Art in Language

More
Till every whispering leaf would seem to tell
The joyful tidings, old as earth, yet new
Even as the trembling drop of freshest dew
On folded buds that in green springtime swell.
And then a moment's breathless hush,—and now,
Beyond the kindling brow
Of yonder peak, behold! A gleam of shimmering gold,
Waxing more deep, more bright,
Breaking at last to shafts of liquid light,
And then—O warblers on the wing,
Let all your loudest anthems ring!
Lo! overflooded with white flame,
The throbbing, radiant skies proclaim,
The Coming of the King !
—Stuart Sterne

Great as is the mystery of printer's ink, it does not make literature; neither does pagination or imprint, nor covers, however garish or however limp. We live in an age when there is much putting of things in black and white. Stenographers flit hither and thither, and the click of the typewriter is abroad in the land; the issue whereof is much blackening of much good white paper with many needless words, and more needless paragraphs and sections. How sadly we are missing the restringent and demulcent influences of the old quill pen! We might spare chirography from the list of fine arts, leaving that to China; but in another generation we shall forget how to spell as well as to write, leaving that to the specialists in spelling, the duly initiated and installed knights of the typewriter. Still, all this we can overlook, so far as our subject is concerned; for after all, literature is neither chirography nor orthography. Yet we shall have to recover a little from the megalitis with which for the time the typewriter and the stenographer have infected us.

It is a good old rule to be sure one has something to say before undertaking to write. Lack of precision in expression is undoubtedly due in large measure to murkiness of thought. On the other hand, it is true that the formulation of thought into language is, in ordinary experience, the surest method of clarifying one's ideas. Talking or writing one's self into clearness is therefore often good policy, but it cannot in fairness be done at the expense of the hearing and reading public.

Good literature presupposes substance, ideas, knowledge, convictions, or profound impressions. Yet neither of these, nor all of these together, will make literature. Clearness in either or all will not do it. Good timber fitly framed will make a house, but not necessarily architecture. An auctioneer's catalogue conveys information, is clearly analyzed and perfectly explicit, but it is not literature. Literature is art, and art is more, infinitely more, than the best of intelligence can make out of the best of material.

Concerning the rationalizing intelligence of man, it may still be said that it knows in part, it prophesies in part, it sees in a glass darkly; concerning art, it must be said that it seeks unto the vision which is "face to face."

Poetry is profounder than psychology, architecture than engineering, painting than the physics of color, literature than philology, faith than criticism; and though these sterner disciplines of the intelligence purge and chasten and correct, they are guideboards, and not the way; they are precepts, not the truth; they are body, not the life.

Art implies beauty, whose laws have set their judgment seat behind the veil. The laws with which the sciences of metre, grammar, and physics deal lie on the hither side. Dimly they shadow forth the higher law, but cannot compass its expression.

Art implies taste, and taste weighs in subtler balances than those of the chemist or the analyzing critic. The judgments of the jurist order themselves according to the chance law of statutes and of civic usage; the judgments of the physician fit themselves to the narrow circle of what flitting experience has taught; the judgments of the philologist, the engineer, the physicist, use the scraps they have collected, matching them together in hope of discerning fragments of a pattern. They all see in part and know in part. They all see with part of an eye and judge with part of a soul. But taste abjures the minims and the millimeters, the fragmentary tests and the partial vision, looks full and straight with the whole of the soul, and judges with the whole of the life. The judgment of taste is more than the sum of all the judgments of reason, as home is more than the sum of the rooms of a house, life more than the sum of the members of a body, communion with God more than the sum of all the doctrines.

Art implies an ideal. An ideal is a vision beyond the power of materials, whether of marble or of language, to express. In the artist's hands these materials can suggest the ideal; they can point toward it; they can summon it forth. When the material embodies all that he who shapes it has to tell, then the work is handicraft, not art. The work has satisfied itself in constraining the material to a use. If it was good work, it has made a good hammer that will drive nails, a good bridge that will save wading, a good likeness that will identify a criminal, a good statement that will convey information without inspiration. Teaching that imparts knowledge, and fails to supply ideals and inspiration, is notably not education; craft that fires no yearning for the vision of the greater whole is not art. A rift in the veil, a glimpse of that other fair land where the best that is in us divines itself native, that alone is the handiwork and yield of art.

Literature is art. It is art whose crude material is language, as the sculptor's material is marble, or as the potter's is clay. Its mission in the first place is so to shape its material that form and beauty may emerge. The day has not passed wherein the grace of words fitly spoken has power to quicken and inspire human life, nor has Spenser's dictum,

"For pleasing words are like the magic art,"

lost in reality any of its value, despite the chronicler, the intelligencer, and all the apostles of the matter‑of‑fact.

It cannot be denied, however, that a practical age has had its effect. Men certainly do hesitate frankly to confess that in their own usage language is used as an artistic material and subjected to artistic treatment. There is apparently a feeling that the confession would involve something demeaning to the content of thought. Rhetoric is in bad odor, ‑ chiefly the name. In the schools they try to hide it under the name "English." There never was, however, in all the days of our civilization, a more widespread and certain demand for what is called "good English," or a more perfect appreciation of what is said to be "well written." Rhetoric as a name has fallen into discredit because it has come to be associated with tinseled phrase and empty words. But this is no rebuff to the art. Every material of the arts, from ivory to wood, has sometime been misused as tinsel. The empty display of material is not art; it is child's play.

Somewhat of the ultra-modern idea that art and language have no proper dealings with each other is traceable to the influence of the modern scientific study of language. The science of language is stilt young, and much that it has taught is proving to have been most superficially conceived. Now that the science is passing over into the years of discretion, it is looking back with some quiet regret at the amateurish ventures of its earlier days. The first joy of the discovery that language growth was susceptible of formulation under laws danced to the conclusion that language was a physico-physiological entity, and its growth so genuinely a " natural" one, and so exclusively subject to the control of " natural" laws, that any interference therewith on the part of the correcting school ma'am, the admonishing dictionary, the leveling purist, the embellishing rhetorician, or any other minions of the law-and-order party was either little short of vandalism, and to be ranked with the docking of horses' tails, or at best a form of professional service to be classed with dancing lessons and facial massage.

The incipient science of education has been passing through a similar phase, wherein the notion that biology furnishes the unfailing clue to educational procedure has played havoc with good sense. The fallacy of course lies in the assumption that the human life to which we seek to adapt the child is prominently biological. It is not; it is preeminently socio-historical, lived in society, determined by the historical order. Education as a department of study must ultimately find its closest affinity, not with biology or with psychology, but with sociology, or rather, with history outright, for there is no sociology without history.

Language is a medium of communication between men living in society, and not merely a means of expression. As such, the laws which govern its growth are social, not physical, and resemble more the laws which rule in the development of table manners than those which regulate the movements of the planets. The uniformity of product which makes the social laws to be laws is due to the need of a standard social currency, ‑ in the case of language the need of intelligibility, in the case of manners the need of acceptability.

The observation and study of those processes in language which make for the establishment of a standard of intercourse between dialectally divergent communities become, therefore, of quite as great importance and scientific interest as those which, under the more commonly confessed name of laws, characterize the development of speech in the single community. The laws of sound, indeed, are social laws operating under a multiplex pressure toward compromise, and do not in last analysis differ at all from the processes of borrowing, purging, rectifying, which produce the standards of correctness in the great national and literary languages.

The use of correct or suitable language, of language suitable to the subject, to the community addressed, and to the effect to be produced, is and will always be a matter of taste, and of taste as a power of judgment acquired through sympathy with social feeling and need. The effect of suitable language will always be measured, among civilized communities, not by its precise report of concepts and propositions after the manner of algebraic formula and equations, but by the spiritual atmosphere of thousand-fold suggestion and association which it brings in with it, like the breath of a larger life to quicken the dry bones, ‑ the dry bones that lie in the narrow valley of the matter‑of‑fact. Our response to the forms of verse and the gentle touch of poetry has place among the intimations of immortality. We know that we have part in the larger life, because there is that within us which is more than can be said.

Literature, therefore, is art in that it shapes its crude material, language, into forms that satisfy the taste as the high and wide‑horizoned judgment seat of the spiritual life; but it is also art—and this perhaps is more—in that it uses these forms to set forth the ideals which to the spiritual eye are more real than the realities. The story of the experiences of individual men as told in diaries, or of tribes and nations as told in chronicles, may or may not, in diary and chronicle, reveal the outlines of a plot; but whenever through the mazes of details there shines the glimmer of a golden thread to suggest motif and plan, then art is beginning, —art that discerns a figure buried in the crude stone, and sees a drama linking together the scattered experiences of a life. History that is literature, and not mere chronicle, finds in the fate—which is to say in the character— of nations and races a soul of idea for the body of facts. Biography that is literature, and not mere diary, finds a like soul of idea in the mysterious, if not mystical, unity of a personal character. The vision of such character in a landscape or a building, in the life of a person, the fate of a people, or the drift of a century, is the gift of the inspired insight of art. It is this, and nothing more, that we mean by ideals and the ideal.

The quest for the ideal and the instinct of form are close akin. We rejoice to find on the common materials of our seen life traces, though ever so slight, of the mould marks which betray their connection in use with some great plan or work or purpose of the higher and unseen life. Through the mould marks of form our vision is quickened to see the pattern set in the mount. Form in art, form in literature, form in manners, form in devotion, all are born of one human instinct and desire, —the desire to see the common every-day life and its materials now and again dignified to the service of some higher purpose, to participation in some greater plan of the greater whole.

The Iliad is art, whether or not the critics find in the whole story a complete plot, because there is everywhere present in Homer the quality which alone gives a plot value and effect, —and that is form. Metre and rhythm, the recurring epithets and the ringing verse endings, they are only the mould marks of form; but the rounding of the episodes, the panoramic effects of the action, the half conventionalization of the characters, the stateliness of the stage setting, the whole atmosphere of the heroic, betray the very shaping of the mould itself. From beginning to end the poem is art. It is closer in touch with the stage than the street, for it is abstracted from life.

Art offers the moulds which fit our many separate lives. It is the master key. Language is the keenest expression of life. Art and the life that really lives are inseparable. Language is art's most supple, most familiar clay.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In