Lectures on Art
Edited by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Preface by the Editor.
Upon the death of Mr. Allston, it was determined, by those who had charge of his papers, to prepare his biography and correspondence, and publish them with his writings in prose and verse; a work which would have occupied two volumes of about the same size with the present. A delay has unfortunately occurred in the preparation of the biography and correspondence; and, as there have been frequent calls for a publication of his poems, and of the Lectures on Art he is known to have written, it has been thought best to give them to the public in the present form, without awaiting the completion of the whole design. It may be understood, however, that, when the biography and correspondence are published, it will be in a volume precisely corresponding with the present, so as to carry out the original design.
I will not anticipate the duty of the biographer by an extended notice of the life of Mr. Allston; but it may be interesting to some readers to know the outline of his life, and the different circumstances under which the several pieces in this volume were written.
WASHINGTON ALLSTON was born at Charleston, in South Carolina, on the 5th of November, 1779, of a family distinguished in the history of that State and of the country, being a branch of a family of the baronet rank in the titled commonalty of England. Like most young men of the South in his position at that period, he was sent to New England to receive his school and college education. His school days were passed at Newport, in Rhode Island, under the charge of Mr. Robert Rogers. He entered Harvard College in 1796, and graduated in 1800. While at school and college, he developed in a marked manner a love of nature, music, poetry, and painting. Endowed with senses capable of the nicest perceptions, and with a mental and moral constitution which tended always, with the certainty of a physical law, to the beautiful, the pure, and the sublime, he led what many might call an ideal life. Yet was he far from being a recluse, or from being disposed to an excess of introversion. On the contrary, he was a popular, high-spirited youth, almost passionately fond of society, maintaining an unusual number of warm friendships, and unsurpassed by any of the young men of his day in adaptedness to the elegancies and courtesies of the more refined portions of the moving world. Romances of love, knighthood, and heroic deeds, tales of banditti, and stories of supernatural beings, were his chief delight in his early days. Yet his classical attainments were considerable, and, as a scholar in the literature of his own language, his reputation was early established. He delivered a poem on taking his degree, which was much admired in its day.
On leaving college, he returned to South Carolina. Having determined to devote his life to the fine arts, he sold, hastily and at a sacrifice, his share of a considerable patrimonial estate, and embarked for London in the autumn of 1801. Immediately upon his arrival, he became a student of the Royal Academy, of which his countryman, West, was President, with whom he formed an intimate and lasting friendship. After three years spent in England, and a shorter stay at Paris, he went to Italy, where he spent four years devoted exclusively to the study of his art. At Rome began his intimacy with Coleridge. Among the many subsequent expressions of his feeling toward this great man, none, perhaps, is more striking than the following extract from one of his letters:—"To no other man do I owe so much, intellectually, as to Mr. Coleridge, with whom I became acquainted in Rome, and who has honored me with his friendship for more than five-and-twenty years. He used to call Rome the silent city; but I never could think of it as such while with him; for, meet him when and where I would, the fountain of his mind was never dry, but, like the far-reaching aqueducts that once supplied this mistress of the world, its living stream seemed specially to flow for every classic ruin over which we wandered. And when I recall some of our walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, I am almost tempted to dream that I have once listened to Plato in the groves of the Academy." Readers of Coleridge know in what estimation he held the qualities and the friendship of Mr. Allston. Beside Coleridge and West, he numbered among his friends in England, Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb, Sir George Beaumont, Reynolds, and Fuseli.
In 1809, Mr. Allston returned to America, and remained two years in Boston, his adopted home, and there married the sister of Dr. Channing. In 1811, he went again to England, where his reputation as an artist had been completely established. Before his departure, he delivered a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge. During a severe illness, he removed from London to Clifton, at which place he wrote "The Sylphs of the Seasons." In 1813, he made his first, and, with the exception of "Monaldi," twenty-eight years afterwards, his only publication. This was a small volume, entitled "The Sylphs of the Seasons, and other Poems," published in London; and, during the same year, republished in Boston under the direction of his friends, Professor Willard of Cambridge and Mr. Edmund T. Dana. This volume was well received, and gave him a place among the first poets of his country. The smaller poems in that edition extend as far as page 289 of the present volume.
Beside the long and serious illness through which he passed, his spirit was destined to suffer a deeper wound by the death of Mrs. Allston, in London, during the same year. These events gave to his mind a more earnest and undivided interest in his spiritual relations, and drew him more closely than ever before to his religious duties. He received the rite of confirmation, and through life was a devout adherent to the Christian doctrine and discipline.
The character of Mr. Allston's religious feelings may be gathered, incidentally, from many of his writings. It is a subject to be treated with the reserve and delicacy with which he himself would have had it invested. Few minds have been more thoroughly imbued with belief in the reality of the unseen world; few have given more full assent to the truth, that "the things which are seen are temporal, the things which are not seen are eternal." This was not merely an adopted opinion, a conviction imposed upon his understanding; it was of the essence of his spiritual constitution, one of the conditions of his rational existence. To him, the Supreme Being was no vague, mystical source of light and truth, or an impersonation of goodness and truth themselves; nor, on the other hand, a cold rationalistic notion of an unapproachable executor of natural and moral laws. His spirit rested in the faith of a sympathetic God. His belief was in a Being as infinitely minute and sympathetic in his providences, as unlimited in his power and knowledge. Nor need it be said, that he was a firm believer in the central truths of Christianity, the Incarnation and Redemption; that he turned from unaided speculation to the inspired record and the visible Church; that he sought aid in the sacraments ordained for the strengthening of infirm humanity, and looked for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
After a second residence of seven years in Europe, he returned to America in 1818, and again made Boston his home. There, in a circle of warmly attached friends, surrounded by a sympathy and admiration which his elevation and purity, the entire harmony of his life and pursuits, could not fail to create, he devoted himself to his art, the labor of his love.
This is not the place to enumerate his paintings, or to speak of his character as an artist. His general reading he continued to the last, with the earnestness of youth. As he retired from society, his taste inclined him to metaphysical studies, the more, perhaps, from their contrast with the usual occupations of his mind. He took particular pleasure in works of devout Christian speculation, without, however, neglecting a due proportion of strictly devotional literature. These he varied by a constant recurrence to the great epic and dramatic masters, and occasional reading of the earlier and the living novelists, tales of wild romance and lighter fiction, voyages and travels, biographies and letters. Nor was he without a strong interest in the current politics of his own country and of England, as to which his principles were highly conservative.
Upon his marriage with the daughter of the late Judge Dana, in 1830, he removed to Cambridge, and soon afterwards began the preparation of a course of lectures on Art, which he intended to deliver to a select audience of artists and men of letters in Boston. Four of these he completed. Rough drafts of two others were found among his papers, but not in a state fit for publication. In 1841, he published his tale of "Monaldi," a production of his early life. The poems in the present volume, not included in the volume of 1813, are, with two exceptions, the work of his later years. In them, as in his paintings of the same period, may be seen the extreme attention to finish, always his characteristic, which, added to increasing bodily pain and infirmity, was the cause of his leaving so much that is unfinished behind him.
His death occurred at his own house, in Cambridge, a little past midnight on the morning of Sunday, the 9th of July, 1843. He had finished a day and week of labor in his studio, upon his great picture of Belshazzar's Feast; the fresh paint denoting that the last touches of his pencil were given to that glorious but melancholy monument of the best years of his later life. Having conversed with his retiring family with peculiar solemnity and earnestness upon the obligation and beauty of a pure spiritual life, and on the realities of the world to come, he had seated himself at his nightly employment of reading and writing, which he usually carried into the early hours of the morning. In the silence and solitude of this occupation, in a moment, "with touch as gentle as the morning light," which was even then approaching, his spirit was called away to its proper home.
Preface By The Editor
Lectures on Art. Preliminary Note.—Ideas Introductory Discourse Art Form Composition
Aphorisms. Sentences Written by Mr. Allston on the Walls of His Studio
Lectures on Art.
As the word idea will frequently occur, and will be found also to hold an important relation to our present subject, we shall endeavour, in limine, to possess our readers of the particular sense in which we understand and apply it.
An Idea, then, according to our apprehension, is the highest or most perfect form in which any thing, whether of the physical, the intellectual, or the spiritual, may exist to the mind. By form, we do not mean figure or image (though these may be included in relation to the physical); but that condition, or state, in which such objects become cognizable to the mind, or, in other words, become objects of consciousness.
Ideas are of two kinds; which we shall distinguish by the terms primary and secondary: the first being the manifestation of objective realities; the second, that of the reflex product, so to speak, of the mental constitution. In both cases, they may be said to be self-affirmed,—that is, they carry in themselves their own evidence; being therefore not only independent of the reflective faculties, but constituting the only unchangeable ground of Truth, to which those faculties may ultimately refer. Yet have these Ideas no living energy in themselves; they are but the forms, as we have said, through or in which a higher Power manifests to the consciousness the supreme truth of all things real, in respect to the first class; and, in respect to the second, the imaginative truths of the mental products, or mental combinations. Of the nature and mode of operation of the Power to which we refer, we know, and can know, nothing; it is one of those secrets of our being which He who made us has kept to himself. And we should be content with the assurance, that we have in it a sure and intuitive guide to a reverent knowledge of the beauty and grandeur of his works,—nay, of his own adorable reality. And who shall gainsay it, should we add, that this mysterious Power is essentially immanent in that "breath of life," by which man becomes "a living soul"?
In the following remarks we shall confine ourself to the first class of Ideas, namely, the Real; leaving the second to be noticed hereafter.
As to number, ideas are limited only by the number of kinds, without direct relation to degrees; every object, therefore, having in itself a distinctive essential, has also its distinct idea; while two or more objects of the same kind, however differing in degree, must consequently refer only to one and the same. For instance, though a hundred animals should differ in size, strength, or color, yet, if none of these peculiarities are essential to the species, they would all refer to the same supreme idea.
The same law applies equally, and with the same limitation, to the essential differences in the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual. All ideas, however, have but a potential existence until they are called into the consciousness by some real object; the required condition of the object being a predetermined correspondence, or correlation. Every such object we term an assimilant.
With respect to those ideas which relate to the physical world, we remark, that, though the assimilants required are supplied by the senses, the senses have in themselves no productive, cooeperating energy, being but the passive instruments, or medium, through which they are conveyed. That the senses, in this relation, are merely passive, admits of no question, from the obvious difference between the idea and the objects. The senses can do no more than transmit the external in its actual forms, leaving the images in the mind exactly as they found them; whereas the intuitive power rejects, or assimilates, indefinitely, until they are resolved into the proper perfect form. Now the power which prescribes that form must, of necessity, be antecedent to the presentation of the objects which it thus assimilates, as it could not else give consistence and unity to what was before separate or fragmentary. And every one who has ever realized an idea of the class in which alone we compare the assimilants with the ideal form, be he poet, painter, or philosopher, well knows the wide difference between the materials and their result. When an idea is thus realized and made objective, it affirms its own truth, nor can any process of the understanding shake its foundation; nay, it is to the mind an essential, imperative truth, then emerging, as it were, from the dark potential into the light of reality.
If this be so, the inference is plain, that the relation between the actual and the ideal is one of necessity, and therefore, also, is the predetermined correspondence between the prescribed form of an idea and its assimilant; for how otherwise could the former become recipient of that which was repugnant or indifferent, when the presence of the latter constitutes the very condition by which it is manifested, or can be known to exist? By actual, here, we do not mean the exclusively physical, but whatever, in the strictest sense, can be called an object, as forming the opposite to a mere subject of the mind.
It would appear, then, that what we call ourself must have a dual reality, that is, in the mind and in the senses, since neither alone could possibly explain the phenomena of the other; consequently, in the existence of either we have clearly implied the reality of both. And hence must follow the still more important truth, that, in the conscious presence of any spiritual idea, we have the surest proof of a spiritual object; nor is this the less certain, though we perceive not the assimilant. Nay, a spiritual assimilant cannot be perceived, but, to use the words of St. Paul, is "spiritually discerned," that is, by a sense, so to speak, of our own spirit. But to illustrate by example: we could not, for instance, have the ideas of good and evil without their objective realities, nor of right and wrong, in any intelligible form, without the moral law to which they refer,—which law we call the Conscience; nor could we have the idea of a moral law without a moral lawgiver, and, if moral, then intelligent, and, if intelligent, then personal; in a word, we could not now have, as we know we have, the idea of conscience, without an objective, personal God. Such ideas may well be called revelations, since, without any perceived assimilant, we find them equally affirmed with those ideas which relate to the purely physical.
But here it may be asked, How are we to distinguish an Idea from a mere notion? We answer, By its self-affirmation. For an ideal truth, having its own evidence in itself, can neither be proved nor disproved by any thing out of itself; whatever, then, impresses the mind as truth, is truth until it can be shown to be false; and consequently, in the converse, whatever can be brought into the sphere of the understanding, as a dialectic subject, is not an Idea. It will be observed, however, that we do not say an idea may not be denied; but to deny is not to disprove. Many things are denied in direct contradiction to fact; for the mind can command, and in no measured degree, the power of self-blinding, so that it cannot see what is actually before it. This is a psychological fact, which may be attested by thousands, who can well remember the time when they had once clearly discerned what has now vanished from their minds. Nor does the actual cessation of these primeval forms, or the after presence of their fragmentary, nay, disfigured relics, disprove their reality, or their original integrity, as we could not else call them up in their proper forms at any future time, to the reacknowledging their truth: a resuscitation and result, so to speak, which many have experienced.
In conclusion: though it be but one and the same Power that prescribes the form and determines the truth of all Ideas, there is yet an essential difference between the two classes of ideas to which we have referred; for it may well be doubted whether any Primary Idea can ever be fully realized by a finite mind,—at least in the present state. Take, for instance, the idea of beauty. In its highest form, as presented to the consciousness, we still find it referring to something beyond and above itself, as if it were but an approximation to a still higher form. The truth of this, we think, will be particularly felt by the artist, whether poet or painter, whose mind may be supposed, from his natural bias, to be more peculiarly capable of its highest developement; and what true artist was ever satisfied with any idea of beauty of which he is conscious? From this approximated form, however, he doubtless derives a high degree of pleasure, nay, one of the purest of which his nature is capable; yet still is the pleasure modified, if we may so express it, by an undefined yearning for what he feels can never be realized. And wherefore this craving, but for the archetype of that which called it forth?—When we say not satisfied, we do not mean discontented, but simply not in full fruition. And it is better that it should be so, since one of the happiest elements of our nature is that which continually impels it towards the indefinite and unattainable. So far as we know, the like limits may be set to every other primary idea,—as if the Creator had reserved to himself alone the possible contemplation of the archetypes of his universe.
With regard to the other class, that of Secondary Ideas, which we have called the reflex product of the mind, their distinguishing characteristic is, that they not only admit of a perfect realization, but also of outward manifestation, so as to be communicated to others. All works of imagination, so called, present examples of this. Hence they may also be termed imitative or imaginative. For, though they draw their assimilants from the actual world, and are likewise regulated by the unknown Power before mentioned, yet are they but the forms of what, as a whole, have no actual existence;—they are nevertheless true to the mind, and are made so by the same Power which affirms their possibility. This species of Truth we shall hereafter have occasion to distinguish as Poetic Truth.
Next to the developement of our moral nature, to have subordinated the senses to the mind is the highest triumph of the civilized state. Were it possible to embody the present complicated scheme of society, so as to bring it before us as a visible object, there is perhaps nothing in the world of sense that would so fill us with wonder; for what is there in nature that may not fall within its limits? and yet how small a portion of this stupendous fabric will be found to have any direct, much less exclusive, relation to the actual wants of the body! It might seem, indeed, to an unreflecting observer, that our physical necessities, which, truly estimated, are few and simple, have rather been increased than diminished by the civilized man. But this is not true; for, if a wider duty is imposed on the senses, it is only to minister to the increased demands of the imagination, which is now so mingled with our every-day concerns, even with our dress, houses, and furniture, that, except with the brutalized, the purely sensuous wants might almost be said to have become extinct: with the cultivated and refined, they are at least so modified as to be no longer prominent.
But this refilling on the physical, like every thing else, has had its opponents: it is declaimed against as artificial. If by artificial is meant unnatural, we cannot so consider it; but hold, on the contrary, that the whole multiform scheme of the civilized state is not only in accordance with our nature, but an essential condition to the proper developement of the human being. It is presupposed by the very wants of his mind; nor could it otherwise have been, any more than could have been the cabin of the beaver, or the curious hive of the bee, without their preexisting instincts; it is therefore in the highest sense natural, as growing out of the inherent desires of the mind.
But we would not be misunderstood. When we speak of the refined state as not out of nature, we mean such results as proceed from the legitimate growth of our mental constitution, which we suppose to be grounded in permanent, universal principles; and, whatever modifications, however subtile, and apparently visionary, may follow their operation in the world of sense, so long as that operation diverge not from its original ground, its effect must be, in the strictest sense, natural. Thus the wildest visions of poetry, the unsubstantial forms of painting, and the mysterious harmonies of music, that seem to disembody the spirit, and make us creatures of the air,—even these, unreal as they are, may all have their foundation in immutable truth; and we may moreover know of this truth by its own evidence. Of this species of evidence we shall have occasion to speak hereafter. But there is another kind of growth, which may well be called unnatural; we mean, of those diseased appetites, whose effects are seen in the distorted forms of the conventional, having no ground but in weariness of the true; and it cannot be denied that this morbid growth has its full share, inwardly and outwardly, both of space and importance. These, however, must sooner or later end as they began; they perish in the lie they make; and it were well did not other falsehoods take their places, to prolong a life whose only tenure is inconsequential succession,—in other words, Fashion.
If it be true, then, that even the commonplaces of life must all in some degree partake of the mental, there can be but one rule by which to determine the proper rank of any object of pursuit, and that is by its nearer or more remote relation to our inward nature. Every system, therefore, which tends to degrade a mental pleasure to the subordinate or superfluous, is both narrow and false, as virtually reversing its natural order.
It pleased our Creator, when he endowed us with appetites and functions by which to sustain the economy of life, at the same time to annex to their exercise a sense of pleasure; hence our daily food, and the daily alternation of repose and action, are no less grateful than imperative. That life may be sustained, and most of its functions performed, without any coincident enjoyment, is certainly possible. Our food may be distasteful, action painful, and rest unrefreshing; and yet we may eat, and exercise, and sleep, nay, live thus for years. But this is not our natural condition, and we call it disease. Were man a mere animal, the very act of living, in his natural or healthy state, would be to him a continuous enjoyment. But he is also a moral and an intellectual being; and, in like manner, is the healthful condition of these, the nobler parts of his nature, attended with something more than a consciousness of the mere process of existence. To the exercise of his intellectual faculties and moral attributes the same benevolent law has superadded a sense of pleasure,—of a kind, too, in the same degree transcending the highest bodily sensation, as must that which is immortal transcend the perishable. It is not for us to ask why it is so; much less, because it squares not with the poor notion of material usefulness, to call in question a fact that announces a nature to which the senses are but passing ministers. Let us rather receive this ennobling law, at least without misgiving, lest in our sensuous wisdom we exchange an enduring gift for a transient gratification.
Of the peculiar fruits of this law, which we shall here distinguish by the general term mental pleasures, it is our purpose to treat in the present discourse.
It is with no assumed diffidence that we venture on this subject; for, though we shall offer nothing not believed to be true, we are but too sensible how small a portion of truth it is in our power to present. But, were it far greater, and the present writer of a much higher order of intellect, there would still be sufficient cause for humility in view of those impassable bounds that have ever met every self-questioning of the mind.
But whilst the narrowness of human knowledge may well preclude all self-exaltation, it would be worse than folly to hold as naught the many important truths which have been wrought out for us by the mighty intellects of the past. If they have left us nothing for vainglory, they have left us at least enough to be grateful for. Nor is it a little, that they have taught us to look into those mysterious chambers of our being,—the abode of the spirit; and not a little, indeed, if what we are there permitted to know shall have brought with it the conviction, that we are not abandoned to a blind empiricism, to waste life in guesses, and to guess at last that we have all our lives been guessing wrong,—but, unapproachable though it be to the subordinate Understanding, that we have still within us an abiding Interpreter, which cannot be gainsaid, which makes our duty to God and man clear as the light, which ever guards the fountain of all true pleasures, nay, which holds in subjection the last high gift of the Creator, that imaginative faculty whereby his exalted creature, made in his image, might mould at will, from his most marvellous world, yet unborn forms, even forms of beauty, grandeur, and majesty, having all of truth but his own divine prerogative,—the mystery of Life.
As the greater part of those Pleasures which we propose to discuss are intimately connected with the material world, it may be well, perhaps, to assign some reason for the epithet mental. To many, we know, this will seem superfluous; but, when it is remembered how often we hear of this and that object delighting the eye, or of certain sounds charming the ear, it may not be amiss to show that such expressions have really no meaning except as metaphors. When the senses, as the medium of communication, have conveyed to the mind either the sounds or images, their function ceases. So also with respect to the objects: their end is attained, at least as to us, when the sounds or images are thus transmitted, which, so far as they are concerned, must for ever remain the same within as without the mind. For, where the ultimate end is not in mere bodily sensation, neither the senses nor the objects possess, of themselves, any productive power; of the product that follows, the tertium aliquid, whether the pleasure we feel be in a beautiful animal or in according sounds, neither the one nor the other is really the cause, but simply the occasion. It is clear, then, that the effect realized supposes of necessity another agent, which must therefore exist only in the mind. But of this hereafter.
If the cause of any emotion, which we seem to derive from an outward object, were inherent exclusively in the object itself, there could be no failure in any instance, except where the organs of sense were either diseased or imperfect. But it is a matter of fact that they often do fail where there is no disease or organic defect. Many of us, perhaps, can call to mind certain individuals, whose sense of hearing is as acute as our own, who yet can by no possibility be made to recognize the slightest relation between the according notes of the simplest melody; and, though they can as readily as others distinguish the individual sounds, even to the degrees of flatness and sharpness, the harmonic agreement is to them as mere noise. Let us suppose ourselves present at a concert, in company with one such person and another who possesses what is called musical sensibility. How are they affected, for instance, by a piece of Mozart's? In the sense of hearing they are equal: look at them. In the one we perceive perplexity, annoyance, perhaps pain; he hears nothing but a confused medley of sounds. In the other, the whole being is rapt in ecstasy, the unutterable pleasure gushes from his eyes, he cannot articulate his emotion;—in the words of one, who felt and embodied the subtile mystery in immortal verse, his very soul seems "lapped in Elysium." Now, could this difference be possible, were the sole cause, strictly speaking, in mere matter?
Nor do we contradict our position, when we admit, in certain cases,—for instance, in the producer,—the necessity of a nicer organization, in order to the more perfect transmission of the finer emotions; inasmuch as what is to be communicated in space and time must needs be by some medium adapted thereto.
Such a person as Paganini, it is said, was able to "discourse most excellent music" on a ballad-monger's fiddle; yet will any one question that he needed an instrument of somewhat finer construction to show forth his full powers? Nay, we might add, that he needed no less than the most delicate Cremona,—some instrument, as it were, articulated into humanity,—to have inhaled and respired those attenuated strains, which, those who heard them think it hardly extravagant to say, seemed almost to embody silence.
Now this mechanical instrument, by means of which such marvels were wrought, is but one of the many visible symbols of that more subtile instrument through which the mind acts when it would manifest itself. It would be too absurd to ask if any one believed that the music we speak of was created, as well as conveyed, by the instrument. The violin of Paganini may still be seen and handled; but the soul that inspired it is buried with its master.
If we admit a distinction between mind and matter, and the result we speak of be purely mental, we should contradict the universal law of nature to assign such a product to mere matter, inasmuch as the natural law forbids in the lower the production of the higher. Take an example from one of the lower forms of organic life,—a common vegetable. Will any one assert that the surrounding inorganic elements of air, earth, heat, and water produce its peculiar form? Though some, or all, of these may be essential to its developement, they are so only as its predetermined correlatives, without which its existence could not be manifested; and in like manner must the peculiar form of the vegetable preexist in its life,—in its idea,—in order to evolve by these assimilants its own proper organism.
No possible modification in the degrees or proportion of these elements can change the specific form of a plant,—for instance, a cabbage into a cauliflower; it must ever remain a cabbage, small or large, good or bad. So, too, is the external world to the mind; which needs, also, as the condition of its manifestation, its objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end,—the pleasurable emotion. We beg it may be noted that we do not say sensation. And hence we hold ourself justified in speaking of such presence as simply the occasion, or condition, and not, per se, the cause. And hence, moreover, may be inferred the absolute necessity of Dual Forces in order to the actual existence of any thing. One alone, the incomprehensible Author of all things, is self-subsisting in his perfect Unity.
We shall now endeavour to establish the following proposition: namely, that the Pleasures in question have their true source in One Intuitive Universal Principle or living Power, and that the three Ideas of Beauty, Truth, and Holiness, which we assume to represent the perfect in the physical, intellectual, and moral worlds, are but the several realized phases of this sovereign principle, which we shall call Harmony.
Our first step, then, is to possess ourself of the essential or distinctive characteristic of these pleasurable emotions. Apparently, there is nothing more simple. And yet we are acquainted with no single term that shall fully express it. But what every one has more or less felt may certainly be made intelligible in a more extended form, and, we should think, by any one in the slightest degree competent to self-examination. Let a person, then, be appealed to; and let him put the question as to what passes within him when possessed by these emotions; and the spontaneous feeling will answer for us, that what we call self has no part in them. Nay, we further assert, that, when singly felt, that is, when unallied to other emotions as modifying forces, they are wholly unmixed with any personal considerations, or any conscious advantage to the individual.
Nor is this assigning too high a character to the feelings in question because awakened in so many instances by the purely physical; since their true origin may clearly be traced to a common source with those profounder emotions which we are wont to ascribe to the intellectual and moral. Besides, it should be borne in mind, that no physical object can be otherwise to the mind than a mere occasion; its inward product, or mental effect, being from another Power. The proper view therefore is, not that such alliance can ever degrade the higher agent, but that its more humble and material assimilant is thus elevated by it. So that nothing in nature should be counted mean, which can thus be exalted; but rather be honored, since no object can become so assimilated except by its predetermined correlation to our better nature.
Neither is it the privilege of the exclusive few, the refined and cultivated, to feel them deeply. If we look beyond ourselves, even to the promiscuous multitude, the instance will be rare, if existing at all, where some transient touch of these purer feelings has not raised the individual to, at least, a momentary exemption from the common thraldom of self. And we greatly err if their universality is not solely limited by those "shades of the prison-house," which, in the words of the poet, too often "close upon the growing boy." Nay, so far as we have observed, we cannot admit it as a question whether any person through a whole life has always been wholly insensible,—we will not say (though well we might) to the good and true,—but to beauty; at least, to some one kind, or degree, of the beautiful. The most abject wretch, however animalized by vice, may still be able to recall the time when a morning or evening sky, a bird, a flower, or the sight of some other object in nature, has given him a pleasure, which he felt to be distinct from that of his animal appetites, and to which he could attach not a thought of self-interest. And, though crime and misery may close the heart for years, and seal it up for ever to every redeeming thought, they cannot so shut out from the memory these gleams of innocence; even the brutified spirit, the castaway of his kind, has been made to blush at this enduring light; for it tells him of a truth, which might else have never been remembered,—that he has once been a man.
And here may occur a question,—which might well be left to the ultra advocates of the cui bono,—whether a simple flower may not sometimes be of higher use than a labor-saving machine.
As to the objects whose effect on the mind is here discussed, it is needless to specify them; they are, in general, all such as are known to affect us in the manner described. The catalogue will vary both in number and kind with different persons, according to the degree of force or developement in the overruling Principle.
We proceed, then, to reply to such objections as will doubtless be urged against the characteristic assumed. And first, as regards the Beautiful, we shall probably be met by the received notion, that we experience in Beauty one of the most powerful incentives to passion; while examples without number will be brought in array to prove it also the wonder-working cause of almost fabulous transformations,—as giving energy to the indolent, patience to the quick, perseverance to the fickle, even courage to the timid; and, vice versa, as unmanning the hero,—nay, urging the honorable to falsehood, treason, and murder; in a word, through the mastered, bewildered, sophisticated self, as indifferently raising and sinking the fascinated object to the heights and depths of pleasure and misery, of virtue and vice.
Now, if the Beauty here referred to is of the human being, we do not gainsay it; but this is beauty in its mixed mode,—not in its high, passionless form, its singleness and purity. It is not Beauty as it descended from heaven, in the cloud, the rainbow, the flower, the bird, or in the concord of sweet sounds, that seem to carry back the soul to whence it came.
Could we look, indeed, at the human form in its simple, unallied physical structure,—on that, for instance, of a beautiful woman,—and forget, or rather not feel, that it is other than a form, there could be but one feeling: that nothing visible was ever so framed to banish from the soul every ignoble thought, and imbue it, as it were, with primeval innocence.
We are quite aware that the doctrine assumed in our main proposition with regard to Beauty, as holding exclusive relation to the Physical, is not very likely to forestall favor; we therefore beg for it only such candid attention as, for the reasons advanced, it may appear to deserve.
That such effects as have just been objected could not be from Beauty alone, in its pure and single form, but rather from its coincidence with some real or supposed moral or intellectual quality, or with the animal appetites, seems to us clear; as, were it otherwise, we might infer the same from a beautiful infant,—the very thought of which is revolting to common sense. In such conjunction, indeed, it cannot but have a certain influence, but so modified as often to become a mere accessory, subordinated to the animal or moral object, and for the attainment of an end not its own; in proof of which, we find it almost uniformly partaking the penalty imposed on its incidental associates, should ever their desires result in illusion,—namely, in the aversion that follows. But the result of Beauty can never be such; when it seems otherwise, the effect, we think, can readily be traced to other causes, as we shall presently endeavour to show.
It cannot be a matter of controversy whether Beauty is limited to the human form; the daily experience of the most ordinary man would answer No: he finds it in the woods, the fields, in plants and animals, nay, in a thousand objects, as he looks upon nature; nor, though indefinitely diversified, does he hesitate to assign to each the same epithet. And why? Because the feelings awakened by all are similar in kind, though varying, doubtless, by many degrees in intenseness. Now suppose he is asked of what personal advantage is all this beauty to him. Verily, he would be puzzled to answer. It gives him pleasure, perhaps great pleasure. And this is all he could say. But why should the effect be different, except in degree, from the beauty of a human being? We have already the answer in this concluding term. For what is a human being but one who unites in himself a physical, intellectual, and moral nature, which cannot in one become even an object of thought without at least some obscure shadowings of its natural allies? How, then, can we separate that which has an exclusive relation to his physical form, without some perception of the moral and intellectual with which it is joined? But how do we know that Beauty is limited to such exclusive relation? This brings us to the great problem; so simple and easy of solution in all other cases, yet so intricate and apparently inexplicable in man. In other things, it would be felt absurd to make it a question, whether referring to form, color, or sound. A single instance will suffice. Let us suppose, then, an unfamiliar object, whose habits, disposition, and so forth, are wholly unknown, for instance, a bird of paradise, to be seen for the first time by twenty persons, and they all instantly call it beautiful;—could there be any doubt that the pleasure it produced in each was of the same kind? or would any one of them ascribe his pleasure to any thing but its form and plumage? Concerning natural objects, and those inferior animals which are not under the influence of domestic associations, there is little or no difference among men: if they differ, it is only in degree, according to their sensibility. Men do not dispute about a rose. And why? Because there is nothing beside the physical to interfere with the impression it was predetermined to make; and the idea of beauty is realized instantly. So, also, with respect to other objects of an opposite character; they can speak without deliberating, and call them plain, homely, ugly, and so on, thus instinctively expressing even their degree of remoteness from the condition of beauty. Who ever called a pelican beautiful, or even many animals endeared to us by their valuable qualities,—such as the intelligent and docile elephant, or the affectionate orang-outang, or the faithful mastiff? Nay, we may run through a long list of most useful and amiable creatures, that could not, under any circumstances, give birth to an emotion corresponding to that which we ascribe to the beautiful.
But there is scarcely a subject on which mankind are wider at variance, than on the beauty of their own species,—some preferring this, and others that, particular conformation; which can only be accounted for on the supposition of some predominant expression, either moral, intellectual, or sensual, with which they are in sympathy, or else the reverse. While some will task their memory, and resort to the schools, for their supposed infallible rules;—forgetting, meanwhile, that ultimate tribunal to which their canon must itself appeal, the ever-living principle which first evolved its truth, and which now, as then, is not to be reasoned about, but felt. It need not be added how fruitful of blunders is this mechanical ground.
Now we venture to assert that no mistake was ever made, even in a single glance, concerning any natural object, not disfigured by human caprice, or which the eye had not been trained to look at through some conventional medium. Under this latter circumstance, there are doubtless many things in nature which affect men very differently; and more especially such as, from their familiar nearness, have come under the influence of opinion, and been incrusted, as it were, by the successive deposits of many generations. But of the vast and various multitude of objects which have thus been forced from their original state, there is perhaps no one which has undergone so many and such strange disfigurements as the human form; or in relation to which our "ideas," as we are pleased to call them, but in truth our opinions, have been so fluctuating. If an Idea, indeed, had any thing to do with Fashion, we should call many things monstrous to which custom has reconciled us. Let us suppose a case, by way of illustration. A gentleman and lady, from one of our fashionable cities, are making a tour on the borders of some of our new settlements in the West. They are standing on the edge of a forest, perhaps admiring the grandeur of nature; perhaps, also, they are lovers, and sharing with nature their admiration for each other, whose personal charms are set off to the utmost, according to the most approved notions, by the taste and elegance of their dress. Then suppose an Indian hunter, who had never seen one of our civilized world, or heard of our costume, coming suddenly upon them, their faces being turned from him. Would it be possible for him to imagine what kind of animals they were? We think not; and least of all, that he would suppose them to be of his own species. This is no improbable case; and we very much fear, should it ever occur, that the unrefined savage would go home with an impression not very flattering either to the milliner or the tailor.
That, under such disguises, we should consider human beauty as a kind of enigma, or a thing to dispute about, is not surprising; nor even that we should often differ from ourselves, when so much of the outward man is thus made to depend on the shifting humors of some paramount Petronius of the shears. But, admitting it to be an easy matter to divest the form, or, what is still more important, our own minds, of every thing conventional, there is the still greater obstacle to any true effect from the person alone, in that moral admixture, already mentioned, which, more or less, must color the most of our impressions from every individual. Is there not, then, sufficient ground for at least a doubt if, excepting idiots, there is one human being in whom the purely physical is at all times the sole agent? We do not say that it does not generally predominate. But, in a compound being like man, it seems next to impossible that the nature within should not at times, in some degree, transpire through the most rigid texture of the outward form. We may not, indeed, always read aright the character thus obscurely indexed, or even be able to guess at it, one way or the other; still, it will affect us; nay, most so, perhaps, when most indefinite. Every man is, to a certain extent, a physiognomist: we do not mean, according to the common acceptation, that he is an interpreter of lines and quantities, which may be reduced to rules; but that he is born one, judging, not by any conscious rule, but by an instinct, which he can neither explain nor comprehend, and which compels him to sit in judgment, whether he will or no. How else can we account for those instantaneous sympathies and antipathies towards an utter stranger?
Now this moral influence has a twofold source, one in the object, and another in ourselves; nor is it easy to determine which is the stronger as a counteracting force. Hitherto we have considered only the former; we now proceed with a few remarks upon the latter.
Will any man say, that he is wholly without some natural or acquired bias? This is the source of the counteracting influence which we speak of in ourselves; but which, like many other of the secret springs, both of thought and feeling, few men think of. It is nevertheless one which, on this particular subject, is scarcely ever inactive; and according to the bias will be our impressions, whether we be intellectual or sensual, coldly speculative or ardently imaginative. We do not mean that it is always called forth by every thing we approach; we speak only of its usual activity between man and man; for there seems to be a mysterious something in our nature, that, in spite of our wishes, will rarely allow of an absolute indifference towards any of the species; some effect, however slight, even as that of the air which we unconsciously inhale and again respire, must follow, whether directly from the object or reacting from ourselves. Nay, so strong is the law, whether in attraction or repulsion, that we cannot resist it even in relation to those human shadows projected on air by the mere imagination; for we feel it in art only less than in nature, provided, however, that the imagined being possess but the indication of a human soul: yet not so is it, if presenting only the outward form, since a mere form can in itself have no affinity with either the heart or intellect. And here we would ask, Does not this striking exception in the present argument cast back, as it were, a confirmatory reflection?
We have often thought, that the power of the mere form could not be more strongly exemplified than at a common paint-shop. Among the annual importations from the various marts of Europe, how many beautiful faces, without an atom of meaning, attract the passengers,—stopping high and low, people of all descriptions, and actually giving pleasure, if not to every one, at least to the majority; and very justly, for they have beauty, and nothing else. But let another artist, some man of genius, copy the same faces, and add character,—breathe into them souls: from that moment the passers-by would see as if with other eyes; the affections and the imagination then become the spectators; and, according to the quickness or dulness, the vulgarity or refinement, of these, would be the impression. Thus a coarse mind may feel the beauty in the hard, soulless forms of Van der Werf, yet turn away with apathy from the sanctified loveliness of a Madonna by Raffaelle.
But to return to the individual bias, which is continually inclining to, or repelling, What is more common, especially with women, than a high admiration of a plain person, if connected with wit, or a pleasing address? Can we have a stronger case in point than that of the celebrated Wilkes, one of the ugliest, yet one of the most admired men of his time? Even his own sex, blinded no doubt by their sympathetic bias, could see no fault in him, either in mind or person; for, when it was objected to the latter, that "he squinted confoundedly," the reply was, "No, Sir, not more than a gentleman ought to squint."
Of the tendency to particular pursuits,—to art, science, or any particular course of life,—we do not speak; the bias we allude to is in the more personal disposition of the man,—in that which gives a tone to his internal character; nor is it material of what proportions compounded, of the affections, or the intellect, or the senses,—whether of some only, or the whole; that these form the ground of every man's bias is no less certain, than the fact that there is scarcely any secret which men are in the habit of guarding with such sedulous care. Nay, it would seem as if every one were impelled to it by some superstitious instinct, that every one might have it to say to himself, There is one thing in me which is all my own. Be this as it may, there are few things more hazardous than to pronounce with confidence on any man's bias. Indeed, most men would be puzzled to name it to themselves; but its existence in them is not the less a fact, because the form assumed may be so mixed and complicated as to be utterly undefinable. It is enough, however, that every one feels, and is more or less led by it, whether definite or not.
This being the case, how is it possible that it should not in some degree affect our feelings towards every one we meet,—that it should not leave some speck of leaven on each impression, which shall impregnate it with something that we admire and love, or else with that which we hate and despise?
And what is the most beautiful or the most ungainly form before a sorcerer like this, who can endow a fair simpleton with the rarest intellect, or transform, by a glance, the intellectual, noble-hearted dwarf to an angel of light? These, of course, are extreme cases. But if true in these, as we have reason to believe, how formidable the power!
But though, as before observed, we may not read this secret with precision, it is sometimes possible to make a shrewd guess at the prevailing tendency in certain individuals. Perhaps the most obvious cases are among the sanguine and imaginative; and the guess would be, that a beautiful person would presently be enriched with all possible virtues, while the colder speculatist would only see in it, not what it possessed, but the mind that it wanted. Now it would be curious to imagine (and the case is not impossible) how the eyes of each might be opened, with the probable consequence, how each might feel when his eyes were opened, and the object was seen as it really is. Some untoward circumstance comes unawares on the perfect creature: a burst of temper knits the brow, inflames the eye, inflates the nostril, gnashes the teeth, and converts the angel into a storming fury. What then becomes of the visionary virtues? They have passed into air, and taken with them, also, what was the fair creature's right,—her very beauty. Yet a different change takes place with the dry man of intellect. The mindless object has taken shame of her ignorance; she begins to cultivate her powers, which are gradually developed until they expand and brighten; they inform her features, so that no one can look upon them without seeing the evidence of no common intellect: the dry man, at last, is struck with their superior intelligence, and what more surprises him is the grace and beauty, which, for the first time, they reveal to his eyes. The learned dust which had so long buried his heart is quickly brushed away, and he weds the embodied mind. What third change may follow, it is not to our purpose to foresee.
Has human beauty, then, no power? When united with virtue and intellect, we might almost answer,—All power. It is the embodied harmony of the true poet; his visible Muse; the guardian angel of his better nature; the inspiring sibyl of his best affections, drawing him to her with a purifying charm, from the selfishness of the world, from poverty and neglect, from the low and base, nay, from his own frailty or vices:—for he cannot approach her with unhallowed thoughts, whom the unlettered and ignorant look up to with awe, as to one of a race above them; before whom the wisest and best bow down without abasement, and would bow in idolatry but for a higher reverence. No! there is no power like this of mortal birth. But against the antagonist moral, the human beauty of itself has no power, no self-sustaining life. While it panders to evil desires, then, indeed, there are few things may parallel its fearful might. But the unholy alliance must at last have an end. Look at it then, when the beautiful serpent has cast her slough.
Let us turn to it for a moment, and behold it in league with elegant accomplishments and a subtile intellect: how complete its triumph! If ever the soul may be said to be intoxicated, it is then, when it feels the full power of a beautiful, bad woman. The fabled enchantments of the East are less strange and wonder-working than the marvellous changes which her spell has wrought. For a time every thought seems bound to her will; the eternal eye of the conscience closes before her; the everlasting truths of right and wrong sleep at her bidding; nay, things most gross and abhorred become suddenly invested with a seeming purity: till the whole mind is hers, and the bewildered victim, drunk with her charms, calls evil good. Then, what may follow? Read the annals of crime; it will tell us what follows the broken spell,—broken by the first degrading theft, the first stroke of the dagger, or the first drop of poison. The felon's eye turns upon the beautiful sorceress with loathing and abhorrence: an asp, a toad, is not more hateful! The story of Milwood has many counterparts.
But, although Beauty cannot sustain itself permanently against what is morally bad, and has no direct power of producing good, it yet may, and often does, when unobstructed, through its unimpassioned purity, predispose to the good, except, perhaps, in natures grossly depraved; inasmuch as all affinities to the pure are so many reproaches to the vitiated mind, unless convertible to some selfish end. Witness the beautiful wife, wedded for what is misnamed love, yet becoming the scorn of a brutal husband,—the more bitter, perhaps, if she be also good. But, aside from those counteracting causes so often mentioned, it is as we have said: we are predisposed to feel kindly, and to think purely, of every beautiful object, until we have reason to think otherwise; and according to our own hearts will be our thoughts.
We are aware of but one other objection which has not been noticed, and which might be made to the intuitive nature of the Idea. How is it, we may be asked, that artists, who are supposed, from their early discipline, to have overcome all conventional bias, and also to have acquired the more difficult power of analyzing their models, so as to contemplate them in their separate elements, have so often varied as to their ideas of Beauty? Whether artists have really the power thus ascribed to them, we shall not here inquire; it is no doubt, if possible, their business to acquire it. But, admitting it as true, we deny the position: they do not change their ideas. They can have but one Idea of Beauty, inasmuch as that Idea is but a specific phase of one immutable Principle,—if there be such a principle; as we shall hereafter endeavour to show. Nor can they have of it any essentially different, much less opposite, conceptions: but their apprehension of it may undergo many apparent changes, which, nevertheless, are but the various degrees that only mark a fuller conception; as their more extended acquaintance with the higher outward assimilants of Beauty brings them, of course, nearer to a perfect realization of the preexisting Idea. By perfect, here, we mean only the nearest approximation by man. And we appeal to every artist, competent to answer, if it be not so. Does he ever descend from a higher assimilant to a lower? Suppose him to have been born in Italy; would he go to Holland to realize his Idea? But many a Dutchman has sought in Italy what he could not find in his own country. We do not by this intend any reflection on the latter,—a country so fruitful of genius; it is only saying that the human form in Italy is from a finer mould. Then, what directs the artist from one object to another, and determines him which to choose, if he has not the guide within him? And why else should all nations instinctively bow before the superior forms of Greece?
We add but one remark. Supposing the artist to be wholly freed from all modifying biases, such is seldom the case with those who criticize his work,—especially those who would show their superiority by detecting faults, and who frequently condemn the painter simply for not expressing what he never aimed at. As to some, they are never content if they do not find beauty, whatever the subject, though it may neutralize the character, if not render it ridiculous. Were Raffaelle, who seldom sought the purely beautiful, to be judged by the want of it, he would fall below Guido. But his object was much higher,—in the intellect and the affections; it was the human being in his endless inflections of thought and passion, in which there is little probability he will ever be approached. Yet false criticism has been as prodigal to him in the ascription of beauty, as parsimonious and unjust to many others.
In conclusion, may there not be, in the difficulty we have thus endeavoured to solve, a probable significance of the responsible, as well as distinct, position which the Human being holds in the world of life? Are there no shadowings, in that reciprocal influence between soul and soul, of some mysterious chain which links together the human family in its two extremes, giving to the very lowest an indefeasible claim on the highest, so that we cannot be independent if we would, or indifferent even to the very meanest, without violation of an imperative law of our nature? And does it not at least hint of duties and affections towards the most deformed in body, the most depraved in mind,—of interminable consequences? If man were a mere animal, though the highest animal, could these inscrutable influences affect us as they do? Would not the animal appetites be our true and sole end? What even would Beauty be to the sated appetite? If it did not, as in the last instance, of the brutal husband, become an object of scorn,—which it could not be, from the necessary absence of moral obliquity,—would it be better than a picked bone to a gorged dog? Least of all could it resemble the visible sign of that pure idea, in which so many lofty minds have recognized the type of a far higher love than that of earth, which the soul shall know, when, in a better world, she shall realize the ultimate reunion of Beauty with the coeternal forms of Truth and Holiness.
We will now apply the characteristic assumed to the second leading Idea, namely, to Truth. In the first place, we take it for granted, that no one will deny to the perception of truth some positive pleasure; no one, at least, who is not at the same time prepared to contradict the general sense of mankind, nay, we will add, their universal experience. The moment we begin to think, we begin to acquire, whether it be in trifles or otherwise, some kind of knowledge; and of two things presented to our notice, supposing one to be true and the other false, no one ever knowingly, and for its own sake, chooses the false: whatever he may do in after life, for some selfish purpose, he cannot do so in childhood, where there is no such motive, without violence to his nature. And here we are supposing the understanding, with its triumphant pride and subtilty, out of the question, and the child making his choice under the spontaneous sense of the true and the false. For, were it otherwise, and the choice indifferent, what possible foundation for the commonest acts of life, even as it respects himself, would there be to him who should sow with lies the very soil of his growing nature. It is time enough in manhood to begin to lie to one's self; but a self-lying youth can have no proper self to rest on, at any period. So that the greatest liar, even Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, must have loved the truth,—at least at one time of his life. We say loved; for a voluntary choice implies of necessity some degree of pleasure in the choosing, however faint the emotion or insignificant the object. It is, therefore, caeteris paribus, not only necessary, but natural, to find pleasure in truth.
Now the question is, whether the pleasurable emotion, which is, so to speak, the indigenous growth of Truth, can in any case be free of self, or some personal gratification. To this, we apprehend, there will be no lack of answer. Nay, the answer has already been given from the dark antiquity of ages, that even for her own exceeding loveliness has Truth been canonized. If there was any thing of self in the Eureka of Pythagoras, there was not in the acclamations of his country who rejoiced with him. But we may doubt the feeling, if applied to him. If wealth or fame has sometimes followed in the track of Genius, it has followed as an accident, but never preceded, as the efficient conductor to any great discovery. For what is Genius but the prophetic revealer of the unseen True, that can neither be purchased nor bribed into light? If it come, then, at all, it must needs be evoked by a kindred love as pure as itself. Shall we appeal to the artist? If he deserve the name, he will disdain the imputation that either wealth or fame has ever aided at the birth of his ideal offspring: it was Truth that smiled upon him, that made light his travail, that blessed their birth, and, by her fond recognition, imparted to his breast her own most pure, unimpassioned emotion. But, whatever mixed feeling, through the infirmity of the agent, may have influenced the artist, whether poet or painter, there can be but one feeling in the reader or spectator.
Indeed, so imperishable is this property of Truth, that it seems to lose nothing of its power, even when causing itself to be reflected from things that in themselves have, properly speaking, no truth. Of this we have abundant examples in some of the Dutch pictures, where the principal object is simply a dish of oysters or a pickled herring. We remember a picture of this kind, consisting solely of these very objects, from which we experienced a pleasure almost exquisite. And we would here remark, that the appetite then was in no way concerned. The pleasure, therefore, must have been from the imitated truth. It is certainly a curious question why this should be, while the things themselves, that is, the actual objects, should produce no such effect. And it seems to be because, in the latter case, there was no truth involved. The real oysters, &c., were indeed so far true as they were actual objects, but they did not contain a truth in relation to any thing. Whereas, in the pictured oysters, their relation to the actual was shown and verified in the mutual resemblance.
If this be true, as we doubt not, we have at least one evidence, where it might not be looked for, that there is that in Truth which is satisfying of itself. But a stronger testimony may still be found where, from all a priori reasoning, we might expect, if not positive pain, at least no pleasure; and that is, where we find it united with human suffering, as in the deep scenes of tragedy. Now it cannot be doubted, that some of our most refined pleasures are often derived from this source, and from scenes that in nature we could not look upon. And why is this, but for the reason assigned in the preceding instance of a still-life picture? the only difference being, that the latter is addressed to the senses, and the former to the heart and intellect: which difference, however, well accounts for their vast disparity of effect. But may not these tragic pleasures have their source in sympathy alone? We answer, No. For who ever felt it in watching the progress of actual villany or the betrayal of innocence, or in being an eyewitness of murder? Now, though we revolt at these and the like atrocities in actual life, it would be both new and false to assert that they have no attraction in Art.
Nor do we believe that this acknowledged interest can well be traced to any other source than the one assumed; namely, to the truth of relation. And in this capacity does Truth stand to the Imagination, which is the proper medium through which the artist, whether poet or painter, projects his scenes.
The seat of interest here, then, being in the imagination, it is precisely on that account, and because it cannot be brought home to self, that the pleasure ensues; which is plainly, therefore, derived from its verisimilitude to the actual, and, though together with its appropriate excitement, yet without its imperative condition, namely, its call of life on the living affections.
The proper word here is interest, not sympathy, for sympathy with actual suffering, be the object good or bad, is in its nature painful; an obvious reason why so few in the more prosaic world have the virtue to seek it.
But is it not the business of the artist to touch the heart? True,—and it is his high privilege, as its liege-lord, to sound its very depths; nay, from its lowest deep to touch alike its loftiest breathing pinnacle. Yet he may not even approach it, except through the transforming atmosphere of the imagination, where alone the saddest notes of woe, even the appalling shriek of despair, are softened, as it were, by the tempering dews of this visionary region, ere they fall upon the heart. Else how could we stand the smothered moan of Desdemona, or the fiendish adjuration of Lady Macbeth,—more frightful even than the after-deed of her husband,—or look upon the agony of the wretched Judas, in the terrible picture of Rembrandt, when he returns the purchase of blood to the impenetrable Sanhedrim? Ay, how could we ever stand these but for that ideal panoply through which we feel only their modified vibrations?
Let the imitation, or rather copy, be so close as to trench on deception, the effect will be far different; for, the condition of relation being thus virtually lost, the copy becomes as the original,—circumscribed by its own qualities, repulsive or attractive, as the case may be. I remember a striking instance of this in a celebrated actress, whose copies of actual suffering were so painfully accurate, that I was forced to turn away from the scene, unable to endure it; her scream of agony in Belvidera seemed to ring in my ears for hours after. Not so was it with the great Mrs. Siddons, who moved not a step but in a poetic atmosphere, through which the fiercest passions seemed rather to loom like distant mountains when first descried at sea,—massive and solid, yet resting on air.
It would appear, then, that there is something in truth, though but seen in the dim shadow of relation, that enforces interest,—and, so it be without pain, at least some degree of pleasure; which, however slight, is not unimportant, as presenting an impassable barrier to the mere animal. We must not, however, be understood as claiming for this Relative Truth the power of exciting a pleasurable interest in all possible cases; there are exceptions, as in the horrible, the loathsome, &c., which under no condition can be otherwise than revolting. It is enough for our purpose, to have shown that its effect is in most cases similar to that we have ascribed to Truth absolute.
But objections are the natural adversaries of every adventurer: there is one in our path which we soon descried at our first setting out. And we find it especially opposed to the assertion respecting children; namely, that between two things, where there is no personal advantage to bias the decision, they will always choose that which seems to them true, rather than the other which appears false. To this is opposed the notorious fact of the remarkable propensity which children have to lying. This is readily admitted; but it does not meet us, unless it can be shown that they have not in the act of lying an eye to its reward,—setting aside any outward advantage,—in the shape of self-complacent thought at their superior wit or ingenuity. Now it is equally notorious, that such secret triumph will often betray itself by a smile, or wink, or some other sign from the chuckling urchin, which proves any thing but that the lie was gratuitous. No, not even a child can love a lie purely for its own sake; he would else love it in another, which is against fact. Indeed, so far from it, that, long before he can have had any notion of what is meant by honor, the word liar becomes one of his first and most opprobrious terms of reproach. Look at any child's face when he tells his companion he lies. We ask no more than that most logical expression; and, if it speak not of a natural abhorrence only to be overcome by self-interest, there is no trust in any thing. No. We cannot believe that man or child, however depraved, could tell an unproductive, gratuitous lie.
Of the last and highest source of our pleasurable emotions we need say little; since no one will question that, if sought at all, it can only be for its own sake. But it does not become us—at least in this place—to enter on the subject of Holiness; of that angelic state, whose only manifestation is in the perfect unison with the Divine Will. We may, however, consider it in the next degree, as it is known, and as we believe often realized, among men: we mean Goodness.
We presume it is superfluous to define a good act; for every one knows, or ought to know, that no act is good in its true sense, which has any, the least, reference to the agent's self. Nor is it necessary to adduce examples; our object being rather to show that the recognition of goodness—and we beg that the word be especially noted—must result, of necessity, in such an emotion as shall partake of its own character, that is, be entirely devoid of self-interest.
This will no doubt appear to many a startling position. But let it be observed, that we have not said it will always be recognized. There are many reasons why it should not be, and is not. We all know how easy it is to turn away from what gives us no pleasure. A long course of vice, together with the consciousness that goodness has departed from ourselves, may make it painful to look upon it. Nay, the contemplation of it may become, on this account, so painful as to amount to agony. But that Goodness can be hated for its own sake we do not believe, except by a devil, or some irredeemable incarnation of evil, if such there be on this side the grave. But it is objected, that bad men have sometimes a pleasure in Evil from which they neither derive nor hope for any personal advantage, that is, simply because it is evil. But we deny the fact. We deny that an unmixed pleasure, which is purely abstracted from all reference to self, is in the power of Evil. Should any man assert this even of himself, he is not to be believed; he lies to his own heart,—and this he may do without being conscious of it. But how can this be? Nothing more easy: by a simple dislocation of words; by the aid of that false nomenclature which began with the first Fratricide, and has continued to accumulate through successive ages, till it reached its consummation, for every possible sin, in the French Revolution. Indeed, there are few things more easy; it is only to transfer to the evil the name of its opposite. Some of us, perhaps, may have witnessed the savage exultation of some hardened wretch, when the accidental spectator of an atrocious act. But is such exultation pleasure? Is it at all akin to what is recognized as pleasure even by this hardened wretch? Yet so he may call it. But should we, could we look into his heart? Should we not rather pause for a time, from mere ignorance of the true vernacular of sin. What he feels may thus be a mystery to all but the reprobate; but it is not pleasure either in the deed or the doer: for, as the law of Good is Harmony, so is Discord that of Evil; and as sympathy to Harmony, so is revulsion to Discord. And where is hatred deepest and deadliest? Among the wicked. Yet they often hate the good. True: but not goodness, not the good man's virtues; these they envy, and hate him for possessing them. But more commonly the object of dislike is first stripped of his virtues by detraction; the detractor then supplies their place by the needful vices,—perhaps with his own; then, indeed, he is ripe for hatred. When a sinful act is made personal, it is another affair; it then becomes a part of the man; and he may then worship it with the idolatry of a devil. But there is a vast gulf between his own idol and that of another.
To prevent misapprehension, we would here observe, that we do not affirm of either Good or Evil any irresistible power of enforcing love or exciting abhorrence, having evidence to the contrary in the multitudes about us; all we affirm is, that, when contemplated abstractly, they cannot be viewed otherwise. Nor is the fact of their inefficiency in many cases difficult of solution, when it is remembered that the very condition to their true effect is the complete absence of self, that they must clearly be viewed ab extra; a hard, not to say impracticable, condition to the very depraved; for it may well be doubted if to such minds any act or object having a moral nature can be presented without some personal relation. It is not therefore surprising, that, where the condition is so precluded, there should be, not only no proper response to the law of Good or Evil, but such frequent misapprehension of their true character. Were it possible to see with the eyes of others, this might not so often occur; for it need not be remarked, that few things, if any, ever retain their proper forms in the atmosphere of self-love; a fact that will account for many obliquities besides the one in question. To this we may add, that the existence of a compulsory power in either Good or Evil could not, in respect to man, consist with his free agency,—without which there could be no conscience; nor does it follow, that, because men, with the free power of choice, yet so often choose wrong, there is any natural indistinctness in the absolute character of Evil, which, as before hinted, is sufficiently apparent to them when referring to others; in such cases the obliquitous choice only shows, that, with the full force of right perception, their interposing passions or interests have also the power of giving their own color to every object having the least relation to themselves.
Admitting this personal modification, we may then safely repeat our position,—that to hate Good or to love Evil, solely for their own sakes, is only possible with the irredeemably wicked, in other words, with devils.
We now proceed to the latter clause of our general proposition. And here it may be asked, on what ground we assume one intuitive universal Principle as the true source of all those emotions which have just been discussed. To this we reply, On the ground of their common agreement. As we shall here use the words effect and emotion as convertible terms, we wish it to be understood, that, when we apply the epithet common or same to effect, we do so only in relation to kind, and for the sake of brevity, instead of saying the same class of effects; implying also in the word kind the existence of many degrees, but no other difference. For instance, if a beautiful flower and a noble act shall be found to excite a kindred emotion, however slight from the one or deep from the other, they come in effect under the same category. And this we are forced to admit, however heterogeneous, since a common ground is necessarily predicated of a common result. How else, for instance, can we account for a scene in nature, a bird, an animal, a human form, affecting us each in a similar way? There is certainly no similitude in the objects that compose a landscape, and the form of an animal and man; they have no resemblance either in shape, or texture, or color, in roughness, smoothness, or any other known quality; while their several effects are so near akin, that we do not stop to measure even the wide degrees by which they are marked, but class them in a breath by some common term. It is very plain that this singular property of assimilating to one what is so widely unlike cannot proceed from any similar conformation, or quality, or attribute of mere being, that is, of any thing essential to distinctive existence. There must needs, then, be some common ground for their common effect. For if they agree not in themselves one with the other, it follows of necessity that the ground of their agreement must be in relation to something within our own minds, since only there is this common effect known as a fact.
We are now brought to the important question, Where and what is this reconciling ground? Certainly not in sensation, for that could only reflect their distinctive differences. Neither can it be in the reflective faculties, since the effect in question, being co-instantaneous, is wholly independent of any process of reasoning; for we do not feel it because we understand, but only because we are conscious of its presence. Nay, it is because we neither do nor can understand it, being therefore a matter aloof from all the powers of reasoning, that its character is such as has been asserted, and, as such, universal.
Where, then, shall we search for this mysterious ground but in the mind, since only there, as before observed, is this common effect known as a fact? and where in the mind but in some inherent Principle, which is both intuitive and universal, since, in a greater or less degree, all men feel it without knowing why?
But since an inward Principle can, of necessity, have only a potential existence, until called into action by some outward object, it is also clear that any similar effect, which shall then be recognized through it, from any number of differing and distinct objects, can only arise from some mutual relation between a something in the objects and in the Principle supposed, as their joint result and proper product.
And, since it would appear that we cannot avoid the admission of some such Principle, having a reciprocal relation to certain outward objects, to account for these kindred emotions from so many distinct and heterogeneous sources, it remains only that we give it a name; which has already been anticipated in the term Harmony.
The next question here is, In what consists this peculiar relation? We have seen that it cannot be in any thing that is essential to any condition of mere being or existence; it must therefore consist in some undiscoverable condition indifferently applicable to the Physical, Intellectual, and Moral, yet only applicable in each to certain kinds.
And this is all that we do or can know of it. But of this we may be as certain as that we live and breathe.
It is true that, for particular purposes, we may analyze certain combinations of sounds and colors and forms, so as to ascertain their relative quantities or collocation; and these facts (of which we shall hereafter have occasion to speak) may be of importance both in Art and Science. Still, when thus obtained, they will be no more than mere facts, on which we can predicate nothing but that, when they are imitated,—that is, when similar combinations of quantities, &c., are repeated in a work of art,—they will produce the same effect. But why they should is a mystery which the reflective faculties do not solve; and never can, because it refers to a living Power that is above the understanding. In the human figure, for instance, we can give no reason why eight heads to the stature please us better than six, or why three or twelve heads seem to us monstrous. If we say, in the latter case, because the head of the one is too small and of the other too large, we give no reason; we only state the fact of their disagreeable effect on us. And, if we make the proportion of eight heads our rule, it is because of the fact of its being more pleasing to us than any other; and, from the same feeling, we prefer those statures which approach it the nearest. Suppose we analyze a certain combination of sounds and colors, so as to ascertain the exact relative quantities of the one and the collocation of the other, and then compare them. What possible resemblance can the understanding perceive between these sounds and colors? And yet a something within us responds to both in a similar emotion. And so with a thousand things, nay, with myriads of objects that have no other affinity but with that mysterious harmony which began with our being, which slept with our infancy, and which their presence only seems to have awakened. If we cannot go back to our own childhood, we may see its illustration in those about us who are now emerging into that unsophisticated state. Look at them in the fields, among the birds and flowers; their happy faces speak the harmony within them: the divine instrument, which these have touched, gives them a joy which, perhaps, only childhood in its first fresh consciousness can know. Yet what do they understand of musical quantities, or of the theory of colors?
And so with respect to Truth and Goodness; whose preexisting Ideas, being in the living constituents of an immortal spirit, need but the slightest breath of some outward condition of the true and good,—a simple problem, or a kind act,—to awake them, as it were, from their unconscious sleep, and start them for eternity.
We may venture to assert, that no philosopher, however ingenious, could communicate to a child the abstract idea of Right, had the latter nothing beyond or above the understanding. He might, indeed, be taught, like the inferior animals,—a dog, for instance,—that, if he took certain forbidden things, he would be punished, and thus do right through fear. Still he would desire the forbidden thing, though belonging to another; nor could he conceive why he should not appropriate to himself, and thus allay his appetite, what was held by another, could he do so undetected; nor attain to any higher notion of right than that of the strongest. But the child has something higher than the mere power of apprehending consequences. The simplest exposition, whether of right or wrong, even by an ignorant nurse, is instantly responded to by something within him, which, thus awakened, becomes to him a living voice ever after; and the good and the true must thenceforth answer its call, even though succeeding years would fain overlay them with the suffocating crowds of evil and falsehood.
We do not say that these eternal Ideas of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness will, strictly speaking, always act. Though indestructible, they may be banished for a time by the perverted Will, and mockeries of the brain, like the fume-born phantoms from the witches' caldron in Macbeth, take their places, and assume their functions. We have examples of this in every age, and perhaps in none more startling than in the present. But we mean only that they cannot be forgotten: nay, they are but, too often recalled with unwelcome distinctness. Could we read the annals which must needs be scored on every heart,—could we look upon those of the aged reprobate,—who will doubt that their darkest passages are those made visible by the distant gleams from these angelic Forms, that, like the Three which stood before the tent of Abraham, once looked upon his youth?
And we doubt not that the truest witness to the common source of these inborn Ideas would readily be acknowledged by all, could they return to it now with their matured power of introspection, which is, at least, one of the few advantages of advancing years. But, though we cannot bring back youth, we may still recover much of its purer revelations of our nature from what has been left in the memory. From the dim present, then, we would appeal to that fresher time, ere the young spirit had shrunk from the overbearing pride of the understanding, and confidently ask, if the emotions we then felt from the Beautiful, the True, and the Good, did not seem in some way to refer to a common origin. And we would also ask, if it was then frequent that the influence from one was singly felt,—if it did not rather bring with it, however remotely, a sense of something, though widely differing, yet still akin to it. When we have basked in the beauty of a summer sunset, was there nothing in the sky that spoke to the soul of Truth and Goodness? And when the opening intellect first received the truth of the great law of gravitation, or felt itself mounting through the profound of space, to travel with the planets in their unerring rounds, did never then the kindred Ideas of Goodness and Beauty chime in, as it were, with the fabled music,—not fabled to the soul,—which led you on like one entranced?