Appreciation Through Enjoyment
— I remember well a certain day, æones ago, when my own shelf in the old bookcase — the lowest shelf it was — seemed to have no books on it worth reading. The fairy tales were too tiresomely true ; more wonderful things came near happening every day in the garden and garret. As for ancient, English, and American history, it was all false ; one of the grown people had said at dinner that nobody believed history nowadays. Harpers’ story-books, after you knew them by heart, furnished very little meat for the intellect or fancy. There must be some other things in the world to read. Yet the upper shelves looked deadly uninteresting ; almost all the bindings were black or dingy brown, with little gilt about them, and the few books I had peeped into were appallingly polysyllabic, — solid pages of print quite destitute of the enlivening quotation mark.
But at eight years one has infinite faith in the possibilities of the world ahead ; the world behind and about one has proved so inexhaustibly satisfying. I sidled up to one of the grown people, and, in a whining voice, as I plainly recall, asked for “something to read.” Now that grown person did not point to the lowest shelf, saying, “ There are your own stories ; why don’t you read them ? ” Not at all. She took in the situation at once. She rose, went to the high bookcase, and, exactly as if she had foreseen the present emergency, laid her hand upon and drew forth from an upper shelf, quite beyond my reach save from a chair, a book, — one of two hound alike in dull lilac, with fine gilt arabesques on the back, and a lovely gilt medallion on each cover. “ Here is a picture-book for you,” said that inspired grown person, as she thrust into my hand the volume opened at a certain place near the beginning. Then she returned to her work.
I had not time to exclaim, “ But I don’t see any pictures ! ” for already was my eye caught and held.
Were thickly crusted, one and all;
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable wall.”
Not see any pictures ? What pictures had I ever seen before one half so rich and alluring? Pictures set to music, too ; such slow-moving, melancholy music ! I did not know what it was all about, nor did I ask. I cared not to know. Mariana was in the moated grange, — “ the lonely moated grange.” Fascinating phrase ! She waited there and wept. Somebody would not come. That was enough.
Why she had chosen so undesirable an abode ; why she remained there, shedding such seeming superfluity of tears ; what on earth she was aweary of ; who he was that did not come ; why he stayed away, and what possible good he could have done had he come, I questioned not. Moreover, I believe I should have resented being told. The abstract is mystery, enchantment ; these the concrete kills. Mariana was hopelessness. She had no face, no form. I knew only that she sat and wept. When she looked out, it was “ thickest dark.” One could not see her then. “ He ” was yet more vague and negative. All he did was not to come. He stood for faithlessness; for the thing you thought was going to happen, and did not happen.
I reveled, all infant that I was, in the dreamy sense of sickening disappointment and despair which breathes through this unspeakable picture, and which every image serves to increase. But how vivid and realistic the images ! Those “broken sheds,” — were they not in our back yard ? That dark which “ did trance the sky,”— whatever that might mean, — it tranced me every summer night when I went to bed without a candle. The “ glooming flats,” — they lay across our river, and belonged, so far as I knew, to nobody. The Marquis of Carabas might have claimed them all. Then “ the sluice with blackened waters,” and the “ low moon,” the “ very low ” moon. (Thereafter I felt no interest in commonplace high moons.) Above all, that marvelous sixth stanza, which set quivering every poetic fibre in my small soul. For years afterwards, on cool, sleepy autumn days, when “ the blue fly sung in the pane ” (flies always looked green to me, but no matter), I would thrill at memory of weary Mariana starting at the shrieking mice, watching fearfully for “ old faces ” to come and “glimmer” at her, listening for “ old footsteps ” tap-tapping, creak-creaking, on the “ upper floors.” Oh, was ever ghost or fairy tale more weirdly formless, yet more definitely suggestive, or more idealistically realistic ?
But the beauty of it all, and the point I now wish to make, is that, without knowing any of these big words, or of the bigger ideas which folks try to cram into the words ; without knowing what poetry was, or even that such a thing as poetry (technically) existed, I yet got all the good out of Mariana that I could have gotten out of it had I been a hundred years old, and thrice versed in the principles of belles - lettres. All the good, I mean, that the poet himself felt when he wrote it ; all the real, intrinsic good of poetry, whose great end — so Keats tells us — is “to lift the thoughts of man.”
It goes without saying that at eight years I could not have that experience of life or of my own soul which would have enabled me to apprehend tiie full reality of the human situation depicted in Mariana. Still, though a small human being, I was a whole one and a normal one ; in my little life I had not remained ignorant of hope deferred ; also was I well aware that people who make promises oftentimes break them, and that sorrow ensues therefrom.
For the rest, — for that strange, close connection of the outer with the inner world, of the nature that we see with the nature that we feel ; for the binding though invisible analogy between our tears and the “ dews of even,” between the monotony of our spirits and the monotony of Nature’s wastes and her calmly recurrent sounds ; for that exposition of soul-moods accordant or non-accordant with “gray-eyed morns ” or “ thick-moted sunbeams,” —for these and for a multitude more of sensations that were revelations, I had the poet to thank. In a single short song he had shown me the poetry of earth which “ ceaseth never.”
And this brings me to my second and chief point, namely (quoting some one whose name and state I wish I could remember), that “ that is truly a work of art which may be appreciated simply by being enjoyed.” That I did appreciate Mariana long before I had completed my first decade I cannot doubt ; the first impression received from it was too striking ever to be forgotten, or misassigned as to date.
Many a time, in the days following that important afternoon, did I clamber up and pull down for myself the violet volume, find my poem, read it and dream over it. Reading it again, years later, I have not experienced a single emotion which was not mine in that sweet primeval time. The emotions, some of them, are stronger, — that is all. The work of art had done its utmost — its highest, that is — upon my childish mind : it had gifted me with the appreciation that comes through enjoyment.
This same principle — for I believe it is a principle, and one that can readily be explained — applies to my more recent reading of Dante. I know no Italian. I do not study the Comedy Divine ; I only read it, soak myself in it, enjoy it. And it stands the test, yielding a power of appreciation which makes me not ashamed before those who are students of its mysteries, delvers in its deepest depths.
Also is this true of all other forms of art. The truly, perfectly great picture appeals, and appeals at once, to those who have not the first knowledge of the technicalities of painting. A moderately educated country girl, who had never read one line upon art, nor ever heard artistic subjects discussed, visited the recent Loan Exhibition in New York. She unhesitatingly picked out The Gilder as being the best picture on the walls, and in describing it she used almost the same words as those employed by a certain cultivated person who knows all the galleries of Europe. “ You can’t think that paint did it,” said she. Her enjoyment amounted to appreciation.
I have been especially struck lately with the same thing in regard to yet another art. I am acquainted with at least half a dozen people who, knowing nothing of music, caring less for the piano than for any other instrument, above all abhorring “ a piano performance,” went, quite unwillingly, to hear Paderewski. Fully expecting to be bored, they were held entranced throughout the long recitals, dreading when the last note should be struck, and they came away the loudest trumpeters of that muchbetrumpeted artist. It cannot injure the theory I am advancing to say that a large portion of Paderewski’s charm consists in his personality and his magnetic qualities. Of course his personality increases the greatness of what he does, — is an intrinsic part of it ; how could it be otherwise ? The performance includes the artist as well as the music he plays. Was not Rembrandt’s hand behind the lauded paint, and his brain, or self, behind his hand ? At the risk of being charged with triteness, I will say that only great men can do great things. None the less — the more, rather — do the great things speak so loudly, so plainly, that all may hear, and hearing enjoy, and enjoying (for this is the sine qua non) appreciate.