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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. Greek text has been transliterated and marked like so: Greek Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
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MARTIN SECKER'S SERIES OF MODERN MONOGRAPHS
J.M. SYNGE By P.P. Howe HENRIK IBSEN By R. Ellis Roberts WALTER PATER By Edward Thomas THOMAS HARDY By Lascelles Abercrombie GEORGE GISSING By Frank Swinnerton WALT WHITMAN By Basil de Selincourt WILLIAM MORRIS By John Drinkwater A.C. SWINBURNE By Edward Thomas
Each volume Demy Octavo, Cloth Gilt, with a Frontispiece in Photogravure. Price 7s. 6d. net
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The Manchester Courier says: "This excellent series."
The Illustrated London News says: "Mr. Martin Secker's series of critical studies does justice to the publisher's sense of pleasant format. The volumes are a delight to eye and hand, and make a welcome addition to the bookshelf."
MARTIN SECKER PUBLISHER NUMBER FIVE JOHN STREET ADELPHI
The Complete Dramatic Works of Gerhart Hauptmann. 6 vols. 5s. net each.
Vie de Boheme: A Patch of Romantic Paris. By Orlo Williams. 15s. net.
The Art of Silhouette. By Desmond Coke. 10s. net.
Walt Whitman: A Critical Study. By Basil de Selincourt. 7s. 6d. net.
Walter Pater: A Critical Study. By Edward Thomas. 7s. 6d. net.
Speculative Dialogues. By Lascelles Abercrombie. 5s. net.
Dramatic Portraits. By P.P. Howe. 5s. net.
PERSONALITY IN LITERATURE
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
MODERNISM AND ROMANCE
PERSONALITY IN LITERATURE
BY R.A. SCOTT-JAMES
LONDON: MARTIN SECKER NUMBER FIVE JOHN STREET ADELPHI
First published 1913
WILLIAM BRENDON AND SON, LTD., PRINTERS, PLYMOUTH.
PART ONE: LITERATURE AND ART PAGE THE DEGRADATION OF BEAUTY 3
LITERATURE A FINE ART 14
PASSIONS SPIN THE PLOT 42
THE POPULAR TASTE 55
PART TWO: LITERATURE AND MODERN LIFE
TO-DAY AND YESTERDAY 81
PROFESSIONAL POLITICS 96
SPECIALISM IN RELIGION 103
SPECIALISM IN WAR 109
SPECIALISM IN LITERATURE 115
PHILOSOPHY AND JUSTICE 121
PART THREE: LITERATURE AND MEN
BERNARD SHAW 131
H.G. WELLS 151
ARNOLD BENNETT 170
GILBERT CHESTERTON 187
SOME MODERN POETS 196
J.M. SYNGE 222
THE SHRAMANA EKAI KAWAGUCHI 226
FRANCIS THOMPSON 235
LITERATURE AND ART
THE DEGRADATION OF BEAUTY
Some time ago I found myself at an exhibition of Post-Impressionist pictures, under the aegis of an artist who was himself of that persuasion. Indeed, he was one of the exhibitors, and I was constrained to express my opinions in the form of questions. We passed before a picture which to my untutored eyes was formless, meaningless and ugly. It was by a well-known artist, and my instructor admired it. He said it was the head of a woman, and he indicated certain hook-like marks in the painting which to him distinctly suggested the nose, the mouth and the neck of a woman, reduced to their simplest terms. After he had fully explained the picture, I asked him if the result was in any sense beautiful to him.
"Beautiful!" he exclaimed, with something of disdain in his voice. "Why should it be beautiful? I do not require that a picture should be beautiful."
He had not finished, but I was relieved by the first part of his reply. As I cannot hope to appreciate more than a certain number of things in the world, I am willing, so far as pictures are concerned, to be limited to beautiful pictures, and to be proved ignorant and obtuse in regard to all others. For the same reason I have long since reconciled myself to the fact that there are some branches of science and natural history which I shall never master. I shall always endeavour to follow clever writers like Shaw and Brieux whose plays have, as the former puts it, "a really scientific natural history" for their basis. But I cannot hope to acquire the whole of knowledge or reform the whole of the world, and there are books which contain a great deal of sound knowledge and urgent opinion for which I have no use. Moreover, I deny Mr. Shaw's right to interfere with my enjoyment if I turn to literature which teaches nothing and serves no utilitarian or reforming purpose. It is only when I am in the scientific frame of mind that I desire accurate natural history, or when I am in the reforming frame of mind that I desire earnest exhortations to improve society. In the same way I am only drawn to the Post-Impressionists when I want, not beautiful pictures, but an agreeable sense of the impudence and imbecility of professional craftsmen. But when I am in the mood for literature and art, I demand something that shall appeal to my sense of beauty; and I refuse to be shamed into believing that I ought to prefer scientific knowledge, or ethical suasion, or those particular kinds of ugliness admired by some Realists and some Post-Impressionists.
But I was a little disconcerted when my Post-Impressionist artist concluded with the remark: "I have never yet found anyone who could tell me what he meant by beauty."
Certainly I had not asked him for an exact definition, or any definition of Beauty in the abstract. I should have been satisfied if, for the moment, he had taken it on trust, as most of us take the law of gravity, the postulates of Euclid, and the evidence of our senses. I was not dismayed because a single Post-Impressionist thought that "beautiful" is a word that has no meaning; but because the reply came so pat upon his lips;—he was repeating, parrot-like, a current view; he was adopting the fashionable attitude of scorn towards what is regarded as an ancient tyranny, long since indicted and exploded. This bland acceptance of the meaninglessness and the inefficacy of beauty is habitual to most young professionals who wield pen or pencil. They have learnt it from Mr. Shaw, forgetting that when Mr. Shaw demands complete freedom for the writer he also demands objective truth; or they have learnt it from Mr. Roger Fry, forgetting that even Mr. Fry demands some kind of subjective truth. Every young artist like my acquaintance at the Grafton Gallery, every young novelist like Mr. Gilbert Cannan, is encouraged by the intellectuals to accept formlessness and anarchy as evidence of a magnanimous and enlightened spirit.
But it is not necessary to expose this falsity in its crude and most violent forms. For we may find it expressed in an almost academic way, with philosophical aloofness, a show of nice reasoning, and a kind of Epicurean sweetness in a Romanes lecture delivered by Mr. Arthur James Balfour and published under the title Criticism and Beauty. It is worth while to study so responsible a writer, for we may be sure that he will weigh his words, that he will not over-state his case, or be led away by passion or fanaticism. And it is assuredly interesting to examine the argument for anarchy as stated and defended by a Conservative statesman.
Indeed, it is hard to believe that the author of this essay is the same Mr. Balfour whom we know as the leader of the Conservative party. A statesman ostensibly so consistent in upholding order and authority in the Church, in adhering to time-honoured standards of government, and in trusting the judgment of men "trained in the tradition of politics," might have been expected to hold views somewhat similar in matters of art. We should have expected him to believe in the existence, not perhaps of artistic canons, but of artistic standards; to be convinced that in aesthetics there is an aesthetic right and wrong; to attach weight to the judgment of men of "trained sensibility." But it is not so. He holds in the most extreme form the ancient doctrine that seeming is being. Art, as such, has for him nothing to do with truth. He recognises no valid standard of excellence. The only excellence in a work of art is to afford aesthetic pleasure, and the pleasure which a boy derives from a blood-curdling adventure-book or the public from a popular melodrama is, in Mr. Balfour's view, no less "aesthetic" than the pleasure which another may derive from contemplating a statue by Michelangelo. There is no universal standard; no criterion; no excellence in art except such as each man accepts for himself.
Mr. Balfour does, indeed, make a proper distinction between art as "technical dexterity" and art as related to the "sublime," the "beautiful," the "pathetic," the "humorous," the "melodious," and admits that it is possible to apply an "objective test" to technical skill—to decide that this line scans, that this rhyme is flawless, that these bars in music are in such-and-such a key. But he will allow no objective grounds of excellence to art in the more important sense. If you say that this poem is beautiful or sublime, you are asserting what is only true for you, a mere personal preference which others need not be expected to share. Not only do men of "trained sensibility" differ from the uncultured, but they differ equally from one another. He cites the evidence of Greek music to show how widely the cultured of one nation and epoch may differ from the cultured of other nations and epochs. Having laid it down as an axiom that our aesthetic judgments are "for the most part immediate, and, so to speak, intuitive," and observing that the fastidious differ among themselves, and that their delight in fine objects is no more intense than the delight of the vulgar in coarser themes, he proceeds to the conclusion that there can be no valid right or wrong in taste, no absolute standard of beauty. He even maintains that art is not based upon any special faculty for perceiving the true. "I can find no justification in experience for associating great art with penetrating insight."
Before going further it is necessary to hint at a curious confusion in which he here involves himself—a surely rather crude confusion between aesthetic, and moral, right and wrong. Being concerned to disprove the existence of the former, he for a moment identifies it with the latter. It is either, as I have taken it, a crude confusion of thought, or an equivocating device more often used in political controversy than in the domain of art criticism—that of identifying the opinion attacked with another of an ignominious character. The view which he is rejecting is thus set forth. "An artist is deemed to be more than the maker of beautiful things. He is a seer, a moralist, a prophet." Surely he must realise that there are many who would most fervently hold that an artist must be a seer or even a prophet, who would ridicule the idea that he must be that very different sort of thing, a moralist. And in the same way, when he has declared categorically: "I can find no justification in experience for associating great art with penetrating insight," he almost ludicrously adds, "or good art with good morals."
It is this confusion of the aim of the artist with the aims of other expounders—the moralist, the philosopher, the theologian—that vitiates his argument against the insight of the great artists. Why does he deny them this "penetrating insight?" Because they have cherished opposite convictions about fundamental matters. "Optimism and pessimism; materialism and spiritualism; theism, pantheism, atheism, morality and immorality; religion and irreligion; lofty resignation and passionate revolt—each and all have inspired or helped to inspire the creators of artistic beauty." The non sequitur of this argument lies in the fact that he only shows that artists have differed in respect of what is not essential to art. If he had shown that some artists have created the beautiful, and others have created the ugly, he would have produced evidence fatal to his opponents. As it is he has denied perception of the beautiful to artists because they differ in respect of that which has no necessary connection with beauty.
But to leave this technical, though not wholly unreal, disputation. There is this merit in Mr. Balfour's essay: that it states in its most extreme form a view for which there is something to be said and which has been gaining in favour in modern times. It is a reaction against the view which became established in the course of the last century. It was the habit of the eighteenth century to judge poetry by its form alone; the nineteenth judged it by the spirit which inspired it, by that which, as De Quincey puts it, was "incarnated" in a work of art. William Blake literally believed that there was a real world of the imagination which was opened up to the artist in his visions, and that was why he said: "Learn to see through, not with, the eye." Coleridge, too, asserted the primacy of Reason and imagination; and for Wordsworth poetry was "Reason in her most exalted form," just as for Keats "Beauty is truth, truth Beauty." Even so logical and prosaic a thinker as John Stuart Mill recognised that supremacy of the artist to which he himself could not attain; the artist, as he said in a letter to Carlyle, perceives truth immediately, by intuition, and it was his own humble function to translate the truths discerned by the artist into logic. "Is not the distinction between mysticism, the mysticism which is of truth, and mere dreamery, or the institution of imaginations for realities, exactly this, that mysticism may be translated into logic?" Logic, for Mill, was only the hand-servant of that art which is concerned, not with "imaginations" only, but with realities. And it was in the same spirit that Matthew Arnold laid down his decisive verdict that literature is a criticism of life, that it may be subjected to a "universal" estimate, and that the standard is "the best that has been said and thought in the world."
But in recent years there has been a revolt against the idea of standards or authority in art. Art has always been conceived as something which affords pleasure; but now it is conceived as that which affords pleasure to anyone. The democracy, now that it has become literate, claims the right of private judgment, equality for its members even in matters of art. And in a sense it is right. Nothing should be or can be acclaimed as beautiful unless it appears beautiful to the spectator. There is no criterion of beauty outside the perception of beauty. For each man, that only is beautiful which affords him the experience of beauty; and whatever does afford him that experience has given him the aesthetic pleasure which is the true pleasure of art. But there are many pleasurable thrills which have nothing to do with beauty or with art. That is why Mr. Balfour surely is wrong when he suggests that the youthful delight in blood-curdling adventures is an "enjoyment of what is Art, and nothing but Art." But I agree that we are confronted with an antinomy which seems hard enough to overcome—on the one hand art is only good because some people have judged or felt it to be good; on the other hand all sincere critics are convinced that some works are absolutely good, that their excellence is beyond reasonable challenge, and that those who do not perceive this excellence are lacking in fineness of perception.
The anarchistic side of the paradox is put in its crudest form by Mr. Balfour. It has been put in perhaps its finest and truest form by Mr. Henry James:
Art is the one corner of human life in which we may take our ease. To justify our presence there the only thing demanded of us is that we shall have felt the representational impulse. In other connections our impulses are conditioned and embarrassed; we are allowed to have only so many as are consistent with those of our neighbours; with their convenience and well-being, with their convictions and prejudices, their rules and regulations. Art means an escape from all this. Wherever her shining standard floats the need for apology and compromise is over; there it is enough simply that we please or are pleased. There the tree is judged only by its fruits. If these are sweet the tree is justified—and not less so the consumer.... Differences here are not iniquity and righteousness; they are simply variations of temperament, kinds of curiosity. We are not under theological government.
It is true; in art, at least, we are "not under theological government," and that was a maxim worth asserting at a time when the dicta of Matthew Arnold and Ruskin were being converted into shibboleths. It is necessary for happiness no less than for honesty that we should realise that poetry, music, and pictures are personal things; that what they are worth to us is their sole measure of value. And here it must be mentioned that Mr. Balfour puts forth two hints which are inconclusive enough, but which do dimly suggest a truer way of escape than that to which his argument leads. He notes, first of all, that art is disinterested; that it is not a means, but an end in itself. And, secondly, we feel towards beautiful things as we feel towards persons; if they are congenial we may like or love them, though we can assign no ground for our preference.
If the analogy were pursued it might lead to something like a solution of the difficulty. For all fine art is beautiful expression; it is self-expression; it is the expression of something which the artist perceives. If it strikes an answering chord in us we are satisfied; and that fact of response means a community of perception, of aesthetic knowledge, between the artist and the recipient, something perhaps which is dragged from the depths of our duller natures but which burst forth in expression from the artist with his quicker and more apt perception. But let it be noted that there could be no such response or sympathy conveyed from one to another by a symbol unless there were some real bond, some existent principle possessed in common. Art is communicative, but not surely a communication of nothing. It communicates something which is not the less real because it is intangible and mysterious. If it inexplicably affords us—as it does—an experience which some persons describe as transcendent, then that quality in it, which we call the "sublime" or the "beautiful," has at least to this extent a definite reality, that it affords us unique experiences. It is this question which I shall examine in the following chapter.
Some men have not been so made that they can respond to the beauty which is summoned by art, just as some men, born blind, are not touched by the light of the sun. But it is of no moment to say that tastes differ. Men may differ about their friends, but they do not differ about friendship. They may have different codes of honour, but a sense of honour is the same thing for a savage as it is for a bishop. And so not all things are called beautiful by the same men, but beauty is the same for all.
 See Preface to Round the Corner. (Martin Secker.)
LITERATURE A FINE ART
There are many people of my acquaintance who think it almost indecent to talk of literature as a fine art. They have the same distaste for the word "art" as others have for the name of God. It has indeed been misused in certain aesthetic circles and discussed almost unctuously, so that it is often associated with long hair and cant, and seems nonsensical if not disreputable to plain and honest men. I remember an Oxford don, chiefly noted for his cricket and his knowledge of Homer, and in later life for his dyspepsia, abusing a distinguished Austrian critic who visited the University—"These foreigners are always talking about Art!" Foreigners and long-haired aesthetes were one and the same thing to my atrabilious instructor. The latter was an exact man. No wonder he detested a word which is used so vaguely and in so many contrary senses; which is sometimes applied to a poem or a novel as if its "art" were an ornamental thing separate from the poem or the novel; or as if it were a mere synonym for style or adherence to some technical formula.
Yet we cannot very well get on without the word, and we certainly cannot avoid its connotation. No man in his senses can deny that there is such a thing as the "art of literature," though it may seem absurd to talk about it. No one, however healthy in his tastes, would refuse to distinguish the statement "This is a very good book"—which may mean only that it is instructive, or useful for certain purposes—from the statement "This, anyhow, is literature"—which means something quite specific, namely, that this is a work of art. The very word would become less offensive if we could be a little less vague about it, if we could make up our minds what it is that it does mean or that we wish it to mean. We all of us distinguish between good and bad in literature, even if we regard our own judgments as fallible. We are all disposed to mistrust the opinions of our contemporaries, though we have a childlike faith in the verdict of posterity. Well, what is it that will satisfy posterity, and that ought, a fortiori, to satisfy us? What is it, in the domain of the delightful, as opposed to the merely knowable, which has value for the future, and therefore should have more value for the present? And what is it—an even more important question—which may have this kind of value for us, whether posterity choose to value it or not? That is the main point. We want to find what that quality is, in literature or any of the fine arts, which makes it a matter of so great consideration to us. What do we expect and demand from it, if it is to be something of real moment? That is one side of the question. And putting the question from the other side—What sort of process is implied in the writing of literature, and what is the sanction of the writer? It seems we are compelled to form some provisional theory of art before we can make the most modest pretensions to discuss literature. For such a theory is implied in every literary discussion, in every review of a book, and in every appreciative or antagonistic reading of a book. I myself have written hundreds of reviews of books, and I certainly do not think it more presumptuous to set down what it is that I require, or believe that I require, in creative literature, and what that requirement presupposes in the artist, than to have written those hundreds of reviews.
I begin, then, from the side of our actual requirements, and I lay it down as a self-evident proposition, that if we mean anything at all by creative literature, or literature regarded as a fine art, we must mean something which provides us with an addition to experience, an experience sui generis. We demand that it should be something which will occupy us and engage our faculties, something not to be approached carelessly and indolently, but with energy and alertness of the mind; not because it is abstruse or difficult, but because we are demanding something which will give full play to the spirit, which will come profoundly in contact with us when we are in fullest possession of ourselves, which will not merely stir us, but stir us to activity.
That I would take as an axiom. If we are going to regard fiction, for example, as a fine art, the artistic novel will be a book which we approach not for mere distraction, but for activity, mental and spiritual, for the opportunity it affords of putting forth energy, of giving full play to the vitality, of going through a vital experience. Just as the keen golfer delights in the skilful use of eye and limb, and is exhilarated by the difficulties and the physical exertion of the game, so the keen reader of a book enjoys the strenuous mental exercise it affords him. To some extent the mind is more elastic than the body. Even when it is tired it can sometimes be whipped into energy by thought, or reading, or talk, whereas the body in its corresponding state cannot so readily respond with accuracy and effectiveness. But the mind too—Heaven knows—may be dulled to fine issues; and it is only when it is in well-balanced activity that it can do full justice to a work of art; and that is no work of art which the jaded intelligence can wholly grasp. Anyone who enjoys pictures, and does not care to look at them perfunctorily or in a "sightseeing" spirit, knows well that he can only appreciate a picture when he allows eyes and imagination to concentrate upon it, so that he perceives as well as sees it, and derives a complex impression from it akin to that which the artist felt at the moment when he conceived it. And in the same way with every work of art worthy of the name, whether it be a picture, a statue, a poem, a play or a novel, it is part of its excellence to call forth activity in the mind which apprehends it.
But we must note that it not only calls forth activity, but disinterested activity—and by that I mean an activity of the kind which is especially called forth in the fine arts, and not that which science, or religion, or ethics might call forth without the aid of the arts. To preserve the analogy of golf, it may happen—and generally does happen—that the playing of golf makes the limbs more elastic and promotes general health. But to take an interest in golf is not the same thing as to take an interest in the health-producing results of golf. The true golfer is he who plays golf for its own sake and without any ulterior end, without thought of consequences, although consequences of some kind are inevitable. In the same way the activity called forth in all art, both in the artist at the time of creation and in the man who is appreciating it, is disinterested; he is, in proportion as he is an artist or an appreciator of art, concerned at the moment in nothing but the subject-matter of the artist, and the treatment; in making or receiving a certain effect, without thought of the possible practical consequences which may follow through some inference drawn from the work or some psychological result attending upon it. This is not a re-statement of the much-abused theory of "Art for Art's sake," for that theory has always tended to minimise the importance of subject-matter, and to represent Beauty as something aloof from the rest of life, instead of being inseparable from the warp and woof of things social, moral, intellectual, religious, and physical. When I say that the activity of the artist is disinterested, I do not mean that he may not be concerned with any conceivable theme under the sun, but that his business is to provide us with an experience, and that any end he may have beyond making that experience vivid and complete is an alien end, destroying his singleness of purpose, wholly disruptive of his art and destructive to its energy.
And here we must abandon the analogy of a game of skill, for whereas golf-balls have no interest except as things to be knocked about, the objects with which poet, dramatist or novelist deals are ideas, persons, associated things, having character and interest of their own. The experience he is to provide is primarily a spiritual experience, an affair of the mind and the emotions. And being, as it must clearly be, an experience sui generis, it is obviously not derived from a mere reproduction of life; for life cannot be reproduced excepting in life itself, whereas art claims no more than to be an imitation, or an envisagement, of nature, and its life is its own. What we demand of it is that it should put into its picture something that is and is not in nature—something, in other words, that is only there for those who choose to see it, but which the artist makes clearer, awakening the perceptions to that aspect of truth which he has in view. In a book called The Ascending Effort, Mr. George Bourne urged that the art of life consists in the realisation of "choice ideas"; meaning by "choice ideas" those which are refined out of the commonplace and the meagre; the ideas which are apprehended most actively, with all the mind and all the perceptions; the ideas which admit of relation to all other ideas, which come into some sort of harmony with such schemes of life as we have made. If this is true of the art of life, a fortiori is it true of the fine arts from which the analogy is drawn. In other words, the artist's aim is not to reproduce the facts which make up the mass of our ordinary and undigested life, but to substitute for the dishevelled commonplace the "choiceness" of an ordered interpretation. Only in this way can art give us an experience sui generis; only by the refinement and re-energising of the treatment can it give us emotions vivid enough to compete in some measure with the vividness of nature.
Implicitly all great artists must have accepted this general view of their function, and many in one way or another have explicitly stated it. "As light to the eye, even such is beauty to the mind," said Coleridge, whose meaning was philosophically definite, but in no way at variance with Shakespeare's too hackneyed but ever memorable words:
Spirits are not finely touched, But to fine issues.
The "fine": the "alight" or "luminous": the "choice"—here are three ways of qualifying the objects which artists seek to present. Matthew Arnold was captivated by the simile of light, and having repeated Amiel's passionate cry for "more light," used "sweetness and light" as a refrain in all his criticism. Walter Pater, to whom the beauty of the human form, and therefore of sculpture, was especially appealing, loved to use such terms as "shapely," "comely," "blythe," "gracious," "engaging," to express the fine flavour of a work of art. The quality may be manifested primarily through the intellect, as with Meredith; through the senses, as with Swinburne; through the perceptions, as with Turgeniev, Flaubert and Joseph Conrad; or through intellect and perceptions acutely balanced, as with Mr. Henry James (who gives us "curiosity" as the keynote); but in any case it is that which we require an artist to bring with him—"fineness," "light," "choiceness," "comeliness," "graciousness"—when he visualises or focusses his object. Does not that untranslatable liparos aither of Homer—the shining upper air—suggest not only the physical atmosphere breathed by the gods of Olympus and the great-hearted Odysseus, but also the poetic atmosphere of the Odyssey itself?
We have, then, added a third term to our generalisation about art. We now require, as it seems, that it should provide us with an energetic experience; that it should be disinterested in the sense that it cannot aim at any competing, alien end; and thirdly, that this experience should come from objects made beautiful in the sense of being shown in a certain light, or made alight—in a manner which demands further inquiry. And here indeed is the difficulty. For we must endeavour to examine the question from the artist's standpoint, and seek counsel from him.
It would be no less futile than presumptuous to lay down exact formulae as to what the artist ought and ought not to do. No modern critic is likely to waste his time in framing rules and canons, which can be so easily handled by the pedant and stand condemned by the first great man who defies them. Aristotle did it once and for all for the Greek drama, and when the perspective of life widened and new forms of literature grew up to compete with drama, his rules were destined either to shackle literature or to be thrown ruthlessly overboard in the violent revulsion against Classicism. Shakespeare fortunately was guiltless of any exact knowledge of Aristotle, and the fact that Corneille and Racine, who had no French Shakespeare to precede them, were in bondage to that influential philosopher, had a lasting effect upon French literature which the mighty influence of Hugo was insufficient to destroy. But at least the example of these Classicist writers has proved that literature itself is not only profoundly affected, but made and unmade, by theories of literature. And Corneille and Racine bestowed at any rate this immeasurable benefit on their countrymen: they taught them the lesson of form and technique—a lesson which they have never forgotten, which is illustrated as much in fiction as in drama—in Merimee, Flaubert, Maupassant and Anatole France. Shakespeare, on the contrary, whose influence on English literature has been supreme since the beginning of the Romantic movement, provided no obvious model for the student of form. To the casual reader his very imagination seems to be lawlessness and extravagance, carrying him tempestuously and recklessly into the melee of poetry. But every careful reader knows that Shakespeare was not so reckless as he seems; observe how rigidly he conformed to the conditions prescribed by the Elizabethan theatre and audience; it is to the credit of his technique that he complied with these exacting conditions without cramping the finer issues of poetry and drama. And in the broader sense of the term Shakespeare's form was precisely proportionate to his genius, though it is seen rather in the transcendence of his poetry and the management by which his persons are swept along on their own characters than in those more obvious elements of form—structure of plot, the subservience of dialogue and incident to the dramatic purpose, and all the minor probabilities and proprieties. But it is just the obvious elements which are most noticeable to those who study form in a superficial way; for those who imitate Shakespeare, or are influenced by him, his careless freedom and extravagance often bulk larger than the expression of genius which made trifles of these defects. A result is that throughout the nineteenth century Shakespeare has been for English authors not always an inspiration, but a national pretext for decrying technique.
And yet those who had the insight and the power to restore Shakespeare in all his fulness to English readers were wholly free from this ignorance—conspicuously Charles Lamb and S.T. Coleridge. Coleridge was indeed the first of Englishmen to think out anything like a complete and satisfactory theory of poetry and the fine arts. The supreme value of his theory comes from the fact that he was one of the few who had actually experienced those creative impulses which as a theorist he endeavoured to account for. He had had the inspiration of poetry; he had achieved it; and to that extent he had indisputable evidence before him. If only on the one hand he had extended his method a little further than he did, and taken into consideration that formal side of art which is dear to classicism, and on the other hand been more confident—or shall I say less shy?—when he considered the origin of the creative imagination, the ideal conceiver and creator of Natura Naturata, then his scheme would have been complete—probably too complete. On the latter subject, however, he threw out hints which were broad enough, and did not wholly shun the controversial sphere of metaphysics. The critic who would avoid the heights and depths of mysticism would do well to imitate his reserve, and exceed him in metaphysical diffidence.
"Good Sense is the Body of poetic genius," said Coleridge, "Fancy its Drapery, Motion its Life, and Imagination the Soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole." It is by that "synthetic and magical power" which he calls "imagination" that the poet "brings the whole soul of man into activity," and "diffuses a tone and spirit of unity." Coleridge's theory of the Fine Arts presupposes his metaphysic; and it asserts the primacy of the reason. "Of all we see, hear, feel and touch the substance is and must be in ourselves: and therefore there is no alternative in reason between the dreary (and, thank Heaven! almost impossible) belief that everything around us is but a phantom, or that the life which is in us is in them likewise.... The artist must imitate that which is within the thing, that which is active through form and figure, and discourses to us by symbols."
He defines the beautiful as "that in which the many, still seen as many, becomes one," and takes as an instance: "The frost on the windowpane has by accident crystallised into a striking resemblance of a tree or a sea-weed. With what pleasure we trace the parts, and their relation to each other and to the whole." "The beautiful arises from the perceived harmony of an object, whether sight or sound, with the inborn and constitutive rules of the judgment and imagination, and it is always intuitive." It is that which "calls on the soul" (kalon quasi kaloun). He conceives it to be the function of the human reason to discover the unifying idea which underlies all the variety of nature; and thus it is that when manifold objects of sense are reduced by the imagination to order and unity the soul is satisfied, and its experience is an experience of what is called the beautiful. It is with this discovering of order in the seemingly chaotic, in other words the discovering of beauty, that the creative artist is concerned. It is his business to inform matter with idea; and matter symbolically used becomes the expression of the artist's thought just as for the theologian the world of nature is an expression of the thought of God. "To make the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature—this is the mystery of genius in the Fine Arts." And he goes on significantly: "Dare I add that the genius must act on the feeling, that body is but a striving to become mind—that it is mind in its essence?" And in all the Biographia Literaria there is perhaps no more striking suggestion than: "Remark the seeming identity of body and mind in infants, and thence the loveliness of the former."
It should be observed that Coleridge's philosophy presupposes "a bond between nature in the higher sense and the soul of a man," presupposes, that is, that the spirit of the artist "has the same ground with nature," whose unspoken language he must learn "in its main radicals." It is only by reason of this bond that external nature, the manifestation of Natura naturans, lends itself to the artist so that he too may manifest himself. To attain this end the artist will imitate nature but not copy her. ("What idle rivalry!" he exclaims. Is not a copy of nature like a wax-work figure, which shocks because it lacks "the motion and the life which we expected?") The artist imitates what he perceives to be essential in nature; he takes the images which life affords him and so disposes of them as to bring to light the unities which the spirit loves; it is he who brings order out of disorder, imposing upon matter a form which the imagination has conceived.
For the purposes of the general critic of art, Coleridge has given us too much and too little. He gives us too much: for the acceptance of his theory in its completeness is only possible for those who can also accept his metaphysic (his artist stands in a special relationship to that Natura naturans which is a name for God). It is indeed clear to me that no complete conception of the operations of art can be formed without a complete metaphysical theory; but both are difficult to attain. Both lead to speculation, controversy, and a thousand opportunities of error. And any systematically complete theory of art, seeking as it must to account for infinity, must, like all metaphysical systems, fall short of the truth by precisely the difference between infinite thought and the thought of one man—by the difference between the Universe and You or Me. Those who are anxious to learn what can be learnt about the creative process, and to explain it to themselves, not in terms of abstract thought, but in terms of the humanly intelligible and appreciable, may be satisfied with a lower degree of truth, with something more certain though not fully explained. We may be content if we can hit upon some least common denominator free from the controversies of metaphysics.
If that is our object, Coleridge has given us too much. But he has also given us too little. So generalised is his treatment that we are led to the conclusion that his perfect artist (who cannot exist) ought to express nothing less than the whole of himself in one single comprehensive work of art, as the divine Creator is conceived to have produced one harmonious expression of Himself in the Universe. What he does not sufficiently discuss is the imperfect artist—the only artist that has yet been given to the world. It is true the great genius in letters, or any other kind of art, can never rest content until he has bodied forth in a multitude of works all of that complex which is his conception of life. But he works under the conditions of time and space. His conception of life has been modified before he has had time to vanquish time. In practice, at any given moment, he is at work upon a single aspect of life, upon one part only of his general conception, so that the most immediate task before him is not that of unifying nature, but of separating, of selecting; and only when he has thus separated and selected can he proceed to make a unity within that restricted sphere of nature—his particular subject. On this practical question, this problem, not of perfection but of imperfection, Coleridge is characteristically silent.
But at least we must follow him in his view that the great artist is engaged in the attempt to body forth, through the symbols which external nature provides him, his fundamental conceptions about life. Were this not so, art would not be concerned, as it claims to be, with what is most important in the world, or at least most important to the artist. "No man was ever yet a great poet," he insisted, "without being at the same time a profound philosopher." We may recall the dictum of Meredith: "If we do not speedily embrace philosophy in fiction, the Art is doomed to extinction." But there is a great difference between the two views. A work of art which is broad enough to embrace philosophy is not the same thing as a work of art which is embraced by philosophy, and is a complete product of the philosophical imagination. Meredith extolled the intellect, which works discursively; Coleridge extolled the reason, which apprehends intuitively. For Coleridge, the intellect was only the organ by which rational conceptions and intuitions are logically applied, and adapted to circumstance. From his point of view we might conclude that the genius of Meredith missed the greatest effects because, applying his intellect discursively to life, he so often refused to make it subservient to any central conception or intuition. However that may be, it is impossible to resist at least this conclusion, that the artist in whose work we feel a background, whose work suggests more than it directly is, being capable of arousing numberless feelings and associations in the mind, so that it stands veritably as a symbol of the whole of life, is the artist par excellence. Much of this effect may be produced by an unconscious activity which Coleridge recognised as a part of the activity of genius. Nevertheless, whether the activity is conscious or unconscious, it cannot do more than express what arises in, or passes through, the imagination of the artist; it is his complex conception of life and the significance of life, his definite individual outlook, which accounts for this background to a work of art, for this suggestiveness which makes it appealing and awakening, for these associations which it has cunningly brought before us. And whether or not we are going to allow that something less than this can be called art, that the merely shapely (shapely as if by accident) ought to be included in its category, nevertheless, it is this which holds the highest place. The answer is given by all the great authors of the world who have left their individual stamp upon their art, who created images representative of life as they conceived it essentially to be.
But I am far from holding that those central conceptions which the artist embodies through the forms of his art are metaphysical conceptions. This is where I should disagree with Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie, who wrote some profoundly interesting chapters on this subject in a book on Thomas Hardy. Mr. Abercrombie laid it down that every great artist must have a metaphysic, and that in bringing his subject-matter under the form conceived by his imagination his metaphysic is throughout the work consistently represented (of course implicitly, not explicitly); and he suggested that we may apply a definite standard of criticism by asking: How far does a work of art correspond with the artist's philosophical view of life?—this being for him another way of saying: How far has the artist succeeded in imposing the desired form upon his material? With the latter mode of stating the question I should have no quarrel. But the former implies that the artist has devoted himself to metaphysical studies. Mr. Abercrombie may have meant only that every work of art presupposes a metaphysic; but so does everything in the world. The remark would scarcely have been worth making. So I suppose him to have meant that every great artist must have subdued his mind to a definite philosophical interpretation of the Universe, and that in his works he shows nature and human life as parts of the cosmic scheme definitely conceived by him. As it happened, the particular novelist whom he was considering, Mr. Thomas Hardy, exactly answers to this description. So does Sophocles, so does Milton—authors specially esteemed by Mr. Abercrombie. Homer, too, might perhaps be accounted for in this way; for he had at any rate a perfectly definite conception of the relation of men to the gods of Olympus and to the ghosts who trod the mead of Asphodel; and to the perfect spontaneity, the unhesitating certainty with which Homer bodies forth the conviction of pantheism is due much of the charm and infinite delight of the Epics. Perhaps with ingenuity one might discover a metaphysic for Shakespeare—and even if we could not discover it, none the less it may have been there. But how about Herrick, Robert Burns, or even Mr. Henry James? Are we to equip them with a metaphysic, or exclude them from the portals of art? Shall we not gain more by requiring from an artist something, definite indeed, but less exacting and elusive than a definite scheme of the Universe; something which would admit, for example, Calverley; which would take some heed of the simplest of songs, and account for Lewis Carroll in the same way that we can account for Sophocles or Milton?
There is surely something more essential to a man even than his codification of himself in the final terms of philosophy. It is that kernel of personality which inclines him in this direction or that. It is this kernel of personality which turns him in the first place to philosophy, if he be a philosopher; or which makes him detest abstract speculation, if he is another kind of man. It is prior to philosophy. It is a condition of its being. It determines, surely, even the character of a man's metaphysic, setting him, not to range like an aimless ghost of thought across the Universe, but to express himself accurately; to express himself, with the help of his intellect, consistently. Now the artist, or imaginative person, is not seeking to express himself, like the philosopher, in terms of logical notions; and he is under no obligation to express himself, to himself, logically, before he proceeds to express himself imaginatively. All that is essential is that the kernel of his personality, that which determines philosophies as it determines every other achievement, should be directly, immediately, expressed in the figurative language of his art. This is the central, the all-important thing, that final, essential, and therefore indefinable entity which has thrust itself upon us when we say of a man that he has an "interesting personality." The more powerful and energetic a man is, the more distinctive become his ways of looking at things, his ways of thinking, observing, appreciating; we discover a kind of centre of gravity in him, or a kernel which has been developed by active experience and reflection. This kernel of his character is to the rest of him, the accidental or inessential, what in the language of modern philosophy the "real will" of an individual is to the variety of his particular desires. The less he concentrates, the less is his real personality expressed; the weaker the will, the more evident the inessential and slovenly parts of his nature; the weaker the intelligence, the less adequate is his attempt to express himself.
The artist has not necessarily that "strong personality" which attempts to assert itself by influencing the action of others. His is the personality which wishes to express imaginatively. And by imagination I mean the making of images—I mean that stretching out of the essential personality towards nature, so that it may touch nature at as many points as possible, fashioning it into images, binding itself to nature, and nature to itself, ever seeking to expand in this contact or sympathy, so that as far as possible the whole essential personality may be expressed through as much as possible of nature. The artistic impulse, the poetic or creative impulse, is that which impels him to the expression of what is most really and centrally himself. The world of nature as perceived by him when he is in full possession of himself assumes a form schemed by his imagination; and it is this which he endeavours to body forth when he selects now these and now those objects to represent his conception of life.
We may, then, take it that the first essential to an artist is the imaginative impulse which makes him desire to express himself in terms of life. And the second is that energetic quality by which he endeavours to express what is central to his personality, that part of him which is his "real self." This is what is meant by "sincerity" in art. And a third surely is a sort of self-detachment, or sympathy, or knowledge, by means of which he is able to estimate the material in which he works. The two last mentioned qualities, taken together, imply a sense of form, in accordance with which the idea is embodied in the finished work of art, and technique—the professional knowledge by the help of which this embodiment is accomplished.
The objection may be raised that the man who has an essentially distorted or meagre personality and succeeds exactly in expressing himself is, according to my estimate, entitled to the same artistic credit as a man of the loftiest ideas. To that I reply that though the clue to his work is to be found, in the last resort, in his personality, it is not by his personality that he is to be judged; he is to be judged by his works; and in producing these works he expresses himself, not in terms of himself, but in terms of external objects, in terms of life known to all of us; and that if he perfectly expresses distorted or meagre views of life, the representation of life which he gives to us will itself be palpably distorted and meagre. We are all capable of detecting the falsity if the facts of life are distorted before our eyes, or represented in so dull or meagre a way that they afford us no vivid experience whatsoever. An artist stands self-condemned if his interpretation fails to correspond with that outward life to which our senses are a sufficient guide.
Indeed we have already demanded, as a self-evident axiom, that the artist should afford us a vivid experience, and that which directly contradicts the truth of common sense can produce no experience except that of confusion or disgust. It belongs to the first rudiments of art—the mere grammar—that an artist's convictions, as bodied forth in sense-given symbols, should not palpably and shockingly contradict the conditions of the sensible world; his is the far more difficult and delicate task of expressing himself, not by violation, but by selection, emphasis, reconstruction. The penalty he must pay if he refuses these terms is that of being unintelligible.
But granted that the artist has obeyed this law, which is obvious to the majority of the sane, we further demand from him that his work should be "sincere," that is to say, that it should be consistent with his own clearest conceptions, his most urgent convictions, his most penetrating intuitions—in a word, consistent with that central thing which I have called the kernel of his personality. An artist is in this sense insincere whenever, for example, he inserts anything in his work which exists solely for the sake of convention—some of Shakespeare's clown scenes were often put in solely because an Elizabethan audience demanded them, and they were to that extent a truckling to convention, an insincerity. They do not express the real Shakespeare. Any artist not capable of entirely direct and spontaneous expression (and probably no great art was ever completely spontaneous) must make up his mind about himself, about what is temperamentally real in him, about that which is his primary raison d'etre; and in accordance with, and out of this kernel of himself he must interpret all that he touches. By this means alone can he introduce order, form, unity into the indeterminate chaos of life. By this means alone can life assume coherent shape under his hands, and it is coherence and shape which alone can give us the impression of beauty, of that coherent shapeliness of matter drawn into the semblance of a living organism.
It may be a very simple unity, this microcosm of art, like a cell compounded from protoplasm, yet it will give us its corresponding pleasure, so long as it is made with the sincerity of the imagination. If it is merely the informing of life with the spirit of light laughter—as in Calverley—it affords its proper pleasure—it is the spectacle of life drawn up into that kind of imagination to which laughter belongs. Lewis Carroll's Alice is in the same sense a work of art. Is there not throughout those two most charming of children's books an entirely consistent spirit of bonhomie and exquisite rationality—rationality of an order high enough to produce those delightful expositions of the irrational and the absurd? That the author of Alice in Wonderland was a mathematician is exactly what we might have expected—though he was, what mathematicians rarely are, the artist-mathematician, who understood the world intuitively as well as logically, and thus manifested his spirit of laughter and logic through an inverted world of contradiction.
And so again, if we take a modern author of a very different type, such a one as Henry James, whose concern it is to state life, with a view to throwing into relief the finer shades, we shall observe that most of his work is characterised by a kind of intensive culture, as opposed to that extensive method which through lack of form was abused in Dickens, and through obedience to form was satisfactorily applied by the poet Swinburne at his best. We may safely say that when Swinburne was at his best, when he was "himself," his world was a world of rhythmical energy, of impetuous freedom and sensuous activity, which, translated into poetry, was expressed through the symbols of love and sea-foam and battle; to be true to the genius which was central to himself, he required no pregnancy or subtle suggestiveness of phrase; he needed no more than rhyme, rhythm and onomatopoeic words, and with these he gave all he had to give—the sense of energy remembered, the sensuous delight of physical activity, a world of divinely glorified sensation. Mature readers do not seek him often, for there are only a few moods which he can satisfy. A writer such as Mr. Henry James stands at the exactly opposite pole. It was the proper business of such a man as Swinburne merely to affirm sensation, and he could do it perfectly. It is the proper business of Mr. James, not to assert sensation or any experience—he could not do it with sincerity—but to question sensation, to question emotion and sentiment; it is his proper business to examine experience with the amused, searching gaze of one who expects the unexpected. It is his business to make experience interesting, not, like Swinburne, by multiplication, but rather by division—by the method of the microscope which reveals in a fly's wing some unsuspected fineness of pattern and variegated brilliance of colour. He himself is fond of the word "curiosity"; it defines something that is central to his personality; this, brought into activity by the "representational impulse" (which in his opinion is the one justification for the artist), takes form in the intricate and delicately woven patterns of human temperament which are the objects of his curiosity.
And now we begin to see why every critic, when considering an author's works, almost invariably, and instinctively, examines not only his finished works, but also whatever may be known about him as a man. I admit, as all would admit, that his works must stand or fall solely on their own account; but the critic finds that in seeking to discover the central interest and significance of an author's art his task is facilitated if once he can find the clue to his temperament. This backstairs knowledge does the trick for him. The bond between the man and his art is so necessary and immediate that no objectiveness of method can conceal it. It was by realising this fact, and applying his exceptionally fine critical intuition to this task, that Professor Raleigh, considering the essentials, was able to draw a very much more convincing picture of the personality of Shakespeare than that which was drawn, brilliantly indeed, by Mr. Frank Harris; but Mr. Harris, I think, devoted his attention to qualities in Shakespeare which—whether in any sense real or not—were in any case secondary and inessential elements in the dramatist's character. And this is why his criticism, in spite of its brilliance, was comparatively unimportant.
I must not be supposed to mean that the artist begins with an abstract conception, and that he then proceeds to search for objects suitable to its concrete representation. There are, I know, brilliant novelists and painters who have proceeded in that manner; but the result, to my mind, seldom reveals that complete unity of object and idea which men require; for this method is so dependent upon the intellectual fitting of facts to idea that either the facts are forced and made unreal, or the idea is sacrificed. I am told that in the case of Mr. Joseph Conrad the process is reversed; he perceives, as by vision, some intense single situation—that picture, for instance, in Lord Jim, where the Captain looking over the side of his ship is tempted to desert his crew. Such a situation, a focal point in a story, is for the artist object and idea in one, simultaneously presented by the imagination; the union of matter and spirit is already there at the moment of creation; and in that way, I imagine, most of the finest pictures, poems, dramas and stories have been first conceived. When once that focal point has been presented in all its vividness and significance by the imagination, it remains for the artist to mass his detail in and around it as appropriately as his invention and technique permit.
We have now reached conclusions which were approached from two distinct points of view. Starting from certain axioms or self-evident propositions, and looking at art from the outside, I suggested that it must provide us with an energetic experience which we value for its own sake without thought of consequences or alien interests, an experience which has a fineness or an illuming quality of its own. And examining the same question from the inside—from the side of the mental processes implied in the act of creation—I have tried to adapt the conclusions of Coleridge to a view which should not pre-suppose his metaphysic, and have asked what is implied in this fineness or illuming quality in a work of art, this which is called beautiful. And when we learnt that all creative art comes from the imagination of the artist projecting itself upon the material of life, I concluded that the two things essential to the creative imagination were knowledge and sincerity—knowledge of life itself, so that the artist can use an intelligible language and speak in terms of things real to everyone—and sincerity, meaning conformity with that which is essential or central in the artist himself. Art is thus a representation of actual life in terms of the artist. It must be real, and it must be ideal. It is the act of genius to be able to give us in one and the same creation a representation of nature and an expression of the artist's personality. This is the new thing which genius constantly adds to the sum-total of human experience—it is the old stuff of life quickened and illuminated by the new incarnation. And thus the stuff of life itself is increased, and succeeding artists start with a wider range of material.
We shall not find any actual artist completely satisfying the demand. For the difficulties of form are endless, and sounds, colours, words are obstinate materials when they are to be made the vehicle of ideas; and even the artist in the full tide of the creative impulse must always find that he has expressed something less than his intention and has strayed into the pathless wastes of the inessential. But it is the business of the critic to give him credit for all that is attempted in the sincere spirit of the imagination, and at the same time, in sympathy with the actualities of nature; for on the union of these two depends the truth which is the beauty of art.
But the artist himself is not necessarily concerned with these theories. His main business is intercourse with life, and also the envisaging of life rather "by meditation" as Coleridge says, "than by observation." He has to beware of the facts which overcame Coleridge himself, when he sacrificed the divinity of his art to that philosophy which banished the god. "Well were it for me," he exclaims, "if I had continued to pluck the flowers and reap the harvest from the cultivated surface, instead of delving in the unwholesome quicksilver mines of metaphysic depths." The "shaping spirit of imagination" which impelled him to unrivalled poetry in his youth was starved in him, not only because of his ill-health, his poverty, his drugs and laziness, but equally because he denied expression to "fancy, and the love of nature and the sense of beauty in forms and sounds." For him perhaps it was a poor compensation that through this denial he was able to leave us a unique interpretation of his aesthetic and creative experience.
 The word "flavour" in this connection was constantly used by the late Canon Ainger.
PASSIONS SPIN THE PLOT
If the reader has borne with my audacity in generalising about the main functions of imaginative literature, he will be willing to pursue a further and plainer question concerning its subject-matter. It is time to discuss a little more fully what I mean by that "energetic experience" which a work of art can give us. For the sake of simplicity I will confine myself to a single issue—to that kind of energetic experience invariably afforded by that small body of imaginative literature which the world has agreed to regard as supreme. If we can understand how literature in its greatest examples provides us with an "addition to life," we can, if we are in the mind to do so, extend the inquiry to the lighter and less intense experiences of secondary literature.
By "supreme" literature I mean the literature which has proved itself to be supreme—supreme by virtue of its conquest over time and over changes in thought and environment. The Iliad and the Odyssey are in a language which we should have to learn if only for the sake of these two epics; they still profoundly interest us, they present emotions which can still move us; without Homer, the society which they describe would have vanished from human knowledge; through Homer, it is an intimate and cherished part of our experience. This kind of supremacy belongs, I think, to AEschylus and Sophocles, and might perhaps be attributed to the Gospel of S. Mark, if that book may be considered as imaginative literature. Virgil and Dante—in part at least—are of this order, as also are Milton, in Samson Agonistes and the earlier books of Paradise Lost, and Goethe in the first part of Faust. And there are few besides Mr. Shaw who would deny such supremacy to the tragedies of Shakespeare.
Now these authors have survived, and are likely to survive, for a variety of reasons. But what is common to them all, and what makes us set especial store on them, is not merely that they have in large measure achieved what they set out to do (lesser artists have done that), but that they have set out to do a big thing, to give us the most intense kind of experience that we can have. In other words, they have produced the fineness which emerges through the intensity of human passion, and it is in proportion to their fine realisation of passion that we find them most moving.
I am not, of course, using the word "passion" in its modern vulgarised sense. For just as the word "romance" is often degraded to signify no more than a petty love affair, so the word "passion" has been appropriated to the amorous, sexual pre-occupation which is the only intense feeling of many jaded moderns. Humanity, however devitalised, however incapable of varied passions, does not lose the love passion so long as it has the animal instinct of the fly and the rudimentary human instinct to idealise. But a race must be strangely incurious if the only romance it can conceive is the romance of a youth and a maid, and its only passion the passion of sexual desire. Yet such is the state of mind—to judge by the common usage of words—of the major portion of modern society.
Needless to say, I am not wishing to disparage the literature of love, whether it be poetry, fiction, or of any other kind. English people least of all can afford to belittle it, for if we eliminated it half of our best lyrical poetry would go. For we count it a distinction in English poetry that upon this theme the changes have been rung so finely and to such exquisite effect. But much of the fineness of love poetry is to be distinguished from the fineness of the emotion of love. Lovelace declares to his Lucasta:
True, a new mistress now I chase, The first foe in the field; And with a stronger faith embrace A sword, a horse, a shield.
That is in the true spirit of English love poetry, which does not so idealise the amorous passion as to make it, in the modern emasculate manner, a substitute for valour, faith, honour; it is not opposed to the manly virtues; it may be the song which a warrior sings to the clank of "a sword, a horse, a shield."
But let us for a moment examine this matter of passion with which great creative literature is so evidently concerned. No acute physical pain or thrilling sensuous delight is ever dignified with the name of passion, in the significant sense of the word; the essence of passion is mental, or spiritual; emotion made intense by idealism turned in a definite direction, that is to say, by the idealising of an object which a man has set before himself. The meaning the word has acquired is almost the opposite of passivity; it implies a state of the soul in unrest, a state requiring action. Passion is a suffering where the mind assails the body and torments it with an ideal imperative; and it is the double tragedy of passion that the will may not be strong enough, as in the case of Hamlet, to translate that imperative into action; and second, as we have it in Faust, that the object, when attained, proves to be not the thing that was desired. In a great passion the mind is set upon an object which it idealises beyond the possibility of complete satisfaction, and there is suffering because the will is thwarted and cheated of its ideal. Macbeth's passionate ambition to be a king, encouraged in him by the witches' chant, is an ambition for something that no being a king can satisfy; and the tragedy of his passion lies in the painful effort by which he wins his object and the painful disillusion when it turns to dust.
The passions with which literature deals run side by side with actions that are impelled by ideals. The richest mind is that which can idealise every kind of activity, which can see what we call poetry in every commonplace, which can read destiny in apparently petty desires, which widens the vision of life by seeing in every action man in relation to the Universe. In art and in life passions are limited by the bounds of our perceptive imagination; by the extent to which we are capable of seeing and feeling things intensely. If we only see or feel ambition as a petty and sordid thing, in a petty and sordid person, we cannot make a tragic passion of ambition; if jealousy is a little vice with no more than small results it cannot be the theme of imaginative literature; if the religious ideal cannot be conceived as possessing the whole soul, we cannot appreciate the religious passion of a John Inglesant; if revenge is no more than spite there can be no Hamlet, nor a Lear if arrogance is unmixed with love and honour. If, to-day, the passion of love is treated more often than any other emotion, that is probably because the one capacity for intense experience, which never seems to desert the human race, is the capacity to identify the sex impulse with an ideal. The great artist is not confined to this one channel of idealism. He sees branching out in every direction all the human activities intensified or refined by a spirituality which the lesser person sees only under the stress of love. But this fact is to be noticed, that whether it is love of a woman, whether it is ambition, whether it is love of humanity, whether it is religious zeal, revenge, or anything else whatsoever on a great scale, passion implies idealism, an object set before the mind in its spiritual or imaginative capacity, and that the intensity of the passion is enhanced by the difficulty of the quest.
Great passion, then, is a kind of critical union, or rather half-union, of body and soul. It is the perpetual effort of the body to become soul, the real to become ideal; the painful and ever frustrated effort of the individual to become universal; or conversely, the painful condition of the human soul which sees its ideal shattered and its glory reduced to dust and ashes. Its character is a problem for religion no less than for aesthetics. It is Browning who declares:
But priests Should study passion; how else cure mankind, Who come for help in passionate extremes?
The dramatist and the novelist need no more than the power to create such a passion; for the greater includes the less; it is not achieved in art, unless plot, narrative, style, and all the subsidiary devices have served to expose it in its reality and its intensity. This is presumably what Dumas pere meant in the lines which Henley quotes from him: "All he wanted was 'four trestles, four boards, two actors, and a passion.'" The passionate hero either strains towards an idealised object, or he still proclaims his yearning after the ideal by the lamentations with which he curses his ill-fate. Throughout Greek tragedy there is an undercurrent of protest against inexorable Fate which is set against the realisation of the ideal. The passion of Prometheus sums up the perpetual agony of the human race in its perpetual striving to rise beyond its limitations. The tragic irony of the Greeks is but the expression of the tragedy of passion in its pitiful reaction from hope, the intensity of feeling with which men see desire defeated and ideal unattainable. So, too, in the most intense moments the characters of Shakespeare become ironical:
Misery makes Sport to mock itself.
And we can readily understand, what some persons have thought strange, that Ophelia's language should become coarse, like Lear's, in the full tide of bitterness. It is the reaction after the perception of a spiritual beauty. The beauty seems broken; the earth and its foulness remain, and the anguished spirit sees the foulness exaggerated by contrast with its ideal. Lear, who had seen his daughters as paragons, sees them now as centaurs; he, who had adored their filial devotion, compares them now to the most obscene things which can besmirch the sight; nothing is too shameful to express the fall from that ideal.
We see, then, why it is that the highest forms of literature are necessarily concerned with pain. It is not merely that art requires intensity of feeling, and that the emotion of pain is the most intense we know. It is because the highest literature must necessarily be concerned with human beings in their most profound aspirations, in their most deeply experienced strivings each after his own ideal, according to his own conception of what will satisfy him; and it is because in the nature of things such an ideal is more than experience can satisfy that the anguish of striving and the anguish of failure are the subjects of art. A play such as Marlowe's Tamburlaine can never be regarded as great drama. Amid scenes of magnificence and splendid savage rhetoric Tamburlaine passes on from triumph to triumph, the incarnation of the conquering will. There are numberless detached passages of what we may call lyrical poetry—for a lyrical poem expresses no more than a moment's mood, a single phase of the sequence which is passion. But there is no passionate sequence in Tamburlaine; it is a monotonous record of much-vaunted triumphs. We do not feel the painful struggle; there is no prospect of defeat; there is no storm and stress of an ideal at stake, a human being battered by circumstance. We may, if we are brutal enough, bow down before Tamburlaine's Juggernaut car; but he does not touch our emotions; he is not a tragic hero. Tragedy has no interest in supermen; unless, indeed, like Chapman's Bussy d'Ambois, the hero has the courage of the superman with the limitations of the rest of humanity.
But if the superman is not a possible subject for great art, neither is the crawling earthworm. Many modern authors and critics seem to consider that because tragic passion is always painful, therefore pain is the essential thing in tragedy. It is this grossly false assumption that is responsible for many disasters in contemporary literature; it is the deep-lying error in much of our so-called "intellectual drama" and "intellectual fiction." I have heard authors and critics complain that the public will not read certain books or go to certain plays because they are "painful" or "grim." If it had been because these books or plays were "passionate" that the public had refused to attend, I should have understood the complaint. Pain without passion may be scientifically interesting, but it has no artistic content, no high emotional significance. Indeed, it is not true to suppose that the public dislikes the spectacle of the painful or the ugly. All know something of the fascination which disturbed Leontius, the son of Aglaion, who, coming up from the Piraeus, observed dead bodies on the ground; and desiring to look at them and loathing the thought opened his eyes wide, exclaiming, "There, you wretches, take your fill of the horrid sight!" If anyone doubts this let him recall that a painful and sordid episode in the law-courts fascinates the public just as it is fascinated by the crude villainies of East-end melodrama; and that the most highly moralised section of the public can be stirred to attend to the persecution of Congo natives or Macedonian Christians only by the most appalling stories of massacre, outrage, and various forms of extreme suffering.
Surely it is not because they are concerned with painful subjects that many of the "intellectual" dramatists have failed—failed, I mean, not only with the very ignorant public, but also with more discriminating audiences. In some cases, which it is not my business here to specify, they have failed because the authors have set their hearts on a problem outside the subject of their art, and the art has suffered in consequence; for only disinterested art has the power to move us. In some cases they have failed because the authors have held theories which I believe to be fatal to literature. The narrow view of what is called Realism has been an adjunct to intellectual faddism and propagandism, and has served to sterilise literature. The great Realists have never been mere Realists; they have never thought that to produce art it is sufficient merely to reproduce fact. The word "Truth" has been introduced in the most shameless fashion. It is true that there are men without arms and legs and noses, but to delineate such a creature with exquisite accuracy is not to produce a faithful rendering of life. It is true that there are drab, sordid, expressionless lives, without happiness, without hope, without ideals. To describe these lives in all their miserable detail may be of infinite value for social and reforming purposes. It may be the duty of every one of us to study these sores in the body politic for the existence of which we are collectively responsible. It may be craven cowardice not to open our eyes wide to these painful and hideous facts, which cry out to be removed and prevented. And if any person whose enthusiasm in life it is to abolish them hits upon an artistic device for calling attention to them, he is justified by his object. But let us nevertheless be frank about the matter. His object is the removal of abuses. To stir emotions in a fine way is not his primary end and aim; it is for him only a means to something else. We are not condemning him when we say that his object is not the object of the creative artist, who is concerned with life not in its partial aspects, but as a whole. But he on his part has no right to complain if he fails. The "truth" with which he is concerned is a scientific case, not an artistic truth. He has failed to stir our emotions because the attempt to stir emotions was only a dodge on his part; he was playing a trick on us, for a laudable end, and if we are not taken in the fault is not ours.
Drama, fiction, poetry, and the other fine arts cannot tolerate even the best-intentioned insincerity. There is here no arbitrary dogma or canon of art, but merely an assertion of the simple fact that you cannot achieve two wholly different ends at one and the same time, that success is dependent upon singleness of aim and enthusiasm. It is true that there is no subject whatsoever that may not lend itself to treatment. But it must be treated for its own sake, disinterestedly. Literature will not move us greatly unless it is concerned with great emotions. It will not move us finely except in the presence of an ideal. For in the great passions of literature, as in the great passions of life, there is always an ideal at stake, an ideal that is more than the attainable, a grasping at a fulness of satisfaction which is more than experience can afford.
I am making no appeal for what is misunderstood by the term "Art for Art's sake," or for that typically French view the expression of which I may take from the younger Dumas' Affaire Clemenceau:
Savez-vous ce que c'est que l'art? C'est le Beau dans le vrai, et, d'apres ce principe, l'art s'est cree des regles absolus, que vous chercheriez en vain dans la nature seule. Si la nature seule pouvait le satisfaire, vous n'auriez qu'a mouler un beau modele de la tete aux pieds, pour faire un chef d'oeuvre. Ou, si vous executiez cette idee, vous ne produiriez qu'un grotesque. Le talent consiste a completer la nature, a recueillir ca et la ses indications merveilleuses, mais partielles, a les resumer dans un ensemble homogene et a donner a cet ensemble une pensee ou un sentiment, puisque nous pouvons lui donner une ame.
I am in sympathy with that view so far as it implies that the artist cannot be content with a slavish reproduction of isolated facts taken from nature; and that he sets his gaze upon "le Beau dans le vrai," which I should like to render, not the "beautiful in the true," but the "Ideal in the true." But I am not in sympathy with it so far as it implies a formal beauty which the artist discerns in accordance with a principle mysteriously and exclusively artistic, existing in a region remote from life. Art is not a sacred mystery into which only the initiated can penetrate. It is not concerned with beauties drawn from a peculiar and exclusive artistic Absolute. Literature deals with life, but in life in an intense manifestation, with that passionate life which attains its richness, its breadth, its tremendous lustiness through the desire for something more than normal life can give. Nobody can object that these ideals are not real, that they are not true to life, and indeed the most vital part of life. The passions they call forth in men are the most real, the most vivid, the most illuminating; they widen and refine experience; they bring us into a larger universe, they add to the stature of personality, they are the means of growth. Literature is an expansion of the mind out of the narrower truth into the larger. It despises no experience, but drags to light its hidden resources, its unexpected wealth. It is profoundly interested in experience on its intense, that is to say, its passionate side. The original mind, not content to find poetic value in a single emotion such as that of love, finds it on all sides, discovering interests here, there, and everywhere. If it concentrates on one of these for the purposes of a poem, a play, a novel, it neglects, of course, no adventitious aid which gives reality to the persons, sufficiency to their motives, contrast, relief, atmosphere—all that is expressed by the ordinary jargon of criticism. To sum up: great creative literature does not deal with things painful or otherwise merely because they are facts of life. Its business is the intensification of life, to bring home to us its myriad finenesses; it achieves this end by presenting persons passing through the intense experiences which we call passions; and these are conditions of the spirit in which an idealised object encourages, thwarts, or tantalises the seeker, and dejects him utterly if the reality turns out to be less than the ideal. The inquiry opens a question for the metaphysician—What is the source of this ideal element which enters into every object passionately sought, and so transcends realisation that the object cannot be attained without a sense of loss?
THE POPULAR TASTE
If anything is worse than bad literature it is the tedious Pharisaism of the "man of culture." How flattering to the self-esteem to cast a supercilious eye upon the melodramatic, sentimental, unbeautiful books which constitute the mass of modern literature! The mass of modern literature is provided for the mass of men and women, but history has proved that a small and educated public may embrace stupidities not less desiccating than the stupidity of the million. A cultured public in the eighteenth century which could tolerate Colley Cibber gains nothing by comparison with an uncultured public which delights in Hall Caine. An author who attempted a poetic drama in the eighteenth century had to conform to the rules, but his compliance with convention is worth no more to literature than the libertinism of the modern reporter. The correct taste of that period is sufficiently flagellated in Swift's Recipe to make an Epic Poem, wherein he "makes it manifest that epic poems may be made without genius, nay without learning or much reading.... It is easily brought about by him that has a genius, but the skill lies in doing it without one." To this day there exists an oligarchy of academic persons whose taste is almost exactly on a par with the taste most in evidence two hundred years ago. They are the people who estimate literature by its correctness rather than by its fineness or power, who are impregnable in their little fortress of pedantry, and are for ever secure against the attacks of original genius.
If, then, we find that there is much in modern popular literature that we dislike, this is a very different thing from saying that we prefer the technical banalities dear to the pedant, or would set up the standard of a barren culture. The popular taste is something not to be scoffed at, but to be accounted for. To complain of it is wasted effort; to explain it would be something to the purpose. And this we can only do by keeping in mind that vital ideal which in spite of every set-back the world has contrived to preserve, and endeavouring to discover what it is—short of that ideal, or remote from it—that the modern public wants: what taste it is that hundreds of modern authors are trying to satisfy.
It is evidently a very various taste, for it is the taste of the whole people. Everyone in the modern civilised state has been taught to read, and almost everyone has had the written word thrust upon him; so that reading has become a habit. At every turn the eye falls upon the printed advertisement, the printed leaflet, the hand-written letter; and the habit which is developed by the necessities of life has intertwined itself also in the amenities. Newspapers, and weekly and monthly periodicals, adapt themselves to the tastes of every class in the community. The time is still far distant when books will be universally and systematically read; but the number of volumes annually distributed has increased at least tenfold in the last generation; and a large proportion of this literature must find its way to strata of society which fifty years ago read nothing at all.
It would be too much to expect that these millions of recruits to the reading public would be drawn to that literature which can be classed with the fine arts. One would no more expect them to admire it than one would expect a child of five to admire Hamlet. The astonishing thing is, not that so few people appreciate the best literature, as that so many—under direction—are open to its influence, as we may see from the immense sales of those popular volumes which Mr. Ernest Rhys and others guarantee to be genuine "classics." Unfortunately, in the case of recently written books, Mr. Rhys is not always at hand. In such cases there is little direction for docile disciples of culture excepting such as is given in newspaper reviews, and reviews are as likely to misdirect and confuse as to encourage and guide.
But although this considerable and growing public of ambitious readers already exists, and may some day come to the support of original literature, it is at present easily swamped by that heterogeneous public for which the largest number of books are provided. That majority, in the nature of things, is unable to give the concentrated attention, still less the selective appreciation, which literature of the higher order requires. There is nothing to encourage them to concentrate. The newspaper, the popular magazine, the theatre, the moving-picture show, and the whole shifting, rapid panorama of modern life discourage concentration. There are readers who can only give the odds and ends of their time to reading. Most of them are devoting the best efforts of their brain and attention to their business, household duties, their social and domestic affairs, and they turn to books only when their minds are fatigued and in need of repose. That is to say, they read not for a renewal of activity, but for distraction. With them, books satisfy the desire, not for an enhancement of life, but for the forgetting of it. Their literature is at the most a stimulant which excites without giving active play to their faculties; it presents nothing which connects with life or ideas, nothing even to call forth the effort demanded by their practical affairs.
There are others, for the most part women not of the working class, who support with apparent earnestness the purveyors of popular fiction and biography, and even patronise poetry and genteel social philosophy. Amongst them are to be found those to whom the sterner actualities of life are unfamiliar and repugnant, for whom the practice of trifling with books is rather an ornament than an occupation, a mode of killing time rather than using it. They, too, read to be distracted, choosing an emasculate literature which panders to their essential dilettantism.
Now those who regard literature as an important thing, playing a significant part in the life of a nation, must, as I have already indicated, seek in it something more positive than a distraction from life; for them it must be an addition to life. It must provide experience compounded of the same stuff as other experience; but not having the vividness which the direct impact of life carries with it, it must gain its vividness by an intensity, a fineness, an interest of its own—by a distinctive quality distilled into it from the personality of the writer. It is imagination which achieves this, the faculty so apprehensive of life that it can fashion life into images which are projections of the artist, his own stamp upon the stuff of life. To such an author literature cannot be a mere amusement or profession. It deals with what he conceives to be the most essential things in the world; it is his rendering of the world, his perspective; and it is just in so far as he has made this, his ideal and real world, appreciable also to us, that he has succeeded in his art. Such imaginative reconstruction of the facts of life, such impregnation of life with fineness, calls for alertness of faculty in the reader, demands from him something of that eagerness to perceive which characterises the artist himself. But how can the tired worker seeking distraction, or the idle dilettante seeking only a drug or a stimulant, muster that alertness of faculty and that eagerness to perceive which are needed for the appreciation of art? It is not to be expected. A coarser appeal will produce all that such minds are able to assimilate. For good reading, like good writing, requires the energy of men not robbed of leisure, men who can enjoy some respite from the commonplace.
And yet it often happens, as we shall see, that those who have succeeded in distracting the many have put into their work some fineness which commends it also to the few. It is only in theory that there is a fixed boundary between works of art and the works which Philistines enjoy. In practice, merit and demerit exist side by side; works crude in conception reveal a hundred finenesses, and works fine in conception reveal crudenesses of execution. And just as there are authors who mingle good and bad in their books, so too there are readers who enjoy certain kinds of excellence though they can be vulgarly excited by the cruder devices. And again there are persons who appreciate to some extent genuine works of art, who in moments of fatigue or jaded appetite can be diverted by the mere appeal to sensation.
The clever publisher knows well that the public for whose distraction he caters is divided into many classes, and that these classes must be attracted each in a special way. For the purposes of my argument I group these under five different heads, which are probably not exhaustive and certainly not mutually exclusive, but correspond, I think, to the five chief means of exciting and distracting the multitude. The two largest classes constantly overlap, consisting: firstly, of those whose love of sensation is satisfied by violent incident; and secondly, of those who are especially susceptible to the sentimental appeal. To a third class belong those who take pleasure in the agitations of sex feeling; and to a fourth, those whose sense of humour is tickled by the sallies of the literary clown. The fifth class—a very large one—consists of those who are of a habit of mind to be excited by sensations which can be associated with religion and morality. It is useless to name as a sixth class those who are moved by intellectual ideas, for so small a class is not the objective of the popular author.
I. All novels must to some extent depend upon incident and arrangement of incident, but there is a kind of novel which only interests through the excitement of events in their nature fictitious, even when accidentally true. Any really good book which may be spoken of as a "novel of incident" will invariably prove to be very much more. To take the case of Fielding's Tom Jones, one observes that it is an imitation of life which is neither a slavish copying nor a make-believe, but a vivid representation of eighteenth-century England as Fielding saw it; it is a book which presents characters, and itself has a character. Its atmosphere is quite unmistakable. It is not a "slice" out of the eighteenth century—there can be no real "slice out of life" excepting in life itself. It is Fielding's rendering of the eighteenth century, in particular it is his assertion of the physicality (if I may use the term) of life, a direct assertion of the boisterous physical vitality which, as Fielding presents it and as Marlowe presented it, acquires value for the spirit and is acceptable to the imagination. It is the original pagan assertion of life, which finds its opposite in Euripides' conception of the ascetic Hippolytus; an assertion which Propertius repeated in the language of mockery when he speaks of a lena as