The title of a work cited by Sainte-Beuve suggests what a literary criticism should not be. It runs as follows: “Michel de Montaigne, a collection of unedited or little-known facts about the author of the Essays, his book and other writings, about his family, his friends, his admirers, his detractors.” Sainte-Beuve, Taine, and the other masters never present us with a “collection.” They marshal their numerous facts into a system, and dominate them with a thought which, however complex, is coherent. Most of us arise from the perusal of an author with a chaotic throng of impressions. But in the mind of a true literary critic the chaos becomes order. Renan, in his “Poetry of the Celtic Races,”〖Harvard Classics, xxxii, 137.〗 “giving a voice to races that are no more,” lets us hear not a confusion of tongues but an intelligible unity of national utterance—sad, gentle, and imaginative. Hugo, surveying in his “Preface to Cromwell”〖H. C., xxxix, 337.〗 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,”〖H. C., xxxix, 410.〗 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〖H. C., xxxii, 105.〗 and Byron,〖H. C., xxxii, 377.〗 which offer many opportunities for recounting interesting but irrelevant incidents, mention only those which illustrate their conception of the authors.

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