Two Books of Essays

AN abstract discussion of the æsthetic and ethical elements in the mind is a rare contribution to current literature ; and one in which the logical treatment is so rigorous, the illustration so ample and apt, and the scope so broad as is the case with this volume 1 is a treasure-trove. The claims of philosophy to be the science of all knowledge are discredited more often by the defects of its disciples in comprehensive thinking than by its own failure in the grand generalizations which it aims to make and is sometimes in haste to proclaim as ultimate truths. It is not to be disputed that such a treatise as this from the pen of a thoughtful scholar, well trained in the schools of rigid thinking, deals with the truths that underlie criticism ; and the author has presented his views upon these matters of tragedy and comedy, in the earlier part of his volume, in a way to remind us forcibly that the weakness of literary criticism, the confusions of the controversial romanticists and realists, are due in large part to an imperfect apprehension of general principles. Philosophical criticism leaves but small play for those who would make personal impressions the sum and substance of critical opinion. It hardly stops to regard those who flout any principle of authority in literary judgment, and treat the decisions of the past as a matter of mere tradition, the baseless fabric of antiquated prejudice and discredited taste. The range of fashion in literature is wide, but it is not coextensive with the province ; the immortality of the great masters is not a literary fiction, such as obtain in law ; there are grounds on which enduring fame is built securely, and these are the object of real philosophical inquiry. The criticism which consists of personal impressions is quite adequate to pronounce upon the literature of fashion, but it fails to account for the works which survive that literature, and are seldom to be included in it. The philosophical critic feels the need of bringing his own perceptions and feelings into some relation with established general principles, which are the objective element in his art; he would not be abandoned to his own egoism, the prey of personal errors which may be so easily corrected. The lack of ably written volumes dealing with first principles has been one of the causes of an inefficient and wandering criticism from which the public often suffers, and the evil is the greater because such hard matter as that of which these essays entertain is very slow in permeating common thought.

The old antithesis of the real and the ideal, for example, is a simple matter to Professor Everett, who is able to dispatch it in a very few lines. This is because the question does not contain, as some persons think, any element of mere preference ; it is no more than one incident in a general logical analysis, and no more to be quarreled with than a chemical reaction. The true opposite to the ideal, as needs to be said more often than should be the case, is the actual; and when this is borne in mind there is little excuse for any one to lose his way in the discussion. The ideal is dealt with by the imagination, as the actual by the understanding ; but both are real. To carry the point further, the ideal is the substance of beauty, and from this initial truth a whole system may be evolved, in which the respective claims of realism and romanticism, so far from being a leading question, will enter only as a corollary drawn from higher premises. It is the imagination which builds up the world which the mind knows, in a philosophical sense ; it is this faculty which, by the aid of many perceptions of the actual, at last discerns the type of which the actual embodiments are imperfect and approximate instances ; and this type, which is ideal, may be regarded as a perfected thing, which is the object of mere contemplation. This is the beautiful, in beholding which the mind is in the pure mood of contemplation, or, in other language, passes most completely out of itself. It is not to be expected that a bare and disjointed statement of Professor Everett’s compacted thesis should do more than indicate his views and their general harmony. He goes on to show that poetry is one of the arts by which the beautiful, the ideal, the object of æsthetic contemplation, is represented to the mind in such a way, if we may coin a paradox of our own, that unreality is a necessary part of the illusion. In sculpture this unreality is so plain as hardly to require mention; in the theatre it is obvious, when scenic arrangement and mimicry have done their utmost, that if the audience were in fact deluded into believing the tragedy real they would rush upon the stage to interfere as they would do in the public square ; and it is an acute suggestion of Professor Everett’s that in poetry the metrical movement, the talking of blank verse, has a value in giving just that shade of unreality which is necessary to remind us that we are in the presence of the ideal. He aptly cites, in support of the remark, Goethe’s letter to Schiller, in which he speaks of transforming the closing scene of the first part of Faust from prose to poetry, in order to soften the terror of it and let it be seen as through a veil.

These general matters, however, with which the author opens the subject, are of more special interest to the metaphysician. The particular topics with which he continues the discussion are nearer to the ordinary reader. One of the more important of these is the explanation of the poetical value of nature. He contrasts at the outset the two remarkably divergent essays of Mill and Emerson upon Nature. He grants the worst that the pessimist can say, and yet holds that in the intelligent comprehension of nature there remains material which affords delight to the mind. The very completeness of the antithesis between nature and mind is alleged as one source of our enjoyment. The sense of relief which is experienced in contemplating a realm not subject to those limitations which oppress the mind in its own life counts for much. As an example of such freedom in nature he turns to its unmoral character as the most striking trait of difference from human life, and he also gives full value to the sense we have of being included in the large general movement of natural forces as a part in the whole, from which springs a portion of the repose of the mind. He is unwilling, however, to accept the scientific analysis which would refer our vague emotions in the presence of nature to the impressions of the race inherited from savage life. It is doubtful to our minds whether he assigns a sufficient place to the merely physical effects of light and sound and kindred sources of sensation in building up his theory of nature-poetry.

A second topic, which is the complement of this, is broached in examining the poetical element in human life itself. He naturally selects tragedy as the immediate subject of this portion of the treatise, inasmuch as it represents the concentration of life. Here his powers of clear logical distinction and of philosophical comprehensiveness are most manifest. He states a formula which fairly covers the subject in all literatures. The source of tragedy is found in the collision of two wills, but not merely two individual wills. The old distinction made between the ancient and modern dramas will be remembered. It has been said that the genius of Greek tragedy is fate, the power superior to men and gods alike, and that the genius of modern tragedy is character. This is a true difference, but it is only partially stated; for many Shakespearean commentators have remarked that in the great characters of the plays the presence of a controlling fate is felt in them as irresistible as the forces of nature. There is a necessity in the structure of mind akin to that in nature, and the freedom of the individual under it is limited; there is a secondary necessity in the circumstances which surround the individual, from which he cannot disinvolve himself. The collision of which Professor Everett speaks is therefore more than the strife of two wills ; it is the impact on each other of two wills which are themselves instruments of greater moral forces and subjected to unalterable conditions. Thus it is the same, whether one speaks of fate or character. In combination with this conflict there are also two other elements : one is the blindness of the individual in respect to the actual condition of affairs, his failure to comprehend the entire moral order to which he is sacrificed ; the other is the retribution which comes upon the individual for his violation, perhaps unknown, of the law which ruins him. These three elements, necessity, blindness, and retribution, are essential to complete tragedy. We have not the space to follow out the admirable reasoning and full illustration by which this analysis of tragedy is supported. It is intimately bound up with truths of both art and life, and harmonizes with the practice of the great masters of the drama. It is of interest, also, for the ethical questions it starts, and the view of the moral progress of the individual which it involves. It may be extended beyond morals and art into history ; and indeed, Professor Everett finds a place under his formula for the greatest of real tragedies, — the death of Christ. But these matters of detail can only be glanced at in passing.

Upon coming to the discussion of comedy, the author finds that the attitude of the mind is radically changed. In poetry, the mind goes out from itself into the world, and in a certain sense is absorbed in the larger life of which it is a part. In comedy, on the contrary, the mind recovers its independence and stands detached. It is like a visitor from another planet, and is amused, as if what it beholds were alien to it. This is partly because the comic, in Professor Everett’s view, is a matter of form, and not of contents; it exists in the mind and is entirely subjective; as soon as reality enters into it, it changes its character, and is no longer comic. He discusses the view that the comic arises from the sense of incongruities, and also Hobbes’s theory that it implies a feeling of superiority in the one who laughs; and he observes that these theories are not exclusive. He goes on to direct very destructive criticism upon Bain’s views on this question, and thus exhibits quite unconsciously the difference there is between the logician plus the philosopher and the logician solely. The subject of wit and humor, however, with the subordinate inquiry as to the physical explanation of laughter, is a very obscure one. The proverbial nearness of smiles and tears, the fine line that divides the comic from the tragic, and the readiness with which one changes into the other in consequence of slight modifications of the conditions embarrass the analysis. It may fairly be said, nevertheless, that the present essay is not only an interesting review of the best philosophical thought upon the matter, but by its fundamental position of the subjectivity of comedy, and its limitation to the form, and not the reality, of actions, is also valuable for itself.

In the last chapters of the volume, the ethical element is dealt with upon lines that harmonize with those already laid down. Under the impulse of duty, of which the springs are said to be love and honor, the mind attempts to realize the ideal. Its attitude is similar to that it holds toward beauty in art and poetry, except that the practical is substituted for the contemplative mood. The obligation felt in conscience is ascribed to the mind’s consciousness of its relations to the larger wholes outside of itself, or in which it may be considered as included, such as the family, the state, humanity, and at its farthest reach in the moral order of the universe. Ethics, however, are not fairly treated in so brief a space as the author has allowed, and he seems rather to have had in mind the task of exhibiting the general analogies of the mind in ethical and æsthetic manifestations than that of unfolding a comprehensive and exact ethical theory. In these chapters, as indeed throughout the volume, the constant presence of modern thought, the speculations of this century, is a very noticeable feature. The liberality of mind, the hospitality of the thinker, and the range of his acquaintance are enviable traits in a scholar. The influence of Hegel and Schopenhauer is acknowledged, and the schools of nineteenth-century science are felt to be contemporary. It is proper to observe, too, that the general conceptions of the book with respect to religious thought are distinctly those of Unitarianism. The attempt to correlate religion with poetry and art, the dignity ascribed to the imagination as an aid in apprehending the spiritual, the doctrine that there is no evil in nature, the idea of the moral law and the modes of its declaration, are all fundamentally in harmony with liberal theology, and the temper in which the new ethics, as they are termed, are met is similarly characterized. It would not be pretended that the contents of the volume are in any considerable degree original. The author, nevertheless, is by no means a retailer of other men’s wares. He has published the fruits of his thoughts upon matters in which learning is a prerequisite to any thought. His style is remarkably clear and cogent, often acute, and not infrequently has the charm of a refined eloquence ; but it would be more just to say that the thoughts are eloquent rather than the style. The value of such a work, the finished results of a rich and reflective mind, is inestimable to cultivated persons who have sufficient intellectual force to appreciate its fineness.

Miss Repplier’s neat little volume of essays2 appeals, like Dr. Everett’s, to persons conversant with literature, but it makes no attempt at examining foundations. Rather it is occupied with a few simple themes which permit abundant illustration from what used to be called “ polite literature.” Whether children are the same now as they once were, whether sentiment has decayed, how the world looks to the modern poet and thinker. — these and similar subjects are discussed upon the evidence furnished by a wide range of modern writers. Miss Repplier rarely draws upon any direct testimony from observation, even when discoursing upon Children, Past and Present, yet when she does it is with an acuteness which tempts one to wish that she would give freer rein to her power in this direction. How admirable, for example, is the rapid sketch of the modern school-girl, as she is followed “ along the track of her selfchosen reading”! We quote the passage, though it appears in an essay originally printed in The Atlantic, for it is worth reading twice : —

“ She has begun, no doubt, with childish stories, bright and well written, probably, but following each other in such quick succession that none of them have left any distinct impression on her mind. Books that children read but once are of scant service to them; those that have really helped to warm our imaginations and to train our faculties are the few old friends we know so well that they have become a portion of our thinking selves. At ten or twelve the little girl aspires to something partly grownup, to those nondescript tales which, trembling ever on the brink of sentiment, seem afraid to risk the plunge ; and with her appetite whetted by a course of this unsatisfying diet, she is soon ripe for a little more excitement and a great deal more love-making, so graduates into Rhoda Broughton and the ‘ Duchess,’ at which point her intellectual career is closed. She has no idea, even, of what she has missed in the world of books. She tells you that ‘ she don’t care for Dickens,’ and ‘can’t get interested in Scott,’ with a placidity that plainly shows she lays the blame for this state of affairs on the two great masters who have amused and charmed the world. As for Northanger Abbey or Emma, she would as soon think of finding entertainment in Henry Esmond. She has probably never read a single masterpiece of our language ; she has never been moved by a noble poem, or stirred to the quick by a well-told page of history; she has never opened the pores of her mind for the reception of a vigorous thought or the solution of a mental problem ; yet she may be found daily in the circulating library, and is seldom visible on the street without a book or two under her arm.”

Miss Repplier, if she rarely uses life apart from books, uses the life in books themselves with singular freshness and discrimination. Evidently books are real to her, and she manages, by her citations and comparisons, to let a wonderful supply of fresh air into the library. Her vivacious, merry, and often very witty characterizations of the men, women, and children of books has the effect upon the reader of making him know his old friends better. Her reading has been generous among the books which cultivated persons without hobbies are likely to know, and her illustrations drawn from them are so natural and her observations so piquant that to follow her lead is to renew acquaintance with familiar persons and to know them more familiarly.

This realization of literature makes Miss Repplier a most entertaining interpreter, and it is worth while to find a companion in a critic, rather than a critic in a companion ; for her bent of mind is clearly critical, only she has not felt it necessary to abandon her pleasure in books for the sake of creating a new pleasure in pecking at them. We suspect that the companionableness of this volume will disclose itself to many persons in the unwillingness which they will feel to read it alone. It is by all means a book to be enjoyed aloud.

  1. Poetry, Comedy, and Duty. By C. C. EVERETT, D. D. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1888.
  2. Books and Men. By AGNES REPPLIER. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1888.