On Sainte-Beuve On Montaigne
Sainte-Beuve writes messily, but the fine feelings sweep you along quickly so you don't notice until the second read.
I have forced Sainte-Beuve to speak here of Montaigne in epigram, as I can only imagine he would have wished if he had a modern audience to communicate with.
Much as his work has been demolished for me by Proust's criticism, Sainte-Beuve's wonderful love and enthusiasm remains:
- "It may be said of Montaigne's style that it is a continual epigram, or an ever-renewed metaphor."
- "Montaigne is a writer naturally fertile in metaphors that are never detached from the thought, but that seize it in its very center."
- "If we desired to write with his severity, exact proportion, and diverse continuity of figures and turns - it is absolutely necessary to enlarge and extend the French language."
- "In imagining the expression and locution that is wanting, our prose should appear equally finished, inspired and emboldened, but not intoxicated, by the pure and direct spirit of ancient sources."
Some stray birds:
Can even a Frenchman still speak about enlarging the language? And now that English cannot be engrossed by any one human mind, can it even be called a single language, or is it rather a super-language or complex of languages?
I find in Montaigne's classicism the best possible kind: to treat the Roman and Greek authors as a matter for pleasure and wisdom alone, and to avoid all pretense of learning and unnatural composure.
The very same things said of Montaigne are also said of Dante by the critics. Can it be the sweet new style is anything other than a sweet fresh mind made intimate with the minds of the ancients?
Finally, how can we account for Dante in Italian, Montaigne in French, and Shakespeare in English? The mystery at least can be traced to the Roman writers. But that does not explain the light that entered the world through their work.