Page images

been minimised as much as possible, and the natural prejudices of the people too often assert themselves on their return to the Flowery Land. The Cantonese go in large numbers to America and Australia; while abroad they dress as foreigners, but once they set foot again on their native soil the foreign dress is discarded, and the returned exile, with his loose trousers and flowing garments, meets his friends with as much ease and grace as if his limbs had never been encased in the tight-fitting barbarian costume. No length of residence abroad ever naturalises a Chinaman. High and low, rich and poor, they all long to get back to China and have their bones mixed with those of their ancestors. About two years ago I came across a Chinaman who had left his native village when a boy of ten, and had returned a wealthy man after thirty years' residence in Boston, having almost entirely forgotten his native dialect. At first he despised his native surroundings and boasted of American freedom, but after a few months he settled down to the life of his neighbours, took great pains to cultivate a pigtail, married, Christian though he was, a couple of wives, and became a model citizen of the Celestial Empire. Ex uno discite omnes.




TAINE's real name is Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, but he is usually called Henri Taine,' which he himself, in a letter to me, attributes to a whim of the Editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes. He was born on the 21st of April, 1828, at Vouziers, a small town between Champagne and the Ardennes. His family may be counted among the intellectual aristocracy of France; all were well educated and also in fairly prosperous circumstances, though not exactly rich. Some were members of the Chamber of Deputies; his grandfather was Sous-préfet. His father, a very learned man, taught Hippolyte Latin ; an uncle, who had resided for a long time in America, made him familiar with the English language. All that was English fascinated him from an early period; even as a boy he found delight in reading books in the language of Shakespeare. While French novels were forbidden fruit to the young people, foreign literature was thrown open to them without any restrictions, and their elders rejoiced when a youth showed a disposition to acquaint himself in this way with the languages of other countries. Our hero devoted himself to the study of English classics, and thus at an early age laid the foundation of the accurate knowledge of English literature to which he afterwards owed a large amount of his celebrity.

The promising boy was only thirteen when he lost his father. A year later his mother brought him to Paris, where she at first placed him as boarder in an excellent private school. Not long after he entered the Collège de Bourbon (now Lycée de Condorcet), where he distinguished himself above all his schoolfellows by ripeness of intelligence, by industry and success. At the same time he was the constant object of tender care and unremitting watchfulness on the part of his admirable mother, a woman of warm affections, who did all in her power to bestow a thorough education on her children. In the year 1847 he obtained the first prize for a Latin essay on rhetoric, in 1848 two prizes for philosophical treatises. These achievements threw open to him the doors of the so-called Normal School, a kind of seminary in which the pupils were trained for professional chairs in the universities. This higher preparatory course of study is, however, utilised by many only as a stepping-stone to a literary career. Many celebrated writers were Taine's colleagues at the Normal School ; Edmond About, Prévost-Paradol, J. J. Weiss, Francisque Sarcey—these all were professors only for a short time, and soon embraced definitely the career of literature and journalism.

At the Normal School, which Taine attended for three years, the soundness of his judgment and solidity of his intelligence met with universal recognition. His companions bowed before his superiority, did not venture to address him otherwise than as « Monsieur Taine,' and called him in as umpire in their quarrels. He had the wonderful gift of being able to study more in a week than others in a month. As the pupils were free to read what they pleased, he devoted the leisure obtained by his rapid work to the study of philosophy, theology, and the Fathers. He went through all the more valuable authors on these topics, and discussed with his colleagues the questions which arose out of them. It was one of his enjoyments to test them, to ascertain their ideas and to penetrate into their minds. The method of instruction pursued in the college was admirably calculated to stimulate the intellectual activity of the students. Ample nourishment was provided for the mental energies of the ardent youths. The debates were carried on with the greatest freedom, every question was submitted to the touchstone of reason, and worked out according to the requirements of logic. Day by day the most varied opinions, political, æsthetic, and philosophical, came into collision in these youthful circles, without any restrictions imposed by the liberal professors, among whom were such men as Jules Simon and Vacherot. On the contrary, they encouraged the utmost freedom of expression in the enunciation of individual views. Their own system of teaching was not so much in the form of lectures as of discussions with the students, who themselves had to deliver orations, followed by a general debate, at the close of which the professors gave a résumé of all that had been said. Thus Taine had once to read a paper on Bossuet's mysticism, About one on his politics. Due attention was also given to physical exercise; there were frequent open-air excursions and occasional dances in the evening in the domestic circle, one of the students acting as musician. It is needless to say that under such circumstances as these the years spent in the Ecole Normale sped on pleasantly and profitably. The advantages of the intellectual gymnastics as practised there were enormous, and far outweighed the slight drawbacks, such as a tendency to hyperbole observable in the élite of those who issued from that fertile, effervescent, genuinely French mode of education. But none of the pupils of the Normal School did it so much honour as Taine, who had the good fortune to be there at precisely the right time, for

· For the description of the then life at this school I am principally indebted to Mr. W. Fraser Rae's biographical sketch of Taine.

after his departure in the year 1851 the establishment suffered an organic transformation in the opposite direction. The collegians had imbibed so strong a feeling of intellectual independence that it was not to be wondered at if they were little inclined to bear the yoke of spiritual oppression. Unfortunately, the times upon which they had fallen were not propitious to freedom of thought, for the 'uncle's nephew' was at the helm. The third Napoleon had attained the goal by the aid of the clergy, and was bound to give them the promised reward. The strong hand’ of the Buonapartist government did its utmost to chicane those whose ideas were not acceptable in high places. Anyone who, when put to a certain test, was ready to sign a political and religious confession of faith consonant with the views of the reigning powers, obtained an easy and lucrative post. Taine was rejected, because it was found that his philosophic theories indicated "erroneous' and 'mischievous' tendencies. But Guizot and Saint-Marc Girardin, who took a warm interest in the talented young man, engaged themselves on his side, and endeavoured to procure at least a modest post for him. They succeeded; but, to show how reluctantly the wishes of even such advocates were granted, Taine's petition that he might be sent to the north for his mother's sake was disregarded, and he was sent to the south, to Toulon.

Only four months afterwards he was transferred to Nevers, where again he was only allowed to remain four months; then he was removed to Poitiers. His salary was exceedingly small, but by strict economy he contrived to make it suffice. He devoted his leisure hours to the pursuit of his philosophical studies; he had a special preference for Hegel. The authorities kept an eye upon him as a 'suspect ;' from time to time calumnies were not spared him. Great offence arose out of the fact of his declining to follow the suggestion of the chaplain, that he should write a Latin ode or a French dithyramb in honour of the bishop. This disrespectful refusal was regarded as a confirmation of the charges which had been raised against the objectionable professor, and drew upon him the censure of the Minister of Public Instruction, who threatened him with summary disinissal if such an act of insubordination should occur again. He began to feel uneasy, and when, some months after, he received a decree from the Government appointing him master of a primary school at Besançon, he took this unmistakable hint to heart, and accepted it as a sign that it was time to give up a struggle in which he always came off second best. Was it worth while for the State to bring up young giants, and afterwards set them to collect firewood instead of felling oaks? Taine was relieved of this post by his own request, threw off the yoke of State education, and made his way to Paris. It was no bad exchange, for he at once obtained an advantageous professorship in a superior private school. But the persecutions of the Government were unremitting; he was obliged to

[ocr errors]

give up his situation, and had a hard struggle to earn his daily bread. In order to be able to wield his pen independently of the tyranny of public authorities, the much-tormented man betook himself to giving lessons in private families. At the same time he threw himself eagerly into new studies, chiefly of a mathematical, medical, and philosophical character. He frequented the lectures at the Sorbonne, the École de Médecine, and the Natural History Museum. But his special predilection was for modern languages, a considerable number of which he learned.

At Nevers he had occupied himself very much with a new method of psychological criticism, which he steadily followed out in Paris. His literary and biographical essays in the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Journal des Débuts, and the Revue de l'Instruction Publique created attention by the novel theories upon which they were founded. In the year 1853 our author took his degree as Docteur ès lettres, on which occasion, in addition to the ordinary Latin doctorial dissertation (De personis Platonicis), he wrote a French treatise on Lafontaine's Fables, the diametrical opposite to a regulation academical thesis. He worked it up afterwards with due attention to the hints of criticism, and published it as a book with the title Lafontaine and his Fables, in which form it has already passed through nine editions. This literary outburst of the young doctor created much stir, and no wonder, for the public before whom Taine presented himself were utterly unaccustomed to such originality of treatment, such fecundity of expression, so rich a flow of ideas, such individuality of views, such elegance of style, such thoroughness and versatility of information. It was,' says Karl Hillebrand, 'a philosophico-historical carnival after weeks long of fasting ;' the whole reading world threw itself upon it with avidity.

In this essay on the great fabulist, Taine started new canons of criticism, set up a bold paradox, and illustrated it from the life and works of Lafontaine. He submits to an exhaustive analysis the causes which co-operated to make him a poet, as well as the method by which he constructed his fables and the aims which he pursued in them. Lafontaine's native place and the peculiarities of its inhabitants are described. Then it is demonstrated that Lafontaine in his own person combined the most prominent characteristics of this race, and that these characteristics were intensified in him by the climate, the quality of the soil, and the scenery of Champagne. From all these constituents he supposes him to have derived the light and unfettered versification which he employs so skilfully in his fables. To the same causes he attributes the failure of Lafontaine's attempts to imitate the ancient poets. As he possessed, together with these qualificatione, an intimate acquaintance with the necessities of his age and his country, he could not fail to become a really popular national poet. Taine analyses every innermost recess

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »