Impressionism and Appreciation

PURE impressionism in literary criticism has of late years grown into great favor, both among critics themselves and with the public. The essentials of a good critic — so the rubric has come to run — are sensitiveness to the varying appeal of art, and the ability to translate this appeal unerringly into images and phrases. The impressionist must have delicacy of perception, mobility of mood, reverence for the shade, and a sure instinct for the specific integrating phrase and for the image, tinged with feeling.

The popular legend that places Matthew Arnold at the head of this critical tradition in England is, at least partly, true; he certainly cared more for the shade, and sought more patiently to define it, than any earlier English critic. The cult of the shade was one of the many good things that came to him from France. But Arnold the critic was no match for Arnold the foe of Philistinism. Though he had early insisted on the need of detachment in literary criticism, Arnold suffered his moods to be perturbed and his temperament to be blurred by worry over practical and public questions of the hour; and in later years he grew so intent on coaching his fellow countrymen in morals and religion as to lose in some degree his critical zest for refinements that had no direct ethical value. It is rather to Walter Pater among English essayists that the modern impressionist looks for precept and example in his search for disinterestedness, for artistic sincerity, and for flexibleness of temperament; and it is Pater who, more than all other English critics, has illustrated what appreciative criticism may accomplish.

Yet if we consider the matter more carefully, impressionism is neither Arnold’s nor Pater’s importation or invention. It is the result of far deeper influences than any one man could have put in play. It is indeed the expression in literature of certain spiritual tendencies that have long been developing, — tendencies the growth of which may be traced in man’s relation to nature as well as to art. And it is because the moods and the instincts and the methods of impressionism may thus be discovered working themselves out connectedly and progressively in the history of the human spirit that they must be regarded as justifying themselves, and as deserving from even the most conservative judges some degree of recognition and acceptance. Little by little, during the last two centuries, the human spirit has gained a finer and closer, sense of the worth and meaning of every individual moment of pleasure in the presence alike of nature and of art. The record of this increase of sensitiveness toward nature is to be found in poetry, and toward art, in criticism.

Thomson’s Seasons may be taken as representing the utmost sensitiveness to nature of which the early eighteenth century was capable. Even for a modern reader, Thomson’s descriptions still have considerable charm; but what such a reader soon notes is that the effects Thomson portrays are all generalized effects, grouped significantly under the names of the four seasons. Typical spring, typical summer, and so on, — these Thomson describes, and of these he feels what may be called the generalized emotional value. Beyond this typical treatment of nature and these generalized emotions he does not pass. As we go on, however, through the poetry of the century, nature becomes gradually more localized; poets dare to mark with specific detail — to picture vividly — individual objects, and they feel, and set down in their verse, the general charm that this landscape, this smiling valley, or this brimming river has for an impressionable observer. Cowper has thus recorded much of the beauty of the valley of the Ouse,—with delicate truth and finished art. Yet, be it noted, he has included in his record little or no suggestion of his momentary moods. In Wordsworth and the Romantic poets the impressions of nature are still further defined — are individualized both in place and in time ; at last we have “ the time and the place and the loved one all together.” Continually in Romantic poetry, a special bit of nature, tinged with the color of a fleeting mood, is enshrined in verse ; the fusion of nature with man’s spirit is relatively complete.

In criticism, too, — that is, in man’s conscious relation to art, — a similar growth in sensitiveness and in concreteness of matter and mood may be traced. Addison was the first to try to work out, in his Pleasures of the Imagination, the psychology of artistic enjoyment; and his papers on Paradise Lost come nearer being patient and vital appreciation of literature than any earlier English criticism comes. Yet, after all, they get little beyond a conventional and general classification of impressions. Addison’s words of praise and blame are few, literal, abstract, colorless. “Just,” “natural,” “elegant,” “beautiful,” “wonderfully beautiful and poetical,” —these words and phrases, and others like them, are used again and again; and rarely indeed does Addison escape from such tagging generalities and define a personal impression vividly and imaginatively. The history of literary criticism from Addison’s day to our own is, if viewed in one way, the history of the ever increasing refinement of the critic’s sensorium ; it is the history of the critic’s increasing sensitiveness to delicate shades of spiritual experience in his reaction on literature ; and, finally, it is the history of a growing tendency on the part of the critic to value, above all else, his own intimate relation to this or that piece of literature, — a tendency that more and more takes the form of prizing the fleeting mood, the passing poignant moment of enjoyment in the presence of art, until at last certain modern critics refuse, on principle, to feel twice alike about the same poem. In short, what has occurred is this : a poem in its relation to the critic has been gradually carried over from the outside world and made an intimate part of the critic’s personality ; it has been transformed from an external object, loosely related to universal mind and generalized emotion of which the critic stands as type, into a series of thought-waves and nerve-vibrations that run at a special moment through an active brain and a sensitive temperament. For the pre-Addisonian critic, a poem was something to be scanned and handled, like an exquisite casket, and to be praised in general terms for its conventional design, its ingenious setting of jewel-like ornaments, and its sure and skillful execution; for the modern impressionistic critic, it is like the tone of a dear voice, like the breath of early morning, like any intangible greeting that steals across the nerves and cherishes them with an intimately personal appeal.

Impressionism, then, justifies itself historically. But more than this, it justifies itself psychologically ; for it recognizes with peculiar completeness the vitalizing power of literature — its fashion of putting into play the whole nature of each reader it addresses, and its consequent, unlimited, creative energy. A piece of scientific writing offers to every man the same studiously unequivocal message; as far as the writer‘is consistently scientific, his terms have only an intellectual value, put only the mind into play, and guide all minds through the same routine of syllogism and inference to an inevitable conclusion. In contrast with this uniformity in the appeal of science is the infinite variableness and adaptability of literature. Every piece of literature is a mimic piece of life that tempts the reader to capture from it, with mind and heart and imagination, an individual bliss ; he may, in some measure, shape it as he will — work out his own destiny with it. A theorem from Euclid once mastered is one and the same thing to every man — perennially monotonous. A play of Shakespeare’s (or, for that matter, a sonnet of Rossetti’s) speaks a language that varies in its power and suggestion according to the personality of the hearer, and even according to his mood; the poem gets its value, as life gets its value, from the temperament that confronts it; and it is this enchanting fickleness in literature that of late years impressionism has been more and. more noting and illustrating, until some critics, like M. Anatole France, assure us that literary criticism is nothing, and should be nothing, but the recital of one’s personal adventures with a book.

It is a mistake, then, to protest against the growth of impressionism, as some nervous guardians of the public literary conscience are inclined to protest, as if a parasitic form of literature were creeping into undue importance. Regarded as literature about literature, impressionism may seem an overrefined product — two degrees removed from actual life, fantastically unreal ; but regarded as the intimate record of what a few happy moments have meant to an alert mind and heart, impressionism is transcendently close to fact. The popularity of impressionism is only one sign more that we are learning to prize, above most things else, richness of spiritual experience. The sincere and significant mood, — this is what we have come to care for, whether the mood be suggested by life, by nature, or by art and literature. False moods expressed maladroitly will doubtless try to get themselves accepted, just as artificial poems about nature have multiplied endlessly since Wordsworth’s day. The counterfeit merely proves the worth of the original. In an age that has learned to look on art with conscious sincerity, and to recognize that the experience offered in art rivals religious experience in renovating and stimulating power, there must more and more come to be an imaginative literature that takes its inspiration direct from art ; of such imaginative literature critical impressionistic writing is one of the most vital forms.

But though impressionistic writing may, as literature, not only justify itself, but prove to be sincerely expressive of some of the most original tendencies of the modern mind, the case is somewhat different when such writing is considered as literary criticism pure and simple, and is cross-questioned as to whether it can do the work that has hitherto been exacted of literary criticism. Some French critic, perhaps M. Jules Lemaitre, has been accused of turning an essay on a volume of Renan’s Histoire des Origines du Christianisme into a lyrical recital of his own boyish delights with a Noah’s ark. Instances enough of such critical waywardness must have fallen under every one’s eye who keeps the run of current essay-work. Sainte-Beuve long ago said of Taine that in criticising an author he was apt to pull all the blankets to his own side of the bed. And what was true of Taine, because of his devotion to theory, is true of many modern critics, because of their willfulness and caprice — or, to put the matter more sympathetically, because of their overruling delight in their own sensibility and impressionableness ; they care for themselves more than for their author. When such egoism goes with genius and with artistic resource, the resulting essays justify themselves, because they reveal in fascinating wise new phases of the ever varying spiritual consciousness of the age. But even in such cases, where a really original personality, under the chance stimulus of literature, fiashes out at us winning and imaginatively suggestive glimpses of itself, it may be doubted whether the essay that results is, properly speaking, criticism. Nor is this doubt a mere quibble over terms. The doubt involves several serious questions as regards the nature of a work of art and the critic’s proper mode of approach to art. Paradoxical folk have sometimes asserted that what is best worth while in a work of art is what the author never meant to put in it, and that the superlative act of the critic is to find in a work of art for the delight of modern temperaments some previously unsuspected implication of beauty. Paradoxes aside, how much truth is there in this conception of the critic’s task ? and how much truth in the conception that goes with it of the essentially relative and variable character of art ? We may grant that a piece of impressionistic writing is literature, providing it is a beautiful and significant revelation of personality, whether the nerve-vibrations that it utters take their start from life or nature or art. But is such a piece of writing criticism, if in commenting on a work of art it willfully neglects its intended value as conceived in the mind of the original artist and as expressing, at least in part, the genius of the age whose life he shared ? Can criticism properly neglect this original pleasure-value in a work of art ? Can it furthermore neglect that permanent and deeply enwrought pleasure, involved in a work of art, through which it has always ministered and will always minister to normal human nature? Can criticism properly confine itself to the record of a momentary shiver across a single set of possibly degenerate nerves ?

Surely, there is something objective in a work of art even when the work of art is regarded simply and solely as potential pleasure ; and surely it is part of the task of the critic to take this objective character into full consideration. Unless he does so, his appreciation of the work will not be properly critical; nor indeed, for that matter, will his appreciation gather the full measure of personal delight that the work of art offers him. Just here lies the distinction between whimsical impressionism — which may be literature, very delightful literature, but lacks the perspective essential to criticism — and vital appreciation, which is indeed criticism in its purest and most suggestive form.

A work of art is a permanent incarnation of spiritual energy waiting for release. Milton long ago called a good book “ the precious life-blood of a master-spirit stored up on purpose to a life beyond life.” We may nowadays go even farther than this, and find treasured up in a piece of literature certain definite blisses and woes and flashes of insight that once went thrilling through a special temperament and mind. The most recent psychological explanations of artistic creation 1 concern themselves continually with the feelings of the artist; they trace out minutely the ways in which, through the play of the artist’s feelings, a work of art is instinctively and surely generated. The poet concentrates his thought on some concrete piece of life, on some incident, character, or bit of personal experience ; because of his emotional temperament, this concentration of interest stirs in him a quick play of feeling and prompts the swift concurrence of many images. Under the incitement of these feelings, and in accordance with laws of association that may at least in part be described, these images grow bright and clear, take definite shapes, fall into significant groupings, branch and ramify, and break into sparkling mimicry of the actual world of the senses — all the time delicately controlled by the poet’s conscious purpose and so growing intellectually significant, but all the time, if the work of art is to be vital, impelled also in their alert weaving of patterns by the moods of the poet, by his fine instinctive sense of the emotional expressiveness of this or that image that lurks in the background of his consciousness. For this intricate web of images, tinged with his most intimate moods, the poet through his intuitive command of words finds an apt series of sound-symbols and records them with written characters. And so a poem arises through an exquisite distillation of personal moods into imagery and into language, and is ready to offer to all future generations its undiminishing store of spiritual joy and strength.

But it is not merely the poet’s own spiritual energy that goes into his poem. The spirit of the age — if the poem include much of life in its scope, if it be more than a lyric — enters also into the poem, and moulds it and shapes it, and gives it in part its color and emotional cast and intellectual quality. In every artist there is a definite mental bias, a definite spiritual organization and play of instincts, which results in large measure from the common life of his day and generation, and which represents this life — makes it potent — within the individuality of the artist. This socalled acquired constitution of the life of the soul ” — it has been described by Professor Dilthey with noteworthy acuteness and thoroughness — determines in some measure the contents of the artist’s mind, for it determines his interests, and therefore the sensations and perceptions that he captures and automatically stores up. It guides him in his judgments of worth, in his instinctive likes and dislikes as regards conduct and character, and controls in large measure the play of his imagination as he shapes the action of his drama or epic and the destinies of his heroes. Its prejudices interfiltrate throughout the molecules of his entire moral and mental life, and give to each image and idea some slight shade of attractiveness or repulsiveness, so that when the artist’s spirit is at work under the stress of feeling, weaving into the fabric of a poem the competing images and ideas in his consciousness, certain ideas and images come more readily and others lag behind, and the resulting work of art gets a color and an emotional tone and suggestions of value that subtly reflect the genius of the age. Thus it is that into a work of art there creeps a prevailing sort of spiritual energy that may be identified as also operating throughout the social life of the time, and as finding its further expressions in the precepts and the parables of the moralist, in the statecraft of the political leader, in the visionary dreams of the prophet and priest, and, in short, in all the various ideals, mental, moral, and social, that rule the age.

Now, as for the impressionistic writer about literature — he is apt to concern himself very little with this historical origin of a work of art. In dealing with the poetry of a long past age, he will very likely refuse the hard task of “ trundling back his soul ” two hundred or two thousand years and putting himself in close sympathy with the people of an earlier period. He is apt to take a poem very much as he would take a bit of nature — as a pretty play of sound or imagery upon the senses; and he may, indeed, capture through this half-sensuous treatment of art a peculiar, though wayward delight. But the appreciative critic is not content with this. He is, to be sure, well aware that his final enjoyment of a poem of some earlier age will be a far subtler and richer experience than would be the mere repetition of the pleasures that the poem gave its writer ; that his enjoyment will have countless overtones and undertones that could not have existed for the producer of the poem or for its original hearers. But he also believes that the generating pleasures that produced the work of art, and that once thrilled in a single human spirit, in response to the play and counter-play upon him of the life of his time, must remain permanently the central core of energy in the work of art; and that only as he comes to know those pleasures with fine intimacy, can he conjure out of the work of art its perfect acclaim of delight for now and here.

Therefore the appreciative critic makes use of the historical method in his study of literature. He does not use this method as the man of science uses it, for the final purpose of understanding and explaining literature as a mass of sociological facts governed by fixed laws. This rationalization of literature is not his chief concern, though he may pass this way on his journey to his special goal. But he is persuaded that in all the art and all the literature that reach the present out of the past, spirit speaks to spirit across a vast gulf of time ; that he can catch the precise quality of one of these voices that come down the years only through the aid of delicate imaginative sympathy with the life of an elder generation ; and that he can develop to certainty of response this divining sympathy only through patient and loyal study of the peculiar play of the powers that built up in the minds and the imaginations of those earlier men their special vision of earth and heaven.

Difficult and elusive indeed are the questions he must ask himself about the art from a distant age, if he is to be sure of just the quality of the pleasure that went into its creation. If it be Greek art that he seeks to appreciate, he will study and interpret it as the expression of the spirit of Greek life, of a spirit that lived along the nerves and fibres of an entire social organism, of a spirit that sprung from the unconscious depths of instinct, out of which slowly bodied themselves forth conscious purposes and clear ideals, and that penetrated and animated all fashions and forms of belief and behavior, and gave them their color and shape and rhythm. He will trace out and capture the quality of this spirit as it expressed itself in the physical life of the Greeks, in their social customs, in their weaving of scientific systems, in their worship of nature, and in the splendid intricacies of their religious ritual and mysteries. And so he will hope to gain at last a sure sense of the peculiar play of energy that found release in some one of their poems, or in the marble or bronze of a hero or a god.

But the universal element in the poetry of an age by no means completes the objective character of the feeling the poetry has treasured for the delight of later times. In the case of all poetry not communal in its origin, the pleasure involved in a poem was generated in the consciousness of a single artist, and had a definite quality that partook of his individuality. Therefore the appreciative critic has a further nice series of identifications before him in his ideal search for the delight that inheres in a poem. Just what was the innermost nature of the poet who appeals to us in it, often so pathetically, down through the perilous ways of time ? What was the special vision of life that he saw and felt the thrill of ? What were the actual rhythms of the quicksilver passion in his veins ? What was the honey dew on which he fed ? What was the quintessential pleasure that he, among all men of his day, distilled into his verse ?

Fantastic or insoluble these questions may seem unless with regard to poets about whom we have the closest personal memoranda. Yet critics have now and then answered such questions with surprising insight, even in the case of poets the gossip of whose lives is wholly unknown to us, and whose form of art was least personal in its revelations. Professor Dowden’s grouping of Shakespeare’s plays in accordance with the prevailing spiritual tone-color of each and the moods toward life that are imaginatively uttered — moods of debonair light-heartedness, of rollicking jollity, of despairing pessimism, or of luminous golden-tempered comprehension — is an admirable example of the possible intimate interpretation of a poet’s varying emotions as treasured in his art.

Here, then, are suggested two ways in which the appreciative critic who would make his impression of a work of art something more than a superficial momentary irritation of pleasure and pain will contrive to direct the play of his spiritual energy. He will realize, as far as he can, the primal vital impulse that wrought out the work of art; he will, in appreciating a poem, discover and recreate in his own soul the rhythms of delight with which the poem vibrated for the men of the age whose life the poem uttered ; and he will also discern and realize those actual moods, those swift counterchanges of feeling, which once, in a definite place and at a definite moment, within the consciousness of a single artist evoked images and guided them into union, charged them with spiritual power, and called into rhythmical order soundsymbols to represent them thenceforth forever.

But it must at once be noted that this mimetic enjoyment is after all only the beginning of that process of vitalization by which an appreciative critic wins from a work of art its entire store of delight. The mood of the modern critic is something far subtler than any mere repetition of the mood of the original creative artist; it contains in itself a complexity and a richness of suggestion and motifs that correspond to all the gains the human spirit has made since the earlier age. Indeed, these subtle spiritual differences begin to declare themselves the moment the critic tries to describe the earlier enjoyment enshrined in a work of art. Walter Pater, for example, in noting in his essay on Winckelmann the serene equipoise in Greek art between man’s spirit and his body, at once involuntarily sets over against this mood the later mood in which spirit usurps and so tyrannizes over matter in its exaction of expression as to distort the forms of art, and render them “ pathetic.” No such contrast as this was present in the mind of the Greek as he enjoyed his own art; nor any contrast with a hungry, oversubtle intellectualism, such as nowadays makes the modern consciousness anxious for the individualizing accurate detail and the motley effects of realism. Yet these contrasts and others like them are part of the very essence of our modern delight in the freedom and largeness and calm strength of Greek art. Perhaps the Greek had more zest in his art than we have in it; but his enjoyment certainly had not the luxurious intricacy and the manifold implications of our enjoyment.

Always, then, in the complete appreciation of a work of art there is this superimposition of other moods upon the mood of the creative artist — there is a reinforcement of the original effect by the delicate interfusion of new tones and strains of feeling. Often this is as if harmonies once written for a harpsichord were played upon a modern piano whose “ temperament ” has been made rich and expressive through the artful use and adjustment of all possible overtones. We should be able to draw from the music new shades of meaning and of beauty. But the original chords — those we should scrupulously repeat; and the original tone-color, too, it were well to have at least in memory. If a critic will win from early Florentine painting — from the work, for example, of Fra Lippo Lippi — its innermost value for the modern temperament, he will first recover imaginatively the sincere religious impulse and the naive religious faith, as well as the dawning delight in the opening possibilities of a new art, which animated those early painters. He will try to catch the very mood that underlies the tender mystic wistfulness of Lippo Lippi’s Madonnas, and that gives them their soft and luminous constraint in the midst of the eager adoration of shepherd boys and attending angels. He will recognize this mood as all the more appealing because of the quaint incompleteness of the artist’s technique, his loyal archaic awkwardness, his religious formalism and symbolism, his unsure perspective, all the tantalizing difficulties of execution through which his vision of beauty made its way into color and form. This mood will define itself for the critic through the aid of many nicely modulated contrasts — through contrast, it may be, with the more shadowed and poignantly mysterious Madonnas of Botticelli, and with the splendid and victorious womanhood of Titian’s Madonnas, with the gentle and terrestrial grace of motherhood in those of Andrea del Sarto, and with the sweetly ordered comeliness of Van Dyck’s Madonnas. But above all, it will define itself through contrast with our modern mood toward the Madonna and the religious ideas she symbolizes — through contrast with our sophisticated reverie, our hardly won half-credence, and our wise, pathetic insight. And through this contrast the earlier mood will gain for us a certain poignancy of delight; for the mood will come to us as something restored as by miracle out of the otherwise irrecoverable past of the spirit — out of the past of that spirit whose wayfaring through passions of aspiration and joy, and through drear times of sadness and desolation, was our wayfaring, since we have gathered into ourselves all the usufruct of it: —

“ Oh! what is this that knows the road I came,
The flame turned cloud, the cloud returned to flame,
The lifted, shifted steeps and all the way ? ”

The appreciative critic, then, should know the characteristic joy of every generation of men, and the special joy of each individual artist. He is to be a specialist in historic delight, as the poet is a specialist in the joys of his own day and generation. And therefore in trying to make real to the men of his own time the special bliss that an older work of art contains for them, the appreciative critie will not be content, as is the impressionistic critic, with interpreting it in terms of some chance wayward mood. He will wish to relnmine and make potent all that is emotionally vital in the work of art; he will capture again its original quality; he will revive imaginatively those moments of bliss in the history of the human spirit which are closely akin to this bliss and which yet vary from it finely, and moments, too, that contrast broadly and picturesquely with it, all the moments, indeed, which his divining instinct directs him toward, as fit to throw into relief by contrast what is quintessential in this one moment of spiritual ardor. Thus he will try to offer to the men of his own day a just appreciation of the peculiar joy that, in the passage of years, the human spirit has stored up for itself in this record of one of its earlier phases of experience.

Throughout all his patient search for the precise quality of a work of art, the critic will, of course, make wise use of the science of aesthetics. Its analyses and principles are supposed to reveal and sum up in terse formulas the mystery of beauty, and they should therefore offer the critic a means of steadying himself into a sincerely sympathetic and uneccentric report of the special charm that lurks in a work of art. Yet it must at once be noted that for the appreciative critic the whole region of sesthetics is full of danger. Æsthetic theorizing has been the pet pastime of many callous and horny-eyed philosophers, whose only knowledge of beauty has come by hearsay. Nothing worse can happen to a critic than to be caught in the meshes of such thinkers’ a priori theories, so much depends on the critic’s keeping an intimately vital relation to the art of which he will interpret the peculiar power. Of recent years, however, the science of {esthetics has been rescued from the region of metaphysics, and has been brought close to fact and made real and suggestive through the use of psychological methods of study. The peculiar genius of the artist has been analyzed and described ; the characteristics of his temperament have been noted with the nicest loyalty ; and particularly the play of his special faculty, the imagination, as this faculty through the use of sensations and images and moods and ideas creates a work of art, has been followed out with the utmost delicacy of observation by such acute and sensitive analysts as M. Gabriel Séailles, M. Michaut, and Professor Dilthey. The behavior, too, of the mind that is enjoying a work of art — this has been minutely studied and described ; the “ effects ” and the “ impressions ” have been recorded by such masters of silvery instruments for weighing a fancy and measuring a motive as Feehner. The relations between all these impressions and effects and the form and content of a work of art have been tabulated. And so the science of aesthetics has become a really vital record of what may be called the mind’s normal behavior both in the creation and in the enjoyment of art.

The expert critic must some time or other have followed out all these devious analyses and tracked out the intricate workings both of the typical artist’s and of the typical appreciator’s mind. Such an abstract initiation will have quickened his powers of perception in numberless ways, will have made him alive to countless signs and suggestions in a work of art that might otherwise have appealed to him in vain, and above all will serve to steady him against extravagance and grotesque personal caprice in appreciation. In these analyses and principles he has the sensitive record of a consensus of expert opinion on the nature of artistic enjoyment — its causes and varieties. Through the help of these canons he may guard against meaningless egoism ; he may manoeuvre wisely within the region of the normal; he may keep within measurable distance of the tastes and the temperaments of his fellows. He will be able to test his impressions, to judge of their relative importance, to restrain personal whim within bounds, and to remain sanely true to the predominating interests of the normal human mind.

Not that the critic will let his use of aesthetic formulas and points of view conventionalize or stereotype his treatment of art. If he be happily individual and alert, he will refuse to have forced upon him a system, a method, unalterable preconceptions, or habitual modes of approach to art. He will keep in his repeated encounters with a work of art much of the dilettante’s bright willfulness and fickleness. He will go to it in all moods and all weathers, will wait upon its good pleasure, and will note delightedly all its fleeting aspects. But these stray impressions will not content him, nor will he care to report them as of themselves forming a valid and final appreciation. He will play the pedant with himself ; he will, in sober moments of wise hypocrisy, test the worth of his impressions by approved and academic standards ; and he will scrutinize them in the light of those canons which the best modern theorizers in things aesthetic have worked out psychologically. He will select and arrange and make significant and unify. And so, while approaching a work of art unconventionally and communing with it intimately, he will, in commenting oil it, keep his casual and personal sense of its charm within limits, and be intent on doing full justice to what the work of art may well mean to the normal man in normal moods.

Moreover, this aesthetic initiation will reveal to the critic one special sort of pleasure stored in a work of art that the layman is peculiarly apt to miss — the pleasure that may be won from tracing out the artist’s mastery of technique and the secrets of his victorious execution. Here, again, the critic, if he is to make the work of art give up its quintessential quality, must call the historical method to his aid. An artist who, at any moment in the history of art, wishes to express his vision of beauty through the medium and the technique of his special art, whether it be painting, or music, or poetry, always confronts a definite set of limiting conditions. He finds certain fashions prevailing in his art; he finds in vogue certain conventional ways of treating material ; he finds certain fixed forms offering themselves for his use — forms like the sonata and the concerto in music, or like the sonnet and the drama in poetry. These forms are traditional, have various laws and regulations attached to their handling, and, in a sense limit the freedom of the artist, require him to make certain concessions, force him to conceive his material in stereotyped ways, and to cast it in predetermined moulds. An artist has always to find out for himself how far he can use these old forms ; bow far he can limit himself advantageously through accepting old conventions, whether his peculiar vision of beauty can be fully realized within the limits of the established technique, or whether he must be an innovator.

There is a curious and exquisite pleasure to be won from watching artists at close quarters with technical problems of this sort, and from observing the fine certainty with which genius gets the better of technical difficulties, through accepting a convention here, through following a fashion there, through slightly or even audaciously altering received forms or modes to secure scope for novel moods or hitherto unattained effects. An artist’s vital relation to the past of his art—this is something that as it shows itself here and there in his work, the sensitive and alert critic finds keen pleasure in detecting. Here, again, the critic’s specialized temperament and knowledge mediate between the art of earlier times and the men of his own day, and reveal through the help of aesthetics and history the peculiar pleasure with which art has, consciously or unconsciously, been charged.

Finally, the critic must bear in mind that it is distinctly for the men of his own day that he is revitalizing art; that it is for them that his specialized temperament is to use its resources. Every age, some one has said, must write its own literary criticism ; and this holds specially true of appreciative criticism. The value of a work of art depends on what it finds in the consciousness to which it appeals ; and because individuality is deeper and richer now than it has ever been before, and because the men of to-day are “ the heirs of the ages,” and have “ ransacked the ages and spoiled the climes,” a great traditional work of art ought to have a richer, more various, more poignant value for modern men than it had for their predecessors. Even in the matter of sense-perceptions this progress is noticeable. “ Our forefathers,” says a recent essayist on M. Claude Monet, “ saw fewer tones and colors than we; they had, in fact, a simpler and more naive vision ; the modern eye is being educated to distinguish a complexity of shades and varieties of color before unknown.” If there has been this increase of delicate power even in a slowly changing physical organ, far greater have been the increase and diversification of sensitiveness in the region of spiritual perception. New facts and ideas have been pouring into the national consciousness from the physical sciences during the last half century, tending to transform in countless subtle ways man’s sense of his own place in the universe, his ideals of brotherhood, of justice, of happiness, and his orientation toward the Unseen. The half-mystical control that has of late years been won over physical forces, the increased speed with which news flies from country to country, the cheap and swift modes of travel from land to land which break down the barriers between the most widely divergent civilizations —all these influences are reacting continually on the life of the spirit, are stirring men’s minds to new thoughts and new moods, are developing in them new aptitudes and new powers. For minds thus changed and thus touched into new alertness and sensitiveness, past art must take on new phases, reveal in itself new suggestions, and acquire or lose stimulating power in manifold ways. These alterations of value the appreciative critic ought to feel and transcribe.

And therefore the critic’s must not be a “ cloistered virtue; ” at least, imaginatively, he must be in sympathy with the whole life of his time. He must be intimately aware of its practical aims and preoccupations, of its material strivings, of all the busy play of its social activities, of its moral and religious perturbations, even of its political intrigues. Doubtless Matthew Arnold was right when he insisted on “ detachment ” as the first requisite of good criticism. But in urging detachment, Arnold meant simply that the critic must not let himself become the victim of practical problems or party organizations; that he must not let his imagination be seized upon by a set of definite ideas that are at once to be realized in fact; that he must not become an intellectual or moral or political bigot or a mere Tory or Radical advocate — the one-idea’d champion of a programme. The critic must have much of the dilettante’s fine irresponsibility, perhaps even something of the cynic’s amused aloofness from the keen competitions of daily life. But he must also have the dilettante’s infinite variety, his intense dramatic curiosity, and his alert, wide-ranging vision. He should know the men of his own day through and through in all their tastes and tempers, and should be even more sensitively aware than they are themselves of their collective prejudices. So he should deepen his personality and as far as possible include within it whatever is most characteristic of his age. In the terms of all this, as well as of his own fleeting moods, he will try to appreciate past art. And so he will become, in very truth, the specialized temperament of the moment, interpreting the past to the present.

Continually, then, in his search for the pleasure involved in a work of art, the critic finds that he must go outside the work of art and beyond his own momentary state of consciousness ; he must see the work of art in its relations to larger and larger groups of facts ; and he can charm out of it its true quality only by interpreting its sensations and images and rhythms as expressing something far greater than themselves, and as appealing to something far more permanent than his own fleeting moods. He must put the work of art in its historical setting; he must realize it in its psychological origin ; he must conceive of it as one characteristic moment in the development of the human spirit, and in order thus to vitalize it he must be aware of it in its contrasting relations with other characteristic moments and phases of this development; and, finally, he must be alive to its worth as a delicately transparent illustration of aesthetic law. In regarding the work of art under all these aspects, his aim is primarily not to explain and not to judge or dogmatize, but to enjoy ; to realize the manifold charm the work of art has gathered into itself from all sources, and to interpret this charm imaginatively to the men of his own day and generation.

Lewis E. Gates.

  1. See, for example, Professor Dilthey’s Die Einbildungskraft des Dichters.