Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve  

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"Sainte-Beuve. Nothing of a man ; full of petty resentment against all masculine intellects. Wanders about delicate, curious, tired, "pumping" people, a female after all, with a woman's revengefulness and a woman's sensuousness. As a psychologist a genius for médisance ; inexhaustibly rich in expedients for the purpose ; nobody understands better how to mix poison with praise." --Twilight of the Idols (1889) by Nietzsche

Ancient works are classical not because they are old, but because they are powerful, fresh, and healthy.”--"What Is a Classic?"

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Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (23 December 1804 in Boulogne-sur-Mer – 13 October 1869 in Paris) was a literary critic and one of the major figures of French literary history. He is often cited for his essay "What Is a Classic?" and for citing Byron and Sade as the two greatest inspirations of our moderns.



Early years

He was born in Boulogne, educated there, and studied medicine at the Collège Charlemagne in Paris (1824-27). In 1828, he served in the St Louis Hospital. Beginning in 1824, he contributed literary articles, the Premier lundis of his collected Works, to the Globe newspaper, and, in 1827, he came, through a review of Victor Hugo's Odes et ballads, into close association with Hugo and the Cénacle, the literary circle that strove to define the ideas of the rising Romanticism and struggle against classical formalism. Sainte-Beuve became friendly with Hugo after publishing a favourable review of the author's work but later had an affair with Hugo's wife, which, naturally enough, led to their estrangement. Curiously, when Sainte-Beuve was made a member of the French Academy in 1845, the ceremonial duty of giving the reception speech fell upon Hugo.


Sainte-Beuve published collections of poems and the partly autobiographical novel Volupté in 1834. His articles and essays were collected the volumes Port-Royal and Portraits littéraires.

During the turmoil of 1848 in Europe, he lectured at Liège on Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire. He returned to Paris in 1849 and began his series of topical columns, Causeries du lundi ('Monday Chats') in the newspaper, Le Constitutionnel. When Louis Napoleon became Emperor, he made Sainte-Beuve professor of Latin poetry at the Collège de France, but anti-Imperialist students hissed him, and he resigned.


After several books of poetry and a couple of failed novels, Sainte-Beuve began to undertake literary research, of which the most important is Port-Royal. He continued to contribute to La Revue contemporaine.

Port-Royal (1837-1859), probably Sainte-Beuve's masterpiece, is an exhaustive history of the Jansenist abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs. It not only influenced the history of religious belief, i.e., the methodology of such research, but also the philosophy of history and the history of esthetics.

He was made Senator in 1865, in which capacity he distinguished himself by his pleas for freedom of speech and of the press. According to Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, "Sainte-Beuve was a clever man with the temper of a turkey!" In his last years, he was an acute sufferer and lived much in retirement.

One of Sainte-Beuve's critical contentions was that, in order to understand an artist and his work, it was necessary to understand that artist's biography. Marcel Proust took issue with this notion and refuted it in a set of essays, Contre Sainte-Beuve ("Against Sainte-Beuve"). Proust developed the ideas first voiced in those essays in À la recherche du temps perdu.


  • Tableau de la poésie française au seizième siècle (1828)
  • Vie, poésies et pensées de Joseph Delorme (1829)
  • Les Consolations (1830) (poetry)
  • Volupté (1835) (novel)
  • Port-Royal (1840–1859)
  • Les Lundis (1851–1872)
  • Causeries du lundi, 15 vols. (1851–1862)
  • Nouveaux Lundis (1863–1870)

In English

  • English Portraits (NY: Holt, 1875), a selection from Causeries du lundi'
  • William Sharp, ed., William Matthews and Harriet W. Preston, translators, Essays on Men and Women (London, 1890)
  • E. J. Trechmann, trans., Causeries du lundi, 8 vols. (New York, 1909-11)

French bibliography


  • Tableau historique et critique de la poésie française et du théâtre français au Template:S- (1828), 2 volumes
  • Port-Royal (1840-1859), 5 volumes
  • Portraits littéraires (1844 et 1876-78), 3 volumes
  • Portraits contemporains (1846 et 1869-71), 5 volumes
  • Portraits de femmes (1844 et 1870)
  • Causeries du lundi (1851-1881), 16 volumes
  • Nouveaux lundis (1863-1870), 13 volumes
  • Premiers lundis (1874-75), 3 volumes
  • Étude sur Virgile (1857). Texte de cette étude annoté par Henri Goelzer en 1895.
  • Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire (1860), 2 volumes
  • Le Général Jomini (1869)
  • Madame Desbordes-Valmore (1870)
  • M. de Talleyrand (1870)
  • P.-J. Proudhon (1872)
  • Chroniques parisiennes (1843-1845 et 1876)
  • Les cahiers de Sainte-Beuve (1876)
  • Mes poisons (1926)


  • Harold George Nicolson, Sainte-Beuve (London: Constable, 1957)
  • Roger L. Williams, Gaslight and Shadow: The World of Napoleon III (NY: Macmillan, 1957), Ch. 5: "Sainte-Beuve, Sultan of Literature"

See also

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