The paragraph beginning "A man feeds " and ending "nurses" was only printed for the first time in the fourth edition of the " Characters," published in We ought to like to read our works to those who know how to correct and appreciate them. He who will not listen to any advice, nor be corrected in his writings, is a rank pedant. An author ought to receive with the same moderation all praises and all criticisms on his productions.
Amongst all the various expressions which can render our thoughts, there is but one which is correct. We are not always so fortunate as to hit upon it in writing or speaking, but, nevertheless, such a one undoubtedly exists, and all others are weak, and do not satisfy a man of culture who wishes to make himself understood. A good author, who writes carefully, often finds that the expression he has been looking for for some time, and which he did not know, proves, when found at last, to be the most simple, the most natural, and the one which was most likely to present itself to him spontaneously at first.
Fanciful authors often touch up their works.
As their temper is not always the same, and as it varies on every occasion, they soon grow indifferent about those very expressions and terms they liked so much at first. The same common-sense which makes an author write good things, makes him dread they are not good enough to deserve reading.
A shallow mind thinks his writings divine ; a man of sense imagines he writes tolerably well. Aristus says, " I was prevailed upon to read my works to Zoilus,! At first he liked them, before he had leisure to disapprove of them ; he com- mended them coldly in my presence, and since then, has 1 Zoilus, a Greek grammarian, flourished about B. I excuse him, and desire no more from any author ; I even pity him for Hstening to so many fine things which were not his own. Almost no one, whether through disposition, inclination, or fortune, is willing to relish the delight that a perfect piece of work can give.
The pleasure of criticism takes away from us the pleasure of being deeply moved by very fine things. Many people perceive the merit of a manuscript which is read to them, but will not declare themselves in its favour until they see what success it has in the world when printed, or what intelligent men will say about it.
They do not like to risk their opinion, and they want to be carried away by the crowd, and dragged along by the multitude.
Then they say that they were amongst the first who approved of that work, and the general pubhc shares their opinion. A fine work falls into their hands ; it is an author's first book, before he has got any great name; there is nothing to prepossess any one in his favour, and by applauding his writings one does not court or flatter 1 Acording to all the " Keys," this is said to be an allusion to the Abbe de Dangeau , a member of the French Academy, and a brother of the better known marquis.
But why and wherefore this Abbd has been singled out, has not reached posterity. Some say the President Cousin, the editor of the Journal des Savants, was meant. Why not merely say — "That's a good book? Some people, after having read a book, quote certain passages which they do not thoroughly under- stand, and moreover completely change their character by what they put in of their own.
Those passages, so mutilated and disfigured that they are nothing else but their own expressions and thoughts, they expose to censure, maintain them to be bad, and the world agrees with them ; but the passage such critics think they quote, and in reality do not, is not a bit the worse for it. Unfortunately his criticism contained several errors, which Racine noticed in the preface.
Why does he not add that Fulvia and Melania have condemned it without reading, and that he is a friend of those two ladies?
Commended, extolled, and raised to the skies by certain persons who have reciprocally promised to admire one another, he fancies, though he has some merit, that he has as much as any man can have, which he never will ; his mind being occupied and filled with sublime ideas, he scarcely finds time to pronounce certain oracles ; raised by his character above human judgments, he leaves to vulgar souls the merit of leading a regular and uniform life, being answerable for his variations to none but to a circle of friends who worship them. He was on intimate terms with the Port-Royalists, and after several alternate fits of devotion and dissipation, ended his days devoutly and penitently.
The most accomplished literary work would be reduced to nothing by carping criticism, if the author would listen to all critics and allow every one to erase the passage which pleases him the least.
Experience tells us, that if there are ten persons who would strike a thought or an expression out of a book, we could easily find a like number who would insist upon its being put back again. The latter will exclaim : " Why should such a thought be suppressed? What then can an author do but venture, in such a per- plexity, to follow the advice of those who approve of the passage.
A serious-minded author is not obliged to trouble his head about all the foolish sayings, the obscene remarks, and bad words that are uttered, or about the stupid constructions which some men put on certain passages of his writings ; much less ought he to suppress them. If certain men of quick and resolute mind are to be believed, words would even be superfluous to express feelings ; signs would be sufficient to address them, or we could make ourselves be understood without speak- ing.
However careful you may be to write closely and concisely, and whatever reputation you may have as such, they will think you diffuse. You must allow them to supply everything and write for them alone. They understand a whole phrase by reading the first word, and an entire chapter by a single phrase. It is sufficient for them to have heard only a bit of your work, they know it all and understand the whole.
A great many riddles would be amusing reading to them ; they regret that the wretched style which delights them becomes rare, and that so few authors employ it. Comparisons of a river flowing rapidly, though calmly and uniformly, or of a conflagration which, fanned by the winds, spreads afar in a forest, where it devours oaks and pine-trees, gives to them not the smallest idea of eloquence.
What a prodigious difference is there between a fine work and one that is perfect or regular. I am not aware whether a single one of the latter kind still exists. It is perhaps less difficult for uncommon minds to hit upon the grand and the sublime than to avoid all kinds of errors. The Cid. People of rank and the general public, though always divided in their opinions and feelings, were in favour of it ; they learned it by heart so as to anticipate the actors who were performing it. The Cid, in short, is one of the finest poems ever written, and one of the best criticisms on any subject is that on the Cid?
When, after having read a work, loftier thoughts arise in your mind and noble and heartfelt feelings animate you, do not look for any other rule to judge it by ; it is fine and written in a masterly manner. Cardinal Richelieu tried to get up a cabal to crush it, but was unsuccessful ; he also persuaded the Academy to publish a severe criticism on it, which is too favourably spoken of by La Bruyere.
Boileau says in his ninth satire : — " En vain contre le Cid un ministre se ligue. Tout Paris pour Chimere a les yeux de Rodrigue. L'Academie en corps a beau le censurer, Le public revoke s'obstine a I'admirer. But they had been reconciled more than a year before the "Characters" were published. He is only remembered by his licentious and satirical Histoire amour- euse des Gaules, for which he was banished from the court for more than twenty years.
Damis is of the same opinion as a large number of people, and says artlessly, as well as the public, that Capys is a dull writer. The highest point a newsmonger can reach is to reason in a vague manner on politics. A newsmonger lies down at night quietly, after having received some information, but it is spoiled overnight, and he is obliged to throw it away when he wakes in the morning.
If he shapes his thoughts into words, it is not so much from his vanity as an author as to place entirely in its proper light some truth he has discovered, that it may make the desired impression.
Yet some readers think they repay him with interest if they say, with a magisterial air, " that they have read his book, and that there is some sense in 1 Damis was meant for Boileau. At that time books in France and in England were almost always sold bound. The English translator of gives for nouvelHste "journalist," and says in his " Key : " " The author of the Works of the Learned of Paris," etc.
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The Hisioire des Savants, edited by H. Basnage , was published in Holland. Rowe, in his translation published in , also uses the word "jour- nalist," and says in the " Key : " " On the authors of Journa's, or accounts of books and News, published in France, Holland," etc. In vain an author endeavours to obtain admira- tion by his works. A fool may sometimes admire him, but then he is only a fool ; an intelligent man has within him the germs of all truth and of all sentiments ; nothing is new to him ; he admires few things, but he finds that many things deserve some praise.
That sex excels ours 1 In the seventeenth century, bel esprit, plural beaux esprits, in the original, meaiit a man of inte ligence, but began already in La Bruyere's time to have the meaning of " witling. Voiture and Balzac are now deservedly buried in oblivion. If the ladies wrote always correctly, I might affirm that per- haps the letters of some of them would be among the best in our language, i Terentius 2 wanted nothing but to be less cold.
What purity! Moliere wanted nothing but to avoid the vulgar tongue and barbarisms and to write elegantly.
But what an author might have been formed of these two comic writers! In both Ronsard 2 and Balzac, each in their kind, are found a sufficient number of good and bad things to form after them very great men either in verse or prose.