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The Principles of Success in Literature by George Henry Lewes

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George Henry Lewes

This eBook was prepared by Roland Cheney.

In the development of the great series of animal organisms, the Nervous
System assumes more and more of an imperial character. The rank held by
any animal is determined by this character, and not at all by its bulk,
its strength, or even its utility. In like manner, in the development
of the social organism, as the life of nations becomes more complex,
Thought assumes a more imperial character; and Literature, in its
widest sense, becomes a delicate index of social evolution. Barbarous
societies show only the germs of literary life. But advancing
civilisation, bringing with it increased conquest over material
agencies, disengages the mind from the pressure of immediate wants, and
the loosened energy finds in leisure both the demand and the means of a
new activity: the demand, because long unoccupied hours have to be
rescued from the weariness of inaction; the means, because this call
upon the energies nourishes a greater ambition and furnishes a wider

Literature is at once the cause and the effect of social progress. It
deepens our natural sensibilities, and strengthens by exercise our
intellectual capacities. It stores up the accumulated experience of the
race, connecting Past and Present into a conscious unity; and with this
store it feeds successive generations, to be fed in turn by them. As
its importance emerges into more general recognition, it necessarily
draws after it a larger crowd of servitors, filling noble minds with a
noble ambition.

There is no need in our day to be dithyrambic on the glory of
Literature. Books have become our dearest companions, yielding
exquisite delights and inspiring lofty aims. They are our silent
instructors, our solace in sorrow, our relief in weariness. With what
enjoyment we linger over the pages of some well-loved author! With
what gratitude we regard every honest book! Friendships, prefound and
generous, are formed with men long dead, and with men whom we may never
see. The lives of these men have a quite personal interest for us.
Their homes become as consecrated shrines. Their little ways and
familiar phrases become endeared to us, like the little ways and
phrases of our wives and children.

It is natural that numbers who have once been thrilled with this
delight should in turn aspire to the privilege of exciting it. Success
in Literature has thus become not only the ambition of the highest
minds, it has also become the ambition of minds intensely occupied
with other means of influencing their fellow--with statesmen,
warriors, and rulers. Prime ministers and emperors have striven for
distinction as poets, scholars, critics, and historians. Unsatisfied
with the powers and privileges of rank, wealth, and their conspicuous
position in the eyes of men, they have longed also for the nobler
privilege of exercising a generous sway over the minds and hearts of
readers. To gain this they have stolen hours from the pressure of
affairs, and disregarded the allurements of luxurious ease, labouring
steadfastly, hoping eagerly. Nor have they mistaken the value of the
reward. Success in Literature is, in truth, the blue ribbon of

There is another aspect presented by Literature. It has become a
profession; to many a serious and elevating profession; to many more a
mere trade, having miserable trade-aims and trade-tricks. As in every
other profession, the ranks are thronged with incompetent aspirants,
without seriousness of aim, without the faculties demanded by their
work. They are led to waste powers which in other directions might have
done honest service, because they have failed to discriminate between
aspiration and inspiration, between the desire for greatness and the
consciousness of power. Still lower in the ranks are those who follow
Literature simply because they see no other opening for their
incompetence; just as forlorn widows and ignorant old maids thrown
suddenly on their own resources open a school--no other means of
livelihood seeming to be within their reach. Lowest of all are those
whose esurient vanity, acting on a frivolous levity of mind, urges them
to make Literature a plaything for display. To write for a livelihood,
even on a complete misapprehension of our powers, is at least a
respectable impulse. To play at Literature is altogether inexcusable:
the motive is vanity, the object notoriety, the end contempt.

I propose to treat of the Principles of Success in Literature, in the
belief that if a clear recognition of the principles which underlie all
successful writing could once be gained, it would be no inconsiderable
help to many a young and thoughtful mind. Is it necessary to guard
against a misconception of my object, and to explain that I hope to
furnish nothing more than help and encouragement? There is help to be
gained from a clear understanding of the conditions of success; and
encouragement to be gained from a reliance on the ultimate victory of
true principles. More than this can hardly be expected from me, even on
the supposition that I have ascertained the real conditions. No one, it
is to be presumed, will imagine that I can have any pretension of
giving recipes for Literature, or of furnishing power and talent where
nature has withheld them. I must assume the presence of the talent, and
then assign the conditions under which that talent can alone achieve
real success, no man is made a discoverer by learning the principles of
scientific Method; but only by those principles can discoveries be
made; and if he has consciously mastered them, he will find them
directing his researches and saving him from an immensity of fruitless
labour. It is something in the nature of the Method of Literature that
I propose to expound. Success is not an accident. All Literature is
founded upon psychological laws, and involves principles which are true
for all peoples and for all times. These principles we are to consider


The rarity of good books in every department, and the enormous quantity
of imperfect, insincere books, has been the lament of all times. The
complaint being as old as Literature itself, we may dismiss without
notice all the accusations which throw the burden on systems of
education, conditions of society, cheap books, levity and superficialty
of readers, and analogous causes. None of these can be a VERA CAUSA;
though each may have had its special influence in determining the
production of some imperfect works. The main cause I take to be that
indicated in Goethe's aphorism: "In this world there are so few voices
and so many echoes." Books are generally more deficient in sincerity
than in cleverness. Talent, as will become apparent in the course of
our inquiry, holds a very subordinate position in Literature to that
usually assigned to it. Indeed, a cursory inspection of the Literature
of our day will detect an abundance of remarkable talent---that is, of
intellectual agility, apprehensiveness, wit, fancy, and power of
expression which is nevertheless impotent to rescue "clever writing"
from neglect or contempt. It is unreal splendour; for the most part
mere intellectual fireworks. In Life, as in Literature, our admiration
for mere cleverness has a touch of contempt in it, and is very unlike
the respect paid to character. And justly so. No talent can be
supremely effective unless it act in close alliance with certain moral
qualities. (What these qualities are will be specified hereafter.)

Another cause, intimately allied with the absence of moral guidance
just alluded to, is MISDIRECTION of talent. Valuable energy is wasted
by being misdirected. Men are constantly attempting, without special
aptitude, work for which special aptitude is indispensable.

"On peut etre honnete hornme et faire mal des vers."

A man may be variously accomplished, and yet be a feeble poet. He may
be a real poet, yet a feeble dramatist, he may have dramatic faculty,
yet be a feeble novelist. He may be a good story-teller, yet a shallow
thinker and a slip-shod writer. For success in any special kind of work
it is obvious that a special talent is requisite; but obvious as this
seems, when stated as a general proposition, it rarely serves to check
a mistaken presumption. There are many writers endowed with a certain
susceptibility to the graces and refinements of Literature which has
been fostered by culture till they have mistaken it for native power;
and these men, being really destitute of native power, are forced to
imitate what others have created. They can understand how a man may
have musical sensibility and yet not be a good singer; but they fail to
understand, at least in their own case, how a man may have literary
sensibility, yet not be a good story-teller or an effective dramatist.
They imagine that if they are cultivated and clever, can write what is
delusively called a "brilliant style," and are familiar with the
masterpieces of Literature, they must be more competent to succeed in
fiction or the drama than a duller man, with a plainer style and
slenderer acquaintance with the "best models." Had they distinctly
conceived the real aims of Literature this mistake would often have
been avoided. A recognition of the aims would have pressed on their
attention a more distinct appreciation of the requirements.

No one ever doubted that special aptitudes were required for music,
mathematics, drawing, or for wit; but other aptitudes not less special
are seldom recognised. It is with authors as with actors: mere delight
in the art deludes them into the belief that they could be artists.
There are born actors, as there are born authors. To an observant eye
such men reveal their native endowments. Even in conversation they
spontaneously throw themselves into the characters they speak of. They
mimic, often quite unconsciously the speech and gesture of the person.
They dramatise when they narrate. Other men with little of this
faculty, but with only so much of it as will enable them to imitate the
tones and gestures of some admired actor, are misled by their vanity
into the belief that they also are actors, that they also could move an
audience as their original moves it.

In Literature we see a few original writers, and a crowd of imitators:
men of special aptitudes, and men who mistake their power of repeating
with slight variation what others have done, for a power of creating
anew. The imitator sees that it is easy to do that which has already
been done. He intends to improve on it; to add from his own stores
something which the originator could not give; to lend it the lustre of
a richer mind; to make this situation more impressive, and that
character more natural. He is vividly impressed with the imperfections
of the original. And it is a perpetual puzzle to him why the public,
which applauds his imperfect predecessor, stupidly fails to recognise
his own obvious improvements.

It is from such men that the cry goes forth about neglected genius and
public caprice. In secret they despise many a distinguished writer, and
privately, if not publicly, assert themselves as immeasurably superior.
The success of a Dumas is to them a puzzle and an irritation. They do
not understand that a man becomes distinguished in virtue of some
special talent properly directed; and that their obscurity is due
either to the absence of a special talent, or to its misdirection. They
may probably be superior to Dumas in general culture, or various
ability; it is in particular ability that they are his inferiors. They
may be conscious of wider knowledge, a more exquisite sensibility, and
a finer taste more finely cultivated; yet they have failed to produce
any impression on the public in a direction where the despised
favourite has produced a strong impression. They are thus thrown upon
the alternative of supposing that he has had "the luck" denied to them,
or that the public taste is degraded and prefers trash. Both opinions
are serious mistakes. Both injure the mind that harbours them.

In how far is success a test of merit? Rigorously considered it is an
absolute test. Nor is such a conclusion shaken by the undeniable fact
that temporary applause is often secured by works which have no lasting
value. For we must always ask, What is the nature of the applause, and
from what circles does it rise? A work which appears at a particular
juncture, and suits the fleeting wants of the hour, flattering the
passions of the hour, may make a loud noise, and bring its author into
strong relief. This is not luck, but a certain fitness between the
author's mind and the public needs. He who first seizes the occasion,
may be for general purposes intrinsically a feebler man than many who
stand listless or hesitating till the moment be passed; but in
Literature, as in Life, a sudden promptitude outrivals vacillating

Generally speaking, however, this promptitude has but rare occasions
for achieving success. We may lay it down as a rule that no work ever
succeeded, even for a day, but it deserved that success; no work ever
failed but under conditions which made failure inevltable. This will
seem hard to men who feel that in their case neglect arises from
prejudice or stupidity. Yet it is true even in extreme cases; true even
when the work once neglected has since been acknowleged superior to the
works which for a time eclipsed it. Success, temporary or enduring, is
the measure of the relatlon, temporary or enduring, which exists
between a work and the public mind. The millet seed may be
intrinsically less valuable than a pearl; but the hungry cock wisely
neglected the pearl, because pearls could not, and millet seeds could,
appease his hunger. Who shall say how much of the subsequent success of
a once neglected work is due to the preparation of the public mind
through the works which for a time eclipsed it?

Let us look candidly at this matter. It interests us all; for we have
all more or less to contend against public misconception, no less than
against our own defects. The object of Literature is to instruct, to
animate, or to amuse. Any book which does one of these things
succeeds; any book which does none of these things fails. Failure is
the indication of an inability to perform what was attempted: the aim
was misdirected, or the arm was too weak: in either case the mark has
not been hit.

"The public taste is degraded." Perhaps so; and perhaps not. But in
granting a want of due preparation in the public, we only grant that
the author has missed his aim. A reader cannot be expected to be
interested in ideas which are not presented intelligibly to him, nor
delighted by art which does not touch him; and for the writer to imply
that he furnishes arguments, but does not pretend to furnish brains to
understand the arguments, is arrogance. What Goethe says about the most
legible handwriting being illegible in the twilight, is doubtless true;
and should be oftener borne in mind by frivolous objectors, who declare
they do not understand this or do not admire that, as if their want of
taste and understanding were rather creditable than otherwise, and were
decisive proofs of an author's insignificance. But this reproof, which
is telling against individuals, has no justice as against the public.
For--and this is generally lost sight of--the public is composed of the
class or classes directly addressed by any work, and not of the
heterogeneous mass of readers. Mathematicians do not write for the
circulating library. Science is not addressed to poets. Philosophy is
meant for students, not for idle readers. If the members of a class do
not understand--if those directly addressed fail to listen, or
listening, fail to recognise a power in the voice--surely the fault
lies with the speaker, who, having attempted to secure their attention
and enlighten their understandings, has failed in the attempt? The
mathematician who is without value to mathematicians, the thinker who
is obscure or meaningless to thinkers, the dramatist who fails to move
the pit, may be wise, may be eminent, but as an author he has failed.
He attempted to make his wisdom and his power operate on the minds of
others. He has missed his mark. MARGARITAS ANTE PORCOS! is the soothing
maxim of a disappointed self-love. But we, who look on, may sometimes
doubt whether they WERE pearls thus ineffectually thrown; and always
doubt the judiciousness of strewing pearls before swine. The prosperity
of a book lies in the minds of readers. Public knowledge and public
taste fluctuate; and there come times when works which were once
capable of instructing and delighting thousands lose their power, and
works, before neglected, emerge into renown. A small minority to whom
these works appealed has gradually become a large minority, and in the
evolution of opinion will perhaps become the majority. No man can
pretend to say that the work neglected today will not be a household
word tomorrow; or that the pride and glory of our age will not be
covered with cobwebs on the bookshelves of our children. Those works
alone can have enduring success which successfully appeal to what is
permanent in human nature--which, while suiting the taste of the day,
contain truths and beauty deeper than the opinions and tastes of the
day; but even temperary success implies a certain temporary fitness. In
Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakspeare, Cervantes, we are made aware of
much that no longer accords with the wisdom or the taste of our
day--temporary and immature expressions of fluctuating opinions--but we
are also aware of much that is both true and noble now, and will be so
for ever.

It is only posterity that can decide whether the success or failure
shall be enduring; for it is only posterity that can reveal whether the
relation now existing between the work and the public mind is or is not
liable to fluctuation. Yet no man really writes for posterity; no man
ought to do so.

"Wer machte denn der Mitwelt Spass?"

("Who is to amuse the present?") asks the wise Merry Andrew in
FAUST. We must leave posterity to choose its own idols. There is,
however, this chance in favour of any work which has once achieved
success, that what has pleased one generation may please another,
because it may be based upon a truth or beauty which cannot die; and
there is this chance against any work which has once failed, that its
unfitness may be owing to some falsehood or imperfection which cannot


In urging all writers to be steadfast in reliance on the ultimate
victory of excellence, we should no less strenuously urge upon them to
beware of the intemperate arrogance which attributes failure to a
degraded condition of the public mind. The instinct which leads the
world to worship success is not dangerous. The book which succeeds
accomplishes its aim. The book which fails may have many excellencies,
but they must have been misdirected. Let us, however, understand what
is meant by failure. From want of a clear recognition of this meaning,
many a serious writer has been made bitter by the reflection that
shallow, feeble works have found large audiences, whereas his own work
has not paid the printing expenses. He forgets that the readers who
found instruction and amusement in the shallow books could have found
none in his book, because he had not the art of making his ideas
intelligible and attractive to them, or had not duly considered what
food was assimilable by their minds. It is idle to write in
hieroglyphics for the mass when only priests can read the sacred

No one, it is hoped, will suppose that by what is here said I
countenance the notion which is held by some authors--a notion implying
either arrogant self-sufficiency or mercenary servility--that to
succeed, a man should write down to the public. Quite the reverse. To
succeed, a man should write up to his ideal. He should do his very
best; certain that the very best will still fall short of what the
public can appreciate. He will only degrade his own mind by putting
forth works avowedly of inferior quality; and will find himself greatly
surpassed by writers whose inferior workmanship has nevertheless the
indefinable aspect of being the best they can produce. The man of
common mind is more directly in sympathy with the vulgar public, and
can speak to it more intelligibly, than any one who is condescending to
it. If you feel yourself to be above the mass, speak so as to raise the
mass to the height of your argument. It may be that the interval is too
great. It may be that the nature of your arguments is such as to demand
from the audience an intellectual preparation, and a habit of
concentrated continuity of thought, which cannot be expected from a
miscellaneous assembly. The scholarship of a Scaliger or the philosophy
of a Kant will obviously require an audience of scholars and
philosophers. And in cases where the nature of the work limits the
class of readers, no man should complain if the readers he does not
address pass him by to follow another. He will not allure these by
writing down to them; or if he allure them, he will lose those who
properly constitute his real audience.

A writer misdirects his talent if he lowers his standard of excellence.
Whatever he can do best let him do that, certain of reward in
proportion to his excellence. The reward is not always measurable by
the number of copies sold; that simply measures the extent of his
public. It may prove that he has stirred the hearts and enlightened the
minds of many. It may also prove, as Johnson says, "that his nonsense
suits their nonsense." The real reward of Literature is in the sympathy
of congenial minds, and is precious in proportion to the elevation of
those minds, and the gravity with which such sympathy moves: the
admiration of a mathematician for the MECANIQUE CELESTE, for example,
is altogether higher in kind than the admiration of a novel reader for
the last "delightful story." And what should we think of Laplace if he
were made bitter by the wider popularity of Dumas? Would he forfeit the
admiration of one philosopher for that of a thousand novel readers?

To ask this question is to answer it; yet daily experience tells us
that not only in lowering his standard, but in running after a
popularity incompatible with the nature of his talent, does many a
writer forfeit his chance of success. The novel and the drama, by
reason of their commanding influence over a large audience, often
seduce writers to forsake the path on which they could labour with some
success, but on which they know that only a very small audience can be
found; as if it were quantity more than quality, noise rather than
appreciation, which their mistaken desires sought. Unhappily for them,
they lose the substance, and only snap at the shadow. The audience may
be large, but it will not listen to them. The novel may be more popular
and more lucrative, when successful, than the history or the essay; but
to make it popular and lucrative the writer needs a special talent, and
this, as was before hinted, seems frequently forgotten by those who
take to novel writing. Nay, it is often forgotten by the critics; they
being, in general, men without the special talent themselves, set no
great value on it. They imagine that Invention may be replaced by
culture, and that clever "writing" will do duty for dramatic power.
They applaud the "drawing" of a character, which drawing turns out on
inspection to be little more than an epigrammatic enumeration of
particularities, the character thus "drawn" losing all individuality as
soon as speech and action are called upon. Indeed, there are two
mistakes very common among reviewers: one is the overvaluation of what
is usually considered as literary ability ("brilliant writing" it is
called; "literary tinsel" would be more descriptive) to the prejudice
of Invention and Individuality; the other is the overvaluation of what
they call "solid acquirements," which really mean no more than an
acquaintance with the classics. As a fact, literary ability and solid
acquirements are to be had in abundance; invention, humour, and
originality are excessively rare. It may be a painful reflection to
those who, having had a great deal of money spent on their education,
and having given a great deal of time to their solid aquirements, now
see genius and original power of all kinds more esteemed than their
learning; but they should reflect that what is learning now is only the
diffused form of what was once invention. "Solid acquirement" is the
genius of wits become the wisdom of reviewers.


Authors are styled an irritable race, and justly, if the epithet be
understood in its physiological rather than its moral sense. This
irritability, which responds to the slightest stimulus, leads to much
of the misdirection of talent we have been considering. The greatness
of an author consists in having a mind extremely irritable, and at the
same time steadfastly imperial:--irritable that no stimulus may be
inoperative, even in its most evanescent solicitations; imperial, that
no solicitation may divert him from his deliberately chosen aims. A
magisterial subjection of all dispersive influences, a concentration of
the mind upon the thing that has to be done, and a proud renunciation
of all means of effect which do not spontaneously connect themselves
with it--these are the rare qualities which mark out the man of genius.
In men of lesser calibre the mind is more constantly open to
determination from extrinsic influences. Their movement is not
self-determined, self-sustained. In men of still smaller calibre the
mind is entirely determined by extrinsic influences. They are prompted
to write poems by no musical instinct, but simply because great poems
have enchanted the world. They resolve to write novels upon the
vulgarest provocations: they see novels bringing money and fame; they
think there is no difficulty in the art. The novel will afford them an
opportunity of bringing in a variety of scattered details; scraps of
knowledge too scanty for an essay, and scraps of experience too meagre
for independent publication. Others, again, attempt histories, or works
of popular philosophy and science; not because they have any special
stores of knowledge, or because any striking novelty of conception
urges them to use up old material in a new shape, but simply because
they have just been reading with interest some work of history or
science, and are impatient to impart to others the knowledge they have
just acquired for themselves. Generally it may be remarked that the
pride which follows the sudden emancipation of the mind from ignorance
of any subject, is accompanied by a feeling that all the world must be
in the state of darkness from which we have ourselves emerged. It is
the knowledge learned yesterday which is most freely imparted today.

We need not insist on the obvious fact of there being more irritability
than mastery, more imitation than creation, more echoes than voices in
the world of Literature. Good writers are of necessity rare. But the
ranks would be less crowded with incompetent writers if men of real
ability were not so often misdirected in their aims. My object is to
decree, if possible, the Principles of Success--not to supply recipes
for absent power, but to expound the laws through which power is
efficient, and to explain the causes which determine success in exact
proportion to the native power on the one hand, and to the state of
public opinion on the other.

The laws of Literature may be grouped under three heads. Perhaps we
might say they are three forms of one principle. They are founded on
our threefold nature--intellectual, moral, and aesthetic.

The intellectual form is the PRINCIPLE OF VISION.

The moral form is the PRINCIPLE OF SINCERITY.

The aesthetic form is the PRINCIPLE OF BEAUTY.

It will be my endeavour to give definite significance, in succeeding
chapters, to these expressions, which, standing unexplained and
unillustrated, probably convey very little meaning. We shall then see
that every work, no matter what its subject-matter, necessarily
involves these three principles in varying degrees; and that its
success is always strictly in accordance with its conformity to the
guidance of these principles.

Unless a writer has what, for the sake of brevity, I have called
Vision, enabling him to see clearly the facts or ideas, the objects or
relations, which he places before us for our own instruction, his work
must obviously be defective. He must see clearly if we are to see
clearly. Unless a writer has Sincerity, urging him to place before us
what he sees and believes as he sees and believes it, the defective
earnestness of his presentation will cause an imperfect sympathy in us.
He must believe what he says, or we shall not believe it. Insincerity
is always weakness; sincerity even in error is strength. This is not so
obvious a principle as the first; at any rate it is one more profoundly
disregarded by writers.

Finally, unless the writer has grace--the principle of Beauty I have
named it--enabling him to give some aesthetic charm to his
presentation, were it only the charm of well-arranged material, and
well-constructed sentences, a charm sensible through all the
intricacies of COMPOSITION and of STYLE, he will not do justice to his
powers, and will either fail to make his work acceptable, or will very
seriously limit its success. The amount of influence issuing from this
principle of Beauty will, of course, be greatly determined by the more
or less aesthetic nature of the work.

Books minister to our knowledge, to our guidance, and to our delight,
by their truth, their uprightness, and their art. Truth is the aim of
Literature. Sincerity is moral truth. Beauty is aesthetic truth. How
rigorously these three principles determine the success of all works
whatever, and how rigorously every departure from them, no matter how
slight, determines proportional failure, with the inexorable sequence
of a physical law, it will be my endeavour to prove in the chapters
which are to follow.




All good Literature rests primarily on insight. All bad Literature
rests upon imperfect insight, or upon imitation, which may be defined
as seeing at second-hand.

There are men of clear insight who never become authors: some, because
no sufficient solicitation from internal or external impulses makes
them bond their energies to the task of giving literary expression to
their thoughts; and some, because they lack the adequate powers of
literary expression. But no man, be his felicity and facility of
expression what they may, ever produces good Literature unless he sees
for himself, and sees clearly. It is the very claim and purpose of
Literature to show others what they failed to see. Unless a man sees
this clearly for himself how can he show it to others?

Literature delivers tidings of the world within and the world without.
It tells of the facts which have been witnessed, reproduces the
emotions which have been felt. It places before the reader symbols
which represent the absent facts, or the relations of these to other
facts; and by the vivid presentation of the symbols of emotion kindles
the emotive sympathy of readers. The art of selecting the fitting
symbols, and of so arranging them as to be intelligible and kindling,
distinguishes the great writer from the great thinker; it is an art
which also relies on clear insight.

The value of the tidings brought by Literature is determined by their
authenticity. At all times the air is noisy with rumours, but the real
business of life is transacted on clear insight and authentic speech.
False tidings and idle rumours may for an hour clamorously usurp
attention, because they are believed to be true; but the cheat is soon
discovered, and the rumour dies. In like manner Literature which is
unauthentic may succeed as long as it is believed to be true: that is,
so long as our intellects have not discovered the falseness of its
pretensions, and our feelings have not disowned sympathy with its
expressions. These may be truisms, but they are constantly disregarded.
Writers have seldom any steadfast conviction that it is of primary
necessity for them to deliver tidings about what they themselves have
seen and felt. Perhaps their intimate consciousness assures them that
what they have seen or felt is neither new nor important. It may not be
new, it may not be intrinsically important; nevertheless, if authentic,
it has its value, and a far greater value than anything reported by
them at second-hand. We cannot demand from every man that he have
unusual depth of insight or exceptional experience; but we demand of
him that he give us of his best, and his best cannot be another's. The
facts seen through the vision of another, reported on the witness of
another, may be true, but the reporter cannot vouch for them. Let the
original observer speak for himself. Otherwise only rumours are set
afloat. If you have never seen an acid combine with a base you cannot
instructively speak to me of salts; and this, of course, is true in a
more emphatic degree with reference to more complex matters.

Personal experience is the basis of all real Literature. The writer
must have thought the thoughts, seen the objects (with bodily or mental
vision), and felt the feelings; otherwise he can have no power over us.
Importance does not depend on rarity so much as on authenticity. The
massacre of a distant tribe, which is heard through the report of
others, falls far below the heart-shaking effect of a murder committed
in our presence. Our sympathy with the unknown victim may originally
have been as torpid as that with the unknown tribe; but it has been
kindled by the swift and vivid suggestions of details visible to us as
spectators; whereas a severe and continuous effort of imagination is
needed to call up the kindling suggestions of the distant massacre.

So little do writers appreciate the importance of direct vision and
experience, that they are in general silent about what they themselves
have seen and felt, copious in reporting the experience of others. Nay,
they are urgently prompted to say what they know others think, and what
consequently they themselves may be expected to think. They are as if
dismayed at their own individuality, and suppress all traces of it in
order to catch the general tone. Such men may, indeed, be of service in
the ordinary commerce of Literature as distributors. All I wish to
point out is that they are distributors, not producers. The commerce
may be served by second-hand reporters, no less than by original seers;
but we must understand this service to be commercial and not literary.
The common stock of knowledge gains from it no addition. The man who
detects a new fact, a new property in a familiar substance, adds to the
science of the age; but the man who expounds the whole system of the
universe on the reports of others, unenlightened by new conceptions of
his own, does not add a grain to the common store. Great writers may
all be known by their solicitude about authenticity. A common incident,
a simple phenomenon, which has been a part of their experience, often
undergoes what may be called "a transfiguration" in their souls, and
issues in the form of Art; while many world-agitating events in which
they have not been acters, or majestic phenomena of which they were
never spectators, are by them left to the unhesitating incompetence of
writers who imagine that fine subjects make fine works. Either the
great writer leaves such materials untouched, or he employs them as the
vehicle of more cherished, because more authenticated tidings,--he
paints the ruin of an empire as the scenic background for his picture
of the distress of two simple hearts. The inferior writer, because he
lays no emphasis on authenticity, cannot understand this avoidance of
imposing themes. Condemned by naive incapacity to be a reporter, and
not a seer, he hopes to shine by the reflected glory of his subjects.
It is natural in him to mistake ambitious art for high art. He does not
feel that the best is the highest.

I do not assert that inferior writers abstain from the familiar and
trivial. On the contrary, as imitators, they imitate everything which
great writers have shown to be sources of interest. But their bias is
towards great subjects. They make no new ventures in the direction of
personal experience. They are silent on all that they have really seen
for themselves. Unable to see the deep significance of what is common,
they spontaneously turn towards the uncommon.

There is, at the present day, a fashion in Literature, and in Art
generally, which is very deporable, and which may, on a superficial
glance, appear at variance with what has just been said. The fashion is
that of coat-and-waistcoat realism, a creeping timidity of invention,
moving almost exclusively amid scenes of drawing-room existence, with
all the reticences and pettinesses of drawing-room conventions. Artists
have become photographers, and have turned the camera upon the
vulgarities of life, instead of representing the more impassioned
movements of life. The majority of books and pictures are addressed to
our lower faculties; they make no effort as they have no power to stir
our deeper emotions by the contagion of great ideas. Little that makes
life noble and solemn is reflected in the Art of our day; to amuse a
languid audience seems its highest aim. Seeing this, some of my readers
may ask whether the artists have not been faithful to the law I have
expounded, and chosen to paint the small things they have seen, rather
than the great things they have not seen? The answer is simple. For the
most part the artists have not painted what they have seen, but have
been false and conventional in their pretended realism. And whenever
they have painted truly, they have painted successfully. The
authenticity of their work has given it all the value which in the
nature of things such work could have. Titian's portrait of "The Young
Man with a Glove" is a great work of art, though not of great art. It
is infinitely higher than a portrait of Cromwell, by a painter unable
to see into the great soul of Cromwell, and to make us see it; but it
is infinitely lower than Titian's "Tribute Money," "Peter the Martyr,"
or the "Assumption." Tennyson's "Northern Farmer" is incomparably
greater as a poem than Mr. Bailey's ambitious "Festus;" but the
"Northern Farmer" is far below "Ulysses" or "Guinevere," because moving
on a lower level, and recording the facts of a lower life.

Insight is the first condition of Art. Yet many a man who has never
been beyond his village will be silent about that which he knows well,
and will fancy himself called upon to speak of the tropics or the
Andes---on the reports of others. Never having seen a greater man than
the parson and the squire and not having seen into them--he selects
Cromwell and Plato, Raphael and Napoleon, as his models, in the vain
belief that these impressive personalities will make his work
impressive. Of course I am speaking figuratively. By "never having been
beyond his village," I understand a mental no less than topographical
limitation. The penetrating sympathy of genius will, even from a
village, traverse the whole world. What I mean is, that unless by
personal experience, no matter through what avenues, a man has gained
clear insight into the facts of life, he cannot successfully place them
before us; and whatever insight he has gained, be it of important or of
unimportant facts, will be of value if truly reproduced. No sunset is
precisely similar to another, no two souls are affected by it in a
precisely similar way. Thus may the commonest phenomenon have a
novelty. To the eye that can read aright there is an infinite variety
even in the most ordinary human being. But to the careless
indiscriminating eye all individuality is merged in a misty generality.
Nature and men yield nothing new to such a mind. Of what avail is it
for a man to walk out into the tremulous mists of morning, to watch the
slow sunset, and wait for the rising stars, if he can tell us nothing
about these but what others have already told us---if he feels nothing
but what others have already felt? Let a man look for himself and tell
truly what he sees. We will listen to that. We must listen to it, for
its very authenticity has a subtle power of compulsion. What others
have seen and felt we can learn better from their own lips.


I have not yet explained in any formal manner what the nature of that
insight is which constitutes what I have named the Principle of Vision;
although doubtless the reader has gathered its meaning from the remarks
already made. For the sake of future applications of the principle to
the various questions of philosophical criticism which must arise in
the course of this inquiry, it may be needful here to explain (as I
have already explained elsewhere) how the chief intellectual
operations--Perception, Inference, Reasoning, and Imagination--may be
viewed as so many forms of mental vision.

Perception, as distinguished from Sensation, is the presentation before
Consciousness of the details which once were present in conjunction
with the object at this moment affecting Sense. These details are
inferred to be still in conjunction with the object, although not
revealed to Sense. Thus when an apple is perceived by me, who merely
see it, all that Sense reports is of a certain coloured surface: the
roundness, the firmness, the fragrance, and the taste of the apple are
not present to Sense, but are made present to Consciousness by the act
of Perception. The eye sees a certain coloured surface; the mind sees
at the same instant many other co-existent but unapparent facts--it
reinstates in their due order these unapparent facts. Were it not for
this mental vision supplying the deficiencies of ocular vision, the
coloured surface would be an enigma. But the suggestion of Sense
rapidly recalls the experiences previously associated with the object.
The apparent facts disclose the facts that are unapparent.

Inference is only a higher form of the same process. We look from the
window, see the dripping leaves and the wet ground, and infer that rain
has fallen. It is on inferences of this kind that all knowledge
depends. The extension of the known to the unknown, of the apparent to
the unapparent, gives us Science. Except in the grandeur of its sweep,
the mind pursues the same course in the interpretation of geological
facts as in the interpretation of the ordinary incidents of daily
experience. To read the pages of the great Stone Book, and to perceive
from the wet streets that rain has recently fallen, are forms of the
same intellectual process. In the one case the inference traverses
immeasurable spaces of time, connecting the apparent facts with causes
(unapparent facts) similar to those which have been associated in
experience with such results; in the other case the inference connects
wet streets and swollen gutters with causes which have been associated
in experience with such results. Let the inference span with its mighty
arch a myriad of years, or link together the events of a few minutes,
in each case the arch rises from the ground of familiar facts, and
reaches an antecedent which is known to be a cause capable of producing

The mental vision by which in Perception we see the unapparent
details---i.e, by which sensations formerly co-existing with the one
now affecting us are reinstated under the form of ideas which REPRESENT
the objects--is a process implied in all Ratiocination, which also
presents an IDEAL SERIES, such as would be a series of sensations, if
the objects themselves were before us. A chain of reasoning is a chain
of inferences: IDEAL presentations of objects and relations not
apparent to Sense, or not presentable to Sense. Could we realise all
the links in this chain, by placing the objects in their actual order
as a VISIBLE series, the reasoning would be a succession of
perceptions. Thus the path of a planet is seen by reason to be an
ellipse. It would be perceived as a fact, if we were in a proper
position and endowed with the requisite means of following the planet
in its course; but not having this power, we are reduced to infer the
unapparent points in its course from the points which are apparent. We
see them mentally. Correct reasoning is the ideal assemblage of objects
in their actual order of co-existence and succession. It is seeing with
the mind's eye. False reasoning is owing to some misplacement of the
order of objects, or to the omission of some links in the chain, or to
the introduction of objects not properly belonging to the series. It is
distorted or defective vision. The terrified traveller sees a
highwayman in what is really a sign-post in the twilight; and in the
twilight of knowledge, the terrified philosopher sees a Pestilence
foreshadowed by an eclipse.

Let attention also be called to one great source of error, which is
also a great source of power, namely, that much of our thinking is
carried on by signs instead of images. We use words as signs of
objects; these suffice to carry on the train of inference, when very
few images of the objects are called up. Let any one attend to his
thoughts and he will be surprised to find how rare and indistinct in
general are the images of objects which arise before his mind. If he
says "I shall take a cab and get to the railway by the shortest cut,"
it is ten to one that he forms no image of cab or railway, and but a
very vague image of the streets through which the shortest cut will
lead. Imaginative minds see images where ordinary minds see nothing but
signs: this is a source of power; but it is also a source of weakness;
for in the practical affairs of life, and in the theoretical
investigations of philosophy, a too active imagination is apt to
distract the attention and scatter the energies of the mind.

In complex trains of thought signs are indispensable. The images, when
called up, are only vanishing suggestions: they disappear before they
are more than half formed. And yet it is because signs are thus
substituted for images (paper transacting the business of money) that
we are so easily imposed upon by verbal fallacies and meaningless
phrases. A scientific man of some eminence was once taken in by a wag,
who gravely asked him whether he had read Bunsen's paper on the
MALLEABILITY of light. He confessed that he had not read it: "Bunsen
sent it to me, but I've not had time to look into it."

The degree in which each mind habitually substitutes signs for images
will be, CETERIS PARIBUS, the degree in which it is liable to error.
This is not contradicted by the fact that mathematical, astronomical,
and physical reasonings may, when complex, be carried on more
suecessfully by the employment of signs; because in these cases the
signs themselves accurately represent the abstractness of the
relations. Such sciences deal only with relations, and not with
objects; hence greater simplification ensures greater accuracy. But no
sooner do we quit this sphere of abstractions to enter that of concrete
things, than the use of symbols becomes a source of weakness. Vigorous
and effective minds habitually deal with concrete images. This is
notably the case with poets and great literates. Their vision is keener
than that of other men. However rapid and remote their flight of
thought, it is a succession of images, not of abstractions. The details
which give significance, and which by us are seen vaguely as through a
vanishing mist, are by them seen in sharp outlines. The image which to
us is a mere suggestion, is to them almost as vivid as the object. And
it is because they see vividly that they can paint effectively.

Most readers will recognise this to be true of poets, but will doubt
its application to philosophers, because imperfect psychology and
unscientific criticism have disguised the identity of intellectual
processes until it has become a paradox to say that imagination is not
less indispensable to the philosopher than to the poet. The paradox
falls directly we restate the proposition thus: both poet and
philosopher draw their power from the energy of their mental vision--an
energy which disengages the mind from the somnolence of habit and from
the pressure of obtrusive sensations. In general men are passive under
Sense and the routine of habitual inferences. They are unable to free
themselves from the importunities of the apparent facts and apparent
relations which solicit their attention; and when they make room for
unapparent facts it is only for those which are familiar to their
minds. Hence they can see little more than what they have been taught
to see; they can only think what they have been taught to think. For
independent vision, and original conception, we must go to children and
men of genius. The spontaneity of the one is the power of the other.
Ordinary men live among marvels and feel no wonder, grow familiar with
objects and learn nothing new about them. Then comes an independent
mind which sees; and it surprises us to find how servile we have been
to habit and opinion, how blind to what we also might have seen, had we
used our eyes. The link, so long hidden, has now been made visible to
us. We hasten to make it visible to others. But the flash of light
which revealed that obscured object does not help us to discover
others. Darkness still conceals much that we do not even suspect. We
continue our routine. We always think our views correct and complete;
if we thought otherwise they would cease to be our views; and when the
man of keener insight discloses our error, and reveals relations
hitherto unsuspected, we learn to see with his eyes and exclaim: "Now
surely we have got the truth."


A child is playing with a piece of paper and brings it near the flame
of a candle; another child looks on. Both are completely absorbed by
the objects, both are ignorant or oblivious of the relation between the
combustible object and the flame: a relation which becomes apparent
only when the paper is alight. What is called the thoughtlessness of
childhood prevents their seeing this unapparent fact; it is a fact
which has not been sufficiently impressed upon their experience so as
to form an indissoluble element in their conception of the two in
juxtaposition. Whereas in the mind of the nurse this relation is so
vividly impressed that no sooner does the paper approach the flame than
the unapparent fact becomes almost as visible as the objects, and a
warning is given. She sees what the children do not, or cannot see. It
has become part of her organised experience.

The superiority of one mind over another depends on the rapidity with
which experiences are thus organised. The superiority may be general or
special: it may manifest itself in a power of assimilating very various
experiences, so as to have manifold relations familiar to it, or in a
power of assimilating very special relations, so as to constitute a
distinctive aptitude for one branch of art or science. The experience
which is thus organised must of course have been originally a direct
object of consciousness, either as an impressive fact or impressive
inference. Unless the paper had been seen to burn, no one could know
that contact with flame would consume it. By a vivid remembrance the
experience of the past is made available to the present, so that we do
not need actually to burn paper once more,--we see the relation
mentally. In like manner Newton did not need to go through the
demonstrations of many complex problems, they flashed upon him as he
read the propositions; they were seen by him in that rapid glance, as
they would have been made visible through the slower process of
demonstration. A good chemist does not need to test many a proposition
by bringing actual gases or acids into operation, and seeing the
result; he FORESEES the result: his mental vision of the objects and
their properties is so keen, his experience is so organised, that the
result which would be visible in an experiment, is visible to him in an
intuition. A fine poet has no need of the actual presence of men and
women under the fluctuating impatience of emotion, or under the
steadfast hopelessness of grief; he needs no setting sun before his
window, under it no sullen sea. These are all visible, and their
fluctuations are visible. He sees the quivering lip, the agitated soul;
he hears the aching cry, and the dreary wash of waves upon the beach.

The writer who pretends to instruct us should first assure himself that
he has clearer vision of the things he speaks of,--knows them and their
qualities, if not better than we, at least with some distinctive
knowledge. Otherwise he should announce himself as a mere echo,
a middleman, a distributor. Our need is for more light. This can be
given only by an independent seer who

"Lends a precious seeing to the eye."

All great authors are seers. "Perhaps if we should meet Shakspeare,"
says Emerson, "we should not be conscious of any steep inferiority: no,
but of great equality; only he possessed a strange skill of using, of
classifying his facts, which we lacked. For, notwithstanding our utter
incapacity to preduce anything like HAMLET or OTHELLO, we see the
perfect reception this wit and immense knowledge of life and liquid
eloquence find in us all." This aggrandisement of our common stature
rests on questionable ground. If our capacity of being moved by
Shakspeare discloses a community, our incapacity of producing HAMLET no
less discloses our inferiority. It is certain that could we meet
Shakspeare we should find him strikingly like ourselves---with the same
faculties, the same sensibilities, though not in the same degree. The
secret of his power over us lies, of course, in our having the capacity
to appreciate him. Yet we seeing him in the unimpassioned moods of
daily life, it is more than probable that we should see nothing in him
but what was ordinary; nay, in some qualities he would seem inferior.
Heroes require a perspective. They are men who look superhuman only
when elevated on the pedestals of their achievements. In ordinary life
they look like ordinary men; not that they are of the common mould, but
seem so because their uncommon qualities are not then called forth.
Superiority requires an occasion. The common man is helpless in an
emergency: assailed by contradictory suggestions, or confused by his
incapacity, he cannot see his way. The hour of emergency finds a hero
calm and strong, and strong because calm and clear-sighted; he sees
what can be done, and does it. This is often a thing of great
simplicity, so that we marvel others did not see it. Now it has been
done, and proved successful, many underrate its value, thinking that
they also would have done precisely the same thing. The world is more
just. It refuses to men unassailed by the difficulties of a situation
the glory they have not earned. The world knows how easy most things
appear when they have once been done. We can all make the egg stand on
end after Columbus.

Shakspeare, then, would probably not impress us with a sense of our
inferiority if we were to meet him tomorrow. Most likely we should be
bitterly disappointed; because, having formed our conception of him as
the man who wrote HAMLET and OTHELLO we forget that these were not the
preducts of his ordinary moods, but the manifestations of his power at
white heat. In ordinary moods he must be very much as ordinary men, and
it is in these we meet him. How notorious is the astonishment of
friends and associates when any man's achievements suddenly emerge into
renown. "They could never have believed it." Why should they? Knowing
him only as one of their circle, and not being gifted with the
penetration which discerns a latent energy, but only with the vision
which discerns apparent results, they are taken by surprise. Nay, so
biased are we by superficial judgments, that we frequently ignore the
palpable fact of achieved excellence simply because we cannot reconcile
it with our judgment of the man who achieved it. The deed has been
done, the work written, the picture painted; it is before the world,
and the world is ringing with applause. There is no doubt whatever that
the man whose name is in every mouth did the work; but because our
personal impressions of him do not correspond with our conceptions of a
powerful man, we abate or withdraw our admiration, and attribute his
success to lucky accident. This blear-eyed, taciturn, timid man, whose
knowledge of many things is manifestly imperfect, whose inaptitude for
many things is apparent, can HE be the creator of such glorious works?
Can HE be the large and patient thinker, the delicate humourist, the
impassioned poet? Nature seems to have answered this question for us;
yet so little are we inclined to accept Nature's emphatic testimony on
this point, that few of us ever see without disappointment the man
whose works have revealed his greatness.

It stands to reason that we should not rightly appreciate Shakspeare if
we were to meet him simply because we should meet him as an ordinary
man, and not as the author of HAMLET. Yet if we had a keen insight we
should detect even in his quiet talk the marks of an original mind. We
could not, of course, divine, without evidence, how deep and clear his
insight, how mighty his power over grand representative symbols, how
prodigal his genius: these only could appear on adequate occasions. But
we should notice that he had an independent way of looking at things.
He would constantly bring before us some latent fact, some unsuspected
relation, some resemblance between dissimilar things. We should feel
that his utterances were not echoes. If therefore, in these moments of
equable serenity, his mind glancing over trivial things saw them with
great clearness, we might infer that in moments of intense activity his
mind gazing steadfastly on important things, would see wonderful
visions, where to us all was vague and shifting. During our quiet walk
with him across the fields he said little, or little that was
memorable; but his eye was taking in the varying forms and relations of
objects, and slowly feeding his mind with images. The common hedge-row,
the gurgling brook, the waving corn, the shifting cloud-architecture,
and the sloping uplands, have been seen by us a thousand times, but
they show us nothing new; they have been seen by him a thousand times,
and each time with fresh interest, and fresh discovery. If he describe
that walk he will surprise us with revelations: we can then and
thereafter see all that he points out; but we needed his vision to
direct our own. And it is one of the incalculable influences of poetry
that each new revelation is an education of the eye and the feelings.
We learn to see and feel Nature in a far clearer and profounder way,
now that we have been taught to look by poets. The incurious
unimpassioned gaze of the Alpine peasant on the scenes which
mysteriously and profoundly affect the cultivated tourist, is the gaze
of one who has never been taught to look. The greater sensibility of
educated Europeans to influences which left even the poetic Greeks
unmoved, is due to the directing vision of successive poets.

The great difficulty which besets us all--Shakspeares and others, but
Shakspeares less than others---is the difficulty of disengaging the
mind from the thraldom of sensation and habit, and escaping from the
pressure of objects immediately present, or of ideas which naturally
emerge, linked together as they are by old associations. We have to see
anew, to think anew. It requires great vigour to escape from the old
and spontaneously recurrent trains of thought. And as this vigour is
native, not acquired, my readers may, perhaps, urge the futility of
expounding with so much pains a principle of success in Literature
which, however indispensable, must be useless as a guide; they may
object that although good Literature rests on insight, there is nothing
to be gained by saying "unless a man have the requisite insight he will
not succeed." But there is something to be gained. In the first place,
this is an analytical inquiry into the conditions of success: it aims
at discriminating the leading principles which inevitably determine
success. In the second place, supposing our analysis of the conditions
to be correct, practical guidance must follow. We cannot, it is true,
gain clearness of vision simply by recognising its necessity; but by
recognising its necessity we are taught to seek for it as a primary
condition of success; we are forced to come to an understanding with
ourselves as to whether we have or have not a distinct vision of the
thing we speak of, whether we are seers or reporters, whether the ideas
and feelings have been thought and felt by us as part and parcel of our
own individual experience, or have been echoed by us from the books and
conversation of others? We can always ask, are we painting farm-houses
or fairies because these are genuine visions of our own, or only
because farm-houses and fairies have been successfully painted by
others, and are poetic material?

The man who first saw an acid redden a vegetable-blue, had something to
communicate; and the man who first saw (mentally) that all acids redden
vegetable-blues, had something to communicate. But no man can do this
again. In the course of his teaching he may have frequently to report
the fact; but this repetition is not of much value unless it can be
made to disclose some new relation. And so of other and more complex
cases. Every sincere man can determine for himself whether he has any
authentic tidings to communicate; and although no man can hope to
discover much that is actually new, he ought to assure himself that
even what is old in his work has been authenticated by his own
experience. He should not even speak of acids reddening vegetable-blues
upon mere hearsay, unless he is speaking figuratively. All his facts
should have been verified by himself, all his ideas should have been
thought by himself. In proportion to the fulfilment of this condition
will be his success; in proportion to its non-fulfilment, his failure.

Literature in its vast extent includes writers of three different
classes, and in speaking of success we must always be understood to
mean the acceptance each writer gains in his own class; otherwise a
flashy novelist might seem more successful than a profound poet; a
clever compiler more successful than an original discoverer.

The Primary Class is composed of the born seers--men who see for
themselves and who originate. These are poets, philosophers,
discoverers. The Secondary Class is composed of men less puissant in
faculty, but genuine also in their way, who travel along the paths
opened by the great originaters, and also point out many a side-path
and shorter cut. They reproduce and vary the materials furnished by
others, but they do this, not as echoes only, they authenticate their
tidings, they take care to see what the discoverers have taught them to
see, and in consequence of this clear vision they are enabled to
arrange and modify the materials so as to produce new results. The
Primary Class is composed of men of genius; the Secondary Class of men
of talent. It not unfrequently happens, especially in philosophy and
science, that the man of talent may confer a lustre on the original
invention; he takes it up a nugget and lays it down a coin. Finally,
there is the largest class of all, comprising the Imitators in Art, and
the Compilers in Philosophy. These bring nothing to the general stock.
They are sometimes (not often) useful; but it is as cornfactors, not as
corn-growers. They sometimes do good service by distributing knowledge
where otherwise it might never penetrate; but in general their work is
more hurtful than beneficial: hurtful, because it is essentially bad
work, being insincere work, and because it stands in the way of better

Even among Imitaters and Compilers there are almost infinite degrees of
merit and demerit: echoes of echoes reverberating echoes in endless
succession; compilations of all degrees of worth and worthlessness.
But, as will be shown hereafter, even in this lower sphere the worth of
the work is strictly proportional to the Vision, Sincerity, and Beauty;
so that an imitator whose eye is keen for the forms he imitates, whose
speech is honest, and whose talent has grace, will by these very
virtues rise almost to the Secondary Class, and will secure an
honourable success.

I have as yet said but little, and that incidentally, of the part
played by the Principle of Vision in Art. Many readers who will admit
the principle in Science and Philosophy, may hesitate in extending it
to Art, which, as they conceive, draws its inspirations from the
Imagination. Properly understood there is no discrepancy between the
two opinions; and in the next chapter I shall endeavour to show how
Imagination is only another form of this very Principle of Vision which
we have been considering.




There are many who will admit, without hesitation, that in Philosophy
what I have called the Principle of Vision holds an important rank,
because the mind must necessarily err in its speculations unless it
clearly sees facts and relations; but there are some who will hesitate
before admitting the principle to a similar rank in Art, because, as
they conceive, Art is independent of the truth of facts, and is swayed
by the autocratic power of Imagination.

It is on this power that our attention should first be arrested; the
more so because it is usually spoken of in vague rhapsodical language,
with intimations of its being something peculiarly mysterious. There
are few words more abused. The artist is called a creator, which in one
sense he is; and his creations are said to be produced by processes
wholly unallied to the creations of Philosophy, which they are not.
Hence it is a paradox to speak of the "Principia," as a creation
demanding severe and continuous exercise of the imagination; but it is
only a paradox to those who have never analysed the processes of
artistic and philosophic creation.

I am far from desiring to innovate in language, or to raise
interminable discussions respecting the terms in general use.
Nevertheless we have here to deal with questions that lie deeper than
mere names. We have to examine processes, and trace, if possible, the
methods of intellectual activity pursued in all branches of Literature;
and we must not suffer our course to be obstructed by any confusion in
terms that can be cleared up. We may respect the demarcations
established by usage, but we must ascertain, if possible, the
fundamental affinities. There is, for instance, a broad distinction
between Science and Art, which, so far from requiring to be effaced,
requires to be emphasised: it is that in Science the paramount appeal
is to the Intellect---its purpose being instruction; in Art, the
paramount appeal is to the Emotions--its purpose being pleasure. A work
of Art must of course indirectly appeal to the Intellect, and a work of
Science will also indirectly appeal to the Feelings; nevertheless a
poem on the stars and a treatise on astronomy have distinct aims and
distinct methods. But having recognised the broadly-marked differences,
we are called upon to ascertain the underlying resemblances. Logic and
Imagination belong equally to both. It is only because men have been
attracted by the differences that they have overlooked the not less
important affinities. Imagination is an intellectual process common to
Philosophy and Art; but in each it is allied with different processes,
and directed to different ends; and hence, although the "Principia"
demanded an imagination of not less vivid and sustained power than was
demanded by "Othello," it would be very false psychology to infer that
the mind of Newton was competent to the creation of "Othello," or the
mind of Shakspeare capable of producing the "Principia." They were
specifically different minds; their works were specifically different.
But in both the imagination was intensely active. Newton had a mind
predominantly ratiocinative: its movement was spontaneously towards the
abstract relations of things. Shakspeare had a mind predominantly
emotive, the intellect always moving in alliance with the feelings, and
spontaneously fastening upon the concrete facts in preference to their
abstract relations. Their mental Vision was turned towards images of
different orders, and it moved in alliance with different faculties;
but this Vision was the cardinal quality of both. Dr. Johnson was
guilty of a surprising fallacy in saying that a great mathematician
might also be a great poet: "Sir, a man can walk east as far as he can
walk west." True, but mathematics and poetry do not differ as east and
west; and he would hardly assert that a man who could walk twenty miles
could therefore swim that distance.

The real state of the case is somewhat obscured by our observing that
many men of science, and some even eminent as teachers and reporters,
display but slender claims to any unusual vigour of imagination. It
must be owned that they are often slightly dull; and in matters of Art
are not unfrequently blockheads. Nay, they would themselves repel it as
a slight if the epithet "imaginative" were applied to them; it would
seem to impugn their gravity, to cast doubts upon their accuracy. But
such men are the cisterns, not the fountains, of Science. They rely
upon the knowledge already organised; they do not bring accessions to
the common stock. They are not investigators, but imitators; they are
not discoverers--inventors. No man ever made a discovery (he may have
stumbled on one) without the exercise of as much imagination as,
employed in another direction and in alliance with other faculties,
would have gone to the creation of a poem. Every one who has seriously
investigated a novel question, who has really interrogated Nature with
a view to a distinct answer, will bear me out in saying that it
requires intense and sustained effort of imagination. The relations of
sequence among the phenomena must be seen; they are hidden; they can
only be seen mentally; a thousand suggestions rise before the mind, but
they are recognised as old suggestions, or as inadequate to reveal what
is sought; the experiments by which the problem may be solved have to
be imagined; and to imagine a good experiment is as difficult as to
invent a good fable, for we must have distinctly PRESENT--clear mental
vision--the known qualities and relations of all the objects, and must
see what will be the effect of introducing some new qualifying agent.
If any one thinks this is easy, let him try it: the trial will teach
him a lesson respecting the methods of intellectual activity not
without its use. Easy enough, indeed, is the ordinary practice of
experiment, which is either a mere repetition or variation of
experiments already devised (as ordinary story-tellers re-tell the
stories of others), or else a haphazard, blundering way of bringing
phenomena together, to see what will happen. To invent is another
process. The discoverer and the poet are inventors; and they are so
because their mental vision detects the unapparent, unsuspected facts,
almost as vividly as ocular vision rests on the apparent and familiar.

It is the special aim of Philosophy to discover and systematise the
abstract relations of things; and for this purpose it is forced to
allow the things themselves to drop out of sight, fixing attention
solely on the quality immediately investigated, to the neglect of all
other qualities. Thus the philosopher, having to appreciate the mass,
density, refracting power, or chemical constitution of some object,
finds he can best appreciate this by isolating it from every other
detail. He abstracts this one quality from the complex bundle of
qualities which constitute the object, and he makes this one stand for
the whole. This is a necessary simplification. If all the qualities
were equally present to his mind, his vision would be perplexed by
their multiple suggestions. He may follow out the relations of each in
turn, but he cannot follow them out together.

The aim of the poet is very different. He wishes to kindle the emotions
by the suggestion of objects themselves; and for this purpose he must
present images of the objects rather than of any single quality. It is
true that he also must exercise a power of abstraction and selection,
tie cannot without confusion present all the details. And it is here
that the fine selective instinct of the true artist shows itself, in
knowing what details to present and what to omit. Observe this: the
abstraction of the philosopher is meant to keep the object itself, with
its perturbing suggestions, out of sight, allowing only one quality to
fill the field of vision; whereas the abstraction of the poet is meant
to bring the object itself into more vivid relief, to make it visible
by means of the selected qualities. In other words, the one aims at
abstract symbols, the other at picturesque effects. The one can carry
on his deductions by the aid of colourless signs, X or Y. The other
appeals to the emotions through the symbols which will most vividly
express the real objects in their relations to our sensibilities.

Imagination is obviously active in both. From known facts the
philosopher infers the facts that are unapparent. He does so by an
effort of imagination (hypothesis) which has to be subjected to
verification: he makes a mental picture of the unapparent fact, and
then sets about to prove that his picture does in some way correspond
with the reality. The correctness of his hypothesis and verification
must depend on the clearness of his vision. Were all the qualities of
things apparent to Sense, there would be no longer any mystery. A
glance would be Science. But only some of the facts are visible; and it
is because we see little, that we have to imagine much. We see a
feather rising in the air, and a quill, from the same bird, sinking to
the ground: these contradictory reports of sense lead the mind astray;
or perhaps excite a desire to know the reason. We cannot see,--we must
imagine,--the unapparent facts. Many mental pictures may be formed, but
to form the one which corresponds with the reality requires great
sagacity and a very clear vision of known facts. In trying to form this
mental picture we remember that when the air is removed the feather
fails as rapidly as the quill, and thus we see that the air is the
cause of the feather's rising; we mentally see the air pushing under
the feather, and see it almost as plainly as if the air were a visible
mass thrusting the feather upwards.

From a mistaken appreciation of the real process this would by few be
called an effort of Imagination. On the contrary some "wild hypothesis"
would be lauded as imaginative in proportion as it departed from all
suggestion of experience, i.e. real mental vision. To have imagined
that the feather rose owing to its "specific lightness," and that the
quill fell owing to its "heaviness," would to many appear a more
decided effort of the imaginative faculty. Whereas it is no effort of
that faculty at all; it is simply naming differently the facts it
pretends to explain. To imagine---to form an image--we must have the
numerous relations of things present to the mind, and see the objects
in their actual order. In this we are of course greatly aided by the
mass of organised experience, which allows us rapidly to estimate the
relations of gravity or affinity just as we remember that fire burns
and that heated bodies expand. But be the aid great or small, and the
result victorious or disastrous, the imaginative process is always the

There is a slighter strain on the imagination of the poet, because of
his greater freedom. He is not, like the philosopher, limited to the
things which are, or were. His vision includes things which might be,
and things which never were. The philosopher is not entitled to assume
that Nature sympathises with man; he must prove the fact to be so if he
intend making any use of it ;--we admit no deductions from unproved
assumptions. But the poet is at perfect liberty to assume this; and
having done so, he paints what would be the manifestations of this
sympathy. The naturalist who should describe a hippogriff would incur
the laughing scorn of Europe; but the poet feigns its existence, and
all Europe is delighted when it rises with Astolfo in the air. We never
pause to ask the poet whether such an animal exists. He has seen it,
and we see it with his eyes. Talking trees do not startle us in Virgil
and Tennyson. Puck and Titania, Hamlet and Falstaff, are as true for us
as Luther and Napoleon so long as we are in the realm of Art. We grant
the poet a free privilege because he will use it only for our pleasure.
In Science pleasure is not an object, and we give no licence.

Philosophy and Art both render the invisible visible by imagination.
Where Sense observes two isolated objects, Imagination discloses two
related objects. This relation is the nexus visible. We had not seen it
before; it is apparent now. Where we should only see a calamity the
poet makes us see a tragedy. Where we could only see a sunrise he
enables us to see

"Day like a mighty river flowing in."

Imagination is not the exclusive appanage of artists, but belongs in
varying degrees to all men. It is simply the power of forming images.
Supplying the energy of Sense where Sense cannot reach, it brings into
distinctness the facts, obscure or occult, which are grouped round an
object or an idea, but which are not actually present to Sense. Thus,
at the aspect of a windmill, the mind forms images of many
characteristic facts relating to it; and the kind of images will depend
very much on the general disposition, or particular mood, of the mind
affected by the object: the painter, the poet, and the moralist will
have different images suggested by the presence of the windmill or its
symbol. There are indeed sluggish minds so incapable of self-evolved
activity, and so dependent on the immediate suggestions of Sense, as to
be almost destitute of the power of forming distinct images beyond the
immediate circle of sensuous associations; and these are rightly named
unimaginative minds; but in all minds of energetic activity, groups and
clusters of images, many of them representing remote relations,
spontaneously present themselves in conjunction with objects or their
symbols. It should, however, be borne in mind that Imagination can only
recall what Sense has previously impressed. No man imagines any detail
of which he has not previously had direct or indirect experience.
Objects as fictitious as mermaids and hippogriffs are made up from the
gatherings of Sense.

"Made up from the gatherings of Sense" is a phrase which may seem to
imply some peculiar plastic power such as is claimed exclusively for
artists: a power not of simple recollection, but of recollection and
recombination. Yet this power belongs also to philosophers. To combine
the half of a woman with the half of a fish,--to imagine the union as
an existing organism,--is not really a different process from that of
combining the experience of a chemical action with an electric action,
and seeing that the two are one existing fact. When the poet hears the
storm-cloud muttering, and sees the moonlight sleeping on the bank, he
transfers his experience of human phenomena to the cloud and the
moonlight: he personifies, draws Nature within the circle of emotion,
and is called a poet. When the philosopher sees electricity in the
storm-cloud, and sees the sunlight stimulating vegetable growth, he
transfers his experience of physical phenomena to these objects, and
draws within the circle of Law phenomena which hitherto have been
unclassified. Obviously the imagination has been as active in the one
case as in the other; the DIFFERENTIA lying in the purposes of the two,
and in the general constltution of the two minds.

It has been noted that there is less strain on the imagination of the
poet; but even his greater freedom is not altogether disengaged from
the necessity of verification; his images must have at least subjective
truth; if they do not accurately correspond with objective realities,
they must correspond with our sense of congruity. No poet is allowed
the licence of creating images inconsistent with our conceptions. If he
said the moonlight burnt the bank, we should reject the image as
untrue, inconsistent with our conceptions of moonlight; whereas the
gentle repose of the moonlight on the bank readily associates itself
with images of sleep.

The often mooted question, What is Imagination? thus receives a very
clear and definite answer. It is the power of forming images; it
reinstates, in a visible group, those objects which are invisible,
either from absence or from imperfection of our senses. That is its
generic character. Its specific character, which marks it off from
Memory, and which is derived from the powers of selection and
recombination, will be expounded further on. Here I only touch upon its
chief characteristic, in order to disengage the term from that
mysteriousness which writers have usually assigned to it, thereby
rendering philosophic criticism impossible. Thus disengaged it may be
used with more certainty in an attempt to estimate the imaginative
power of various works.

Hitherto the amount of that power has been too frequently estimated
according to the extent of DEPARTURE from ordinary experience in the
images selected. Nineteen out of twenty would unhesitatingly declare
that a hippogriff was a greater effort of imagination than a
well-conceived human character; a Peri than a woman; Puck or Titania
than Falstaff or Imogen. A description of Paradise extremely unlike any
known garden must, it is thought, necessarily be more imaginative than
the description of a quiet rural nook. It may be more imaginative; it
may be less so. All depends upon the mind of the poet. To suppose that
it must, because of its departure from ordinary experience, is a
serious error. The muscular effort required to draw a cheque for a
thousand pounds might as reasonably be thought greater than that
required for a cheque of five pounds; and much as the one cheque seems
to surpass the other in value, the result of presenting both to the
bankers may show that the more modest cheque is worth its full five
pounds, whereas the other is only so much waste paper. The description
of Paradise may be a glittering farrago; the description of the
landscape may be full of sweet rural images: the one having a glare of
gaslight and Vauxhall splendour; the other having the scent of new-mown

A work is imaginative in virtue of the power of its images over our
emotions; not in virtue of any rarity or surprisingness in the images
themselves. A Madonna and Child by Fra Angelico is more powerful over
our emotions than a Crucifixion by a vulgar artist; a beggar-boy by
Murillo is more imaginative than an Assumption by the same painter; but
the Assumption by Titian displays far greater imagination than elther.
We must guard against the natural tendency to attribute to the artist
what is entirely due to accidental conditions. A tropical scene,
luxuriant with tangled overgrowth and impressive in the grandeur of its
phenomena, may more decisively arrest our attention than an English
landscape with its green corn lands and plenteous homesteads. But this
superiority of interest is no proof of the artist's superior
imagination; and by a spectator familiar with the tropics, greater
interest may be felt in the English landscape, because its images may
more forcibly arrest his attentlon by their novelty. And were this not
so, were the inalienable impressiveness of tropical scenery always to
give the poet who described it a superiority in effect, this would not
prove the superiority of his imagination. For either he has been
familiar with such scenes, and imagines them just as the other poet
imagines his English landscape---by an effort of mental vision, calling
up the absent objects; or he has merely read the descriptions of
others, and from these makes up his picture. It is the same with his
rival, who also recalls and recombines. Foolish critics often betray
their ignorance by saying that a painter or a writer "only copies what
he has seen, or puts down what he has known." They forget that no man
imagines what he has not seen or known, and that it is in the SELECTION
OF THE CHARACTERISTIC DETAILS that the artistic power is manifested.
Those who suppose that familiarity with scenes or characters enables a
painter or a novelist to "copy" them with artistic effect, forget the
well-known fact that the vast majority of men are painfully incompetent
to avail themselves of this familiarity, and cannot form vivid pictures
even to themselves of scenes in which they pass their daily lives; and
if they could imagine these, they would need the delicate selective
instinct to guide them in the admission and omission of details, as
well as in the grouping of the images. Let any one try to "copy" the
wife or brother he knows so well,--to make a human image which shall
speak and act so as to impress strangers with a belief in its
truth,--and he will then see that the much-despised reliance on actual
experience is not the mechanical procedure it is believed to be. When
Scott drew Saladin and Ceaur de Lion he did not really display more
imaginative power than when he drew the Mucklebackits, although the
majority of readers would suppose that the one demanded a great effort
of imagination, whereas the other formed part of his familiar
experiences of Scottish life. The mistake here lies in confounding the
sources from which the materials were derived with the plastic power of
forming these materials into images. More conscious effort may have
been devoted to the collection of the materials in the one case than in
the other, but that this has nothing to do with the imaginative power
employed may readily be proved by an analysis of the intellectual
processes of composition. Scott had often been in fishermen's cottages
and heard them talk; from the registered experience of a thousand
details relating to the life of the poor, their feelings and their
thoughts, he gained that material upon which his imagination could
work; in the case of Saladin and Ceaur de Lion he had to gain these
principally through books and his general experience of life; and the
images he formed--the vision he had of Mucklebackit and Saladin--must
be set down to his artistic faculty, not to his experience or erudition.

It has been well said by a very imaginative writer, that "when a poet
floats in the empyrean, and only takes a bird's-eye view of the earth,
some people accept the mere fact of his soaring for sublimity, and
mistake his dim vision of earth for proximity to heaven." And in like
manner, when a thinker frees himself from all the trammels of fact, and
propounds a "bold hypothesis," people mistake the vagabond erratic
flights of guessing for a higher range of philosophic power. In truth,
the imagination is most tasked when it has to paint pictures which
shall withstand the silent criticism of general experience, and to
frame hypotheses which shall withstand the confrontation with facts. I
cannot here enter into the interesting question of Realism and Idealism
in Art, which must be debated in a future chapter; but I wish to call
special attention to the psychological fact, that fairies and demons,
remote as they are from experience, are not created by a more vigorous
effort of imagination than milk maids and poachers. The intensity of
vision in the artist and of vividness in his creations are the sole
tests of his imaginative power.


If this brief exposition has carried the reader's assent, he will
readily apply the principle, and recognise that an artist produces an
effect in virtue of the distinctness with which he sees the objects he
represents, seeing them not vaguely as in vanishing apparitions, but
steadily, and in their most characteristic relations. To this Vision he
adds artistic skill with which to make us see. He may have clear
conceptions, yet fail to make them clear to us: in this case he has
imagination, but is not an artist. Without clear Vision no skill can
avail. Imperfect Vision necessitates imperfect representation; words
take the place of ideas.

In Young's "Night Thoughts" there are many examples of the
PSEUDO-imaginative, betraying an utter want of steady Vision. Here is

"His hand the good man fixes on the skies,
And bids earth roll, nor feels the idle whirl."

"Pause for a moment," remarks a critic, "to realise the image, and the
monstrous absurdity of a man's grasping the skies and hanging
habitually suspended there, while he contemptuously bids earth roll,
warns you that no genuine feeling could have suggested so unnatural a
conception." [WESTMINSTER REVIEW, No. cxxxi., p. 27]. It is obvious
that if Young had imagined the position he assigned to the good man he
would have seen its absurdity; instead of imagining, he allowed the
vague transient suggestion of half-nascent images to shape themselves
in verse.

Now compare with this a passage in which imagination is really active.
Wordsworth recalls how--

" In November days
When vapours rolling down the valleys made
A lonely scene more lonesome; among the woods
At noon; and mid the calm of summer nights,
When by the margin of the trembling lake
Beneath the gloomy hills homeward I went
In solitude, such intercourse was mine."

There is nothing very grand or impressive in this passage, and
therefore it is a better illustration for my purpose. Note how happily
the one image, out of a thousand possible images by which November
might be characterised, is chosen to call up in us the feeling of the
lonely scene; and with what delicate selection the calm of summer
nights, the "trembling lake" (an image in an epithet), and the gloomy
hills, are brought before us. His boyhood might have furnished him with
a hundred different pictures, each as distinct as this; the power is
shown in selecting this one--painting it so vividly. He continues:--

"'Twas mine among the fields both day and night
And by the waters, all the summer long.
And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and, visible for many a mile
The cottage windows through the twilight blazed,
I heeded not the summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us; for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six--I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel
We hissed along the polished ice, in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures--the resounding horn,
The pack loud-chiming and the hunted hare."

There is nothing very felicitous in these lines; yet even here the
poet, if languid, is never false. As he proceeds the vision brightens,
and the verse becomes instinct with life:--

"So through the darkness and the cold we flew
And not a voice was idle: with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
OF MELANCHOLY, not unnoticed while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.

"Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
Upon the glassy plain: and oftentime
When we had given our bodies to the wind
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I reclining back upon my heels
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me--even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a summer sea."

Every poetical reader will feel delight in the accuracy with which the
details are painted, and the marvellous clearness with which the whole
scene is imagined, both in its objective and subjective relations,
i.e., both in the objects seen and the emotions they suggest.

What the majority of modern verse writers call "imagery," is not the
product of imagination, but a restless pursuit of comparison, and a lax
use of language. Instead of presenting us with an image of the object,
they present us with something which they tell us is like the
object---which it rarely is. The thing itself has no clear significance
to them, it is only a text for the display of their ingenuity. If,
however, we turn from poetasters to poets, we see great accuracy in
depicting the things themselves or their suggestions, so that we may be
certain the things presented themselves in the field of the poet's
vision, and were painted because seen. The images arose with sudden
vivacity, or were detained long enough to enable their characters to be
seized. It is this power of detention to which I would call particular
notice, because a valuable practical lesson may be learned through a
proper estimate of it. If clear Vision be indispensable to success in
Art, all means of securing that clearness should be sought. Now one
means is that of detaining an image long enough before the mind to
allow of its being seen in all its characteristics. The explanation
Newton gave of his discovery of the great law, points in this
direction; it was by always thinking of the subject, by keeping it
constantly before his mind, that he finally saw the truth. Artists
brood over the chaos of their suggestions, and thus shape them into
creations. Try and form a picture in your own mind of your early
skating experience. It may be that the scene only comes back upon you
in shifting outlines, you recall the general facts, and some few
particulars are vivid, but the greater part of the details vanish again
before they can assume decisive shape; they are but half nascent, or
die as soon as born: a wave of recollection washes over the mind, but
it quickly retires, leaving no trace behind. This is the common
experience. Or it may be that the whole scene flashes upon you with
peculiar vividness, so that you see, almost as in actual presence, all
the leading characteristics of the picture. Wordsworth may have seen
his early days in a succession of vivid flashes, or he may have
attained to his distinctness of vision by a steadfast continuity of
effort, in which what at first was vague became slowly definite as he
gazed. It is certain that only a very imaginative mind could have seen
such details as he has gathered together in the lines describing how he

"Cut across the reflex of a star;
Image that flying still before me gleamed
Upon the glassy plain."

The whole description may have been written with great rapidity, or
with anxious and tentative labour: the memories of boyish days may have
been kindled with a sudden illumination, or they may have grown slowly
into the requisite distinctness, detail after detail emerging from the
general obscurity, like the appearing stars at night. But whether the
poet felt his way to images and epithets, rapidly or slowly, is
unimportant; we have to do only with the result; and the result
implies, as an absolute condition, that the images were distinct. Only
thus could they serve the purposes of poetry, which must arouse in us
memories of similar scenes, and kindle emotions of pleasurable


Having cited an example of bad writing consequent on imperfect Vision,
and an example of good writing consequent on accurate Vision, I might
consider that enough had been done for the immediate purpose of the
present chapter; the many other illustrations which the Principle of
Vision would require before it could be considered as adequately
expounded, I must defer till I come to treat of the application of
principles. But before closing this chapter it may be needful to
examine some arguments which have a contrary tendency, and imply, or
seem to imply, that distinctness of Vision is very far from necessary.

At the outset we must come to an understanding as to this word "image,"
and endeavour to free the word "vision" from all equivoque. If these
words were understood literally there would be an obvious absurdity in
speaking of an image of a sound, or of seeing an emotion. Yet if by
means of symbols the effect of a sound is produced in us, or the
psychological state of any human being is rendered intelligible to us,
we are said to have images of these things, which the poet has
imagined. It is because the eye is the most valued and intellectual of
our senses that the majority of metaphors are borrowed from its
sensations. Language, after all, is only the use of symbols, and Art
also can only affect us through symbols. If a phrase can summon a
terror resembling that summoned by the danger which it indicates, a man
is said to see the danger. Sometimes a phrase will awaken more vivid
images of danger than would be called up by the actual presence of the
dangerous object; because the mind will more readily apprehend the
symbols of the phrase than interpret the indications of unassisted

Burke in his "Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful," lays down the
proposition that distinctness of imagery is often injurious to the
effect of art. "It is one thing," he says, "to make an idea clear,
another to make it AFFECTING to the imagination. If I make a drawing of
a palace or a temple or a landscape, I present a very clear idea of
those objects; but then (allowing for the effect of imitation, which is
something) my picture can at most affect only as the palace, temple, or
landscape would have affected in reality. On the other hand the most
lively and spirited verbal description I can give raises a very obscure
and imperfect IDEA of such objects; but then it is in my power to raise
a stronger EMOTION by the description than I can do by the best
painting. This experience constantly evinces. The proper manner of
conveying the AFFECTIONS of the mind from one to the other is by words;
there is great insufficiency in all other method of communication; and
so far is a clearness of imagery, from being absolutely necessary to an
influence upon the passions, that they may be considerably operated
upon without presenting any image at all, by certain sounds adapted to
that purpose." If by image is meant only what the eye can see, Burke is
undoubtedly right. But this is obviously not our restricted meaning of
the word when we speak of poetic imagery; and Burke's error becomes
apparent when he proceeds to show that there "are reasons in nature why
an obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than
the clear." He does not seem to have considered that the idea of an
indefinite object can only be properly conveyed by indefinite images;
any image of Eternity or Death that pretended to visual distinctness
would be false. Having overlooked this, he says, "We do not anywhere
meet a more sublime description than this justly celebrated one of
Milton, wherein he gives the portrait of Satan with a dignity so
suitable to the subject.

"He above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a tower; his form had not yet lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruined and the excess
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams; or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations; and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs."

"Here is a very noble picture," adds Burke, "and in what does this
poetical picture consist? In images of a tower, an archangel, the sun
rising through mists, or an eclipse, the ruin of monarchs, and the
revolution of kingdoms." Instead of recognising the imagery here as the
source of the power, he says, "The mind is hurried out of itself,
[rather a strange result!], by a crowd of great and confused images;
which affect because they are crowded and confused For, separate them,
and you lose much of the greatness; and join them, and you infallibly
lose the clearness." This is altogether a mistake. The images are vivid
enough to make us feel the hovering presence of an awe-inspiring figure
having the height and firmness of a tower, and the dusky splendour of a
ruined archangel. The poet indicates only that amount of concreteness
which is necessary for the clearness of the picture,---only the height
and firmness of the tower and the brightness of the sun in eclipse.
More concretness would disturb the clearness by calling attention to
irrelevant details. To suppose that these images produce the effect
because they are crowded and confused (they are crowded and not
confused) is to imply that any other images would do equally well, if
they were equally crowded. "Separate them, and you lose much of the
greatness." Quite true: the image of the tower would want the splendour
of the sun. But this much may be said of all descriptions which proceed
upon details. And so far from the impressive clearness of the picture
vanishing in the crowd of images, it is by these images that the
clearness is produced: the details make it impressive, and affect our

It should be added that Burke came very near a true explanation in the
following passage:--"It is difficult to conceive how words can move the
passions which belong to real objects without representing these
objects clearly. This is difficult to us because we do not sufficiently
distinguish between a clear expression and a strong expression. The
former regards the understanding; the latter belongs to the passions.
The one describes a thing as it is, the other describes it as it is
felt. Now as there is a moving tone of voice, an impassioned
countenance, an agitated gesture, which affect independently of the
things about which they are exerted, so there are words and certain
dispositions of words which being peculiarly devoted to passionate
subjects, and always used by those who are under the influence of
passion, touch and move us more than those which far more clearly and
distinctly express the subject-matter." Burke here fails to see that
the tones, looks, and gestures are the intelligible symbols of
passion--the "images' in the true sense just as words are the
intelligible symbols of ideas. The subject-matter is as clearly
expressed by the one as by the other; for if the description of a Lion
be conveyed in the symbols of admiration or of terror, the
subject-matter is THEN a Lion passionately and not zoologically
considered. And this Burke himself was led to admit, for he adds, "We
yield to sympathy what we refuse to description. The truth is, all
verbal description, merely as naked description, though never so exact,
conveys so poor and insufficient an idea of the thing described, that
it could scarcely have the smallest eflfect if the speaker did not call
in to his aid those modes of speech that work a strong and lively
feeling in himself. Then, by the contagion of our passions, we catch a
fire already kindled in another." This is very true, and it sets
clearly forth the fact that naked description, addressed to the calm
understanding, has a different subject-matter from description
addressed to the feelings, and the symbols by which it is made
intelligible must likewise differ. But this in no way impugns the
principle of Vision. Intelligible symbols (clear images) are as
necessary in the one case as in the other.


By reducing imagination to the power of forming images, and by
insisting that no image can be formed except out of the elements
furnished by experience, I do not mean to confound imagination with
memory; indeed, the frequent occurrence of great strength of memory
with comparative feebleness of imagination, would suffice to warn us
against such a conclusion.

Its specific character, that which marks it off from simple memory, is
its tendency to selection, abstraction, and recombination. Memory, as
passive, simply recalls previous experiences of objects and emotions;
from these, imagination, as an active faculty, selects the elements
which vividly symbolise the objects or emotions, and either by a
process of abstraction allows these to do duty for the whole, or else
by a process of recombination creates new objects and new relations in
which the objects stand to us or to each other (INVENTION), and the
result is an image of great vividness, which has perhaps no
corresponding reality in the external world.

Minds differ in the vividness with which they recall the elements of
previous experience, and mentally see the absent objects; they differ
also in the aptitudes for selection, abstraction, and recombination:
the fine selective instinct of the artist, which makes him fasten upon
the details which will most powerfully affect us, without any
disturbance of the harmony of the general impression, does not depend
solely upon the vividness of his memory and the clearness with which
the objects are seen, but depends also upon very complex and peculiar
conditions of sympathy which we call genius. Hence we find one man
remembering a multitude of details, with a memory so vivid that it
almost amounts at times to hallucination, yet without any artistic
power; and we may find men--Blake was one--with an imagination of
unusual activity, who are nevertheless incapable, from deficient
sympathy, of seizing upon those symbols which will most affect us. Our
native susceptibilities and acquired tastes determine which of the many
qualities in an object shall most impress us, and be most clearly
recalled. One man remembers the combustible properties of a substance,
which to another is memorable for its polarising property; to one man a
stream is so much water-power, to another a rendezveus for lovers.

In the close of the last paragraph we came face to face with the great
difficulty which constantly arrests speculation on these matters--the
existence of special aptitudes vaguely characterised as genius. These
are obviously incommunicable. No recipe can be given for genius. No man
can be taught how to exercise the power of imagination. But he can be
taught how to aid it, and how to assure himself whether he is using it
or not. Having once laid hold of the Principle of Vision as a
fundamental principle of Art, he can always thus far apply it, that he
can assure himself whether he does or does not distinctly see the
cottage he is describing, the rivulet that is gurgling through his
verses, or the character he is painting; he can assure himself whether
he hears the voice of the speakers, and feels that what they say is
true to their natures; he can assure himself whether he sees, as in
actual experience, the emotion he is depicting; and he will know that
if he does not see these things he must wait until he can, or he will
paint them ineffectively. With distinct Vision he will be able to make
the best use of his powers of expression; and the most splendid powers
of expression will not avail him if his Vision be indistinct. This is
true of objects that never were seen by the eye, that never could be
seen. It is as true of what are called the highest flights of
imagination as of the lowest flights. The mind must SEE the angel or
the demon, the hippogriff or centaur, the pixie or the mermaid.

Ruskin notices how repeatedly Turner,--the most imaginative of
landscape painters,--introduced into his pictures, after a lapse of
many years, memories of something which, however small and unimportant,
had struck him in his earlier studies. He believes that all Turner's
"composition" was an arrangement of remembrances summoned just as they
were wanted, and each in its fittest place. His vision was primarily
composed of strong memory of the place itself, and secondarily of
memories of other places associated in a harmonious, helpful way with
the now central thought. He recalled and selected.

I am prepared to hear of many readers, especially young readers,
protesting against the doctrine of this chapter as prosaic. They have
been so long accustomed to consider imagination as peculiarly
distinguished by its disdain of reality, and Invention as only
admirable when its products are not simply new by selection and
arrangement, but new in material, that they will reject the idea of
involuntary remembrance of something originally experienced as the
basis of all Art. Ruskin says of great artists, "Imagine all that any
of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid
up accurately in their memories as in vast storehouses, extending with
the poets even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the
beginning of their lives, and with painters down to minute folds of
drapery and shapes of leaves and stones; and over all this unindexed
and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and
wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such
a group of ideas as shall justly fit each other." This is the
explanation of their genius, as far as it can be explained.

Genius is rarely able to give any account of its own processes. But
those who have had ample opportunities of intimately knowing the growth
of works in the minds of artists, will bear me out in saying that a
vivid memory supplies the elements from a thousand different sources,
most of which are quite beyond the power of localisation, the
experience of yesterday being strangely intermingled with the dim
suggestions of early years, the tones heard in childhood sounding
through the diapason of sorrowing maturity; and all these kaleidoscopic
fragments are recomposed into images that seem to have a corresponding
reality of their own.

As all Art depends on Vision, so the different kinds of Art depend on
the different ways in which minds look at things. The painter can only
put into his pictures what he sees in Nature; and what he sees will be
different from what another sees. A poetical mind sees noble and
affecting suggestions in details which the prosaic mind will interpret
prosaically. And the true meaning of Idealism is precisely this vision
of realities in their highest and most affecting forms, not in the
vision of something removed from or opposed to realities. Titian's
grand picture of "Peter the Martyr" is, perhaps, as instructive an
example as could be chosen of successful Idealism; because in it we
have a marvellous presentation of reality as seen by a poetic mind. The
figure of the flying monk might have been equally real if it had been
an ignoble presentation of terror--the superb tree, which may almost be
called an actor in the drama, might have been painted with even greater
minuteness, though not perhaps with equal effect upon us, if it had
arrested our attention by its details--the dying martyr and the noble
assassin might have been made equally real in more vulgar types--but
the triumph achieved by Titian is that the mind is filled with a vision
of poetic beauty which is felt to be real. An equivalent reality,
without the ennobling beauty, would have made the picture a fine piece
of realistic art. It is because of this poetic way of seeing things
that one painter will give a faithful representation of a very common
scene which shall nevertheless affect all sensitive minds as ideal,
whereas another painter will represent the same with no greater
fidelity, but with a complete absence of poetry. The greater the
fidelity, the greater will be the merit of each representation; for if
a man pretends to represent an object, he pretends to represent it
accurately: the only difference is what the poetical or prosaic mind
sees in the object.

Of late years there has been a reaction against conventionalism which
called itself Idealism, in favour of DETAILISM which calls itself
Realism. As a reaction it has been of service; but it has led to much
false criticism, and not a little false art, by an obtrusiveness of
Detail and a preference for the Familiar, under the misleading notion
of adherence to Nature. If the words Nature and Natural could be
entirely banished from language about Art there would be some chance of
coming to a rational philosophy of the subject; at present the
excessive vagueness and shiftiness of these terms cover any amount of
sophism. The pots and pans of Teniers and Van Mieris are natural; the
passions and humours of Shakspeare and Moliere are natural; the angels
of Fra Angelico and Luini are natural; the Sleeping Fawn and Fates of
Phidias are natural; the cows and misty marshes of Cuyp and the
vacillations of Hamlet are equally natural. In fact the natural means
TRUTH OF KIND. Each kind of character, each kind of representation,
must be judged by itself. Whereas the vulgar error of criticism is to
judge of one kind by another, and generally to judge the higher by the
lower, to remonstrate with Hamlet for not having the speech and manner
of Mr. Jones, to wish that Fra Angelico could have seen with the eyes
of the Carracci, to wish verse had been prose, and that ideal tragedy
were acted with the easy manner acceptable in drawing-rooms.

The rage for "realism," which is healthy in as far as it insists on
truth, has become unhealthy, in as far as it confounds truth with
familiarity, and predominance of unessential details. There are other
truths besides coats and waistcoats, pots and pans, drawlng-rooms and
suburban villas. Life has other aims besides these which occupy the
conversation of "Society." And the painter who devotes years to a work
representing modern life, yet calls for even more attention to a
waistcoat than to the face of a philosopher, may exhibit truth of
detail which will delight the tailor-mind, but he is defective in
artistic truth, because he ought to be representing something higher
than waistcoats, and because our thoughts on modern life fall very
casually and without emphasis on waistcoats. In Piloty's much-admired
picture of the "Death of Wallenstein" (at Munich), the truth with which
the carpet, the velvet, and all other accessories are painted, is
certainly remarkable; but the falsehood of giving prominence to such
details in a picture representing the dead Wallenstein--as if they were
the objects which could possibly arrest our attention and excite our
sympathies in such a spectacle--is a falsehood of the realistic school.
If a man means to paint upholstery, by all means let him paint it so as
to delight and deceive an upholsterer; but if he means to paint a human
tragedy, the upholsterer must be subordinate, and velvet must not draw
our eyes away from faces.

I have digressed a little from my straight route because I wish to
guard the Principle of Vision from certain misconceptions which might
arise on a simple statement of it. The principle insists on the artist
assuring himself that he distinctly sees what he attempts to represent.
WHAT he sees, and HOW he represents it, depend on other principles. To
make even this principle of Vision thoroughly intelligible in its
application to all forms of Literature and Art, it must be considered
in connection with the two other principles--Sincerity and Beauty,
which are involved in all successful works. In the next chapter we
shall treat of Sincerity.




It is always understood as an expression of condemnation when anything
in Literature or Art is said to be done for effect; and yet to produce
an effect is the aim and end of both.

There is nothing beyond a verbal ambiguity here if we look at it
closely, and yet there is a corresponding uncertainty in the conception
of Literature and Art commonly entertained, which leads many writers
and many critics into the belief that what are called "effects" should
be sought, and when found must succeed. It is desirable to clear up
this moral ambiguity, as I may call it, and to show that the real
method of securing the legitimate effect is not to aim at it, but to
aim at the truth, relying on that for securing effect. The condemnation
of whatever is "done for effect" obviously springs from indignation at
a disclosed insincerity in the artist, who is self-convicted of having
neglected truth for the sake of our applause; and we refuse our
applause to the flatterer, or give it contemptuously as to a mountebank
whose dexterity has amused us.

It is unhappily true that much insincere Literature and Art, executed
solely with a view to effect, does succeed by deceiving the public. But
this is only because the simulation of truth or the blindness of the
public conceals the insincerity. As a maxim, the Principle of Sincerity
is admitted. Nothing but what is true, or is held to be true, can
succeed; anything which looks like insincerity is condemned. In this
respect we may compare it with the maxim of Honesty the best policy. No
far-reaching intellect fails to perceive that if all men were uniformly
upright and truthful, Life would be more victorious, and Literature
more noble. We find, however, both in Life and Literature, a practical
disregard of the truth of these propositions almost equivalent to a
disbelief in them. Many men are keenly alive to the social advantages
of honesty--in the practice of others. They are also strongly impressed
with the conviction that in their own particular case the advantage
will sometimes lie in not strictly adhering to the rule. Honesty is
doubtless the best policy in the long run; but somehow the run here
seems so very long, and a short-cut opens such allurements to impatient
desire. It requires a firm calm insight, or a noble habit of thought,
to steady the wavering mind, and direct it away from delusive
short-cuts: to make belief practice, and forego immediate triumph. Many
of those who unhesitatingly admit Sincerity to be one great condition
of success in Literature find it difficult, and often impossible, to
resist the temptation of an insincerity which promises immediate
advantage. It is not only the grocers who sand their sugar before
prayers. Writers who know well enough that the triumph of falsehood is
an unholy triumph, are not deterred from falsehood by that knowledge.
They know, perhaps, that, even if undetected, it will press on their
own consciences; but the knowledge avails them little. The immediate
pressure of the temptation is yielded to, and Sincerity remains a text
to be preached to others. To gain applause they will misstate facts, to
gain victory in argument they will misrepresent the opinions they
oppose; and they suppress the rising misgivings by the dangerous
sophism that to discredit error is good work, and by the hope that no
one will detect the means by which the work is effected. The saddest
aspect of this procedure is that in Literature, as in Life, a temporary
success often does reward dishonesty. It would be insincere to conceal
it. To gain a reputation as discoverers men will invent or suppress
facts. To appear learned they will array their writings in the
ostentation of borrowed citations. To solicit the "sweet voices" of the
crowd they will feign sentiments they do not feel, and utter what they
think the crowd will wish to hear, keeping back whatever the crowd will
hear with disapproval. And, as I said, such men often succeed for a
time; the fact is so, and we must not pretend that it is otherwise. But
it no more disturbs the fundamental truth of the Principle of
Sincerity, than the perturbations in the orbit of Mars disturb the
truth of Kepler's law.

It is impossible to deny that dishonest men often grow rich and famous,
becoming powerful in their parish or in parliament. Their portraits
simper from shop windows; and they live and die respected. This success
is theirs; yet it is not the success which a noble soul will envy.
Apart from the risk of discovery and infamy, there is the certainty of
a conscience ill at ease, or if at ease, so blunted in its
sensibilities, so given over to lower lusts, that a healthy instinct
recoils from such a state. Observe, moreover, that in Literature the
possible rewards of dishonesty are small, and the probability of
detection great. In Life a dishonest man is chiefly moved by desires
towards some tangible result of money or power; if he get these he has
got all. The man of letters has a higher aim: the very object of his
toil is to secure the sympathy and respect of men; and the rewards of
his toil may be paid in money, fame, or consciousness of earnest
effort. The first of these may sometimes be gained without Sincerity.
Fame may also, for a time, be erected on an unstable ground, though it
will inevitably be destroyed again. But the last and not least reward
is to be gained by every one without fear of failure, without risk of
change. Sincere work is good work, be it never so humble; and sincere
work is not only an indestructible delight to the worker by its very
genuineness, but is immortal in the best sense, for it lives for ever
in its influence. There is no good Dictionary, not even a good Index,
that is not in this sense priceless, for it has honestly furthered the
work of the world, saving labour to others, setting an example to

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