Page:The Yellow Book - 01.djvu/224

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Reticence in Literature

shifting standard of contemporary taste: the other, the permanent standard of artistic justification, the presence of the moral idea. With these two elements in action, we ought, I think, to be able to estimate with tolerable fairness the amount of reticence in any age which ceases to be a shortcoming, the amount of frankness which begins to be a violence in the literature of the period. We ought, with these two elements in motion, to be able to employ a scheme of comparative criticism which will prevent us from encouraging that retarding and dangerous doctrine that what was expedient and justifiable, for instance, in the dramatists of the Restoration is expedient and justifiable in the playwrights of our own Victorian era; we ought, too, to be able to arrive instinctively at a sense of the limits of art, and to appreciate the point at which frankness becomes a violence, in that it has degenerated into mere brawling, animated neither by purpose nor idea. Let us, then, consider these two standards of taste and art separately: and first, let us give a brief attention to the contemporary standard.

We may, I think, take it as a rough working axiom that the point of reticence in literature, judged by a contemporary standard, should be settled by the point of reticence in the conversation of the taste and culture of the age. Literature is, after all, simply the ordered, careful exposition of the thought of its period, seeking the best matter of the time, and setting it forth in the best possible manner; and it is surely clear that what is written in excess of what is spoken (in excess I mean on the side of license) is a violence to, a misrepresentation of, the period to whose service the literature is devoted. The course of the highest thought of the time should be the course of its literature, the limit of the most delicate taste of the time the limit of literary expression: whatever falls below that standard is a shortcoming,