INQUIRIES AND OPINIONS
Copyright, 1907, by BRANDER MATTHEWS
Published September, 1907
TO MY FRIEND AND FELLOW CRAFTSMAN HENRY ARTHUR JONES
I Literature in the New Century 1
II The Supreme Leaders 27
III An Apology for Technic 49
IV Old Friends with New Faces 73
V Invention and Imagination 95
VI Poe and the Detective-story 111
VII Mark Twain 137
VIII A Note on Maupassant 167
IX The Modern Novel and the Modern Play 179
X The Literary Merit of our Latter-day Drama 205
XI Ibsen the Playwright 227
XII The Art of the Stage-manager 281
LITERATURE IN THE NEW CENTURY
[This paper was read on September 24th, 1904, in the section of Belles-lettres of the International Congress of the Arts and Sciences, held at St. Louis.]
There is no disguising the difficulty of any attempt to survey the whole field of literature as it is disclosed before us now at the opening of a new century; and there is no denying the danger of any effort to declare the outlook in the actual present and the prospect in the immediate future. How is it possible to project our vision, to foresee whither the current is bearing us, to anticipate the rocks ahead and the shallows whereon our bark may be beached?
But one reflection is as obvious as it is helpful. The problems of literature are not often merely I literary; and, in so far as literature is an honest attempt to express life,—as it always has been at the moments of highest achievement,—the problems of literature must have an intimate relation to the problems which confront us insistently in life. If we turn from the disputations of the schools and look out on the world, we may discover forces at work in society which are exerting also a potent influence upon the future of literature.
Now that the century in which we were born and bred is receding swiftly into the past, we can perceive in the perspective more clearly than ever before its larger movements and its main endeavor. We are at last beginning to be able to estimate the heritage it has left us, and to see for ourselves what our portion is, what our possessions are, and what our obligations. While it is for us to make the twentieth century, no doubt, we need to remember that it was the nineteenth century which made us; and we do not know ourselves if we fail to understand the years in which we were molded to the work that lies before us. It is for us to single out the salient characteristics of the nineteenth century. It is for us to seize the significance of the striking advance in scientific method, for example, and of the wide-spread acceptance of the scientific attitude. It is for us, again, to recognize the meaning of that extension of the democratic movement, which is the most obvious characteristic of the past sixscore years. It is for us, once more, to weigh the importance of the intensifying of national spirit and of the sharpening of racial pride. And, finally, it is for us to take account also of the growth of what must be called "cosmopolitanism," that breaking down of the hostile barriers keeping one people apart from the others, ignorant of them, and often contemptuous.
Here, then, are four legacies from the nineteenth century to the twentieth:—first, the scientific spirit; second, the spread of democracy; third, the assertion of nationality; and, fourth, that stepping across the confines of language and race, for which we have no more accurate name than "cosmopolitanism."
"The scientific spirit," so an acute American critic defined it recently in an essay on Carlyle,—who was devoid of it and detested it,—"the scientific spirit signifies poise between hypothesis and verification, between statement and proof, between appearance and reality. It is inspired by the impulse of investigation, tempered with distrust and edged with curiosity. It is at once avid of certainty and skeptical of seeming. It is enthusiastically patient, nobly literal, candid, tolerant, hospitable." This is the statement of a man of letters, who had found in science "a tonic force" stimulating to all the arts.
By the side of this, it may be well to set also the statement of a man of science. In his address delivered in St. Louis in December, 1903, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,—who is also the president of one of the foremost of American universities,—declared that "the fundamental characteristic of the scientific method is honesty.... The sole object is to learn the truth and to be guided by the truth. Absolute accuracy, absolute fidelity, absolute honesty are the prime conditions of scientific progress." And then Dr. Remsen went on to make the significant assertion that "the constant use of the scientific method must in the end leave its impress upon him who uses it. A life spent in accord with scientific teaching would be of a high order. It would practically conform to the teachings of the highest type of religion."
This "use of the scientific method" is as remote as may be from that barren adoption of scientific phrases and that sterile application of scientific formulas, which may be dismissed as an aspect of "science falsely so called." It is of deeper import also than any mere utilization by art of the discoveries of science, however helpful this may be. The painter has been aided by science to perceive more precisely the effect of the vibrations of light and to analize more sharply the successive stages of animal movement; and the poet also has found his profit in the wider knowledge brought to us by later investigations. Longfellow, for example, drew upon astronomy for the figure with which he once made plain his moral:
Were a star quenched on high, For ages would its light, Still travelling downward from the sky, Shine on our mortal sight.
So, when a great man dies, For years beyond our ken The light he leaves behind him lies Upon the paths of men.
Wordsworth, a hundred years ago, warmly welcomed "the remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist and mineralogist," as "proper objects of the poet's art," declaring that "if the time should ever come when what is now called 'science,' thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man."
Again, the "use of the scientific method" is not equivalent to the application in the arts of scientific theories, altho here once more the man of letters is free to take these for his own and to bend them to his purpose. Ibsen has found in the doctrine of heredity a modern analog of the ancient Greek idea of fate; and altho he may not "see life steadily and see it whole," he has been enabled to invest his somber 'Ghosts' with not a little of the inerrable inevitability which we feel to be so appalling in the master work of Sophocles. Criticism, no less than creation, has been stimulated by scientific hypothesis; and for one thing, the conception of literary history has been wholly transformed since the theory of evolution was declared. To M. Brunetiere we owe the application of this doctrine to the development of the drama in his own language. He has shown us most convincingly how the several literary forms,—the lyric, the oration, the epic, with its illegitimate descendant, the modern novel in prose,—may cross-fertilize each other from time to time, and also how the casual hybrids that result are ever struggling to revert each to its own species.
Science is thus seen to be stimulating to art; but the "use of the scientific method" would seem to be more than stimulation only. It leads the practitioners of the several arts to set up an ideal of disinterestedness, inspired by a lofty curiosity, which shall scorn nothing as insignificant, and which is ever eager after knowledge ascertained for its own sake. As it abhors the abnormal and the freakish, the superficial and the extravagant, it helps the creative artist to strive for a more classic directness and simplicity; and it guides the critic toward passionless proportion and moderation. Altho it tends toward intellectual freedom, it forces us always to recognize the reign of law. It establishes the strength of the social bond, and thereby, for example, it aids us to see that, altho romance is ever young and ever true, what is known as "neo-romanticism," with its reckless assertion of individual whim, is anti-social, and therefore probably immoral.
The "use of the scientific method" will surely strengthen the conscience of the novelist and of the dramatist; and it will train them to a sterner veracity in dealing with human character. It will inhibit that pitiful tendency toward a falsification of the facts of life, which asserts the reform of a character in the twinkling of an eye just before the final fall of the curtain. It will lead to a renunciation of the feeble and summary psychology which permits a man of indurated habits of weakness or of wickedness to transform himself by a single and sudden effort of will. And, on the other hand, it may tempt certain students of life, subtler than their fellow-craftsmen and more inquisitive, to dwell unduly on the mere machinery of human motive and to aim not at a rich portrayal of the actions of men and women, but at an arid analysis of the mechanism of their impulses. More than one novelist of the twentieth century has already yielded to this tendency. No doubt, this is only the negative defect accompanying a positive quality,—yet it indicates an imperfect appreciation of the artist's duty. "In every art," so Taine reminded us, "it is necessary to linger long over the true in order to attain the beautiful. The eye, fixing itself on an object, begins by noting details with an excess of precision and fulness; it is only later, when the inventory is complete, that the mind, master of its wealth, rises higher, in order to take or to neglect what suits it."
The attitude of the literary critic will be modified by the constant use of the scientific method, quite as much as the attitude of the literary creator. He will seek to relate a work of art, whether it is an epic or a tragedy, a novel or a play, to its environment, weighing all the circumstances of its creation. He will strive to estimate it as it is, of course, but also as a contribution to the evolution of its species made by a given people at a given period. He will endeavor to keep himself free from lip-service and from ancestor-worship, holding himself derelict to his duty if he should fail to admit frankly that in every masterpiece of the past, however transcendent its merits, there must needs be much that is temporary admixt with more that is permanent,—many things which pleased its author's countrymen in his own time and which do not appeal to us, even tho we can perceive also what is eternal and universal, even tho we read into every masterpiece much that the author's contemporaries had not our eyes to perceive. All the works of Shakspere and of Moliere are not of equal value,—and even the finest of them is not impeccable; and a literary critic who has a scientific sincerity will not gloss over the minor defects, whatever his desire to concentrate attention on the nobler qualities by which Shakspere and Moliere achieved their mighty fame. Indeed, the scientific spirit will make it plain that an unwavering admiration for all the works of a great writer, unequal as these must be of necessity, is proof in itself of an obvious inability to perceive wherein lies his real greatness.
Whatever the service the scientific spirit is likely to render in the future, we need to be on our guard against the obsession of science itself. There is danger that an exclusive devotion to science may starve out all interest in the arts, to the impoverishment of the soul. Already there are examples of men who hold science to be all-sufficient and who insist that it has superseded art. Already is it necessary to recall Lowell's setting off of "art, whose concern is with the ideal and the potential, from science which is limited by the actual and the positive." Science bids us go so far and no farther, despite the fact that man longs to peer beyond the confines. Vistas closed to science are opened for us by art; and science fails us if we ask too much; for it can provide no satisfactory explanation of the enigmas of existence. Above all, it tempts us to a hard and fast acceptance of its own formulas, an acceptance as deadening to progress as it is false to the scientific spirit itself. "History warns us," so Huxley declared, "that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies, and to end as superstitions."
The growth of the scientific spirit is not more evident in the nineteenth century than the spread of the democratic movement. Democracy in its inner essence means not only the slow broadening down of government until it rests upon the assured foundation of the people as a whole, it signifies also the final disappearance of the feudal organization, of the system of caste, of the privileges which are not founded on justice, of the belief in any superiority conferred by the accident of birth. It starts with the assertion of the equality of all men before the law; and it ends with the right of every man to do his own thinking. Accepting the dignity of human nature, the democratic spirit, in its finer manifestations, is free from intolerance and rich in sympathy, rejoicing to learn how the other half lives. It is increasingly interested in human personality, in spite of the fact that humanity no longer bulks as big in the universe as it did before scientific discovery shattered the ancient assumption that the world had been made for man alone.
Perhaps, indeed, it is the perception of our own insignificance which is making us cling together more closely and seek to understand each other at least, even if we must ever fail to grasp the full import of the cosmic scheme. Whatever the reason, there is no gainsaying the growth of fellow-feeling and of a curiosity founded on friendly interest,—both of which are revealed far more abundantly in our later literatures than in the earlier classics. In the austere masterpieces of the Greek drama, for example, we may discover a lack of this warmth of sympathy; and we can not but suspect a certain aloofness, which is akin to callousness. The cultivated citizens of Athens were supported by slave-labor; but their great dramatic poets cast little light on the life of the slaves or on the sad conditions of their servitude. Something of this narrow chilliness is to be detected also in the literature of the court of Louis XIV; Corneille and Racine prefer to ignore not only the peasant but also the burgher; and it is partly because Moliere's outlook on life is broader that the master of comedy appears to us now so much greater than his tragic contemporaries. Even of late the Latin races have seemed perhaps a little less susceptible to this appeal than the Teutonic or the Slavonic, and the impassive contempt of Flaubert and of Maupassant toward the creatures of their imaginative observation is more characteristic of the French attitude than the genial compassion of Daudet. In Hawthorne and in George Eliot there is no aristocratic remoteness; and Turgenieff and Tolstoi are innocent of haughty condescension. Everywhere now in the new century can we perceive the working of the democratic spirit, making literature more clear-sighted, more tolerant, more pitying.
In his uplifting discussion of democracy, Lowell sought to encourage the timid souls who dreaded the danger that it might "reduce all mankind to a dead level of mediocrity" and that it might "lessen the respect due to eminence whether in station, virtue, or genius;" and he explained that, in fact, democracy meant a career open to talent, an opportunity equal to all, and therefore in reality a larger likelihood that genius would be set free. Here in America we have discovered by more than a century of experience that democracy levels up and not down; and that it is not jealous of a commanding personality even in public life, revealing a swift shrewdness of its own in gaging character, and showing both respect and regard for the independent leaders strong enough to withstand what may seem at the moment to be the popular will.
Nor is democracy hostile to original genius, or slow to recognize it. The people as a whole may throw careless and liberal rewards to the jesters and to the sycophants who are seeking its favor, as their forerunners sought to gain the ear of the monarch of old, but the authors of substantial popularity are never those who abase themselves or who scheme to cajole. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were only two writers whose new books appeared simultaneously in half a dozen different tongues; and what man has ever been so foolish as to call Ibsen and Tolstoi flatterers of humanity? The sturdy independence of these masters, their sincerity, their obstinate reiteration each of his own message,—these are main reasons for the esteem in which they are held. And in our own language, the two writers of widest renown are Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, known wherever English is spoken, in every remote corner of the seven seas, one an American of the Americans and the other the spokesman of the British Empire. They are not only conscientious craftsmen, each in his own way, but moralists also and even preachers; and they go forward in the path they have marked out, each for himself, with no swervings aside to curry favor or to avoid unpopularity.
The fear has been exprest freely that the position of literature is made more precarious by the recent immense increase in the reading public, deficient in standards of taste and anxious to be amused. It is in the hope of hitting the fancy of this motley body that there is now a tumultuous multiplication of books of every degree of merit; and amid all this din there must be redoubled difficulty of choice. Yet the selection gets itself made somehow, and not unsatisfactorily. Unworthy books may have vogue for a while, and even adulation; but their fame is fleeting. The books which the last generation transmitted to us were, after all, the books best worth our consideration; and we may be confident that the books we shall pass along to the next generation will be as wisely selected. Out of the wasteful overproduction only those works emerge which have in them something that the world will not willingly let die.
Those books that survive are always chosen from out the books that have been popular, and never from those that failed to catch the ear of their contemporaries. The poet who scorns the men of his own time and who retires into an ivory tower to inlay rimes for the sole enjoyment of his fellow mandarins, the poet who writes for posterity, will wait in vain for his audience. Never has posterity reversed the unfavorable verdict of an artist's own century. As Cicero said—and Cicero was both an aristocrat and an artist in letters,—"given time and opportunity, the recognition of the many is as necessary a test of excellence in an artist as that of the few." Verse, however exquisite, is almost valueless if its appeal is merely technical or merely academic, if it pleases only the sophisticated palate of the dilettant, if it fails to touch the heart of the plain people. That which vauntingly styles itself the ecriture artiste must reap its reward promptly in praise from the precieuses ridicules of the hour. It may please those who pretend to culture without possessing even education; but this aristocratic affectation has no roots and it is doomed to wither swiftly, as one fad is ever fading away before another, as Asianism, euphuism, and Gongorism have withered in the past.
Fictitious reputations may be inflated for a little space; but all the while the public is slowly making up its mind; and the judgment of the main body is as trustworthy as it is enduring. 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Pilgrim's Progress' hold their own generation after generation, altho the cultivated class did not discover their merits until long after the plain people had taken them to heart. Cervantes and Shakspere were widely popular from the start; and appreciative criticism limped lamely after the approval of the mob. Whatever blunders in belauding, the plain people may make now and again, in time they come unfailingly to a hearty appreciation of work that is honest, genuine, and broad in its appeal; and when once they have laid hold of the real thing they hold fast with abiding loyalty.
As significant as the spread of democracy in the nineteenth century is the success with which the abstract idea of nationality has exprest itself in concrete form. Within less than twoscore years Italy has ceased to be only a geographical expression; and Germany has given itself boundaries more sharply defined than those claimed for the fatherland by the martial lyric of a century ago. Hungary has asserted itself against the Austrians, and Norway against the Swedes; and each by the stiffening of racial pride has insisted on the recognition of its national integrity. This is but the accomplishment of an ideal toward which the western world has been tending since it emerged from the Dark Ages into the Renascence and since it began to suspect that the Holy Roman Empire was only the empty shadow of a disestablished realm. In the long centuries the heptarchy in England had been followed by a monarchy with London for its capital; and in like manner the seven kingdoms of Spain had been united under monarchs who dwelt in Madrid. Normandy and Gascony, Burgundy and Provence had been incorporated finally with the France of which the chief city was Paris.
Latin had been the tongue of every man who was entitled to claim benefit of clergy; but slowly the modern languages compacted themselves out of the warring dialects when race after race came to a consciousness of its unity and when the speech of a capital was set up at last as the standard to which all were expected to conform. In Latin Dante discust the vulgar tongue, tho he wrote the 'Divine Comedy' in his provincial Tuscan; yet Petrarch, who came after, was afraid that his poems in Italian were, by that fact, fated to be transitory. Chaucer made choice of the dialect of London, performing for it the service Dante had rendered to the speech of the Florentines; yet Bacon and Newton went back to Latin as the language still common to men of science. Milton practised his pen in Latin verse, but never hesitated to compose his epic in English. Latin served Descartes and Spinoza, men of science again; and it was not until the nineteenth century that the invading vernaculars finally ousted the language of the learned which had once been in universal use. And even now Latin is retained by the church which still styles itself Catholic.
It was as fortunate as it was necessary that the single language of the learned should give way before the vulgar tongues, the speech of the people, each in its own region best fitted to phrase the feelings and the aspirations of races dissimilar in their characteristics and in their ideals. No one tongue could voice the opposite desires of the northern peoples and of the southern; and we see the several modern languages revealing by their structure as well as by their vocabularies the essential qualities of the races that fashioned them, each for its own use. Indeed, these racial characteristics are so distinct and so evident to us now that we fancy we can detect them even tho they are disguised in the language of Rome; and we find significance in the fact that Seneca, the grandiloquent rhetorician, was by birth a Spaniard, and that Petronius, the robust realist, was probably born in what is now France.
The segregation of nationality has been accompanied by an increasing interest in the several states out of which the nation has made itself, and sometimes even by an effort to raise the dialects of these provinces up to the literary standard of the national language. In this there is no disloyalty to the national ideal,—rather is it to be taken as a tribute to the nation, since it seeks to call attention again to the several strands twined in the single bond. In literature this tendency is reflected in a wider liking for local color and in an intenser relish for the flavor of the soil. We find Verga painting the violent passions of the Sicilians, and Reuter depicting the calmer joys of the Platt-Deutsch. We see Maupassant etching the canny and cautious Normans, while Daudet brushed in broadly the expansive exuberance of the Provencals. We delight alike in the Wessex-folk of Mr. Hardy and in the humorous Scots of Mr. Barrie. We extend an equal welcome to the patient figures of New England spinsterhood as drawn by Miss Jewett and Miss Wilkins, and to the virile Westerners set boldly on their feet by Mr. Wister and Mr. Garland.
What we wish to have explored for us are not only the nooks and corners of our own nation; those of other races appeal also to our sympathetic curiosity. These inquiries help us to understand the larger peoples, of whom the smaller communities are constituent elements. They serve to sharpen our insight into the differences which divide one race from another; and the contrast of Daudet and Maupassant on the one hand with Mark Twain and Kipling on the other brings out the width of the gap that yawns between the Latins (with their solidarity of the family and their reliance on the social instinct) and the Teutons (with their energetic independence and their aggressive individuality). With increase of knowledge there is less likelihood of mutual misunderstandings; and here literature performs a most useful service to the cause of civilization. As Tennyson once said: "It is the authors, more than the diplomats, who make nations love one another." Fortunately, no high tariff can keep out the masterpieces of foreign literature which freely cross the frontier, bearing messages of good-will and broadening our understanding of our fellowmen.
The deeper interest in the expression of national qualities and in the representation of provincial peculiarities is to-day accompanied by an increasing cosmopolitanism which seems to be casting down the barriers of race and of language. More than fourscore years ago, Goethe said that even then national literature was "rather an unmeaning term" as "the epoch of world-literature was at hand." With all his wisdom Goethe failed to perceive that cosmopolitanism is a sorry thing when it is not the final expression of patriotism. An artist without a country and with no roots in the soil of his nativity is not likely to bring forth flower and fruit. As an American critic aptly put it, "a true cosmopolitan is at home,—even in his own country." A Russian novelist set forth the same thought; and it was the wisest character in Turgenieff's 'Dimitri Roudine' who asserted that the great misfortune of the hero was his ignorance of his native land:—"Russia can get along without any of us, but we cannot do without Russia. Wo betide him who does not understand her, and still more him who really forgets the manners and the ideas of his fatherland! Cosmopolitanism is an absurdity and a zero,—less than a zero; outside of nationality, there is no art, no truth, no life possible."
Perhaps it may be feasible to attempt a reconciliation of Turgenieff and Goethe, by pointing out that the cosmopolitanism of this growing century is revealed mainly in a similarity of the external forms of literature, while it is the national spirit which supplies the essential inspiration that gives life. For example, it is a fact that the 'Demi-monde' of Dumas, the 'Pillars of Society' of Ibsen, the 'Magda' of Sudermann, the 'Grand Galeoto' of Echegaray, the 'Second Mrs. Tanqueray' of Pinero, the 'Gioconda' of d'Annunzio are all of them cast in the same dramatic mold; but it is also a fact that the metal of which each is made was smelted in the native land of its author. Similar as they are in structure, in their artistic formula, they are radically dissimilar in their essence, in the motives that move the characters and in their outlook on life; and this dissimilarity is due not alone to the individuality of the several authors,—it is to be credited chiefly to the nationality of each.
Of course, international borrowings have always been profitable to the arts,—not merely the taking over of raw material, but the more stimulating absorption of methods and processes and even of artistic ideals. The Sicilian Gorgias had for a pupil the Attic Isocrates; and the style of the Athenian was imitated by the Roman Cicero, thus helping to sustain the standard of oratory in every modern language. The 'Matron of Ephesus' of Petronius was the great-grandmother of the 'Yvette' of Maupassant; and the dialogs of Herondas and of Theocritus serve as models for many a vignette of modern life. The 'Golden Ass' went before 'Gil Blas' and made a path for him; and 'Gil Blas' pointed the way for 'Huckleberry Finn.' It is easy to detect the influence of Richardson on Rousseau, of Rousseau on George Sand, of George Sand on Turgenieff, of Turgenieff on Mr. Henry James, of Mr. James on M. Paul Bourget, of M. Bourget on Signor d'Annunzio; and yet there is no denying that Richardson is radically English, that Turgenieff is thoroly Russian, and that d'Annunzio is unquestionably Italian.
In like manner we may recognize the striking similarity—but only in so far as the external form is concerned—discoverable in those short-stories which are as abundant as they are important in every modern literature; and yet much of our delight in these brief studies from life is due to the pungency of their local flavor, whether they were written by Kjelland or by Sacher-Masoch, by Auerbach or by Daudet, by Barrie or by Bret Harte. "All can grow the flower now, for all have got the seed"; but the blossoms are rich with the strength of the soil in which each of them is rooted.
This racial individuality is our immediate hope; it is our safeguard against mere craftsmanship, against dilettant dexterity, against cleverness for its own sake, against the danger that our cosmopolitanism may degenerate into Alexandrianism and that our century may come to be like the age of the Antonines, when a "cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators darkened the face of learning," so Gibbon tells us, and "the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste." It is the spirit of nationality which will help to supply needful idealism. It will allow a man of letters to frequent the past without becoming archaic and to travel abroad without becoming exotic, because it will supply him always with a good reason for remaining a citizen of his own country.
THE SUPREME LEADERS
In the fading annals of French Romanticism it is recorded that at the first performance of an early play of the elder Dumas at the Odeon, a band of enthusiasts, as misguided as they were youthful, were so completely carried away that they formed a ring and danced in derision around a bust of Racine which adorned that theater, declaring boisterously that the elder dramatist was disgraced and disestablished: 'Enfonce Racine!'
This puerile exploit took place not fourscore years ago, and already has this play of Dumas disappeared beneath the wave of oblivion, its very name being recalled only by special students of the history of the French stage, while the Comedie-Francaise continues, year in and year out, to act the best of Racine's tragedies, now nearly two centuries and a half since they were first performed.
Again, in the records of the British theater of the eighteenth century, we find mention of a countryman of John Home, who attended the first performance of the reverend author's 'Douglas.' The play so worked upon the feelings of this perfervid Scot that he was forced to cry out triumphantly: "Whaur's your Wully Shakspere noo?"
And yet this Scottish masterpiece failed to establish itself finally on the stage; and it has long since past out of men's memories, leaving behind it only a quotation or two and a speech for boys to spout. So in every age the disinterested observer can take note of the rise and fall of some unlucky author or artist, painter or poet, widely and loudly proclaimed as a genius, only to be soon forgotten, often in his own generation. He may have soared aloft for a brief moment with starry scintillations, like a rocket, only at last to come down like the stick, empty and unnoticed.
The echoes of the old battle of the Ancients and Moderns have not died away, even yet; and there is never a time when some ardent disciple is not insisting that his immediate master must be admitted as one of the immortals, and when some shrill youth is not ready to make room for the new-comer by ousting any number of the consecrated chiefs of art. Now and again, of course, the claim is allowed; the late arrival is made welcome in the Pantheon; and there is a new planet on high. But most of those who are urged for this celestial promotion prove to be mere shooting-stars at best, vanishing into space before there is opportunity to examine their spectrum and to compare it with that of the older orbs which have made the sky glorious thru the long centuries.
It is only by comparison with these fixt stars that we can measure the light of any new luminary which aspires to their lofty elevation. It is only by keeping our gaze full upon them that we may hope to come to an understanding of their immeasurable preeminence. Taine has told us that "there are four men in the world of art and of literature exalted above all others, and to such a degree as to seem to belong to another race—namely, Dante, Shakspere, Beethoven, and Michelangelo. No profound knowledge, no full possession of all the resources of art, no fertility of imagination, no originality of intellect, sufficed to secure them this position, for these they all had. These, moreover, are of secondary importance; that which elevated them to this rank is their soul."
Here we have four great lights for us to steer by when we are storm-driven on the changing sea of contemporary opinion and contemporary prejudice; and by their aid we may hope to win safety in a harbor of refuge.
Perhaps it is a praiseworthy striving for a permanent standard of value which accounts for the many attempts to draw up lists of the Hundred Best Books and of the Hundred Best Pictures. It may be admitted at once that these lists, however inadequate they must be, and however unsatisfactory in themselves, may have a humble utility of their own as a first aid to the ignorant. At least, they may serve to remind a man lost in a maze amid the clatter and the clutter of our own time, that after all this century of ours is the heir of the ages, and that it is for us to profit by the best that the past has bequeathed to us. Even the most expertly selected list could do little more than this.
Nevertheless these attempts, after all, cannot fail to be more or less misleading, since the best books and the best pictures do not number exactly a hundred. Nor can there be any assured certainty in the selection, since no two of those most competent to make the choice would be likely to agree on more than half of the masterpieces they would include.
The final and fatal defect in all these lists is that they seek to single out an arbitrary number of works of the highest distinction, instead of trying to find out the few men of supreme genius who were actually the makers of acknowledged masterpieces. It is of no consequence whether we hold that 'Hamlet' or 'Macbeth' is the most splendid example of Shakspere's surpassing endowment, or whether we consider the 'Fourth Symphony' or the 'Seventh' the completest expression of Beethoven's mastery of music. What it is of consequence for us to recognize and to grasp effectually is that Shakspere and Beethoven are two of the indisputable chiefs, each in his own sphere. What it imports us to realize is that there is in every art a little group of supreme leaders; they may be two or three only; they may be half a dozen, or, at the most, half a score; but they stand in the forefront, and their supremacy is inexpugnable for all time.
Every one recognizes to-day that "certain poets like Dante and Shakspere, certain composers like Beethoven and Mozart, hold the foremost place in their art." So Taine insisted, adding that this foremost place is also "accorded to Goethe, among the writers of our century; to Rembrandt among the Dutch painters; to Titian among the Venetians." And then Taine asserted also that "three artists of the Italian renascence, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, rise, by unanimous consent, far above all others."
No doubt this list of supreme leaders in the arts is unduly scanted; but there is wisdom in Taine's parsimony of praise. The great names he has here selected for signal eulogy are those whose appeal is universal and whose fame far transcends the boundaries of any single race.
It may have been from Sainte-Beuve that Taine inherited his catholicity of taste and his elevation of judgment; and it was due to the influence of Sainte-Beuve also that Matthew Arnold attained to a breadth of vision denied to most other British critics. Arnold invited us to "conceive of the whole group of civilized nations as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation whose members have a due knowledge both of the past out of which they all proceed, and of one another." He went on to suggest that for any artist or poet "to be recognized by the verdict of such a confederation as a master is indeed glory, a glory which it would be difficult to rate too highly. For what could be more beneficent, more salutary? The world is forwarded by having its attention fixt on the best things; and here is a tribunal, free from all suspicion of national and provincial partiality, putting a stamp on the best things and recommending them for general honor and acceptance." Then he added the shrewd suggestion that there would be direct advantage to each race in seeing which of its own great men had been promoted to the little group of supreme leaders, since "a nation is furthered by recognition of its real gifts and successes; it is encouraged to develop them further."
Who, then, are the supreme leaders in the several departments of human endeavor? By common consent of mankind who are the supreme soldiers, the supreme painters, the supreme poets? To attempt to name them is as difficult as it is dangerous; but the effort itself may be profitable, even if the ultimate result is not wholly satisfactory. To undertake this is not to revive the puerile debate as to whether Washington or Napoleon was the greater man; rather it is a frank admission that both were preeminent, with the further inquiry as to those others who may have achieved a supremacy commensurate with theirs. To seek out these indisputable masters is not to imitate the vain desire of the pedagog to give marks to the several geniuses, and to grade the greatest of men as if they were school-boys. There is no pedantry in striving to ascertain the list of the lonely few whom the assembled nations are all willing now to greet as the assured masters of the several arts.
The selection made by a single race or by a single century is not likely to be widely or permanently acceptable. Long years ago the Italians were wont to speak of the Four Poets, quattro poete, meaning thereby Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso. But this was a choice far too local and far too narrow. Of these four Italian poets perhaps only the severe Florentine has won his way outside of the boundaries of the language he did so much to ennoble,—altho it may be admitted that the gentle Petrarch had also for a century a wide influence on the lyrists of other tongues.
Lowell had a more cosmopolitan outlook on literature, when he discust 'The Five Indispensable Authors'—Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakspere, and Goethe. "Their universal and perennial application to our consciousness and our experience accounts for their permanence and insures their immortality." We may admit that all five of the authors designated by Lowell are truly indispensable, just as we must accept also the incomparable position of the four leaders in the several arts whom Taine set apart in lonely elevation. But both Taine's list and Lowell's we feel to be too brief. The French critic had ranged thru every realm of art to discover finally that the incontestable masters were four and four only. The American critic, altho he limited himself to the single art of literature, dealt with it at large, not distinguishing between the poets and the masters of prose.
If we strike out of Lowell's list the single name of Cervantes, who was a poet only in a special and arbitrary sense, we shall have left the names of the four poets whose fame is world-wide—Homer, Dante, Shakspere, Goethe—the only poets whose supremacy is admitted thruout our modern civilization.
To these Matthew Arnold insisted on adjoining a fifth, Milton; and we who speak the same tongue would gladly enroll the blind singer with the other four. Indeed, we might even hold Milton to be securer in this place than Goethe, who has not yet been a hundred years in his grave. But if we ask the verdict of "the whole group of civilized nations," which Matthew Arnold himself impaneled as "free from all suspicion of national and provincial partiality," we are met with the doubt whether Milton has established himself among the races that inherit the Latin tradition as securely as Dante has been accepted by the peoples of Teutonic stock. However high our own appreciation of Milton may be, the cosmopolitan verdict might not include him among the supreme poets. Indeed, we may doubt whether Vergil might not have more votes than Milton, when the struck jury is polled.
Here, perhaps, we may find our profit in applying a test suggested by Lowell—the test of imitability. "No poet of the first class has ever left a school, because his imagination is incommunicable," whereas "the secondary intellect seeks for excitement in expression, and stimulates itself into mannerism." The greater geniuses may have influenced those who came after them by their thoughts, by what they have contributed to the sum of human knowledge; but "they have not infected contemporaries or followers with mannerism." Then Lowell points out that "Dante, Shakspere, and Goethe, left no heirs either to the form or mode of their expression."
It was in his lecture on Emerson that Matthew Arnold asked: "Who are the great men of letters?"—meaning thereby the masters of prose. "They are men like Cicero, Plato, Bacon, Pascal, Swift, Voltaire—writers with, in the first place, a genius and instinct for style, writers whose prose is by a kind of native necessity true and sound." The British critic added that: "It is a curious thing, that quality of style, which marks the great writer, the born man of letters. It resides in the whole tissue of his work, and of his work regarded as a composition for literary purposes." The six masters of prose whom Arnold chose have all of them this quality of style; and their prose is true and sound. Altho this list of six was selected by an Englishman, and altho it contains the names of two Englishmen, it would be acceptable, one may venture to believe, to the cosmopolitan tribunal, to the heirs of the Latin tradition and to the peoples of the Teutonic stock. It may lack the completeness and the finality of the limitation of the supreme poets to four; but it must be taken as a not unsuccessful attempt to select the supreme prose-writers.
Arnold excluded Emerson from the class of "great men of letters" because the American philosopher had not the instinct for style, and because his prose was not always true and sound. Lowell, in a letter to a friend, protested against this, suggesting that the Oxford critic was like Renan in that he was apt to think "the superfine as good as the fine, or better even than that." Yet we may agree with the lecturer in holding that Emerson was rather to be ranked with Marcus Aurelius as "the friend of those who would live in the spirit," than to be classed with Cicero and with Swift, obviously inferior in elevation and in aim, but both of them born men of letters.
In like manner we must strike out the name of Burke from among the great orators. A political philosopher he was of keenest insight and of unfailing eloquence; but he was a poor speaker, and he did not often rivet the attention of the audiences he addrest. This is why he cannot establish a claim to inclusion among the supreme orators. Perhaps such a claim could be made good before the cosmopolitan tribunal by two speakers only, both belonging far back in the history of our civilization—Demosthenes and Cicero. Both revealed the needful double qualifications of the real orator, who shall hold his hearers in the hollow of his hand while he is speaking, bending them to his will and swaying them to the course he advocates, while the words he spoke then must survive now for our delight in their style and in their substance, a delight independent of the occasion of their utterance.
Others there are, no doubt, who were also possest of this double gift. The French, for instance, might well urge the claim of Bossuet to be raised to the same pinnacle; but the English and the Germans have not yielded to the spell of his majestic periods. Perhaps we here in the United States should not be extravagant if we set up also a claim for Daniel Webster; but, however firm our faith, and however solid our justification, we should be met with a silent stare from the French and the Italians and the Spaniards, who might fail even to recognize Webster's name. Demosthenes and Cicero alone would be hailed as the supreme orators thruout the whole group of civilized nations.
There is close kinship between oratory and history; and as the supreme orators are only two, one a Greek and the other a Roman, so the supreme historians, however tightly we may restrict the selection, will include a Greek, Thucydides, and a Roman, Tacitus. With them, and not inferior, stands Gibbon; and perhaps these three, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Gibbon, are all about whom there would be nowhere any dispute. But there is need to note that Taine held Macaulay to be in no wise inferior to Gibbon. Again, it may be well to mention also that an American authority insists on elevating Voltaire also, as the earliest of the modern masters of history.
So we find that the supreme historians are three at the least, and at most four or five, just as the supreme poets are four, the supreme masters of prose are perhaps six, and the supreme orators are only two. And if we apply the same standards, if we disregard personal and provincial and national predilections and preferences, if we try to take the verdict of the cosmopolitan tribunal, we should find that the supreme dramatists are but three—Sophocles, Shakspere, and Moliere. These three only were at once playwrights of contemporary popularity, masters of dramaturgic craftsmanship, creators of character independent of their own personality, makers of plays which deal with themes of an import at once permanent and universal, and poets also, each with his own philosophy of life.
Others there are who unite some of these qualifications, but none who can make good a right to be ranked with the mighty three. It is true that the power of AEschylus is as undeniable as the pathos of Euripides; but it is always the clear-eyed Sophocles whom Aristotle accepted as the master of all who strive for distinction in the theater. And Aristophanes, with all his exuberance of humor and all his lyric elevation, is, after all, too local and too temporary to be ranked with the broad-minded Moliere. So also Calderon, whom the polemic Schlegel wisht to promote to an equality with the very greatest of dramatic poets, is too careless of form and too medieval in spirit. Promotion must also be denied, for one reason or another, to Ben Jonson, to Corneille and Racine, to Schiller, to Alfieri, and to Victor Hugo. However ardently their claims may be urged by their compatriots, the international tribunal would refuse to admit any one of them to an equality with Sophocles, Shakspere, and Moliere, the greatest of the Greeks, the greatest of the English, the greatest of the French, the three races that have excelled in the arts of the theater.
Even tho no German can sustain a claim to supremacy in the drama, it is to the Germans that the consent of the whole world now awards the incontestable supremacy in the sister art of music. To the race that gave birth to Bach and Beethoven, to Mozart and Schubert and Wagner, it matters little whether the chiefs of music number two only, or whether they may be so many as four or five. Indeed, it may be admitted at once that the list would need to be widely extended before it would include the name of any composer who was not a scion of the Teutonic stock.
There is a certain significance, also, in the probability that the outsider who could best justify a claim for inclusion would be a Russian rather than an Italian or a Frenchman. And this estimate, it may be well to confess, is not personal to the present writer, who has no skill in music and scant acquaintance with its intricacies; it is the outcome of a disinterested endeavor to discover the consensus of expert opinion, free from any racial bias.
But the northern races who excel in the art of the musician seem to be inferior to the southern in the arts of the painter and of the sculptor,—more particularly in the latter. The supreme sculptors are apparently two or three: Phidias and Michelangelo, beyond all question, and with them probably we ought also to place Donatello. Of Praxiteles we know too little. Of most other artists in marble and in bronze we know too much, however fine their occasional achievements,—Verrocchio's 'Colleoni,' for example. They do not sustain themselves at the lofty level on which Michelangelo moves with certainty and ease—"the greatest of known artists," so Mr. Lafarge has ventured to acclaim him; and just as Shakspere is unsurpassed as a poet and also as a playwright, just as Cicero takes a foremost place as an orator and also as a writer of prose, so Michelangelo is mighty as a sculptor, as an architect, and as a painter.
As a painter he has more rivals than as a sculptor. We may limit the supreme masters of the plastic art to two, or to three at the most; but the supreme masters of the pictorial art are twice three, at the very least. By the side of Michelangelo there is Raphael, also an Italian; and has any one really a right to exclude Titian from their fellowship? Then there are Velasquez, the Spaniard, and Duerer, the German. And farther north in the Netherlands, there are Rembrandt and Rubens; and ought not Vandyke to be allowed to stand aloft with them? Six, at the lowest count, and eight by the more liberal estimate, are the men who have gone to the forefront in the art of the brush, half of them from the north and half of them from the south; and among them all not one who had English for his native speech, and not one whose mother-tongue was French. Indeed, at least one German, Holbein, and two or three more Italians would be admitted within the sacred enclosure before any Frenchman or any Englishman could have free entry.
Those who speak French and those who speak English fare no better when we turn from the arts of peace to the art of war. Every race takes pride in the renown of the far-sighted and swift-striking commanders who have led it to victory, and every race is prone to over-estimate the military genius of its own successful soldiers. Here in the United States we seek to set up Washington and Grant and Lee as the rivals of the most gifted warriors that the old world has to show in all the long centuries of its incessant warfare; and in Great Britain our kin across the sea are led by local loyalty to do the same disservice to Marlborough and Wellington. But if we were to search the countless treatises on battles and campaigns written in every modern language, we should soon be forced to record that there were five men, and only five, whom the experts of every race united in singling out. In any list of the ten greatest soldiers, prepared in any country in the world, these five names would surely appear, even tho the other names on the several lists might be those of merely national heroes. The five international masters of war are Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Frederick, and Napoleon.
Napoleon, altho he rose to be Emperor of the French, was a Corsican by birth and an Italian by descent. The French have ever battled bravely for military glory; but they have not brought forth one of the supreme soldiers. The race that speaks English has done its full share of fighting on land and on sea, but it is on the blue water that it can give the best account of itself. The supreme leaders in war at sea worthy to be set by the side of the five supreme leaders in war on land are two at the very utmost; and probably an international tribunal would hold that Nelson alone was to be classed with Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Frederick, and Napoleon. But it is the opinion of the foremost living expert on sea-power that Farragut deserves to be placed not far distant from Nelson, and that the gap which separates the American sailor from the British is smaller than that which stretches between Farragut and the third claimant, whoever he may be and of whatever nationality.
Turning from the art of war and from the arts of peace to the sciences whereon all the arts are based, we find that the English and the French are richly represented. The supreme leaders in science, the men whose discoveries have been fecundating and fundamental, seem to be at least seven—Euclid, Archimedes, Copernicus, Newton, Laplace, Lavoisier, and Darwin. This list might well be larger; it could not be less; and no matter how it might be extended it would include these seven. None of them was merely an inventor of specific devices; all of them were discoverers of essential principles, and thereby contributors to the advancement of civilization and to man's mastery of knowledge.
It would be interesting, as it would be instructive, if we could also enumerate the supreme leaders in religion; but this is a field in which prejudice is too violent ever to permit a serene view, and there is no hoping for an international verdict. Nor would it be possible to find any agreement as to the supreme statesmen, leaders of men and makers of nations. That Washington could not be excluded from any choice, however limited, we may rest assured; but who or how many might really deserve to be set beside him, we can only guess. National pride is as potent as religious feeling, and there is no likelihood that rival patriotisms can ever be reconciled.
A comparison of the several lists will serve to show the field in which each of the great races of the world has revealed its native qualities; and, as Matthew Arnold suggested, this is most useful, since a nation is benefitted "by recognition of its real gifts and successes; it is encouraged to develop them further."
And a consideration also of the character of each of the men whose names have here been set on high as the supreme leaders of humanity will make clear once more what is often clouded and obscured—the fact that the true genius is never an erratic creature, irregular and irresponsible, clamoring for indulgence and appealing for pity. He is always strong and sane and wholesome. Clear-eyed and broad-minded, he has self-control and common-sense.
AN APOLOGY FOR TECHNIC
If the chief end of all art is delight, there is small blame to be attached to most of us in that we are glad to take our pleasure carelessly and to give little thought to the means whereby we have been moved. Properly enough, the enjoyment of most of us is unthinking; and in the appreciation of the masterpieces of the several arts few of us are wont to consider curiously the craftsmanship of the men who wrought these marvels, their skill of hand, their familiarity with the mechanics of their art, their consummate knowledge of technic. Our regard is centered rather on the larger aspects of the masterwork, on its meaning and on its veracity, on its intellectual elevation, and on its moral appeal. No doubt this is best, for it is only by its possession of these nobler qualities that a work of art endures. On the other hand, these nobler qualities by themselves will not suffice to confer immortality, unless they are sustained by the devices of the adroit craftsman. As Massinger asserted long ago:
No fair colors Can fortify a building faintly joined.
Technic is most successful when its existence is least suspected, and this is one reason why it is often overlooked and neglected in the very achievements which owe to its aid their vitality. Perhaps this happens the more frequently because it is the affectation of many an artist to hurry his tools out of sight as swiftly as he can, and to sweep up the chips of his workshop as soon as may be, so that the result of his effort shall seem almost as if it were the sudden effect of the inspiration that is believed to visit a genius now and again. He may have toiled at it unceasingly for months, joying in the labor and finding keen pleasure in every workmanlike artifice he had used to attain his end; and yet he refrains from confessing his many struggles with his rebellious material, wisely preferring to let what he has done speak for itself, simply and without commentary. But the artists know that the pathway to achievement is never along the line of least resistance; and they smile when they hear Mascarille, in Moliere's little comedy, tell the affected young ladies whom he is seeking to impress that all he did "was done without effort." By this the artists at once perceive the fellow to be a pretender, who had never accomplished anything and who never would. They know, as no others can know, that there is no cable-road to the tops of the twin-peaks of Parnassus, and that he who would climb to these remote heights must trudge afoot,—even if he is lucky enough now and again to get a lift on Pegasus.
What the artists do not care to parade, it is the duty of the commentators to point out; and an understanding of the technic of any art, of its possibilities and of its limitations, is as necessary for the critics as for the creators. Perhaps it is not pedantic to suggest that the critic who seeks to be of service ought to be able to see in every masterpiece the result of the combined action of three forces, without any one of which that work of art could not have come into being. First, there is the temperament of the artist himself, his native endowment for the practise of that special art, his gift of story-telling or of play-making, as the case may be. Second, there is the training of the artist, his preparation for his work, his slowly acquired mastery of the processes of his craft, his technical accomplishments. And, thirdly, there is the man's own character, his intelligence, and energy, and determination, his moral sense, his attitude toward life and its insistent problems. Now, of these three necessary factors—first, his native gift; second, his technic; and, third, his character—only the second is improvable by taking thought. The native gift must remain ever what it is, neither more nor less; and it cannot be enlarged by any effort of will. So also the character, which is conditioned by much that is beyond a man's control,—which can be bettered, perhaps, but only as the man himself climbs upward.
Technic, however, can be had for the asking. Any man can acquire it if he will but pay the price,—the needful study and experiment. Any man can make himself a master of his craft, if he will but serve his apprenticeship loyally. The beginner in painting, for example, can go into the studio of an older practitioner to get grounded in the grammar of his art, and to learn slowly how to speak its language, not eloquently at first, but so as to make his meaning clear. In that workshop he soon awakens to the fact that permanent success is never won by any audacity of ignorance, and that the most famous artists are those who acquainted themselves with every artifice of their craft and with every trick of their trade. They went to school to certain of their elders to acquire that tradition of technic, past along from hand to hand, enriched by the devices of one after another of the strong men who had practised the art, following each in the other's footsteps and broadening the trail blazed by those who went first.
Every generation is privileged to stand on the shoulders of its predecessors, and it is taller by what they accomplished. The art of fiction, for example, is a finer art to-day than it was yesterday; and so is every other art, even tho the artists themselves are no greater now than then, and even tho genius is no more frequent than it was formerly. Ghirlandajo and Marlowe and Cervantes were men of genius; but their technic is seen to-day to be as primitive as their native talent is indisputable. We can perceive them doubtfully feeling for a formula, fumbling in the dark, for want of the model which they themselves were to aid in establishing and which every novice nowadays has ready to his hand, even tho he may lack the temperament to profit by what is set before him.
It is significant that not a few of the masters, in the days when they were but novices, found so much satisfaction in this mere acquiring of the secrets of the craft, that they chose to linger in the apprentice-stage longer than might seem necessary. In their earlier work they were content modestly to put in practise the technical principles they had just been acquiring; and for a little while they sought scarcely more than mere technical adroitness. Consider the firstlings of Shakspere's art and of Moliere's; and observe how they reveal these prentice playwrights at work, each seeking to display his cleverness and each satisfied when he had done this. In 'Love's Labor's Lost,' Shakspere is trying to amuse by inventive wit and youthful gaiety and ingenuity of device, just as Moliere in the 'Etourdi' is enjoying his own complicating of comic imbroglios, not yet having anything of importance to say on the stage, but practising against the time when he should want to say something. Neither in the English comedy nor in the French is there any purpose other than the desire to please by the devices of the theater.
There is so little hint of a deeper meaning in either 'Love's Labor's Lost' or the 'Etourdi,' of a moral, so to speak, of a message of ulterior significance, that, if Shakspere and Moliere had died after these plays were produced, nobody would ever have suspected that either youthful playwright had it in him to develop into a philosophic observer of the deeper realities of life. Of course, neither of them was long satisfied with this dexterous display of technical adroitness alone; and, as they grew in years, we find their plays getting richer in meaning and dealing more seriously with the larger problems of existence. But technic was never despised; and, if it was not always the chief end of the playwright, it remained the means whereby he was enabled to erect the solid framework of masterpieces like 'Othello' and 'Tartuffe,' in which the craftsmanship is overshadowed by the nobler qualities, no doubt, but in which the stark technical skill is really more abundant than in the earlier and emptier plays.
As Shakspere and Moliere matured mentally and morally, so also did they grow in facility of accomplishment, in the ease with which they could handle the ever-present problems of exposition and construction. The student of dramaturgy notes with increasing delight the ingenuity with which the first appearance of Tartuffe is prepared; and he finds an almost equal joy in the bolder beginnings of 'Romeo and Juliet' and of 'Hamlet,' where the difficulty was less, it may be, but where the interest of the craftsman in the excellence of his device is quite as obvious. Shakspere was the greatest of dramatic poets and Moliere was the greatest of comic dramatists; and both of them were good workmen, taking an honest pride in the neatness with which they finished a job. In his later years, Shakspere seems to have relaxed a little his interest in technic, and the value of his work is at once seen to suffer. Altho his mind is as powerful as ever up to the last years of his stay in London, 'Cymbeline' and 'A Winter's Tale' are far inferior to 'Hamlet' and to 'Macbeth'; and the cause is apparently little more than a carelessness of technic, an unwillingness to take the trouble needful to master his material and to present it in due proportion.
If Shakspere and Moliere ever meet in that other world which was so much in the mind of the one and so little in the thought of the other, and if they chance to fall into chat—Shakspere spoke French, pretty certainly, even if Moliere knew no English—we may rest assured that they will not surprize each other by idle questions about the meaning of this play or that, its moral purpose or its symbolic significance. We may be confident that their talk would turn promptly to technic; and, perhaps, Shakspere would congratulate Moliere on his advantage in coming later, when the half-open, semi-medieval playhouse, with which the English dramatist had perforce to be contented, had been superseded by a more modern theater, roofed and lighted and set with scenery. And, in his turn, Moliere might be curious to inquire how the English playwright was able to produce upon the spectators the effect of a change of scene when, in fact, there was no actual scenery to change.
To suggest that these two masters of the dramatic art would probably confine their conversation to matters of mere technic is not so vain or adventurous as it may seem, since technic is the one theme the dramatists from Lope de Vega to Legouve have always chosen to discuss, whenever they have been emboldened to talk about their art in public. Lope's 'New Art of Writing Plays' is in verse, and it has taken for its remote model Horace's 'Art of Poetry,' but none the less does it contain the practical counsels of a practical playwright, advising his fellow-craftsmen how best to succeed on the stage; and it is just as technical in its precepts as Mr. Pinero's acute lecture on the probable success of Robert Louis Stevenson as a dramatist, if only the Scots romancer had taken the trouble to learn the rules of the game, as it is played in the theater of to-day.
In thus centering the interest of their public utterance upon the necessities of craftsmanship, the dramatists are in accord with the customs of the practitioners of all the other arts. Consider the criticism of poetry by the poets themselves, for example,—how narrowly it is limited to questions of vocabulary or of versification, whether the poet-critic is Dryden or Wordsworth or Poe. Consider the criticism of painting by the painters themselves,—how frankly it is concerned with the processes of the art, whether the painter-critic is Fromentin or La Farge. It is La Farge who records that Rembrandt was a "workman following his trade of painting to live by it," and who reminds us that "these very great artists"—Rembrandt and his fellows—"are primarily workmen, without any pose or assumption of doing more than a daily task." What they did was all in the day's work. One of the most distinguished of American sculptors was once standing before a photograph of the Panathenaic frieze, and a critical friend by his side exprest a wonder as to "what those old Greeks were thinking of when they did work like that?" The professional artist smiled and responded: "I guess that, like the rest of us, they were thinking how they could pull it off!"
The method, the tricks of the trade, the ingenious devices of one kind or another, these are what artists of all sorts like to discuss with fellow-practitioners of the art; and it is by this interchange of experiences that the means of expression are multiplied. The inner meaning of what they have wrought, its message, its morality, its subtler spirit, the artists do not care ever to talk over, even with each other. This is intangible and incommunicable; and it is too personal, too intimate, to be vulgarized in words; it is to be felt rather than phrased. Above all, it must speak for itself, for it is there because it had to be there, and not because the artist put it there deliberately. If he has not builded better than he knew, then is the result of his labor limited and narrow. A story is told of Thorwaldsen in his old age, when a friend found him disconsolate before a finished statue and inquired if he was despondent because he had not been able to realize his ideal. And the sculptor responded that, on the contrary, he had realized his ideal, and therefore he was downcast; for the first time his hand had been able to accomplish all that his mind had planned.
"Neither in life, nor even in literature and in art, can we always do what we intend to do," M. Brunetiere once asserted, adding that, "in compensation, we have not always intended to do all that we have actually accomplished." Often no one is more astonished than the artist himself—be he poet or painter—at what the critics sometimes find in his work; and he is frankly unaware of any intention on his part to do all the fine things which he is told that he has done. But the critics may be justified, despite the disclaimer of the artist; and the fine things are, of a truth, to be discovered even tho they get into the work by accident, as it were, and even tho they may be the result of an intention which was either unconscious on the artist's part, or subconscious.
We cannot help feeling the sublimity so obvious in the frescos of the Sistine Chapel; and yet it is equally obvious—if we care to look for the evidence—that while he was at this work the mind of Michelangelo was absorbed by the conquest of a host of technical difficulties. Of course, it would be going too far to assert that the great artist did not actually intend the sublimity that we admire and wonder at; but we may be sure that this sublimity is not something deliberately planned and achieved by him. It is there because the theme evoked it, and because Michelangelo was himself a man of the noblest character and of the loftiest imagination. It was inherent and latent in him, and it had to come out, inevitably and mightily, when he was engaged on a piece of work that tasked all his powers.
An ideal, a significance, a moral, that has to be inserted into a work of art and that might have been omitted, is not likely to be firmly joined; and it is liable to fall apart sooner or later. Morality, for example, is not something to be put in or left out, at the caprice of the creator; it is, as Mr. Henry James once called it, "a part of the essential richness of inspiration." Therefore the artist need not give thought to it. If his own soul is as clean as may be, and if his vision is clear, the moral of his work may be left to take care of itself. Nearly always when an artist has been over-anxious to charge his work with a moral message, written so plain that all who run may read, he has failed to attain either of his ends, the ethical or the esthetic. There is a purpose plainly exprest in Miss Edgeworth's 'Moral Tales' and in her 'Parent's Assistant'; and the result is that healthy girls and wholesome boys are revolted. There was no moral intent in her ever-delightful 'Castle Rackrent'; and yet it has an ethical significance which few of its readers can have failed to feel.
Perhaps 'Castle Rackrent' is the finest of Miss Edgeworth's stories, because it is the only one in which she had set herself a technical problem of exceeding difficulty. She chose to use the faithful old retainer to tell the tale of the family's downfall in consequence of its weakness, its violence, and its vice. Thady has never a word of blame for any son of the house he has served generation after generation. Indeed, he is forever praising his succession of masters; but so artfully does the author utilize the device of transparency that the reader is put in possession of the damning facts, one by one, and is soon able to see the truth of the matter which Thady himself has no thought of revealing,—which, indeed, he would probably deny indignantly if it was suggested by any one else.
The chief reason why the novel is still held to be inferior to the drama is to be found in its looseness of form. The novel is not strictly limited, as the play must be by the practical necessities of the theater; and the practitioners of the art of fiction permit themselves a license of structure which cannot but be enfeebling to the artists themselves. Few of the novelists have ever gone about a whole winter with a knot in their foreheads, such as Hawthorne carried there while he was thinking out the 'Scarlet Letter.' And only by strenuous grappling with his obstacles was he able to attain the masterly simplicity of that Puritan tragedy. A resolute wrestling with difficulty is good not only for the muscles but also for the soul; and it may be because they know this, that artists are inclined to go afield in search of difficulties to be overthrown, that they set themselves problems, that they accept limitations. Herein we may see a cause for the long popularity of the sonnet, with its restricted scheme of rimes. Herein, again, we may see a reason for the desire of the novelist to try his fate as a dramatist. "To work successfully beneath a few grave, rigid laws," so Mr. James once declared, "is always a strong man's highest ideal of success." The novelist often fails as a dramatist, because he has the gift of the story-teller only, and not that of the play-maker, but more often still because the writing of fiction has provided him with no experience in working beneath any law other than his own caprice.
The modern sculptor, by the mere fact that he may now order marble of any shape and of any size, finds his work far easier and, therefore, far less invigorating than it was long ago, when the artist needed to have an alerter imagination to perceive in a given piece of marble the beautiful figure he had to cut out of that particular block and no other. Professor Mahaffy has suggested that the decay of genius may be traced to the enfeebling facilities of our complex civilization. "In art," he maintained, "it is often the conventional shackles,—the necessities of rime and meter, the triangle of a gable, the circular top of a barrel—which has led the poet, the sculptor, or the painter, to strike out the most original and perfect products of their art. Obstacles, if they are extrinsic and not intrinsic, only help to feed the flame." Professor Butcher has declared that genius "wins its most signal triumphs from the very limitations within which it works." And this is what Gautier meant when he declared that the greater the difficulty the more beautiful the work; or, as Mr. Austin Dobson has paraphrased it:
Yes; when the ways oppose— When the hard means rebel, Fairer the work outgrows,— More potent far the spell.
Not only has a useful addition to the accepted devices of the craft been the guerdon of a victorious grapple with a difficulty, but the successful effort to solve a purely technical problem has often led to an ennobling enlargement of the original suggestion, with which the artist might have rested content if he had not been forced to the struggle. From the history of sculpture and of architecture here in the United States during the last years of the nineteenth century, it is easy to select two instances of this enrichment of the fundamental idea, as the direct consequence of an unexpected obstacle which the artist refused to consider a stumbling-block, preferring to make it a stepping-stone to a loftier achievement.
When the city of New York was making ready to welcome the men of the navy on their return from Manila and Santiago, the Architectural League offered to design a triumphal arch. The site assigned, in front of Madison Square, just where Broadway slants across Fifth Avenue, forced the architect to face a difficulty seemingly unsurmountable. The line of march was to be along Fifth Avenue, and, therefore, the stately monument was set astride that street. But the line of approach, for most of the multitude certain to come to gaze on the temporary addition to civic beauty, was along Broadway; and the arch built squarely across the avenue would seem askew to all who first caught sight of it from the other street. To avoid this unfortunate effect the designer devised a colonnade, extending north and south, up and down the avenue. Thus he corrected the apparent slant by emphasizing the fact that it was the avenue in which the arch was placed and not the more popular highway that chanced to cut across it. But this colonnade, invented solely to solve a difficulty, lent itself readily to rich adornment. It became at once an integral element of the architectural scheme, to which it gave breadth as well as variety. It was accepted instantly as a welcome modification of the tradition,—as an amplification not to be wantonly disregarded by any architect hereafter called upon to design a triumphal arch.
To this illustration from architecture may be added another from sculpture, as suggestive and as useful in showing how a conquest of technical difficulty is likely ever to increase the resources of the art. The sculptor of the statue of Lincoln, which ennobles a park of Chicago, was instructed that the work of his hands was to stand upon a knoll, visible from all sides, stark against the sky, unprotected by any background of entablature or canopy. The gaunt figure of Lincoln is not a thing of beauty to be gazed at from all the points of the compass; and the stern veracity of the artist would not permit him to disguise the ill-fitting coat and trousers by any arbitrary draperies, mendaciously cloaking the clothes which were intensely characteristic of the man to be modeled. To shield the awkwardness of the effigy when seen from the rear, a chair was placed behind it; and so the sculptor was led to present Lincoln as the Chief Magistrate of the Republic, arisen from the chair of state, to address the people from whom he had received his authority. And thus, at that late day, at the end of the nineteenth century, Mr. Saint-Gaudens did a new thing; altho there had been standing statues and seated statues, no sculptor had ever before designed a figure just rising from his seat.
It is by victories like these over technical difficulties that the arts advance; and it is in combats like these that the true artist finds his pleasure. The delight of battle is his, as he returns to the attack, again and again, until at last he wins the day and comes home laden with the spoil. The true artist hungers after technic for its own sake, well knowing the nourishment it affords. He even needlessly puts on fetters now and again, that he may find sharper zest in his effort. This ravenous appetite for technic leads many an artist to go outside his own art in search of unforeseen but fascinating difficulties. The painter is tempted to stretch his muscles by a tussle with the unknown obstacles of the sculptor; and the sculptor in his turn contends with the limitations of the painter. Michelangelo called himself a sculptor and pretended to be no more; but in time he took up the craft of the architect, of the painter and of the poet. And this interchange of field in search of new worlds to conquer seems to be characteristic of the great periods of artistic activity and achievement. In all such periods, the more accomplished craftsmen have never wearied of technical experiment to the constant enrichment of the processes of their art.
It is the uncreative critics, it is never the creative craftsmen, who dwell on the danger of taking too much interest in technic. The critics may think that the more attention the artist pays to his manner, the less he has for his matter, and that he is in peril of sacrificing content to form. But the craftsmen themselves know better; they know that no one may surely separate manner and matter, form and content, Siamese twins often, coming into being at a single birth. Furthermore, the artist knows that technic is the one quality he can control, every man for himself, every man improving himself as best he can. His native gift, his temperament,—this is what it is; and what it is it must be; and no man can better it by any effort. His character, also, the personality of the artist, that which gives a large meaning to his work,—how little can any man control this result of heredity and environment?
If an artist has anything to say it will out, sooner or later, however absorbed he may be in finding the best way of saying it. If he has nothing to say, if he has no message for the heart of man, he may at least give some pleasure to his contemporaries by the sheer dexterity of his craftsmanship. There would have been no more meaning in Poe's verse, if there had been less melody, if the poet had less devotedly studied the "book of iambs and pentameters." There would have been no larger significance in the painted epigrams of Gerome, if that master of line had cared less for draftsmanship. There would have been no more solid value in the often amusing plays of Sardou, if he had not delighted in the ingenuity of his dramaturgical devices. At bottom, Sardou, Gerome, and Poe, had little or nothing to say; that is their misfortune, no doubt; but it is not their fault, for, apparently, each one of them made the best of his native gift.
In his time Milton was the most careful and conscientious of artists in verse-making, and so, in his turn, was Pope, whose ideals were different, but whose skill was no less in its kind. So, again, was Tennyson untiring in seeking to attain ultimate perfection of phrase, consciously employing every artifice of alliteration, assonance and rime. But, if Milton's verse seems to us now noble and lofty, while Pope's appears to us as rather petty and merely clever, surely this is because Milton himself was noble and his native endowment lofty, and because Pope himself was petty and his gift only cleverness; surely it is not because they were both of them as much interested in the mechanics of their art as was Tennyson after them.
One of the wittiest critics of our modern civilization, the late Clarence King, remarked, some ten years ago, that the trouble with American fiction just then lay in the fact that it had the most elaborate machinery,—and no boiler. But the fault of our fiction at that time was to be sought in the absence of steam,—and not in the machinery itself which stood ready to do its work, to the best advantage and with the utmost economy of effort, just so soon as the power might be applied.
OLD FRIENDS WITH NEW FACES
Thackeray was frequent in praise of Fenimore Cooper, hailing Leatherstocking as better than any of "Scott's lot"; and this laudation appeared in the 'Roundabout Papers' long after the British novelist had paid to the American romancer the sincere flattery of borrowing from the last words of Natty Bumppo the suggestion, at least, of the last words of Colonel Newcome. Cooper's backwoodsman, hearing an inaudible roll-call had responded "Here!" a score of years before Thackeray's old soldier had become again a child to answer "Adsum!" Not less than a score of years later an old sailor in one of the stories of Sir Walter Besant made his final exit from this world with a kindred phrase, "Come on board, sir!" And then, once more, in one of Mr. Kipling's 'Plain Tales from the Hills,' we find the last dying speech and confession of a certain McIntosh who had been a scholar and a gentleman in days gone by, and who had sunk into irredeemable degradation in India. When his hour came, he rose in bed and said, as loudly as slowly, "Not guilty, my Lord!" Then he fell back, and the stupor held him till he died.
There are criticasters not a few who would denounce Thackeray and Besant and Mr. Kipling as arrant plagiarists; but critics of a more delicate perception of the principles of art would rather praise these authors for the ingenuity with which they had successively made use of Cooper's original device. Indeed, the more delicate the perceptions of the critic the less likely would he be to assert positively that all four authors had not hit on the same effect independently. Thackeray may have taken it over from Cooper, consciously or unconsciously; Besant may have borrowed it from either his British or his American predecessor; and Kipling may have been familiar with it in the pages of Cooper, of Thackeray, and of Besant, and still have found amusement in giving a new twist to an old trick. But it is perfectly possible that we have here an instance of purely accidental similarity, such as keen-eyed readers can discover abundantly in the highways and byways of literary history.
The theme of M. Paul Bourget's 'Andre Cornelis' is that of 'Hamlet,' but in all probability the French novelist was not aware that he was treading in the footsteps of the English dramatist until his own plot had taken shape in his mind. A situation in 'Vanity Fair'—that of Dobbin in love with the widowed Amelia and yet unwilling to break down her belief in her dead husband's fidelity—was utilized in the 'Henrietta' of Mr. Bronson Howard, who was characteristically scrupulous in recording on the playbill his indebtedness to Thackeray's novel; and this same situation at about the same time had been utilized also in a little one-act play, 'This Picture and That,' by an author who had never doubted it to be of his own invention (altho he had read 'Vanity Fair' more than once), and who did not discover how he had exposed himself to the accusation of plagiarism until he happened to see the 'Henrietta' acted, and to perceive the full significance of Mr. Howard's memorandum.
It deserves to be noted also that when Colonel Esmond broke his sword before the unworthy prince whom he had served so long and so loyally, he was only following an example which had been set by the noble Athos, who had snapt his weapon asunder before Louis XIV because that inhuman monarch had taken for himself Mlle. de la Valliere, the young lady beloved by the Vicomte de Bragelonne, the son of Athos. And the same effect is to be found also in the opera of 'La Favorite.' The book of Donizetti's opera bears the names of Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez; but it is said to have been revised by Scribe. It was derived from a forgotten play called the 'Comte de Comminges,' written by one Baculard-D'Arnaud, and this in turn had been taken from a novel written by the notorious Mme. de Tencin, the callous mother of D'Alembert. The scene of the sword-breaking is not in the novel or the play; and quite possibly it may have been introduced into the book of the opera by the fertile and ingenious Scribe. 'La Favorite' was produced in 1840, when Thackeray was in Paris preparing the 'Paris Sketch Book.' It was in 1850 that Dumas published the 'Vicomte de Bragelonne'; and it was in 1852 that Thackeray put forth 'Henry Esmond.' But it was back in 1829 that the commandant Hulot in Balzac's 'Chouans' had broken his sword across his knee rather than carry out an order that seemed to him unworthy. This is not quite the same effect that we find in 'La Favorite'; but none the less Scribe may have been indebted to Balzac for the suggestion.