Text: Thomas H. Goetz, “Taine on Poe: A Neglected French Critic,” Poe Studies, December 1973, Vol. VI, No. 2, 6:35-36


[page 35:]

Taine on Poe: A Neglected French Critic

State University College, Fredonia

Celestin P. Cambiaire’s The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe in France, Patrick F. Quinn’s The French Face of Edgar Poe, and Jean Alexander’s Affidavits of Genius: Edgar Allan Poe and the French Critics, 1847-1924 all fail to mention the correspondence concerning Poe and his work between Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), the translator and champion of Poe’s work in France, and Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), the literary historian and critic (1). The only reference in English or American Poe studies to Taine’s letter on Poe appears to be the reference by Joseph Wood Krutch in Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. He used Taine’s description of Poe as the type of the Germanic-Englishman “with deep intuition and an amazingly overwrought nervous system” as evidence that Taine confessed a complete inability to understand Poe’s work (2). But Krutch’s assertion underestimates both Taine’s admiration for Poe and his understanding of his creative genius, as the complete text of Taine’s letter makes clear.

Taine had little taste for Baudelaire’s poetry, finding “sickness” in Flowers of Evil (3). To J. J. Weiss’ comparison of him with Baudelaire and Flaubert, Taine responded “If Monsieur Baudelaire’s company is bad, Monsieur Flaubert’s is very good” (4). But he appreciated Baudelaire’s Poems in Prose and, as his letter shows, the translations (5). A recognized authority on English literature, author of four successful books and acquainted with Poe’s writing (6), Taine was a logical person for Baudelaire to look to for help in popularizing his translation of Poe’s prose poem Enreka.

In January 1863, during a period of great financial hardship, Baudelaire needed help. He wrote to his mother of his plan to sell his rights to his works for a single lumpsum payment (7). But Michel Levy, the publisher of Baudelaire’s translations, knew of this desperate need for money and refused to conclude contract negotiations until all his demands were met (8). Hoping to induce Levy to speed up the publication of Eureka, Baudelaire sought Taine’s support:

Dear Sir.

6 October 1863

I would be very grateful, if you were to think of me. I have a big business deal to conclude with Michel [Levy, the publisher]; and he does not wish to strike a bargain, before having the preface to Eureka, on the one hand; and, on the other, a few pages from me, which he needs to complete his fifth volume.

I am frightfully busy. Please believe this, otherwise, I would come to see you frequently.

Could you write me a short note, to tell me:

— What you think of the work;

— Whether you will do the preface;

— How long it will be;

— And how much you will charge? [column 2:]

Please believe me when I say that I fully appreciate the value of the service I ask of you, and that I shall always remember it.

Ch. Baudelaire

22, Rue d’Amsterdam (9)



Although Taine did not write the preface, Eureka was published in December 1863. Levy had succeeded in securing the increasingly desperate Baudelaire’s rights to all five volumes of Poe translations for the sum of two thousand francs (10). But Taine must have shown Baudelaire that he was sincerely interested in Poe’s work, for Baudelaire wrote a second time requesting an article on Poe. Taine’s reply is a concise critical evaluation of Poe’s work which he hoped might be of use.

30 March 1865

I am so busy and my health so poor that I cannot undertake an article as important as the one you propose. I admire Poe very much; he is the Germanic-English type, with profound intuition and an astonishingly overactive nervous system. He doesn’t have many strings, but the three or four he has vibrate in a sensitive and sublime way. He comes near Heine; but, everything in him is pushed to blackness, alcohol has performed its office. But what delicacy and accuracy in analysis! — I do not like Eureka very much, it is too akin to philosophy, like Balzac’s Seraphita and Hugo’s Les Contemplations. Since you ask, it is the only one of the five volumes I have received, and it came from you. Monsieur Levy has not sent me any of them; but, I read it, completely.

What a misfortune that you have not inserted, in English, the 108 English verses of “Never More” [“The Raven”]: But what a translator you are, and, how you have captured the accent, with all its bitterness, all its intensity, and all its inflections!

A thousand thanks; I have already read half of this new volume [Histoires grotesques et serieuses], and I shall give Flaubert your message.

Sincerely yours,

H. Taine (11)

Taine associated the superiority of English literature with the vivid poetic imagination and melancholic disposition of the Germanic race which he believed inherent in the English since the time of the Saxons. His comparison of Poe’s poetic vision to the intense poetry of Heinrich Heine, one of his favorite poets, was indeed high praise.

Since Taine is well-known as a philosophical critic, his criticism of ‘Eureka as “too akin to philosophy” needs to be explained. Despite his philosophical bent, Taine valued art for its own sake. In his famous History of English Literature, he lamented that Schiller, Heine, Beethoven, Hugo, Lamartine, and Musset created works which only “served them to exhibit some grand metaphysical and social idea . . . such was the domination of the philosophical spirit that . . . after doing violence to literature, it imposed on music humanitarian ideas, inflicted on painting symbolical designs, penetrated current speech, and marred style by an overflow of abstractions and formulas, from which all our efforts now fail to liberate us” (12). Taine disapproved, therefore, of the philosophical contortions through which he believed Poe had put literature in Eureka. The failure of Taine and other French critics to understand Eureka came as no surprise to Baudelaire, who [page 36:] in 1863 doubted that his translation would sell well because it was too abstract for the French (13).



(1) Leon Lemmonier mentions Baudelaire’s writing to Taine for a preface in Les Traducteurs d Edgar Poe en France de 1845 a 1875: Charles Baudelaire (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires, 1928), p. 122. Francois Porche in Baudelaire: Histoire d’une ame (Paris: Flammarion, 1944), p. 451, also mentions this request, but he mistakenly assumes that Taine’s reply dated 30 March 1865 was in answer to Baudelaire’s request of 6 October 1863. On that basis, he drew the unfounded conclusion that the year and a half delay was due to Taine’s desire to avoid writing the preface on Poe which Baudelaire had requested.

(2) (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), p. 208.

(3) Simon Jeune, Poesie et Systeme: Taine, Interprete de La Fontaine (Paris: Armand Colin, 1968), p. 108.

(4) H. Taine, Correspondance, ed. Paul Dubois (Paris: Hachette, 1914), II, 157.

(5) Leo Weinstein, Hippolyte Taine (New York: Twayne, 1972), p. 168.

(6) In a note in an article on eighteenth-century English novelists which appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes in either December 1861 or January 1862, Taine suggested a comparison of Defoe’s A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal and Poe’s “Case of M. Valdemar.” He also commented: “The American is a suffering artist; DeFoe a citizen, who has common sense.” The article also appears in Taine’s History of English Literature trans. H. Van Laun (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874), III, 261.

(7) Philippe Auserve, ea., Charles Baudelaire: Lettres inedites aux siens (Paris: Grasset, 1966), pp. 227-231

(8) Flaubert, who had signed a contract with Levy for the publication of Madame Bovary, was similarly exploited. Cf. Enid Starkie, Flaubert (New York: Atheneum, 1967), p. 260.

(9) Mercure de France, 60 (1906), 373-374. Translated from the French by T. H. Goetz.

(10) These included Histoires Extraordinaires ( 1856), Nouvelles Histoires extraordinaires (1857), Les Aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym (1858), Eureka (1863), and Histoires grotesques et serieuses (1865).

(11) Mercure de France, 60 (1906), 374. Translated from the French by T. H. Goetz. There is no mention of Taine’s reference to Flaubert in Flaubert’s Correspondence (Paris: Conard, 192633), 9 vole., nor any evidence that Taine meant more than to convey Baudelaire’s respects to their mutual friend. Neither the Goncourt brothers’ Journal ( Paris: Fasquelle and Flammarion 1956), 4 vols., nor the Sainte-Beuve and Merimee correspondence contained in the Correspondence Generale de Merimee (Paris: Le Divan, 1941-64), 17 vole., gives information on the question. Rene Dumesnil in Gustave Flaubert, 3rd ed. (Paris: Bouwer, 1947), p. 395, noted that the framework of Flaubert’s play The Castle of Hearts is almost identical to that of Poe’s Vondervotteimittis in “The Devil in the Belfry,” suggesting that Flaubert knew and admired Poe’s work.

(12) Taine, History, III, 443.

(13) Cited by Porche, Baudelaire, p. 451.


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