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Romantic Documents

Flaubert: Correspondence Tome I, 1830-1851

edited by Jean Bruneau
Gallimard (Paris), 1,177 pp., 68F

Byron's Letters and Journals, Vol. 1: 'In my hot youth,' 1798-1810, Vol. 2: 'Famous in my time,' 1810-1812, Vol. 3: 'Alas! the love of Women!' 1813-1814

edited by Leslie A. Marchand
Harvard, Vol. 3: 285 pp., $11.50 each


Writing to his exasperated and exasperating mistress, Louise Colet, the twenty-five-year-old Flaubert makes a sharp distinction between his taste in art and life:

autant j’aime dans l’art les amours désordonnées, et les passions hurlantes, autant me plaisent dans la pratique les amitiés voluptueuses et les galanteries sentimentales. Que tu trouves ça rococo ou ignoble, c’est possible. Avec de l’ardeur il y a moyen que ce ne soit pas ennuyeux, avec du coeur que ce ne soit pas sale. [To Louise Colet, February 27, 1847, p. 443]

(…as much as I want in art disordered loves and howling passion, just so much in practice do I like sensual friendships and sentimental affairs. You may find this rococo or ignoble. With some warmth it does not have to be boring: with some heart, it does not have to be dirty.)

This separation between art and life is made to order for keeping Louise Colet at bay. Elsewhere, and a few years later, Flaubert makes the distinction more definitive:

Quand on veut, petit ou grand, se mêler des oeuvres du bon Dieu, il faut commencer, rien que sous le rapport de l’hygiène, par se mettre dans une position à n’en être pas la dupe. Tu peindras le vin, l’amour, les femmes, la gloire, à condition, mon bonhomme, que tu ne seras ni ivrogne, ni amant, ni mari, ni tourlourou. Mêlé à la vie, on la voit mal, on en souffre ou en jouit trop. L’artiste, selon moi, est une monstruosité,—quelque chose de hors nature. [To his mother, December 15, 1850, p. 720]

(When one wants, small or great, to meddle with the works of God, one must start, if only for hygienic reasons, by finding a vantage point from which one cannot be fooled. You can paint wine, love, women, glory only if you yourself, old fellow, are not a drunkard, nor a lover, nor a husband, nor a soldier boy. Involved in life, we see it badly, suffer or enjoy it too much. The artist, as I believe, is a monstrosity—something outside nature.)

Posterity has played tricks with Flaubert’s distinction: many of his admirers today consider the greatest of his masterpieces to be his letters, entangled in his immediate affairs and innocent of the single-minded purity of line and form that he worked so hard to impose on his novels.

The editor of the new edition of the correspondence (of which the first volume has recently appeared), Jean Bruneau, wishes to put things back in their proper categories, to restore the barrier between life and art. He makes, however, a curious but revealing slip. Flaubert, he claims, would have been dismayed by our view of his correspondence as a work of art. We may converse with Flaubert, through his letters, as Flaubert himself conversed with the Essays of Montaigne, but—Bruneau adds—there is a fundamental difference: the Essays of Montaigne are a work of art, and the correspondence of Flaubert is not.

Montaigne, however, would have been equally dismayed by this judgment. He preferred to draw the line between art and nature quite differently, although he was perhaps the first writer who fully understood that the line was indefinitely displaceable. If habit was second nature, he observed, perhaps nature was only first habit. To view the Essays as art is perfectly legitimate, of course, the posthumous consternation of the writer notwithstanding. Like the letters of Flaubert, the essays of Montaigne have altered in their function as the years have passed. The aesthetic form of Flaubert’s correspondence, too, is now there for everyone to see.

In the worst sense, first of all. There is a lot of fancy artistic writing in the letters of a kind that Flaubert disdained to admit even to the early versions of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. In a letter to Louise Colet, we find:

Voilà l’hiver, la pluie tombe, mon feu brûle, voilà la saison des longues heures renfermées. Vont venir les soirées silencieuses passées à la lueur de la lampe à regarder le bois brûler et à entendre le vent souffler. Adieu les larges clairs de lune sur les gazons verts et les nuits bleues toutes mouchetées d’étoiles. Adieu ma toute chérie, je t’embrasse de toute mon âme. [September 28, 1846, p. 368]

(Winter is here, the rain is falling, my fire burns, this is the season of long, indoor hours. Now are to come the silent evenings when, by lamplight, we watch the wood burn and hear the wind blow. Farewell to the large patches of moonlight on the green lawns, to the blue nights flecked with stars. Farewell, my darling, I kiss you with all my heart.)

Probably he assumed she would like this kind of purple style: perhaps he even thought she deserved it. There are not many such passages, but they were evidently a kind of release to the young Flaubert.

The significance of these rare passages is more complex, however, and central to Flaubert’s philosophy:

Encore maintenant ce que j’aime par-dessus tout c’est la forme, pourvu qu’elle soit belle, et rien au-delà. Les femmes qui ont le coeur trop ardent et l’esprit trop exclusif ne comprennent pas cette religion de la beauté abstraction faite du sentiment. Il leur faut toujours une cause, un but. Moi j’admire autant le clinquant que l’or. La poésie du clinquant est même supérieure en ce qu’elle est triste. [To Louise Colet, August 6 or 7, 1846, p. 278]

(Even now what I love most of all is form, provided it be beautiful and nothing more. Women, their hearts too passionate and their minds too exclusive, do not understand this religion of beauty with the sentiment removed. They always want a cause, a purpose. I myself admire tinsel as much as gold. The poetry of tinsel is even superior in that it is sad.)

We arrive here at the frontiers of the grotesque. The sadness of the poetry of tinsel paradoxically brings back the sentiment that has been abstracted from the religion of beauty, and returns the sense of life to the beautiful forms, from which it was banished by Flaubert’s touchingly puerile ideal of aesthetic purity. Nevertheless, the sadness can come into being only as a measure of the distance of art from life.

For the early Romantics, even for Hugo, the grotesque was the eruption of life into art, the refusal to admit a separate sphere for art in which it could impose its own standards. For Flaubert, it has become a means of isolating art, of removing the possibility of “a cause, a purpose” for art. The Romantic tradition has begun to turn sour for Flaubert, and the tensions between literature and life have grown more difficult to control.

Tinsel becomes here the symbol of his art not only because it has no practical value, but no cultural value as well. The poetry of tinsel resists all the demands of morality, culture, and the ordinary commerce of life; its sadness is a function of its purity and its isolation. Protected by its barrier of grotesque bad taste, it can withstand all other pretensions.

For Flaubert, the grotesque is not, therefore, the natural monsters (dwarfs and gargoyles) of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Victor Hugo that testify to the irrepressible creative forces of reality which can never be contained by the rules of classical art: it is rather the simple ordinary human act drained of all sense, of all cultural meaning. Flaubert hangs on the wall Callot’s etching of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, a work he loved and wanted to own for a long time, and writes to Louise Colet:

Le grotesque triste a pour moi un charme inouï. Il correspond aux besoins intimes de ma nature buffonnement amère. Il ne me fait pas rire mais rêver longuement. Je le saisis bien partout où il se trouve et comme je le porte en moi ainsi que tout le monde voilà pourquoi j’aime à m’analyser. C’est une étude qui m’amuse. Ce qui m’empêche de me prendre au sérieux, quoique j’aie l’esprit assez grave, c’est que je me trouve très ridicule, non pas de ce ridicule relatif qui est le comique théâtral, mais de ce ridicule intrinsèque à la vie humaine elle-même et qui ressort de l’action le plus simple, ou du geste le plus ordinaire. Jamais par exemple je ne me fais la barbe sans rire, tant ça me paraît bête. [August 21-22, 1846, pp. 307-308]

(The sad grotesque has an extraordinary charm for me; it corresponds to the inner needs of my clownishly bitter nature. It does not make me laugh but dream at great length. I seize it wherever it is found and as I carry it within me as everyone does, that is why I love to analyze myself. The study amuses me. What prevents me from taking myself seriously in spite of a solemn temperament is that I find myself quite absurd, not with that relative absurdity which is the theatrically comic, but with that intrinsic absurdity of human life itself that appears in the simplest action or the most ordinary gesture. For example I never shave without laughing, as it seems so idiotic to me.)

This conception of the grotesque transforms it from the counterweight to classical beauty into the guarantor of classical perfection. The beauty of Flaubert’s art appears above all when the subject is understood as absurd, senseless, drained of meaning: the beauty can then be perceived free from all other pressures. In his last novel, the two clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet, create a wonderfully eclectic garden out of their studies of landscaping, one of their many attempts to understand culture: the center of it is a romantically shaped rock, laboriously pieced together with cement, which rises “like a gigantic potato.” They invite their friends to dinner; with the champagne they open the curtains of the salon, and reveal the garden:

C’était, dans le crépuscule, quelque chose d’effrayant. Le rocher, comme une montagne, occupait le gazon, le tombeau faisait un cube au milieu des épinards, le pont venitien un accent circonflexe par-dessus les haricots, et la cabane, au delà, une grande tache noire, car ils avaient incendié son toit de paille pour la rendre plus poétique.

(It was, in the twilight, something frightening. The rock dominated the lawn like a mountain, the tomb made a cube in the middle of the spinach, the Venetian bridge a circumflex accent over the beans, and the rustic hut, beyond, a large black blot, as they had burned its thatch to make it more poetic.)

The perfection of Flaubert’s cadences, their relentless and untranslatable beauty, is not in contrast to the absurdity of the scene but indifferent to it; the beauty is, if at all, only intermittently ironic as these cadences are spread indiscriminately over everything. All human activity is equally senseless, a kind of neutral material apt without exception for transformation into art.

This transformation into art is not for Flaubert a special human activity, privileged unlike any other. The separation of art and life breaks down totally here; Flaubert is emphatic:

J’écris pour moi, pour moi seul comme je fume et comme je dors.—C’est une fonction presque animale tant elle est personnelle et intime. Je n’ai rien en vue quand je fais quelque chose, que la réalisation de l’Idée, et il me semble que mon oeuvre perdrait même tout son sens à être publiée. [To Louise Colet, August 16, 1847, p. 467]

(I write for myself, only for myself as I smoke and sleep.—It is an almost animal function, to such an extent is it personal and intimate. I have nothing in view when I make something except the realization of the Idea, and it seems to me that my work would lose all its meaning on being published.)

The last claim is no doubt the bravado of the shy young writer, but it takes a curious form which calls upon the Romantic concept of the work of art as a purely personal document unintelligible to anyone except the author. The artist—that monster outside nature, according to Flaubert—produces his work as a product so absolutely natural that it cannot rise to the level of artifice, but must stay within the sphere of the totally subjective understanding.

The fundamental paradox appears only when Flaubert claims for this “subjective” product an almost scientific objectivity—a claim he was never to abandon for the rest of his life. What he portrayed was given to the reader exactly as it really was by means of the dispassionate beauty of the style: the Commune of 1871, he said, would never have happened if his novel about the revolution of 1848, L’Éducation sentimentale, had been read and understood. Flaubert intended this work, and the other novels as well, to have the status of a historical document, an accurate and impartial witness to an objective reality.

This scientific accuracy, however, is attained subjectively through the intensity of the imagination:

Ton histoire de forçat m’a ému jusqu’à la moélle des os. Et hier, toute la journée, j’y ai rêvé avec une telle intensité que j’ai repassé pas à pas par toute sa vie. Peut-être l’ai-je reconstruite telle qu’elle s’est passée (ainsi qu’il m’est arrivé de tomber juste en écrivant un chapitre d’entregent, comme on disait jadis, dialogues et poses, et avec une fidélité si exacte, quoique je n’avais rien vu de pareil, qu’un ami a failli s’en évanouir à la lecture, car il se trouvait que c’était son histoire). [To Louise Colet, July 14, 1847, p.461]

(Your story of the convict moved me to the marrow. And yesterday, all day, I dreamed about it with such intensity that I went step by step over his whole life. Perhaps I have reconstructed it such as it took place [as it happened to me to get it right when I wrote a chapter of “social grace,”1 as one said of old, dialogues and poses, and with a fidelity so exact, although I had never seen anything of the sort, that a friend almost fainted on reading it, for it turned out to be what had happened to him].)

The work of art becomes a real object, scientifically exact, because of the power of the dream-work that has gone into its creation. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (Madame Bovary is myself), as Flaubert proclaimed many years later, does not mean that he put himself into the work (although he did), but that he could only create her by forcing himself to become her to the point of imaginative identity. Flaubert’s novels reconstruct the deterministically ordered chain of events of history: the intensity of thought and the precision of the style validate the scientific pretensions.

Madame Bovary starts with little Charles Bovary’s hat, that crazy artifact as eclectic as the garden of Bouvard and Pécuchet. We, his school-fellows (the only narrative use of the first person in the book), greeted the new boy and his silly hat with howls of laughter. “We” are the determining forces of society: from this moment, Charles Bovary’s nature—his timidity, indecision, lack of character—is fixed and the suicide many years later of his wife inexorably preordained. The theory of history may seem naïve, but its purity makes it still almost as attractive today as it was in the nineteenth century. The hat of Charles Bovary stakes the claim of the novel to absolute conformity to things as they are, the artist’s claim of dreaming the scientific truth.

The novels of Flaubert—all of them—demand to be read as documents: the free play of imagination that we expect of works of art is to be found in the letters. On the other hand the subjective intensity of the novels is absent from the correspondence: the letters are loose, expansive, the most beautiful of them concerned with literary theory. It is only by swallowing whole the untenable, paradoxical, and fascinating aesthetic theories of Flaubert that we can refuse to recognize the artistic nature of these other “documents,” the letters—above all the correspondence with Louise Colet from 1846 to 1848.

Flaubert liked his women fat: Louise Colet was at least buxom. With grandiose literary pretensions of her own, she amassed a collection of lovers almost the equal of Alma Mahler’s: they included (besides Flaubert) Alfred de Vigny and the philosopher Victor Cousin. According to her own account, Alfred de Musset nearly succeeded in raping her, in a carriage. Her own letters and diary have no literary interest: they are true human documents, embarrassing and touching. Taking one lover to a railway station, she is reminded of all the others she has seen off in the same way. Infatuated with Flaubert, and eleven years older than he was, she wrote a poem about his way of making love: “Comme un buffle indompté aux deserts d’Amérique” (“Like an untamed buffalo in the American deserts”), a line that amused Flaubert.

He, for his part, wanted a passionate literary relationship: she was upset that he never came to Paris to see her (they only met five or six times in all), and puzzled that he kept writing to her about literary theory. He tried to cut their relationship down to more artistic proportions, and gave her up after a tremendous public scene on the quai Voltaire, which provoked one of his epileptic fits. He refused to see her again until his return from a trip to the Orient in 1851. It was like creating a work of art with intractable material, and he finally abandoned the attempt.


The young Byron wrote on November 6, 1812, to his elderly confidante Lady Melbourne:

I never laughed at P—(by the bye this is an initial which might puzzle posterity when our correspondence bursts forth in the 20th century)…. [Vol. 2, p. 240]

It is indeed one of the rare allusions in Byron that has not been identified. Most of them present no problem: C for Lady Caroline Lamb, Φ for Lady Frances Webster,—for Byron’s half-sister Augusta, and Thyrza for John Edleston, the Cambridge choirboy. Only the last was genuinely intended to defy conjecture.

The correspondents understood how transparent most of these devices would be. A writer often leaves instructions that his letters be destroyed after his death, and yet lavishes all his literary gifts upon them, aware that most of the time no one—much less himself—will have the heart to cast them into the flames. Byron’s most compromising letters are not signed, the salutations often omitted, the letters addressed through a third party, names left blank with initials substituted—all innocent subterfuges easy enough to see through. Today these letters, set by time and publication at a distance from the life in which they were involved, demand to be transformed into literature and challenge posterity to make the Romantic myth come true.

The Romantic myth is that the work of art is a spontaneous and partially unconscious crystallization of feelings too deep and intense to be released directly into action. It is a myth so powerful that it can, at moments, create a reality when there is none at hand. Byron, Chateaubriand, Goethe, and many others were condemned to live out in later years the literary roles they had created for themselves with the earliest works: they read these works into their lives. We, today, read the life into the works, often imaginatively confusing the two. However absurd this confusion may be, with the artists and writers of the early nineteenth century it is both necessary and legitimate: they deliberately created it for us with the works themselves.

Byron had an international reputation as a Don Juan when he wrote Don Juan: so did Liszt when he wrote the fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. We cannot directly identify Byron with his hero any more than we can believe that Liszt wrote the tunes in the fantasy, but both works are autobiographical in intent, if ironically so.2 The music recalls the events of the opera with a new emphasis on the daemonic aspect, and the virtuosity of Liszt’s fantasy acts as a symbol of virility and dominance, a displacement of erotic mastery: on the other hand, in Byron’s poem, Don Juan (like Byron) is more often fascinated victim than seducer, and the work is both parody of the old Spanish legend and revenge on the legend of Byron’s life, which he had yielded to as much as created.

A direct identification of life and work was rarely the intention of the artist. Schumann claimed that the cryptic autobiographical titles that he gave to some of his pieces were invented after the works themselves were written. Byron observed in his diary on November 23, 1813:

I have burnt my Roman—as I did the first scenes and sketch of my comedy—and, for aught I see, the pleasure of burning is quite as great as that of printing. These two last would not have done. I ran into realities more than ever; and some would have been recognized and others guessed at. [Vol. 3, p. 217]

This is a warning that the surviving works should not be given too simpleminded a biographical interpretation.

In spite of these cautions, it is often assumed as self-evident that the greatest works reflect most directly the emotions and experience of the author. This dubious axiom recently led to a controversy in the columns of the Times Literary Supplement over Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems that almost rose to the level of Samuel Butler’s theory that Wordsworth had murdered Lucy, which was why her death made such a difference to him. Could Lucy be identified with Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, and the poems characterized as incestuous (thereby refueling Professor Bateson’s account of the sources of Wordsworth’s genius)? If so, did William really sleep with Dorothy or was he only imaginatively exploring “other avenues” and recording “the emotional impact of possible alternative behavior,” as Dr. Donald Reiman put it.3

These speculations were reminiscent of an exchange some years ago in the New Statesman, about what Shakespeare and the Earl of Oxford actually did together—a controversy that was stopped dead in its tracks by William Empson’s personal assurance that there could have been nothing more than a little mutual masturbation. No doubt Shakespeare and Wordsworth have only themselves to blame for all this tomfoolery. The intensity of a work—given this critical bias—apparently convinces many critics that it must be a faithful mirror of the artist’s life. In music, the most “personal” works are generally supposed to be in the minor mode and of a tragic character; this works admirably as composers are generally sick, in debt, or crossed in love, if not all three at once.

The confusion of biography and art implicit in early Romantic style is made possible by the reciprocal movement from public to private writing and the way each is transformed into the other. For Byron, writing was a refuge from life, and therefore an activity as “animal” and as necessary to him as to Flaubert. On November 27, 1813, he wrote in his Journal,

To withdraw myself from myself (oh that cursed selfishness!) has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all; and publishing is also the continuance of the same object, by the action it affords to the mind, which else recoils upon itself. [Vol. 3, p. 225]

Self-consciousness is the basic Romantic form of alienation, the subjective mind taking itself as its own object. Byron’s form goes one step further: literature is an alienation, a withdrawal and an escape from self-consciousness, leading even to the final objective form of publication, the final escape from the self.

The relation of Byron’s private writing, above all his diaries, to the public work, the verse, makes the movement of evasion still more sophisticated. As he writes on December 6, 1813, the diary is itself a refuge from poetry:

I am so far obliged to this Journal, that it preserves me from verse,—at least from keeping it. I have just thrown a Poem into the fire (which it has relighted to my great comfort), and have smoked out of my head the plan of another. I wish I could as easily get rid of thinking, or, at least, the confusion of thought. [Vol. 3, p. 235]

This makes a grand, circular movement as well as a happily creative muddle. Poetry is an escape from the consciousness of self, while at the same time the Journal—for Byron the embodiment of this consciousness4—is an escape from poetry. Byron is amused at the idea of bringing his verse into life by burning it. It is the triumph of Byron’s style that the Romantic “confusion of thought” is mirrored in every aspect of a prose which ostensibly lays claim to an eighteenth-century clarity and irony.

It is in the private writing—letters and Journal—that Byron distills out of this confusion a “camp” elegance closer to Wilde than to Byron’s beloved Sheridan or Pope. “Every day confirms my opinion on the superiority of a vicious life,” he writes to a friend.5 He describes another friend’s house as “very well and quiet and the children only scream in a low voice.”6 Best of all is his portrait of Lady Frances Webster: “She is a thorough devotee—and takes prayers morning and evening—besides being measured for a new bible once a quarter—“7

In his account of the successful but unconsummated seduction of Lady Frances Webster, Byron transforms the art of the private letter. His long series of letters to Lady Melbourne about this adventure dramatizes the art of writing as well as the scenes described. Only a long quotation will convey Byron’s revolutionary achievement. From the letter of October 8, 1813, we have:

—I have made love—& if I am to believe mere words (for there we have hitherto stopped) it is returned.—I must tell you the place of declaration however—a billiard room!—I did not as C[aroline] says “kneel in the middle of the room” but like Corporal Trim to the Nun—“I made a speech”—which as you might not listen to it with the same patience—I shall not transcribe.—We were before on very amiable terms—& I remembered being asked an odd question—“how a woman who liked a man could inform him of it—when he did not perceive it”—I also observed that we went on with our game (of billiards) without counting the hazards—& supposed that—as mine certainly were not—the thoughts of the other party also were not exactly occupied by what was our ostensible pursuit.—Not quite though pretty well satisfied with my progress—I took a very imprudent step—with pen & paper—in tender & tolerably turned prose periods (no poetry even when in earnest) here were risks certainly—first how to convey—then how it would be received—it was received however & deposited not very far from the heart which I wished it to reach—when who should enter the room but the person who ought at that moment to have been in the Red Sea if Satan had any civility—but she kept her countenance & the paper—& I my composure as well as I could.—It was a risk—& all had been lost by failure—but then recollect—how much more I had to gain by the reception—if not declined—& how much one always hazards to obtain anything worth having.—My billet prospered—it did more—it even (I am this moment interrupted by the Marito—& write this before him—he has brought me a political pamphlet in M.S. to decypher & applaud—I shall content myself with the last—Oh—he is gone again)—my billet produced an answer—a very unequivocal one too—but a little too much about virtue—& indulgence of attachment in some sort of etherial process in which the soul is principally concerned—which I don’t very well understand—being a bad metaphysician—but one generally ends & begins with Platonism—& as my proselyte is only twenty—three is time enough to materialize—I hope nevertheless this spiritual system won’t last long—& at any rate must make the experiment…. [Vol. 3, pp. 134-135]

There is a continuous interlacing of narrative and moral observations, and the commentary is not objective but consistently intimate. The tone of private conversation, direct and immediate, calls attention not to the story but to the moment of writing. Passages of objective narration and others of immediate subjective expression had existed side by side in letters before this, but never so fused.

The entrance of the foolish husband at the exact instant of writing the letter echoes his equally unwelcome entrance when the other letter is given to Lady Frances. The letter actually before us becomes part of its own drama, a prop in the comedy it describes. This detail, however, is only an extension of the technique developed throughout the letter of telescoping action and commentary. The source of Byron’s method is the novels of Richardson and Laclos, where we move with equally characteristic ambiguity from the scene described to the writer interrupted in the act of writing.

Saintsbury complained of the “staginess” of Byron’s letters and, more perceptively, about their “violence”; but there is nothing factitious about them. Nature here imitates art naturally and with great gusto. The combination of stagecraft and intimate confession, of objective and subjective elements of tone and structure, turn these private documents into literature, the counterpart of Byron’s greatest poems, Childe Harold and Don Juan, where public art assumes the character of the private document.

Byron’s Journal makes a similar synthesis of objective and subjective modes. These are not only private jottings, a record of his life, but conversations with himself, staged and fully visualized:

Talking of her, he said, “she was the truest of women”—from which I immediately inferred she could not be his wife, and so it turned out….

[Crib] is the only man except [Webster?], I ever heard harangue upon his wife’s virtue; and I listened to both with great credence and patience, and stuffed my handkerchief into my mouth, when I found yawning irresistible—By the by, I am yawning now—so, good night to thee.—

[Nov. 24, 1813, Vol. 3, p. 221]

The more private the writing of Byron, the more literary it becomes: the Journal contains passages with an extraordinary collage of quotations, fragments he shored against his ruins. Not only Byron’s private letters and diaries are transformed into art, but his life as well. The seduction of Lady Frances is staged by Byron, invented by him to distract himself from his love for his half-sister Augusta. He muses upon the possibility of his being shot by Lady Frances’s silly husband (“in my case it would be so dramatic a conclusion”), and adds:

C[aroline] would go wild with grief that—it did not happen about her…—and——[Augusta] poor—[Augusta] she would be really uncomfortable—do you know? I am much afraid that that perverse passion was my deepest after all.—[To Lady Melbourne, November 25, 1813, Vol. 3, p. 174]

This advertisement of his incestuous love, for all its regretful nostalgia, is a sign that even here we have a phenomenon as much a part of public life as private.

Incestuous love for a sister was the forbidden Romantic aspiration. In life, Chateaubriand loved his sister with the respectable devotion of Wordsworth or Charles Lamb (family relations at that time could indeed be very close); in René, however, the climax is the whispered confession of the criminal passion at the moment that Amelie takes her vows as a nun, followed by the frenzied embrace of brother and sister, and the subsequent scandal and death. Shelley’s first mature poem, “The Revolt of Islam,” originally treated of incest, but he was forced to bowdlerize it, only to return to the subject later with The Cenci; in life, he was forced to content himself with adultery. Byron alone was able to live the Romantic ideal in all of its essential aspects: poet, Don Juan, incestuous lover, bored dandy, warrior for freedom. It is now clear that even Byron’s early death in Greece was half-consciously willed, a final glorious synthesis of life and art.

In his Journal on Wednesday, December 1, 1813, he had written:

I shall soon be six-and-twenty. Is there anything in the future that can possibly console us for not being always twenty-five? [Vol. 3, p. 229]


“That’s my opinion, and I share it” (“c’est mon opinion, et je la partage“), said Monsieur Prudhomme, the great symbol of the nineteenth-century bourgeois created by Henri Monnier. In this grand example of the confusion between subjective and objective viewpoints which is the touchstone of Romantic art, we can see the source of that peculiar form of stupidity so characteristic of the nineteenth century.

The Romantics did not invent stupidity, of course, but they could have taken out a patent on an individual and specially fatuous variety. Almost no one was immune from it, even the most intelligent. “Read Aristotle for the first time last night,” noted the young Stendhal in his notebook, “and was delighted to find that he had the same ideas as I do.” Dorothy Wordsworth admired Pascal, but thought he would have been more dignified and more impressive if he had expressed himself in English. It is difficult to conceive of such utterly natural and charming reactions being written down by such acute minds before 1800.

The grandmaster of Romantic fatuity, as of so much else, was Victor Hugo: he raised it to heights unknown before. In a letter to Baudelaire to thank him for his book on hashish, we find:

Je vis ici dans ma solitude face à face avec l’infini, les rayons de l’impossible et de l’idéal me traversent à chaque instant de part en part, il éclaire à tout moment dans mon âme et sur ma tête, je vois de l’invisible, j’habite entre la vague et l’astre; ceci vous dit à quel point les livres comme le vôtre me vont, et toutes les préparations qu’ils trouvent en moi. Je passe ma vie à boire ce haschisch qu’on appelle l’azur et cet opium qu’on appelle l’ombre.9 [July 19, 1860]

(I live here in my solitude face to face with the infinite, the rays of the impossible and the ideal pass across me through and through at each instant, there is lightening at every moment in my soul and over my head, I see the invisible, I inhabit a region between wave and star: this tells you how much books like yours suit me, and how far I am already prepared within myself for them. I pass my life drinking that hashish called the blue of the sky and that opium called shadow.)

This makes a wonderfully bathetic identification between Hugo and the stormy isle of Guernsey from where the letter was sent. A year earlier Hugo had written to Baudelaire:

L’Art n’est pas perfectible, je l’ai dit, je crois, un des premiers, donc je le sais. [October 6, 1859]

(Art is not perfectable: I was one of the first, I believe, to say it, therefore I know it.)

Hugo’s fatuity was contagious; it rubs off even today on those who read him too often. Baudelaire, who could be silly but almost never fatuous, wrote that he repeated every night the prayer of the Philistine, and thanked God for not making him as stupid as Victor Hugo. This form of fatuity, however, evidently transcends the individual. It is a trait of style, an attribute of the period, a characteristic aberration of what Keats, in speaking of Wordsworth, called the “egotistical sublime.”

Romantic subjectivity is not necessarily personal expression. Its most impressive manifestations are profoundly impersonal. For Wordsworth, what separated one man from another was the exterior, objective aspect of personality: at the deepest, unconscious subjective level all men are one, and the source of fraternity was to be found here.

The peculiar nature of Romantic fatuity comes not from the projection of the subjective mind upon the objective world—that is only a method for understanding the world, for putting it into words—but from the confusion of personal with impersonal, from the identification of the tiny, individual ego with the subjective process in general, with the universe conceived under the aspect of mind, to use the terms of Spinoza relished by the early nineteenth century. The fatuous is the misplaced grandiose the identification of the subjective vision with one’s personal idiosyncrasies. It was a trap only too easy to fall into, and could be avoided only when the omnivorous identification of the self with the universe was seen as tentative and fallible, when the striving after the infinite was recognized as unpretentious, ordinary, and always incomplete.

To make the familiar seem strange, the marvelous appear commonplace, was Novalis’s definition of Romanticism. We need to keep our grasp on the commonplaceness, and on the fundamental and acknowledged imperfection of the stylistic devices and the modes of thought of the early nineteenth century, or they turn into hollow clichés. For this reason, we have rightly come to prefer the sketches, the first versions of the works of that period. Romantic hyperboles are conceivable here as provocations, stimuli of a never-ending creative process (as they were intended to be seen), and not as absurdly definitive institutionalized formulas. The most satisfactory editions of Romantic works are those that retain the sense of the spontaneous draft, the developing improvisation, and reject the aspect of the final, arrested statement.

Letters, journals, and notebooks present, as always, a special problem for the editor, one which is particularly acute for the nineteenth century, when works of art lay claim to the status of autobiographical documents, when the exhilarating confusion between art and non-art that still plagues us today was first innocently developed. There is, however, no consensus about principles of editing and annotating nineteenth-century letters and diaries, but rather a good deal of comic inconsistency.

The editor of these texts is faced first of all by an extraordinary development starting in the last decade of the eighteenth century, at which time it would appear as if the literary world had forgotten how to spell or to punctuate. After punctuation and spelling had become relatively stabilized in the course of the eighteenth century, a group of writers arose who systematically sabotaged both. Not only a half-educated poet like John Clare, but Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Charles Lamb, Shelley, and Keats all spelled anywhere from erratically to appallingly, and punctuated in the way presumed typical of Victorian ladies—largely by dashes. So, in France, did Flaubert and Baudelaire, as is made clear by the variant readings in the new critical editions of the correspondence that have recently been issued. It was evidently an international and persistent phenomenon. 10

The traditional way of printing an author’s letters after his death used to involve selection and “normalization.” They were bowdlerized, corrected, licked into shape, and inserted in chronological order in a biography, where the context made them intelligible. The duller passages were cut along with the more scandalous, libelous, and discreditable details. Today we may rejoice that nothing is too tiresome or too disgusting to print; everything from the account book to the medical report which will shed some light on the artist and his work is put forth. In this setting, which presents even the most accomplished letters in a new light, the normalization of texts becomes unsuspectedly odd.

Just how odd is best seen if one asks what to do about the letters written by the author as a small child. Claude Pichois, in his edition of Baudelaire, corrects the spelling and punctuation of all the letters, including those written when Baudelaire was ten years old. This may be absurd, but another solution—chosen by Bruneau in his edition of Flaubert—is even more ludicrous. A faithful transcription is given of all letters written before the author was twelve, after which point everything is corrected. Did Bruneau feel that twelve is the age of reason, the moment when Flaubert should have known better, and that from this point on his graphic vices must be covered up?

According to Bruneau, Flaubert’s spelling betrays his Norman pronunciation. Surely, since one of the pleasures of reading correspondence is to catch echoes of the writer’s voice, this should not have been obliterated. As for Baudelaire, in one of his frequent attempts to play the fool by a violent declaration of reactionary politics, he declared the greatest crimes of liberalism to be the abolition of the death penalty and spelling reform. He himself preferred old-fashioned spelling and it would only be simple justice to allow his faults to remain visibly upon his head.

The stumbling block for many of the editors of early nineteenth-century texts is the dash, omnipresent and polytropic. Leslie Marchand has no fear of the dash: he reproduces Byron’s letters almost exactly as they were written whenever he has access to the original manuscript. Many other editors, however, are filled with trepidation: at the sight of so many dashes their nerve fails. When he edited Wordsworth’s letters, de Selincourt, who reproduced all of Wordsworth’s misspellings, took a high moral tone with the dash:

I have not everywhere retained the dash, which a rapid writer employs for purposes other than that for which it is intended.11

We arrive here at the metaphysics of the dash, and the faith that signs of punctuation have fixed, invariable uses determined for all time.

In her magnificent edition of Coleridge’s Notebooks, which has now reached its third volume, Kathleen Coburn is less intransigent. She reproduces everything as Coleridge wrote it, including his shorthand squiggles and the dashes—but amusingly she rations these last. When Coleridge writes several dashes, she only allows him one. (A glance at Marchand’s edition of Byron’s letters, however, will show that there is a considerable difference between the use of one and three dashes.) In his edition of Baudelaire’s correspondence, Pichois adds commas or periods to the dashes, while Bruneau translates Flaubert’s dashes painstakingly into the accepted hierarchy of commas, semicolons, colons, and periods.

This hierarchy, however, is deliberately rejected by the Romantics; it represents a logical division of thought which they clearly found antipathetic and to which they would not bend. We have returned today to the eighteenth-century use of the stops as logical symbols, but the early nineteenth century preferred to ignore or to blur logical distinctions. The clear logical divisions of thought imply that the concept and its expression exist in a complete form at a given moment: it can then be conveniently ordered and divided up into its main and subordinate clauses, and the proper value assigned to the intervals which determine the stops. This was not how Coleridge, for example, determined the function of the pauses to be indicated by the punctuation. He wrote in his notebook (vol. 3, p. 3504, f8-f8v)

I look on the stops not as logical Symbols, but rather as dramatic directions representing the process of Thinking & Speaking conjointly…. [The speaker] pauses—then the activity of the mind, generating upon its generations, starts anew—& the pause is not, for which I am contending, at all retrospective, but always prospective—that is, the pause is not affected by what actually follows, but by what anterior to it was foreseen as following—

Made to fit a dynamic and modern conception of language as still being generated and altered even in mid-sentence, this is a complex and exalted view of punctuation; it is understandable, however, that most writers of that period, including Coleridge himself, simply used the dash most of the time.

The dash had a double advantage: it was, as Coleridge said, an “expression of the indefinite or fragmentary—“ For some years around 1800, the fragment became the dominant fashionable artistic form. It bore an ideological charge, expressed cryptically and ironically with great charm by Friedrich Schlegel in 1798:

Ein Fragment muss gleich einem kleinem Kunstwerke von der umgebenden Welt ganz abgesondert und in sich selbst vollendet sein wie ein Igel. [Athenaeum Fragmente 206]

(A fragment must be like a small work of art completely separated from the surrounding world, and complete in itself like a hedgehog.)

This paradoxically saves both the integrity of the work of art and the interpenetration of life and art, as the perfectly defined circular form of the hedgehog, rolled up into a ball, sticks out its quills into the surrounding world.

The indefiniteness of the dash, too, was an aid for the fluid representation of reality. It corresponds to the contemporary tendency to blur figures of speech, to the abandonment of the strictly systematic rhetorical distinctions. Schlegel once again gives the doctrine in its purest and most concise form:

Das alles muss in der Historie verschmolzen sein, wie auch die Bilder und Antithesen nur angedeutet oder wieder aufgelöst sein müssen, damit der Schwebende und fliessende Ausdruck dem lebendigen Werden der beweglichen Gestalten entspreche. [Athenaeum Fragmente 217]

(Everything in history must be blended, as even the images and the antitheses must be only suggested or dissolved, so that the wavering and flowing expression will correspond to the vital continuous change [= Becoming] of the mobile forms.)

Coleridge, however, puts it even more persuasively in a letter12 as he describes his own youthful style of political oratory:

…with an ebullient Fancy, a flowing Utterance, a light & dancing Heart, & a disposition to catch fire by the very rapidity of my own motion, & to speak vehemently from mere verbal associations….

This style implies a logic of movement, and to impose a static system is a betrayal.13 It is a metaphysical absurdity to assume that the logical relation of different phrases separated by dashes can be coherently translated into a rational order without a loss of meaning and power.

The aesthetics of editing would make a curious study. The excuse for emendation is always the necessity of a legible text. Nevertheless, Marchand’s new edition of Byron’s letters and diaries, Coburn’s edition of Coleridge’s notebooks, and Hyder Rollins’s famous edition of Keats’s letters are all a delight to read although (or, rather, because) they reproduce everything in the original—words crossed out, misspellings, and all. Yet Keats and Byron spelled and pointed more erratically and whimsically than any of the others, and Coleridge’s favorite mark of punctuation is the oblique stroke / that he derived from his German books.

The preference for a clean, “normalized” text free of footnotes is an aesthetic preference, but it is one that hides a philosophical prejudice—the belief that the meaning of a text can be detached without loss from its appearance on the page, the belief that perfect translation is possible. But translation is never perfect, only inevitable: even a facsimile reproduction represents a slight loss of significance.14

The controversy between those who normalize and those who prefer the original text raw and unadulterated is, in fact, a heritage of the Romantic movement. It begins in 1765 with Bishop Percy’s publication of the Reliques of Ancient English Poesy, which initiates the Romantic revival of medieval folk literature. At that time documents were often literally reproduced, even in facsimile (by means of tracing), but works of literature were freely modernized although perhaps not often with so cavalier a disregard for the original as Bishop Percy showed.

An irascible bibliographical genius, Joseph Ritson, protested Percy’s ruthless handling of the ballads. For him the original should have been reproduced in all its purity. He partly considered the old poems as documents of antiquity, but he evidently loved them in spite of their rubbing his eighteenth-century taste the wrong way. The distinction between document and work of literature is beginning to crumble.

The Romantic movement gave rise to two extremes: the absolutely faithful reproduction of a text (Grey’s Elegy was printed in a facsimile of the manuscript early in the nineteenth century) and the forgeries of Chatterton and of Ossian. The violence of the opposition may be judged from a letter of Ritson:15

I have not the pleasure to agree with you that an editor has the right “to avoid a disgusting orthography of a common word”—at least without affording his readers an opportunity of knowing whether it is disgusting or not. On the contrary I am persuaded that a strict adherence to ancient orthography, however rude, which I conceive is what you mean by disgusting, is the test of an editor’s fidelity; and can place no confidence whatever in one who secretly innovates even in a single word….

You will think me certainly singular, probably unjust, possibly scandalous; but in fact I have long entertained an idea that there is a more intimate connection between integrity in literary matters and what one calls common honesty than people in general are aware of—In short, that a man who will forge a poem, a line, or even a word will not hesitate, when the temptation is greater and the impunity equal, to forge a note or steal a guinea.

Edmund Wilson correctly observed that bibliographers were mad (although there is no call for lamentation). Mad on both sides of the controversy: the normalizers are as dotty as the faithful servants of the text. The obsessive replacement of almost every one of Flaubert’s dashes by some other stop is not a completely rational enterprise. And as H. W. Garrod remarked in his edition of Keats, it may be pedantic to list all the variants but even more pedantic not to be interested in them once someone has done the work.

The real controversy lies deeper, however: it is whether these texts come closer to us cleaned up and in modern dress or in their original form. In modern dress, it seems to me, they direct our attention to their distance from us: they appear to be familiar only at first sight. In their strange, original form they force us to penetrate to their essential kinship with our own world. Above all for these autobiographical documents, only when they have been fully thrust back into the alien life from which they came, plunged back into history, can they commence to take on a significance that is not purely historical, and speak directly to us today.


Did Wordsworth Kill Lucy? June 26, 1975

  1. 1

    Flaubert may be alluding to the pun in Le moyen de Parvenir made on entregent = “between people,” tact, social manners, and “entrejambes” = “between legs.” 

  2. 2

    Nothing of the sort can be claimed about the earlier versions of Mozart and Molière, the later version of Lenau, however, presents itself as direct self-expression. Lenau’s conception of the legend is the one used by Richard Strauss, who followed his Don Juan with an autobiographical symphony that celebrates the domestic virtues of marriage. 

  3. 3

    Letter in the Times Literary Supplement, November 1, 1974. 

  4. 4

    “This journal is a relief. When I am tired—as I generally am—out comes this, and down goes everything. But I can’t read it over,” (December 6, 1813, Vol. 3, p. 233). The diary is the unreflective consciousness, freed from control. 

  5. 5

    Letter to Henry Drury, December 18, 1813 (vol. 3, p. 202). 

  6. 6

    Letter to Lady Melbourne, September 21, 1813 (vol. 3, p. 116). 

  7. 7

    Letter to Lady Melbourne, October 10, 1813 (vol. 3, pp. 137-138). 

  8. 8

    The Greek transliteration of “Byron.” 

  9. 9

    Lettres à Baudelaire, edited by Claude Pichois (Neuchâtel, 1973), pp. 192-193. 

  10. 10

    The one major eighteenth-century author famous for not being able to spell is significantly the one with the greatest influence on Romantic thought, Rousseau. 

  11. 11

    The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth edited by E. de Selincourt, 2nd ed. revised by C.L. Shaver (Oxford, 1967), p. xv. Professor Shaver’s revision does not inspire confidence. A comparison of the photograph of a letter printed as a frontis-piece with the text reveals two mistakes in transcription. 

  12. 12

    To Sir George and Lady Beaumont, October 1, 1803, in Letters, edited by Earl L. Griggs (Oxford, 1956), vol. 2, pp. 1000-1001. 

  13. 13

    The argument sometimes heard that many of these authors, Byron and Shelley in particular, expected the printer to impose a standard system of punctuation on their works is not an impressive one. That is the condition they had to accept in order to be published. Their failure—their refusal, indeed—to learn such a system is more revealing. Two authors, however, had their texts presented to the public without the standard punctuation that fits early nineteenth-century writing so badly: Blake and Lamb. Blake could allow himself this luxury because he was considered mad, Lamb because he wrote the familiar, conversational essay which did not have to conform to the standards expected of high style. The Essays of Elia are strewn with as many dashes as Byron’s letters. (Shelley, incidentally, preferred three dots to the dash in order to indicate the vague and the fragmentary.) 

  14. 14

    The ideal editions, indeed, are like the recent one of The Notebook of William Blake (Oxford, 1973), which juxtaposes a photograph of each page with a typographic transcription (including a reading by means of infrared photography of everything that Blake erased and altered). This, however, represents a considerable expense that would be unjustified for most publications, necessary here because of Blake’s many drawings. It has been brilliantly edited by David V. Erdman and Donald K. Moore. 

  15. 15

    Quoted from Bertrand H. Bronsen, Joseph Ritson Scholar-at-arms (University of California Press, 1938), vol. 2, pp. 547-548.