Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Just as Boileau was the model man of letters and literary critic of the French seventeenth century, so, in several ways, was Sainte-Beuve the model professional literary man of the nineteenth century in France. However, Sainte-Beuve, though he was a doctrinaire Romantic in much of his early work, cannot be so thoroughly identified with Romanticism as can Boileau with French Classicism. But Romanticism never took so firm and characteristic a hold in France as had Classicism, and it is probably accurate to say that Sainte-Beuve typifies the French literary world of the mid-nineteenth century. This view holds despite the fact that he is notorious for not being able to evaluate correctly many of his great contemporaries; Stendhal, Balzac, and Baudelaire were among the authors to whom Sainte-Beuve was blind. In this respect Sainte-Beuve was the opposite of Boileau, whose ability to identify the greatness of his contemporaries was remarkable. Sainte-Beuve’s strength lay in seeing the excellence of the literature of the past, and he was among the first to detect that Ronsard, who had been ignored for two hundred years, was a major figure in the French literary tradition. In this respect, too, he was the opposite of Boileau whose snobbish Classicism made him blind to the excellence of much of the literature of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. This contrast between Boileau and Sainte-Beuve is instructive: it illustrates the strengths of Classicism and Romanticism and shows us that the “perfect” literary consciousness will combine the characteristics of both.

In the nineteenth century, literary criticism, like other intellectual activities, more and more abandoned the humanistic traditions of the Renaissance as it sought to model itself on that great child and successor of humanism, modern science. The philosophy behind this new attitude was Positivism. It was assumed by Positivists that mankind had passed through the theological way of thinking, to an abstract and metaphysical method of thought, typified by non-religious philosophic systems, to the ultimate way of thinking: the positive way, based on positive, objective science. All things, physical reality, society, man himself, and literature, if examined scientifically could be known and understood completely and truly.

Adopting this theory to his own particular talents and interests, Sainte-Beuve developed a characteristic method of criticism which is seen at its best in his MONDAY CONVERSATIONS (CAUSERIES DU LUNDI), a series of essays published in three Paris newspapers on successive Mondays from 1851 until just after his death in 1870. (Actually, these essays fall into three separate groups: MONDAY CONVERSATIONS, a second series called NEW MONDAYS, and a posthumously gathered series of earlier essays titled FIRST MONDAYS.)

The basis of Sainte-Beuve’s critical method was exhaustive analysis of the work in question. Thus, just as he rejected the classical...

(The entire section is 1221 words.)