Main Currents of the
Literature of the Nineteenth Century
by George Brandes
George Brandes was born in Copenhagen on February 4,
1842, and was educated at the University of Copenhagen. The
appearance of his "Æsthetic Studies" in 1868 established his
reputation among men of letters of all lands. His criticism received
a philosophic bent from his study of John Stuart Mill,
Comte, and Renan. Complaint is often made of the bias exhibited
by Brandes in his works, which is somewhat of a blemish
on the breadth of his judgment. This bias finds its chief expression
in his anti-clericalism. His publications number thirty-three
volumes, and include works on history, literature, and criticism.
He has written studies of Shakespeare, of Lord Beaconsfield,
of Ibsen, and of Ferdinand Lassalle. His greatest work is
the "Main Currents of the Literature of the Nineteenth Century."
The field covered is so vast that any attempted synopsis
of the volume is impossible here, so in this place we merely
indicate the scope of Brandes's monumental work, and state his
The Man and the Book
This remarkable essay in literary criticism is limited
to the first half of the nineteenth century; it concludes
with the historical turning-point of 1848. Within this
period the author discovers, first, a reaction against the
literature of the eighteenth century; and then, the vanquishment
of that reaction. Or, in other words, there is
first a fading away and disappearance of the ideas and
feelings of the preceding century, and then a return of
the ideas of progress in new and higher waves.
"Literary history is, in its profoundest significance,
psychology, the study, the history of the soul"; and
literary criticism is, with our author, nothing less than
the interior history of peoples. Whether we happen to
agree or to disagree with his personal sympathies, which
lie altogether with liberalism and whether his interpretation
of these complex movements be accepted or rejected
by future criticism, it is at least unquestionable
that his estimate of his science is the right one, and that
his method is the right one, and that no one stands beside
Brandes as an exponent.
The historical movement of the years 1800 to 1848 is
here likened to a drama, of which six different literary
groups represent the six acts. The first three acts incorporate
the reaction against progress and liberty. They
are, first, the French Emigrant Literature, inspired by
Rousseau; secondly, the semi-Catholic Romantic school
of Germany, wherein the reaction has separated itself
more thoroughly from the contemporary struggle for
liberty, and has gained considerably in depth and vigour;
and, thirdly, the militant and triumphant reaction as
shown in Joseph de Maistre, Lamennais, Lamartine and
Victor Hugo, standing out for pope and monarch. The
drama of reaction has here come to its climax; and the
last three acts are to witness its fall, and the revival, in
its place, of the ideas of liberty and of progress.
"It is one man, Byron, who produces the revulsion in
the great drama." And Byron and his English contemporaries,
Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Keats and
Shelley, hold the stage in the fourth act, "Naturalism in
England." The fifth act belongs to the Liberal movement
in France, the "French Romantic School," including
the names of Lamennais, Lamartine and Hugo in
their second phase; and also those of De Musset and
George Sand. The movement passes from France into
"Young Germany," where the sixth act is played by
Heine, Ruge, Feuerbach and others; and the ardent
revolutionary writers of France and of Germany together
prepare for the great political transformation of 1848.
I.—The Emigrant Literature
At the beginning of our period, France was subjected
to two successive tyrannies: those, namely, of the Convention
and of the Empire, both of which suppressed all
independent thought and literature. Writers were, perforce,
emigrants beyond the frontiers of French power,
and were, one and all, in opposition to the Reign of
Terror, or to the Napoleonic tyranny, or to both; one
and all they were looking forward to the new age which
There was, therefore, a note of expectancy in this
emigrant literature, which had also the advantage of real
knowledge, gained in long exile, of foreign lands and
peoples. Although it reacts against the dry and narrow
rationalism of the eighteenth century, it is not as yet a
complete reaction against the Liberalism of that period;
the writers of the emigrant group are still ardent in the
cause of Liberty. They are contrary to the spirit of
Voltaire; but they are all profoundly influenced by
Chateaubriand's romances, "Atala" and "René,"
Rousseau's "The New Héloïse" and Goethe's "Werther"
are the subjects of studies which lead our critic
to a consideration of that new spiritual condition of
which they are the indications. "All the spiritual
maladies," he says, "which make their appearance at this
time may be regarded as the products of two great events—the
emancipation of the individual and the emancipation
Every career now lies open, potentially, to the individual.
His opportunities, and therefore his desires, but
not his powers, have become boundless; and "inordinate
desire is always accompanied by inordinate melancholy."
His release from the old order, which limited his importance,
has set him free for self-idolatry; the old laws
have broken down, and everything now seems permissible.
He no longer feels himself part of a whole; he
feels himself to be a little world which reflects the great
world. The belief in the saving power of enlightenment
had been rudely shaken, and the minds of men were
confused like an army which receives contradictory
orders in the midst of a battle. Sénancour, Nodier and
Benjamin Constant have left us striking romances picturing
the human spirit in this dilemma; they show also
a new feeling for Nature, new revelations of subjectivity,
and new ideas of womanhood and of passion.
But of the emigrant literature Madame de Staël is the
chief and central figure. The lawless savagery of the
Revolution did not weaken her fidelity to personal and
political freedom. "She wages war with absolutism
in the state and hypocrisy in society. She teaches her
countrymen to appreciate the characteristics and literature
of the neighbouring nations; she breaks down with
her own hands the wall of self-sufficiency with which
victorious France had surrounded itself. Barante, with
his perspective view of eighteenth-century France, only
continues and completes her work."
II.—The Romantic School in Germany
German Romanticism continues the growing reaction
against the eighteenth century; yet, though it is essentially
reaction, it is not mere reaction, but contains the
seeds of a new development. It is intellectual, poetical,
philosophical and full of real life.
This literary period, marked by the names of Hölderlin,
A. W. Schlegel, Tieck, Jean Paul Richter,
Schleiermacher, Wackenroder, Novalis, Arnim, Brentano,
resulted in little that has endured. It produced no
typical forms; the character of its literature is musical
rather than plastic; its impulse is not a clear perception
or creation, but an infinite and ineffable aspiration.
An intenser spiritual life was at once the impulse and
the goal of the Romanticists, in whom wonder and infinite
desire are born again. A sympathetic interest in the fairy
tale and the legend, in the face of Nature and in her
creatures, in history, institutions and law, and a keener
emotional sensitiveness in poetry, were the result of this
refreshed interior life. In religion, the movement was
towards the richly-coloured mystery and child-like faith
of Catholicism; and in respect of human love it was towards
freedom, spontaneity, intensity, and against the
hard bonds of social conventions.
But its emotions became increasingly morbid, abnormal
and ineffectual. Romanticism tended really, not to
the spiritual emancipation that was its avowed aim, but
to a refinement of sensuality; an indolent and passive
enjoyment is its actual goal; and it repudiates industry
and utility as the philistine barriers which exclude us
from Paradise. Retrogression, the going back to a
fancied Paradise or Golden Age, is the central idea of
Romanticism, and is the secret of the practical ineffectiveness
of the movement.
Friedrich Schlegel's romance, "Lucinde," is a very
typical work of this period. It is based on the Romantic
idea that life and poetry are identical, and its aim is to
counsel the transformation of our actual life into a poem
or work of art. It is a manifesto of self-absorption and
of subjectivity; the reasoned defence of idleness, of enjoyment,
of lawlessness, of the arbitrary expression of the
Self, supreme above all.
The mysticism of Novalis, who preferred sickness to
health, night to day, and invested death itself with sensual
delights, is described by himself as voluptuousness.
It is full of a feverish, morbid desire, which becomes at
last the desire for nothingness. The "blue flower," in
his story "Heinrich von Ofterdingen," is the ideal, personal
happiness, sought for in all Romanticism, but by its
very nature never attainable.
III.—The Reaction in France
Herein we have the culmination of the reactionary
movement. Certain authors are grouped together as
labouring for the re-establishment of the fallen power
of authority; and by the principle of authority is to be
understood "the principle which assumes the life of the
individual and of the nation to be based upon reverence
for inherited tradition." Further, "the principle of
authority in general stood or fell with the authority of
the Church. When that was undermined, it drew all
other authorities with it in its fall."
After a study of the Revolution in its quality as a
religious movement, and the story of the Concordat, our
author traces the genesis of this extreme phase of the
reaction. Its promoters were all of noble birth and bound
by close ties to the old royal families; their aim was
political rather than religious; "they craved for religion
as a panacea for lawlessness." Their ruling idea was the
principle of externality, as opposed to that of inward,
personal feeling and private investigation; it was the
principle of theocracy, as opposed to the sovereignty of
the people; it was the principle of power, as opposed to
the principles of human rights and liberties.
Chateaubriand's famous book, "Le Génie du Christianisme,"
devoid of real feeling, attempts to vindicate
authority by means of an appeal to sentiment, as if taking
for granted that a reasoned faith was now impossible.
His point of view is romantic, and therefore, religiously,
false; his reasoning is of the "how beautiful!" style.
But the principle was enthroned by Count Joseph de
Maistre, a very different man. The minister of the King
of Sardinia at the court of Russia, he gained the emperor's
confidence by his strong and pure character, his
royalist principles, and his talents. His more important
works, "Du Pape," "De l'Eglise Gallicane," and
"Soirées de St. Pétersbourg," are the most uncompromising
defence of political and religious autocracy. The
fundamental idea of his works is that "there is no human
society without government, no government without sovereignty,
and no sovereignty without infallibility." Beside
De Maistre stands Bonald, a man of the same views, but
without the other's daring and versatile wit. Chateaubriand's
prose epic "Les Martyrs," the mystically sensual
writings of Madame Krüdener, and the lyric poetry of
Lamartine and Victor Hugo further popularised the reaction,
which reached its breaking point in Lamennais.
It was at this moment, April, 1824, that the news
came of Byron's death in Greece. The illusion dissolved;
the reaction came to an end. The principle of authority
fell, never to rise again; and the Immanuelistic school
was succeeded by the Satanic.
IV.—Naturalism in England
The distinguishing character which our author discovers
in the English poets is a love of Nature, of the
country and the sea, of domestic animals and vegetation.
This Naturalism, common to Wordsworth, Coleridge,
Scott, Keats, Moore, Shelley and Byron, becomes, when
transferred to social interests, revolutionary; the English
poet is a Radical. Literary questions interest him not;
he is at heart a politician.
The political background of English intellectual life
at this period is painted forcibly and in the darkest tones.
It was "dark with terror produced in the middle classes
by the excesses of the liberty movement in France, dark
with the tyrannic lusts of proud Tories and the Church's
oppressions, dark with the spilt blood of Irish Catholics
and English artisans." In the midst of all this misery,
Wordsworth and Coleridge recalled the English mind to
the love of real Nature and to the love of liberty.
Wordsworth's conviction was that in town life and its
distractions men had forgotten Nature, and had been
punished for it; constant social intercourse had dissipated
their talents and impaired their susceptibility to simple
and pure impressions. His naturalism is antagonistic
to all official creeds; it is akin to the old Greek conception
of Nature, and is impregnated with pantheism.
The separate studies which follow, dealing with the
natural Romanticism of Coleridge, Southey's Oriental
Romanticism, the Lake school's conception of Liberty,
the Historic Naturalism of Scott, the sensuous poetry of
Keats, the poetry of Irish opposition and revolt, Thomas
Campbell's poetry of freedom, the Republican Humanism
of Landor, Shelley's Radical Naturalism, and like subjects,
are of the highest importance to every English
reader who would understand the time in which he lives.
But Byron's is the heroic figure in this act. "Byron's
genius takes possession of him, and makes him great
and victorious in his argument, directing his aim with
absolute certainty to the vital points." Byron's whole
being burned with the profoundest compassion for the
immeasurable sufferings of humanity. It was liberty
that he worshipped, and he died for liberty.
V.—The Romantic School in France
During the Revolution the national property had been
divided into twenty times as many hands as before, and
with the fall of Napoleon the industrial period begins.
All restrictions had been removed from industry and
commerce, and capital became the moving power of society
and the object of individual desires. The pursuit
of money helps to give to the literature of the day its
romantic, idealistic stamp. Balzac alone, however, made
money the hero of his epic. Other great writers of the
period, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, George Sand,
Beyle, Mérimée, Théophile Gautier, Sainte-Beuve, kept
as far as possible from the new reality.
The young Romanticists of 1830 burned with a passion
for art and a detestation of drab bourgeoisie. A break
with tradition was demanded in all the arts; the original,
the unconscious, the popular, were what they aimed at.
It was now, as in Hugo's dramas, that the passionate
plebeian appeared on the scene as hero; Mérimée, as in
"Carmen," painted savage emotions; Nodier's children
spoke like real children; George Sand depicted, in woman,
not conscious virtue and vice, but the innate nobility
and natural goodness of a noble woman's heart. The
poet was no longer looked on as a courtier, but as the
despised high-priest of humanity.
The French Romantic school is the greatest literary
school of the nineteenth century. It displayed three
main tendencies—the endeavour to reproduce faithfully
some real piece of past history or some phase of modern
life; the endeavour after perfection of form; and enthusiasm
for great religious or social reformatory ideas.
These three tendencies are traced out in the ideals and
work of the brilliant authors of the period; in George
Sand, for instance, who proclaimed that the mission of
art is a mission of sentiment and love; and in Balzac, who
views society as the scientist investigates Nature—"he
never moralises and condemns; he never allows himself
to be led by disgust or enthusiasm to describe otherwise
than truthfully; nothing is too small, nothing is too great
to be examined and explained."
The impressions which our author gives of Sainte-Beuve,
Gautier, George Sand, Balzac and Mérimée are
vivid and concrete; they are high achievements in literary
portraiture, set in a real historic background.
The personality, writings, and actions of Byron had
an extraordinary influence upon "Young Germany," a
movement initiated by Heine and Börne, and characterised
by a strong craving for liberty. "Byron, with his
contempt for the real negation of liberty that lay concealed
beneath the 'wars of liberty' against Napoleon,
with his championship of the oppressed, his revolt against
social custom, his sensuality and spleen, his passionate
love of liberty in every domain, seemed to the men of
that day to be an embodiment of all that they understood
by the modern spirit, modern poetry."
The literary group known as Young Germany has no
creative minds of the highest, and only one of very high
rank, namely, Heine. "It denied, it emancipated, it
cleared up, it let in fresh air. It is strong through its
doubt, its hatred of thraldom, its individualism." The
Germany of those days has been succeeded by a quite
new Germany, organised to build up and to put forth
material strength, and the writers of the first half of the
nineteenth century, who were always praising France and
condemning the sluggishness of their own country, are
but little read.
The literary figures of this period who are painted by
our author, are Börne, Heine, Immermann, Menzel,
Gutzkow, Laube, Mundt, Rahel Varnhagen von Ense,
Bettina von Arnim, Charlotte Stieglitz, and many others,
to whose writings, in conjunction with those of the
French Romanticists, Brandes ascribes the general revolt
of the oppressed peoples of Europe in 1848. Of the men
of that date he says: "They had a faith that could remove
mountains, and a hope that could shake the earth.
Liberty, parliament, national unity, liberty of the Press,
republic, were to them magic words, at the very sound
of which their hearts leaped like the heart of a youth
who suddenly sees his beloved."