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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

23. Literature from the North to the South

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1Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817),i daughter of the banker Jacques Necker, who was a minister under Louis XVI, is the author of novels (Delphine, 1802; Corinne, 1807) as well as of political and literary treatises. In her essay Germany (written in 1810 but first published in 1813), she introduced literature from across the Rhine to the French, and reflected on the national characters of both countries. The connections between literature and socio-historical contexts were already at the heart of her 1800 work On Literature Considered in Relation to Social Institutions.

On Literature from the North

  • ii In 1760 a Scottish poet called James Macpherson (1736–1796) collected songs said to be by Ossian u (...)

2It seems to me that there are two completely distinct literatures: one from the Mediterranean and one from the North, one that has its source in Homer and one that originated with Ossian.ii The Greeks, Romans, Italians, Spanish and French from the century of Louis XIV belong to the literary genre that I shall call the literature of the South. The English, German and some Danish and Swedish writings must be classified as literature of the North. Before characterising the English and German writers, it seems to me necessary to consider more generally the principal differences between the two literary hemispheres. […]

3Climate is certainly one of the main reasons for the differences which exist between the images that are appealing in the North and those which people like to call to mind in the South. The daydreams of poets can give life to extraordinary things; but everything they create is inevitably shaped by impressions of ordinary experience. Avoiding the traces of these impressions would mean losing the greatest of advantages, that of depicting one’s own experiences. Poets from the South constantly mingle images of coolness, dense woods and clear streams with all of life’s emotions. They never simply go over the delights of the heart, without mingling them with an idea of benevolent shadows protecting them from the burning heat of the sun. Their natural surroundings, which are full of life, arouse in them impulses more than thoughts. It seems wrong to me that people have claimed passions were more violent in the South than in the North. You see more diverse interests in the South, but less intensity in individual ideas, when it is rather steadiness that produces miracles of passion and will. The peoples of the North are less concerned with pleasure than with pain, and their imagination is all the more fertile for it. […]

4The poetry of the North is more suited to the spirit of a free people than the poetry of the South. […]

5Philosophy, at the time of the literary renaissance, began in the northern countries, reason finding far fewer prejudices to fight against in their religious habits than it does in those of Mediterranean peoples.

6In general, there is nothing so cold and artificial as religious dogmas exported to a country where they are seen merely as ingenious metaphors. The poetry of the North is rarely allegorical; none of the effects rely on local superstitions to stir the imagination. A measured enthusiasm and a pure exaltation can suit all people equally well; it is the true poetic inspiration, whose sentiment exists in everyone’s heart, but whose expression is the gift of genius.

7Germaine de Staël,
On Literature Considered in Relation to Social Institutions (1800).

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ii In 1760 a Scottish poet called James Macpherson (1736–1796) collected songs said to be by Ossian under the title Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Galic or Erse Language. For Staël, these poems seem to demonstrate the existence of a Nordic tradition comparable to the Homeric tradition. Current criticism sees these as compilations created by the supposed editor, without being able to determine precisely the extent to which they are based on an oral tradition or on possible documents.

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