Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

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Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

The French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869), who developed a very personal technique of literary criticism, remains the most important literary arbiter of his century.

Born in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve went to Paris in 1824 to study medicine. But by 1826 he was contributing actively to the Globe, where an article favorable to Victor Hugo won him the young poet's confidence and a place in his Cénacle, or coterie, among the most innovative literary talents of the time. Saint-Beuve's Tableau historique et critique de la poésie française et du théâtre français au XVI sie‧cle (1828) not only rehabilitated the neglected Pléiade poets (Pierre Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay) but laid a claim to respectability for his contemporaries, "romantic" descendants of those forgotten giants of lyricism.

Saint-Beuve's own elegiac efforts in Vie, poésies et pensées de Joseph Delorme (1829) and Consolations (1830) enhanced a prestige among his peers that was not echoed by the public; his unhappy affair with Hugo's wife, Ade‧le (allusively chronicled in his novel Volupté, 1834), led to an open break with his most ardent supporters and initiated a period (mid-1830s) of spiritual upheaval during which he sought guidance in Saint-Simonism and even in the renewed Catholicism of Félicité Robert de Lamennais. His interest in the Jansenist community of Port Royal dates from these years, although he continued producing critical articles for the Revue des deux mondes, which would be collected in Portraits littéraires, Portraits de femmes, and Portraits contemporains. The Histoire de Port-Royal (3 vols., 1840-1848; originally a lecture series given in Lausanne in 1837-1838) remains his most important single contribution, however, and is often termed the most valuable and original work of literary criticism in the 19th century. Here his ideal role as "naturalist of human spirits," seeking to classify by "families" and "generations" those writers whose interior lives he deliberately pursues, is clearly expressed. Sainte-Beuve sought here, as he would throughout his career, that "relative truth of each thing" by which literature remained for him a domain of vital and infinite variety.

The second half of Sainte-Beuve's career (1849-1869), marked by a hasty and widely criticized rallying to the regime of Napoleon III, saw his elevation to a place in the French Academy and finally (1865) a seat in the Senate. These were his most productive years, during which the Causeries du lundi ("Monday Chats" in the Moniteur) regularly confirmed his official status as arbiter of national taste under the Second Empire. Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire (1861; dating from a course given at Lie‧ge in 1848-1849) stands with Port-Royal as a major, unitary contribution. The Lundis and Nouveaux Lundis, however, best reveal that shifting, curious, always allusive talent with which he attempted to join "physiology" and "poetry" in an art of evocation and critical appraisal. Sainte-Beuve, by abandoning the dogmatic evaluations of his predecessors, made of criticism an inductive process based on detailed examination of the author's character, his life, and so his literary work. This historical, biographical method established Sainte-Beuve as the first "modern" literary critic.

Further Reading

There is no complete edition of Sainte-Beuve's works in either French or English, although many of his works have been translated. Two particularly useful critical biographies and appraisals are Harold Nicolson, Sainte-Beuve (1957), and Andrew George Lehmann, Sainte-Beuve: A Portrait of the Critic, 1804-42 (1962). □