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 general conclusions.

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 should come.

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 Rousseau.

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 of thought."

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.

VI.—Young Germany

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."