Oscar Wilde

Part 2 out of 3

That he had a sincere love of art and nature seems to me quite
certain. There is no essential incongruity between crime and
culture. We cannot re-write the whole of history for the purpose
of gratifying our moral sense of what should be.

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 Green Park.

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

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
Sevigne. 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 litterateurs. 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 Dvorak? Shall I play you a fantasy
by Dvorak? 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

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

GILBERT. I seem to have heard that observation before, Ernest. It
has all the vitality of error and all the tediousness of an old

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, [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], 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. [Greek text
which cannot be reproduced] or [Greek text which cannot be
reproduced] 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, says Arnold
somewhere, there was no Higginbotham. By the Ilyssus, my dear
Gilbert, there were no silly art congresses bringing provincialism
to the provinces and teaching the mediocrity how to mouth. By the
Ilyssus there were no tedious magazines about art, in which the
industrious prattle of what they do not understand. On the reed-
grown banks of that little stream strutted no ridiculous journalism
monopolising the seat of judgment when it should be apologising in
the dock. The Greeks had no art-critics.

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

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.

ERNEST. Really?

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 Dvorak. 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 Bohemia, and
hear the fair Cuban tell us that she is not what she seems?

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
England's great poet owed much of the majestic movement and
sonorous splendour of his later verse. When Milton could no longer
write he began to sing. Who would match the measures of Comus with
the measures of Samson Agonistes, or of Paradise Lost or Regained?
When Milton became blind he composed, as every one should compose,
with the voice purely, and so the pipe or reed of earlier days
became that mighty many-stopped organ whose rich reverberant music
has all the stateliness of Homeric verse, if it seeks not to have
its swiftness, and is the one imperishable inheritance of English
literature sweeping through all the ages, because above them, and
abiding with us ever, being immortal in its form. Yes: writing
has done much harm to writers. We must return to the voice. That
must be our test, and perhaps then we shall be able to appreciate
some of the subtleties of Greek art-criticism.

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 [Greek
text which cannot be reproduced] 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 [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] 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 [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] of another
cigarette. Cigarettes have at least the charm of leaving one

ERNEST. Try one of mine. They are rather good. I get them direct
from Cairo. The only use of our attaches is that they supply their
friends with excellent tobacco. And as the moon has hidden
herself, let us talk a little longer. I am quite ready to admit
that I was wrong in what I said about the Greeks. They were, as
you have pointed out, a nation of art-critics. I acknowledge it,
and I feel a little sorry for them. For the creative faculty is
higher than the critical. There is really no comparison between

GILBERT. The 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. Arnold's definition of
literature as a criticism of life was not very felicitous in form,
but it showed how keenly he recognised the importance of the
critical element in all creative work.

ERNEST. I should have said that great artists work unconsciously,
that they were 'wiser than they knew,' as, I think, Emerson remarks

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 Olympus, and its steep scarped sides are bleak and barren, but
once, we fancy, the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from
the anemones in the morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to
the shepherds in the vale. But in this we are merely lending to
other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own. Our
historical sense is at fault. Every century that produces poetry
is, so far, an artificial century, and the work that seems to us to
be the most natural and simple product of its time is always the
result of the most self-conscious effort. Believe me, Ernest,
there is no fine art without self-consciousness, and self-
consciousness and the critical spirit are one.

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

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 of Alexandria, where these forms were
either stereotyped or invented or made perfect. I say Alexandria,
not merely because it was there that the Greek spirit became most
self-conscious, and indeed ultimately expired in scepticism and
theology, but because it was to that city, and not to Athens, that
Rome turned for her models, and it was through the survival, such
as it was, of the Latin language that culture lived at all. When,
at the Renaissance, Greek literature dawned upon Europe, the soil
had been in some measure prepared for it. But, to get rid of the
details of history, which are always wearisome and usually
inaccurate, let us say generally, that the forms of art have been
due to the Greek critical spirit. To it we owe the epic, the
lyric, the entire drama in every one of its developments, including
burlesque, the idyll, the romantic novel, the novel of adventure,
the essay, the dialogue, the oration, the lecture, for which
perhaps we should not forgive them, and the epigram, in all the
wide meaning of that word. In fact, we owe it everything, except
the sonnet, to which, however, some curious parallels of thought-
movement may be traced in the Anthology, American journalism, to
which no parallel can be found anywhere, and the ballad in sham
Scotch dialect, which one of our most industrious writers has
recently proposed should be made the basis for a final and
unanimous effort on the part of our second-rate poets to make
themselves really romantic. Each new school, as it appears, cries
out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man
that it owes its origin. The mere creative instinct does not
innovate, but reproduces.

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
England affords us from time to time. And yet, I feel I am a
little unfair in this matter. As a rule, the critics--I speak, of
course, of the higher class, of those in fact who write for the
sixpenny papers--are far more cultured than the people whose work
they are called upon to review. This is, indeed, only what one
would expect, for criticism demands infinitely more cultivation
than creation does.

ERNEST. Really?

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

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

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 windy
Ilion to send the notched arrow from the painted bow, or to hurl
against the shield of hide and flamelike brass the long ash-handled
spear. It was easy for the adulterous queen to spread the Tyrian
carpets for her lord, and then, as he lay couched in the marble
bath, to throw over his head the purple net, and call to her
smooth-faced lover to stab through the meshes at the heart that
should have broken at Aulis. For Antigone even, with Death waiting
for her as her bridegroom, it was easy to pass through the tainted
air at noon, and climb the hill, and strew with kindly earth the
wretched naked corse that had no tomb. But what of those who wrote
about these things? What of those who gave them reality, and made
them live for ever? Are they not greater than the men and women
they sing of? 'Hector that sweet knight is dead,' and Lucian tells
us how in the dim under-world Menippus saw the bleaching skull of
Helen, and marvelled that it was for so grim a favour that all
those horned ships were launched, those beautiful mailed men laid
low, those towered cities brought to dust. Yet, every day the
swanlike daughter of Leda comes out on the battlements, and looks
down at the tide of war. The greybeards wonder at her loveliness,
and she stands by the side of the king. In his chamber of stained
ivory lies her leman. He is polishing his dainty armour, and
combing the scarlet plume. With squire and page, her husband
passes from tent to tent. She can see his bright hair, and hears,
or fancies that she hears, that clear cold voice. In the courtyard
below, the son of Priam is buckling on his brazen cuirass. The
white arms of Andromache are around his neck. He sets his helmet
on the ground, lest their babe should be frightened. Behind the
embroidered curtains of his pavilion sits Achilles, in perfumed
raiment, while in harness of gilt and silver the friend of his soul
arrays himself to go forth to the fight. From a curiously carven
chest that his mother Thetis had brought to his ship-side, the Lord
of the Myrmidons takes out that mystic chalice that the lip of man
had never touched, and cleanses it with brimstone, and with fresh
water cools it, and, having washed his hands, fills with black wine
its burnished hollow, and spills the thick grape-blood upon the
ground in honour of Him whom at Dodona barefooted prophets
worshipped, and prays to Him, and knows not that he prays in vain,
and that by the hands of two knights from Troy, Panthous' son,
Euphorbus, whose love-locks were looped with gold, and the Priamid,
the lion-hearted, Patroklus, the comrade of comrades, must meet his
doom. Phantoms, are they? Heroes of mist and mountain? Shadows
in a song? No: they are real. Action! What is action? It dies
at the moment of its energy. It is a base concession to fact. The
world is made by the singer for the dreamer.

ERNEST. While you talk it seems to me to be so.

GILBERT. It is so in truth. On the mouldering citadel of Troy
lies the lizard like a thing of green bronze. The owl has built
her nest in the palace of Priam. Over the empty plain wander
shepherd and goatherd with their flocks, and where, on the wine-
surfaced, oily sea, [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], as
Homer calls it, copper-prowed and streaked with vermilion, the
great galleys of the Danaoi came in their gleaming crescent, the
lonely tunny-fisher sits in his little boat and watches the bobbing
corks of his net. Yet, every morning the doors of the city are
thrown open, and on foot, or in horse-drawn chariot, the warriors
go forth to battle, and mock their enemies from behind their iron
masks. All day long the fight rages, and when night comes the
torches gleam by the tents, and the cresset burns in the hall.
Those who live in marble or on painted panel, know of life but a
single exquisite instant, eternal indeed in its beauty, but limited
to one note of passion or one mood of calm. Those whom the poet
makes live have their myriad emotions of joy and terror, of courage
and despair, of pleasure and of suffering. The seasons come and go
in glad or saddening pageant, and with winged or leaden feet the
years pass by before them. They have their youth and their
manhood, they are children, and they grow old. It is always dawn
for St. Helena, as Veronese saw her at the window. Through the
still morning air the angels bring her the symbol of God's pain.
The cool breezes of the morning lift the gilt threads from her
brow. On that little hill by the city of Florence, where the
lovers of Giorgione are lying, it is always the solstice of noon,
of noon made so languorous by summer suns that hardly can the slim
naked girl dip into the marble tank the round bubble of clear
glass, and the long fingers of the lute-player rest idly upon the
chords. It is twilight always for the dancing nymphs whom Corot
set free among the silver poplars of France. In eternal twilight
they move, those frail diaphanous figures, whose tremulous white
feet seem not to touch the dew-drenched grass they tread on. But
those who walk in epos, drama, or romance, see through the
labouring months the young moons wax and wane, and watch the night
from evening unto morning star, and from sunrise unto sunsetting
can note the shifting day with all its gold and shadow. For them,
as for us, the flowers bloom and wither, and the Earth, that Green-
tressed Goddess as Coleridge calls her, alters her raiment for
their pleasure. The statue is concentrated to one moment of
perfection. The image stained upon the canvas possesses no
spiritual element of growth or change. If they know nothing of
death, it is because they know little of life, for the secrets of
life and death belong to those, and those only, whom the sequence
of time affects, and who possess not merely the present but the
future, and can rise or fall from a past of glory or of shame.
Movement, that problem of the visible arts, can be truly realised
by Literature alone. It is Literature that shows us the body in
its swiftness and the soul in its unrest.

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.

ERNEST. 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

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 Tannhauser, 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 ??OS ?O? ??????O?, 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

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 ease in Zion.' They propose to walk arm in arm with
the poets, and have a glib ignorant way of saying, 'Why should we
read what is written about Shakespeare and Milton? We can read the
plays and the poems. That is enough.' But an appreciation of
Milton is, as the late Rector of Lincoln remarked once, the reward
of consummate scholarship. And he who desires to understand
Shakespeare truly must understand the relations in which
Shakespeare stood to the Renaissance and the Reformation, to the
age of Elizabeth and the age of James; he must be familiar with the
history of the struggle for supremacy between the old classical
forms and the new spirit of romance, between the school of Sidney,
and Daniel, and Johnson, and the school of Marlowe and Marlowe's
greater son; he must know the materials that were at Shakespeare's
disposal, and the method in which he used them, and the conditions
of theatric presentation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century,
their limitations and their opportunities for freedom, and the
literary criticism of Shakespeare's day, its aims and modes and
canons; he must study the English language in its progress, and
blank or rhymed verse in its various developments; he must study
the Greek drama, and the connection between the art of the creator
of the Agamemnon and the art of the creator of Macbeth; in a word,
he must be able to bind Elizabethan London to the Athens of
Pericles, and to learn Shakespeare's true position in the history
of European drama and the drama of the world. The critic will
certainly be an interpreter, but he will not treat Art as a
riddling Sphinx, whose shallow secret may be guessed and revealed
by one whose feet are wounded and who knows not his name. Rather,
he will look upon Art as a goddess whose mystery it is his province
to intensify, and whose majesty his privilege to make more
marvellous in the eyes of men.

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
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 Styx, and Argenti swims to the boat
through the slimy waves. He calls to us, and we reject him. When
we hear the voice of his agony we are glad, and Virgil praises us
for the bitterness of our scorn. We tread upon the cold crystal of
Cocytus, in which traitors stick like straws in glass. Our foot
strikes against the head of Bocca. He will not tell us his name,
and we tear the hair in handfuls from the screaming skull.
Alberigo prays us to break the ice upon his face that he may weep a
little. We pledge our word to him, and when he has uttered his
dolorous tale we deny the word that we have spoken, and pass from
him; such cruelty being courtesy indeed, for who more base than he
who has mercy for the condemned of God? In the jaws of Lucifer we
see the man who sold Christ, and in the jaws of Lucifer the men who
slew Caesar. We tremble, and come forth to re-behold the stars.

In the land of Purgation the air is freer, and the holy mountain
rises into the pure light of day. There is peace for us, and for
those who for a season abide in it there is some peace also,
though, pale from the poison of the Maremma, Madonna Pia passes
before us, and Ismene, with the sorrow of earth still lingering
about her, is there. Soul after soul makes us share in some
repentance or some joy. He whom the mourning of his widow taught
to drink the sweet wormwood of pain, tells us of Nella praying in
her lonely bed, and we learn from the mouth of Buonconte how a
single tear may save a dying sinner from the fiend. Sordello, that
noble and disdainful Lombard, eyes us from afar like a couchant
lion. When he learns that Virgil is one of Mantua's citizens, he
falls upon his neck, and when he learns that he is the singer of
Rome he falls before his feet. In that valley whose grass and
flowers are fairer than cleft emerald and Indian wood, and brighter
than scarlet and silver, they are singing who in the world were
kings; but the lips of Rudolph of Hapsburg do not move to the music
of the others, and Philip of France beats his breast and Henry of
England sits alone. On and on we go, climbing the marvellous
stair, and the stars become larger than their wont, and the song of
the kings grows faint, and at length we reach the seven trees of
gold and the garden of the Earthly Paradise. In a griffin-drawn
chariot appears one whose brows are bound with olive, who is veiled
in white, and mantled in green, and robed in a vesture that is
coloured like live fire. The ancient flame wakes within us. Our
blood quickens through terrible pulses. We recognise her. It is
Beatrice, the woman we have worshipped. The ice congealed about
our heart melts. Wild tears of anguish break from us, and we bow
our forehead to the ground, for we know that we have sinned. When
we have done penance, and are purified, and have drunk of the
fountain of Lethe and bathed in the fountain of Eunoe, the mistress
of our soul raises us to the Paradise of Heaven. Out of that
eternal pearl, the moon, the face of Piccarda Donati leans to us.
Her beauty troubles us for a moment, and when, like a thing that
falls through water, she passes away, we gaze after her with
wistful eyes. The sweet planet of Venus is full of lovers.
Cunizza, the sister of Ezzelin, the lady of Sordello's heart, is
there, and Folco, the passionate singer of Provence, who in sorrow
for Azalais forsook the world, and the Canaanitish harlot whose
soul was the first that Christ redeemed. Joachim of Flora stands
in the sun, and, in the sun, Aquinas recounts the story of St.
Francis and Bonaventure the story of St. Dominic. Through the
burning rubies of Mars, Cacciaguida approaches. He tells us of the
arrow that is shot from the bow of exile, and how salt tastes the
bread of another, and how steep are the stairs in the house of a
stranger. In Saturn the soul sings not, and even she who guides us
dare not smile. On a ladder of gold the flames rise and fall. At
last, we see the pageant of the Mystical Rose. Beatrice fixes her
eyes upon the face of God to turn them not again. The beatific
vision is granted to us; we know the Love that moves the sun and
all the stars.

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

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.

ERNEST. Contemplation?

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 citta 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 God are not open to us now. Its gates are guarded by
Ignorance, and to pass them we have to surrender all that in our
nature is most divine. It is enough that our fathers believed.
They have exhausted the faith-faculty of the species. Their legacy
to us is the scepticism of which they were afraid. Had they put it
into words, it might not live within us as thought. No, Ernest,
no. We cannot go back to the saint. There is far more to be
learned from the sinner. We cannot go back to the philosopher, and
the mystic leads us astray. Who, as Mr. Pater suggests somewhere,
would exchange the curve of a single rose-leaf for that formless
intangible Being which Plato rates so high? What to us is the
Illumination of Philo, the Abyss of Eckhart, the Vision of Bohme,
the monstrous Heaven itself that was revealed to Swedenborg's
blinded eyes? Such things are less than the yellow trumpet of one
daffodil of the field, far less than the meanest of the visible
arts, for, just as Nature is matter struggling into mind, so Art is
mind expressing itself under the conditions of matter, and thus,
even in the lowliest of her manifestations, she speaks to both
sense and soul alike. To the aesthetic temperament the vague is
always repellent. The Greeks were a nation of artists, because
they were spared the sense of the infinite. Like Aristotle, like
Goethe after he had read Kant, we desire the concrete, and nothing
but the concrete can satisfy us.

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

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 [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] is the true
ideal. From the high tower of Thought we can look out at the
world. Calm, and self-centred, and complete, the aesthetic critic
contemplates life, and no arrow drawn at a venture can pierce
between the joints of his harness. He at least is safe. He has
discovered how to live.

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 England if it were so. There is no country in the
world so much in need of unpractical people as this country of
ours. With us, Thought is degraded by its constant association
with practice. Who that moves in the stress and turmoil of actual
existence, noisy politician, or brawling social reformer, or poor
narrow-minded priest blinded by the sufferings of that unimportant
section of the community among whom he has cast his lot, can
seriously claim to be able to form a disinterested intellectual
judgment about any one thing? Each of the professions means a
prejudice. The necessity for a career forces every one to take
sides. We live in the age of the overworked, and the under-
educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they
become absolutely stupid. And, harsh though it may sound, I cannot
help saying that such people deserve their doom. The sure way of
knowing nothing about life is to try to make oneself useful.

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. England will never be
civilised till she has added Utopia to her dominions. There is
more than one of her colonies that she might with advantage
surrender for so fair a land. What we want are unpractical people
who see beyond the moment, and think beyond the day. Those who try
to lead the people can only do so by following the mob. It is
through the voice of one crying in the wilderness that the ways of
the gods must be prepared.

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 England lies, not in incomplete
armaments or unfortified coasts, not in the poverty that creeps
through sunless lanes, or the drunkenness that brawls in loathsome
courts, but simply in the fact that her ideals are emotional and
not intellectual.

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.

GILBERT. The 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


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