Art in Language

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.

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

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

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


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In