A DIALOGUE. Persons: Cyril and Vivian. Scene: the Library of a country house in Nottinghamshire.
CYRIL (coming in through the open window from the terrace). My dear Vivian, don’t coop yourself up all day in the library. It is a perfectly lovely afternoon. The air is exquisite. There is a mist upon the woods, like the purple bloom upon a plum. Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.
VIVIAN. Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty. People tell us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us; and that after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her that had escaped our observation. My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look at a landscape I cannot help seeing all its defects. It is fortunate for us, however, that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.
CYRIL. Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on the grass and smoke and talk.
VIVIAN. But Nature is
so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and
lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects. Why, even Morris’s poorest workman could make
you a more comfortable seat than the whole of Nature can. Nature pales before the furniture of ‘the
street which from
CYRIL. Writing an article! That is not very consistent after what you have just said.
VIVIAN. Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice. Not I. Like Emerson, I write over the door of my library the word ‘Whim.’ Besides, my article is really a most salutary and valuable warning. If it is attended to, there may be a new Renaissance of Art.
CYRIL. What is the subject?
VIVIAN. I intend to call it ‘The Decay of Lying: A Protest.’
CYRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
VIVIAN. I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once. No, the politicians won’t do. Something may, perhaps, be urged on behalf of the Bar. The mantle of the Sophist has fallen on its members. Their feigned ardours and unreal rhetoric are delightful. They can make the worse appear the better cause, as though they were fresh from Leontine schools, and have been known to wrest from reluctant juries triumphant verdicts of acquittal for their clients, even when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and unmistakeably innocent. But they are briefed by the prosaic, and are not ashamed to appeal to precedent. In spite of their endeavours, the truth will out. Newspapers, even, have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon. One feels it as one wades through their columns. It is always the unreadable that occurs. I am afraid that there is not much to be said in favour of either the lawyer or the journalist. Besides, what I am pleading for is Lying in art. Shall I read you what I have written? It might do you a great deal of good.
CYRIL. Certainly, if you give me a cigarette. Thanks. By the way, what magazine do you intend it for?
VIVIAN. For the Retrospective Review. I think I told you that the elect had revived it.
CYRIL. Whom do you mean by ‘the elect’?
VIVIAN. Oh, The Tired Hedonists, of course. It is a club to which I belong. We are supposed to wear faded roses in our button-holes when we meet, and to have a sort of cult for Domitian. I am afraid you are not eligible. You are too fond of simple pleasures.
CYRIL. I should be black-balled on the ground of animal spirits, I suppose?
VIVIAN. Probably. Besides, you are a little too old. We don’t admit anybody who is of the usual age.
CYRIL. Well, I should fancy you are all a good deal bored with each other.
VIVIAN. We are. This is one of the objects of the club. Now, if you promise not to interrupt too often, I will read you my article.
CYRIL. You will find me all attention.
VIVIAN (reading in a very clear, musical
voice). THE DECAY OF LYING: A
PROTEST.—One of the chief causes that can be assigned
for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is
undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social
pleasure. The ancient historians gave us
delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modem novelist presents us with
dull facts under the guise of fiction.
The Blue-Book is rapidly becoming his ideal both for method and
manner. He has his tedious document
humain, his miserable little coin de la création, into which he peers with his
microscope. He is to be found at the
Librairie Nationale, or at the
‘The lose that results to literature in general from this false ideal of our time can hardly be overestimated. People have a careless way of talking about a “born liar,” just as they talk about a “born poet.” But in both cases they are wrong. Lying and poetry are arts—arts, as Pinto saw, not unconnected with each other—and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion. Indeed, they have their technique, just as the more material arts of painting and sculpture have, their subtle secrets of form and colour, their craft-mysteries, their deliberate artistic methods. As one knows the poet by his fine music, so one can recognise the liar by his rich rhythmic utterance, and in neither case will the casual inspiration of the moment suffice. Here, as elsewhere, practice must, precede perfection. But in modern days while the fashion of writing poetry has become far too common, and should, if possible, be discouraged, the fashion of lying has almost fallen into disrepute. Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy—’
CYRIL. My dear fellow!
VIVIAN. Please don’t interrupt in the middle of a sentence. ‘He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability. This is no isolated instance that we are giving. It is simply one example out of many; and if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land.
‘Even Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, that delightful master of
delicate and fanciful prose, is tainted with this modern vice, for we know
positively no other name for it. There
is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too
true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single
anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads
dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet. As for Mr. Rider Haggard, who really has, or
had once, the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of
being suspected of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he
feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as
a kind of cowardly corroboration. Nor are our other novelists much better. Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and
imperceptible “points of view” his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases,
his swift and caustic satire. Mr. Hall
Caine, it is true, aims at the grandiose, but then he writes at the top of his
voice. He is so loud that one cannot
bear what he says. Mr. James Payn is an
adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding. He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm
of a short-sighted detective. As one
turns over the pages, the suspense of the author becomes almost
unbearable. The horses of Mr. William
Black’s phaeton do not soar towards the sun.
They merely frighten the sky at evening into violent chromolithographic
effects. On seeing them approach, the
peasants take refuge in dialect. Mrs.
Oliphant prattles pleasantly about curates, lawn-tennis parties, domesticity,
and other wearisome things. Mr. Marion
Crawford has immolated himself upon the altar of local colour. He is like the lady in the French comedy who
keeps talking about “le beau ciel d’Italie.”
Besides, he has fallen into the bad habit of uttering moral
platitudes. He is always telling us that
to be good is to be good, and that to be bad is to be wicked. At times he is almost edifying. Robert Elsmere is of course a masterpiece—a
masterpiece of the “genre ennuyeux,” the one form of literature that the
English people seems thoroughly to enjoy.
A thoughtful young friend of ours once told us that it reminded him of
the sort of conversation that goes on at a meat tea in the house of a serious
Nonconformist family, and we can quite believe it. Indeed it is only in
CYRIL. That is
certainly a very grave qualification, but I must say that I think you are
rather unfair in some of your strictures.
I like The Deemster, and The Daughter of Heth, and Le Disciple, and Mr.
Isaacs, and as for Robert Elsmere, I am quite devoted to it. Not that I can look upon it as a serious
work. As a statement
of the problems that confront the earnest Christian it is ridiculous and
antiquated. It is simply
VIVIAN. Ah! Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate. Somebody in Shakespeare—Touchstone, I think—talks about a man who is always breaking his shins over his own wit, and it seems to me that this might serve as the basis for a criticism of Meredith’s method. But whatever he is, he is not a realist. Or rather I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father. By deliberate choice he has made himself a romanticist. He has refused to bow the knee to Baal, and after all, even if the man’s fine spirit did not revolt against the noisy assertions of realism, his style would be quite sufficient of itself to keep life at a respectful distance. By its means he has planted round his garden a hedge full of thorns, and red with wonderful roses. As for Balzac, he was a most remarkable combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit. The latter he bequeathed to his disciples. The former was entirely his own. The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality. ‘All Balzac’s characters;’ said Baudelaire, ‘are gifted with the same ardour of life that animated himself. All his fictions are as deeply coloured as dreams. Each mind is a weapon loaded to the muzzle with will. The very scullions have genius.’ A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fiery-coloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism. One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré. It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself. It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh. But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it. I admit, however, that he set far too high a value on modernity of form, and that, consequently, there is no book of his that, as an artistic masterpiece, can rank with Salammbô or Esmond, or The Cloister and the Hearth, or the Vicomte de Bragelonne.
CYRIL. Do you object to modernity of form, then?
VIVIAN. Yes. It is a huge price to pay for a very poor result. Pure modernity of form is always somewhat vulgarising. It cannot help being so. The public imagine that, because they are interested in their immediate surroundings, Art should be interested in them also, and should take them as her subject-matter. But the mere fact that they are interested in these things makes them unsuitable subjects for Art. The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. To art’s subject-matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind. It is exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are such an admirable motive for a tragedy. I do not know anything in the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister and the Hearth, a book as much above Romola as Romola is above Daniel Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict prisons, and the management of our private lunatic asylums. Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over. Believe me, my dear Cyril, modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter are entirely and absolutely wrong. We have mistaken the common livery of the age for the vesture of the Muses, and spend our days in the sordid streets and hideous suburbs of our vile cities when we should be out on the hillside with Apollo. Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts.
CYRIL. There is something in what you say, and there is no doubt that whatever amusement we may find in reading a purely model novel, we have rarely any artistic pleasure in re-reading it. And this is perhaps the best rough test of what is literature and what is not. If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all. But what do you say about the return to Life and Nature? This is the panacea that is always being recommended to us.
VIVIAN. I will read you what I say on that subject. The passage comes later on in the article, but I may as well give it to you now:-
‘The popular cry of our time is “Let us return to Life and Nature; they will recreate Art for us, and send the red blood coursing through her veins; they will shoe her feet with swiftness and make her hand strong.” But, alas! we are mistaken in our amiable and well-meaning efforts. Nature is always behind the age. And as for Life, she is the solvent that breaks up Art, the enemy that lays waste her house.’
CYRIL. What do you mean by saying that Nature is always behind the age?
VIVIAN. Well, perhaps that is rather cryptic. What I mean is this. If we take Nature to mean natural simple instinct as opposed to self-conscious culture, the work produced under this influence is always old-fashioned, antiquated, and out of date. One touch of Nature may make the whole world kin, but two touches of Nature will destroy any work of Art. If, on the other hand, we regard Nature as the collection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in her what they bring to her. She has no suggestions of her own. Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there. He went moralising about the district, but his good work was produced when he returned, not to Nature but to poetry. Poetry gave him ‘Laodamia,’ and the fine sonnets, and the great Ode, such as it is. Nature gave him ‘Martha Ray’ and ‘Peter Bell,’ and the address to Mr. Wilkinson’s spade.
CYRIL. I think that view might be questioned. I am rather inclined to believe in ‘the impulse from a vernal wood,’ though of course the artistic value of such an impulse depends entirely on the kind of temperament that receives it, so that the return to Nature would come to mean simply the advance to a great personality. You would agree with that, I fancy. However, proceed with your article.
VIVIAN (reading). ‘Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. That is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.
‘Take the case of the English drama. At first in the hands of the monks Dramatic
Art was abstract, decorative and mythological.
Then she enlisted Life in her service, and using some of life’s external
forms, she created an entirely new race of beings, whose sorrows were more terrible
than any sorrow man has ever felt, whose joys were keener than lover’s joys,
who had the rage of the Titans and the calm of the gods, who had monstrous and
marvellous sins, monstrous and marvellous virtues. To them she gave a language different from
that of actual use, a language full of resonant music and sweet rhythm, made
stately by solemn cadence, or made delicate by fanciful rhyme, jewelled with
wonderful words, and enriched with lofty diction. She clothed her children in strange raiment
and gave them masks, and at her bidding the antique world rose from its marble
tomb. A new Caesar stalked through the
streets of risen
‘But Life soon shattered the perfection of the form. Even in Shakespeare we can see the beginning of the end. It shows itself by the gradual breaking-up of the blank-verse in the later plays, by the predominance given to prose, and by the over-importance assigned to characterisation. The passages in Shakespeare—and they are many—where the language is uncouth, vulgar, exaggerated, fantastic, obscene even, are entirely due to Life calling for an echo of her own voice, and rejecting the intervention of beautiful style, through which alone should life be suffered to find expression. Shakespeare is not by any means a flawless artist. He is too fond of going directly to life, and borrowing life’s natural utterance. He forgets that when Art surrenders her imaginative medium she surrenders everything. Goethe says, somewhere -
In der Beschränkung zeigt Fsich erst der Meister,
“It is in working within limits that the master reveals himself,” and the limitation, the very condition of any art is style. However, we need not linger any longer over Shakespeare’s realism. The Tempest is the most perfect of palinodes. All that we desired to point out was, that the magnificent work of the Elizabethan and Jacobean artists contained within itself the seeds of its own dissolution, and that, if it drew some of its strength from using life as rough material, it drew all its weakness from using life as an artistic method. As the inevitable result of this substitution of an imitative for a creative medium, this surrender of an imaginative form, we have the modern English melodrama. The characters in these plays talk on the stage exactly as they would talk off it; they have neither aspirations nor aspirates; they are taken directly from life and reproduce its vulgarity down to the smallest detail; they present the gait, manner, costume and accent of real people; they would pass unnoticed in a third-class railway carriage. And yet how wearisome the plays are! They do not succeed in producing even that impression of reality at which they aim, and which is their only reason for existing. As a method, realism is a complete failure.
‘What is true about the drama and the novel is no less true
about those arts that we call the decorative arts. The whole history of these arts in
And now let me read you a passage which seems to me to settle the question very completely.
‘It was not always thus.
We need not say anything about the poets, for they,
with the unfortunate exception of Mr. Wordsworth, have been really faithful to
their high mission, and are universally recognised as being absolutely
unreliable. But in the works of
Herodotus, who, in spite of the shallow and ungenerous attempts of modem
sciolists to verify his history, may justly be called the “Father of Lies”; in
the published speeches of Cicero and the biographies of Suetonius; in Tacitus
at his best; in Pliny’s Natural History; in Hanno’s Periplus; in all the early
chronicles; in the Lives of the Saints; in Froissart and Sir Thomas Malory; in
the travels of Marco Polo; in Olaus Magnus, and Aldrovandus, and Conrad
Lycosthenes, with his magnificent Prodigiorum et Ostentorum Chronicon; in the
autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini; in the memoirs of Casanova; in Defoe’s
History of the Plague; in Boswell’s Life of Johnson; in Napoleon’s despatches,
and in the works of our own Carlyle, whose French Revolution is one of the most
fascinating historical novels ever written, facts are either kept in their
proper subordinate position, or else entirely excluded on the general ground of
dulness. Now, everything is changed. Facts are not merely finding a footing-place
in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the
CYRIL. My dear boy!
VIVIAN. I assure you
it is the case, and the amusing part of the whole thing is that the story of
the cherry-tree is an absolute myth.
However, you must not think that I am too despondent about the artistic
future either of
‘That some change will take place before this century has drawn to its close we have no doubt whatsoever. Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar. Who he was who first, without ever having gone out to the rude chase, told the wandering cavemen at sunset how he had dragged the Megatherium from the purple darkness of its jasper cave, or slain the Mammoth in single combat and brought back its gilded tusks, we cannot tell, and not one of our modern anthropologists, for all their much-boasted science, has had the ordinary courage to tell us. Whatever was his name or race, he certainly was the true founder of social intercourse. For the aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilised society, and without him a dinner-party, even at the mansions of the great, is as dull as a lecture at the Royal Society, or a debate at the Incorporated Authors, or one of Mr. Burnand’s farcical comedies.
‘Nor will he be welcomed by society alone. Art, breaking from the prison-house of realism, will run to greet him, and will kiss his false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the great secret of all her manifestations, the secret that Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style; while Life—poor, probable, uninteresting human life—tired of repeating herself for the benefit of Mr. Herbert Spencer, scientific historians, and the compilers of statistics in general, will follow meekly after him, and try to reproduce, in her own simple and untutored way, some of the marvels of which he talks.
‘No doubt there will always be critics who, like a certain writer in the Saturday Review, will gravely censure the teller of fairy tales for his defective knowledge of natural history, who will measure imaginative work by their own lack of any imaginative faculty, and will hold up their ink-stained hands in horror if some honest gentleman, who has never been farther than the yew-trees of his own garden, pens a fascinating book of travels like Sir John Mandeville, or, like great Raleigh, writes a whole history of the world, without knowing anything whatsoever about the past. To excuse themselves they will try and shelter under the shield of him who made Prospero the magician, and gave him Caliban and Ariel as his servants, who heard the Tritons blowing their horns round the coral reefs of the Enchanted Isle, and the fairies singing to each other in a wood near Athens, who led the phantom kings in dim procession across the misty Scottish heath, and hid Hecate in a cave with the weird sisters. They will call upon Shakespeare—they always do—and will quote that hackneyed passage forgetting that this unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature, is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.’
CYRIL. Ahem! Another cigarette, please.
VIVIAN. My dear fellow, whatever you may say, it is merely a dramatic utterance, and no more represents Shakespeare’s real views upon art than the speeches of Iago represent his real views upon morals. But let me get to the end of the passage:
‘Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the “forms more real than living man,” and hers the great archetypes of which things that have existence are but unfinished copies. Nature has, in her eyes, no laws, no uniformity. She can work miracles at her will, and when she calls monsters from the deep they come. She can bid the almond-tree blossom in winter, and send the snow upon the ripe cornfield. At her word the frost lays its silver finger on the burning mouth of June, and the winged lions creep out from the hollows of the Lydian hills. The dryads peer from the thicket as she passes by, and the brown fauns smile strangely at her when she comes near them. She has hawk-faced gods that worship her, and the centaurs gallop at her side.’
CYRIL. I like that. I can see it. Is that the end?
VIVIAN. No. There is one more passage, but it is purely practical. It simply suggests some methods by which we could revive this lost art of Lying.
CYRIL. Well, before you read it to me, I should like to ask you a question. What do you mean by saying that life, ‘poor, probable, uninteresting human life,’ will try to reproduce the marvels of art? I can quite understand your objection to art being treated as a mirror. You think it would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass. But you don’t mean to say that you seriously believe that Life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality?
VIVIAN. Certainly I
do. Paradox though it may seem—and
paradoxes are always dangerous things—it is none the less true that Life
imitates art far more than Art imitates life.
We have all seen in our own day in England how a certain curious and
fascinating type of beauty, invented and emphasised by two imaginative
painters, has so influenced Life that whenever one goes to a private view or to
an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s dream, the long
ivory throat, the strange square-cut jaw, the loosened shadowy hair that he so
ardently loved, there the sweet maidenhood of ‘The Golden Stair,’ the
blossom-like mouth and weary loveliness of the ‘Laus Amoris,’ the passion-pale
face of Andromeda, the thin hands and lithe beauty of the Vivian in ‘Merlin’s
Dream.’ And it has always been so. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries
to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising
publisher. Neither Holbein nor Vandyck
As it is with the visible arts, so it is with
literature. The most obvious and the
vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who,
after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the
stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm
old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in
suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers. This interesting phenomenon, which always
occurs after the appearance of a new edition of either of the books I have alluded
to, is usually attributed to the influence of literature on the
imagination. But this is a mistake. The imagination is essentially creative, and
always seeks for a new form. The
boy-burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is, with
trying to reproduce Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended
scale throughout the whole of life.
Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern
thought, but Hamlet invented it. The
world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy. The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no
faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not
believe in, is a purely literary product.
He was invented by Tourgénieff, and completed by Dostoieffski. Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau
as surely as the People’s Palace rose out of the débris of a novel. Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its
purpose. The nineteenth century, as we
know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.
Our Luciens de Rubempré, our Rastignacs, and De Marsays made their first
appearance on the stage of the Comédie Humaine.
We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary additions,
the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist. I once asked a lady, who knew Thackeray
intimately, whether he had had any model for Becky Sharp. She told me that Becky was an invention, but
that the idea of the character had been partly suggested by a governess who
lived in the neighbourhood of
Here the imitation, as far as it went, was of course
accidental. In the following case the
imitation was self-conscious. In the
year 1879, just after I had left
However, I do not wish to dwell any further upon individual instances. Personal experience is a most vicious and limited circle. All that I desire to point out is the general principle that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life—the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it—is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar.
CYRIL. The theory is certainly a very curious one, but to make it complete you must show that Nature, no less than Life, is an imitation of Art. Are you prepared to prove that?
VIVIAN. My dear fellow, I am prepared to prove anything.
CYRIL. Nature follows the landscape painter, then, and takes her effects from him?
VIVIAN. Certainly. Where, if
not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come
creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into
monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to
them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our
river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying
barge? The extraordinary change that has
taken place in the climate of
CYRIL. You have proved it to my dissatisfaction, which is better. But even admitting this strange imitative instinct in Life and Nature, surely you would acknowledge that Art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under whose influence it is produced.
VIVIAN. Certainly not! Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts. Of course, nations and individuals, with that healthy natural vanity which is the secret of existence, are always under the impression that it is of them that the Muses are talking, always trying to find in the calm dignity of imaginative art some mirror of their own turbid passions, always forgetting that the singer of life is not Apollo but Marsyas. Remote from reality, and with her eyes turned away from the shadows of the cave, Art reveals her own perfection, and the wondering crowd that watches the opening of the marvellous, many-petalled rose fancies that it is its own history that is being told to it, its own spirit that is finding expression in a new form. But it is not so. The highest art rejects the burden of the human spirit, and gains more from a new medium or a fresh material than she does from any enthusiasm for art, or from any lofty passion, or from any great awakening of the human consciousness. She develops purely on her own lines. She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols.
Even those who hold that Art is representative of time and
place and people cannot help admitting that the more imitative an art is, the
less it represents to us the spirit of its age.
The evil faces of the Roman emperors look out at us from the foul
porphyry and spotted jasper in which the realistic artists of the day delighted
to work, and we fancy that in those cruel lips and heavy sensual jaws we can find
the secret of the ruin of the Empire.
But it was not so. The vices of
Tiberius could not destroy that supreme civilisation, any more than the virtues
of the Antonines could save it. It fell
for other, for less interesting reasons.
The sibyls and prophets of the Sistine may indeed serve to interpret for
some that new birth of the emancipated spirit that we call the Renaissance; but
what do the drunken boors and bawling peasants of Dutch art tell us about the
great soul of
CYRIL. I quite agree with you there. The spirit of an age may be best expressed in the abstract ideal arts, for the spirit itself is abstract and ideal. Upon the other hand, for the visible aspect of an age, for its look, as the phrase goes, we must of course go to the arts of imitation.
VIVIAN. I don’t think
so. After all, what the imitative arts
really give us are merely the various styles of particular artists, or of
certain schools of artists. Surely you
don’t imagine that the people of the Middle Ages bore
any resemblance at all to the figures on mediaeval stained glass, or in
mediaeval stone and wood carving, or on mediaeval metal-work, or tapestries, or
illuminated MSS. They were probably very
ordinary-looking people, with nothing grotesque, or remarkable, or fantastic in
their appearance. The Middle
Ages, as we know them in art, are simply a definite form of style, and there is
no reason at all why an artist with this style should not be produced in the
nineteenth century. No great artist ever
sees things as they really are. If he
did, he would cease to be an artist.
Take an example from our own day.
I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese
people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese
art at all. The Japanese people are the
deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei,
or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady,
you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in
CYRIL. But modern portraits by English painters, what of them? Surely they are like the people they pretend to represent?
VIVIAN. Quite so. They are so like them that a hundred years from now no one will believe in them. The only portraits in which one believes are portraits where there is very little of the sitter, and a very great deal of the artist. Holbein’s drawings of the men and women of his time impress us with a sense of their absolute reality. But this is simply because Holbein compelled life to accept his conditions, to restrain itself within his limitations, to reproduce his type, and to appear as he wished it to appear. It is style that makes us believe in a thing—nothing but style. Most of our modern portrait painters are doomed to absolute oblivion. They never paint what they see. They paint what the public sees, and the public never sees anything.
CYRIL. Well, after that I think I should like to hear the end of your article.
VIVIAN. With pleasure.
Whether it will do any good I really cannot say. Ours is certainly the dullest and most
prosaic century possible. Why, even
Sleep has played us false, and has closed up the gates of ivory, and opened the
gates of horn. The dreams of the great
middle classes of this country, as recorded in Mr. Myers’s two bulky volumes on
the subject, and in the Transactions of the Psychical Society, are the most
depressing things that I have ever read.
There is not even a fine nightmare among them. They are commonplace, sordid and tedious. As for the Church, I cannot conceive anything
better for the culture of a country than the presence in it of a body of men
whose duty it is to believe in the supernatural, to perform daily miracles, and
to keep alive that mythopoeic faculty which is so essential for the
imagination. But in the
‘What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to revive this old art of Lying. Much of course may be done, in the way of educating the public, by amateurs in the domestic circle, at literary lunches, and at afternoon teas. But this is merely the light and graceful side of lying, such as was probably heard at Cretan dinner-parties. There are many other forms. Lying for the sake of gaining some immediate personal advantage, for instance—lying with a moral purpose, as it is usually called—though of late it has been rather looked down upon, was extremely popular with the antique world. Athena laughs when Odysseus tells her “his words of sly devising,” as Mr. William Morris phrases it, and the glory of mendacity illumines the pale brow of the stainless hero of Euripidean tragedy, and sets among the noble women of the past the young bride of one of Horace’s most exquisite odes. Later on, what at first had been merely a natural instinct was elevated into a self-conscious science. Elaborate rules were laid down for the guidance of mankind, and an important school of literature grew up round the subject. Indeed, when one remembers the excellent philosophical treatise of Sanchez on the whole question, one cannot help regretting that no one has ever thought of publishing a cheap and condensed edition of the works of that great casuist. A short primer, “When to Lie and How,” if brought out in an attractive and not too expensive a form, would no doubt command a large sale, and would prove of real practical service to many earnest and deep-thinking people. Lying for the sake of the improvement of the young, which is the basis of home education, still lingers amongst us, and its advantages are so admirably set forth in the early books of Plato’s Republic that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them here. It is a mode of lying for which all good mothers have peculiar capabilities, but it is capable of still further development, and has been sadly overlooked by the School Board. Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is of course well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leader-writer is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a somewhat dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond a kind of ostentatious obscurity. The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this is, as we have already pointed out, Lying in Art. Just as those who do not love Plato more than Truth cannot pass beyond the threshold of the Academe, so those who do not love Beauty more than Truth never know the inmost shrine of Art. The solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvellous tale, and fantasy, La Chimère, dances round it, and calls to it with her false, flute-toned voice. It may not hear her now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her and try to borrow her wings.
‘And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens, how joyous we shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land. The very aspect of the world will change to our startled eyes. Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and Leviathan, and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on the delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were actually readable. Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall lay our hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad’s head. Champing his gilded oats, the Hippogriff will stand in our stalls, and over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happen, of things that are not and that should be. But before this comes to pass we must cultivate the lost art of Lying.’
CYRIL. Then we must entirely cultivate it at once. But in order to avoid making any error I want you to tell me briefly the doctrines of the new aesthetics.
VIVIAN. Briefly, then, they are these. Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress. Sometimes it returns upon its footsteps, and revives some antique form, as happened in the archaistic movement of late Greek Art, and in the pre-Raphaelite movement of our own day. At other times it entirely anticipates its age, and produces in one century work that it takes another century to understand, to appreciate and to enjoy. In no case does it reproduce its age. To pass from the art of a time to the time itself is the great mistake that all historians commit.
The second doctrine is this.
All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them
into ideals. Life and Nature may
sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any
real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative
medium it surrenders everything. As a
method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist
should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter. To us, who live in the nineteenth century,
any century is a suitable subject for art except our own. The only beautiful things are the things that
do not concern us. It is, to have the
pleasure of quoting myself, exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her
sorrows are so suitable a motive for a tragedy.
Besides, it is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the
The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.
It follows, as a corollary from this, that external Nature also imitates Art. The only effects that she can show us are effects that we have already seen through poetry, or in paintings. This is the secret of Nature’s charm, as well as the explanation of Nature’s weakness.
The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art. But of this I think I have spoken at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace, where ‘droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,’ while the evening star ‘washes the dusk with silver.’ At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. Come! We have talked long enough.
It has constantly been made a subject of reproach against
artists and men of letters that they are lacking in wholeness and completeness
of nature. As a rule this must
necessarily be so. That very concentration
of vision and intensity of purpose which is the characteristic of the artistic
temperament is in itself a mode of limitation.
To those who are preoccupied with the beauty of form nothing else seems
of much importance. Yet there are many
exceptions to this rule. Rubens served
as ambassador, and Goethe as state councillor, and
This remarkable man, so powerful with ‘pen, pencil and
poison,’ as a great poet of our own day has finely said of him, was born at
Chiswick, in 1794. His father was the
son of a distinguished solicitor of Gray’s Inn and
Before this, however, he seems to have been carried away by boyish dreams of the romance and chivalry of a soldier’s life, and to have become a young guardsman. But the reckless dissipated life of his companions failed to satisfy the refined artistic temperament of one who was made for other things. In a short time he wearied of the service. ‘Art,’ he tells us, in words that still move many by their ardent sincerity and strange fervour, ‘Art touched her renegade; by her pure and high influence the noisome mists were purged; my feelings, parched, hot, and tarnished, were renovated with cool, fresh bloom, simple, beautiful to the simple-hearted.’ But Art was not the only cause of the change. ‘The writings of Wordsworth,’ he goes on to say, ‘did much towards calming the confusing whirl necessarily incident to sudden mutations. I wept over them tears of happiness and gratitude.’ He accordingly left the army, with its rough barrack-life and coarse mess-room tittle-tattle, and returned to Linden House, full of this new-born enthusiasm for culture. A severe illness, in which, to use his own words, he was ‘broken like a vessel of clay,’ prostrated him for a time. His delicately strung organisation, however indifferent it might have been to inflicting pain on others, was itself most keenly sensitive to pain. He shrank from suffering as a thing that mars and maims human life, and seems to have wandered through that terrible valley of melancholia from which so many great, perhaps greater, spirits have never emerged. But he was young—only twenty-five years of age—and he soon passed out of the ‘dead black waters,’ as he called them, into the larger air of humanistic culture. As he was recovering from the illness that had led him almost to the gates of death, he conceived the idea of taking up literature as an art. ‘I said with John Woodvil,’ he cries, ‘it were a life of gods to dwell in such an element,’ to see and hear and write brave things:-
‘These high and gusty relishes of life
Have no allayings of mortality.’
It is impossible not to feel that in this passage we have the utterance of a man who had a true passion for letters. ‘To see and hear and write brave things,’ this was his aim.
Scott, the editor of the London Magazine, struck by the young man’s genius, or under the influence of the strange fascination that he exercised on every one who knew him, invited him to write a series of articles on artistic subjects, and under a series of fanciful pseudonym he began to contribute to the literature of his day. Janus Weathercock, Egomet Bonmot, and Van Vinkvooms, were some of the grotesque masks under which he choose to hide his seriousness or to reveal his levity. A mask tells us more than a face. These disguises intensified his personality. In an incredibly short time he seems to have made his mark. Charles Lamb speaks of ‘kind, light-hearted Wainewright,’ whose prose is ‘capital.’ We hear of him entertaining Macready, John Forster, Maginn, Talfourd, Sir Wentworth Dilke, the poet John Clare, and others, at a petit-dîner. Like Disraeli, he determined to startle the town as a dandy, and his beautiful rings, his antique cameo breast-pin, and his pale lemon-coloured kid gloves, were well known, and indeed were regarded by Hazlitt as being the signs of a new manner in literature: while his rich curly hair, fine eyes, and exquisite white hands gave him the dangerous and delightful distinction of being different from others. There was something in him of Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempré. At times he reminds us of Julien Sorel. De Quincey saw him once. It was at a dinner at Charles Lamb’s. ‘Amongst the company, all literary men, sat a murderer,’ he tells us, and he goes on to describe how on that day he had been ill, and had hated the face of man and woman, and yet found himself looking with intellectual interest across the table at the young writer beneath whose affectations of manner there seemed to him to lie so much unaffected sensibility, and speculates on ‘what sudden growth of another interest’ would have changed his mood, had he known of what terrible sin the guest to whom Lamb paid so much attention was even then guilty.
His life-work falls naturally under the three heads suggested by Mr. Swinburne, and it may be partly admitted that, if we set aside his achievements in the sphere of poison, what he has actually left to us hardly justifies his reputation.
But then it is only the Philistine who seeks to estimate a
personality by the vulgar test of production.
This young dandy sought to be somebody, rather than to do
something. He recognised that Life
itself is in art, and has its modes of style no less than the arts that seek to
express it. Nor is his work without
interest. We hear of William Blake
stopping in the
There is of course much in his descriptions, and his suggestions for decoration, that shows that he did not entirely free himself from the false taste of his time. But it is clear that he was one of the first to recognise what is, indeed, the very keynote of aesthetic eclecticism, I mean the true harmony of all really beautiful things irrespective of age or place, of school or manner. He saw that in decorating a room, which is to be, not a room for show, but a room to live in, we should never aim at any archaeological reconstruction of the past, nor burden ourselves with any fanciful necessity for historical accuracy. In this artistic perception he was perfectly right. All beautiful things belong to the same age.
And so, in his own library, as he describes it, we find the delicate fictile vase of the Greek, with its exquisitely painted figures and the faint ????? finely traced upon its side, and behind it hangs an engraving of the ‘Delphic Sibyl’ of Michael Angelo, or of the ‘Pastoral’ of Giorgione. Here is a bit of Florentine majolica, and here a rude lamp from some old Roman tomb. On the table lies a book of Hours, ‘cased in a cover of solid silver gilt, wrought with quaint devices and studded with small brilliants and rubies,’ and close by it ‘squats a little ugly monster, a Lar, perhaps, dug up in the sunny fields of corn-bearing Sicily.’ Some dark antique bronzes contrast with the pale gleam of two noble Christi Crucifixi, one carved in ivory, the other moulded in wax.’ He has his trays of Tassie’s gems, his tiny Louis-Quatorze bonbonnière with a miniature by Petitot, his highly prized ‘brown-biscuit teapots, filagree-worked,’ his citron morocco letter-case, and his ‘pomona-green’ chair.
One can fancy him lying there in the midst of his books and casts and engravings, a true virtuoso, a subtle connoisseur, turning over his fine collection of Mare Antonios, and his Turner’s ‘Liber Studiorum,’ of which he was a warm admirer, or examining with a magnifier some of his antique gems and cameos, ‘the head of Alexander on an onyx of two strata,’ or ‘that superb altissimo relievo on cornelian, Jupiter AEgiochus.’ He was always a great amateur of engravings, and gives some very useful suggestions as to the best means of forming a collection. Indeed, while fully appreciating modern art, he never lost sight of the importance of reproductions of the great masterpieces of the past, and all that he says about the value of plaster casts is quite admirable.
As an art-critic he concerned himself primarily with the complex impressions produced by a work of art, and certainly the first step in aesthetic criticism is to realise one’s own impressions. He cared nothing for abstract discussions on the nature of the Beautiful, and the historical method, which has since yielded such rich fruit, did not belong to his day, but he never lost sight of the great truth that Art’s first appeal is neither to the intellect nor to the emotions, but purely to the artistic temperament, and he more than once points out that this temperament, this ‘taste,’ as he calls it, being unconsciously guided and made perfect by frequent contact with the best work, becomes in the end a form of right judgment. Of course there are fashions in art just as there are fashions in dress, and perhaps none of us can ever quite free ourselves from the influence of custom and the influence of novelty. He certainly could not, and he frankly acknowledges how difficult it is to form any fair estimate of contemporary work. But, on the whole, his taste was good and sound. He admired Turner and Constable at a time when they were not so much thought of as they are now, and saw that for the highest landscape art we require more than ‘mere industry and accurate transcription.’ Of Crome’s ‘Heath Scene near Norwich’ he remarks that it shows ‘how much a subtle observation of the elements, in their wild moods, does for a most uninteresting flat,’ and of the popular type of landscape of his day he says that it is ‘simply an enumeration of hill and dale, stumps of trees, shrubs, water, meadows, cottages and houses; little more than topography, a kind of pictorial map-work; in which rainbows, showers, mists, haloes, large beams shooting through rifted clouds, storms, starlight, all the most valued materials of the real painter, are not.’ He had a thorough dislike of what is obvious or commonplace in art, and while he was charmed to entertain Wilkie at dinner, he cared as little for Sir David’s pictures as he did for Mr. Crabbe’s poems. With the imitative and realistic tendencies of his day he had no sympathy and he tells us frankly that his great admiration for Fuseli was largely due to the fact that the little Swiss did not consider it necessary that an artist should paint only what he sees. The qualities that he sought for in a picture were composition, beauty and dignity of line, richness of colour, and imaginative power. Upon the other hand, he was not a doctrinaire. ‘I hold that no work of art can be tried otherwise than by laws deduced from itself: whether or not it be consistent with itself is the question.’ This is one of his excellent aphorisms. And in criticising painters so different as Landseer and Martin, Stothard and Etty, he shows that, to use a phrase now classical, he is trying ‘to see the object as in itself it really is.’
However, as I pointed out before, he never feels quite at his ease in his criticisms of contemporary work. ‘The present,’ he says, ‘is about as agreeable a confusion to me as Ariosto on the first perusal. . . . Modern things dazzle me. I must look at them through Time’s telescope. Elia complains that to him the merit of a MS. poem is uncertain; “print,” as he excellently says, “settles it.” Fifty years’ toning does the same thing to a picture.’ He is happier when he is writing about Watteau and Lancret, about Rubens and Giorgione, about Rembrandt, Corregio, and Michael Angelo; happiest of all when he is writing about Greek things. What is Gothic touched him very little, but classical art and the art of the Renaissance were always dear to him. He saw what our English school could gain from a study of Greek models, and never wearies of pointing out to the young student the artistic possibilities that lie dormant in Hellenic marbles and Hellenic methods of work. In his judgments on the great Italian Masters, says De Quincey, ‘there seemed a tone of sincerity and of native sensibility, as in one who spoke for himself, and was not merely a copier from books.’ The highest praise that we can give to him is that he tried to revive style as a conscious tradition. But he saw that no amount of art lectures or art congresses, or ‘plans for advancing the fine arts,’ will ever produce this result. The people, he says very wisely, and in the true spirit of Toynbee Hall, must always have ‘the best models constantly before their eyes.’
As is to be expected from one who was a painter, he is often extremely technical in his art criticisms. Of Tintoret’s ‘St. George delivering the Egyptian Princess from the Dragon,’ he remarks:-
The robe of Sabra, warmly glazed with Prussian blue, is relieved from the pale greenish background by a vermilion scarf; and the full hues of both are beautifully echoed, as it were, in a lower key by the purple-lake coloured stuffs and bluish iron armour of the saint, besides an ample balance to the vivid azure drapery on the foreground in the indigo shades of the wild wood surrounding the castle.
And elsewhere he talks learnedly of ‘a delicate Schiavone,
various as a tulip-bed, with rich broken tints,’ of ‘a glowing portrait,
remarkable for morbidezza, by the scarce
But, as a rule, he deals with his impressions of the work as an artistic whole, and tries to translate those impressions into words, to give, as it were, the literary equivalent for the imaginative and mental effect. He was one of the first to develop what has been called the art-literature of the nineteenth century, that form of literature which has found in Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Browning, its two most perfect exponents. His description of Lancret’s Repas Italien, in which ‘a dark-haired girl, “amorous of mischief,” lies on the daisy-powdered grass,’ is in some respects very charming. Here is his account of ‘The Crucifixion,’ by Rembrandt. It is extremely characteristic of his style:-
Darkness—sooty, portentous darkness—shrouds the whole scene: only above the accursed wood, as if through a horrid rift in the murky ceiling, a rainy deluge—‘sleety-flaw, discoloured water’—streams down amain, spreading a grisly spectral light, even more horrible than that palpable night. Already the Earth pants thick and fast! the darkened Cross trembles! the winds are dropt—the air is stagnant—a muttering rumble growls underneath their feet, and some of that miserable crowd begin to fly down the hill. The horses snuff the coming terror, and become unmanageable through fear. The moment rapidly approaches when, nearly torn asunder by His own weight, fainting with loss of blood, which now runs in narrower rivulets from His slit veins, His temples and breast drowned in sweat, and His black tongue parched with the fiery death-fever, Jesus cries, ‘I thirst.’ The deadly vinegar is elevated to Him.
His head sinks, and the sacred corpse ‘swings senseless of
the cross.’ A sheet of vermilion flame
shoots sheer through the air and vanishes; the rocks of
Rembrandt never painted this sketch, and he was quite right. It would have lost nearly all its charms in losing that perplexing veil of indistinctness which affords such ample range wherein the doubting imagination may speculate. At present it is like a thing in another world. A dark gulf is betwixt us. It is not tangible by the body. We can only approach it in the spirit.
In this passage, written, the author tells us, ‘in awe and reverence,’ there is much that is terrible, and very much that is quite horrible, but it is not without a certain crude form of power, or, at any rate, a certain crude violence of words, a quality which this age should highly appreciate, as it is its chief defect. It is pleasanter, however, to pass to this description of Giulio Romano’s ‘Cephalus and Procris’:-
We should read Moschus’s lament for Bion, the sweet shepherd, before looking at this picture, or study the picture as a preparation for the lament. We have nearly the same images in both. For either victim the high groves and forest dells murmur; the flowers exhale sad perfume from their buds; the nightingale mourns on the craggy lands, and the swallow in the long-winding vales; ‘the satyrs, too, and fauns dark-veiled groan,’ and the fountain nymphs within the wood melt into tearful waters. The sheep and goats leave their pasture; and oreads, ‘who love to scale the most inaccessible tops of all uprightest rocks,’ hurry down from the song of their wind-courting pines; while the dryads bend from the branches of the meeting trees, and the rivers moan for white Procris, ‘with many-sobbing streams,’
Filling the far-seen ocean with a voice.
The golden bees are silent on the thymy Hymettus; and the
knelling horn of
From between the closely-neighboured boles astonished nymphs press forward with loud cries -
And deerskin-vested satyrs, crowned with ivy twists, advance;
And put strange pity in their horned countenance.
Laelaps lies beneath, and shows by his panting the rapid pace of death. On the other side of the group, Virtuous Love with ‘vans dejected’ holds forth the arrow to an approaching troop of sylvan people, fauns, rams, goats, satyrs, and satyr-mothers, pressing their children tighter with their fearful hands, who hurry along from the left in a sunken path between the foreground and a rocky wall, on whose lowest ridge a brook-guardian pours from her urn her grief-telling waters. Above and more remote than the Ephidryad, another female, rending her locks, appears among the vine-festooned pillars of an unshorn grove. The centre of the picture is filled by shady meadows, sinking down to a river-mouth; beyond is ‘the vast strength of the ocean stream,’ from whose floor the extinguisher of stars, rosy Aurora, drives furiously up her brine-washed steeds to behold the death-pangs of her rival.
Were this description carefully re-written, it would be quite admirable. The conception of making a prose poem out of paint is excellent. Much of the best modern literature springs from the same aim. In a very ugly and sensible age, the arts borrow, not from life, but from each other.
His sympathies, too, were wonderfully varied. In everything connected with the stage, for instance, he was always extremely interested, and strongly upheld the necessity for archaeological accuracy in costume and scene-painting. ‘In art,’ he says in one of his essays, ‘whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well’; and he points out that once we allow the intrusion of anachronisms, it becomes difficult to say where the line is to be drawn. In literature, again, like Lord Beaconsfield on a famous occasion, he was ‘on the side of the angels.’ He was one of the first to admire Keats and Shelley—‘the tremulously-sensitive and poetical Shelley,’ as he calls him. His admiration for Wordsworth was sincere and profound. He thoroughly appreciated William Blake. One of the best copies of the ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ that is now in existence was wrought specially for him. He loved Alain Chartier, and Ronsard, and the Elizabethan dramatists, and Chaucer and Chapman, and Petrarch. And to him all the arts were one. ‘Our critics,’ he remarks with much wisdom, ‘seem hardly aware of the identity of the primal seeds of poetry and painting, nor that any true advancement in the serious study of one art co-generates a proportionate perfection in the other’; and he says elsewhere that if a man who does not admire Michael Angelo talks of his love for Milton, he is deceiving either himself or his listeners. To his fellow-contributors in the London Magazine he was always most generous, and praises Barry Cornwall, Allan Cunningham, Hazlitt, Elton, and Leigh Hunt without anything of the malice of a friend. Some of his sketches of Charles Lamb are admirable in their way, and, with the art of the true comedian, borrow their style from their subject:-
What can I say of thee more than all know? that thou hadst the gaiety of a boy with the knowledge of a man: as gentle a heart as ever sent tears to the eyes.
How wittily would he mistake your meaning, and put in a
conceit most seasonably out of season.
His talk without affectation was compressed, like his beloved
Elizabethans, even unto obscurity. Like
grains of fine gold, his sentences would beat out into whole sheets. He had small mercy on spurious fame, and a
caustic observation on the fashion for men of genius was a standing dish. Sir Thomas Browne was a ‘bosom cronie’ of
his; so was
One side of his literary career deserves especial
notice. Modern journalism may be said to
owe almost as much to him as to any man of the early part of this century. He was the pioneer of Asiatic prose, and
delighted in pictorial epithets and pompous exaggerations. To have a style so gorgeous that it conceals
the subject is one of the highest achievements of an
important and much admired
Like most artificial people, he had a great love of nature. ‘I hold three things in high estimation,’ he says somewhere: ‘to sit lazily on an eminence that commands a rich prospect; to be shadowed by thick trees while the sun shines around me; and to enjoy solitude with the consciousness of neighbourhood. The country gives them all to me.’ He writes about his wandering over fragrant furze and heath repeating Collins’s ‘Ode to Evening,’ just to catch the fine quality of the moment; about smothering his face ‘in a watery bed of cowslips, wet with May dews’; and about the pleasure of seeing the sweet-breathed kine ‘pass slowly homeward through the twilight,’ and hearing ‘the distant clank of the sheep-bell.’ One phrase of his, ‘the polyanthus glowed in its cold bed of earth, like a solitary picture of Giorgione on a dark oaken panel,’ is curiously characteristic of his temperament, and this passage is rather pretty in its way:-
The short tender grass was covered with marguerites—‘such that men called daisies in our town’—thick as stars on a summer’s night. The harsh caw of the busy rooks came pleasantly mellowed from a high dusky grove of elms at some distance off, and at intervals was heard the voice of a boy scaring away the birds from the newly-sown seeds. The blue depths were the colour of the darkest ultramarine; not a cloud streaked the calm aether; only round the horizon’s edge streamed a light, warm film of misty vapour, against which the near village with its ancient stone church showed sharply out with blinding whiteness. I thought of Wordsworth’s ‘Lines written in March.’
However, we must not forget that the cultivated young man
who penned these lines, and who was so susceptible to Wordsworthian influences,
was also, as I said at the beginning of this memoir, one of the most subtle and
secret poisoners of this or any age. How
he first became fascinated by this strange sin he does not tell us, and the
diary in which he carefully noted the results of his terrible experiments and
the methods that he adopted, has unfortunately been lost to us. Even in later days, too, he was always
reticent on the matter, and preferred to speak about ‘The Excursion,’ and the
‘Poems founded on the Affections.’ There
is no doubt, however, that the poison that he used was strychnine. In one of the beautiful rings of which he was
so proud, and which served to show off the fine modelling of his delicate ivory
hands, he used to carry crystals of the Indian nux vomica, a poison, one of his
biographers tells us, ‘nearly tasteless, difficult of discovery, and capable of
almost infinite dilution.’ His murders,
says De Quincey, were more than were ever made known judicially. This is no doubt so, and some of them are
worthy of mention. His first victim was
his uncle, Mr. Thomas Griffiths. He
poisoned him in 1829 to gain possession of Linden House, a place to which he
had always been very much attached. In
the August of the next year he poisoned Mrs. Abercrombie, his wife’s mother,
and in the following December he poisoned the lovely Helen Abercrombie, his
sister-in-law. Why he murdered Mrs.
Abercrombie is not ascertained. It may
have been for a caprice, or to quicken some hideous sense of power that was in
him, or because she suspected something, or for no reason. But the murder of Helen Abercrombie was
carried out by himself and his wife for the sake of a sum of about £18,000, for
which they had insured her life in various offices. The circumstances were as follows. On the 12th of December, he and his wife and
child came up to
The insurance companies, suspecting the real facts of the
case, declined to pay the policy on the technical ground of misrepresentation
and want of interest, and, with curious courage, the poisoner entered an action
in the Court of Chancery against the Imperial, it being agreed that one
decision should govern all the cases.
The trial, however, did not come on for five years, when, after one
disagreement, a verdict was ultimately given in the companies’ favour. The judge on the occasion was Lord
Abinger. Egomet Bonmot was represented
by Mr. Erle and Sir William Follet, and the Attorney-General and Sir Frederick
Pollock appeared for the other side. The
plaintiff, unfortunately, was unable to be present at either of the trials. The refusal of the companies to give him the
£18,000 had placed him in a position of most painful pecuniary
embarrassment. Indeed, a few months
after the murder of Helen Abercrombie, he had been actually arrested for debt
in the streets of
It was the month of June, and he was staying at one of the
It was by a mere accident that he was discovered. A noise in the street attracted his
attention, and, in his artistic interest in modern life, he pushed aside the
blind for a moment. Some one outside
called out, ‘That’s Wainewright, the Bank-forger.’ It was Forrester, the
On the 5th of July he was brought up at the Old Bailey. The following report of the proceedings appeared in the Times:-
Before Mr. Justice Vaughan and Mr. Baron Alderson, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, aged forty-two, a man of gentlemanly appearance, wearing mustachios, was indicted for forging and uttering a certain power of attorney for £2259, with intent to defraud the Governor and Company of the Bank of England.
There were five indictments against the prisoner, to all of which he pleaded not guilty, when he was arraigned before Mr. Serjeant Arabin in the course of the morning. On being brought before the judges, however, he begged to be allowed to withdraw the former plea, and then pleaded guilty to two of the indictments which were not of a capital nature.
The counsel for the Bank having explained that there were three other indictments, but that the Bank did not desire to shed blood, the plea of guilty on the two minor charges was recorded, and the prisoner at the close of the session sentenced by the Recorder to transportation for life.
He was taken back to Newgate, preparatory to his removal to the colonies. In a fanciful passage in one of his early essays he had fancied himself ‘lying in Horsemonger Gaol under sentence of death’ for having been unable to resist the temptation of stealing some Marc Antonios from the British Museum in order to complete his collection. The sentence now passed on him was to a man of his culture a form of death. He complained bitterly of it to his friends, and pointed out, with a good deal of reason, some people may fancy, that the money was practically his own, having come to him from his mother, and that the forgery, such as it was, had been committed thirteen years before, which, to use his own phrase, was at least a circonstance attenuante. The permanence of personality is a very subtle metaphysical problem, and certainly the English law solves the question in an extremely rough-and-ready manner. There is, however, something dramatic in the fact that this heavy punishment was inflicted on him for what, if we remember his fatal influence on the prose of modern journalism, was certainly not the worst of all his sins.
While he was in gaol, Dickens, Macready, and Hablot Browne
came across him by chance. They had been
going over the prisons of
Others had more curiosity, and his cell was for some time a kind of fashionable lounge. Many men of letters went down to visit their old literary comrade. But he was no longer the kind light-hearted Janus whom Charles Lamb admired. He seems to have grown quite cynical.
To the agent of an insurance company who was visiting him one afternoon, and thought he would improve the occasion by pointing out that, after all, crime was a bad speculation, he replied: ‘Sir, you City men enter on your speculations, and take the chances of them. Some of your speculations succeed, some fail. Mine happen to have failed, yours happen to have succeeded. That is the only difference, sir, between my visitor and me. But, sir, I will tell you one thing in which I have succeeded to the last. I have been determined through life to hold the position of a gentleman. I have always done so. I do so still. It is the custom of this place that each of the inmates of a cell shall take his morning’s turn of sweeping it out. I occupy a cell with a bricklayer and a sweep, but they never offer me the broom!’ When a friend reproached him with the murder of Helen Abercrombie he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles.’
From Newgate he was brought to the hulks at
His love of art, however, never deserted him. At
His crimes seem to have had an important effect upon his art. They gave a strong personality to his style, a quality that his early work certainly lacked. In a note to the Life of Dickens, Forster mentions that in 1847 Lady Blessington received from her brother, Major Power, who held a military appointment at Hobart Town, an oil portrait of a young lady from his clever brush; and it is said that ‘he had contrived to put the expression of his own wickedness into the portrait of a nice, kind-hearted girl.’ M. Zola, in one of his novels, tells us of a young man who, having committed a murder, takes to art, and paints greenish impressionist portraits of perfectly respectable people, all of which bear a curious resemblance to his victim. The development of Mr. Wainewright’s style seems to me far more subtle and suggestive. One can fancy an intense personality being created out of sin.
This strange and fascinating figure that for a few years
Of course, he is far too close to our own time for us to be able to form any purely artistic judgment about him. It is impossible not to feel a strong prejudice against a man who might have poisoned Lord Tennyson, or Mr. Gladstone, or the Master of Balliol. But had the man worn a costume and spoken a language different from our own, had he lived in imperial Rome, or at the time of the Italian Renaissance, or in Spain in the seventeenth century, or in any land or any century but this century and this land, we would be quite able to arrive at a perfectly unprejudiced estimate of his position and value. I know that there are many historians, or at least writers on historical subjects, who still think it necessary to apply moral judgments to history, and who distribute their praise or blame with the solemn complacency of a successful schoolmaster. This, however, is a foolish habit, and merely shows that the moral instinct can be brought to such a pitch of perfection that it will make its appearance wherever it is not required. Nobody with the true historical sense ever dreams of blaming Nero, or scolding Tiberius, or censuring Caesar Borgia. These personages have become like the puppets of a play. They may fill us with terror, or horror, or wonder, but they do not harm us. They are not in immediate relation to us. We have nothing to fear from them. They have passed into the sphere of art and science, and neither art nor science knows anything of moral approval or disapproval. And so it may be some day with Charles Lamb’s friend. At present I feel that he is just a little too modern to be treated in that fine spirit of disinterested curiosity to which we owe so many charming studies of the great criminals of the Italian Renaissance from the pens of Mr. John Addington Symonds, Miss A. Mary F. Robinson, Miss Vernon Lee, and other distinguished writers. However, Art has not forgotten him. He is the hero of Dickens’s Hunted Down, the Varney of Bulwer’s Lucretia; and it is gratifying to note that fiction has paid some homage to one who was so powerful with ‘pen, pencil and poison.’ To be suggestive for fiction is to be of more importance than a fact.
A DIALOGUE. Part I.
Persons: Gilbert and Ernest.
Scene: the library of a house in Piccadilly, overlooking the
GILBERT (at the Piano). My dear Ernest, what are you laughing at?
ERNEST (looking up). At a capital story that I have just come across in this volume of Reminiscences that I have found on your table.
GILBERT. What is the book? Ah! I see. I have not read it yet. Is it good?
ERNEST. Well, while you have been playing, I have been turning over the pages with some amusement, though, as a rule, I dislike modern memoirs. They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering; which, however, is, no doubt, the true explanation of their popularity, as the English public always feels perfectly at its ease when a mediocrity is talking to it.
GILBERT. Yes: the public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius. But I must confess that I like all memoirs. I like them for their form, just as much as for their matter. In literature mere egotism is delightful. It is what fascinates us in the letters of personalities so different as Cicero and Balzac, Flaubert and Berlioz, Byron and Madame de Sévigné. Whenever we come across it, and, strangely enough, it is rather rare, we cannot but welcome it, and do not easily forget it. Humanity will always love Rousseau for having confessed his sins, not to a priest, but to the world, and the couchant nymphs that Cellini wrought in bronze for the castle of King Francis, the green and gold Perseus, even, that in the open Loggia at Florence shows the moon the dead terror that once turned life to stone, have not given it more pleasure than has that autobiography in which the supreme scoundrel of the Renaissance relates the story of his splendour and his shame. The opinions, the character, the achievements of the man, matter very little. He may be a sceptic like the gentle Sieur de Montaigne, or a saint like the bitter son of Monica, but when he tells us his own secrets he can always charm our ears to listening and our lips to silence. The mode of thought that Cardinal Newman represented—if that can be called a mode of thought which seeks to solve intellectual problems by a denial of the supremacy of the intellect—may not, cannot, I think, survive. But the world will never weary of watching that troubled soul in its progress from darkness to darkness. The lonely church at Littlemore, where ‘the breath of the morning is damp, and worshippers are few,’ will always be dear to it, and whenever men see the yellow snapdragon blossoming on the wall of Trinity they will think of that gracious undergraduate who saw in the flower’s sure recurrence a prophecy that he would abide for ever with the Benign Mother of his days—a prophecy that Faith, in her wisdom or her folly, suffered not to be fulfilled. Yes; autobiography is irresistible. Poor, silly, conceited Mr. Secretary Pepys has chattered his way into the circle of the Immortals, and, conscious that indiscretion is the better part of valour, bustles about among them in that ‘shaggy purple gown with gold buttons and looped lace’ which he is so fond of describing to us, perfectly at his ease, and prattling, to his own and our infinite pleasure, of the Indian blue petticoat that he bought for his wife, of the ‘good hog’s hars-let,’ and the ‘pleasant French fricassee of veal’ that he loved to eat, of his game of bowls with Will Joyce, and his ‘gadding after beauties,’ and his reciting of Hamlet on a Sunday, and his playing of the viol on week days, and other wicked or trivial things. Even in actual life egotism is not without its attractions. When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely.
ERNEST. There is much virtue in that If, as Touchstone would say. But do you seriously propose that every man should become his own Boswell? What would become of our industrious compilers of Lives and Recollections in that case?
GILBERT. What has become of them? They are the pest of the age, nothing more and nothing less. Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.
ERNEST. My dear fellow!
GILBERT. I am afraid it is true. Formerly we used to canonise our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarise them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable.
ERNEST. May I ask, Gilbert, to whom you allude?
GILBERT. Oh! to all our second-rate littérateurs. We are overrun by a set of people who, when poet or painter passes away, arrive at the house along with the undertaker, and forget that their one duty is to behave as mutes. But we won’t talk about them. They are the mere body-snatchers of literature. The dust is given to one, and the ashes to another, and the soul is out of their reach. And now, let me play Chopin to you, or Dvorák? Shall I play you a fantasy by Dvorák? He writes passionate, curiously-coloured things.
ERNEST. No; I don’t want music just at present. It is far too indefinite. Besides, I took the Baroness Bernstein down to dinner last night, and, though absolutely charming in every other respect, she insisted on discussing music as if it were actually written in the German language. Now, whatever music sounds like I am glad to say that it does not sound in the smallest degree like German. There are forms of patriotism that are really quite degrading. No; Gilbert, don’t play any more. Turn round and talk to me. Talk to me till the white-horned day comes into the room. There is something in your voice that is wonderful.
GILBERT (rising from the piano). I am not in a mood for talking to-night. I really am not. How horrid of you to smile! Where are the cigarettes? Thanks. How exquisite these single daffodils are! They seem to be made of amber and cool ivory. They are like Greek things of the best period. What was the story in the confessions of the remorseful Academician that made you laugh? Tell it to me. After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations. And so tell me this story, Ernest. I want to be amused.
ERNEST. Oh! I don’t know that it is of any importance. But I thought it a really admirable illustration of the true value of ordinary art-criticism. It seems that a lady once gravely asked the remorseful Academician, as you call him, if his celebrated picture of ‘A Spring-Day at Whiteley’s,’ or, ‘Waiting for the Last Omnibus,’ or some subject of that kind, was all painted by hand?
GILBERT. And was it?
ERNEST. You are quite incorrigible. But, seriously speaking, what is the use of art-criticism? Why cannot the artist be left alone, to create a new world if he wishes it, or, if not, to shadow forth the world which we already know, and of which, I fancy, we would each one of us be wearied if Art, with her fine spirit of choice and delicate instinct of selection, did not, as it were, purify it for us, and give to it a momentary perfection. It seems to me that the imagination spreads, or should spread, a solitude around it, and works best in silence and in isolation. Why should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamour of criticism? Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work? What can they know about it? If a man’s work is easy to understand, an explanation is unnecessary. . . .
GILBERT. And if his work is incomprehensible, an explanation is wicked.
ERNEST. I did not say that.
GILBERT. Ah! but you should have. Nowadays, we have so few mysteries left to us that we cannot afford to part with one of them. The members of the Browning Society, like the theologians of the Broad Church Party, or the authors of Mr. Walter Scott’s Great Writers Series, seem to me to spend their time in trying to explain their divinity away. Where one had hoped that Browning was a mystic they have sought to show that he was simply inarticulate. Where one had fancied that he had something to conceal, they have proved that he had but little to reveal. But I speak merely of his incoherent work. Taken as a whole the man was great. He did not belong to the Olympians, and had all the incompleteness of the Titan. He did not survey, and it was but rarely that he could sing. His work is marred by struggle, violence and effort, and he passed not from emotion to form, but from thought to chaos. Still, he was great. He has been called a thinker, and was certainly a man who was always thinking, and always thinking aloud; but it was not thought that fascinated him, but rather the processes by which thought moves. It was the machine he loved, not what the machine makes. The method by which the fool arrives at his folly was as dear to him as the ultimate wisdom of the wise. So much, indeed, did the subtle mechanism of mind fascinate him that he despised language, or looked upon it as an incomplete instrument of expression. Rhyme, that exquisite echo which in the Muse’s hollow hill creates and answers its own voice; rhyme, which in the hands of the real artist becomes not merely a material element of metrical beauty, but a spiritual element of thought and passion also, waking a new mood, it may be, or stirring a fresh train of ideas, or opening by mere sweetness and suggestion of sound some golden door at which the Imagination itself had knocked in vain; rhyme, which can turn man’s utterance to the speech of gods; rhyme, the one chord we have added to the Greek lyre, became in Robert Browning’s hands a grotesque, misshapen thing, which at times made him masquerade in poetry as a low comedian, and ride Pegasus too often with his tongue in his cheek. There are moments when he wounds us by monstrous music. Nay, if he can only get his music by breaking the strings of his lute, he breaks them, and they snap in discord, and no Athenian tettix, making melody from tremulous wings, lights on the ivory horn to make the movement perfect, or the interval less harsh. Yet, he was great: and though he turned language into ignoble clay, he made from it men and women that live. He is the most Shakespearian creature since Shakespeare. If Shakespeare could sing with myriad lips, Browning could stammer through a thousand mouths. Even now, as I am speaking, and speaking not against him but for him, there glides through the room the pageant of his persons. There, creeps Fra Lippo Lippi with his cheeks still burning from some girl’s hot kiss. There, stands dread Saul with the lordly male-sapphires gleaming in his turban. Mildred Tresham is there, and the Spanish monk, yellow with hatred, and Blougram, and Ben Ezra, and the Bishop of St. Praxed’s. The spawn of Setebos gibbers in the corner, and Sebald, hearing Pippa pass by, looks on Ottima’s haggard face, and loathes her and his own sin, and himself. Pale as the white satin of his doublet, the melancholy king watches with dreamy treacherous eyes too loyal Strafford pass forth to his doom, and Andrea shudders as he hears the cousins whistle in the garden, and bids his perfect wife go down. Yes, Browning was great. And as what will he be remembered? As a poet? Ah, not as a poet! He will be remembered as a writer of fiction, as the most supreme writer of fiction, it may be, that we have ever had. His sense of dramatic situation was unrivalled, and, if he could not answer his own problems, he could at least put problems forth, and what more should an artist do? Considered from the point of view of a creator of character he ranks next to him who made Hamlet. Had he been articulate, he might have sat beside him. The only man who can touch the hem of his garment is George Meredith. Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning. He used poetry as a medium for writing in prose.
ERNEST. There is something in what you say, but there is not everything in what you say. In many points you are unjust.
GILBERT. It is difficult not to be unjust to what one loves. But let us return to the particular point at issue. What was it that you said?
ERNEST. Simply this: that in the best days of art there were no art-critics.
GILBERT. I seem to have heard that observation before, Ernest. It has all the vitality of error and all the tediousness of an old friend.
ERNEST. It is true. Yes: there is no use your tossing your head in that petulant manner. It is quite true. In the best days of art there were no art-critics. The sculptor hewed from the marble block the great white-limbed Hermes that slept within it. The waxers and gilders of images gave tone and texture to the statue, and the world, when it saw it, worshipped and was dumb. He poured the glowing bronze into the mould of sand, and the river of red metal cooled into noble curves and took the impress of the body of a god. With enamel or polished jewels he gave sight to the sightless eyes. The hyacinth-like curls grew crisp beneath his graver. And when, in some dim frescoed fane, or pillared sunlit portico, the child of Leto stood upon his pedestal, those who passed by, ??? ??????????? ????????? ????? ???????, became conscious of a new influence that had come across their lives, and dreamily, or with a sense of strange and quickening joy, went to their homes or daily labour, or wandered, it may be, through the city gates to that nymph-haunted meadow where young Phaedrus bathed his feet, and, lying there on the soft grass, beneath the tall wind—whispering planes and flowering agnus castus, began to think of the wonder of beauty, and grew silent with unaccustomed awe. In those days the artist was free. From the river valley he took the fine clay in his fingers, and with a little tool of wood or bone, fashioned it into forms so exquisite that the people gave them to the dead as their playthings, and we find them still in the dusty tombs on the yellow hillside by Tanagra, with the faint gold and the fading crimson still lingering about hair and lips and raiment. On a wall of fresh plaster, stained with bright sandyx or mixed with milk and saffron, he pictured one who trod with tired feet the purple white-starred fields of asphodel, one ‘in whose eyelids lay the whole of the Trojan War,’ Polyxena, the daughter of Priam; or figured Odysseus, the wise and cunning, bound by tight cords to the mast-step, that he might listen without hurt to the singing of the Sirens, or wandering by the clear river of Acheron, where the ghosts of fishes flitted over the pebbly bed; or showed the Persian in trews and mitre flying before the Greek at Marathon, or the galleys clashing their beaks of brass in the little Salaminian bay. He drew with silver-point and charcoal upon parchment and prepared cedar. Upon ivory and rose-coloured terracotta he painted with wax, making the wax fluid with juice of olives, and with heated irons making it firm. Panel and marble and linen canvas became wonderful as his brush swept across them; and life seeing her own image, was still, and dared not speak. All life, indeed, was his, from the merchants seated in the market-place to the cloaked shepherd lying on the hill; from the nymph hidden in the laurels and the faun that pipes at noon, to the king whom, in long green-curtained litter, slaves bore upon oil-bright shoulders, and fanned with peacock fans. Men and women, with pleasure or sorrow in their faces, passed before him. He watched them, and their secret became his. Through form and colour he re-created a world.
All subtle arts belonged to him also. He held the gem against the revolving disk,
and the amethyst became the purple couch for Adonis, and across the veined
sardonyx sped Artemis with her hounds.
He beat out the gold into roses, and strung them together for necklace
or armlet. He beat out the gold into wreaths
for the conqueror’s helmet, or into palmates for the Tyrian robe, or into masks
for the royal dead. On the back of the
silver mirror he graved Thetis borne by her Nereids, or love-sick Phaedra with
her nurse, or Persephone, weary of memory, putting poppies in her hair. The potter sat in his shed, and, flower-like
from the silent wheel, the vase rose up beneath his hands. He decorated the base and stem and ears with
pattern of dainty olive-leaf, or foliated acanthus, or curved and crested
wave. Then in black or red he painted
lads wrestling, or in the race: knights in full armour, with strange heraldic
shields and curious visors, leaning from shell-shaped chariot over rearing
steeds: the gods seated at the feast or working their miracles: the heroes in
their victory or in their pain. Sometimes
he would etch in thin vermilion lines upon a ground of white the languid
bridegroom and his bride, with Eros hovering round them—an Eros like one of
Donatello’s angels, a little laughing thing with gilded or with azure
wings. On the curved side he would write
the name of his friend. ????? ??????????
or ????? ???????? tells us
the story of his days. Again, on the rim
of the wide flat cup he would draw the stag browsing, or the lion at rest, as
his fancy willed it. From the tiny
perfume-bottle laughed Aphrodite at her toilet, and, with bare-limbed Maenads
in his train, Dionysus danced round the wine-jar on naked must-stained feet,
while, satyr-like, the old Silenus sprawled upon the bloated skins, or shook
that magic spear which was tipped with a fretted fir-cone, and wreathed with
dark ivy. And no one came to trouble the
artist at his work. No irresponsible
chatter disturbed him. He was not
worried by opinions. By the Ilyssus,
GILBERT. Ernest, you are quite delightful, but your views are terribly unsound. I am afraid that you have been listening to the conversation of some one older than yourself. That is always a dangerous thing to do, and if you allow it to degenerate into a habit you will find it absolutely fatal to any intellectual development. As for modern journalism, it is not my business to defend it. It justifies its own existence by the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarest. I have merely to do with literature.
ERNEST. But what is the difference between literature and journalism?
GILBERT. Oh! journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read. That is all. But with regard to your statement that the Greeks had no art-critics, I assure you that is quite absurd. It would be more just to say that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics.
GILBERT. Yes, a
nation of art-critics. But I don’t wish
to destroy the delightfully unreal picture that you have drawn of the relation
of the Hellenic artist to the intellectual spirit of his age. To give an accurate description of what has
never occurred is not merely the proper occupation of the historian, but the
inalienable privilege of any man of parts and culture. Still less do I desire to talk
learnedly. Learned conversation is
either the affectation of the ignorant or the profession of the mentally
unemployed. And, as for what is called
improving conversation, that is merely the foolish method by which the still
more foolish philanthropist feebly tries to disarm the just rancour of the criminal
classes. No: let me play to you some mad
scarlet thing by Dvorák. The pallid
figures on the tapestry are smiling at us, and the heavy eyelids of my bronze
Narcissus are folded in sleep. Don’t let
us discuss anything solemnly. I am but
too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are
treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood. Don’t degrade me into the position of giving
you useful information. Education is an
admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that
is worth knowing can be taught. Through
the parted curtains of the window I see the moon like a clipped piece of
silver. Like gilded bees the stars
cluster round her. The sky is a hard
hollow sapphire. Let us go out into the
night. Thought is wonderful, but
adventure is more wonderful still. Who
knows but we may meet Prince Florizel of
ERNEST. You are horribly wilful. I insist on your discussing this matter with me. You have said that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics. What art-criticism have they left us?
GILBERT. My dear Ernest, even if not a single fragment of art-criticism had come down to us from Hellenic or Hellenistic days, it would be none the less true that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics, and that they invented the criticism of art just as they invented the criticism of everything else. For, after all, what is our primary debt to the Greeks? Simply the critical spirit. And, this spirit, which they exercised on questions of religion and science, of ethics and metaphysics, of politics and education, they exercised on questions of art also, and, indeed, of the two supreme and highest arts, they have left us the most flawless system of criticism that the world has ever seen.
ERNEST. But what are the two supreme and highest arts?
GILBERT. Life and Literature, life and the perfect expression of life. The principles of the former, as laid down by
the Greeks, we may not realise in an age so marred by false ideals as our
own. The principles of the latter, as
they laid them down, are, in many cases, so subtle that we can hardly
understand them. Recognising that the
most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite
variety, they elaborated the criticism of language, considered in the light of
the mere material of that art, to a point to which we, with our accentual
system of reasonable or emotional emphasis, can barely if at all attain;
studying, for instance, the metrical movements of a prose as scientifically as
a modern musician studies harmony and counterpoint, and, I need hardly say,
with much keener aesthetic instinct. In
this they were right, as they were right in all things. Since the introduction of printing, and the
fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes
of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and
more to the eye, and less and less to the ear which is really the sense which,
from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please, and by whose canons
of pleasure it should abide always. Even
the work of Mr. Pater, who is, on the whole, the most perfect master of English
prose now creating amongst us, is often far more like a piece of mosaic than a passage
in music, and seems, here and there, to lack the true rhythmical life of words
and the fine freedom and richness of effect that such rhythmical life
produces. We, in fact, have made writing
a definite mode of composition, and have treated it as a form of elaborate
design. The Greeks, upon the other hand,
regarded writing simply as a method of chronicling. Their test was always the spoken word in its
musical and metrical relations. The
voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.
I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be
really an artistic myth, created in critical days, and serving to remind us,
not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of
the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but that he is a true singer
also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again
to himself till he has caught the secret of its melody, chaunting in darkness
the words that are winged with light.
Certainly, whether this be so or not, it was to
his blindness, as an occasion, if not as a cause, that
As it now is, we cannot do so. Sometimes, when I have written a piece of prose that I have been modest enough to consider absolutely free from fault, a dreadful thought comes over me that I may have been guilty of the immoral effeminacy of using trochaic and tribrachic movements, a crime for which a learned critic of the Augustan age censures with most just severity the brilliant if somewhat paradoxical Hegesias. I grow cold when I think of it, and wonder to myself if the admirable ethical effect of the prose of that charming writer, who once in a spirit of reckless generosity towards the uncultivated portion of our community proclaimed the monstrous doctrine that conduct is three-fourths of life, will not some day be entirely annihilated by the discovery that the paeons have been wrongly placed.
ERNEST. Ah! now you are flippant.
GILBERT. Who would not be flippant when he is gravely told that the Greeks had no art-critics? I can understand it being said that the constructive genius of the Greeks lost itself in criticism, but not that the race to whom we owe the critical spirit did not criticise. You will not ask me to give you a survey of Greek art criticism from Plato to Plotinus. The night is too lovely for that, and the moon, if she heard us, would put more ashes on her face than are there already. But think merely of one perfect little work of aesthetic criticism, Aristotle’s Treatise on Poetry. It is not perfect in form, for it is badly written, consisting perhaps of notes dotted down for an art lecture, or of isolated fragments destined for some larger book, but in temper and treatment it is perfect, absolutely. The ethical effect of art, its importance to culture, and its place in the formation of character, had been done once for all by Plato; but here we have art treated, not from the moral, but from the purely aesthetic point of view. Plato had, of course, dealt with many definitely artistic subjects, such as the importance of unity in a work of art, the necessity for tone and harmony, the aesthetic value of appearances, the relation of the visible arts to the external world, and the relation of fiction to fact. He first perhaps stirred in the soul of man that desire that we have not yet satisfied, the desire to know the connection between Beauty and Truth, and the place of Beauty in the moral and intellectual order of the Kosmos. The problems of idealism and realism, as he sets them forth, may seem to many to be somewhat barren of result in the metaphysical sphere of abstract being in which he places them, but transfer them to the sphere of art, and you will find that they are still vital and full of meaning. It may be that it is as a critic of Beauty that Plato is destined to live, and that by altering the name of the sphere of his speculation we shall find a new philosophy. But Aristotle, like Goethe, deals with art primarily in its concrete manifestations, taking Tragedy, for instance, and investigating the material it uses, which is language, its subject-matter, which is life, the method by which it works, which is action, the conditions under which it reveals itself, which are those of theatric presentation, its logical structure, which is plot, and its final aesthetic appeal, which is to the sense of beauty realised through the passions of pity and awe. That purification and spiritualising of the nature which he calls ???????? is, as Goethe saw, essentially aesthetic, and is not moral, as Lessing fancied. Concerning himself primarily with the impression that the work of art produces, Aristotle sets himself to analyse that impression, to investigate its source, to see how it is engendered. As a physiologist and psychologist, he knows that the health of a function resides in energy. To have a capacity for a passion and not to realise it, is to make oneself incomplete and limited. The mimic spectacle of life that Tragedy affords cleanses the bosom of much ‘perilous stuff,’ and by presenting high and worthy objects for the exercise of the emotions purifies and spiritualises the man; nay, not merely does it spiritualise him, but it initiates him also into noble feelings of which he might else have known nothing, the word ???????? having, it has sometimes seemed to me, a definite allusion to the rite of initiation, if indeed that be not, as I am occasionally tempted to fancy, its true and only meaning here. This is of course a mere outline of the book. But you see what a perfect piece of aesthetic criticism it is. Who indeed but a Greek could have analysed art so well? After reading it, one does not wonder any longer that Alexandria devoted itself so largely to art-criticism, and that we find the artistic temperaments of the day investigating every question of style and manner, discussing the great Academic schools of painting, for instance, such as the school of Sicyon, that sought to preserve the dignified traditions of the antique mode, or the realistic and impressionist schools, that aimed at reproducing actual life, or the elements of ideality in portraiture, or the artistic value of the epic form in an age so modern as theirs, or the proper subject-matter for the artist. Indeed, I fear that the inartistic temperaments of the day busied themselves also in matters of literature and art, for the accusations of plagiarism were endless, and such accusations proceed either from the thin colourless lips of impotence, or from the grotesque mouths of those who, possessing nothing of their own, fancy that they can gain a reputation for wealth by crying out that they have been robbed. And I assure you, my dear Ernest, that the Greeks chattered about painters quite as much as people do nowadays, and had their private views, and shilling exhibitions, and Arts and Crafts guilds, and Pre-Raphaelite movements, and movements towards realism, and lectured about art, and wrote essays on art, and produced their art-historians, and their archaeologists, and all the rest of it. Why, even the theatrical managers of travelling companies brought their dramatic critics with them when they went on tour, and paid them very handsome salaries for writing laudatory notices. Whatever, in fact, is modern in our life we owe to the Greeks. Whatever is an anachronism is due to mediaevalism. It is the Greeks who have given us the whole system of art-criticism, and how fine their critical instinct was, may be seen from the fact that the material they criticised with most care was, as I have already said, language. For the material that painter or sculptor uses is meagre in comparison with that of words. Words have not merely music as sweet as that of viol and lute, colour as rich and vivid as any that makes lovely for us the canvas of the Venetian or the Spaniard, and plastic form no less sure and certain than that which reveals itself in marble or in bronze, but thought and passion and spirituality are theirs also, are theirs indeed alone. If the Greeks had criticised nothing but language, they would still have been the great art-critics of the world. To know the principles of the highest art is to know the principles of all the arts.
But I see that the moon is hiding behind a sulphur-coloured cloud. Out of a tawny mane of drift she gleams like a lion’s eye. She is afraid that I will talk to you of Lucian and Longinus, of Quinctilian and Dionysius, of Pliny and Fronto and Pausanias, of all those who in the antique world wrote or lectured upon art matters. She need not be afraid. I am tired of my expedition into the dim, dull abyss of facts. There is nothing left for me now but the divine ?????????? ????? of another cigarette. Cigarettes have at least the charm of leaving one unsatisfied.
ERNEST. Try one of
mine. They are rather good. I get them direct from
antithesis between them is entirely arbitrary.
Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all,
worthy of the name. You spoke a little
while ago of that fine spirit of choice and delicate instinct of selection by
which the artist realises life for us, and gives to it a momentary
perfection. Well, that spirit of choice,
that subtle tact of omission, is really the critical faculty in one of its most
characteristic moods, and no one who does not possess this critical faculty can
create anything at all in art.
ERNEST. I should have said that great artists work unconsciously, that they were ‘wiser than they knew,’ as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere.
GILBERT. It is really
not so, Ernest. All fine imaginative
work is self-conscious and deliberate.
No poet sings because he must sing.
At least, no great poet does. A
great poet sings because he chooses to sing.
It is so now, and it has always been so.
We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn
of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours,
and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they
walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing
could pass into song. The snow lies
thick now upon
ERNEST. I see what you mean, and there is much in it. But surely you would admit that the great poems of the early world, the primitive, anonymous collective poems, were the result of the imagination of races, rather than of the imagination of individuals?
GILBERT. Not when they became poetry. Not when they received a beautiful form. For there is no art where there is no style, and no style where there is no unity, and unity is of the individual. No doubt Homer had old ballads and stories to deal with, as Shakespeare had chronicles and plays and novels from which to work, but they were merely his rough material. He took them, and shaped them into song. They become his, because he made them lovely. They were built out of music,
And so not built at all,
And therefore built for ever.
The longer one studies life and literature, the more
strongly one feels that behind everything that is wonderful stands the
individual, and that it is not the moment that makes the man, but the man who
creates the age. Indeed, I am inclined
to think that each myth and legend that seems to us to spring out of the
wonder, or terror, or fancy of tribe and nation, was in its origin the
invention of one single mind. The
curiously limited number of the myths seems to me to point to this conclusion. But we must not go off into questions of
comparative mythology. We must keep to
criticism. And what I want to point out
is this. An age that has no criticism is
either an age in which art is immobile, hieratic, and confined to the
reproduction of formal types, or an age that possesses no art at all. There have been critical ages that have not
been creative, in the ordinary sense of the word, ages in which the spirit of
man has sought to set in order the treasures of his treasure-house, to separate
the gold from the silver, and the silver from the lead, to count over the
jewels, and to give names to the pearls.
But there has never been a creative age that has not been critical
also. For it is the
critical faculty that invents fresh forms. The tendency of creation is to repeat
itself. It is to the critical instinct
that we owe each new school that springs up, each new mould that art finds
ready to its hand. There is really not a
single form that art now uses that does not come to us from the critical spirit
ERNEST. You have been talking of criticism as an essential part of the creative spirit, and I now fully accept your theory. But what of criticism outside creation? I have a foolish habit of reading periodicals, and it seems to me that most modern criticism is perfectly valueless.
GILBERT. So is most
modern creative work also. Mediocrity weighing mediocrity in the balance, and incompetence
applauding its brother—that is the spectacle which the artistic activity of
GILBERT. Certainly. Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature. The difficulty that I should fancy the reviewer feels is the difficulty of sustaining any standard. Where there is no style a standard must be impossible. The poor reviewers are apparently reduced to be the reporters of the police-court of literature, the chroniclers of the doings of the habitual criminals of art. It is sometimes said of them that they do not read all through the works they are called upon to criticise. They do not. Or at least they should not. If they did so, they would become confirmed misanthropes, or if I may borrow a phrase from one of the pretty Newnham graduates, confirmed womanthropes for the rest of their lives. Nor is it necessary. To know the vintage and quality of a wine one need not drink the whole cask. It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient, if one has the instinct for form. Who wants to wade through a dull volume? One tastes it, and that is quite enough—more than enough, I should imagine. I am aware that there are many honest workers in painting as well as in literature who object to criticism entirely. They are quite right. Their work stands in no intellectual relation to their age. It brings us no new element of pleasure. It suggests no fresh departure of thought, or passion, or beauty. It should not be spoken of. It should be left to the oblivion that it deserves.
ERNEST. But, my dear fellow—excuse me for interrupting you—you seem to me to be allowing your passion for criticism to lead you a great deal too far. For, after all, even you must admit that it is much more difficult to do a thing than to talk about it.
GILBERT. More difficult to do a thing than to talk about it? Not at all. That is a gross popular error. It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it. In the sphere of actual life that is of course obvious. Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it. There is no mode of action, no form of emotion, that we do not share with the lower animals. It is only by language that we rise above them, or above each other—by language, which is the parent, and not the child, of thought. Action, indeed, is always easy, and when presented to us in its most aggravated, because most continuous form, which I take to be that of real industry, becomes simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatsoever to do. No, Ernest, don’t talk about action. It is a blind thing dependent on external influences, and moved by an impulse of whose nature it is unconscious. It is a thing incomplete in its essence, because limited by accident, and ignorant of its direction, being always at variance with its aim. Its basis is the lack of imagination. It is the last resource of those who know not how to dream.
ERNEST. Gilbert, you treat the world as if it were a crystal ball. You hold it in your hand, and reverse it to please a wilful fancy. You do nothing but re-write history.
GILBERT. The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it. That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit. When we have fully discovered the scientific laws that govern life, we shall realise that the one person who has more illusions than the dreamer is the man of action. He, indeed, knows neither the origin of his deeds nor their results. From the field in which he thought that he had sown thorns, we have gathered our vintage, and the fig-tree that he planted for our pleasure is as barren as the thistle, and more bitter. It is because Humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its way.
ERNEST. You think, then, that in the sphere of action a conscious aim is a delusion?
GILBERT. It is worse than a delusion. If we lived long enough to see the results of our actions it may be that those who call themselves good would be sickened with a dull remorse, and those whom the world calls evil stirred by a noble joy. Each little thing that we do passes into the great machine of life which may grind our virtues to powder and make them worthless, or transform our sins into elements of a new civilisation, more marvellous and more splendid than any that has gone before. But men are the slaves of words. They rage against Materialism, as they call it, forgetting that there has been no material improvement that has not spiritualised the world, and that there have been few, if any, spiritual awakenings that have not wasted the world’s faculties in barren hopes, and fruitless aspirations, and empty or trammelling creeds. What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress. Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless. By its curiosity Sin increases the experience of the race. Through its intensified assertion of individualism, it saves us from monotony of type. In its rejection of the current notions about morality, it is one with the higher ethics. And as for the virtues! What are the virtues? Nature, M. Renan tells us, cares little about chastity, and it may be that it is to the shame of the Magdalen, and not to their own purity, that the Lucretias of modern life owe their freedom from stain. Charity, as even those of whose religion it makes a formal part have been compelled to acknowledge, creates a multitude of evils. The mere existence of conscience, that faculty of which people prate so much nowadays, and are so ignorantly proud, is a sign of our imperfect development. It must be merged in instinct before we become fine. Self-denial is simply a method by which man arrests his progress, and self-sacrifice a survival of the mutilation of the savage, part of that old worship of pain which is so terrible a factor in the history of the world, and which even now makes its victims day by day, and has its altars in the land. Virtues! Who knows what the virtues are? Not you. Not I. Not any one. It is well for our vanity that we slay the criminal, for if we suffered him to live he might show us what we had gained by his crime. It is well for his peace that the saint goes to his martyrdom. He is spared the sight of the horror of his harvest.
ERNEST. Gilbert, you sound too harsh a note. Let us go back to the more gracious fields of literature. What was it you said? That it was more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it?
GILBERT (after a pause). Yes: I believe I ventured upon that simple
truth. Surely you see now that I am
right? When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet. The whole secret lies in that. It was easy enough on the sandy plains by
ERNEST. While you talk it seems to me to be so.
GILBERT. It is so in
truth. On the mouldering citadel of
ERNEST. Yes; I see now what you mean. But, surely, the higher you place the creative artist, the lower must the critic rank.
GILBERT. Why so?
ERNEST. Because the best that he can give us will be but an echo of rich music, a dim shadow of clear-outlined form. It may, indeed, be that life is chaos, as you tell me that it is; that its martyrdoms are mean and its heroisms ignoble; and that it is the function of Literature to create, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvellous, more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon, and through which common natures seek to realise their perfection. But surely, if this new world has been made by the spirit and touch of a great artist, it will be a thing so complete and perfect that there will be nothing left for the critic to do. I quite understand now, and indeed admit most readily, that it is far more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it. But it seems to me that this sound and sensible maxim, which is really extremely soothing to one’s feelings, and should be adopted as its motto by every Academy of Literature all over the world, applies only to the relations that exist between Art and Life, and not to any relations that there may be between Art and Criticism.
GILBERT. But, surely, Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.
GILBERT. Yes; independent. Criticism is no more to be judged by any low standard of imitation or resemblance than is the work of poet or sculptor. The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought. He does not even require for the perfection of his art the finest materials. Anything will serve his purpose. And just as out of the sordid and sentimental amours of the silly wife of a small country doctor in the squalid village of Yonville-l’Abbaye, near Rouen, Gustave Flaubert was able to create a classic, and make a masterpiece of style, so, from subjects of little or of no importance, such as the pictures in this year’s Royal Academy, or in any year’s Royal Academy for that matter, Mr. Lewis Morris’s poems, M. Ohnet’s novels, or the plays of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, the true critic can, if it be his pleasure so to direct or waste his faculty of contemplation, produce work that will be flawless in beauty and instinct with intellectual subtlety. Why not? Dulness is always an irresistible temptation for brilliancy, and stupidity is the permanent Bestia Trionfans that calls wisdom from its cave. To an artist so creative as the critic, what does subject-matter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives everywhere. Treatment is the test. There is nothing that has not in it suggestion or challenge.
ERNEST. But is Criticism really a creative art?
GILBERT. Why should it not be? It works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry? Indeed, I would call criticism a creation within a creation. For just as the great artists, from Homer and AEschylus, down to Shakespeare and Keats, did not go directly to life for their subject-matter, but sought for it in myth, and legend, and ancient tale, so the critic deals with materials that others have, as it were, purified for him, and to which imaginative form and colour have been already added. Nay, more, I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and, as the Greeks would put it, in itself, and to itself, an end. Certainly, it is never trammelled by any shackles of verisimilitude. No ignoble considerations of probability, that cowardly concession to the tedious repetitions of domestic or public life, affect it ever. One may appeal from fiction unto fact. But from the soul there is no appeal.
ERNEST. From the soul?
GILBERT. Yes, from the soul. That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilised form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind. I am always amused by the silly vanity of those writers and artists of our day who seem to imagine that the primary function of the critic is to chatter about their second-rate work. The best that one can say of most modern creative art is that it is just a little less vulgar than reality, and so the critic, with his fine sense of distinction and sure instinct of delicate refinement, will prefer to look into the silver mirror or through the woven veil, and will turn his eyes away from the chaos and clamour of actual existence, though the mirror be tarnished and the veil be torn. His sole aim is to chronicle his own impressions. It is for him that pictures are painted, books written, and marble hewn into form.
ERNEST. I seem to have heard another theory of Criticism.
GILBERT. Yes: it has been said by one whose gracious memory we all revere, and the music of whose pipe once lured Proserpina from her Sicilian fields, and made those white feet stir, and not in vain, the Cumnor cowslips, that the proper aim of Criticism is to see the object as in itself it really is. But this is a very serious error, and takes no cognisance of Criticism’s most perfect form, which is in its essence purely subjective, and seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another. For the highest Criticism deals with art not as expressive but as impressive purely.
ERNEST. But is that really so?
GILBERT. Of course it is. Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery-coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its elaborate symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best, in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s Gallery; greater indeed, one is apt to think at times, not merely because its equal beauty is more enduring, but on account of the fuller variety of its appeal, soul speaking to soul in those long-cadenced lines, not through form and colour alone, though through these, indeed, completely and without loss, but with intellectual and emotional utterance, with lofty passion and with loftier thought, with imaginative insight, and with poetic aim; greater, I always think, even as Literature is the greater art. Who, again, cares whether Mr. Pater has put into the portrait of Monna Lisa something that Lionardo never dreamed of? The painter may have been merely the slave of an archaic smile, as some have fancied, but whenever I pass into the cool galleries of the Palace of the Louvre, and stand before that strange figure ‘set in its marble chair in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea,’ I murmur to myself, ‘She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her: and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as St. Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.’ And I say to my friend, ‘The presence that thus so strangely rose beside the waters is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years man had come to desire’; and he answers me, ‘Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary.’
And so the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is, and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing, and the music of the mystical prose is as sweet in our ears as was that flute-player’s music that lent to the lips of La Gioconda those subtle and poisonous curves. Do you ask me what Lionardo would have said had any one told him of this picture that ‘all the thoughts and experience of the world had etched and moulded therein that which they had of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the Middle Age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias?’ He would probably have answered that he had contemplated none of these things, but had concerned himself simply with certain arrangements of lines and masses, and with new and curious colour-harmonies of blue and green. And it is for this very reason that the criticism which I have quoted is criticism of the highest kind. It treats the work of art simply as a starting-point for a new creation. It does not confine itself—let us at least suppose so for the moment—to discovering the real intention of the artist and accepting that as final. And in this it is right, for the meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it. Nay, it is rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives, and a symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive. The longer I study, Ernest, the more clearly I see that the beauty of the visible arts is, as the beauty of music, impressive primarily, and that it may be marred, and indeed often is so, by any excess of intellectual intention on the part of the artist. For when the work is finished it has, as it were, an independent life of its own, and may deliver a message far other than that which was put into its lips to say. Sometimes, when I listen to the overture to Tannhäuser, I seem indeed to see that comely knight treading delicately on the flower-strewn grass, and to hear the voice of Venus calling to him from the caverned hill. But at other times it speaks to me of a thousand different things, of myself, it may be, and my own life, or of the lives of others whom one has loved and grown weary of loving, or of the passions that man has known, or of the passions that man has not known, and so has sought for. To-night it may fill one with that ???? ??? ????????, that Amour de l’Impossible, which falls like a madness on many who think they live securely and out of reach of harm, so that they sicken suddenly with the poison of unlimited desire, and, in the infinite pursuit of what they may not obtain, grow faint and swoon or stumble. To-morrow, like the music of which Aristotle and Plato tell us, the noble Dorian music of the Greek, it may perform the office of a physician, and give us an anodyne against pain, and heal the spirit that is wounded, and ‘bring the soul into harmony with all right things.’ And what is true about music is true about all the arts. Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing. When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-coloured world.
ERNEST. But is such work as you have talked about really criticism?
GILBERT. It is the highest Criticism, for it criticises not merely the individual work of art, but Beauty itself, and fills with wonder a form which the artist may have left void, or not understood, or understood incompletely.
ERNEST. The highest Criticism, then, is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not; that is your theory, I believe?
GILBERT. Yes, that is my theory. To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises. The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see; and the Beauty, that gives to creation its universal and aesthetic element, makes the critic a creator in his turn, and whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or graved the gem.
It is sometimes said by those who understand neither the nature of the highest Criticism nor the charm of the highest Art, that the pictures that the critic loves most to write about are those that belong to the anecdotage of painting, and that deal with scenes taken out of literature or history. But this is not so. Indeed, pictures of this kind are far too intelligible. As a class, they rank with illustrations, and, even considered from this point of view are failures, as they do not stir the imagination, but set definite bounds to it. For the domain of the painter is, as I suggested before, widely different from that of the poet. To the latter belongs life in its full and absolute entirety; not merely the beauty that men look at, but the beauty that men listen to also; not merely the momentary grace of form or the transient gladness of colour, but the whole sphere of feeling, the perfect cycle of thought. The painter is so far limited that it is only through the mask of the body that he can show us the mystery of the soul; only through conventional images that he can handle ideas; only through its physical equivalents that he can deal with psychology. And how inadequately does he do it then, asking us to accept the torn turban of the Moor for the noble rage of Othello, or a dotard in a storm for the wild madness of Lear! Yet it seems as if nothing could stop him. Most of our elderly English painters spend their wicked and wasted lives in poaching upon the domain of the poets, marring their motives by clumsy treatment, and striving to render, by visible form or colour, the marvel of what is invisible, the splendour of what is not seen. Their pictures are, as a natural consequence, insufferably tedious. They have degraded the invisible arts into the obvious arts, and the one thing not worth looking at is the obvious. I do not say that poet and painter may not treat of the same subject. They have always done so and will always do so. But while the poet can be pictorial or not, as he chooses, the painter must be pictorial always. For a painter is limited, not to what he sees in nature, but to what upon canvas may be seen.
And so, my dear Ernest, pictures of this kind will not really fascinate the critic. He will turn from them to such works as make him brood and dream and fancy, to works that possess the subtle quality of suggestion, and seem to tell one that even from them there is an escape into a wider world. It is sometimes said that the tragedy of an artist’s life is that he cannot realise his ideal. But the true tragedy that dogs the steps of most artists is that they realise their ideal too absolutely. For, when the ideal is realised, it is robbed of its wonder and its mystery, and becomes simply a new starting-point for an ideal that is other than itself. This is the reason why music is the perfect type of art. Music can never reveal its ultimate secret. This, also, is the explanation of the value of limitations in art. The sculptor gladly surrenders imitative colour, and the painter the actual dimensions of form, because by such renunciations they are able to avoid too definite a presentation of the Real, which would be mere imitation, and too definite a realisation of the Ideal, which would be too purely intellectual. It is through its very incompleteness that art becomes complete in beauty, and so addresses itself, not to the faculty of recognition nor to the faculty of reason, but to the aesthetic sense alone, which, while accepting both reason and recognition as stages of apprehension, subordinates them both to a pure synthetic impression of the work of art as a whole, and, taking whatever alien emotional elements the work may possess, uses their very complexity as a means by which a richer unity may be added to the ultimate impression itself. You see, then, how it is that the aesthetic critic rejects these obvious modes of art that have but one message to deliver, and having delivered it become dumb and sterile, and seeks rather for such modes as suggest reverie and mood, and by their imaginative beauty make all interpretations true, and no interpretation final. Some resemblance, no doubt, the creative work of the critic will have to the work that has stirred him to creation, but it will be such resemblance as exists, not between Nature and the mirror that the painter of landscape or figure may be supposed to hold up to her, but between Nature and the work of the decorative artist. Just as on the flowerless carpets of Persia, tulip and rose blossom indeed and are lovely to look on, though they are not reproduced in visible shape or line; just as the pearl and purple of the sea-shell is echoed in the church of St. Mark at Venice; just as the vaulted ceiling of the wondrous chapel at Ravenna is made gorgeous by the gold and green and sapphire of the peacock’s tail, though the birds of Juno fly not across it; so the critic reproduces the work that he criticises in a mode that is never imitative, and part of whose charm may really consist in the rejection of resemblance, and shows us in this way not merely the meaning but also the mystery of Beauty, and, by transforming each art into literature, solves once for all the problem of Art’s unity.
But I see it is time for supper. After we have discussed some Chambertin and a few ortolans, we will pass on to the question of the critic considered in the light of the interpreter.
ERNEST. Ah! you admit, then, that the critic may occasionally be allowed to see the object as in itself it really is.
GILBERT. I am not quite sure. Perhaps I may admit it after supper. There is a subtle influence in supper.
A DIALOGUE: Part II. Persons: the same. Scene: the same.
ERNEST. The ortolans were delightful, and the Chambertin perfect, and now let us return to the point at issue.
GILBERT. Ah! don’t let us do that. Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing. Let us talk about Moral Indignation, its Cause and Cure, a subject on which I think of writing: or about The Survival of Thersites, as shown by the English comic papers; or about any topic that may turn up.
ERNEST. No; I want to discuss the critic and criticism. You have told me that the highest criticism deals with art, not as expressive, but as impressive purely, and is consequently both creative and independent, is in fact an art by itself, occupying the same relation to creative work that creative work does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought. Well, now, tell me, will not the critic be sometimes a real interpreter?
GILBERT. Yes; the
critic will be an interpreter, if he chooses.
He can pass from his synthetic impression of the work of art as a whole,
to an analysis or exposition of the work itself, and in this lower sphere, as I
hold it to be, there are many delightful things to be said and done. Yet his object will not always be to explain
the work of art. He may seek rather to
deepen its mystery, to raise round it, and round its
maker, that mist of wonder which is dear to both gods and worshippers
alike. Ordinary people are ‘terribly at
And here, Ernest, this strange thing happens. The critic will indeed be an interpreter, but he will not be an interpreter in the sense of one who simply repeats in another form a message that has been put into his lips to say. For, just as it is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life that we call nationality, so, by curious inversion, it is only by intensifying his own personality that the critic can interpret the personality and work of others, and the more strongly this personality enters into the interpretation the more real the interpretation becomes, the more satisfying, the more convincing, and the more true.
ERNEST. I would have said that personality would have been a disturbing element.
GILBERT. No; it is an element of revelation. If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.
ERNEST. What, then, is the result?
GILBERT. I will tell you, and perhaps I can tell you best by definite example. It seems to me that, while the literary critic stands of course first, as having the wider range, and larger vision, and nobler material, each of the arts has a critic, as it were, assigned to it. The actor is a critic of the drama. He shows the poet’s work under new conditions, and by a method special to himself. He takes the written word, and action, gesture and voice become the media of revelation. The singer or the player on lute and viol is the critic of music. The etcher of a picture robs the painting of its fair colours, but shows us by the use of a new material its true colour-quality, its tones and values, and the relations of its masses, and so is, in his way, a critic of it, for the critic is he who exhibits to us a work of art in a form different from that of the work itself, and the employment of a new material is a critical as well as a creative element. Sculpture, too, has its critic, who may be either the carver of a gem, as he was in Greek days, or some painter like Mantegna, who sought to reproduce on canvas the beauty of plastic line and the symphonic dignity of processional bas-relief. And in the case of all these creative critics of art it is evident that personality is an absolute essential for any real interpretation. When Rubinstein plays to us the Sonata Appassionata of Beethoven, he gives us not merely Beethoven, but also himself, and so gives us Beethoven absolutely—Beethoven re-interpreted through a rich artistic nature, and made vivid and wonderful to us by a new and intense personality. When a great actor plays Shakespeare we have the same experience. His own individuality becomes a vital part of the interpretation. People sometimes say that actors give us their own Hamlets, and not Shakespeare’s; and this fallacy—for it is a fallacy—is, I regret to say, repeated by that charming and graceful writer who has lately deserted the turmoil of literature for the peace of the House of Commons, I mean the author of Obiter Dicta. In point of fact, there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If Hamlet has something of the definiteness of a work of art, he has also all the obscurity that belongs to life. There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies.
ERNEST. As many Hamlets as there are melancholies?
GILBERT. Yes: and as art springs from personality, so it is only to personality that it can be revealed, and from the meeting of the two comes right interpretative criticism.
ERNEST. The critic, then, considered as the interpreter, will give no less than he receives, and lend as much as he borrows?
GILBERT. He will be always showing us the work of art in some new relation to our age. He will always be reminding us that great works of art are living things—are, in fact, the only things that live. So much, indeed, will he feel this, that I am certain that, as civilisation progresses and we become more highly organised, the elect spirits of each age, the critical and cultured spirits, will grow less and less interested in actual life, and will seek to gain their impressions almost entirely from what Art has touched. For life is terribly deficient in form. Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people. There is a grotesque horror about its comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce. One is always wounded when one approaches it. Things last either too long, or not long enough.
ERNEST. Poor life! Poor human life! Are you not even touched by the tears that the Roman poet tells us are part of its essence.
GILBERT. Too quickly touched by them, I fear. For when one looks back upon the life that was so vivid in its emotional intensity, and filled with such fervent moments of ecstasy or of joy, it all seems to be a dream and an illusion. What are the unreal things, but the passions that once burned one like fire? What are the incredible things, but the things that one has faithfully believed? What are the improbable things? The things that one has done oneself. No, Ernest; life cheats us with shadows, like a puppet-master. We ask it for pleasure. It gives it to us, with bitterness and disappointment in its train. We come across some noble grief that we think will lend the purple dignity of tragedy to our days, but it passes away from us, and things less noble take its place, and on some grey windy dawn, or odorous eve of silence and of silver, we find ourselves looking with callous wonder, or dull heart of stone, at the tress of gold-flecked hair that we had once so wildly worshipped and so madly kissed.
ERNEST. Life then is a failure?
GILBERT. From the artistic point of view, certainly. And the chief thing that makes life a failure
from this artistic point of view is the thing that lends to life its sordid
security, the fact that one can never repeat exactly the same emotion. How different it is in the world of Art! On a shelf of the bookcase behind you stands
the Divine Comedy, and I know that, if I open it at a certain place, I shall be
filled with a fierce hatred of some one who has never wronged me, or stirred by
a great love for some one whom I shall never see. There is no mood or passion that Art cannot
give us, and those of us who have discovered her secret can settle beforehand
what our experiences are going to be. We
can choose our day and select our hour.
We can say to ourselves, ‘To-morrow, at dawn, we shall walk with grave
Virgil through the valley of the shadow of death,’ and lo! the
dawn finds us in the obscure wood, and the Mantuan stands by our side. We pass through the gate of the legend fatal
to hope, and with pity or with joy behold the horror of another world. The hypocrites go by, with their painted
faces and their cowls of gilded lead. Out of the ceaseless winds that drive them, the carnal look at us,
and we watch the heretic rending his flesh, and the glutton lashed by the rain. We break the withered branches from the tree
in the grove of the Harpies, and each dull-hued poisonous twig bleeds with red
blood before us, and cries aloud with bitter cries. Out of a horn of fire Odysseus speaks to us,
and when from his sepulchre of flame the great Ghibelline rises, the pride that
triumphs over the torture of that bed becomes ours for a moment. Through the dim purple air fly those who have
stained the world with the beauty of their sin, and in the pit of loathsome
disease, dropsy-stricken and swollen of body into the semblance of a monstrous
lute, lies Adamo di Brescia, the coiner of false coin. He bids us listen to his misery; we stop, and
with dry and gaping lips he tells us how he dreams day and night of the brooks
of clear water that in cool dewy channels gush down the green Casentine
hills. Sinon, the false Greek of Troy,
mocks at him. He smites him in the face,
and they wrangle. We are fascinated by
their shame, and loiter, till Virgil chides us and leads us away to that city
turreted by giants where great Nimrod blows his horn. Terrible things are in store for us, and we
go to meet them in Dante’s raiment and with Dante’s heart. We traverse the marshes of the
Yes, we can put the earth back six hundred courses and make ourselves one with the great Florentine, kneel at the same altar with him, and share his rapture and his scorn. And if we grow tired of an antique time, and desire to realise our own age in all its weariness and sin, are there not books that can make us live more in one single hour than life can make us live in a score of shameful years? Close to your hand lies a little volume, bound in some Nile-green skin that has been powdered with gilded nenuphars and smoothed with hard ivory. It is the book that Gautier loved, it is Baudelaire’s masterpiece. Open it at that sad madrigal that begins
Que m’importe que tu sois sage?
Sois belle! et sois triste!
and you will find yourself worshipping sorrow as you have never worshipped joy. Pass on to the poem on the man who tortures himself, let its subtle music steal into your brain and colour your thoughts, and you will become for a moment what he was who wrote it; nay, not for a moment only, but for many barren moonlit nights and sunless sterile days will a despair that is not your own make its dwelling within you, and the misery of another gnaw your heart away. Read the whole book, suffer it to tell even one of its secrets to your soul, and your soul will grow eager to know more, and will feed upon poisonous honey, and seek to repent of strange crimes of which it is guiltless, and to make atonement for terrible pleasures that it has never known. And then, when you are tired of these flowers of evil, turn to the flowers that grow in the garden of Perdita, and in their dew-drenched chalices cool your fevered brow, and let their loveliness heal and restore your soul; or wake from his forgotten tomb the sweet Syrian, Meleager, and bid the lover of Heliodore make you music, for he too has flowers in his song, red pomegranate blossoms, and irises that smell of myrrh, ringed daffodils and dark blue hyacinths, and marjoram and crinkled ox-eyes. Dear to him was the perfume of the bean-field at evening, and dear to him the odorous eared-spikenard that grew on the Syrian hills, and the fresh green thyme, the wine-cup’s charm. The feet of his love as she walked in the garden were like lilies set upon lilies. Softer than sleep-laden poppy petals were her lips, softer than violets and as scented. The flame-like crocus sprang from the grass to look at her. For her the slim narcissus stored the cool rain; and for her the anemones forgot the Sicilian winds that wooed them. And neither crocus, nor anemone, nor narcissus was as fair as she was.
It is a strange thing, this transference of emotion. We sicken with the same maladies as the poets, and the singer lends us his pain. Dead lips have their message for us, and hearts that have fallen to dust can communicate their joy. We run to kiss the bleeding mouth of Fantine, and we follow Manon Lescaut over the whole world. Ours is the love-madness of the Tyrian, and the terror of Orestes is ours also. There is no passion that we cannot feel, no pleasure that we may not gratify, and we can choose the time of our initiation and the time of our freedom also. Life! Life! Don’t let us go to life for our fulfilment or our experience. It is a thing narrowed by circumstances, incoherent in its utterance, and without that fine correspondence of form and spirit which is the only thing that can satisfy the artistic and critical temperament. It makes us pay too high a price for its wares, and we purchase the meanest of its secrets at a cost that is monstrous and infinite.
ERNEST. Must we go, then, to Art for everything?
GILBERT. For everything. Because Art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of Art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter. In the actual life of man, sorrow, as Spinoza says somewhere, is a passage to a lesser perfection. But the sorrow with which Art fills us both purifies and initiates, if I may quote once more from the great art critic of the Greeks. It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence. This results not merely from the fact that nothing that one can imagine is worth doing, and that one can imagine everything, but from the subtle law that emotional forces, like the forces of the physical sphere, are limited in extent and energy. One can feel so much, and no more. And how can it matter with what pleasure life tries to tempt one, or with what pain it seeks to maim and mar one’s soul, if in the spectacle of the lives of those who have never existed one has found the true secret of joy, and wept away one’s tears over their deaths who, like Cordelia and the daughter of Brabantio, can never die?
ERNEST. Stop a moment. It seems to me that in everything that you have said there is something radically immoral.
GILBERT. All art is immoral.
ERNEST. All art?
GILBERT. Yes. For emotion for the sake of emotion is the aim of art, and emotion for the sake of action is the aim of life, and of that practical organisation of life that we call society. Society, which is the beginning and basis of morals, exists simply for the concentration of human energy, and in order to ensure its own continuance and healthy stability it demands, and no doubt rightly demands, of each of its citizens that he should contribute some form of productive labour to the common weal, and toil and travail that the day’s work may be done. Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer. The beautiful sterile emotions that art excites in us are hateful in its eyes, and so completely are people dominated by the tyranny of this dreadful social ideal that they are always coming shamelessly up to one at Private Views and other places that are open to the general public, and saying in a loud stentorian voice, ‘What are you doing?’ whereas ‘What are you thinking?’ is the only question that any single civilised being should ever be allowed to whisper to another. They mean well, no doubt, these honest beaming folk. Perhaps that is the reason why they are so excessively tedious. But some one should teach them that while, in the opinion of society, Contemplation is the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty, in the opinion of the highest culture it is the proper occupation of man.
GILBERT. Contemplation. I said to you some time ago that it was far more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it. Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual. To Plato, with his passion for wisdom, this was the noblest form of energy. To Aristotle, with his passion for knowledge, this was the noblest form of energy also. It was to this that the passion for holiness led the saint and the mystic of mediaeval days.
ERNEST. We exist, then, to do nothing?
GILBERT. It is to do
nothing that the elect exist. Action is
limited and relative. Unlimited and
absolute is the vision of him who sits at ease and watches, who walks in loneliness
and dreams. But we who are born at the
close of this wonderful age are at once too cultured and too critical, too
intellectually subtle and too curious of exquisite pleasures, to accept any
speculations about life in exchange for life itself. To us the città divina is colourless, and the
fruitio Dei without meaning. Metaphysics
do not satisfy our temperaments, and religious ecstasy is out of date. The world through which the Academic
philosopher becomes ‘the spectator of all time and of all existence’ is not
really an ideal world, but simply a world of abstract ideas. When we enter it, we starve amidst the chill
mathematics of thought. The courts of
the city of
ERNEST. What then do you propose?
GILBERT. It seems to me that with the development of the critical spirit we shall be able to realise, not merely our own lives, but the collective life of the race, and so to make ourselves absolutely modern, in the true meaning of the word modernity. For he to whom the present is the only thing that is present, knows nothing of the age in which he lives. To realise the nineteenth century, one must realise every century that has preceded it and that has contributed to its making. To know anything about oneself one must know all about others. There must be no mood with which one cannot sympathise, no dead mode of life that one cannot make alive. Is this impossible? I think not. By revealing to us the absolute mechanism of all action, and so freeing us from the self-imposed and trammelling burden of moral responsibility, the scientific principle of Heredity has become, as it were, the warrant for the contemplative life. It has shown us that we are never less free than when we try to act. It has hemmed us round with the nets of the hunter, and written upon the wall the prophecy of our doom. We may not watch it, for it is within us. We may not see it, save in a mirror that mirrors the soul. It is Nemesis without her mask. It is the last of the Fates, and the most terrible. It is the only one of the Gods whose real name we know.
And yet, while in the sphere of practical and external life it has robbed energy of its freedom and activity of its choice, in the subjective sphere, where the soul is at work, it comes to us, this terrible shadow, with many gifts in its hands, gifts of strange temperaments and subtle susceptibilities, gifts of wild ardours and chill moods of indifference, complex multiform gifts of thoughts that are at variance with each other, and passions that war against themselves. And so, it is not our own life that we live, but the lives of the dead, and the soul that dwells within us is no single spiritual entity, making us personal and individual, created for our service, and entering into us for our joy. It is something that has dwelt in fearful places, and in ancient sepulchres has made its abode. It is sick with many maladies, and has memories of curious sins. It is wiser than we are, and its wisdom is bitter. It fills us with impossible desires, and makes us follow what we know we cannot gain. One thing, however, Ernest, it can do for us. It can lead us away from surroundings whose beauty is dimmed to us by the mist of familiarity, or whose ignoble ugliness and sordid claims are marring the perfection of our development. It can help us to leave the age in which we were born, and to pass into other ages, and find ourselves not exiled from their air. It can teach us how to escape from our experience, and to realise the experiences of those who are greater than we are. The pain of Leopardi crying out against life becomes our pain. Theocritus blows on his pipe, and we laugh with the lips of nymph and shepherd. In the wolfskin of Pierre Vidal we flee before the hounds, and in the armour of Lancelot we ride from the bower of the Queen. We have whispered the secret of our love beneath the cowl of Abelard, and in the stained raiment of Villon have put our shame into song. We can see the dawn through Shelley’s eyes, and when we wander with Endymion the Moon grows amorous of our youth. Ours is the anguish of Atys, and ours the weak rage and noble sorrows of the Dane. Do you think that it is the imagination that enables us to live these countless lives? Yes: it is the imagination; and the imagination is the result of heredity. It is simply concentrated race-experience.
ERNEST. But where in this is the function of the critical spirit?
GILBERT. The culture that this transmission of racial experiences makes possible can be made perfect by the critical spirit alone, and indeed may be said to be one with it. For who is the true critic but he who bears within himself the dreams, and ideas, and feelings of myriad generations, and to whom no form of thought is alien, no emotional impulse obscure? And who the true man of culture, if not he who by fine scholarship and fastidious rejection has made instinct self-conscious and intelligent, and can separate the work that has distinction from the work that has it not, and so by contact and comparison makes himself master of the secrets of style and school, and understands their meanings, and listens to their voices, and develops that spirit of disinterested curiosity which is the real root, as it is the real flower, of the intellectual life, and thus attains to intellectual clarity, and, having learned ‘the best that is known and thought in the world,’ lives—it is not fanciful to say so—with those who are the Immortals.
Yes, Ernest: the contemplative life, the life that has for
its aim not doing but being, and not being merely, but becoming—that is what
the critical spirit can give us. The
gods live thus: either brooding over their own perfection, as Aristotle tells
us, or, as Epicurus fancied, watching with the calm eyes of the spectator the
tragicomedy of the world that they have made.
We, too, might live like them, and set ourselves to witness with
appropriate emotions the varied scenes that man and nature afford. We might make ourselves spiritual by
detaching ourselves from action, and become perfect by the rejection of
energy. It has often seemed to me that
Browning felt something of this.
Shakespeare hurls Hamlet into active life, and makes him realise his
mission by effort. Browning might have
given us a Hamlet who would have realised his mission by thought. Incident and event were to him unreal or
unmeaning. He made the soul the
protagonist of life’s tragedy, and looked on action as the one undramatic
element of a play. To us, at any rate, the ???? ?????????? is the true
ideal. From the high
Is such a mode of life immoral? Yes: all the arts are immoral, except those
baser forms of sensual or didactic art that seek to excite to action of evil or
of good. For action of every kind
belongs to the sphere of ethics. The aim
of art is simply to create a mood. Is
such a mode of life unpractical? Ah! it is not so easy to be unpractical as the ignorant
Philistine imagines. It were well for
ERNEST. A charming doctrine, Gilbert.
GILBERT. I am not
sure about that, but it has at least the minor merit of being true. That the desire to do good
to others produces a plentiful crop of prigs is the least of the evils of which
it is the cause. The prig is a very
interesting psychological study, and though of all poses a moral pose is the
most offensive, still to have a pose at all is something. It is a formal recognition of the importance
of treating life from a definite and reasoned standpoint. That Humanitarian Sympathy wars against
Nature, by securing the survival of the failure, may make the man of science
loathe its facile virtues. The political
economist may cry out against it for putting the improvident on the same level
as the provident, and so robbing life of the strongest,
because most sordid, incentive to industry.
But, in the eyes of the thinker, the real harm that emotional sympathy
does is that it limits knowledge, and so prevents us from solving any single
social problem. We are trying at present
to stave off the coming crisis, the coming revolution as my friends the
Fabianists call it, by means of doles and alms.
Well, when the revolution or crisis arrives, we shall be powerless,
because we shall know nothing. And so,
Ernest, let us not be deceived.
But perhaps you think that in beholding for the mere joy of beholding, and contemplating for the sake of contemplation, there is something that is egotistic. If you think so, do not say so. It takes a thoroughly selfish age, like our own, to deify self-sacrifice. It takes a thoroughly grasping age, such as that in which we live, to set above the fine intellectual virtues, those shallow and emotional virtues that are an immediate practical benefit to itself. They miss their aim, too, these philanthropists and sentimentalists of our day, who are always chattering to one about one’s duty to one’s neighbour. For the development of the race depends on the development of the individual, and where self-culture has ceased to be the ideal, the intellectual standard is instantly lowered, and, often, ultimately lost. If you meet at dinner a man who has spent his life in educating himself—a rare type in our time, I admit, but still one occasionally to be met with—you rise from table richer, and conscious that a high ideal has for a moment touched and sanctified your days. But oh! my dear Ernest, to sit next to a man who has spent his life in trying to educate others! What a dreadful experience that is! How appalling is that ignorance which is the inevitable result of the fatal habit of imparting opinions! How limited in range the creature’s mind proves to be! How it wearies us, and must weary himself, with its endless repetitions and sickly reiteration! How lacking it is in any element of intellectual growth! In what a vicious circle it always moves!
ERNEST. You speak with strange feeling, Gilbert. Have you had this dreadful experience, as you call it, lately?
GILBERT. Few of us escape it. People say that the
schoolmaster is abroad. I wish to
goodness he were.
But the type of which, after all, he is only one, and certainly the
least important, of the representatives, seems to me to be really dominating
our lives; and just as the philanthropist is the nuisance of the ethical
sphere, so the nuisance of the intellectual sphere is the man who is so
occupied in trying to educate others, that he has never had any time to educate
himself. No, Ernest, self-culture is the
true ideal of man. Goethe saw it, and
the immediate debt that we owe to Goethe is greater than the debt we owe to any
man since Greek days. The Greeks saw it,
and have left us, as their legacy to modern thought, the conception of the
contemplative life as well as the critical method by which alone can that life
be truly realised. It was the one thing
that made the Renaissance great, and gave us Humanism. It is the one thing that could make our own
age great also; for the real weakness of
I do not deny that the intellectual ideal is difficult of attainment, still less that it is, and perhaps will be for years to come, unpopular with the crowd. It is so easy for people to have sympathy with suffering. It is so difficult for them to have sympathy with thought. Indeed, so little do ordinary people understand what thought really is, that they seem to imagine that, when they have said that a theory is dangerous, they have pronounced its condemnation, whereas it is only such theories that have any true intellectual value. An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.
ERNEST. Gilbert, you bewilder me. You have told me that all art is, in its essence, immoral. Are you going to tell me now that all thought is, in its essence, dangerous?
GILBERT. Yes, in the practical sphere it is so. The security of society lies in custom and unconscious instinct, and the basis of the stability of society, as a healthy organism, is the complete absence of any intelligence amongst its members. The great majority of people being fully aware of this, rank themselves naturally on the side of that splendid system that elevates them to the dignity of machines, and rage so wildly against the intrusion of the intellectual faculty into any question that concerns life, that one is tempted to define man as a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason. But let us turn from the practical sphere, and say no more about the wicked philanthropists, who, indeed, may well be left to the mercy of the almond-eyed sage of the Yellow River Chuang Tsu the wise, who has proved that such well-meaning and offensive busybodies have destroyed the simple and spontaneous virtue that there is in man. They are a wearisome topic, and I am anxious to get back to the sphere in which criticism is free.
ERNEST. The sphere of the intellect?
GILBERT. Yes. You remember that I spoke of the critic as being in his own way as creative as the artist, whose work, indeed, may be merely of value in so far as it gives to the critic a suggestion for some new mood of thought and feeling which he can realise with equal, or perhaps greater, distinction of form, and, through the use of a fresh medium of expression, make differently beautiful and more perfect. Well, you seemed to be a little sceptical about the theory. But perhaps I wronged you?
ERNEST. I am not really sceptical about it, but I must admit that I feel very strongly that such work as you describe the critic producing—and creative such work must undoubtedly be admitted to be—is, of necessity, purely subjective, whereas the greatest work is objective always, objective and impersonal.
difference between objective and subjective work is one of external form
merely. It is accidental, not
essential. All artistic creation is
absolutely subjective. The very
landscape that Corot looked at was, as he said himself, but a mood of his own
mind; and those great figures of Greek or English drama that seem to us to
possess an actual existence of their own, apart from the poets who shaped and
fashioned them, are, in their ultimate analysis, simply the poets themselves,
not as they thought they were, but as they thought they were not; and by such
thinking came in strange manner, though but for a moment, really so to be. For out of ourselves we can never pass, nor can there be in creation what in the creator was not. Nay, I would say that the more objective a
creation appears to be, the more subjective it really is. Shakespeare might have met Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern in the white streets of
ERNEST. The critic, then, being limited to the subjective form, will necessarily be less able fully to express himself than the artist, who has always at his disposal the forms that are impersonal and objective.
necessarily, and certainly not at all if he recognises that each mode of
criticism is, in its highest development, simply a mood, and that we are never
more true to ourselves than when we are inconsistent. The aesthetic critic, constant only to the
principle of beauty in all things, will ever be looking for fresh impressions,
winning from the various schools the secret of their charm, bowing,
it may be, before foreign altars, or smiling, if it be his fancy, at strange
new gods. What other people call one’s
past has, no doubt, everything to do with them, but has absolutely nothing to
do with oneself. The man who regards his
past is a man who deserves to have no future to look forward to. When one has found expression for a mood, one
has done with it. You laugh; but believe
me it is so. Yesterday it was Realism
that charmed one. One gained from it
that nouveau frisson which it was its aim to produce. One analysed it, explained it, and wearied of
it. At sunset came the Luministe in
painting, and the Symboliste in poetry, and the spirit of mediaevalism, that
spirit which belongs not to time but to temperament, woke suddenly in wounded
Nor, again, is the critic really limited to the subjective form of expression. The method of the drama is his, as well as the method of the epos. He may use dialogue, as he did who set Milton talking to Marvel on the nature of comedy and tragedy, and made Sidney and Lord Brooke discourse on letters beneath the Penshurst oaks; or adopt narration, as Mr. Pater is fond of doing, each of whose Imaginary Portraits—is not that the title of the book?—presents to us, under the fanciful guise of fiction, some fine and exquisite piece of criticism, one on the painter Watteau, another on the philosophy of Spinoza, a third on the Pagan elements of the early Renaissance, and the last, and in some respects the most suggestive, on the source of that Aufklärung, that enlightening which dawned on Germany in the last century, and to which our own culture owes so great a debt. Dialogue, certainly, that wonderful literary form which, from Plato to Lucian, and from Lucian to Giordano Bruno, and from Bruno to that grand old Pagan in whom Carlyle took such delight, the creative critics of the world have always employed, can never lose for the thinker its attraction as a mode of expression. By its means he can both reveal and conceal himself, and give form to every fancy, and reality to every mood. By its means he can exhibit the object from each point of view, and show it to us in the round, as a sculptor shows us things, gaining in this manner all the richness and reality of effect that comes from those side issues that are suddenly suggested by the central idea in its progress, and really illumine the idea more completely, or from those felicitous after-thoughts that give a fuller completeness to the central scheme, and yet convey something of the delicate charm of chance.
ERNEST. By its means, too, he can invent an imaginary antagonist, and convert him when he chooses by some absurdly sophistical argument.
GILBERT. Ah! it is so easy to convert others. It is so difficult to convert oneself. To arrive at what one really believes, one must speak through lips different from one’s own. To know the truth one must imagine myriads of falsehoods. For what is Truth? In matters of religion, it is simply the opinion that has survived. In matters of science, it is the ultimate sensation. In matters of art, it is one’s last mood. And you see now, Ernest, that the critic has at his disposal as many objective forms of expression as the artist has. Ruskin put his criticism into imaginative prose, and is superb in his changes and contradictions; and Browning put his into blank verse and made painter and poet yield us their secret; and M. Renan uses dialogue, and Mr. Pater fiction, and Rossetti translated into sonnet-music the colour of Giorgione and the design of Ingres, and his own design and colour also, feeling, with the instinct of one who had many modes of utterance; that the ultimate art is literature, and the finest and fullest medium that of words.
ERNEST. Well, now that you have settled that the critic has at his disposal all objective forms, I wish you would tell me what are the qualities that should characterise the true critic.
GILBERT. What would you say they were?
ERNEST. Well, I should say that a critic should above all things be fair.
GILBERT. Ah! not fair. A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiassed opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiassed opinion is always absolutely valueless. The man who sees both sides of a question, is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all. Art is a passion, and, in matters of art, Thought is inevitably coloured by emotion, and so is fluid rather than fixed, and, depending upon fine moods and exquisite moments, cannot be narrowed into the rigidity of a scientific formula or a theological dogma. It is to the soul that Art speaks, and the soul may be made the prisoner of the mind as well as of the body. One should, of course, have no prejudices; but, as a great Frenchman remarked a hundred years ago, it is one’s business in such matters to have preferences, and when one has preferences one ceases to be fair. It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of Art. No; fairness is not one of the qualities of the true critic. It is not even a condition of criticism. Each form of Art with which we come in contact dominates us for the moment to the exclusion of every other form. We must surrender ourselves absolutely to the work in question, whatever it may be, if we wish to gain its secret. For the time, we must think of nothing else, can think of nothing else, indeed.
ERNEST. The true critic will be rational, at any rate, will he not?
GILBERT. Rational? There are two ways of disliking art, Ernest. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally. For Art, as Plato saw, and not without regret, creates in listener and spectator a form of divine madness. It does not spring from inspiration, but it makes others inspired. Reason is not the faculty to which it appeals. If one loves Art at all, one must love it beyond all other things in the world, and against such love, the reason, if one listened to it, would cry out. There is nothing sane about the worship of beauty. It is too splendid to be sane. Those of whose lives it forms the dominant note will always seem to the world to be pure visionaries.
ERNEST. Well, at least, the critic will be sincere.
GILBERT. A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. The true critic will, indeed, always be sincere in his devotion to the principle of beauty, but he will seek for beauty in every age and in each school, and will never suffer himself to be limited to any settled custom of thought or stereotyped mode of looking at things. He will realise himself in many forms, and by a thousand different ways, and will ever be curious of new sensations and fresh points of view. Through constant change, and through constant change alone, he will find his true unity. He will not consent to be the slave of his own opinions. For what is mind but motion in the intellectual sphere? The essence of thought, as the essence of life, is growth. You must not be frightened by word, Ernest. What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
ERNEST. I am afraid I have not been fortunate in my suggestions.
GILBERT. Of the three
qualifications you mentioned, two, sincerity and fairness, were, if not
actually moral, at least on the borderland of morals, and the first condition
of criticism is that the critic should be able to recognise that the sphere of
Art and the sphere of Ethics are absolutely distinct and separate. When they are confused, Chaos has come
again. They are too often confused in
ERNEST. And what are they? Tell me yourself.
GILBERT. Temperament is the primary requisite for the critic—a temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty, and to the various impressions that beauty gives us. Under what conditions, and by what means, this temperament is engendered in race or individual, we will not discuss at present. It is sufficient to note that it exists, and that there is in us a beauty-sense, separate from the other senses and above them, separate from the reason and of nobler import, separate from the soul and of equal value—a sense that leads some to create, and others, the finer spirits as I think, to contemplate merely. But to be purified and made perfect, this sense requires some form of exquisite environment. Without this it starves, or is dulled. You remember that lovely passage in which Plato describes how a young Greek should be educated, and with what insistence he dwells upon the importance of surroundings, telling us how the lad is to be brought up in the midst of fair sights and sounds, so that the beauty of material things may prepare his soul for the reception of the beauty that is spiritual. Insensibly, and without knowing the reason why, he is to develop that real love of beauty which, as Plato is never weary of reminding us, is the true aim of education. By slow degrees there is to be engendered in him such a temperament as will lead him naturally and simply to choose the good in preference to the bad, and, rejecting what is vulgar and discordant, to follow by fine instinctive taste all that possesses grace and charm and loveliness. Ultimately, in its due course, this taste is to become critical and self-conscious, but at first it is to exist purely as a cultivated instinct, and ‘he who has received this true culture of the inner man will with clear and certain vision perceive the omissions and faults in art or nature, and with a taste that cannot err, while he praises, and finds his pleasure in what is good, and receives it into his soul, and so becomes good and noble, he will rightly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why’: and so, when, later on, the critical and self-conscious spirit develops in him, he ‘will recognise and salute it as a friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.’ I need hardly say, Ernest, how far we in England have fallen short of this ideal, and I can imagine the smile that would illuminate the glossy face of the Philistine if one ventured to suggest to him that the true aim of education was the love of beauty, and that the methods by which education should work were the development of temperament, the cultivation of taste, and the creation of the critical spirit.
Yet, even for us, there is left some loveliness of
environment, and the dulness of tutors and professors matters very little when
one can loiter in the grey cloisters at Magdalen, and listen to some flute-like
voice singing in Waynfleete’s chapel, or lie in the green meadow, among the
strange snake-spotted fritillaries, and watch the sunburnt noon smite to a
finer gold the tower’s gilded vanes, or wander up the Christ Church staircase
beneath the vaulted ceiling’s shadowy fans, or pass through the sculptured
gateway of Laud’s building in the College of St. John. Nor is it merely at
Certainly, for the cultivation of temperament, we must turn
to the decorative arts: to the arts that touch us, not to the arts that teach
us. Modern pictures are, no doubt,
delightful to look at. At least, some of
them are. But they are quite impossible
to live with; they are too clever, too assertive, too
intellectual. Their meaning is too
obvious, and their method too clearly defined.
One exhausts what they have to say in a very short time, and then they become
as tedious as one’s relations. I am very
fond of the work of many of the Impressionist painters of
ERNEST. I wonder do you really believe what you say?
GILBERT. Why should you wonder? It is not merely in art that the body is the soul. In every sphere of life Form is the beginning of things. The rhythmic harmonious gestures of dancing convey, Plato tells us, both rhythm and harmony into the mind. Forms are the food of faith, cried Newman in one of those great moments of sincerity that make us admire and know the man. He was right, though he may not have known how terribly right he was. The Creeds are believed, not because they are rational, but because they are repeated. Yes: Form is everything. It is the secret of life. Find expression for a sorrow, and it will become dear to you. Find expression for a joy, and you intensify its ecstasy. Do you wish to love? Use Love’s Litany, and the words will create the yearning from which the world fancies that they spring. Have you a grief that corrodes your heart? Steep yourself in the Language of grief, learn its utterance from Prince Hamlet and Queen Constance, and you will find that mere expression is a mode of consolation, and that Form, which is the birth of passion, is also the death of pain. And so, to return to the sphere of Art, it is Form that creates not merely the critical temperament, but also the aesthetic instinct, that unerring instinct that reveals to one all things under their conditions of beauty. Start with the worship of form, and there is no secret in art that will not be revealed to you, and remember that in criticism, as in creation, temperament is everything, and that it is, not by the time of their production, but by the temperaments to which they appeal, that the schools of art should be historically grouped.
ERNEST. Your theory of education is delightful. But what influence will your critic, brought up in these exquisite surroundings, possess? Do you really think that any artist is ever affected by criticism?
GILBERT. The influence of the critic will be the mere fact of his own existence. He will represent the flawless type. In him the culture of the century will see itself realised. You must not ask of him to have any aim other than the perfecting of himself. The demand of the intellect, as has been well said, is simply to feel itself alive. The critic may, indeed, desire to exercise influence; but, if so, he will concern himself not with the individual, but with the age, which he will seek to wake into consciousness, and to make responsive, creating in it new desires and appetites, and lending it his larger vision and his nobler moods. The actual art of to-day will occupy him less than the art of to-morrow, far less than the art of yesterday, and as for this or that person at present toiling away, what do the industrious matter? They do their best, no doubt, and consequently we get the worst from them. It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done. And besides, my dear Ernest, when a man reaches the age of forty, or becomes a Royal Academician, or is elected a member of the Athenaeum Club, or is recognised as a popular novelist, whose books are in great demand at suburban railway stations, one may have the amusement of exposing him, but one cannot have the pleasure of reforming him. And this is, I dare say, very fortunate for him; for I have no doubt that reformation is a much more painful process than punishment, is indeed punishment in its most aggravated and moral form—a fact which accounts for our entire failure as a community to reclaim that interesting phenomenon who is called the confirmed criminal.
ERNEST. But may it not be that the poet is the best judge of poetry, and the painter of painting? Each art must appeal primarily to the artist who works in it. His judgment will surely be the most valuable?
GILBERT. The appeal of all art is simply to the artistic temperament. Art does not address herself to the specialist. Her claim is that she is universal, and that in all her manifestations she is one. Indeed, so far from its being true that the artist is the best judge of art, a really great artist can never judge of other people’s work at all, and can hardly, in fact, judge of his own. That very concentration of vision that makes a man an artist, limits by its sheer intensity his faculty of fine appreciation. The energy of creation hurries him blindly on to his own goal. The wheels of his chariot raise the dust as a cloud around him. The gods are hidden from each other. They can recognise their worshippers. That is all.
ERNEST. You say that a great artist cannot recognise the beauty of work different from his own.
GILBERT. It is
impossible for him to do so. Wordsworth
saw in Endymion merely a pretty piece of Paganism, and Shelley, with his
dislike of actuality, was deaf to Wordsworth’s message, being repelled by its
form, and Byron, that great passionate human incomplete creature, could
appreciate neither the poet of the cloud nor the poet of the lake, and the
wonder of Keats was hidden from him. The
realism of Euripides was hateful to Sophokles.
Those droppings of warm tears had no music for him.
ERNEST. Do you really mean that?
GILBERT. Yes, for creation limits, while contemplation widens, the vision.
ERNEST. But what about technique? Surely each art has its separate technique?
GILBERT. Certainly: each art has its grammar and its materials. There is no mystery about either, and the incompetent can always be correct. But, while the laws upon which Art rests may be fixed and certain, to find their true realisation they must be touched by the imagination into such beauty that they will seem an exception, each one of them. Technique is really personality. That is the reason why the artist cannot teach it, why the pupil cannot learn it, and why the aesthetic critic can understand it. To the great poet, there is only one method of music—his own. To the great painter, there is only one manner of painting—that which he himself employs. The aesthetic critic, and the aesthetic critic alone, can appreciate all forms and modes. It is to him that Art makes her appeal.
ERNEST. Well, I think I have put all my questions to you. And now I must admit -
GILBERT. Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.
ERNEST. In that case I certainly won’t tell you whether I agree with you or not. But I will put another question. You have explained to me that criticism is a creative art. What future has it?
GILBERT. It is to
criticism that the future belongs. The
subject-matter at the disposal of creation becomes every day more limited in
extent and variety.
Hours ago, Ernest, you asked me the use of Criticism. You might just as well have asked me the use
of thought. It is Criticism, as
It is Criticism, again, that, by concentration, makes
culture possible. It takes the
cumbersome mass of creative work, and distils it into a finer essence. Who that desires to retain any sense of form
could struggle through the monstrous multitudinous books that the world has
produced, books in which thought stammers or ignorance brawls? The thread that is to guide us across the
wearisome labyrinth is in the hands of Criticism. Nay more, where there is no record, and history
is either lost, or was never written, Criticism can re-create the past for us
from the very smallest fragment of language or art, just as surely as the man
of science can from some tiny bone, or the mere impress of a foot upon a rock,
re-create for us the winged dragon or Titan lizard that once made the earth
shake beneath its tread, can call Behemoth out of his cave, and make Leviathan
swim once more across the startled sea.
Prehistoric history belongs to the philological and archaeological
critic. It is to him that the origins of
things are revealed. The self-conscious
deposits of an age are nearly always misleading. Through philological criticism alone we know
more of the centuries of which no actual record has been preserved, than we do
of the centuries that have left us their scrolls. It can do for us what can be done neither by
physics nor metaphysics. It can give us
the exact science of mind in the process of becoming. It can do for us what History cannot do. It can tell us what man thought before he
learned how to write. You have asked me
about the influence of Criticism. I
think I have answered that question already; but there is this also to be
said. It is Criticism that makes us
No: the emotions will not make us cosmopolitan, any more
than the greed for gain could do so. It
is only by the cultivation of the habit of intellectual criticism that we shall
be able to rise superior to race-prejudices. Goethe—you will not misunderstand what I
say—was a German of the Germans. He
loved his country—no man more so. Its
people were dear to him; and he led them.
Yet, when the iron hoof of Napoleon trampled upon vineyard and
cornfield, his lips were silent. ‘How
can one write songs of hatred without hating?’ he said to Eckermann, ‘and how
could I, to whom culture and barbarism are alone of importance, hate a nation
which is among the most cultivated of the earth and to which I owe so great a
part of my own cultivation?’ This note,
sounded in the modern world by Goethe first, will become, I think, the starting
point for the cosmopolitanism of the future.
Criticism will annihilate race-prejudices, by insisting upon the unity
of the human mind in the variety of its forms.
If we are tempted to make war upon another nation, we shall remember
that we are seeking to destroy an element of our own culture, and possibly its
most important element. As long as war
is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will
cease to be popular. The change will of
course be slow, and people will not be conscious of it. They will not say ‘We will not war against
Nor is this all. It is Criticism that, recognising no position
as final, and refusing to bind itself by the shallow shibboleths of any sect or
school, creates that serene philosophic temper which loves truth for its own
sake, and loves it not the less because it knows it to be unattainable. How little we have of this temper in
ERNEST. Ah! what an antinomian you are!
GILBERT. The artistic critic, like the mystic, is an antinomian always. To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness, is obviously quite easy. It merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain low passion for middle-class respectability. Aesthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong. Aesthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilisation, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not because they make the renunciations of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without hurt to the soul, and can wish for nothing that can do the soul harm, the soul being an entity so divine that it is able to transform into elements of a richer experience, or a finer susceptibility, or a newer mode of thought, acts or passions that with the common would be commonplace, or with the uneducated ignoble, or with the shameful vile. Is this dangerous? Yes; it is dangerous—all ideas, as I told you, are so. But the night wearies, and the light flickers in the lamp. One more thing I cannot help saying to you. You have spoken against Criticism as being a sterile thing. The nineteenth century is a turning point in history, simply on account of the work of two men, Darwin and Renan, the one the critic of the Book of Nature, the other the critic of the books of God. Not to recognise this is to miss the meaning of one of the most important eras in the progress of the world. Creation is always behind the age. It is Criticism that leads us. The Critical Spirit and the World-Spirit are one.
ERNEST. And he who is in possession of this spirit, or whom this spirit possesses, will, I suppose, do nothing?
GILBERT. Like the Persephone of whom Landor tells us, the sweet pensive Persephone around whose white feet the asphodel and amaranth are blooming, he will sit contented ‘in that deep, motionless quiet which mortals pity, and which the gods enjoy.’ He will look out upon the world and know its secret. By contact with divine things he will become divine. His will be the perfect life, and his only.
ERNEST. You have told me many strange things to-night, Gilbert. You have told me that it is more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it, and that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world; you have told me that all Art is immoral, and all thought dangerous; that criticism is more creative than creation, and that the highest criticism is that which reveals in the work of Art what the artist had not put there; that it is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it; and that the true critic is unfair, insincere, and not rational. My friend, you are a dreamer.
GILBERT. Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
ERNEST. His punishment?
GILBERT. And his reward. But,
see, it is dawn already. Draw back the
curtains and open the windows wide. How
cool the morning air is! Piccadilly lies
at our feet like a long riband of silver.
A faint purple mist hangs over the Park, and the shadows of the white
houses are purple. It is too late to
sleep. Let us go down to
In many of the somewhat violent attacks that have recently been made on that splendour of mounting which now characterises our Shakespearian revivals in England, it seems to have been tacitly assumed by the critics that Shakespeare himself was more or less indifferent to the costumes of his actors, and that, could he see Mrs. Langtry’s production of Antony and Cleopatra, he would probably say that the play, and the play only, is the thing, and that everything else is leather and prunella. While, as regards any historical accuracy in dress, Lord Lytton, in an article in the Nineteenth Century, has laid it down as a dogma of art that archaeology is entirely out of place in the presentation of any of Shakespeare’s plays, and the attempt to introduce it one of the stupidest pedantries of an age of prigs.
Lord Lytton’s position I shall examine later on; but, as regards the theory that Shakespeare did not busy himself much about the costume-wardrobe of his theatre, anybody who cares to study Shakespeare’s method will see that there is absolutely no dramatist of the French, English, or Athenian stage who relies so much for his illusionist effects on the dress of his actors as Shakespeare does himself.
Knowing how the artistic temperament is always fascinated by beauty of costume, he constantly introduces into his plays masques and dances, purely for the sake of the pleasure which they give the eye; and we have still his stage-directions for the three great processions in Henry the Eighth, directions which are characterised by the most extraordinary elaborateness of detail down to the collars of S.S. and the pearls in Anne Boleyn’s hair. Indeed it would be quite easy for a modern manager to reproduce these pageants absolutely as Shakespeare had them designed; and so accurate were they that one of the court officials of the time, writing an account of the last performance of the play at the Globe Theatre to a friend, actually complains of their realistic character, notably of the production on the stage of the Knights of the Garter in the robes and insignia of the order as being calculated to bring ridicule on the real ceremonies; much in the same spirit in which the French Government, some time ago, prohibited that delightful actor, M. Christian, from appearing in uniform, on the plea that it was prejudicial to the glory of the army that a colonel should be caricatured. And elsewhere the gorgeousness of apparel which distinguished the English stage under Shakespeare’s influence was attacked by the contemporary critics, not as a rule, however, on the grounds of the democratic tendencies of realism, but usually on those moral grounds which are always the last refuge of people who have no sense of beauty.
The point, however, which I wish to emphasise is, not that Shakespeare appreciated the value of lovely costumes in adding picturesqueness to poetry, but that he saw how important costume is as a means of producing certain dramatic effects. Many of his plays, such as Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentleman of Verona, All’s Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline, and others, depend for their illusion on the character of the various dresses worn by the hero or the heroine; the delightful scene in Henry the Sixth, on the modern miracles of healing by faith, loses all its point unless Gloster is in black and scarlet; and the dénoûment of the Merry Wives of Windsor hinges on the colour of Anne Page’s gown. As for the uses Shakespeare makes of disguises the instances are almost numberless. Posthumus hides his passion under a peasant’s garb, and Edgar his pride beneath an idiot’s rags; Portia wears the apparel of a lawyer, and Rosalind is attired in ‘all points as a man’; the cloak-bag of Pisanio changes Imogen to the Youth Fidele; Jessica flees from her father’s house in boy’s dress, and Julia ties up her yellow hair in fantastic love-knots, and dons hose and doublet; Henry the Eighth woos his lady as a shepherd, and Romeo his as a pilgrim; Prince Hal and Poins appear first as footpads in buckram suits, and then in white aprons and leather jerkins as the waiters in a tavern: and as for Falstaff, does he not come on as a highwayman, as an old woman, as Herne the Hunter, and as the clothes going to the laundry?
Nor are the examples of the employment of costume as a mode of intensifying dramatic situation less numerous. After slaughter of Duncan, Macbeth appears in his night-gown as if aroused from sleep; Timon ends in rags the play he had begun in splendour; Richard flatters the London citizens in a suit of mean and shabby armour, and, as soon as he has stepped in blood to the throne, marches through the streets in crown and George and Garter; the climax of The Tempest is reached when Prospero, throwing off his enchanter’s robes, sends Ariel for his hat and rapier, and reveals himself as the great Italian Duke; the very Ghost in Hamlet changes his mystical apparel to produce different effects; and as for Juliet, a modern playwright would probably have laid her out in her shroud, and made the scene a scene of horror merely, but Shakespeare arrays her in rich and gorgeous raiment, whose loveliness makes the vault ‘a feasting presence full of light,’ turns the tomb into a bridal chamber, and gives the cue and motive for Romeo’s speech of the triumph of Beauty over Death.
Even small details of dress, such as the colour of a major-domo’s stockings, the pattern on a wife’s handkerchief, the sleeve of a young soldier, and a fashionable woman’s bonnets, become in Shakespeare’s hands points of actual dramatic importance, and by some of them the action of the play in question is conditioned absolutely. Many other dramatists have availed themselves of costume as a method of expressing directly to the audience the character of a person on his entrance, though hardly so brilliantly as Shakespeare has done in the case of the dandy Parolles, whose dress, by the way, only an archaeologist can understand; the fun of a master and servant exchanging coats in presence of the audience, of shipwrecked sailors squabbling over the division of a lot of fine clothes, and of a tinker dressed up like a duke while he is in his cups, may be regarded as part of that great career which costume has always played in comedy from the time of Aristophanes down to Mr. Gilbert; but nobody from the mere details of apparel and adornment has ever drawn such irony of contrast, such immediate and tragic effect, such pity and such pathos, as Shakespeare himself. Armed cap-à-pie, the dead King stalks on the battlements of Elsinore because all is not right with Denmark; Shylock’s Jewish gaberdine is part of the stigma under which that wounded and embittered nature writhes; Arthur begging for his life can think of no better plea than the handkerchief he had given Hubert -
Have you the heart? when your head did but ache,
I knit my handkerchief about your brows,
(The best I had, a princess wrought it me)
And I did never ask it you again;
Last night ’twas on my arm; I kissed it;
I hope it be not gone to tell my lord
That I kiss aught but he,
says Imogen, jesting on the loss of the bracelet which was already on its way to Rome to rob her of her husband’s faith; the little Prince passing to the Tower plays with the dagger in his uncle’s girdle; Duncan sends a ring to Lady Macbeth on the night of his own murder, and the ring of Portia turns the tragedy of the merchant into a wife’s comedy. The great rebel York dies with a paper crown on his head; Hamlet’s black suit is a kind of colour-motive in the piece, like the mourning of the Chimène in the Cid; and the climax of Antony’s speech is the production of Caesar’s cloak:-
The first time ever Caesar put it on.
’Twas on a summer’s evening, in his tent,
The day he overcame the Nervii:-
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed. . . .
Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar’s vesture wounded?
The flowers which Ophelia carries with her in her madness are as pathetic as the violets that blossom on a grave; the effect of Lear’s wandering on the heath is intensified beyond words by his fantastic attire; and when Cloten, stung by the taunt of that simile which his sister draws from her husband’s raiment, arrays himself in that husband’s very garb to work upon her the deed of shame, we feel that there is nothing in the whole of modern French realism, nothing even in Thérèse Raquin, that masterpiece of horror, which for terrible and tragic significance can compare with this strange scene in Cymbeline.
In the actual dialogue also some of the most vivid passages are those suggested by costume. Rosalind’s
Dost thou think, though I am caparisoned like a man, I have a doublet and hose in my disposition?
Grief fills the place of my absent child,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
and the quick sharp cry of
Ah! cut my lace asunder! -
are only a few of the many examples one might quote. One of the finest effects I have ever seen on the stage was Salvini, in the last act of Lear, tearing the plume from Kent’s cap and applying it to Cordelia’s lips when he came to the line,
This feather stirs; she lives!
Mr. Booth, whose Lear had many noble qualities of passion, plucked, I remember, some fur from his archaeologically-incorrect ermine for the same business; but Salvini’s was the finer effect of the two, as well as the truer. And those who saw Mr. Irving in the last act of Richard the Third have not, I am sure, forgotten how much the agony and terror of his dream was intensified, by contrast, through the calm and quiet that preceded it, and the delivery of such lines as
What, is my beaver easier than it was?
And all my armour laid into my tent?
Look that my staves be sound and not too heavy -
lines which had a double meaning for the audience, remembering the last words which Richard’s mother called after him as he was marching to Bosworth:-
Therefore take with thee my most grievous curse,
Which in the day of battle tire thee more
Than all the complete armour that thou wear’st.
As regards the resources which Shakespeare had at his
disposal, it is to be remarked that, while he more than once complains of the
smallness of the stage on which he has to produce big historical plays, and of
the want of scenery which obliges him to cut out many effective open-air
incidents, he always writes as a dramatist who had at his disposal a most
elaborate theatrical wardrobe, and who could rely on the actors taking pains
about their make-up. Even now it is
difficult to produce such a play as the Comedy of Errors; and to the
picturesque accident of Miss Ellen Terry’s brother resembling
herself we owe the opportunity of seeing Twelfth Night adequately
performed. Indeed, to put any play of
Shakespeare’s on the stage, absolutely as he himself wished it to be done,
requires the services of a good property-man, a clever wig-maker, a costumier
with a sense of colour and a knowledge of textures, a master of the methods of
making-up, a fencing-master, a dancing-master, and an artist to direct
personally the whole production. For he is most careful to tell us the dress and appearance of each
As for the metaphors Shakespeare draws from dress, and the aphorisms he makes on it, his hits at the costume of his age, particularly at the ridiculous size of the ladies’ bonnets, and the many descriptions of the mundus muliebris, from the long of Autolycus in the Winter’s Tale down to the account of the Duchess of Milan’s gown in Much Ado About Nothing, they are far too numerous to quote; though it may be worth while to remind people that the whole of the Philosophy of Clothes is to be found in Lear’s scene with Edgar—a passage which has the advantage of brevity and style over the grotesque wisdom and somewhat mouthing metaphysics of Sartor Resartus. But I think that from what I have already said it is quite clear that Shakespeare was very much interested in costume. I do not mean in that shallow sense by which it has been concluded from his knowledge of deeds and daffodils that he was the Blackstone and Paxton of the Elizabethan age; but that he saw that costume could be made at once impressive of a certain effect on the audience and expressive of certain types of character, and is one of the essential factors of the means which a true illusionist has at his disposal. Indeed to him the deformed figure of Richard was of as much value as Juliet’s loveliness; he sets the serge of the radical beside the silks of the lord, and sees the stage effects to be got from each: he has as much delight in Caliban as he has in Ariel, in rags as he has in cloth of gold, and recognises the artistic beauty of ugliness.
The difficulty Ducis felt about translating Othello in consequence of the importance given to such a vulgar thing as a handkerchief, and his attempt to soften its grossness by making the Moor reiterate ‘Le bandeau! le bandeau!’ may be taken as an example of the difference between la tragédie philosophique and the drama of real life; and the introduction for the first time of the word mouchoir at the Théâtre Français was an era in that romantic-realistic movement of which Hugo is the father and M. Zola the enfant terrible, just as the classicism of the earlier part of the century was emphasised by Talma’s refusal to play Greek heroes any longer in a powdered periwig—one of the many instances, by the way, of that desire for archaeological accuracy in dress which has distinguished the great actors of our age.
In criticising the importance given to money in La Comédie Humaine, Théophile Gautier says that Balzac may claim to have invented a new hero in fiction, le héros métallique. Of Shakespeare it may be said he was the first to see the dramatic value of doublets, and that a climax may depend on a crinoline.
The burning of the Globe Theatre—an event due, by the way, to the results of the passion for illusion that distinguished Shakespeare’s stage-management—has unfortunately robbed us of many important documents; but in the inventory, still in existence, of the costume-wardrobe of a London theatre in Shakespeare’s time, there are mentioned particular costumes for cardinals, shepherds, kings, clowns, friars, and fools; green coats for Robin Hood’s men, and a green gown for Maid Marian; a white and gold doublet for Henry the Fifth, and a robe for Longshanks; besides surplices, copes, damask gowns, gowns of cloth of gold and of cloth of silver, taffeta gowns, calico gowns, velvet coats, satin coats, frieze coats, jerkins of yellow leather and of black leather, red suits, grey suits, French Pierrot suits, a robe ‘for to goo invisibell,’ which seems inexpensive at £3, 10s., and four incomparable fardingales—all of which show a desire to give every character an appropriate dress. There are also entries of Spanish, Moorish and Danish costumes, of helmets, lances, painted shields, imperial crowns, and papal tiaras, as well as of costumes for Turkish Janissaries, Roman Senators, and all the gods and goddesses of Olympus, which evidence a good deal of archaeological research on the part of the manager of the theatre. It is true that there is a mention of a bodice for Eve, but probably the donnée of the play was after the Fall.
Indeed, anybody who cares to examine the age of Shakespeare
will see that archaeology was one of its special characteristics. After that revival of the classical forms of
architecture which was one of the notes of the Renaissance, and the printing at
Infessura tells us that in 1485 some workmen digging on the
And this use of archaeology in shows, so far from being a
bit of priggish pedantry, is in every way legitimate and beautiful. For the stage is not merely the meeting-place
of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life. Sometimes in an archaeological novel the use
of strange and obsolete terms seems to hide the reality beneath the learning,
and I dare say that many of the readers of Notre Dame de Paris have been much
puzzled over the meaning of such expressions as la casaque à mahoitres, les
voulgiers, le gallimard taché d’encre, les craaquiniers, and the like; but with
the stage how different it is! The
ancient world wakes from its sleep, and history moves as a pageant before our
eyes, without obliging us to have recourse to a dictionary or an encyclopaedia
for the perfection of our enjoyment.
Indeed, there is not the slightest necessity that the public should know
the authorities for the mounting of any piece.
From such materials, for instance, as the disk of Theodosius, materials
with which the majority of people are probably not very familiar, Mr. E. W.
Godwin, one of the most artistic spirits of this century in England, created
the marvellous loveliness of the first act of Claudian, and showed us the life
of Byzantium in the fourth century, not by a dreary lecture and a set of grimy
casts, not by a novel which requires a glossary to explain it, but by the visible
presentation before us of all the glory of that great town. And while the costumes were true to the
smallest points of colour and design, yet the details were not assigned that
abnormal importance which they must necessarily be given in a piecemeal lecture,
but were subordinated to the rules of lofty composition and the unity of
artistic effect. Mr. Symonds, speaking
of that great picture of Mantegna’s, now in
And indeed archaeology is only really delightful when
transfused into some form of art. I have
no desire to underrate the services of laborious scholars, but I feel that the
use Keats made of Lemprière’s Dictionary is of far more value to us than
Professor Max Müller’s treatment of the same mythology as a disease of
language. Better Endymion than any
theory, however sound, or, as in the present instance, unsound, of an epidemic
among adjectives! And who does not feel
that the chief glory of Piranesi’s book on Vases is that it gave Keats the
suggestion for his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’?
Art, and art only, can make archaeology beautiful; and the theatric art
can use it most directly and most vividly, for it can combine in one exquisite
presentation the illusion of actual life with the wonder of the unreal
world. But the sixteenth century was not
merely the age of Vitruvius; it was the age of Vecellio also. Every nation seems suddenly to have become
interested in the dress of its neighbours.
Nor was it merely from books and treatises that they
acquired their knowledge. The
development of the habit of foreign travel, the increased commercial
intercourse between countries, and the frequency of diplomatic missions, gave
every nation many opportunities of studying the various forms of contemporary
dress. After the departure from
And the interest was not confined merely to classical dress, or the dress of foreign nations; there was also a good deal of research, amongst theatrical people especially, into the ancient costume of England itself: and when Shakespeare, in the prologue to one of his plays, expresses his regret at being unable to produce helmets of the period, he is speaking as an Elizabethan manager and not merely as an Elizabethan poet. At Cambridge, for instance, during his day, a play of Richard The Third was performed, in which the actors were attired in real dresses of the time, procured from the great collection of historical costume in the Tower, which was always open to the inspection of managers, and sometimes placed at their disposal. And I cannot help thinking that this performance must have been far more artistic, as regards costume, than Garrick’s mounting of Shakespeare’s own play on the subject, in which he himself appeared in a nondescript fancy dress, and everybody else in the costume of the time of George the Third, Richmond especially being much admired in the uniform of a young guardsman.
For what is the use to the stage of that archaeology which
has so strangely terrified the critics, but that it, and it alone, can give us
the architecture and apparel suitable to the time in which the action of the
play passes? It enables us to see a
Greek dressed like a Greek, and an Italian like an Italian; to enjoy the
In designing the scenery and costumes for any of
Shakespeare’s plays, the first thing the artist has to settle is the best date
for the drama. This should be determined
by the general spirit of the play, more than by any actual historical
references which may occur in it. Most
Hamlets I have seen were placed far too early.
Hamlet is essentially a scholar of the Revival of Learning; and if the allusion
to the recent invasion of
It has been said that the anachronisms in the plays
themselves show us that Shakespeare was indifferent to historical accuracy, and
a great deal of capital has been made out of Hector’s indiscreet quotation from
Aristotle. Upon the other hand, the
anachronisms are really few in number, and not very important, and, had
Shakespeare’s attention been drawn to them by a brother artist, he would
probably have corrected them. For,
though they can hardly be called blemishes, they are certainly not the great
beauties of his work; or, at least, if they are, their anachronistic charm
cannot be emphasised unless the play is accurately mounted according to its
proper date. In looking at Shakespeare’s
plays as a whole, however, what is really remarkable is their extraordinary
fidelity as regards his personages and his plots. Many of his dramatis personae are people who
had actually existed, and some of them might have been seen in real life by a
portion of his audience. Indeed the most
violent attack that was made on Shakespeare in his time was for his supposed
caricature of Lord Cobham. As for his
plots, Shakespeare constantly draws them either from authentic history, or from
the old ballads and traditions which served as history to the Elizabethan
public, and which even now no scientific historian would dismiss as absolutely
untrue. And not merely did he select
fact instead of fancy as the basis of much of his imaginative work, but he
always gives to each play the general character, the social atmosphere in a
word, of the age in question. Stupidity
he recognises as being one of the permanent characteristics of all European
civilisations; so he sees no difference between a
Again when Shakespeare treats of the history of
Of course the aesthetic value of Shakespeare’s plays does not, in the slightest degree, depend on their facts, but on their Truth, and Truth is independent of facts always, inventing or selecting them at pleasure. But still Shakespeare’s use of facts is a most interesting part of his method of work, and shows us his attitude towards the stage, and his relations to the great art of illusion. Indeed he would have been very much surprised at any one classing his plays with ‘fairy tales,’ as Lord Lytton does; for one of his aims was to create for England a national historical drama, which should deal with incidents with which the public was well acquainted, and with heroes that lived in the memory of a people. Patriotism, I need hardly say, is not a necessary quality of art; but it means, for the artist, the substitution of a universal for an individual feeling, and for the public the presentation of a work of art in a most attractive and popular form. It is worth noticing that Shakespeare’s first and last successes were both historical plays.
It may be asked, what has this to do with Shakespeare’s attitude towards costume? I answer that a dramatist who laid such stress on historical accuracy of fact would have welcomed historical accuracy of costume as a most important adjunct to his illusionist method. And I have no hesitation in saying that he did so. The reference to helmets of the period in the prologue to Henry the Fifth may be considered fanciful, though Shakespeare must have often seen
The very casque
That did affright the air at
where it still hangs in the dusky gloom of Westminster
Abbey, along with the saddle of that ‘imp of fame,’ and the dinted shield with
its torn blue velvet lining and its tarnished lilies of gold; but the use of
military tabards in Henry the Sixth is a bit of pure archaeology, as they were
not worn in the sixteenth century; and the King’s own tabard, I may mention,
was still suspended over his tomb in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in
Shakespeare’s day. For, up to the time
of the unfortunate triumph of the Philistines in 1645, the chapels and
In fact, everywhere that Shakespeare turned in
Even if it were not so, there is no more reason that we
should continue any imperfections which may be supposed to have characterised
Shakespeare’s stage mounting than that we should have Juliet played by a young
man, or give up the advantage of changeable scenery. A great work of dramatic art should not
merely be made expressive of modern passion by means of the actor, but should
be presented to us in the form most suitable to the modern spirit.
‘Les petits détails d’histoire et de vie domestique (says Hugo) doivent être scrupuleusement étudiés et reproduits par le poète, mais uniquement comme des moyens d’accroître la réalité de l’ensemble, et de faire pénétrer jusque dans les coins les plus obscurs de l’oeuvre cette vie générale et puissante au milieu de laquelle les personnages sont plus vrais, et les catastrophes, par conséqueut, plus poignantes. Tout doit être subordonné à ce but. L’Homme sur le premier plan, le reste au fond.’
This passage is interesting as coming from the first great
French dramatist who employed archaeology on the stage, and whose plays, though
absolutely correct in detail, are known to all for their passion, not for their
pedantry—for their life, not for their learning. It is true that he has made certain concessions
in the case of the employment of curious or strange expressions. Ruy Blas talks of M, de Priego as ‘sujet du
roi’ instead of ‘noble du roi,’ and Angelo Malipieri speaks of ‘la croix rouge’
instead of ‘la croix de gueules.’ But
they are concessions made to the public, or rather to a section of it. ‘J’en offre ici toute mes excuses aux
spectateurs intelligents,’ he says in a note to one of the plays; ‘espérons
qu’un jour un seigneur vénitien pourra dire tout bonnement sans péril son
blason sur le théâtre. C’est un progrès qui viendra.’ And, though the description of the crest is
not couched in accurate language, still the crest itself was accurately
right. It may, of course, be said that
the public do not notice these things; upon the other hand, it should be
remembered that Art has no other aim but her own perfection, and proceeds
simply by her own laws, and that the play which Hamlet describes as being
caviare to the general is a play he highly praises. Besides, in England, at any rate, the public
have undergone a transformation; there is far more appreciation of beauty now
than there was a few years ago; and though they may not be familiar with the
authorities and archaeological data for what is shown to them, still they enjoy
whatever loveliness they look at. And
this is the important thing. Better to
take pleasure in a rose than to put its root under a microscope. Archaeological accuracy is merely a condition
of illusionist stage effect; it is not its quality. And Lord Lytton’s proposal that the dresses
should merely be beautiful without being accurate is founded on a
misapprehension of the nature of costume, and of its value on the stage. This value is twofold, picturesque and
dramatic; the former depends on the colour of the dress, the latter on its
design and character. But so interwoven
are the two that, whenever in our own day historical accuracy has been
disregarded, and the various dresses in a play taken from different ages, the
result has been that the stage has been turned into that chaos of costume, that
caricature of the centuries, the Fancy Dress Ball, to the entire ruin of all
dramatic and picturesque effect. For the
dresses of one age do not artistically harmonise with the dresses of another:
and, as far as dramatic value goes, to confuse the costumes is to confuse the
play. Costume is a growth, an evolution,
and a most important, perhaps the most important, sign of the manners, customs
and mode of life of each century. The
Puritan dislike of colour, adornment and grace in apparel was part of the great
revolt of the middle classes against Beauty in the seventeenth century. A historian who disregarded it would give us
a most inaccurate picture of the time, and a dramatist who did not avail
himself of it would miss a most vital element in producing an illusionist
effect. The effeminacy of dress that
characterised the reign of Richard the Second was a constant theme of
contemporary authors. Shakespeare,
writing two hundred years after, makes the king’s fondness for gay apparel and
foreign fashions a point in the play, from John of Gaunt’s reproaches down to
Richard’s own speech in the third act on his deposition from the throne. And that Shakespeare examined Richard’s tomb
in Westminster Abbey seems to me certain from
See, see, King Richard doth himself appear
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the east,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory.
For we can still discern on the King’s
robe his favourite badge—the sun issuing from a cloud. In fact, in every age the social conditions
are so exemplified in costume, that to produce a sixteenth-century play in
fourteenth-century attire, or vice versa, would make the performance seem
unreal because untrue. And, valuable as
beauty of effect on the stage is, the highest beauty is not merely comparable
with absolute accuracy of detail, but really dependent on it. To invent, an entirely new costume is almost
impossible except in burlesque or extravaganza, and as for combining the dress
of different centuries into one, the experiment would be dangerous, and
Shakespeare’s opinion of the artistic value of such a medley may be gathered
from his incessant satire of the Elizabethan dandies for imagining that they
were well dressed because they got their doublets in Italy, their hats in
Germany, and their hose in France. And
it should be noted that the most lovely scenes that
have been produced on our stage have been those that have been characterised by
perfect accuracy, such as Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft’s eighteenth-century revivals
at the Haymarket, Mr. Irying’s superb production of Much Ado About Nothing, and
Mr, Barrett’s Claudian. Besides, and
this is perhaps the most complete answer to Lord Lytton’s theory, it must be remembered
that neither in costume nor in dialogue is beauty the dramatist’s primary aim
at all. The true dramatist aims first at
what is characteristic, and no more desires that all his personages should be
beautifully attired than he desires that they should all have beautiful natures
or speak beautiful English. The true
dramatist, in fact, shows us life under the conditions of art, not art in the
form of life. The Greek dress was the
loveliest dress the world has ever seen, and the English dress of the last
century one of the most monstrous; yet we cannot costume a play by
But it is not enough that a dress should be accurate; it
must be also appropriate to the stature and appearance of the actor, and to his
supposed condition, as well as to his necessary action in the play. In Mr. Hare’s production of As You Like It at
the St. James’s Theatre, for instance, the whole point of Orlando’s complaint
that he is brought up like a peasant, and not like a gentleman, was spoiled by
the gorgeousness of his dress, and the splendid apparel worn by the banished
Duke and his friends was quite out of place.
Mr. Lewis Wingfield’s explanation that the sumptuary laws of the period
necessitated their doing so, is, I am afraid, hardly
sufficient. Outlaws, lurking in a forest
and living by the chase, are not very likely to care much about ordinances of
dress. They were probably attired like
Robin Hood’s men, to whom, indeed, they are compared
in the course of the play. And that their
dress was not that of wealthy noblemen may be seen by
Nor, again, is it enough that there should be accurate and
appropriate costumes of beautiful colours; there must be also beauty of colour
on the stage as a whole, and as long as the background is painted by one
artist, and the foreground figures independently designed by another, there is
the danger of a want of harmony in the scene as a picture. For each scene the colour-scheme should be
settled as absolutely as for the decoration of a room, and the textures which
it is proposed to use should be mixed and re-mixed in every possible
combination, and what is discordant removed.
Then, as regards the particular kinds of colours, the stage is often too
glaring, partly through the excessive use of hot, violent reds, and partly
through the costumes looking too new.
Shabbiness, which in modern life is merely the tendency of the lower
orders towards tone, is not without its artistic value,
and modern colours are often much improved by being a little faded. Blue also is too frequently used: it is not
merely a dangerous colour to wear by gaslight, but it is really difficult in
Mademoiselle Mars, in the first production of Hernani, absolutely refused to call her lover ‘Mon Lion!’ unless she was allowed to wear a little fashionable toque then much in vogue on the Boulevards; and many young ladies on our own stage insist to the present day on wearing stiff starched petticoats under Greek dresses, to the entire ruin of all delicacy of line and fold; but these wicked things should not be allowed. And there should be far more dress rehearsals than there are now. Actors such as Mr. Forbes-Robertson, Mr. Conway, Mr. George Alexander, and others, not to mention older artists, can move with ease and elegance in the attire of any century; but there are not a few who seem dreadfully embarrassed about their hands if they have no side pockets, and who always wear their dresses as if they were costumes. Costumes, of course, they are to the designer; but dresses they should be to those that wear them. And it is time that a stop should be put to the idea, very prevalent on the stage, that the Greeks and Romans always went about bareheaded in the open air—a mistake the Elizabethan managers did not fall into, for they gave hoods as well as gowns to their Roman senators.
More dress rehearsals would also be of value in explaining to the actors that there is a form of gesture and movement that is not merely appropriate to each style of dress, but really conditioned by it. The extravagant use of the arms in the eighteenth century, for instance, was the necessary result of the large hoop, and the solemn dignity of Burleigh owed as much to his ruff as to his reason. Besides until an actor is at home in his dress, he is not at home in his part.
Of the value of beautiful costume in creating an artistic temperament in the audience, and producing that joy in beauty for beauty’s sake without which the great masterpieces of art can never be understood, I will not here speak; though it is worth while to notice how Shakespeare appreciated that side of the question in the production of his tragedies, acting them always by artificial light, and in a theatre hung with black; but what I have tried to point out is that archaeology is not a pedantic method, but a method of artistic illusion, and that costume is a means of displaying character without description, and of producing dramatic situations and dramatic effects. And I think it is a pity that so many critics should have set themselves to attack one of the most important movements on the modern stage before that movement has at all reached its proper perfection. That it will do so, however, I feel as certain as that we shall require from our dramatic critics in the future higher qualification than that they can remember Macready or have seen Benjamin Webster; we shall require of them, indeed, that they cultivate a sense of beauty. Pour être plus difficile, la tâche n’en est que plus glorieuse. And if they will not encourage, at least they must not oppose, a movement of which Shakespeare of all dramatists would have most approved, for it has the illusion of truth for its method, and the illusion of beauty for its result. Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything. For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realise Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.