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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

II. The Critic

French Poets. Baudelaire, Musset, Gautier, Hugo

Texte intégral

  • 1 Letter to Benson, 23 December 1896, Letters to A.C. Benson and Auguste Monod (New York, 1930), p. (...)

I am jealous of the brush of the wing of verse and try to dignify the petty sentiment with the name of criticism. And in addition to being jealous I am also envious—envious of the lyric mood, the lyric leak—you can say the egotistical thing—I never.1

1James does not seem to have been much attracted by the lyric mood. We need only open his French Poets and Novelists to notice that the novelists receive by far the larger share of his attention and that when he examines a poet the latter’s prose works interest him even more than his poetical works. This is the case with Gautier and Hugo who are primarily poets but whose poetry James hardly considers at all. Yet they have been included in this section because what interested James in them is significant and greatly helps us to define his sensibility.

2When he read Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal in 1876 James was surprised and even amused at the scandal to which the volume had given rise twenty years before. The work, he writes in the Nation, is a sincere book if one can speak of sincerity when referring to somebody of Baudelaire’s temper and culture. In reality Baudelaire, like so many of his compatriots, remained on the surface of things and ignored their moral implications:

  • 2 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 27.

His great quality was an inordinate cultivation of the sense of the picturesque, and his care was for how things looked, and whether some kind of imaginative amusement was not to be got out of them, much more than for what they meant and whither they led and what was their use in human life at large.2

  • 3 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 29.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 7 Loc. cit.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 29.
  • 9 Loc. cit.

3If we must judge him by the company he keeps, James further writes, we are not likely to be impressed in his favour. He is compromised by his having translated—that is, having taken seriously—Edgar Poe’s works, and James considers that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection,”3 though he immediately adds that Poe was the greater charlatan but also the greater genius of the two. Moreover, the later editions of Les Fleurs du Mal contain a preface by Theophile Gautier, and if it is excellent taste to admire Gautier it is rather compromising to be admired by him. Gautier’s admiration for Baudelaire’s verse strikes James as “the admiration of the writer who gushes for the writer who trickles.”4 James prefers Gautier, however, because he was sincere: he never pretended to care for anything else than appearances nor to deal with anything else than the picturesque. Baudelaire, on the contrary, “had a certain groping sense of the moral complexities of life.”5 The very title of his volume, combining as it does a concrete element with a moral one, indicates some concern with moral ideas but all he does is “to drag them down into the very turbid element in which he himself plashes and flounders.”6 Baudelaire indeed knew evil “not by experience, not as something within himself, but by contemplation and curiosity, as something outside of himself, by which his own intellectual agility was not in the least discomposed, rather indeed... agreeably flattered and stimulated.”7 Comparing Baudelaire with Hawthorne in their respective treatment of evil James observes that the former was a kind of Hawthorne reversed. The American writer felt evil at its source, in the human consciousness, the French poet found it in blood and carrion, in stinking corpses and starving prostitutes so that “we are at a loss to know whether the subject pretends to appeal to our conscience or—we were going to say—to our olfactories.”8 What Baudelaire deals with is not Evil: it is simply the nasty, and he takes much trouble to produce it. James confesses his lack of sympathy for that class of laborious geniuses “who fumble a long time in their pockets before they bring out their hand with a coin in the palm,”9 who combine technical zeal and patience with vicious sentiment. Baudelaire failed because he endeavoured to make fine verse on ignoble subjects and because the reader, unable as he is to separate subject and process, finds the beauty perverted by the ugliness:

  • 10 Ibid., p. 31.

What the poet wished, doubtless was to seem to be always in the poetic attitude; what the reader sees is a gentleman in a painful-looking posture, staring very hard at a mass of things from which, more intelligently, we avert our heads.10

4Les Fleurs du Mal strikes James as a capital text for discussing the importance of the subject-matter in a work of art. To hold that art and morality are two perfectly different things is childish, and any artist must feel that

  • 11 Ibid., p. 30.

the whole thinking man is one, and that to count out the moral element in one’s appreciation of an artistic total is exactly as sane as it would be (if the total were a poem) to eliminate all the words in three syllables, or to consider only such portions of it as had been written by candle-light.11

  • 12 Ibid., p. 31.

5The advocates of art for art’s sake speak of morality as though it could be put into or kept out of a work of art, as though it had something to do with the artistic process, whereas it is simply “a part of the essential richness of inspiration.”12 The process is not the whole work. The subject, James says, is as much a part of the artist’s work as hunger is a part of his dinner.

  • 13 “Des Prochaines Elections de l’Académie,” Nouveaux Lundis (Paris, 1863-1870), I, 398.
  • 14 “Laissez-moi vous donner un conseil qui surprendrait ceux qui ne vous connaissent pas: vous vous d (...)
  • 15 James W. Gargano, “Henry James on Baudelaire,” Modern Language Notes. LXXV (1960), 559-561.

6According to James Baudelaire was not really preoccupied with moral issues but only with technical problems, and his perfection is too often wasted on ugly or repulsive subjects. It is interesting to notice the similarity between James’s view of Baudelaire and Sainte-Beuve’s. The French critic also reproached Baudelaire with being passionless, a judgment that certainly requires correction. He speaks of the “originalité concertée et composite”13 of the poet and in a letter he advises him to be more passionate and less theoretical.14 On the other hand, as a note by James W. Gargano has made clear,15 Baudelaire’s work had been the starting point of a journalistic controversy the year before the publication of James’s essay. A high-school teacher, who was writing a book on nineteenth-century literature and wanted to be spared the trouble of reading Baudelaire, inquired in a letter to the Nation whether he had better trust Saintsbury’s approval or Schérer’s moral denunciation of the French poet. The Nation answered that he had better follow Schérer. James shared the Nation’s standpoint. He was not yet convinced in 1876 that when a work is good it does not matter whether its subject is attractive or repulsive, which may account for his superficial and unoriginal approach to Baudelaire’s work and his misunderstanding of it.

7If James found Baudelaire passionless he was grateful to Alfred de Musset for teaching English readers what passion is:

  • 16 French Poets and Novelists, p. 25.

There is in most poetry a great deal of reflection, of wisdom, of grace, of art, of genius; but (especially in English poetry) there is little of this peculiar property of Musset’s.16

8Musset, James writes in his 1877 essay on the poet, has less energy than Shelley but he resembles Byron in that his verse has freshness and spontaneity and does not depend upon the reflective stage through which most English poetic expression first passes. His verse is not chiselled like Gautier’s and lacks the high perfection of the latter’s but it has sweetness and spontaneity:

  • 17 Ibid., p. 28.

To our own sense Musset’s exquisite feeling more than makes up for one half the absence of “chiselling” and the ineffable grace we spoke of just now makes up for the other half. His sweetness of passion, of which the poets who have succeeded him have so little, is a more precious property than their superior science.17

9For the rest Paul de Musset’s biography—which had prompted James to write his essay—seems to offer James a mere pretext for digressing on the episode in Italy with George Sand and on the latter’s personality. James regrets that Musset’s share of the correspondence should not be available for it might have been interesting to compare the two writers’ reaction to the same experience. We know from his autobiography that James became acquainted with Musset’s work and translated Lorenzaccio when he was still in America, but we cannot help wondering whether he would have written on the poet later on except for the episode with George Sand. James found George Sand’s personality richer than her friend’s. His attitude towards the couple shows that he was not interested in biographical or anecdotal facts for their own sake but for the light they throw on the process by which private experience can be aesthetically assimilated and transmuted into a work of art. In fact, James rather disliked personal revelations; they often struck him as a typically French lack of delicacy and of modesty.

  • 18 Ibid., pp. 58-59.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 59.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 54.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 56.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 57.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 45.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 71.

10James notices the same absence of reserve in Gautier’s treatment of the human body. The English, he writes in a review dated 1873, are very different from the French on that point and they do not discuss their physical features with the same freedom and complacency. The French might be compared to the old Athenians in their unshrinking contemplation of the human body, but the impression made is quite different because the French type “being as meagre as the Greek was ample, has been filled out with the idea of ‘grace,’ which, by implying that the subject is conscious makes modesty immediately desirable and the absence of it vicious.”18 This is what James feels all through Gautier’s work, especially in the scenes of Parisian life “with its sallow tones of close odours, among which no Athenian sky makes a blue repoussoir either for statues or mortals.”19 Gautier, James wrote, might have chosen the brush rather than the pen. Everything with him was a matter of images, of colours. Names of painters come under James’s pen as soon as he evokes him: his Constantinople is “an immense verbal Decamp,”20 his Capitaine Fracasse might have been written by Meissonier, had Meissonier been a writer, many of the scenes of Paris have “the finely detailed relief of the accessories and distances in a print of Albrecht Durer,”21 whereas the tales remind him of “those small cabinet paintings of the contemporary French school, replete with archeological details as to costume and furniture, which hang under glass in immense gilt frames and form the delight of connoisseurs.”22 Gautier, in short, was above all pictorial and plastic. But if he was a good painter he was a poor moralist. He never saw anything else than the superficial, picturesque face of a problem and “to raise on such a basis so meagre a structure was possible only to a Frenchman, and to a Frenchman inordinately endowed with the national sense of form and relish for artistic statement.”23 Gautier could look every day at a group of beggars on the Spanish Steps in Rome and enjoy for ever the brownness of their rags and the colour of their flesh “without a chance of one of those irresistible revulsions of mood in which the ‘mellowest’ rags are but filth, and filth is poverty, and poverty a haunting shadow, and picturesque squalor a mockery.”24

  • 25 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 97.

11In his 1874 review of Feydeau’s Théophile Gautier, Souvenirs Intimes James writes that Gautier is perfect in his way but that the refinement of his imagination is not balanced by intellectual and moral complexity. Feydeau tries to establish the contrary, and James cannot help smiling at his indiscreet adulation of his friend, whom he presents as a great thinker and a profound scholar, which, in James’s mind, Gautier certainly was not. The poet himself had the most modest pretensions so that James never refused him his admiration. But he cannot conceal his compassion for Gautier because he lived in an intellectual atmosphere which urged the cultivation of the picturesque though Nature herself, in spite of all the attention he gave her, never transformed him “from the poet who merely observes and describes into the poet who conceives and creates.”25 A writer cannot afford to be superficial, and Gautier’s geniality, thrown into relief by the cynicism of the younger generation, does not compensate for his lack of moral passion:

  • 26 Loc. cit.

We do not really react upon natural impressions and assert our independence, until these impressions have been absorbed into our moral life and become a mysterious part of moral passion. Poor Gautier seems to stand forever in the chill external air which blows over the surface of things; above his brilliant horizon there peeped no friendly refuge of truth purely intellectual where he could rake over the embers of philosophy and rest his tired eyes among the shadows of the unembodied.26

  • 27 Ibid., p. 90.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 91.

12This superficial character of Gautier’s work renders it almost untranslatable. Reviewing two translations, Winter in Russia in 1874 and Constantinople in 1875, James notices that the vividness, the fantasy, the incisiveness evaporate in the English version. Half the charm of Gautier’s writings is in the way things are said, “in the mere curb and flutter of his phrase, as he unreels it in long bright-colored ribands,” but when translated into English “the air of spontaneity soon disappears and this ceaseless play of style becomes rigid and awkward.”27 Gautier’s “powers of reflections were about equivalent to those of an intelligent poodle,”28 but as a descriptive poet he was admirable. Provided the reader does not look for information in Winter in Russia he is sure to enjoy the book because Gautier can use his eyes far better than other people and can make him see things that would undoubtedly escape him.

  • 29 Essays in London and Elsewhere (London, 1893), p. 222.
  • 30 James records this in his Notebooks (p. 26) and says that Flaubert had read a poem by Gautier whic (...)
  • 31 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 221.

13In his review of the Goncourts’ Journal in 1888 James evokes Gautier’s overworked life, “the struggle that never came to success, the want of margin of time to do the best work, the conflict, in a hand-to-mouth, hackneyed literary career between splendid images and peculiarly sordid realities.”29 In the same review James writes that the Goncourts show how little perspicacity they have by finding Gautier the most typical figure of their time. He was charming, delightful; he knew the French colour-box better than anyone, yet he had too few ideas to be considered as one of the first. If the names of English poets had come to James’s mind when he wrote about Musset this could hardly be the case with Gautier, a typical Frenchman. Flaubert, with whom James sat one afternoon towards the end of March 1876, had expressed his preference for Gautier, whom he found “plus français” than Musset.30 Gautier indeed belonged to the same family as Flaubert, and James ironically remarks that his only idea was that real literary greatness consisted in bewildering the bourgeois. He cannot help pitying him, as he pities Flaubert, for an attitude that made them sit, intellectually, “in the same everlasting twilight.”31 Gautier, like Flaubert, worked under the spur, without love, without sympathy, without joy. He did not write for pleasure but for subsistance and was chained to the newspapers:

  • 32 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 99.

It was often done in the printing-office on the edge of a smutted table, with a dozen people talking; but there is never a case in which the reader of the finished article is not free to fancy it may have been excogitated in luxurious leisure, amid the fumes of a perfumed pipe, by a genius in a Persian dressing-gown reclining under a bower of roses.32

14The illusion is there—and the perfection. But formal perfection can never compensate for the absence of life and of moral sensibility.

15Different though it is from Gautier’s constant control over his material, Victor Hugo’s boundless energy did not attract James either. Too prone to prove and to demonstrate, neither a pure aesthete nor a very deep psychologist, and an ideologist rather than an idealist, Hugo represented all that most irritated James in France: national conceit, theorizing, absence of humour. The poet appealed to the French taste for bombast and to their innate love of the grandiose. When in Paris in 1876 James had the opportunity to listen to Hugo’s inflated address to the communal delegates, he wrote to the New York Tribune:

  • 33 Parisian Sketches, p. 66.

France occasionally produces individuals who express the national conceit with a transcendent fatuity which is not elsewhere to be matched. A foreign resident in the country may speak upon this point with feeling; it makes him extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know how it affects people who dislike French things to see their fantastic claims for their spiritual mission in the world, but it is extremely disagreeable for those who like them. Such persons desire to enjoy in a tranquil and rational manner the various succulent fruits of French civilization, but they have no fancy for being committed to perpetual genuflections and prostrations.33

  • 34 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 137.

16The same national vanity strikes James in the pages of La Légende des Siècles. “These volumes,” he writes in his 1877 review of it, “contain the usual proportion of fulsome adulation of Paris and of the bloodiest chapters in its history—that narrow Gallomania which makes us so often wonder at times, not whether the author is, after all, a great poet, but whether he is not very positively and decidedly a small poet.”34 James incidentally regrets that the French should be unable to forget their revolution. If they could, he says, the result would be most favourable to their intellectual health.

  • 35 Curiously, Turgenev fulminated against the same novel and called it “dreary nonsense” in a letter (...)
  • 36 Notes and Reviews, p. 199.
  • 37 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 139.

17James had already reviewed Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer for the Nation in 1866, and he had violently criticized his verbosity. The ironical summary of the novel leaves no doubt as to what the reviewer thought of its author.35 Feeling that he had perhaps been too ferocious James had concluded by saying that if he spoke of the book with levity it was because it had been written exclusively from the head: “This fact we deeply regret,” he added, “for we have an enormous respect for Mr. Victor Hugo’s heart.”36 James admitted that the French writer had “heart” but his grandiloquence and prolixity always gave him a painful impression of conceit. It offended his taste for conciseness and perfection of form. Walking “escorted between the sublime and the ridiculous as resolutely as his own most epic heroes,”37 Hugo was certainly not the elegant figure James always looked for in France. As a poet he was very unequal, and if he produced things of extraordinary beauty (James particularly notices the pieces about children) he also committed gross and extravagant faults. Besides, he had no sense of humour and as a philosopher had nothing of the smallest consequence to say.

  • 38 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 2.
  • 39 “que M. Hugo se garde surtout de l’excès de sa force; qu’à l’heure de la méditation, il sache atte (...)

18James’s criticism of Hugo is as vituperative as his criticism of Walt Whitman, whose Drum-Taps he had reviewed in 1865. Only later, when he no longer wrote about them, did James begin to see these two poets in a more favourable light. But his first reaction is extremely significant. Both Hugo and Whitman were full-blooded men, strong temperaments, “very fond of blowing [their] own trumpet,”38 whenever they met a complacent ear. James despised their lack of measure, their verbosity and the extreme seriousness with which they took themselves. On the other hand, he did not render justice to the better part in them: if they lacked measure they did not lack force, if they were sometimes vulgar they could also be sublime. Their bad manners obviously exasperated James’s delicate nerves. In Hugo’s case his attitude is not just misunderstanding as it was in Baudelaire’s: it reveals his inability to respond, the shrinking of a delicate mind from the sight of unfiltered reality. James had the same reaction when he looked at the paintings of Rubens, another full-blooded and exuberant artist. He himself advocates both life and art. If Gautier’s work can be said to lack life the same cannot be said of Hugo’s. But Hugo too often lets himself be carried away by his force, by his powerful imagination; instead of endeavouring to get at life progressively, to keep the distance necessary to render it in its fullness, Hugo rushes on it and partly crushes it in the process. Here again the similarity of James’s judgment with Sainte-Beuve’s is very striking.39 Likewise, what irritates James in Rubens is the lack of reflection. The painter, he says in Transatlantic Sketches, might have been interesting if he had not painted so much by improvisation. James rejects both the mere chisel of the aesthete and the uncontrolled energy of the poet. There can be no art without life but life is best rendered when the artist remains at a sufficient remove from it.

19These reviews sufficiently show how little James was interested in poetry: in the case of Gautier and Hugo he discusses the travel books and the novels instead of the verse; in the case of Musset he thinks of the personality of George Sand rather than of the poet himself; as for Baudelaire he so completely fails to understand him—the only such misunderstanding in his whole literary criticism— that we can only attribute this to his failure to understand poetry in general.

  • 40 Reprinted, under the title “The Novel in ‘The Ring and the Book’,” in Notes on Novelists with Some (...)

20James was first and foremost a novelist and nothing illustrates this better than his address to the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature in commemoration of Robert Browning’s centenary.40 What most appeals to him in The Ring and the Book is the way it lends itself to an adaptation in prose. James proposes to disintegrate the whole block of material and to show how Browning would have worked his documents had he been a storyteller instead of a poet. He emphasizes the difference between the world of the poet—who, having only to express his inner self, is allowed greater liberty—and the world of the novelist who must see that the characters refer to each other rather than to their author, who must find a central consciousness, extract the point at which the various implications of interest most converge and try to make all the parts fuse together. Like the novelist the poet must be intelligent about life and aware of the part played by the moral sense. He must not content himself with presenting the superficial traits of his theme: he must also extract its latent meaning and show it to his readers. Though this is true there is more than that in poetry, but James often confuses it with prose and measures it by the same yard-stick.


1 Letter to Benson, 23 December 1896, Letters to A.C. Benson and Auguste Monod (New York, 1930), p. 40.

2 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 27.

3 Ibid., p. 28.

4 Ibid., p. 29.

5 Ibid., p. 27.

6 Ibid., p. 28.

7 Loc. cit.

8 Ibid., p. 29.

9 Loc. cit.

10 Ibid., p. 31.

11 Ibid., p. 30.

12 Ibid., p. 31.

13 “Des Prochaines Elections de l’Académie,” Nouveaux Lundis (Paris, 1863-1870), I, 398.

14 “Laissez-moi vous donner un conseil qui surprendrait ceux qui ne vous connaissent pas: vous vous défiez trop de la passion; c’est chez vous une théorie. Vous accordez trop à l’esprit, à la combination. Laissez-vous faire, ne craignez pas tant de sentir comme les autres, n’ayez jamais peur d’être trop commun; vous aurez toujours assez, dans votre finesse d’expression, de quoi vous distinguer.” (Causeries du Lundi [Paris, 1857-1862], Appendice, IX, 528-529). James was probably unaware of the touch of acerbity under the amenity of the tone. Sainte-Beuve must have been jealous of the young poet who had succeeded in a field which he himself had explored without success in Joseph Delorme thirty years before.

15 James W. Gargano, “Henry James on Baudelaire,” Modern Language Notes. LXXV (1960), 559-561.

16 French Poets and Novelists, p. 25.

17 Ibid., p. 28.

18 Ibid., pp. 58-59.

19 Ibid., p. 59.

20 Ibid., p. 54.

21 Ibid., p. 56.

22 Ibid., p. 57.

23 Ibid., p. 45.

24 Ibid., p. 71.

25 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 97.

26 Loc. cit.

27 Ibid., p. 90.

28 Ibid., p. 91.

29 Essays in London and Elsewhere (London, 1893), p. 222.

30 James records this in his Notebooks (p. 26) and says that Flaubert had read a poem by Gautier which, having forgotten the right title, he refers to as Les Vieux Portraits.

31 Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 221.

32 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 99.

33 Parisian Sketches, p. 66.

34 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 137.

35 Curiously, Turgenev fulminated against the same novel and called it “dreary nonsense” in a letter to Annekov dated 12 April 1866, the day when James’s review appeared in the Nation. Quoted by Richard Georges Kappler in “Yvan S. Turgenev as a Critic of French Literature,” Comparative Literature, XX, 2 (1968), 134.

36 Notes and Reviews, p. 199.

37 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 139.

38 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 2.

39 “que M. Hugo se garde surtout de l’excès de sa force; qu’à l’heure de la méditation, il sache attendre à loisir ses propres rêves, les laissant venir à lui et s’y abandonnant plutôt que de s’y précipiter... que, n’épuisant pas à chaque trait ses couleurs, il approche par degrés de son idéal, et consente, s’il le faut, à rester au-dessous plutôt que de le dépasser, ce qui est la pire manière de ne pas l’atteindre.”(Premiers Lundis, op. cit., I, 205).

40 Reprinted, under the title “The Novel in ‘The Ring and the Book’,” in Notes on Novelists with Some Other Notes.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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