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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XXIII.

Literary Judgments. V. Poets and Novelists

[1]PETRARCH for thirty years adored not the person, but the image of Laura; so much easier is it to preserve our feelings and ideas than our sensations. Hence the fidelity of the old knights.

[2]Petrarch thought little of his Italian poetry, whereby he became immortal; he preferred his Latin. This is because his age loved Latin, but did not yet love Italian.

[3]The dic mihi, musa is wanting in the tales of Boccaccio. He adds nothing to what has been told him, and his invention never goes beyond the field of his memory. His story ends where the popular tale ends; he respects it as he might respect truth.

[4]Tasso was a profound thinker upon his art, and it would be a service rendered to letters to examine his prose works and his literary principles. This character of a thinker, moreover, shows itself even in his verses: they have a form that would be suitable to maxims. The poet in him has no kinship with the ancient poets, but there is some kinship between him and the philosophers of old.

[5]‘Et souvent avec Dieu balance la victoire.’—There is the unpardonable fault of Milton’s poem.

[6]There may be a loftiness of soul that contributes nothing to the practice of the arts nor to the beauty of composition, while it does add to the respect which the merit of the author, as shown in his work, inspires in us.

[7]Racine’s genius lay in taste, as with the ancients. His elegance is perfect, but it is not supreme, like Virgil’s.

[8]Racine’s talent is in his works, but Racine himself is not there. And so he himself grew tired of them.

[9]Those who find Racine enough for them are poor souls and poor wits; they are souls and wits which have never got beyond the callow and boarding-school stage. Admirable, as no doubt he is, for his skill in having made poetical the most humdrum sentiments, and the most middling sort of passions, he can yet stand us in stead of nobody but himself. He is a superior writer; and, in literature, that at once puts a man on a pinnacle. But he is not an inimitable writer.[M.A.]

[10]Boileau is a powerful poet, but in the world of half-poetry.[M.A.]

[11]Neither Racine’s poetry nor Boileau’s flow from the fountain-head. A fine choice of models is their gift. It is not that with their souls they copy souls, but that with their books they copy books. Racine is the Virgil of the ignorant.

[12]Molière is comic by dint of his unconcern; he makes men laugh, and does not laugh himself; and in this lies his excellence.

[13]In Tartufe Molière made mock of the forms of religious feeling, and that is certainly a great evil.

[14]Regnard is jocular like the valet, and Molière comic like the master.

[15]In La Fontaine there is a plenitude of poetry that is nowhere to be found in other French writers.

[16]Cervantes in his book has a middle-class (bourgeois) familiarity and good-nature, with which the translation of Florian is out of harmony. In translating Don Quixote, Florian has altered the lilt of the tune and the musical key of the original. He has changed the flow of an abundant spring into the leaping and murmuring of a rivulet; little sounds, little movements—very pleasant no doubt when it is a matter of a thread of water rolling over pebbles, but false and intolerable when applied to a wide stream flowing in full course over fine sand.

[17]There is in the world one woman of vast soul and lofty mind. Madame de Staël was born to excel in the moral life; but her imagination has been beguiled by something more brilliant than true good; the splendour of the flame and the fires have led her astray. She has taken the soul’s fevers for its faculties, excitement for a power, and our wanderings from the path for progress towards the goal. The passions, in her eyes, have become a kind of dignity and glory. She has wished to paint them as the finest thing in the world, and mistaking their enormity for their greatness, has made a monstrous romance.