Saturday, 18 June 2016


by George Brandes; William Heinemann, London.—
 This is the third volume of a series on "Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature," all from the pen of the brilliant and painstaking Danish critic.  The series began with "The Emigrant Literature," and "The Romantic School in Germany." Then comes the volume under review. which is to be followed by "Naturalism in England," "The Romantic School in France." and "Young Germany." The "reaction" here referred to is that among French writers at the beginning of the last century in favour of the re-establishment of a fallen Power, the principle of authority. "It is ratification by religion which makes authority absolute," says our author, and he proceeds to show how the spiritual life, annulled at the time of the Revolution, was "resuscitated, proclaimed, developed, vindicated, established, and finally again overthrown." Voltaire, little as he foresaw or even desired an outward revolution, had given voice to the destructive principle which animated it, while from Rousseau came the rallying uniting spirit:—

For Voltaire had destroyed the principle of authority by vindicating the liberty of thought of the individual; Rousseau had displaced and superseded it by the feeling of universal brotherhood and mutual dependence. What these two great men had planned, the Revolution carried into effect. It was the executor of their wills; the thought of the individual became destructive action, and the feeling of mutual dependence uniting organization. From Voltaire came the wrath of the revolutionists; from Rousseau their enthusiasm.

The reaction began very soon, while Napoleon was at the height of his power. Chateaubriand was its colourist, De Maistre (Joseph of that name, not the much later Xavier) its virtual leader; and its "school master, with his rules for everything," was (says Brandes) Bonald, to whom he gives an importance not hitherto assigned him.

The best of the young, aspiring poets of the day began their career under its influence, and, though it did not retain its hold on them long, it gained by their means a popularity which, added to the authority possessed by its thinkers, was sufficient to make its cause seem for a short time victorious, more especially as the restoration of the Bourbons realized its political ideals. In the course of a few years, however, all its best men, with music playing and colours flying, went over to the enemy's camp. The school was dissolved by its own essential unnaturalness.

It was written in the year 1800: "A very decided religious reaction distinguishes this first year of the nineteenth century." It distinguished the first twenty (says Mr. George Brandes) only to be then overthrown by a kind of literary partnership between Hugo, Beranger, and Chateaubriand, aided by enormous reprints of Rousseau and Voltaire, and by the wide impression caused by Byron's death in the cause of liberty. Says the author—apparently to his own entire satisfaction:—

Soon all the personages whom we have watched appearing on the scene are at war with the potentates whose cause they began by championing with such ardour; and at war with that principle of authority which had ruled themselves and the age. And the principle fails never to rise again.

Mr. Brandes' arguments are not always entirely convincing, but his patient marshalling of facts, his biographical details and researches into old records make up a volume of great interest. It is clear that no large library can afford to be without his "Main Currents" series. The present book is full of quotations of much interest, but in general little known. Take, for example, Joseph De Maistre's tirade against Voltaire, who had called the sacrifices of the Inquisition worse than any offered up in Pagan times. He certainly puts the question in a new light:

What! The lawful execution of a small number of human brings, condemned to death by a fully qualified court of justice according to the strict letter of a penal law which had previously been solemnly proclaimed, and which each one of the victims was perfectly free to avoid transgressing—to call such an execution a hundred times more abominable than the horrible act of the parents who cast their children into the flaming arms of Moloch! What wild insanity! What forgetfulness of all reason, all justice, all shame!

This is special pleading, but it is ingenious. Or, to come to more recent times, consider Victor Hugo's arbitrary placing of some great writers:—"I have never understood the difference alleged to exist between classic and romantic art. Shakspeare's and Schiller's dramas differ from Corneille's and Racine's only in being more faulty!" The honors of the Revolution are dwelt upon only so far as they emphasize the point that it was religious authority so largely aimed at. One provincial report stated that:

There are no longer any priests in the Department of Nievre. The altars have been despoiled of the piles of gold which ministered to priestly vanity; 30 millions worth of valuable articles will be sent to Paris. Two carts laden with crucifixes, gold croziere, and two millions in gold coin have already arrived at the Mint. Three times as much will immediately follow.

Tirades against the origin of the Christian religion are freely cited, but are hardly fit for reproduction here. A pathetic description is given of the sufferers locked into  the prison of the Carmelite Convent in the September massacres. In the word of one who eventually escaped:-

From time to time we sent some of our comrades up to the window in the tower to look in what posture the unfortunates who were being sacrificed in the courtyard were meeting their fate, so that we might know how to conduct our selves when our turn came. They told us that those who stretched out their arms suffered longest, because the sword blows slackened before they, reached the head.

However, according to Michelet's calculation. the number of men and women executed from beginning to end of the revolution did not amount to a fortieth part of the number killed in the battle of the Moskwa alone.—Enough has been said to show the general interest of the fare provided. The name of the translator of the book does not appear, but he has done his work well. A casual reader might hardly be aware that English was not the author's own language. The volume would, however, be much the better for an index.

Adelaide Observer Mar 1903

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