The sustained and methodically expounded idea which is the basis of every great critical essay would, however, like all abstractions, seem dull or unintelligible if it were not constantly and vividly illustrated. The logical must flower in the picturesque. This even the great critics occasionally forget: one or two passages in Mazzini’s essay would be more convincing if more fully illustrated by references to Goethe’s works; and the only pages of Hugo where our interest flags a little are those in which he describes, without examples, the character of romantic verse. But such lapses are highly exceptional. Taine, the most intellectual and least emotional of these men, makes it a rule to clothe the skeleton of his theory in flesh and blood. To show what he means by “the visible man,” he clearly portrays a modern poet, a seventeenth-century dramatist, a Greek citizen, and an Indian Purana. Renan, to exhibit the Celtic love of animals and nature, tells the story of Kilhwch and Olwen; and to explain Celtic Christianity, recounts the legend of St. Brandan. Sainte-Beuve states his definition of classicism in a few lines, and devotes the rest of his essay to applying it to particular authors.

All these masters have the gift of happy quotation. Montaigne’s “I commend a gliding, solitary, and silent life,” quoted by Sainte-Beuve, and Goethe’s “I allow objects to act tranquilly upon me,” quoted by Mazzini, clarify and confirm out of the authors’ own mouths those impressions which the critics wish to impart. The astonishing effectiveness of the close of Hugo’s essay is due to his apt quotations from Aristotle and Boileau, which seem to bring over those great classicists to Hugo’s romantic party.

The illustrations are not derived only from literary works. Taine, insisting upon the delicacy with which a literature records changes in national character, likens it to the sensitive instrument of a physicist. The similes of Hugo are exceptionally frequent and elaborate. “To make clear by a metaphor the ideas that we have ventured to put forth,” he writes, “we will compare early lyric poetry to a placid lake which reflects the clouds and stars; the epic is the stream which flows from the lake, and rushes on, reflecting its banks, forests, fields, and cities, until it throws itself into the ocean of the drama. Like the lake, the drama reflects the sky; like the stream, it reflects its banks; but it alone has tempests and measureless depths.” His poet “is a tree that may be blown about by all winds and watered by every fall of dew; and bears his works as his fruits, as the fablier of old bore his fables. Why attach one’s self to a master, or graft one’s self upon a model? It were better to be a bramble or a thistle, fed by the same earth as the cedar and the palm, than the fungus or the lichen of those noble trees.” Mazzini begins his comparison of Byron and Goethe by contrasting an Alpine falcon bravely floating in the midst of a storm, with a tranquil stork impassive amid the warring elements; and Renan prepares us for his conception of Celtic literature by giving us at the outset the characteristic tone of the Breton landscape. What the intellect has firmly outlined, fancy and imagination paint in lively colors.

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