That Cursed Enchanted Tower! (Sainte-Beuve on Racine)

While shopping for tortillas at a supermarket, a literary friend Mike B. called me up (oh, the glories of having a cellphone!) and recited to me this astonishing passage by Augustin Sainte-Beuve. I stood in a supermarket aisle, listening to a recitation that took almost 20 minutes for him to read. I am reprinting the passage in full here.

The great poets, the poets of genius, independent of the genre they practice, regardless of whether their temperament is lyric, epic, or dramatic, fall into two glorious families, which for many centuries have alternatively intermingled and vied for pre-eminence for fame. According to period, the admiration of men has been unequally divided between the two.

The primitive poets, the founders, the pure archetypes, born of themselves and sons of their own works–Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Dante and Shakespeare–though occasionally neglected are most often placed above the others. At all times they have been contrasted with studious, polished, docile writers whose talents were developed by hard work. Horace, Virgil, Tasso are the most brilliant leaders of this secondary family, justly reputed inferior to its elder, but as a rule more understood by all, more accessible, and more cherished. In France, Corneille and Moliere stand apart from it in many respects; Boileau and Racine belong to it entirely and adorn it, especially Racine, the most marvelous, the most accomplished of this family, the most venerated of our poets. It is characteristic for writers of this order to command almost unanimous acceptance, whereas their illustrious adversaries, though surpassing them in merit and towering above them in fame, are in each century challenged by a certain class of critics.

This difference in popularity is an inevitable consequence of the difference in talents. The writers of the first group, truly predestined and divine, are born with their allotted share. They do not seek to increase it grain by grain in this life, but dispense it profusely, by the handful as it were, in their works, for their inner riches are inexhaustible. They create without undue concern for their means, without even being aware of them. They do not reflect upon their work at all waking hours; they never cast glances backward to measure the road they have covered and to figure out the distance they still have to cover; they advance by forced marches, never tired, never content. Secret changes take place within them, in the recesses of their genius, and sometimes transform it. These changes are like a law of nature; they proceed without outside interference or aid–any more than men hasten the moment when their hair turns gray, the birds that of molting, or trees the changes of color in their foliage at the various seasons. Thus proceeding from great inner laws and a potent primordial source, they succeed in leaving an imprint of their force in sublime, monumental works which, like nature, disclose true order and stability under their seeming irregularity–works which are often uneven, bristling with peaks and opening into depths. So much for the first group.

The writers of the other group need to be born under propitious circumstances; their talents need to be cultivated, to ripen in the sun. They develop slowly, consciously, fertilized by study, and they create themselves like works of art. They advance by degrees; they never skip a stage; they never attain to their goal at a bound. Their genius increases with time and rises like a palace to which each year a new story is added; they spend long hours in silent reflection, when they pause to revise their plans. Thus the edifice, if it is ever completed, is skillfully conceived, noble, lucid, admirable, of a harmony that strikes the eye from the outset, and of perfect execution. The viewer’s mind easily discovers the consecutive steps climbed by the artist and follows him with a kind of serene pride.

Now, according to a very subtle and very just remark of Pere Tournemine, we admire in a writer only those qualities whose seeds and roots we have within ourselves. It follows that in the works of superior minds there is a relative degree to which a lesser mind can attain, but above which he cannot rise, and from which he judges the whole as best he can. It is almost like the various families of plants thriving at different levels in the Cordilleras–each of them is never found above a given altitude; or better, it is like families of birds whose capacity to rise in the air has a certain limit. Now, if at the relative height to which a given family of minds can rise in grasping a poem it encounters no elements to provide support, no platform opening a view on the whole landscape–if, instead, it encounters nothing but sheer cliffs, torrents, precipices, as it were–what will happen then? Minds that have found no place to rest from their flight will return like the dove to the ark, but without even an olive leaf.

I am at Versailles, on the garden side, and I mount the grand staircase; breath fails me halfway, but at least I can see in front of me the lines of the palace, its wings, and I can appreciate its regularity. Whereas, if I walk up a winding path on the banks of the Rhine to some Gothic turret, and I stop exhausted halfway up, it may happen that an accident of the terrain, a tree or a bush will completely hide the view. That is a true image of the two types of poetry. Racine’s is so constructed that at every level weaklings find footholds and platforms with views. The path leading to Shakespeare’s art is more arduous, the eye does not encompass it at every point. We know some very able persons who worked hard to climb it, and after finding their view obstructed by some hillock or bush, came back swearing in good faith that there was nothing up there; but the moment they were down in the plain, that cursed enchanted tower reappeared to them in the distance. But today we shall leave the tower of Shakespeare and try to climb some of the steps, slippery from having been trodden by so many previous worshippers, that lead to the marble temple of Racine…

Selected essays
by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller and Norbert Guterman, (1963)

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