1838. The interest of the scholar is immediately aroused by two things in the passage: the fact that he calls the group or roll of writers whom he indicates a "school"; and more especially by the names he singles out as representing the "school" to which he declares his allegiance--Horace and Pope.

There can be no question of Sainte-Beuve's indebtedness to Horace. He was, of course, deeply grounded in Latin literature and criticism in general, and his approval of Horace in particular is frequently expressed. There was indeed a native kinship between them. But there is a misleading implication in the easy, and as it were, casual linking of Pope with the Latin critic--as if he felt equally indebted to both. More than one student of Sainte-Beuve has been deceived by this association, and has taken it for more than it is worth. The scholar who writes, "He frequently refers to Pope,"2 or "the frequency with which he refers to Pope,"3 really overstates the case. As a matter of fact, setting aside the essay devoted to Pope,4 in the sixty-odd volumes of Sainte-Beuve's works the name of the Englishman occurs only some thirty-five times; he is quoted but once, and then at no great length;"5 definite passages are paraphrased seven times;6 and none of these quotations, direct or indirect, is used in any vital or important connection, being, indeed, in every case incidental or illustrative. These facts would seem to warn us against the term "frequency" as applied to the French critic's use of Pope's name, and to challenge us to ask what is really the nature and amount of Sainte-Beuve's knowledge of Pope.

Sainte-Beuve's reading in English literature began early,7 yet in Michaut's detailed study of his youth the name of Pope does not occur among the English authors read by the omnivorous young man8 nor does Léon Séché in his account of the contents of Sainte-Beuve's library include any English books, though he does note the presence of Fontanes' translation of the Essay on Man.9 It may well be that it was through this book that...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100934