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Lectures on Art
Edited by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Preface by the Editor.
Upon the death of Mr. Allston, it was determined, by those who had charge of his papers, to prepare his biography and correspondence, and publish them with his writings in prose and verse; a work which would have occupied two volumes of about the same size with the present. A delay has unfortunately occurred in the preparation of the biography and correspondence; and, as there have been frequent calls for a publication of his poems, and of the Lectures on Art he is known to have written, it has been thought best to give them to the public in the present form, without awaiting the completion of the whole design. It may be understood, however, that, when the biography and correspondence are published, it will be in a volume precisely corresponding with the present, so as to carry out the original design.
I will not anticipate the duty of the biographer by an extended notice of the life of Mr. Allston; but it may be interesting to some readers to know the outline of his life, and the different circumstances under which the several pieces in this volume were written.
WASHINGTON ALLSTON was born at Charleston, in South Carolina, on the 5th of November, 1779, of a family distinguished in the history of that State and of the country, being a branch of a family of the baronet rank in the titled commonalty of England. Like most young men of the South in his position at that period, he was sent to New England to receive his school and college education. His school days were passed at Newport, in Rhode Island, under the charge of Mr. Robert Rogers. He entered Harvard College in 1796, and graduated in 1800. While at school and college, he developed in a marked manner a love of nature, music, poetry, and painting. Endowed with senses capable of the nicest perceptions, and with a mental and moral constitution which tended always, with the certainty of a physical law, to the beautiful, the pure, and the sublime, he led what many might call an ideal life. Yet was he far from being a recluse, or from being disposed to an excess of introversion. On the contrary, he was a popular, high-spirited youth, almost passionately fond of society, maintaining an unusual number of warm friendships, and unsurpassed by any of the young men of his day in adaptedness to the elegancies and courtesies of the more refined portions of the moving world. Romances of love, knighthood, and heroic deeds, tales of banditti, and stories of supernatural beings, were his chief delight in his early days. Yet his classical attainments were considerable, and, as a scholar in the literature of his own language, his reputation was early established. He delivered a poem on taking his degree, which was much admired in its day.
On leaving college, he returned to South Carolina. Having determined to devote his life to the fine arts, he sold, hastily and at a sacrifice, his share of a considerable patrimonial estate, and embarked for London in the autumn of 1801. Immediately upon his arrival, he became a student of the Royal Academy, of which his countryman, West, was President, with whom he formed an intimate and lasting friendship. After three years spent in England, and a shorter stay at Paris, he went to Italy, where he spent four years devoted exclusively to the study of his art. At Rome began his intimacy with Coleridge. Among the many subsequent expressions of his feeling toward this great man, none, perhaps, is more striking than the following extract from one of his letters:–“To no other man do I owe so much, intellectually, as to Mr. Coleridge, with whom I became acquainted in Rome, and who has honored me with his friendship for more than five-and-twenty years. He used to call Rome the silent city; but I never could think of it as such while with him; for, meet him when and where I would, the fountain of his mind was never dry, but, like the far-reaching aqueducts that once supplied this mistress of the world, its living stream seemed specially to flow for every classic ruin over which we wandered. And when I recall some of our walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, I am almost tempted to dream that I have once listened to Plato in the groves of the Academy.” Readers of Coleridge know in what estimation he held the qualities and the friendship of Mr. Allston. Beside Coleridge and West, he numbered among his friends in England, Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb, Sir George Beaumont, Reynolds, and Fuseli.
In 1809, Mr. Allston returned to America, and remained two years in Boston, his adopted home, and there married the sister of Dr. Channing. In 1811, he went again to England, where his reputation as an artist had been completely established. Before his departure, he delivered a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge. During a severe illness, he removed from London to Clifton, at which place he wrote “The Sylphs of the Seasons.” In 1813, he made his first, and, with the exception of “Monaldi,” twenty-eight years afterwards, his only publication. This was a small volume, entitled “The Sylphs of the Seasons, and other Poems,” published in London; and, during the same year, republished in Boston under the direction of his friends, Professor Willard of Cambridge and Mr. Edmund T. Dana. This volume was well received, and gave him a place among the first poets of his country. The smaller poems in that edition extend as far as page 289 of the present volume.
Beside the long and serious illness through which he passed, his spirit was destined to suffer a deeper wound by the death of Mrs. Allston, in London, during the same year. These events gave to his mind a more earnest and undivided interest in his spiritual relations, and drew him more closely than ever before to his religious duties. He received the rite of confirmation, and through life was a devout adherent to the Christian doctrine and discipline.
The character of Mr. Allston’s religious feelings may be gathered, incidentally, from many of his writings. It is a subject to be treated with the reserve and delicacy with which he himself would have had it invested. Few minds have been more thoroughly imbued with belief in the reality of the unseen world; few have given more full assent to the truth, that “the things which are seen are temporal, the things which are not seen are eternal.” This was not merely an adopted opinion, a conviction imposed upon his understanding; it was of the essence of his spiritual constitution, one of the conditions of his rational existence. To him, the Supreme Being was no vague, mystical source of light and truth, or an impersonation of goodness and truth themselves; nor, on the other hand, a cold rationalistic notion of an unapproachable executor of natural and moral laws. His spirit rested in the faith of a sympathetic God. His belief was in a Being as infinitely minute and sympathetic in his providences, as unlimited in his power and knowledge. Nor need it be said, that he was a firm believer in the central truths of Christianity, the Incarnation and Redemption; that he turned from unaided speculation to the inspired record and the visible Church; that he sought aid in the sacraments ordained for the strengthening of infirm humanity, and looked for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
After a second residence of seven years in Europe, he returned to America in 1818, and again made Boston his home. There, in a circle of warmly attached friends, surrounded by a sympathy and admiration which his elevation and purity, the entire harmony of his life and pursuits, could not fail to create, he devoted himself to his art, the labor of his love.
This is not the place to enumerate his paintings, or to speak of his character as an artist. His general reading he continued to the last, with the earnestness of youth. As he retired from society, his taste inclined him to metaphysical studies, the more, perhaps, from their contrast with the usual occupations of his mind. He took particular pleasure in works of devout Christian speculation, without, however, neglecting a due proportion of strictly devotional literature. These he varied by a constant recurrence to the great epic and dramatic masters, and occasional reading of the earlier and the living novelists, tales of wild romance and lighter fiction, voyages and travels, biographies and letters. Nor was he without a strong interest in the current politics of his own country and of England, as to which his principles were highly conservative.
Upon his marriage with the daughter of the late Judge Dana, in 1830, he removed to Cambridge, and soon afterwards began the preparation of a course of lectures on Art, which he intended to deliver to a select audience of artists and men of letters in Boston. Four of these he completed. Rough drafts of two others were found among his papers, but not in a state fit for publication. In 1841, he published his tale of “Monaldi,” a production of his early life. The poems in the present volume, not included in the volume of 1813, are, with two exceptions, the work of his later years. In them, as in his paintings of the same period, may be seen the extreme attention to finish, always his characteristic, which, added to increasing bodily pain and infirmity, was the cause of his leaving so much that is unfinished behind him.
His death occurred at his own house, in Cambridge, a little past midnight on the morning of Sunday, the 9th of July, 1843. He had finished a day and week of labor in his studio, upon his great picture of Belshazzar’s Feast; the fresh paint denoting that the last touches of his pencil were given to that glorious but melancholy monument of the best years of his later life. Having conversed with his retiring family with peculiar solemnity and earnestness upon the obligation and beauty of a pure spiritual life, and on the realities of the world to come, he had seated himself at his nightly employment of reading and writing, which he usually carried into the early hours of the morning. In the silence and solitude of this occupation, in a moment, “with touch as gentle as the morning light,” which was even then approaching, his spirit was called away to its proper home.
Preface By The Editor
Lectures on Art.
Sentences Written by Mr. Allston on the Walls of His Studio
Lectures on Art.
As the word _idea_ will frequently occur, and will be found also to hold an important relation to our present subject, we shall endeavour, _in limine_, to possess our readers of the particular sense in which we understand and apply it.
An Idea, then, according to our apprehension, is the highest or most perfect _form_ in which any thing, whether of the physical, the intellectual, or the spiritual, may exist to the mind. By form, we do not mean _figure_ or _image_ (though these may be included in relation to the physical); but that condition, or state, in which such objects become cognizable to the mind, or, in other words, become objects of consciousness.
Ideas are of two kinds; which we shall distinguish by the terms _primary_ and _secondary_: the first being the _manifestation_ of objective realities; the second, that of the reflex product, so to speak, of the mental constitution. In both cases, they may be said to be self-affirmed,–that is, they carry in themselves their own evidence; being therefore not only independent of the reflective faculties, but constituting the only unchangeable ground of Truth, to which those faculties may ultimately refer. Yet have these Ideas no living energy in themselves; they are but the _forms_, as we have said, through or in which a higher Power manifests to the consciousness the supreme truth of all things real, in respect to the first class; and, in respect to the second, the imaginative truths of the mental products, or mental combinations. Of the nature and mode of operation of the Power to which we refer, we know, and can know, nothing; it is one of those secrets of our being which He who made us has kept to himself. And we should be content with the assurance, that we have in it a sure and intuitive guide to a reverent knowledge of the beauty and grandeur of his works,–nay, of his own adorable reality. And who shall gainsay it, should we add, that this mysterious Power is essentially immanent in that “breath of life,” by which man becomes “a living soul”?
In the following remarks we shall confine ourself to the first class of Ideas, namely, the Real; leaving the second to be noticed hereafter.
As to number, ideas are limited only by the number of kinds, without direct relation to degrees; every object, therefore, having in itself a _distinctive essential_, has also its distinct idea; while two or more objects of the same kind, however differing in degree, must consequently refer only to one and the same. For instance, though a hundred animals should differ in size, strength, or color, yet, if none of these peculiarities are essential to the species, they would all refer to the same supreme idea.
The same law applies equally, and with the same limitation, to the essential differences in the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual. All ideas, however, have but a potential existence until they are called into the consciousness by some real object; the required condition of the object being a predetermined correspondence, or correlation. Every such object we term an _assimilant_.
With respect to those ideas which relate to the physical world, we remark, that, though the assimilants required are supplied by the senses, the senses have in themselves no _productive, cooeperating_ energy, being but the passive instruments, or medium, through which they are conveyed. That the senses, in this relation, are merely passive, admits of no question, from the obvious difference between the idea and the objects. The senses can do no more than transmit the external in its actual forms, leaving the images in the mind exactly as they found them; whereas the intuitive power rejects, or assimilates, indefinitely, until they are resolved into the proper perfect form. Now the power which prescribes that form must, of necessity, be antecedent to the presentation of the objects which it thus assimilates, as it could not else give consistence and unity to what was before separate or fragmentary. And every one who has ever realized an idea of the class in which alone we compare the assimilants with the ideal form, be he poet, painter, or philosopher, well knows the wide difference between the materials and their result. When an idea is thus realized and made objective, it affirms its own truth, nor can any process of the understanding shake its foundation; nay, it is to the mind an essential, imperative truth, then emerging, as it were, from the dark potential into the light of reality.
If this be so, the inference is plain, that the relation between the actual and the ideal is one of necessity, and therefore, also, is the predetermined correspondence between the prescribed form of an idea and its assimilant; for how otherwise could the former become recipient of that which was repugnant or indifferent, when the presence of the latter constitutes the very condition by which it is manifested, or can be known to exist? By actual, here, we do not mean the exclusively physical, but whatever, in the strictest sense, can be called an _object_, as forming the opposite to a mere subject of the mind.
It would appear, then, that what we call ourself must have a _dual_ reality, that is, in the mind and in the senses, since neither _alone_ could possibly explain the phenomena of the other; consequently, in the existence of either we have clearly implied the reality of both. And hence must follow the still more important truth, that, in the _conscious presence_ of any _spiritual_ idea, we have the surest proof of a spiritual object; nor is this the less certain, though we perceive not the assimilant. Nay, a spiritual assimilant cannot be perceived, but, to use the words of St. Paul, is “spiritually discerned,” that is, by a sense, so to speak, of our own spirit. But to illustrate by example: we could not, for instance, have the ideas of good and evil without their objective realities, nor of right and wrong, in any intelligible form, without the moral law to which they refer,–which law we call the Conscience; nor could we have the idea of a moral law without a moral lawgiver, and, if moral, then intelligent, and, if intelligent, then personal; in a word, we could not now have, as we know we have, the idea of conscience, without an objective, personal God. Such ideas may well be called revelations, since, without any perceived assimilant, we find them equally affirmed with those ideas which relate to the purely physical.
But here it may be asked, How are we to distinguish an Idea from a mere _notion_? We answer, By its self-affirmation. For an ideal truth, having its own evidence in itself, can neither be proved nor disproved by any thing out of itself; whatever, then, impresses the mind _as_ truth, _is_ truth until it can be _shown_ to be false; and consequently, in the converse, whatever can be brought into the sphere of the understanding, as a dialectic subject, is not an Idea. It will be observed, however, that we do not say an idea may not be denied; but to deny is not to disprove. Many things are denied in direct contradiction to fact; for the mind can command, and in no measured degree, the power of self-blinding, so that it cannot see what is actually before it. This is a psychological fact, which may be attested by thousands, who can well remember the time when they had once clearly discerned what has now vanished from their minds. Nor does the actual cessation of these primeval forms, or the after presence of their fragmentary, nay, disfigured relics, disprove their reality, or their original integrity, as we could not else call them up in their proper forms at any future time, to the reacknowledging their truth: a _resuscitation_ and result, so to speak, which many have experienced.
In conclusion: though it be but one and the same Power that prescribes the form and determines the truth of all Ideas, there is yet an essential difference between the two classes of ideas to which we have referred; for it may well be doubted whether any Primary Idea can ever be fully realized by a finite mind,–at least in the present state. Take, for instance, the idea of beauty. In its highest form, as presented to the consciousness, we still find it referring to something beyond and above itself, as if it were but an approximation to a still higher form. The truth of this, we think, will be particularly felt by the artist, whether poet or painter, whose mind may be supposed, from his natural bias, to be more peculiarly capable of its highest developement; and what true artist was ever satisfied with any idea of beauty of which he is conscious? From this approximated form, however, he doubtless derives a high degree of pleasure, nay, one of the purest of which his nature is capable; yet still is the pleasure modified, if we may so express it, by an undefined yearning for what he feels can never be realized. And wherefore this craving, but for the archetype of that which called it forth?–When we say not satisfied, we do not mean discontented, but simply not in full fruition. And it is better that it should be so, since one of the happiest elements of our nature is that which continually impels it towards the indefinite and unattainable. So far as we know, the like limits may be set to every other primary idea,–as if the Creator had reserved to himself alone the possible contemplation of the archetypes of his universe.
With regard to the other class, that of Secondary Ideas, which we have called the reflex product of the mind, their distinguishing characteristic is, that they not only admit of a perfect realization, but also of outward manifestation, so as to be communicated to others. All works of imagination, so called, present examples of this. Hence they may also be termed imitative or imaginative. For, though they draw their assimilants from the actual world, and are likewise regulated by the unknown Power before mentioned, yet are they but the forms of what, _as a whole_, have no actual existence;–they are nevertheless true to the mind, and are made so by the same Power which affirms their possibility. This species of Truth we shall hereafter have occasion to distinguish as Poetic Truth.
Next to the developement of our moral nature, to have subordinated the senses to the mind is the highest triumph of the civilized state. Were it possible to embody the present complicated scheme of society, so as to bring it before us as a visible object, there is perhaps nothing in the world of sense that would so fill us with wonder; for what is there in nature that may not fall within its limits? and yet how small a portion of this stupendous fabric will be found to have any direct, much less exclusive, relation to the actual wants of the body! It might seem, indeed, to an unreflecting observer, that our physical necessities, which, truly estimated, are few and simple, have rather been increased than diminished by the civilized man. But this is not true; for, if a wider duty is imposed on the senses, it is only to minister to the increased demands of the imagination, which is now so mingled with our every-day concerns, even with our dress, houses, and furniture, that, except with the brutalized, the purely sensuous wants might almost be said to have become extinct: with the cultivated and refined, they are at least so modified as to be no longer prominent.
But this refilling on the physical, like every thing else, has had its opponents: it is declaimed against as artificial. If by artificial is meant unnatural, we cannot so consider it; but hold, on the contrary, that the whole multiform scheme of the civilized state is not only in accordance with our nature, but an essential condition to the proper developement of the human being. It is presupposed by the very wants of his mind; nor could it otherwise have been, any more than could have been the cabin of the beaver, or the curious hive of the bee, without their preexisting instincts; it is therefore in the highest sense natural, as growing out of the inherent desires of the mind.
But we would not be misunderstood. When we speak of the refined state as not out of nature, we mean such results as proceed from the legitimate growth of our mental constitution, which we suppose to be grounded in permanent, universal principles; and, whatever modifications, however subtile, and apparently visionary, may follow their operation in the world of sense, so long as that operation diverge not from its original ground, its effect must be, in the strictest sense, natural. Thus the wildest visions of poetry, the unsubstantial forms of painting, and the mysterious harmonies of music, that seem to disembody the spirit, and make us creatures of the air,–even these, unreal as they are, may all have their foundation in immutable truth; and we may moreover know of this truth by its own evidence. Of this species of evidence we shall have occasion to speak hereafter. But there is another kind of growth, which may well be called unnatural; we mean, of those diseased appetites, whose effects are seen in the distorted forms of the _conventional_, having no ground but in weariness of the true; and it cannot be denied that this morbid growth has its full share, inwardly and outwardly, both of space and importance. These, however, must sooner or later end as they began; they perish in the lie they make; and it were well did not other falsehoods take their places, to prolong a life whose only tenure is inconsequential succession,–in other words, Fashion.
If it be true, then, that even the commonplaces of life must all in some degree partake of the mental, there can be but one rule by which to determine the proper rank of any object of pursuit, and that is by its nearer or more remote relation to our inward nature. Every system, therefore, which tends to degrade a mental pleasure to the subordinate or superfluous, is both narrow and false, as virtually reversing its natural order.
It pleased our Creator, when he endowed us with appetites and functions by which to sustain the economy of life, at the same time to annex to their exercise a sense of pleasure; hence our daily food, and the daily alternation of repose and action, are no less grateful than imperative. That life may be sustained, and most of its functions performed, without any coincident enjoyment, is certainly possible. Our food may be distasteful, action painful, and rest unrefreshing; and yet we may eat, and exercise, and sleep, nay, live thus for years. But this is not our natural condition, and we call it disease. Were man a mere animal, the very act of living, in his natural or healthy state, would be to him a continuous enjoyment. But he is also a moral and an intellectual being; and, in like manner, is the healthful condition of these, the nobler parts of his nature, attended with something more than a consciousness of the mere process of existence. To the exercise of his intellectual faculties and moral attributes the same benevolent law has superadded a sense of pleasure,–of a kind, too, in the same degree transcending the highest bodily sensation, as must that which is immortal transcend the perishable. It is not for us to ask why it is so; much less, because it squares not with the poor notion of material usefulness, to call in question a fact that announces a nature to which the senses are but passing ministers. Let us rather receive this ennobling law, at least without misgiving, lest in our sensuous wisdom we exchange an enduring gift for a transient gratification.
Of the peculiar fruits of this law, which we shall here distinguish by the general term _mental pleasures_, it is our purpose to treat in the present discourse.
It is with no assumed diffidence that we venture on this subject; for, though we shall offer nothing not believed to be true, we are but too sensible how small a portion of truth it is in our power to present. But, were it far greater, and the present writer of a much higher order of intellect, there would still be sufficient cause for humility in view of those impassable bounds that have ever met every self-questioning of the mind.
But whilst the narrowness of human knowledge may well preclude all self-exaltation, it would be worse than folly to hold as naught the many important truths which have been wrought out for us by the mighty intellects of the past. If they have left us nothing for vainglory, they have left us at least enough to be grateful for. Nor is it a little, that they have taught us to look into those mysterious chambers of our being,–the abode of the spirit; and not a little, indeed, if what we are there permitted to know shall have brought with it the conviction, that we are not abandoned to a blind empiricism, to waste life in guesses, and to guess at last that we have all our lives been guessing wrong,–but, unapproachable though it be to the subordinate Understanding, that we have still within us an abiding Interpreter, which cannot be gainsaid, which makes our duty to God and man clear as the light, which ever guards the fountain of all true pleasures, nay, which holds in subjection the last high gift of the Creator, that imaginative faculty whereby his exalted creature, made in his image, might mould at will, from his most marvellous world, yet unborn forms, even forms of beauty, grandeur, and majesty, having all of truth but his own divine prerogative,–_the mystery of Life_.
As the greater part of those Pleasures which we propose to discuss are intimately connected with the material world, it may be well, perhaps, to assign some reason for the epithet _mental_. To many, we know, this will seem superfluous; but, when it is remembered how often we hear of this and that object delighting the eye, or of certain sounds charming the ear, it may not be amiss to show that such expressions have really no meaning except as metaphors. When the senses, as the medium of communication, have conveyed to the mind either the sounds or images, their function ceases. So also with respect to the objects: their end is attained, at least as to us, when the sounds or images are thus transmitted, which, so far as they are concerned, must for ever remain the same within as without the mind. For, where the ultimate end is not in mere bodily sensation, neither the senses nor the objects possess, of themselves, any productive power; of the product that follows, the _tertium aliquid_, whether the pleasure we feel be in a beautiful animal or in according sounds, neither the one nor the other is really the cause, but simply the _occasion_. It is clear, then, that the effect realized supposes of necessity another agent, which must therefore exist only in the mind. But of this hereafter.
If the cause of any emotion, which we seem to derive from an outward object, were inherent exclusively in the object itself, there could be no failure in any instance, except where the organs of sense were either diseased or imperfect. But it is a matter of fact that they often do fail where there is no disease or organic defect. Many of us, perhaps, can call to mind certain individuals, whose sense of hearing is as acute as our own, who yet can by no possibility be made to recognize the slightest relation between the according notes of the simplest melody; and, though they can as readily as others distinguish the individual sounds, even to the degrees of flatness and sharpness, the harmonic agreement is to them as mere noise. Let us suppose ourselves present at a concert, in company with one such person and another who possesses what is called musical sensibility. How are they affected, for instance, by a piece of Mozart’s? In the sense of hearing they are equal: look at them. In the one we perceive perplexity, annoyance, perhaps pain; he hears nothing but a confused medley of sounds. In the other, the whole being is rapt in ecstasy, the unutterable pleasure gushes from his eyes, he cannot articulate his emotion;–in the words of one, who felt and embodied the subtile mystery in immortal verse, his very soul seems “lapped in Elysium.” Now, could this difference be possible, were the sole cause, strictly speaking, in mere matter?
Nor do we contradict our position, when we admit, in certain cases,–for instance, in the producer,–the necessity of a nicer organization, in order to the more perfect _transmission_ of the finer emotions; inasmuch as what is to be communicated in space and time must needs be by some medium adapted thereto.
Such a person as Paganini, it is said, was able to “discourse most excellent music” on a ballad-monger’s fiddle; yet will any one question that he needed an instrument of somewhat finer construction to show forth his full powers? Nay, we might add, that he needed no less than the most delicate _Cremona_,–some instrument, as it were, articulated into humanity,–to have inhaled and respired those attenuated strains, which, those who heard them think it hardly extravagant to say, seemed almost to embody silence.
Now this mechanical instrument, by means of which such marvels were wrought, is but one of the many visible symbols of that more subtile instrument through which the mind acts when it would manifest itself. It would be too absurd to ask if any one believed that the music we speak of was created, as well as conveyed, by the instrument. The violin of Paganini may still be seen and handled; but the soul that inspired it is buried with its master.
If we admit a distinction between mind and matter, and the result we speak of be purely mental, we should contradict the universal law of nature to assign such a product to mere matter, inasmuch as the natural law forbids in the lower the production of the higher. Take an example from one of the lower forms of organic life,–a common vegetable. Will any one assert that the surrounding inorganic elements of air, earth, heat, and water produce its peculiar form? Though some, or all, of these may be essential to its developement, they are so only as its predetermined correlatives, without which its existence could not be manifested; and in like manner must the peculiar form of the vegetable preexist in its life,–in its _idea_,–in order to evolve by these assimilants its own proper organism.
No possible modification in the degrees or proportion of these elements can change the specific form of a plant,–for instance, a cabbage into a cauliflower; it must ever remain a cabbage, _small or large, good or bad. _ So, too, is the external world to the mind; which needs, also, as the condition of its manifestation, its objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end,–the pleasurable emotion. We beg it may be noted that we do not say _sensation_. And hence we hold ourself justified in speaking of such presence as simply the occasion, or condition, and not, _per se_, the cause. And hence, moreover, may be inferred the absolute necessity of Dual Forces in order to the actual existence of any thing. One alone, the incomprehensible Author of all things, is self-subsisting in his perfect Unity.
We shall now endeavour to establish the following proposition: namely, that the Pleasures in question have their true source in One Intuitive Universal Principle or living Power, and that the three Ideas of Beauty, Truth, and Holiness, which we assume to represent the _perfect_ in the physical, intellectual, and moral worlds, are but the several realized phases of this sovereign principle, which we shall call _Harmony_.
Our first step, then, is to possess ourself of the essential or distinctive characteristic of these pleasurable emotions. Apparently, there is nothing more simple. And yet we are acquainted with no single term that shall fully express it. But what every one has more or less felt may certainly be made intelligible in a more extended form, and, we should think, by any one in the slightest degree competent to self-examination. Let a person, then, be appealed to; and let him put the question as to what passes within him when possessed by these emotions; and the spontaneous feeling will answer for us, that what we call _self_ has no part in them. Nay, we further assert, that, when singly felt, that is, when unallied to other emotions as modifying forces, they are wholly unmixed with _any personal considerations, or any conscious advantage to the individual_.
Nor is this assigning too high a character to the feelings in question because awakened in so many instances by the purely physical; since their true origin may clearly be traced to a common source with those profounder emotions which we are wont to ascribe to the intellectual and moral. Besides, it should be borne in mind, that no physical object can be otherwise to the mind than a mere _occasion_; its inward product, or mental effect, being from another Power. The proper view therefore is, not that such alliance can ever degrade the higher agent, but that its more humble and material _assimilant_ is thus elevated by it. So that nothing in nature should be counted mean, which can thus be exalted; but rather be honored, since no object can become so assimilated except by its predetermined correlation to our better nature.
Neither is it the privilege of the exclusive few, the refined and cultivated, to feel them deeply. If we look beyond ourselves, even to the promiscuous multitude, the instance will be rare, if existing at all, where some transient touch of these purer feelings has not raised the individual to, at least, a momentary exemption from the common thraldom of self. And we greatly err if their universality is not solely limited by those “shades of the prison-house,” which, in the words of the poet, too often “close upon the growing boy.” Nay, so far as we have observed, we cannot admit it as a question whether any person through a whole life has always been wholly insensible,–we will not say (though well we might) to the good and true,–but to beauty; at least, to some one kind, or degree, of the beautiful. The most abject wretch, however animalized by vice, may still be able to recall the time when a morning or evening sky, a bird, a flower, or the sight of some other object in nature, has given him a pleasure, which he felt to be distinct from that of his animal appetites, and to which he could attach not a thought of self-interest. And, though crime and misery may close the heart for years, and seal it up for ever to every redeeming thought, they cannot so shut out from the memory these gleams of innocence; even the brutified spirit, the castaway of his kind, has been made to blush at this enduring light; for it tells him of a truth, which might else have never been remembered,–that he has once been a man.
And here may occur a question,–which might well be left to the ultra advocates of the _cui bono_,–whether a simple flower may not sometimes be of higher use than a labor-saving machine.
As to the objects whose effect on the mind is here discussed, it is needless to specify them; they are, in general, all such as are known to affect us in the manner described. The catalogue will vary both in number and kind with different persons, according to the degree of force or developement in the overruling Principle.
We proceed, then, to reply to such objections as will doubtless be urged against the characteristic assumed. And first, as regards the Beautiful, we shall probably be met by the received notion, that we experience in Beauty one of the most powerful incentives to passion; while examples without number will be brought in array to prove it also the wonder-working cause of almost fabulous transformations,–as giving energy to the indolent, patience to the quick, perseverance to the fickle, even courage to the timid; and, _vice versa_, as unmanning the hero,–nay, urging the honorable to falsehood, treason, and murder; in a word, through the mastered, bewildered, sophisticated _self_, as indifferently raising and sinking the fascinated object to the heights and depths of pleasure and misery, of virtue and vice.
Now, if the Beauty here referred to is of the _human being_, we do not gainsay it; but this is beauty in its _mixed mode_,–not in its high, passionless form, its singleness and purity. It is not Beauty as it descended from heaven, in the cloud, the rainbow, the flower, the bird, or in the concord of sweet sounds, that seem to carry back the soul to whence it came.
Could we look, indeed, at the human form in its simple, unallied physical structure,–on that, for instance, of a beautiful woman,–and forget, or rather not feel, that it is other than a _form_, there could be but one feeling: that nothing visible was ever so framed to banish from the soul every ignoble thought, and imbue it, as it were, with primeval innocence.
We are quite aware that the doctrine assumed in our main proposition with regard to Beauty, as holding exclusive relation to the Physical, is not very likely to forestall favor; we therefore beg for it only such candid attention as, for the reasons advanced, it may appear to deserve.
That such effects as have just been objected could not be from Beauty alone, in its pure and single form, but rather from its coincidence with some real or supposed moral or intellectual quality, or with the animal appetites, seems to us clear; as, were it otherwise, we might infer the same from a beautiful infant,–the very thought of which is revolting to common sense. In such conjunction, indeed, it cannot but have a certain influence, but so modified as often to become a mere accessory, subordinated to the animal or moral object, and for the attainment of an end not its own; in proof of which, we find it almost uniformly partaking the penalty imposed on its incidental associates, should ever their desires result in illusion,–namely, in the aversion that follows. But the result of Beauty can never be such; when it seems otherwise, the effect, we think, can readily be traced to other causes, as we shall presently endeavour to show.
It cannot be a matter of controversy whether Beauty is limited to the human form; the daily experience of the most ordinary man would answer No: he finds it in the woods, the fields, in plants and animals, nay, in a thousand objects, as he looks upon nature; nor, though indefinitely diversified, does he hesitate to assign to each the same epithet. And why? Because the feelings awakened by all are similar in kind, though varying, doubtless, by many degrees in intenseness. Now suppose he is asked of what personal advantage is all this beauty to him. Verily, he would be puzzled to answer. It gives him pleasure, perhaps great pleasure. And this is all he could say. But why should the effect be different, except in degree, from the beauty of a human being? We have already the answer in this concluding term. For what is a human being but one who unites in himself a physical, intellectual, and moral nature, which cannot in one become even an object of thought without at least some obscure shadowings of its natural allies? How, then, can we separate that which has an exclusive relation to his physical form, without some perception of the moral and intellectual with which it is joined? But how do we know that Beauty is limited to such exclusive relation? This brings us to the great problem; so simple and easy of solution in all other cases, yet so intricate and apparently inexplicable in man. In other things, it would be felt absurd to make it a question, whether referring to form, color, or sound. A single instance will suffice. Let us suppose, then, an unfamiliar object, whose habits, disposition, and so forth, are wholly unknown, for instance, a bird of paradise, to be seen for the first time by twenty persons, and they all instantly call it beautiful;–could there be any doubt that the pleasure it produced in each was of the same kind? or would any one of them ascribe his pleasure to any thing but its form and plumage? Concerning natural objects, and those inferior animals which are not under the influence of domestic associations, there is little or no difference among men: if they differ, it is only in degree, according to their sensibility. Men do not dispute about a rose. And why? Because there is nothing beside the physical to interfere with the impression it was predetermined to make; and the idea of beauty is realized instantly. So, also, with respect to other objects of an opposite character; they can speak without deliberating, and call them plain, homely, ugly, and so on, thus instinctively expressing even their degree of remoteness from the condition of beauty. Who ever called a pelican beautiful, or even many animals endeared to us by their valuable qualities,–such as the intelligent and docile elephant, or the affectionate orang-outang, or the faithful mastiff? Nay, we may run through a long list of most useful and amiable creatures, that could not, under any circumstances, give birth to an emotion corresponding to that which we ascribe to the beautiful.
But there is scarcely a subject on which mankind are wider at variance, than on the beauty of their own species,–some preferring this, and others that, particular conformation; which can only be accounted for on the supposition of some predominant expression, either moral, intellectual, or sensual, with which they are in sympathy, or else the reverse. While some will task their memory, and resort to the schools, for their supposed infallible _rules_;–forgetting, meanwhile, that ultimate tribunal to which their canon must itself appeal, the ever-living principle which first evolved its truth, and which now, as then, is not to be reasoned about, but _felt_. It need not be added how fruitful of blunders is this mechanical ground.
Now we venture to assert that no mistake was ever made, even in a single glance, concerning any natural object, not disfigured by human caprice, or which the eye had not been trained to look at through some conventional medium. Under this latter circumstance, there are doubtless many things in nature which affect men very differently; and more especially such as, from their familiar nearness, have come under the influence of _opinion_, and been incrusted, as it were, by the successive deposits of many generations. But of the vast and various multitude of objects which have thus been forced from their original state, there is perhaps no one which has undergone so many and such strange disfigurements as the human form; or in relation to which our “ideas,” as we are pleased to call them, but in truth our opinions, have been so fluctuating. If an Idea, indeed, had any thing to do with Fashion, we should call many things monstrous to which custom has reconciled us. Let us suppose a case, by way of illustration. A gentleman and lady, from one of our fashionable cities, are making a tour on the borders of some of our new settlements in the West. They are standing on the edge of a forest, perhaps admiring the grandeur of nature; perhaps, also, they are lovers, and sharing with nature their admiration for each other, whose personal charms are set off to the utmost, according to the most approved notions, by the taste and elegance of their dress. Then suppose an Indian hunter, who had never seen one of our civilized world, or heard of our costume, coming suddenly upon them, their faces being turned from him. Would it be possible for him to imagine what kind of animals they were? We think not; and least of all, that he would suppose them to be of his own species. This is no improbable case; and we very much fear, should it ever occur, that the unrefined savage would go home with an impression not very flattering either to the milliner or the tailor.
That, under such disguises, we should consider human beauty as a kind of enigma, or a thing to dispute about, is not surprising; nor even that we should often differ from ourselves, when so much of the outward man is thus made to depend on the shifting humors of some paramount Petronius of the shears. But, admitting it to be an easy matter to divest the form, or, what is still more important, our own minds, of every thing conventional, there is the still greater obstacle to any true effect from the person alone, in that moral admixture, already mentioned, which, more or less, must color the most of our impressions from every individual. Is there not, then, sufficient ground for at least a doubt if, excepting idiots, there is one human being in whom the purely physical is _at all times_ the sole agent? We do not say that it does not generally predominate. But, in a compound being like man, it seems next to impossible that the nature within should not at times, in some degree, transpire through the most rigid texture of the outward form. We may not, indeed, always read aright the character thus obscurely indexed, or even be able to guess at it, one way or the other; still, it will affect us; nay, most so, perhaps, when most indefinite. Every man is, to a certain extent, a physiognomist: we do not mean, according to the common acceptation, that he is an interpreter of lines and quantities, which may be reduced to rules; but that he is born one, judging, not by any conscious rule, but by an instinct, which he can neither explain nor comprehend, and which compels him to sit in judgment, whether he will or no. How else can we account for those instantaneous sympathies and antipathies towards an utter stranger?
Now this moral influence has a twofold source, one in the object, and another in ourselves; nor is it easy to determine which is the stronger as a counteracting force. Hitherto we have considered only the former; we now proceed with a few remarks upon the latter.
Will any man say, that he is wholly without some natural or acquired bias? This is the source of the counteracting influence which we speak of in ourselves; but which, like many other of the secret springs, both of thought and feeling, few men think of. It is nevertheless one which, on this particular subject, is scarcely ever inactive; and according to the bias will be our impressions, whether we be intellectual or sensual, coldly speculative or ardently imaginative. We do not mean that it is always called forth by every thing we approach; we speak only of its usual activity between man and man; for there seems to be a mysterious something in our nature, that, in spite of our wishes, will rarely allow of an absolute indifference towards any of the species; some effect, however slight, even as that of the air which we unconsciously inhale and again respire, must follow, whether directly from the object or reacting from ourselves. Nay, so strong is the law, whether in attraction or repulsion, that we cannot resist it even in relation to those human shadows projected on air by the mere imagination; for we feel it in art only less than in nature, provided, however, that the imagined being possess but the indication of a human soul: yet not so is it, if presenting only the outward form, since a mere form can in itself have no affinity with either the heart or intellect. And here we would ask, Does not this striking exception in the present argument cast back, as it were, a confirmatory reflection?
We have often thought, that the power of the mere form could not be more strongly exemplified than at a common paint-shop. Among the annual importations from the various marts of Europe, how many beautiful faces, without an atom of meaning, attract the passengers,–stopping high and low, people of all descriptions, and actually giving pleasure, if not to every one, at least to the majority; and very justly, for they have beauty, and _nothing else_. But let another artist, some man of genius, copy the same faces, and add character,–breathe into them souls: from that moment the passers-by would see as if with other eyes; the affections and the imagination then become the spectators; and, according to the quickness or dulness, the vulgarity or refinement, of these, would be the impression. Thus a coarse mind may feel the beauty in the hard, soulless forms of Van der Werf, yet turn away with apathy from the sanctified loveliness of a Madonna by Raffaelle.
But to return to the individual bias, which is continually inclining to, or repelling, What is more common, especially with women, than a high admiration of a plain person, if connected with wit, or a pleasing address? Can we have a stronger case in point than that of the celebrated Wilkes, one of the ugliest, yet one of the most admired men of his time? Even his own sex, blinded no doubt by their sympathetic bias, could see no fault in him, either in mind or person; for, when it was objected to the latter, that “he squinted confoundedly,” the reply was, “No, Sir, not more than a gentleman ought to squint.”
Of the tendency to particular pursuits,–to art, science, or any particular course of life,–we do not speak; the bias we allude to is in the more personal disposition of the man,–in that which gives a tone to his internal character; nor is it material of what proportions compounded, of the affections, or the intellect, or the senses,–whether of some only, or the whole; that these form the ground of every man’s bias is no less certain, than the fact that there is scarcely any secret which men are in the habit of guarding with such sedulous care. Nay, it would seem as if every one were impelled to it by some superstitious instinct, that every one might have it to say to himself, There is one thing in me which is all _my own_. Be this as it may, there are few things more hazardous than to pronounce with confidence on any man’s bias. Indeed, most men would be puzzled to name it to themselves; but its existence in them is not the less a fact, because the form assumed may be so mixed and complicated as to be utterly undefinable. It is enough, however, that every one feels, and is more or less led by it, whether definite or not.
This being the case, how is it possible that it should not in some degree affect our feelings towards every one we meet,–that it should not leave some speck of leaven on each impression, which shall impregnate it with something that we admire and love, or else with that which we hate and despise?
And what is the most beautiful or the most ungainly form before a sorcerer like this, who can endow a fair simpleton with the rarest intellect, or transform, by a glance, the intellectual, noble-hearted dwarf to an angel of light? These, of course, are extreme cases. But if true in these, as we have reason to believe, how formidable the power!
But though, as before observed, we may not read this secret with precision, it is sometimes possible to make a shrewd guess at the prevailing tendency in certain individuals. Perhaps the most obvious cases are among the sanguine and imaginative; and the guess would be, that a beautiful person would presently be enriched with all possible virtues, while the colder speculatist would only see in it, not what it possessed, but the mind that it wanted. Now it would be curious to imagine (and the case is not impossible) how the eyes of each might be opened, with the probable consequence, how each might feel when his eyes were opened, and the object was seen as it really is. Some untoward circumstance comes unawares on the perfect creature: a burst of temper knits the brow, inflames the eye, inflates the nostril, gnashes the teeth, and converts the angel into a storming fury. What then becomes of the visionary virtues? They have passed into air, and taken with them, also, what was the fair creature’s right,–her very beauty. Yet a different change takes place with the dry man of intellect. The mindless object has taken shame of her ignorance; she begins to cultivate her powers, which are gradually developed until they expand and brighten; they inform her features, so that no one can look upon them without seeing the evidence of no common intellect: the dry man, at last, is struck with their superior intelligence, and what more surprises him is the grace and beauty, which, for the first time, they reveal to his eyes. The learned dust which had so long buried his heart is quickly brushed away, and he weds the embodied mind. What third change may follow, it is not to our purpose to foresee.
Has human beauty, then, no power? When united with virtue and intellect, we might almost answer,–All power. It is the embodied harmony of the true poet; his visible Muse; the guardian angel of his better nature; the inspiring sibyl of his best affections, drawing him to her with a purifying charm, from the selfishness of the world, from poverty and neglect, from the low and base, nay, from his own frailty or vices:–for he cannot approach her with unhallowed thoughts, whom the unlettered and ignorant look up to with awe, as to one of a race above them; before whom the wisest and best bow down without abasement, and would bow in idolatry but for a higher reverence. No! there is no power like this of mortal birth. But against the antagonist moral, the human beauty of itself has no power, no self-sustaining life. While it panders to evil desires, then, indeed, there are few things may parallel its fearful might. But the unholy alliance must at last have an end. Look at it then, when the beautiful serpent has cast her slough.
Let us turn to it for a moment, and behold it in league with elegant accomplishments and a subtile intellect: how complete its triumph! If ever the soul may be said to be intoxicated, it is then, when it feels the full power of a beautiful, bad woman. The fabled enchantments of the East are less strange and wonder-working than the marvellous changes which her spell has wrought. For a time every thought seems bound to her will; the eternal eye of the conscience closes before her; the everlasting truths of right and wrong sleep at her bidding; nay, things most gross and abhorred become suddenly invested with a seeming purity: till the whole mind is hers, and the bewildered victim, drunk with her charms, calls evil good. Then, what may follow? Read the annals of crime; it will tell us what follows the broken spell,–broken by the first degrading theft, the first stroke of the dagger, or the first drop of poison. The felon’s eye turns upon the beautiful sorceress with loathing and abhorrence: an asp, a toad, is not more hateful! The story of Milwood has many counterparts.
But, although Beauty cannot sustain itself permanently against what is morally bad, and has no direct power of producing good, it yet may, and often does, when unobstructed, through its unimpassioned purity, predispose to the good, except, perhaps, in natures grossly depraved; inasmuch as all affinities to the pure are so many reproaches to the vitiated mind, unless convertible to some selfish end. Witness the beautiful wife, wedded for what is misnamed love, yet becoming the scorn of a brutal husband,–the more bitter, perhaps, if she be also good. But, aside from those counteracting causes so often mentioned, it is as we have said: we are predisposed to feel kindly, and to think purely, of every beautiful object, until we have reason to think otherwise; and according to our own hearts will be our thoughts.
We are aware of but one other objection which has not been noticed, and which might be made to the intuitive nature of the Idea. How is it, we may be asked, that artists, who are supposed, from their early discipline, to have overcome all conventional bias, and also to have acquired the more difficult power of analyzing their models, so as to contemplate them in their separate elements, have so often varied as to their ideas of Beauty? Whether artists have really the power thus ascribed to them, we shall not here inquire; it is no doubt, if possible, their business to acquire it. But, admitting it as true, we deny the position: they do not change their ideas. They can have but one Idea of Beauty, inasmuch as that Idea is but a specific phase of one immutable Principle,–if there be such a principle; as we shall hereafter endeavour to show. Nor can they have of it any essentially different, much less opposite, conceptions: but their _apprehension_ of it may undergo many apparent changes, which, nevertheless, are but the various degrees that only mark a fuller conception; as their more extended acquaintance with the higher outward assimilants of Beauty brings them, of course, nearer to a perfect realization of the preexisting Idea. By _perfect_, here, we mean only the nearest approximation by man. And we appeal to every artist, competent to answer, if it be not so. Does he ever descend from a higher assimilant to a lower? Suppose him to have been born in Italy; would he go to Holland to realize his Idea? But many a Dutchman has sought in Italy what he could not find in his own country. We do not by this intend any reflection on the latter,–a country so fruitful of genius; it is only saying that the human form in Italy is from a finer mould. Then, what directs the artist from one object to another, and determines him which to choose, if he has not the guide within him? And why else should all nations instinctively bow before the superior forms of Greece?
We add but one remark. Supposing the artist to be wholly freed from all modifying biases, such is seldom the case with those who criticize his work,–especially those who would show their superiority by detecting faults, and who frequently condemn the painter simply for not expressing what he never aimed at. As to some, they are never content if they do not find beauty, whatever the subject, though it may neutralize the character, if not render it ridiculous. Were Raffaelle, who seldom sought the purely beautiful, to be judged by the want of it, he would fall below Guido. But his object was much higher,–in the intellect and the affections; it was the human being in his endless inflections of thought and passion, in which there is little probability he will ever be approached. Yet false criticism has been as prodigal to him in the ascription of beauty, as parsimonious and unjust to many others.
In conclusion, may there not be, in the difficulty we have thus endeavoured to solve, a probable significance of the responsible, as well as distinct, position which the Human being holds in the world of life? Are there no shadowings, in that reciprocal influence between soul and soul, of some mysterious chain which links together the human family in its two extremes, giving to the very lowest an indefeasible claim on the highest, so that we cannot be independent if we would, or indifferent even to the very meanest, without violation of an imperative law of our nature? And does it not at least _hint_ of duties and affections towards the most deformed in body, the most depraved in mind,–of interminable consequences? If man were a mere animal, though the highest animal, could these inscrutable influences affect us as they do? Would not the animal appetites be our true and sole end? What even would Beauty be to the sated appetite? If it did not, as in the last instance, of the brutal husband, become an object of scorn,–which it could not be, from the necessary absence of moral obliquity,–would it be better than a picked bone to a gorged dog? Least of all could it resemble the visible sign of that pure idea, in which so many lofty minds have recognized the type of a far higher love than that of earth, which the soul shall know, when, in a better world, she shall realize the ultimate reunion of Beauty with the coeternal forms of Truth and Holiness.
We will now apply the characteristic assumed to the second leading Idea, namely, to Truth. In the first place, we take it for granted, that no one will deny to the perception of truth some positive pleasure; no one, at least, who is not at the same time prepared to contradict the general sense of mankind, nay, we will add, their universal experience. The moment we begin to think, we begin to acquire, whether it be in trifles or otherwise, some kind of knowledge; and of two things presented to our notice, supposing one to be true and the other false, no one ever knowingly, and for its own sake, chooses the false: whatever he may do in after life, for some selfish purpose, he cannot do so in childhood, where there is no such motive, without violence to his nature. And here we are supposing the understanding, with its triumphant pride and subtilty, out of the question, and the child making his choice under the spontaneous sense of the true and the false. For, were it otherwise, and the choice indifferent, what possible foundation for the commonest acts of life, even as it respects himself, would there be to him who should sow with lies the very soil of his growing nature. It is time enough in manhood to begin to lie to one’s self; but a self-lying youth can have no proper self to rest on, at any period. So that the greatest liar, even Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, must have loved the truth,–at least at one time of his life. We say _loved_; for a voluntary choice implies of necessity some degree of pleasure in the choosing, however faint the emotion or insignificant the object. It is, therefore, _caeteris paribus_, not only necessary, but natural, to find pleasure in truth.
Now the question is, whether the pleasurable emotion, which is, so to speak, the indigenous growth of Truth, can in any case be free of self, or some personal gratification. To this, we apprehend, there will be no lack of answer. Nay, the answer has already been given from the dark antiquity of ages, that even for her own exceeding loveliness has Truth been canonized. If there was any thing of self in the _Eureka_ of Pythagoras, there was not in the acclamations of his country who rejoiced with him. But we may doubt the feeling, if applied to him. If wealth or fame has sometimes followed in the track of Genius, it has followed as an accident, but never preceded, as the efficient conductor to any great discovery. For what is Genius but the prophetic revealer of the unseen True, that can neither be purchased nor bribed into light? If it come, then, at all, it must needs be evoked by a kindred love as pure as itself. Shall we appeal to the artist? If he deserve the name, he will disdain the imputation that either wealth or fame has ever aided at the birth of his ideal offspring: it was Truth that smiled upon him, that made light his travail, that blessed their birth, and, by her fond recognition, imparted to his breast her own most pure, unimpassioned emotion. But, whatever mixed feeling, through the infirmity of the agent, may have influenced the artist, whether poet or painter, there can be but one feeling in the reader or spectator.
Indeed, so imperishable is this property of Truth, that it seems to lose nothing of its power, even when causing itself to be reflected from things that in themselves have, properly speaking, no truth. Of this we have abundant examples in some of the Dutch pictures, where the principal object is simply a dish of oysters or a pickled herring. We remember a picture of this kind, consisting solely of these very objects, from which we experienced a pleasure _almost_ exquisite. And we would here remark, that the appetite then was in no way concerned. The pleasure, therefore, must have been from the imitated truth. It is certainly a curious question why this should be, while the things themselves, that is, the actual objects, should produce no such effect. And it seems to be because, in the latter case, there was no truth involved. The real oysters, &c., were indeed so far true as they were actual objects, but they did not contain a _truth_ in _relation_ to any thing. Whereas, in the pictured oysters, their relation to the actual was shown and verified in the mutual resemblance.
If this be true, as we doubt not, we have at least one evidence, where it might not be looked for, that there is that in Truth which is satisfying of itself. But a stronger testimony may still be found where, from all _a priori_ reasoning, we might expect, if not positive pain, at least no pleasure; and that is, where we find it united with human suffering, as in the deep scenes of tragedy. Now it cannot be doubted, that some of our most refined pleasures are often derived from this source, and from scenes that in nature we could not look upon. And why is this, but for the reason assigned in the preceding instance of a still-life picture? the only difference being, that the latter is addressed to the senses, and the former to the heart and intellect: which difference, however, well accounts for their vast disparity of effect. But may not these tragic pleasures have their source in sympathy alone? We answer, No. For who ever felt it in watching the progress of actual villany or the betrayal of innocence, or in being an eyewitness of murder? Now, though we revolt at these and the like atrocities in actual life, it would be both new and false to assert that they have no attraction in Art.
Nor do we believe that this acknowledged interest can well be traced to any other source than the one assumed; namely, to the truth of _relation_. And in this capacity does Truth stand to the Imagination, which is the proper medium through which the artist, whether poet or painter, projects his scenes.
The seat of interest here, then, being _in_ the imagination, it is precisely on that account, and because it cannot be brought home to self, that the pleasure ensues; which is plainly, therefore, derived from its verisimilitude to the actual, and, though together with its appropriate excitement, yet without its imperative condition, namely, its call of _life_ on the living affections.
The proper word here is _interest_, not sympathy, for sympathy with actual suffering, be the object good or bad, is in its nature painful; an obvious reason why so few in the more prosaic world have the virtue to seek it.
But is it not the business of the artist to touch the heart? True,–and it is his high privilege, as its liege-lord, to sound its very depths; nay, from its lowest deep to touch alike its loftiest breathing pinnacle. Yet he may not even approach it, except through the transforming atmosphere of the imagination, where alone the saddest notes of woe, even the appalling shriek of despair, are softened, as it were, by the tempering dews of this visionary region, ere they fall upon the heart. Else how could we stand the smothered moan of Desdemona, or the fiendish adjuration of Lady Macbeth,–more frightful even than the after-deed of her husband,–or look upon the agony of the wretched Judas, in the terrible picture of Rembrandt, when he returns the purchase of blood to the impenetrable Sanhedrim? Ay, how could we ever stand these but for that ideal panoply through which we feel only their modified vibrations?
Let the imitation, or rather copy, be so close as to trench on deception, the effect will be far different; for, the _condition_ of _relation_ being thus virtually lost, the copy becomes as the original,–circumscribed by its own qualities, repulsive or attractive, as the case may be. I remember a striking instance of this in a celebrated actress, whose copies of actual suffering were so painfully accurate, that I was forced to turn away from the scene, unable to endure it; her scream of agony in Belvidera seemed to ring in my ears for hours after. Not so was it with the great Mrs. Siddons, who moved not a step but in a poetic atmosphere, through which the fiercest passions seemed rather to _loom_ like distant mountains when first descried at sea,–massive and solid, yet resting on air.
It would appear, then, that there is something in truth, though but seen in the dim shadow of relation, that enforces interest,–and, so it be without pain, at least some degree of pleasure; which, however slight, is not unimportant, as presenting an impassable barrier to the mere animal. We must not, however, be understood as claiming for this Relative Truth the power of exciting a pleasurable interest in all possible cases; there are exceptions, as in the horrible, the loathsome, &c., which under no condition can be otherwise than revolting. It is enough for our purpose, to have shown that its effect is in most cases similar to that we have ascribed to Truth absolute.
But objections are the natural adversaries of every adventurer: there is one in our path which we soon descried at our first setting out. And we find it especially opposed to the assertion respecting children; namely, that between two things, where there is no personal advantage to bias the decision, they will always choose that which seems to them true, rather than the other which appears false. To this is opposed the notorious fact of the remarkable propensity which children have to lying. This is readily admitted; but it does not meet us, unless it can be shown that they have not in the act of lying an eye to its _reward_,–setting aside any outward advantage,–in the shape of self-complacent thought at their superior wit or ingenuity. Now it is equally notorious, that such secret triumph will often betray itself by a smile, or wink, or some other sign from the chuckling urchin, which proves any thing but that the lie was gratuitous. No, not even a child can love a lie purely for its own sake; he would else love it in another, which is against fact. Indeed, so far from it, that, long before he can have had any notion of what is meant by honor, the word _liar_ becomes one of his first and most opprobrious terms of reproach. Look at any child’s face when he tells his companion he lies. We ask no more than that most logical expression; and, if it speak not of a natural abhorrence only to be overcome by self-interest, there is no trust in any thing. No. We cannot believe that man or child, however depraved, _could_ tell an _unproductive, gratuitous lie_.
Of the last and highest source of our pleasurable emotions we need say little; since no one will question that, if sought at all, it can only be for its own sake. But it does not become us–at least in this place–to enter on the subject of Holiness; of that angelic state, whose only manifestation is in the perfect unison with the Divine Will. We may, however, consider it in the next degree, as it is known, and as we believe often realized, among men: we mean Goodness.
We presume it is superfluous to define a good act; for every one knows, or ought to know, that no act is good in its true sense, which has any, the least, reference to the agent’s self. Nor is it necessary to adduce examples; our object being rather to show that the recognition of goodness–and we beg that the word be especially noted–must result, of necessity, in such an emotion as shall partake of its own character, that is, be entirely devoid of self-interest.
This will no doubt appear to many a startling position. But let it be observed, that we have not said it will _always_ be recognized. There are many reasons why it should not be, and is not. We all know how easy it is to turn away from what gives us no pleasure. A long course of vice, together with the consciousness that goodness has departed from ourselves, may make it painful to look upon it. Nay, the contemplation of it may become, on this account, so painful as to amount to agony. But that Goodness can be hated for its own sake we do not believe, except by a devil, or some irredeemable incarnation of evil, if such there be on this side the grave. But it is objected, that bad men have sometimes a pleasure in Evil from which they neither derive nor hope for any personal advantage, that is, simply _because it is evil_. But we deny the fact. We deny that an unmixed pleasure, which is purely abstracted from all reference to self, is in the power of Evil. Should any man assert this even of himself, he is not to be believed; he lies to his own heart,–and this he may do without being conscious of it. But how can this be? Nothing more easy: by a simple dislocation of words; by the aid of that false nomenclature which began with the first Fratricide, and has continued to accumulate through successive ages, till it reached its consummation, for every possible sin, in the French Revolution. Indeed, there are few things more easy; it is only to transfer to the evil the name of its opposite. Some of us, perhaps, may have witnessed the savage exultation of some hardened wretch, when the accidental spectator of an atrocious act. But is such exultation pleasure? Is it at all akin to what is recognized as pleasure even by this hardened wretch? Yet so he may call it. But should we, could we look into his heart? Should we not rather pause for a time, from mere ignorance of the true vernacular of sin. What he feels may thus be a mystery to all but the reprobate; but it is not pleasure either in the deed or the doer: for, as the law of Good is Harmony, so is Discord that of Evil; and as sympathy to Harmony, so is revulsion to Discord. And where is hatred deepest and deadliest? Among the wicked. Yet they often hate the good. True: but not goodness, not the good man’s virtues; these they envy, and hate him for possessing them. But more commonly the object of dislike is first stripped of his virtues by detraction; the detractor then supplies their place by the needful vices,–perhaps with his own; then, indeed, he is ripe for hatred. When a sinful act is made personal, it is another affair; it then becomes a _part_ of _the man_; and he may then worship it with the idolatry of a devil. But there is a vast gulf between his own idol and that of another.
To prevent misapprehension, we would here observe, that we do not affirm of either Good or Evil any irresistible power of enforcing love or exciting abhorrence, having evidence to the contrary in the multitudes about us; all we affirm is, that, when contemplated abstractly, they cannot be viewed otherwise. Nor is the fact of their inefficiency in many cases difficult of solution, when it is remembered that the very condition to their _true_ effect is the complete absence of self, that they must clearly be viewed _ab extra_; a hard, not to say impracticable, condition to the very depraved; for it may well be doubted if to such minds any act or object having a moral nature can be presented without some personal relation. It is not therefore surprising, that, where the condition is so precluded, there should be, not only no proper response to the law of Good or Evil, but such frequent misapprehension of their true character. Were it possible to see with the eyes of others, this might not so often occur; for it need not be remarked, that few things, if any, ever retain their proper forms in the atmosphere of self-love; a fact that will account for many obliquities besides the one in question. To this we may add, that the existence of a compulsory power in either Good or Evil could not, in respect to man, consist with his free agency,–without which there could be no conscience; nor does it follow, that, because men, with the free power of choice, yet so often choose wrong, there is any natural indistinctness in the absolute character of Evil, which, as before hinted, is sufficiently apparent to them when referring to others; in such cases the obliquitous choice only shows, that, with the full force of right perception, their interposing passions or interests have also the power of giving their own color to every object having the least relation to themselves.
Admitting this personal modification, we may then safely repeat our position,–that to hate Good or to love Evil, solely for their own sakes, is only possible with the irredeemably wicked, in other words, with devils.
We now proceed to the latter clause of our general proposition. And here it may be asked, on what ground we assume one intuitive universal Principle as the true source of all those emotions which have just been discussed. To this we reply, On the ground of their common agreement. As we shall here use the words _effect_ and _emotion_ as convertible terms, we wish it to be understood, that, when we apply the epithet _common_ or _same_ to _effect_, we do so only in relation to _kind_, and for the sake of brevity, instead of saying the same _class_ of effects; implying also in the word _kind_ the existence of many degrees, but no other difference. For instance, if a beautiful flower and a noble act shall be found to excite a kindred emotion, however slight from the one or deep from the other, they come in effect under the same category. And this we are forced to admit, however heterogeneous, since a common ground is necessarily predicated of a common result. How else, for instance, can we account for a scene in nature, a bird, an animal, a human form, affecting us each in a similar way? There is certainly no similitude in the objects that compose a landscape, and the form of an animal and man; they have no resemblance either in shape, or texture, or color, in roughness, smoothness, or any other known quality; while their several effects are so near akin, that we do not stop to measure even the wide degrees by which they are marked, but class them in a breath by some common term. It is very plain that this singular property of assimilating to one what is so widely unlike cannot proceed from any similar conformation, or quality, or attribute of mere being, that is, of any thing essential to distinctive existence. There must needs, then, be some common ground for their common effect. For if they agree not in themselves one with the other, it follows of necessity that the ground of their agreement must be in relation to something within our own minds, since only _there_ is this common effect known as a fact.
We are now brought to the important question, _Where_ and _what_ is this reconciling ground? Certainly not in sensation, for that could only reflect their distinctive differences. Neither can it be in the reflective faculties, since the effect in question, being co-instantaneous, is wholly independent of any process of reasoning; for we do not feel it because we understand, but only because we are conscious of its presence. Nay, it is because we neither do nor can understand it, being therefore a matter aloof from all the powers of reasoning, that its character is such as has been asserted, and, as such, universal.
Where, then, shall we search for this mysterious ground but in the mind, since only there, as before observed, is this common effect known as a fact? and where in the mind but in some inherent Principle, which is both intuitive and universal, since, in a greater or less degree, all men feel it _without knowing why?_
But since an inward Principle can, of necessity, have only a potential existence, until called into action by some outward object, it is also clear that any similar effect, which shall then be recognized through it, from any number of differing and distinct objects, can only arise from some mutual relation between a _something_ in the objects and in the Principle supposed, as their joint result and proper product.
And, since it would appear that we cannot avoid the admission of some such Principle, having a reciprocal relation to certain outward objects, to account for these kindred emotions from so many distinct and heterogeneous sources, it remains only that we give it a name; which has already been anticipated in the term Harmony.
The next question here is, In what consists this _peculiar relation?_ We have seen that it cannot be in any thing that is essential to any condition of mere being or existence; it must therefore consist in some _undiscoverable_ condition indifferently applicable to the Physical, Intellectual, and Moral, yet only applicable in each to certain kinds.
And this is all that we do or _can_ know of it. But of this we may be as certain as that we live and breathe.
It is true that, for particular purposes, we may analyze certain combinations of sounds and colors and forms, so as to ascertain their relative quantities or collocation; and these facts (of which we shall hereafter have occasion to speak) may be of importance both in Art and Science. Still, when thus obtained, they will be no more than mere facts, on which we can predicate nothing but that, when they are imitated,–that is, when similar combinations of quantities, &c., are repeated in a work of art,–they will produce the same effect. But _why_ they should is a mystery which the reflective faculties do not solve; and never can, because it refers to a living Power that is above the understanding. In the human figure, for instance, we can give no reason why eight heads to the stature please us better than six, or why three or twelve heads seem to us monstrous. If we say, in the latter case, _because_ the head of the one is too small and of the other too large, we give no _reason_; we only state the _fact_ of their disagreeable effect on us. And, if we make the proportion of eight heads our rule, it is because of the fact of its being more pleasing to us than any other; and, from the same feeling, we prefer those statures which approach it the nearest. Suppose we analyze a certain combination of sounds and colors, so as to ascertain the exact relative quantities of the one and the collocation of the other, and then compare them. What possible resemblance can the understanding perceive between these sounds and colors? And yet a something within us responds to both in a similar emotion. And so with a thousand things, nay, with myriads of objects that have no other affinity but with that mysterious harmony which began with our being, which slept with our infancy, and which their presence only seems to have _awakened_. If we cannot go back to our own childhood, we may see its illustration in those about us who are now emerging into that unsophisticated state. Look at them in the fields, among the birds and flowers; their happy faces speak the harmony within them: the divine instrument, which these have touched, gives them a joy which, perhaps, only childhood in its first fresh consciousness can know. Yet what do they understand of musical quantities, or of the theory of colors?
And so with respect to Truth and Goodness; whose preexisting Ideas, being in the living constituents of an immortal spirit, need but the slightest breath of some outward condition of the true and good,–a simple problem, or a kind act,–to awake them, as it were, from their unconscious sleep, and start them for eternity.
We may venture to assert, that no philosopher, however ingenious, could communicate to a child the abstract idea of Right, had the latter nothing beyond or above the understanding. He might, indeed, be taught, like the inferior animals,–a dog, for instance,–that, if he took certain forbidden things, he would be punished, and thus do right through fear. Still he would desire the forbidden thing, though belonging to another; nor could he conceive why he should not appropriate to himself, and thus allay his appetite, what was held by another, could he do so undetected; nor attain to any higher notion of right than that of the strongest. But the child has something higher than the mere power of apprehending consequences. The simplest exposition, whether of right or wrong, even by an ignorant nurse, is instantly responded to by something _within him_, which, thus awakened, becomes to him a living voice ever after; and the good and the true must thenceforth answer its call, even though succeeding years would fain overlay them with the suffocating crowds of evil and falsehood.
We do not say that these eternal Ideas of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness will, strictly speaking, always act. Though indestructible, they may be banished for a time by the perverted Will, and mockeries of the brain, like the fume-born phantoms from the witches’ caldron in Macbeth, take their places, and assume their functions. We have examples of this in every age, and perhaps in none more startling than in the present. But we mean only that they cannot be _forgotten_: nay, they are but, too often recalled with unwelcome distinctness. Could we read the annals which must needs be scored on every heart,–could we look upon those of the aged reprobate,–who will doubt that their darkest passages are those made visible by the distant gleams from these angelic Forms, that, like the Three which stood before the tent of Abraham, once looked upon his youth?
And we doubt not that the truest witness to the common source of these inborn Ideas would readily be acknowledged by all, could they return to it now with their matured power of introspection, which is, at least, one of the few advantages of advancing years. But, though we cannot bring back youth, we may still recover much of its purer revelations of our nature from what has been left in the memory. From the dim present, then, we would appeal to that fresher time, ere the young spirit had shrunk from the overbearing pride of the understanding, and confidently ask, if the emotions we then felt from the Beautiful, the True, and the Good, did not seem in some way to refer to a common origin. And we would also ask, if it was then frequent that the influence from one was _singly_ felt,–if it did not rather bring with it, however remotely, a sense of something, though widely differing, yet still akin to it. When we have basked in the beauty of a summer sunset, was there nothing in the sky that spoke to the soul of Truth and Goodness? And when the opening intellect first received the truth of the great law of gravitation, or felt itself mounting through the profound of space, to travel with the planets in their unerring rounds, did never then the kindred Ideas of Goodness and Beauty chime in, as it were, with the fabled music,–not fabled to the soul,–which led you on like one entranced?
And again, when, in the passive quiet of your moral nature, so predisposed in youth to all things genial, you have looked abroad on this marvellous, ever teeming Earth,–ever teeming alike for mind and body,–and have felt upon you flow, as from ten thousand springs of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, ten thousand streams of innocent enjoyment; did you not then _almost hear_ them shout in confluence, and almost _see_ them gushing upwards, as if they would prove their unity, in one harmonious fountain?
But, though the preceding be admitted as all true in respect to certain “gifted” individuals, it may yet be denied that it is equally true with respect to all, in other words, that the Principle assumed is an inherent constituent of the human being. To this we reply, that universality does not necessarily imply equality.
The universality of a Principle does not imply _everywhere_ equal energy or activity, or even the same mode of manifestation, any more than do the essential Faculties of the Understanding. Of this we have an analogous illustration in the faculty of Memory; which is almost indefinitely differenced in different men, both in degree and mode. In some, its greatest power is shown in the retention of thoughts, but not of words, that is, not of the original words in which they were presented. Others possess it in a very remarkable degree as to forms, places, &c., and but imperfectly for other things; others, again, never forget names, dates, or figures, yet cannot repeat a conversation the day after it took place; while some few have the doubtful happiness of forgetting nothing. We might go on with a long list of the various modes and degrees in which this faculty, so essential to the human being, is everywhere manifested. But this is sufficient for our purpose. In like manner is the Principle of Harmony manifested; in one person as it relates to Form, in another to Sound; so, too, may it vary as to the degrees of truth and goodness. We say degrees; for we may well doubt whether, even in the faculty of memory, its apparent absence as to any one essential object is any thing more than a feeble degree of activity: and the doubt is strengthened by the fact, that in many seemingly hopeless cases it has been actually, as it were, brought into birth. And we are still indisposed to admit its entire absence in any one particular for which it was bestowed on man. An imperfect developement, especially as relating to the intellectual and moral, we know to depend, in no slight measure, on the _will_ of the subject. Nay, (with the exception of idiots,) it may safely be affirmed, that no individual ever existed who could not perceive the difference between what is true and false, and right and wrong. We here, of course, except those who have so ingeniously _unmade_ themselves, in order to reconstruct their “humanity” after a better fashion. As to the “_why_” of these differences, we know nothing; it is one of those unfathomable mysteries which to the finite mind must ever be hidden.
Though it has been our purpose, throughout this discourse, to direct our inquiries mainly to the essential Elements of the subject, it may not be amiss here to take a brief notice of their collateral product in those mixed modes from which we derive so large a portion of our mental gratification: we allude to the various combinations of the several Ideas, which have just been examined, with each other as well as with their opposites. To this prolific source may be traced much of that many-colored interest which we take in their various forms as presented by the imagination,–in every thing, indeed, which is true, or even partially true, to the great Principle of Harmony, both in nature and in art. It is to these mixed modes more especially, that we owe all that mysterious interest which gives the illusion of life to a work of fiction, and fills us with delight or melts with woe, whether in the happiness or the suffering of some imagined being, uniting goodness with beauty, or virtue with plainness, or uncommon purity and intellect even with deformity; for even that may be so overpowered in the prominent harmony of superior intellect and moral worth, as to be virtually neutralized, at least, to become unobtrusive as a discordant force. Besides, it cannot be expected that _complete_ harmony is ever to be realized in our imperfect state; we should else, perhaps, with such expectation, have no pleasures of the kind we speak of: nor is this necessary, the imagination being always ready to supply deficiencies, whenever the approximation is sufficiently near to call it forth. Nay, if the interest felt be nothing more than mere curiosity, we still refer to this presiding Principle; which is no less essential to a simple combination of events, than to the higher demands of Form or Character. But its presence must be felt, however slightly. Of this we have the evidence in many cases, and, perhaps, most conclusive where the partial harmony is felt to verge on a powerful discord; or where the effort to unite them produces that singular alternation of what is both revolting and pleasing: as in the startling union of evil passions with some noble quality, or with a master intellect. And here we have a solution of that paradoxical feeling of interest and abhorrence, which we experience in such a character as King Richard.
And may it not be that we are permitted this interest for a deeper purpose than we are wont to suppose; because Sin is best seen in the light of Virtue,–and then most fearfully when she holds the torch to herself? Be this as it may, with pure, unintellectual, brutal evil it is very different. We cannot look upon it undismayed: we take no interest in it, nor can we. In Richard there is scarce a glimmer of his better nature; yet we do not despise him, for his intellect and courage command our respect. But the fiend Iago,–who ever followed him through the weaving of his spider-like web, without perpetual recurrence to its venomous source,–his devilish heart? Even the intellect he shows seems actually animalized, and we shudder at its subtlety, as at the cunning of a reptile. Whatever interest may have been imputed to him should be placed to the account of his hapless victim; to the first striving with distrust of a generous nature; to the vague sense of misery, then its gradual developement, then the final overthrow of absolute faith; and, last of all, to the throes of agony of the noble Moor, as he writhes and gasps in his accursed toils.
To these mixed modes may be added another branch, which we shall term the class of Imputed Attributes. In this class are concerned all those natural objects with which we connect (not by individual association, but by a general law of the mind) certain moral or intellectual attributes; which are not, indeed, supposed to exist in the objects themselves, but which, by some unknown affinity, they awaken or occasion in us, and which we, in our turn, impute to them. However this be, there are multitudes of objects in the inanimate world, which we cannot contemplate without associating with them many of the characteristics which we ascribe to the human being; and the ideas so awakened we involuntarily express by the ascription of such significant epithets as _stately, majestic, grand_, and so on. It is so with us, when we call some tall forest stately, or qualify as majestic some broad and slowly-winding river, or some vast, yet unbroken waterfall, or some solitary, gigantic pine, seeming to disdain the earth, and to hold of right its eternal communion with air; or when to the smooth and far-reaching expanse of our inland waters, with their bordering and receding mountains, as they seem to march from the shores, in the pomp of their dark draperies of wood and mist, we apply the terms _grand_ and _magnificent_: and so onward to an endless succession of objects, imputing, as it were, our own nature, and lending our sympathies, till the headlong rush of some mighty cataract suddenly thunders upon us. But how is it then? In the twinkling of an eye, the outflowing sympathies ebb back upon the heart; the whole mind seems severed from earth, and the awful feeling to suspend the breath;–there is nothing human to which we can liken it. And here begins another kind of emotion, which we call Sublime.
We are not aware that this particular class of objects has hitherto been noticed, at least as holding a distinct position. And, if we may be allowed to supply the omission, we should assign to it the intermediate place between the Beautiful and the Sublime. Indeed, there seems to be no other station so peculiarly proper; inasmuch as they would thus form, in a consecutive series, a regular ascent from the sensible material to the invisible spiritual: hence naturally uniting into one harmonious whole every possible emotion of our higher nature.
In the preceding discussion, we have considered the outward world only in its immediate relation to Man, and the Human Being as the predetermined centre to which it was designed to converge. As the subject, however, of what are called the sublime emotions, he holds a different position; for the centre here is not himself, nor, indeed, can he approach it within conceivable distance: yet still he is drawn to it, though baffled for ever. Now the question is, Where, and in what bias, is this mysterious attraction? It must needs be in something having a clear affinity with us, or we could not feel it. But the attraction is also both pure and pleasurable; and it has just been shown, that we have in ourselves but one principle by which to recognize any corresponding emotion,–namely, the principle of Harmony. May we not then infer a similar Principle without us, an Infinite Harmony, to which our own is attracted? and may we not further,–if we may so speak without irreverence,–suppose our own to have emanated thence when “man became a living soul”? And though this relation may not be consciously acknowledged in every instance, or even in one, by the mass of men, does it therefore follow that it does not exist? How many things act upon us of which we have no knowledge? If we find, as in the case of the Beautiful, the same, or a similar, effect to follow from a great variety of objects which have no resemblance or agreement with one another, is it not a necessary inference, that for their common effect they must all refer to something without and distinct from themselves? Now in the case of the Sublime, the something referred to is not in man: for the emotion excited has an outward tendency; the mind cannot contain it; and the effort to follow it towards its mysterious object, if long continued, becomes, in the excess of interest, positively painful.
Could any finite object account for this? But, supposing the Infinite, we have an adequate cause. If these emotions, then, from whatever object or circumstance, be to prompt the mind beyond its prescribed limits, whether carrying it back to the primitive past, the incomprehensible _beginning_, or sending it into the future, to the unknown _end_, the ever-present Idea of the mighty Author of all these mysteries must still be implied, though we think not of it. It is this Idea, or rather its influence, whether we be conscious of it or not, which we hold to be the source of every sublime emotion. To make our meaning plainer, we should say, that that which has the power of possessing the mind, to the exclusion, for the time, of all other thought, and which presents no _comprehensible_ sense of a whole, though still impressing us with a full apprehension of such as a reality,–in other words, which cannot be circumscribed by the forms of the understanding while it strains them to the utmost,–that we should term a sublime object. But whether this effect be occasioned directly by the object itself, or be indirectly suggested by its relations to some other object, its unknown cause, it matters not; since the apparent power of calling forth the emotion, by whatever means, is, _quoad_ ourselves, its sublime condition. Hence, if a minute insect, an ant, for instance, through its marvellous instinct, lift the mind of the amazed spectator to the still more inscrutable Creator, it must possess, as to _him_, the same power. This is, indeed, an extreme case, and may be objected to as depending on the individual mind; on a mind prepared by cultivation and previous reflection for the effect in question. But to this it may be replied, that some degree of cultivation, or, more properly speaking, of developement by the exercise of its reflective faculties, is obviously essential ere the mind can attain to mature growth,–we might almost say to its natural state, since nothing can be said to have attained its true nature until all its capacities are at least called into birth. No one, for example, would refer to the savages of Australia for a true specimen of what was proper or natural to the human mind; we should rather seek it, if such were the alternative, in a civilized child of five years old. Be this as it may, it will not be denied that ignorance, brutality, and many other deteriorating causes, do practically incapacitate thousands for even an approximation, not only to this, but to many of the inferior emotions, the character of which is purely mental. And this, we think, is quite sufficient to neutralize the objection, if not, indeed, to justify the application of the term to all cases where the _immediate_ effect, whether directly or indirectly, is such as has been described. But, to reduce this to a common-sense view, it is only saying,–what no one will deny,–that a man of education and refinement has not only more, but higher, pleasures of the mind than a mere clown.
But though the position here advanced must necessarily exclude many objects which have hitherto, though, as we think, improperly, been classed with the sublime, it will still leave enough, and more than enough, for the utmost exercise of our limited powers; inasmuch as, in addition to the multitude of objects in the material world, not only the actions, passions, and thoughts of men, but whatever concerns the human being, that in any way–by a hint merely–leads the mind, though indirectly, to the Infinite attributes,–all come of right within the ground assumed.
It will be borne in mind, that the conscious presence of the Infinite Idea is not only _not_ insisted on, but expressly admitted to be, in most cases, unthought of; it is also admitted, that a sublime effect is often powerfully felt in many instances where this Idea could not truly be predicated of the apparent object. In such cases, however, some kind of resemblance, or, at least, a seeming analogy to an infinite attribute, is nevertheless essential. It must _appear_ to us, for the time, either limitless, indefinite, or in some other way beyond the grasp of the mind: and, whatever an object may _seem_ to be, it must needs _in effect_ be to _us_ even that which it seems. Nor does this transfer the emotion to a different source; for the Infinite Idea, or something analogous, being thus imputed, is in reality its true cause.
It is still the unattainable, the _ever-stimulating_, yet _ever-eluding_, in the character of the sublime object, that gives to it both its term and its effect. And whence the conception of this mysterious character, but from its mysterious prototype, the Idea of the Infinite? Neither does it matter, as we have said, whether actual or supposed; for what the imagination cannot master will master the imagination. Take, for instance, but a single _passion_, and clothe it with this character; in the same instant it becomes sublime. So, too, with a single thought. In the Mosaic words so often quoted, “Let there be light, and there was light,” we have the sublime of thought, of mere naked thought; but what could more awe the mind with the power of God? Of like nature is the conjecture of Newton, when he imagined stars so distant from the sun that their coeval light has not yet reached us. Let us endeavour for one moment to conceive of this; does not the soul seem to dilate within us, and the body to shrink as to a grain of dust? “Woe is me! unclean, unclean!” said the holy Prophet, when the Infinite Holiness stood before him. Could a more terrible distance be measured, than by these fearful words, between God and man?
If it be objected to this view, that many cases occur, having the same conditions with those assumed in our general proposition, which are yet exclusively painful, unmitigated even by a transient moment of pleasure,–in Despair, for instance,–as who can limit it?–to this we reply, that no emotion having its sole, or circle of existence in the individual mind itself, can be to that mind other than a _subject_. A man in despair, or under any mode of extreme suffering of like nature, may, indeed, if all interfering sympathy have been removed by time or after-description, be to _another_ a sublime object,–at least in one of those suggestive forms just noticed; but not to _himself_. The source of the sublime–as all along implied–is essentially _ab extra_. The human mind is not its centre, nor can it be realized except by a contemplative act.
Besides, as a mental pleasure,–indeed the highest known,–to be recognized as such, it must needs be accompanied by the same _relative character_ by which is tested every other pleasure coming under that denomination; namely, by the entire absence of _self_, that is, by the same freedom from all personal consideration which has been shown to characterize the true effect of the Three leading Ideas already considered. But if to this also it be further objected, that in certain particular cases, as of personal danger,–from which the sublime emotion has often been experienced,–some personal consideration must necessarily be involved, as without a sense of security we could not enjoy it; we answer, that, if it be meant only that the mind should be in such a state as to enable us to receive an unembarrassed impression, it seems to us superfluous,–an obvious truism placed in opposition to an absurd impossibility. We needed not to be told, that no pleasurable emotion is likely to occur while we are unmanned by fear. The same might be said, also, in respect to the Beautiful: for who was ever alive to it under a paroxysm of terror, or pain of any kind? A terrified person is in any thing but a fit state for such emotion. He may indeed _afterwards_, when his fear is passed off, contemplate the circumstance that occasioned it with a different feeling; but the object of his dismay is _then_ projected, as it were, completely from himself; and he feels the sublimity in a contemplative state: he can feel it in no other. Nor is that state incompatible with a consciousness of peril, though it can never be with personal terror. And, if it is meant that we should have a positive, present conviction that we are in no danger, this we must deny, as we find it contradicted in innumerable instances. So far, indeed, is a sense of security from being essential to the condition of a sublime emotion, that the sense of danger, on the contrary, is one of its most exciting accompaniments. There is a fascination in danger which some persons neither can nor would resist; which seems, as it were, to disenthral them of self;–as if the mysterious Infinite were actually drawing them on by an invisible power.
Was it mere scientific curiosity that cost the elder Pliny his life? Might it not have been rather this sublime fascination? But we have repeated examples of it in our own time. Many who will read this may have been in a storm at sea. Did they never feel its sublimity while they knew their danger? We will answer for ourselves; for we have been in one, when the dismasted vessels that surrounded us permitted no mistake as to our peril; it was strongly felt, but still stronger was the sublime emotion in the awful scene. The crater of Vesuvius is even now, perhaps for the thousandth time, reflecting from its lake of fire some ghastly face, with indrawn breath and hair bristling, bent, as by fate, over its sulphurous brink.
Let us turn to Mont Blanc, that mighty pyramid of ice, in whose shadow might repose all the tombs of the Pharaohs. It rises before the traveller like the accumulating mausoleum of Europe: perhaps he looks upon it as his own before his natural time; yet he cannot away from it. A terrible charm hurries him over frightful chasms, whose blue depths seem like those of the ocean; he cuts his way up a polished precipice, shining like steel,–as elusive to the touch; he creeps slowly and warily around and beneath huge cliffs of snow; now he looks up, and sees their brows fretted by the percolating waters like a Gothic ceiling, and he fears even to whisper, lest an audible breath should awaken the avalanche: and thus he climbs and climbs, till the dizzy summit fills up his measure of fearful ecstasy.
Now, though cases may occur where the emotion in question is attended with a sense of security, as in the reading or hearing the description of an earthquake, such as that of 1768 in Lisbon, while we are safely housed and by a comfortable fire, it does not therefore follow, that this consciousness of safety is its essential condition. It is merely an accidental circumstance. It cannot, therefore, apply, either as a rule or an objection. Besides, even if supported by fact, we might well dismiss it on the ground of irrelevancy, since a sense of personal safety cannot be placed in opposition to and as inconsistent with a disinterested or unselfish state; which is that claimed for the emotion as its true condition. If there be not, then, a sounder objection, we may safely admit the characteristic in question; for the reception of which we have, on the other hand, the weight of experience,–at least negatively, since, strictly speaking, we cannot experience the absence of any thing.
But though, according to our theory, there are many things now called sublime that would properly come under a different classification, such as many objects of Art, many sentiments, and many actions, which are strictly human, as well in their _end_ as in their origin; it is not to be inferred that the exclusion of any work of man is _because_ of _its apparent origin_, but of its _end_, the end only being the determining point, as referring to its _Idea_. Now, if the Idea referred to be of the Infinite, which is _out_ of his nature, it cannot strictly be said to originate with man,–that is, absolutely; but it is rather, as it were, a reflected form of it from the Maker of his mind. If we are led to such an Idea, then, by any work of imagination, a poem, a picture, a statue, or a building, it is as truly sublime as any natural object. This, it appears to us, is the sole mystery, without which neither sound, nor color, nor form, nor magnitude, is a true correlative to the unseen cause. And here, as with Beauty, though the test of that be within us, is the _modus operandi_ equally baffling to the scrutiny of the understanding. We feel ourselves, as it were, lifted from the earth, and look upon the outward objects that have so affected us, yet learn not how; and the mystery deepens as we compare them with other objects from which have followed the same effects, and find no resemblance. For instance; the roar of the ocean, and the intricate unity of a Gothic cathedral, whose beginning and end are alike intangible, while its climbing tower seems visibly even to rise to the Idea which it strives to embody,–these have nothing in common,–hardly two things could be named that are more unlike; yet in relation to man they have but one end: for who can hear the ocean when breathing in wrath, and limit it in his mind, though he think not of Him who gives it voice? or ascend that spire without feeling his faculties vanish, as it were with its vanishing point, into the abyss of space? If there be a difference in the effect from these and other objects, it is only in the intensity, the degree of impetus given; as between that from the sudden explosion of a volcano and from the slow and heavy movement of a rising thunder-cloud; its character and its office are the same,–in its awful harmony to connect the created with its Infinite Cause.
But let us compare this effect with that from Beauty. Would the Parthenon, for instance, with its beautiful forms,–made still more beautiful under its native sky,–seeming almost endued with the breath of life, as if its conscious purple were a living suffusion brought forth in sympathy by the enamoured blushes of a Grecian sunset;–would this beautiful object even then elevate the soul above its own roof? No: we should be filled with a pure delight,–but with no longing to rise still higher. It would satisfy us; which the sublime does not; for the feeling is too vast to be circumscribed by human content.
On the supernatural it is needless to enlarge; for, in whatever form the beings of the invisible world are supposed to visit us, they are immediately connected in the mind with the unknown Infinite; whether the faith be in the heart or in the imagination; whether they bubble up from the earth, like the Witches in Macbeth, taking shape at will, or self-dissolving into air, and no less marvellous, foreknowing thoughts ere formed in man; or like the Ghost in Hamlet, an unsubstantial shadow, having the functions of life, motion, will, and speech; a fearful mystery invests them with a spell not to be withstood; the bewildered imagination follows like a child, leaving the finite world for one unknown, till it aches in darkness, trackless, endless.
Perhaps, as being nearest in station to the unsearchable Author of all things, the highest example of this would be found in the Angelic Nature. If it be objected, that the poets have not always so represented it, it rests with them to show cause why they have not. Milton, no doubt, could have assigned a sufficient reason in _the time chosen for his poem_,–that of the creation of the first man, when his intercourse with the highest order of created beings was not only essential to the plan of the poem, but according with the express will of the Creator: hence, he might have considered it no violation of the _then_ relation between man and angels to assign even the epithet _affable_ to the archangel Raphael; for man was then sinless, and in all points save knowledge a fit object of regard, and certainly a fit pupil to his heavenly instructor. But, suppose the poet, throughout his work, (as in the process of his story he was forced to do near the end,)–suppose he had chosen, assuming the philosopher, to assign to Adam the _altered relation of one of his fallen posterity_, how could he have endured a holy spiritual presence? To be consistent, Adam must have been dumb with awe, incapable of holding converse such as is described. Between sinless man and his sinful progeny, the distance is immeasurable. And so, too, must be the effect on the latter, in such a presence; and for this conclusion we have the authority of Scripture, in the dismay of the soldiers at the Saviour’s sepulchre, on which more directly. If there be no like effect attending the other angelic visits recorded in Scripture, such as those to Lot and Abraham, the reason is obvious in the _special mission_ to those individuals, who were doubtless _divinely prepared_ for their reception; for it is reasonable to suppose the mission had else been useless. But with the Roman soldiers, where there was no such qualifying circumstance, the case was different; indeed, it was in striking contrast with that of the two Marys, who, though struck with awe, yet being led there, as witnesses, by the Spirit, were not so overpowered.
And here, as the Idea of Angels is universally associated with every perfection of _form_, may naturally occur the question so often agitated,–namely, whether Beauty and Sublimity are, under any circumstances, compatible. To us it seems of easy solution. For we see no reason why Beauty, as the condition of a subordinated object or component part, may not incidentally enter into the Sublime, as well as a thousand other conditions of opposite characters, which pertain to the multifarious assimilants that often form its other components.
When Beauty is not made _essential_, but enters as a mere contingent, its admission or rejection is a matter of indifference. In an angel, for instance, beauty is the condition of his mere form; but the angel has also an intellectual and moral or spiritual nature, which is essentially paramount: the former being but the condition, so to speak, of his visibility, the latter, his very life,–an Essence next to the inconceivable Giver of life.
Could we stand in the presence of one of these holy beings, (if to stand were possible,) what of the Sublime in this lower world would so shake us? Though his beauty were such as never mortal dreamed of, it would be as nothing,–swallowed up as darkness,–in the awful, spiritual brightness of the messenger of God. Even as the soldiers in Scripture, at the sepulchre of the Saviour, we should fall before him,–we should “become,” like them, “as dead men.”
But though Milton does not unveil the “face like lightning”; and though the angel Raphael is made to hold converse with man, and the “severe in youthful beauty” gives even the individual impress to Zephon, and Michael and Abdiel are set apart in their prowess; there is not one he names that does not breathe of Heaven, that is not encompassed with the glory of the Infinite. And why the reader is not overwhelmed in their supposed presence is because he is a beholder _through_ Adam,–through him also a listener; but whenever he is made, by the poet’s spell, to forget Adam, and to see, as it were in his own person, the embattled hosts….
If we dwell upon Form _alone_, though it should be of surpassing beauty, the idea would not rise above that of man, for this is conceivable of man: but the moment the angelic nature is touched, we have the higher ideas of supernal intelligence and perfect holiness, to which all the charms and graces of mere form immediately become subordinate, and, though the beauty remain, its agency is comparatively negative under the overpowering transcendence of a celestial spirit.
As we have already seen that the Beautiful is limited to no particular form, but possesses its power in some mysterious _condition_, which is applicable to many distinct objects; in like manner does the Sublime include within its sphere, and subdue to its condition, an indefinite variety of objects, with their distinctive conditions; and among them we find that of the Beautiful, as well as, to a _certain degree_, its reverse, so that, though we may truly recognize their coexistence in the same object, it is not possible that their effect upon us should be otherwise than unequal, and that the higher law should not subordinate the lower. We do not deny that the Beautiful may, so to speak, mitigate the awful intensity of the Sublime; but it