t he Virtuoso Air
Sacred and Profane Love. By Sacheverell Sitwell. (Faber. 155.) MR. SITWELL'S new volume is of the same order as his Dance of the Quick and the Dead, which I reviewed for these columns on its appearance four years ago. I have not referred back to my previous criticism, but my recollection is that it combined high praise with some regret for the author's dilettantism. As if to forestall any such complaint this time, Mr. Sitwell includes as a course in his new "banquet of the five senses" a short " auto- biographia literaria " which is in effect a -justification of his atti- tude as a creative writer. This apologia is not only an affirmation of his own theory of art, but also an appeal to his fellow-artists to abandon 1:heir illusions—by which he means their political obsessions. The artist, he argues, is a unique individual, and it is only by asserting his uniqueness that he stands any chance of surviving in a world intent on universal levelling.
It is only by the stressing of his peculiar status that the artist will find room for existence. If he is content to be like other men' then all his prerogative must go. He will have brought his own doom upon himself because he would not work for his own safety. He will have been the architect of his own decline. None will pity him. It is his own public before whom he has lost his magic by quitting the stage and lowering himself to the level of the audience.
Consequently, Mr. Sitwell has nothing but contempt for those modem poets who seek a "sentimental affiliation" with the working-classes.
It is in reality, of much greater importance that civilisation should be retained in the hands of those persons to whom it professionally belongs. . . . There is no more evidence of support of the arts from the working classes than there is from the middle classes and far less, need it be said, than there was, of old, from the church and from the aristocrat. Art is what should come first with the artist ; poetry with the poet, and not politics, which, by nature, he is not adapted to understand.
This defiant assertion about the function of the artist is accom- panied by a theory of art which is equally passionate and sincere. Art is essentially the creation of a personal world, and in every accent and fragment it betrays its personal origin.
Art is pleasure and intoxication. If the delight of it is dwindled down, then its appeal has gone. It is a religious spell, a poetic spell, a trance of music, or it fails. . . . The only freedom is in the mind. For this is the world that we can put in order. It is here that we can arrange and build up new It is ideas that are immortal and that pass from life to life.
This theory of art is based on the aesthetic experience of an artist, and however exclusive it may seem to the layman, it ex- presses some essential aspects of the truth. It tends to ignore those problems of " communication " which are the bugbear of artists in every age—it may be a regrettable necessity, but unless an artist can communicate with a public, he is no better than a lunatic in a padded cell. But still more serious is Mr. SitwelPs failure to appreciate the fact that ideas however free, are dead unless they constantly reflect the world of sensuous experience; and, as for art, the very images he uses of the actor and his audience suggest the airless artificiality of his conception. This feeling is confirmed when we descend from the general theory to the particular illustrations of it, drawn from Mr. Sitwell's own work, whose virtues he is bold enough to specify. "The world of our creation cannot be blamed for dullness or for lack of colour "—we agree! "The light and brilliant, the virtuoso air, breathes from its pages "—freely gonted! "But, also, it is deep and solemn. All is not so happy." This claim must be sub- stantiated. "I have long had among my major projects," Mr. Sit- well tells us on another page, "that of writing a history and a handbook of beggars." The present volume includes a delightful essay on that theme. There is sympathy with oppressed slaves and persecuted sects. Mr.. Sitwell has a curious eye for the tatterdemalion half of humanity. Nuns and dandies, dwarfs and courtesans, gondoliers and gypsies, flit across his pages, but do they, as he claims, make a "world of living persons "? "There is flesh and blood within these pages "—yes, but it is the author's own flesh and blood—" those personal obsessions that work more strongly upon the heart than any feat of learning." But compared to the world of the true poet—a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy, a Cervantes or a Wordsworth—it is a shadow kingdom, a world of phantoms.
There is perfection in little, to use one of the author's own phrases. No living writer has written such a quantity of subtle, rich and fanciful prose. There are pages that might well live with Sir Thomas Browne, Burton, De Quincey or Ruskin. But Mr. Sit-
well should not so righteously refute the charge of carelessn In the present book, for example, he makes the same quotati twice within six pages (pp. no and 115) and makes the s comment on. it; and carelessness would be the most charitab excuse for this baffling sentence : Such was the pitch of excellence to which music had come in city that, after the epoch of its great masters had the Strausses, fath and son, Lanner and Ziehrer, for the popular speech, the vema