Studies in letters and life/Illustrations of Idealism
ILLUSTRATIONS OF IDEALISM.
I. THE PERGAMON MARBLES.
The development of the Greek genius in sculpture, after it had passed its first maturity in Phidias and his immediate successors, presented the same characteristic signs shown in the history of other modes of artistic expression in other nations. A reasoned conception of the ends and means, a trained appreciation of form, a complete mastery of technique, were inherited by the sculptors of Pergamon. The purpose being defined and the tools perfected, no originality was allowed them except in style; and consequently their work, like the last dramas of Shakespeare, or the creations of Browning or Carlyle, exhibits an excess of subject, an effort to put the utmost of muscular action, of narrative import, of allegorized truth, into their marbles. And yet, in connection with this intensity, as it is called, it cannot fail to be observed that their sculpture (herein touched with the decadence) breathes the self-glorifying spirit of triumphant skill, rather than the overmastering idealism of the earlier patriotic and religious motives. In their pictorial composition and landscape backgrounds, also, one is tempted to discern the harmful influence of that so vaguely known school of painting that flourished in the preceding period, and to piece out by conjecture our fragmentary conceptions of its manner. It is complained that modern sculpture is too pictorial; almost as soon as the art was recovered in Italy it fell into the same error, particularly in relief work; but in Greece the profuse use of color on the marble, as ground and also for direct decoration, together with the employment of metals and jewels as additional adornment, must have brought the two arts so closely together that the transference of modes of treatment was inevitable. The striking thing is that painting, then as now, seems by its greater compass to overpower its more hampered rival.
Besides this tendency to overtax the power of expression by the weight of subject, and this pride in mere technique in close association with a humiliating imitation of a different art, these Pergamon sculptures display other marks of being essentially quite modern. Their realism is especially noticeable. The Greeks of the elder time, it must be acknowledged, were remarkably fortunate in that their realistic spirit fell in with an actual existence which itself appealed to the imagination in many ways. In the Athenian prime the life that taught Sophocles and Agathon was heroic or idyllic, and needed hardly a touch to exalt its elements into the most imaginative idealism. When Plato could not write a dialogue without making a drama, nor Aristophanes compose a comedy without breaking into the sweetest lyric song, nor Phidias chisel a flying fold except for eternity, a presence was upon the earth and a spirit in men that made realism not less trustworthy as a guide to sculptors than is the "Look into thy heart and write" as a maxim for poets like Sidney. But when the barbarians broke in from the north upon Asia Minor, and the luxury of oriental manners and the fantasies of oriental mind stole upon the old order and changed it, to study the real was not necessarily to achieve the beautiful. The barbarians chiseled by the Pergamon sculptors are very different from those that once adorned the Parthenon: they are fierce, ugly, portrait-like, studied from the life. The giants, too, by the same artists are not even altogether human, as in the older reliefs, but many are monstrous: conglomerates of snaky folds and Titanic limbs and ox necks, finny wings, pointed ears, horns, and such Egyptian and Assyrian confusions. For this debasement of the type, few will consider the wonderful finish, the minute and successful imitation of fur, scale, and stuff, a compensation. So, too, the representation of mortal agony is, in these works, carried to an extreme of truthfulness that is upon the verge of the revolting. This new bent of realism which, ceasing to select from the beautiful in life, now takes these three directions,—toward the portraiture of types not noble, toward the close copying of accessories not important, and toward the reproduction of shocking aspects of existence, this essential difference between the art of Athens and of Pergamon, it would be but too easy to parallel in more than one province of our own intellectual life. These remarks, although they were not meant to point such a moral, incidentally illustrate how misleading is the the word "ancient" when applied to the Greeks. Wherever approached, they are as level to our own times in thought and deed as any of the so-called moderns; and though their language, in its former dialect, is dead, its golden words always fall upon our ears as if from the lips of some wiser contemporary. In looking on these recovered marble fragments, just as in reading the Antigone or Alcestis, the centuries seem meaningless.
II. A GREEK TRAIT NOTICED BY DR. WALDSTEIN.
One distinction between the Greeks and ourselves may be expressed by saying that our culture as a people rests upon literature, on the printed word, while that of the Greeks based itself rather upon observation, on the thing seen. The divergence of intellectual mood thus induced between ancient and modern is profound, and affects the whole higher life. In reflecting upon this classical trait, however, something is to be guarded against. It is well known that the illiterate, generally speaking, think in images, and that this power or habit of visualization, sometimes thought to be characteristic of the poet, be it observed, usually falls into disuse in proportion to the increase and continuity of exclusively literary culture in the individual, until the point is reached at which a man thinks without having a single image definitely projected upon the mind's eye; his mental processes are, in fact, as colorless and formless as algebraic calculations. Mr. Galton's experiments in this matter are still fresh in our memories. Now it is not to be inferred that this was always the case, nor indeed that the intellect of highest development may not in the past, at least, have habitually thought in images, as the unlettered do to-day; and in Greece it appears that the picture language of the mind, as one may call it, held a place more important than with us, and perhaps equivalent to our own idea language. The Greek, as every one knows, peopled the earth with presiding geniuses, of more or less exalted rank, from Oread and Naiad, to the great Zeus of Olympus. These forms we call imaginary, and to our thought they are always tenuous; the point to be remembered is that, when the Greek spoke of Athene, an image came before his mind, and one not hypothetical and consciously symbolical, like Liberty with her cap, but definite, real, and awful, like the statue on the pediment or in the temple. The Greek mind leaned on these images as our mind does on the alphabet in all mental life; hence the poetry and the art of the age had a certain ease and naturalness, an intimacy with things seen by the eye, not equaled in the work of later times, except possibly in Italy. Dr. Waldstein points out that the most striking expression of this plastic necessity, inherent in Greek thinking, is the doctrine of Platonic ideas. To the moderns, however tolerant they may be, there seems always a childishness, a grotesque quality, the more marked because of Plato's splendid and rich endowment, in the continual insistence in his philosophy on the "ideas" of the table and the flute,—the table without any definite number of legs, the flute without any particular quality of sound; and the case is not much helped, even if one perceives, as Schopenhauer shows, that the doctrine is essentially accurate in truth, and wholly intelligible, since it is merely the modern statement of the subjectivity of time and space put conversely. Notwithstanding these admissions, our minds still find the Platonic ideas awkward to deal with. But that Plato, at the end of his abstrusest speculations, and at the threshold of one of the greatest generalizations of the human intellect, fell back upon the image-forming faculty, and insisted on particularizing the universal by means of a mystery or fiction of thought, is a crowning proof of the pervasiveness and inner mastery of the plastic spirit in the culture of his civilization.
This trait of the Greeks has been dwelt on, in the present instance, less for itself than for its bearing on the idealism of the art of Phidias, of which the marbles of the Parthenon are the great examples. Of course Dr. Waldstein, who knows the value of this supreme achievement of the idealistic temperament in man, is himself an idealist, and when he has occasion to analyze the monuments treats at more or less length of the theory of idealism. He distinguishes at once two kinds of physical representation, the portrait and the type, and affirms an analogous difference in representations of the spirit that animates the stone, the man as he is, and the man as he ought to be. He observes, too, that the Greeks were fortunately supplied with subjects of sculpture in which both the physical and spiritual perfection of man were proper elements, and, indeed, requisite; namely, the heroes and the gods. The higher life was the theme of their art in its greatest excellence, not as a possible but as an actual existence. This of itself was a valuable help to them, for centres of imagination were thus determined for them and given a certain external validity; whereas among the moderns art is felt to be in its essence a mode of subjective creation, having no reality except in thought. The resulting sense of uncertainty, the weakened faith in such emanations of man's brain, almost inevitable for the contemporary poet or artist, is one cause of the recoil of our imagination from the ideal, and of the attraction of realism for our writers, and perhaps of our content with a literature and art that will have fact for its province. "Let us have facts," is the cry; "of truth—that is, the relation of facts—who can be certain? Let us represent men as they are; of men as they ought to be who has any observation?" And even within these limits of the new school it is said, furthermore, that attention is to be paid to the individual; not to man as he is, but to this man, taken at random, as he is. The type is too general to be depicted, too far removed from actual seeing, too much an abstraction of the mind. It is plain that at the root of the difficulty felt by the realists who theorize in this way lies the conviction that the further the literary or any other representative art gets from the special fact, trait, or passion in its particular manifestation, the more vague, doubtful, pale, rubbed-out,—in a word, the more generalized,—it becomes, and hence loses sharpness, vigor, and illusiveness. But with the Greek the case was clearly quite otherwise. There was no loss of individualization in the type, whether of physical or of spiritual perfection. This Theseus or that Hermes is ideal; both are generalized from men, but they suffer no loss of vitality thereby. The idealism of Athens did not fade out in abstraction, but embodied the permanent elements of harmonious beauty in body and spirit, in forms "more real than living man." The habit of thinking in images, or with fixed associations of images, with general notions, was one reason for this success, undoubtedly; but before concluding that the literary and rationalizing culture of our day forbids us to hope for a similar blending of the type with individuality, let us remember that as with Phidias, so with Shakespeare: Hamlet is at once the type and the man. The poet born cannot turn aside, on this hand, into science, as the realists do; nor on that hand, into philosophy, as the allegorists do. To him that ideal art alone is possible in which the two are united in the expression of permanent and universal truth through selected facts.
Nevertheless, it may be urged, the Greeks passed rapidly from the idealistic to the realistic stage. And in connection with this one observes the happiness with which Dr. Waldstein identifies the elements of likeness between the Greeks and the moderns, just as he opposes their differences to each other. The most admirable example is an inquiry into the æsthetical qualities of the Hermes of Praxiteles, and in the course of it he delineates the characteristics of the age of Praxiteles, and parallels them with the traits of the time just subsequent to the French Revolution. In doing this he incidentally describes the common spirit in Shelley, Musset, and other representatives of an art, not of the noblest, but not of the worst either, of the interval after the great age, yet before the marked decadence. It may be said that the English never had an age of the Phidian kind; in European culture that is to be sought, if at all, in mediæval art. The Praxitelean age, however, was reproduced in essence in the first generation of our romantic period. A certain pathos, felt in view both of the world and of one's self, is perhaps its dominant quality, and with it go a sophistication, a self-consciousness, a reflectiveness, a slight yet not complete abstraction of the spirit from the object before it, illustrated by the expression of the head of Hermes in relation to the infant Dionysus on his arm. It is the mood of one whose spontaneous joy has been disturbed forever by thought. In such work one sees that the objective character of art, as it was in Phidias, is yielding to a new impulse; that the hold of the imagination on the divine and the eternal is slowly relaxing. At last, idealism went out in Greece, and, either in the shape of the portrait statues, or of such sculptures as those of Pergamon, realism came in to be the be-all and also the end-all of art.
Why was it, one asks, that the plastic nature of the Greeks did not preserve them, if the image-making faculty did in fact count so much in their development? How did they come to lose the ideal forms that sprang in the mind of Phidias when he thought of beauty and virtue? One cannot say that idealism failed, for its triumph in the Parthenon marbles marks the highest point ever reached by the human imagination in embodying its vision. It died out, and one says in explanation that the attention given to technique at last led to a disregard of the idea; or that the mere ability to reproduce details exactly was a temptation to apply art to deceptive imitation of the seen instead of to an illusive expression of the unseen; or that the age had lost the great ideas themselves, the perception of beauty and virtue, the belief in them and honor for them, and hence necessarily declined upon the things of this world,—that is, upon what is seen by the bodily eye rather than in the realm of thought and spiritual insight: and of these explanations perhaps one is as true as another, for they are all descriptions, from different standpoints, of what actually occurred. It is impossible, however, that in view of this history, and of the similar course in the development of mediæval painting, one should not ask himself whether the rise and defense of realism among us mean that literature is to follow in the same track, and die, as sculpture and painting died, until a new age shall set the wheel turning again; for if the history of the arts teaches anything, it is that the ages of idealism are the ages of power, and those of realism the premonition and stiffening of death.
III. MR. PATER ON IDEAL ÆSTHETICISM.
The heart of Mr. Pater's Marius lies in his thought about the ideal, and it is in the nature of all such thought to make a peculiar demand upon the reader. Its wisdom is felt to be, as it were, sacerdotal, and requires a conscious preparation of mind in him who would know of it; its vision is supernal, and disclosed only when some spiritual illumination has been sent before. So runs a Platonic doctrine of election and grace that has been held as rigorously in literature as in theology. This aristocracy of idealism—its exclusiveness, its jealousy of any intrusion of the common and worldly within the company it keeps, its sense of a preciousness, as of sacred things, within itself—is incorporate in every fibre of Mr. Pater's work; and he makes the demand natural to it, not only implicitly by an unrelaxing use of such æsthetic and intellectual elements as appeal exclusively to the subtlest faculties of appreciation in their highest development, but explicitly also by the character of his hero. Marius, before he became an Epicurean, was moulded for his fate; his creator demanded an exceptional nature for the æsthetic ideal to react upon in a noble way, and so Marius was born in the upland farm among the fair mountains to the north of Pisa, and was possessed from boyhood of the devout seriousness, the mood of trustful waiting for the god's coming, which is exacted in all profound idealism. "Favete linguis!" With the lad Marius there was a devout effort to complete this impressive outward silence by that inward tacitness of mind esteemed so important by religious Romans in the performance of their sacred functions." Marius was born one of the choice natures in whom the heavenly powers are well pleased; and emphasis must be given to this circumstance because it follows that the ideal life which he lived, deeply meditated though it is, is really an individual one. Marius is not typical, nor even illustrative in any broad way of the practice of æsthetic morals; and yet, since he is not national, nor local, nor historic, in his essential self, since he is more than an enlightened philosopher, and yet less than the enlightened Christian, since his personality approaches the elect souls of other ages, other sentiments and devotions, and yet is without any real contact with them, he is typical and illustrative perhaps of something that might be. This confusedness of impression springs from the fact that Mr. Pater, while he imagines in Italy, always thinks in London; he has modernized his hero, has Anglicized him, indeed, and nevertheless has not really taken him out of the second century. It was a bold thing to attempt. It was necessary for his purposes as an evangelist of ideal living, and perhaps within the range of moral teaching it is successful; but the way in which it was done is a main point of interest.
A Roman Epicurean, one suspects, was not unlike the proverbial Italianated Englishman. The native incompatibility between the distinctive Roman temperament and the light-hearted gayety of Greek sensuousness was similiar to that between the English and the Italian character in the later times; the perfection of Marius by means of a Greek ideal may run parallel with English culture under southern influences. There was, too, in Roman character a trait or two which brings it near to qualities that lie at the base of our own stock. Even in the Italian landscape there are Northern notes such as Mr. Pater mentions when Marius, in his walks to the coast, sees "the marsh with the dwarf roses and wild lavender, the abandoned boat, the ruined floodgates, the flock of wild birds." We are told, also, that "poetic souls in old Italy felt, hardly less strongly than the English, the pleasures of winter, of the hearth, with the very dead warm in its generous heat, keeping the young myrtles in flower, though the hail is beating hard without." This note of Marius's home-life and the love he had for it, with his particular regard for "Domiduca, the goddess who watches over one's safe coming home," and with the ideal of maternity that grew up in his memory of home,—this peculiarly English note is struck in the opening and is dominant at the end. Certain other characteristics ally this Etrurian boy with that nobler strain of English blood, the Puritan strain as it was in Spenser. His instinctive seriousness, his scrupulosity of conscience, his inheritance of a certain sombreness from the stock that adorned the Etruscan funeral urns, his attachment to places and awe of some of them as sacred by the touch of a divine power, his sense of invisible enemies about his path, his rigorous self-discipline in preparation for certain hereditary sacred offices, a deadly earnestness at times,—as when he gazes so fixedly on the rigid corpse of his friend Flavian,—such are some of the traits that define his nature as essentially rather Northern than Southern, and provide a ground of special sympathy and understanding for us.
The second device by which Marius is modernized is by giving to him a power which, for one who runs as he reads, makes the character incredible. He is said to be affected sometimes in a way the opposite of the experience which many have who, on seeing a new place, seem to have been there before: Marius feels, in the most marked of his experiences, something that shall be,—he has always a prescience. Thus, in the cadence of Flavian's verses he hears the music of the Latin hymnology; in the sight of his second friend, Cornelius, who displays and puts on his armor of a Roman knight in the dusty sunshine of the shuttered country-house, he foresees the Christian chivalry; in the faces and groups of the worshipers in Cecilia's house he discerns the serene light and streaming joy of Giotto's and of Dante's vision, and looks on the Madonna and the Child that Raphael first painted. In all this there seems an unreality; in the Puritan Roman, the Cyrenaic Christian, there is a sense almost of conscious artifice, as if one were being befooled. And yet, as for those Northern notes of landscape, custom, and character, scholarship can give chapter and verse for them; and as for the gift of prescience,—well, if it were impossible for Marius to have it, in a sufficient measure at least, then the theory of ideal living which he held to was at fault. And this Marius, so constituted, his creator places in an Italy over which the romantic desolation, which we know, was laying its charm of dreamful decay, and in a Rome which, then as now, was the huddled deposit of religions.
The intellectual conviction on which Marius conducted his life was simple and common enough, as must be the case with every theory capable of being made a principle of living. The world is what we think it, and our part in existence is the fleeting moment of present consciousness. What shall be done with this moment? Economize it, said Marius, in dissent from the Stoic who said, "Contemn it." Economize it; make the most of the phenomena that arise in it, and see, so far as it depends on you, that these phenomena, both of sensation and idea, as they arise, are the most valuable possible to the moment; and so your experience—in other words, your life—will be the fullest and most refined. Above all, do not forget the main thing in this doctrine of economy, which is that the worth of experience depends, not on what it is at the moment in its detached and transitory phase, but on what it will prove in memory when it takes its place permanently and in relation to the whole of life. In such a scheme, receptivity, the most alert and varied powers of taking in impressions, is the one aim of cultivation. Here, too, much depended on the nature of Marius, this time on the side of his Southern endowment. An impressibility through sensation was his gift, his talent; and especially he was susceptible to what the eye observes: he was one of those who are "made perfect by the love of visible beauty." This is the point of union of his life with the æsthetic ideal, and makes the story of it a pathway through scenes of loveliness not unlike, in a certain mild beauty, the frescoes on ancient walls. The narrative is pictorial, almost to the point of decoration, and moves always with an outlook on some fair sight. From the landscape of the villa where Marius was born—among those delightful Etrurian hills whence one looks to the marbled rifts of Carrara gleaming above olive and chestnut slopes, and gazes off through the purple sea-valley of Venus's Port, the noblest gateway of the descending sun—to the last throttling earthquake morning, a beautiful visible world is about us, and exercises its attractiveness both in nature and in humanity. The one end of Marius was to appropriate all this, to choose the best of sensation and its most nearly connected emotions, and to live in that. To do this involves a secondary talent, a gift of insight, a power to perceive relative values, which in reality means a faculty of moral discrimination; and just here one may easily fail to see whence Marius derived this.
Why was it, for example, that he, being so attached to sensation and the emotions that cling closest to it, rejected voluptuousness, with all its forms of beauty and joyfulness, as a thing essentially not beautiful nor joyful? What was it that kept him, the comrade of Flavian, who represents the pagan surrender to this life, pure,—so pure, indeed, that with his visionary sense he foresaw in chastity an ideal that was to be, and foreknew its coming beauty? A mere interpreter of character, an analyst, would say, that Marius obeyed in these choices his own nature,—that Puritan nature whose compulsion is always strong. He venerated his own soul and cherished its early instincts, and this was his salvation. But one might also give another explanation, which would seem more harmonious with the purpose of the author; one might say that what is moral is in its outward manifestation so clothed with beauty, visible beauty, that the man who looks for beauty only, the noblest, the ideal beauty, will find therewith the highest, the ideal good. It is essential to such a seeker that he shall look with his own eyes and be frank with himself; shall "look straight out" and acknowledge what he sees; and this Marius does, thereby prefiguring in a way and practically making that "return to nature" which is the continually recurring necessity of all sincerity. If virtue does in fact wear this outward loveliness—and who would deny it?—why may not the lover of beauty have truly seen the new and springing forms of goodness, recognized them, and taken their promise into his life? In other words, was not that prescience of Marius merely a power of clear and honest seeing of the elements of beauty and ugliness there before him?
That this is Mr. Pater's view of the matter is indicated most definitely by the contrast which he continually insists on between Marcus Aurelius and Marius, and which he brings out clearly in the attitude of these two toward the gladiatorial shows. In the amphitheatre Marius is conscious of the Emperor, the strenuous Stoic, as "eternally his inferior on the question of righteousness." The young Epicurean has a "decisive conscience on sight" which is indubitable,—that conscience which, in its condemnation of the great sin of an age, is the touchstone of the select few in it, and makes them on the side of the future and aware of its excellence to be, when "not to have been, by instinctive election, on the right side was to have failed in life." Aurelius, we are told, made the great mistake: Vale, anima infelicissima! is the last word of our author to him on the eve of the persecutions. And the reason is, that the Stoic was truly blind; he had paltered with his senses until they lied to him, or spoke not at all. Marius saw the deformity of the evil, and, while rejecting it as something he might not see and live, chose the good by its beauty, and so selected in the midst of that Roman corruption the Christian elements in whose excellence the Church would triumph and be made fair.
There may be some surprise in perceiving in the evangel of æstheticism a morality of this height, a concentration of attention on the beauty of austerity, an exaltation of a noble Puritanism toward which the Cyrenaic ideal may lead. When this is understood, however, one finds it natural enough that the pervading tone of this history of an ideal life is really religious; idealism, when it is living, cannot be otherwise than essentially religious. Nevertheless, it is a bold thing to put the question, as Mr. Pater implicitly does, whether an attention to the beautiful, to visible beauty, may not only be equivalent to moral discrimination and a safeguard of virtue, but also a mode of solving the ultimate religious questions of deity and man's relation to it. Marius does arrive at an intimation, perhaps a faith, that a protective divine companionship goes beside him, and at an emotion of gratitude to that unseen presence.
Two points only, in this wide branch of the speculation, can be dwelt on now. He says toward the end that he thinks he has failed in love; and here he touches on one weakness of his ideal, for it is only by love, as he perceives, that any reconciliation between the lover of beauty and the multitudinous pitiful pain which is so large a part of the objective universe can be obtained. The second weakness is perhaps greater. In his ideal there is both doubt and isolation; the subjective element in his knowledge, the exclusive reliance on his own impressions, the fact that in metaphysical belief the world is only his world, and in actual living the experience is individual,—all this holds in it a basis of ultimate incertitude. True and real for him it no doubt is, but is that, indeed, the necessary limit of knowledge and life? In effect, too, his creed is Protestant; independently of the necessary element of doubt in it, it has the isolating force inevitable to the believer who will accept only the results of his own examination by exercise of private judgment. This position is unsatisfactory; and it seems to allow the rationality of that principle of authority by which an individual life obtains correction for its idiosyncrasies, cancels the personal error, and at the same time lets in upon itself the flood of the total experience of humanity summed up and defined in the whole body of the elect. Though stated here in terms of the Stoical philosophy, this is the Catholic conclusion. Or, if Marius does not quite assent to this, he does accept it in a half-hearted way as an hypothesis which is worth making since it reunites him to mankind. There is, it may be observed, a tendency toward Catholicism throughout the religious speculation. Another note of it, for example, is the attraction felt by Marius in the ritual of worship, as the perfection of that ceremonialism to which, in his boyish worship of the old gods, he was devoutly trained.
After all, at the end one still states the promises of this æsthetic ideal, even when working on so unusual a nature as Marius's, interrogatively. Marius's life does not set it forth with convincing power. For one thing, it is not a vital life, but a painted one; and there is an inconsequence in the series of pictures,—they do not seem to follow one another by any iron necessity. It would be foolish to complain that a life avowedly only receptive and contemplative of the beautiful is inactive. Marius does nothing except at the end. Yet, within such limits, one never sees how beauty affected Marius or developed his soul, and though he is said to have got much from companionship, one sees love operant in him very seldom, and then it is a very silent and unexpressed love. He repeats his own epitaph,—tristem neminem fecit,—and it was true; but all his life seems negative, and continually one asks, How did he really live? and gets no answer. His whole life was a meditatio mortis,—that is all that is told us.
A sense of failure, or rather of incompleteness, oppresses one at the end of the narrative. Even granting that the success Marius is said to have achieved—one is never quite sure that he did—by that exquisite appreciation of beauty and impassioned contemplation of its ideal forms, was, in fact, his; yet of what worth was it,—what did it mean to either God or man? The Northern idealist, the Puritan, cannot dispense with some serviceableness as essential to any high living. One should not push the point too far, however. Independently of all that has been said, any one who cares to think on counsels of perfection for man's life will find profound and original thought about the ideal elements still at hand in modern days for use, and many wise reflections, sown in this history. It is a rare work, and not carelessly to be read. Some exquisiteness of taste, some delight in scholarship, some knowledge of what is best worth knowing in the historic expressions of man's aspiration, and, above all, that "inward tacitness of mind" the reader must bring to its perusal. What of it? Have we not the highest authority for casting our pearls where Circe's herd cannot come?
IV. ITALIAN RENAISSANCE LITERATURE.
The traditional romance that hangs about Italy has fostered a popular misapprehension of nearly all things Italian. As the mother of Christian art and the Catholic Church, the land is supposed to be religious; as the long-enslaved and last-freed of the nations of Europe, the race is believed to be deficient in political sagacity. Yet it requires but little reflection, hardly more than a thought of the Reformation, to prevent surprise at the fact that the Italians were at heart the most irreligious of Christian peoples, and that the Church, viewed by them always as a secular institution, is a monument of their genius applied to practical affairs. Italian art, too, as an expression of national life, must be ascribed less to piety than to the native bent of mind, the inbred race disposition, which seeks to bring all spiritual things within the perception of the senses; indeed, the course of development in Italian art lies principally in the gradual substitution of an æsthetic aim for a devout motive as the source of inspiration. No people is less dreamy, in the Northern sense; the genius of the race is positive, definite, objective, practical, circumscribed in the tangible and visible facts of experience. Between Italian intellect and Italian feeling there seems to be no border-land. Ecstasy may fall from heaven and kindle masses of men into passion, as in the case of the Flagellanti, but it is a malady of emotion only; the madness passes, the mind remains untouched. In Dante's poem, as has been often pointed out, these race qualities are clearly apparent: the journey is mapped out as on a chart; the hours are duly reckoned; the world beyond is laid open to accurate observation; the dark places of his Comedy are not dark with the spirit's excess of light, but with mediæval metaphysics. In later authors, however different the subject, the temper of mind is the same. The grasp on reality is no less tenacious, the attention to detail no less careful; the incidents of the adventure, the look of the landscape, the physiognomy of the characters, no less plainly defined as phenomena ocularly seen.
In the poems of chivalry, whether romantic, heroic, or burlesque, which seem to possess the characteristics of later Italian literature in most variety, this realism is veiled by the apparent unreality of the fable. Arthur and Roland belong to the North; and to the Northern mind itself, although they have the substance of ideals, they are very remote. But the Arthur of Italian nobles, the Roland of the Italian people, are the thinnest of shades; nor were they less insubstantial to most of the poets of the golden age than to us. The people gave the Carolingian myth to them as the burden of their stories; but, leaving Boiardo out of the account, they could not accept the conditions of that imaginative world and believe in it; nor could Boiardo, who had without doubt a real enthusiasm for chivalry, believe with Spenser's faith. Italy had no feudal past; how could the citizen Pulci feel any living sympathy with feudal ideals? The myth was emptied of its moral contents; how could Ariosto be earnest as Tennyson is? In dealing with deeds of knight-errantry, adventures in the lists and the forest, wizard springs and invincible armor, all the poets were conscious of something quixotic; to Ariosto it was the main element. He could not be serious; the mock gravity of irony was the most he could compass. This sense of unreality in the legend was not all that led the last poets of the age especially to play with their art. A more powerful reason was the hopelessness of society in their age, deep as that which in earlier times fell on their ancestors, who witnessed the barbarian incursions on Roman soil. Politically, morally, and religiously, society was breaking up. What was there to be serious about? All that gives meaning to life was gone: the ties of family, country, and God were snapped. What better thing was there to do than to retire to the country, and let the world go "the primrose path"? The striking thing in all this is, that the sense of the pleasure to be derived from the refinements of culture excluded from the minds of nearly all the most gifted Italians that gloom, which would have wrapped a Northern nation, at the sight of an anarchy which, if less terrible with blood than the French Revolution, was more appalling to the spirit. The Italians, however, went to their villas, to hear Bandello tell stories and Berni read verses. The City of the Plague, from which Boccaccio's garden party fled, is the permanent background of this golden age.
Life was something left behind, but art remained; and for the purposes of art, whose function was entertainment, the adventures of Orlando and his like were sufficiently serviceable. Such myths afforded opportunity for inexhaustible invention of incident, for the play of fancy, and the exhibition of the courtesies and humors of life; and should there be a lapse into seriousness, there was room for satire on the clergy, and for sentiments of the Reformation. These tales, it is true, were products of culture separated from the realities of society, and neglectful of them; but they were not, as might have been anticipated, expressive of individual rather than national temperament. They are prominently characterized by the Italian love of incident, pictures, and fun. The incidents are invented for their own sake, not to develop character or exhibit it in action; they are only adventures, happenings, skillfully interwoven and rapidly passed; but amid them the conduct of the personages is true Italian, realistic. In presenting these incidents, and the scenes in which they take place, the poets, as Lessing complained, adopt pictorial methods: they describe the ladies piecemeal, the landscapes leaf by leaf. Possibly, as has been suggested, the habitual sight of pictures enables the Italian to succeed where the German fails; to harmonize the colors on the canvas and build up the fragments into a proportioned statue, and thus obtain a single mental impression. Whether this be so or not, the pictorial quality is a tribute exacted from literature by the ruling art, and illustrates the Italian proclivity to identify the mind's eye with the body's, to turn the things of the intellect into objects of sense. This realism, too, is shown as continuously in the frequent lapsing of Pulci's story, for example, into undisguised burlesque, low comedy, and broad fun; and more subtly in the prevailing irony of Ariosto. The poems thus constructed were an acceptable, usually a high, mode of amusement; they interested the fancy, delighted the senses, and stirred laughter. The Italians of the Renaissance asked no more.
In the prose tales, of which so many were written after the model of Boccaccio, the absorption of interest in simple incident is more plain, and the presence of contemporary manners more manifest. Various as they are, including every rank of life in their characters, and every phase of action in their events, they all bear a family resemblance. They are for the most part comedies of intrigue, arresting attention by romantic or piquant situations; usually immoral, not infrequently obscene. The crafty seducer is the text, the fool of a husband the comment; and when the gloss is read, afforded by the lives of the cardinals and the wit of the capitoli, no ground remains for doubting that they hold the mirror up to society as it then was. If they have any other than a humorous or romantic interest, it is the interest of the tragedy of physical horror, as in our English Titus Andronicus. Of course there are many stories to which this broad and rapid generalization would not apply,—tales wholly innocent, or harmless at least, full of movement, fancy, and action, graceful and charming with the art of story-telling at its Italian best; but, as a whole, they must be described as exhibiting a masque of sin. They are of the town in taste and temper; the corruption they set forth is not of the court or the curia only, but of the citizens; the laugh with which they conclude is an echo from the lips of the trades-people. Their principal value now is historic; they are the clear record of that social decay which condemned Italy to centuries of degradation. To ask why they did not generate the novel or suggest the drama is to state a literary puzzle; but the hundred considerations which have been put forth to explain the abortive issue of the miracle plays apply here also. It would seem as if the laws of spiritual development were unperceived; as if the knowledge of right and wrong as indestructible agencies to build or shatter character did not exist; as if the spirit had stiffened into that senseless stupor in which evil is no longer recognized for itself. It was left for the dramatists of the Globe Theatre to take these external incidents and show the meaning they had for humanity; to transfer the interest from the momentary and outer act, and centre it upon the living soul within. The Italians could not work the mines they owned; the pure gold of poetry that the novels held in amalgamation was to be the treasure of England. The works of the last years do not differ from the original of Boccaccio except for the worse; his successors never equaled their master; nor have their works obtained currency, like his, among men, as a part of the general literature of the cultivated world.
As the novelists make more prominent the realistic element of the narrative poems, the idyllic writers develop more plainly the pure poetic quality; in reading them one willingly assents to the enthusiasm which names their works the literature of the golden age. More than the epic or the novel, the idyl influenced the future. Arcadia is a well-known region in every great literature of Europe, and its atmosphere still hangs over the opera. The creator of this pastoral myth was the father of much beauty. Something was borrowed from the Garden of Eden, from the Virgilian fields, and from the Earthly Paradise; the religious, classical, and mediæval moods united in it; but essentially it was pure Italian,—Arcadia was an idealized Italy. The scene presented was the same country life that forms the background of all contemporary literature, but charmed, ennobled, and bathed in a softer than Italian air. There was little left in that age of ruin but delight in the natural beauty that was darkened by no shadow of humanity. The villa, the cultivated fields, the still, calm morning sky, were probably never more dear to the Italian heart than then, and it was this unsophisticated and keenly felt delight in nature that flowered in the idyl. To Northern nations Arcadia must always be a dream; to the Italians, then, at least, it was only the refinement of what was most real to them. It was because the idyl was so deeply rooted in a genuine emotion that it outlived the other modes of literature contemporary with it, and developed its final perfection only in the next age of the counter reformation in the art of Tasso and Guarini. But even in its earlier history the idyl shares with the best narrative poems that beauty of form which has conferred on both an immortality denied to the novel. The poets were all literary artists: they polished their verses with assiduous care; they expended many years in correction, elaboration, and adjustment; and they obtained that exquisite finish which, surface-like as it may seem, is adamant to the tooth of time. They achieved beauty, and won the delight that comes from its creation and contemplation; humor, too, they made their own, and gave it universal interest; they illustrated in practice the theory of art for art's sake; yet, after all, what is the judgment of posterity, we will not say on the men who were never suspected of being heroes, but on their works? They have left a literature, not of intellectual or moral weight, but of recreation; one that does not reveal, but amuses,—does not enlighten, inform, or guide life, but solaces and helps to while it away. This literature enriched the Northern minds by making them more sensitive to beauty, and by sharpening their perception of artistic refinements; it has left no other mark on civilization. The interest which the golden age excites in cultivated minds seldom loses its dilettante character; the really serious interest is in the Italy of Dante and Giotto, or in the genius of isolated men who stand apart, like Michel Angelo.
The Renaissance was a movement of civilization not less important than the Reformation or the Revolution, and to Italy, as its source, the debt of the world is great. But the Renaissance was not conveyed to Europe by the literature of its corruption; it was conveyed in far different ways.