Home  »  Literary and Philosophical Essays  »  Introductory Note

Literary and Philosophical Essays.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

Introductory Note

CHARLES AUGUSTIN SAINTE-BEUVE, the foremost French critic of the nineteenth century, and, in the view of many, the greatest literary critic of the world, was born at Boulogne-sur-Mer, December 23, 1804. He studied medicine, but soon abandoned it for literature; and before he gave himself up to criticism he made some mediocre attempts in poetry and fiction. He became professor at the Collège de France and the École Normale and was appointed Senator in 1865. A course of lectures given at Lausanne in 1837 resulted in his great “Histoire de Port-Royal,” and another given at Liège in his “Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire.” But his most famous productions were his critical essays published periodically in the “Constitutionnel” the “Moniteur” and the “Temps,” later collected in sets under the names of “Critiques et Portraits Littéraires,” “Portraits Contemporains,” “Causeries du Lundi,” and “Nouveaux Lundis.” At the height of his vogue, these Monday essays were events of European importance. He died in 1869.

Sainte-Beuve’s work was much more than literary criticism as that type of writing had been generally conceived before his time. In place of the mere classification of books and the passing of a judgment upon them as good or bad, he sought to illuminate and explain by throwing light on a literary work from a study of the life, circumstances, and aim of the writer, and by a comparison with the literature of other times and countries. Thus his work was historical, psychological, and ethical, as well as esthetic, and demanded vast learning and a literary outlook of unparalleled breadth. In addition to this equipment he had fine taste and an admirable style; and by his universality, penetration, and balance he raised to a new level the profession of critic.