GEORGE SAINTSBURY in an apologetic and self-deprecatory mood hardly appears to be George Saintsbury at all. Yet The Flourishing of Romance begins and ends with his statements of his demerits, and similar bits of shamefacedness, mingled with a certain pride of achievement, run between. This might be thought to be the foundation for the compromises, the middle courses, steered through the book; but the author's reasonableness in this, characteristically acidulated rather than sweet, at once proves it to be no more ...
GEORGE SAINTSBURY in an apologetic and self-deprecatory mood hardly appears to be George Saintsbury at all. Yet The Flourishing of Romance begins and ends with his statements of his demerits, and similar bits of shamefacedness, mingled with a certain pride of achievement, run between. This might be thought to be the foundation for the compromises, the middle courses, steered through the book; but the author's reasonableness in this, characteristically acidulated rather than sweet, at once proves it to be no more than his usual sanity and Catholicism in literary judgments and relieves the mind of the reader from all apprehensions caused by the display of something like bashfulness.
It may be premised that, seemly as modesty is in an undertaking which means writing two and editing ten more volumes of a universal history of European literature from the Middle Ages to the present day, including both periods, any assumption of its necessity is unfounded, and the author cannot beg our pardon faster than we shall assure him of our distinguished consideration and increased regard after reading his latest work. His plan is a most estimable one, taking, as it does, for its text Matthew Arnold's searching statement: "The criticism which alone can help us for the future is a criticism which regards Europe as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result." The series is called Periods of European Literature. The first volume is to be written by Prof. W. P. Ker, the book before us is the second of the set, though, as the preface discloses, the first in point of presentation to the public, and subsequent numbers are to be undertaken by F. J. Snell, David Hannay, Oliver Elton, Edmund Gosse, and Walter H. Pollock among others, leaving the editor himself to close with The Later Nineteenth Century. This last, which means an extension of the point of view taken of French and English literature in his four volumes of essays to the entire modern field, will be looked forward to with impatience. Meanwhile, let us glance at the delectabilities before us.
Saintsbury begins with medieval Latin. "The influence of form which the best Latin hymns of the Middle Ages exercised in poetry," he concludes, "the influence in vocabulary and in logical arrangement which Scholasticism exercised in prose are beyond dispute." Thence he goes to the romances, quoting for his sequence Jean Bodel, a "trouvere" of the thirteenth century: "Ne sont que trois matieres a nul home attendant, De France et de Bretaigne et de Rome la grant." France, then, leads the way with a consideration of the "chansons de geste." Many of them are discussed in detail, though their names alone are guaranties of their romantic character, and the estimate reads, "that while the best of them are remarkably good of their kind, few of them can be called positively bad in it." England follows, contributing the Arthurian legends chiefly. The appreciation of them is excellently done, full of piquant touches, — as when the author exclaims, "May God assoil Dunlop!" (for calling Guinevere merely Lancelot's mistress), — and takes a careful course past critical extremists, though the opinion that the legends arc a literary growth is given with no trembling nor hesitating voice. The romances inherited from antiquity are then taken up, —sortilege in one of them being defined as "a sort of 'kriegs-spiel' in a basin with wax ships,"— and a most important chapter on the making of English follows.
Here, again, extremes are avoided, Saintsbury urging that "a middle way may be taken between those historians of English who would have a great gulf fixed before Chaucer, and those who insist upon absolute continuity from Csedmon to Tennyson." Similarly cautious, sensible, and decided are his conjectures regarding the origin of our English prosody, which he will leave wholly to neither the quantity nor the accent-men. Middle High German poetry,—Germany's literary energy, he says, is "commentatorial or nothing," from the Nibelungenlied to the songs of Walter of the Bird-Meadow (Walther von der Vogelsweide), which he praises so highly and so deservedly,— leads to the fabliaux, of which he holds that the Earl of Roscommon's famous dictum is not necessarily true; thence to the sagas, to the Provencal trouveres and all their interesting verse-forms, and, finally, to the lesser efforts made in the peninsulas of Greece, Italy, and Spain. A brief chapter sums up '* this attempt to survey the literature of Europe during one, if not of its most accomplished, most enlightened, or most generally admired periods, yet assuredly one of the most momentous, the most interesting, the fullest of problem and of promise."