Critical Memoir

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Author: William Sharp
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 110. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 15,233 words

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[(essay date 1901) In the following essay, Sharp offers an overview of Sainte-Beuve's work, both in verse and in prose, with an emphasis on the wide range of his thoughts and accomplishments.]

Among the innumerable apt sentences with one of which an essay upon Sainte-Beuve, the sovereign critic, might fittingly be introduced, I doubt if there be any better than this: "I have but one diversion, one pursuit: I analyze, I botanize, I am a naturalist of minds. What I would fain create is Literary Natural History." He was, and is, unquestionably the foremost "naturaliste des esprits:" in literary natural history he is at once the Buffon and Humboldt, the Linnaus and Cuvier, the Darwin even, of scientific criticism. It is conceivable that the future historian of our age will allot to Sainte-Beuve a place higher even than that which he holds by common consent of his cultured countrymen, even than that claimed for him by one or two of our own ablest critics, Matthew Arnold, in particular, and Mr. John Morley. He was not a great inventor, a new creative force, it is true; but he was, so to say, one of the foremost practical engineers in literature,--he altered the course of the alien stream of criticism, compelled its waters to be tributary to the main river, and gave it a new impetus, an irresistible energy, a fresh and vital importance.

I.

During the ten or twelve years in which I have been a systematic reader of Sainte-Beuve, I have often wondered if his literary career would have been a very different one from what we know it, if he had been born ere the parental tides of life were already on the ebb. Students of physiology are well aware of the fact that children born of parents beyond the prime of life are, in the first degree, inferior in physique to those born, say, to a father of thirty years of age and to a mother five-and-twenty years old; and, in the second degree, that the children of parents married after the prime of life, are, as a rule, less emotional than those born of a union in the more ardent and excitable years of youth. The present writer admits that he is one of the seemingly very few who regard the greatest of literary critics as also a true poet,--not a great, not even an important, but at least a genuine poet, whose radical shortcoming was the tendency to produce beautiful verse rather than poetry, but the best of whose metrical writings may confidently be compared with those of any of the notable contemporary lesser poets of France. And it is because in the "Life, Poems, and Thoughts of Joseph Delorme," in "Les Consolations," in the "Pensées d'Août," I for one find so much which is praiseworthy, which is excellent even, that I have often wondered if, his natal circumstances having been other than they were, the author who has become so celebrated for his inimitable...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100932