Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/282

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.
272
CRITICISM AND THE ESSAY

surveying in his "Preface to Cromwell"[1] the highly intricate romantic movement, sees therein the harmonious union of the grotesque and the sublime. Sainte-Beuve answers his sweeping question, "What is a Classic?" with the succinct definition—a work that reveals in a beautiful and individual manner an eternal truth or emotion. Mazzini characterizes Byron as a subjective individualist, and Goethe as an objective one. Taine, prefacing his "History of English Literature,"[2] unlocks the riddle of literary growth with the keys "race, environment, and epoch." The truth of these doctrines does not for the moment concern us. What is important for us is that each of these long essays may be summed up in a single sentence; for in each a powerful mind grasps and expresses a single idea.

When a critic has conceived the leading idea of his essay, he is still in danger of obscuring its presentation. The more richly informed he is, the more he is tempted to introduce facts not strictly related to his dominant thought. But the great critical essayists, resisting that temptation, subordinate all details to the general design. Hugo, in sketching the development of the world's literature, selects only those phases which forecast the timeliness of romanticism. Sainte-Beuve and Mazzini, in dealing with the lives of Montaigne[3] and Byron,[4] which offer many opportunities for recounting interesting but irrelevant incidents, mention only those which illustrate their conception of the authors.


METHODICAL ARRANGEMENT

In the arrangement of the materials, the same conscious art is observable. Each of the sections of the essays of Taine and Renan is a firm and necessary foundation for those that succeed it. Not until Renan has described the secluded national existence of the Celts does he draw the resultant national traits of character, which thereupon we are ready to trace intelligently in the various branches of Celtic literature. The method of Taine's essay is even more admirably logical. To understand the growth of literature, he tells us, we must know first "the visible man," next "the invisible man," then the race, environment, and epoch which determined his char-

  1. H. C., xxxix, 337.
  2. H. C., xxxix, 410.
  3. H. C., xxxii, 105.
  4. H. C., xxxii, 377.