22 SEPTEMBER 1866, Page 9


N�BUCHANAN, whose poems show us how high is his own _1 standard of imaginative reality and sincerity, has written an interesting essay iu the new number of the Fortnightly Review, which is meant apparently to prove that no literary production can be morally pernicious in its effect on men of culture which is sincere and real in its conception,—that is, which is written from the heart, with the full consent of all the author's faculties of belief. One writer's immorality, he remarks, is the morality of another writer, because one may say with insincerity or half- sincerity what another says with complete and profound sincerity. And the mere quality of thorough and absolute sincerity of literary purpose diffuses,—such is Mr. Buchanan's theory,—a charm over the writer's style, and steeps it in an atmosphere of art, which turn out to be practically, to any reader capable of per- ceiving them, perfect safeguards against every vitiating influence. Mr. Buchanan is thinking no doubt chiefly, and naturally enough, of imaginative or artistic pictures of evil actions, or of the incentives and temptations to evil actions. And no doubt he is quite right in believing that an action, however evil, or a tempta- tion to evil, however strong, once perfectly enveloped in the magic nimbus of art, is thereby to all minds capable of per- ceiving that nimbus, absolutely divested of directly vitiating tendency, because it ceases at once to appeal to our desires or appetites, and presents itself instead to our spiritual imagi- nation. The picture of Lady Macbeth certainly never tempted any woman capable of entering into it to unscrupulous ambition for her husband, nor did that of Cleopatra ever fill a mind capable of grasping it imaginatively with sensual feelings. True art has the power to transfigure all the human passions, desires, and hopes or fears, to the experience of which it appeals, into some- thing different from themselves. As called out by art they are no longer passions, no longer desires, no longer hopes, no longer fears, but the etherealized forms of passions, desires, hopes, and fears flashing upon " that inward eye which is the bliss of soli- tude," and divested of all directly exciting influence on the pas- sionate elements of our nature. So much we concede heartily to Mr. Buchanan. And we feel no doubt also that one of the most important conditions of all true art, is that complete sincerity of intellect and heart in the author of which Mr. Buchanan speaks.

But we differ from him on two important points. First, we hold that true works of art,—that is, creations which really do envelop their subject in the ethereal glory of art, and so snatch it out of the region of illegitimate excitements to the appe- tites or passions, may exercise a far more lasting, though not so immediate an influence for evil through the higher imagination to which it now makes its appeal, than it ever would have done by the direct excitement of evil desires. Thus Goethe to a certain extent diminishes by the Elective Affinities and parts of Wilhelm Meister in which he certainly passes out of the region of true art, the fasci- nation of the ethereal poison with which he plentifully saturates his greatest and truly classical works,—for he allows there the germ of immorality in his own nature—the self-worship,—which. he usually embalms in so pure an atmosphere of poetry that it loses completely its immediately vitiating influence on the moral nature, to burst the artistic envelope, and take its coarser form of direct stimulus to immoral passion. The consequence is that those of Goethe's works which violate Mr. Buchanan's principle really do more to betray the intellectual and imaginative selfishness which pervades his highest works of art than probably they have ever done to poison directly the nature of his readers. But for them, his perfect works of art, the Iphigenia, the Faust, the ex- quisite lyrics, would have had a far more subtle influence over the spiritual imaginations of men than they now have, and would have had a greater chance of perverting them almost imperceptibly, operating thus from above. Surely there cannot be a doubt that the subliming influence of true Art is a safeguard only against the immediate excitement of practi- cal emotions, desires, and passions, and by no means a safe- guard,—the very reverse of a safeguard,—against the impal- pable influence which the higher imagination itself exerts on the general standard of men's actions and lives. This is no doubt immorality in a higher sense than any of which Mr. Buchanan was speaking, but then it is also immorality in a more powerful and

dangerous sense. We all admit it in other classes of writings. Moat intellectual men in England believe that Carlyle has in this way diffused a subtle poison through the higher strata of the moral atmosphere, which the very sincerity of his intellectual purpose has hidden from ordinary minds. So we may admit that a man of probably greater genius, Dr. Newman, has diffused a bad in- fluence through the region of spiritual belief, by his advocacy of the free use of the will in forcing upon oneself an experimental submission to the authority of the Roman Church, before the mind of the postulant has attained any profound and adequate belief in that authority. In these regions of semi-dogmatic thought, the danger of a subtle immorality of the most purely spiritual kind is generally admitted ; and it is scarcely therefore possible to doubt that a great artist may diffuse far more subtle poison—poison ultimately, though not immediately, working on the passions, through the standards of ideal life which he erects in the imagination—than any bad writer, any one who is not an artist at all, who appeals directly to the worst tendencies and appe- tites of human nature, can ever hope to do. Goethe, for instance, has doubtless led more men to hunger after the largest possi- ble range of human experience, for the mere sake of experience and self-completeness, independently of any moral limits to the right to have such experience, by his finest poems, than he has ever tempted into immediate vice by his very few gross and inartistic descriptions. That is our first difference with Mr. Buchanan's theory as he has stated it. We are not sure that it implies any substantial difference with his thought.

But next, with regard to his theory of literary immorality in the lower sense, we hold that the utmost sincerity of vision, and although implying, what Mr. Buchanan seems to intend that it should imply, the full consent of all the faculties of the author to his work, is not sufficient to ensure that ethereal halo of art which Mr. Buchanan maintains would save a work written in such a mood against all the corruption incident to the imaginative conception of evil. Indeed there is a kind of sincerity and realism which is positively inconsistent with this artistic mood. We believe that from every truly artistic delineation of life, whether of evil or of good, all urgent personal feeling, all personal feeling which has not been thoroughly transmuted by the memory and imagination into something that for the time is merely an object for the artist, not a subjective experience, should be absent. False art begins where vivisection begins. Even grief cannot be put into a true poem till it is no longer felt (for the moment) as personal grief, but only as an object of imaginative appre- hension,- which it gives delight, not anguish, to apprehend, so completely is it for the moment separated from personal feeling, and made an objective and not a subjective fact. Now, much of the realism of modern art seems to us to violate this artistic principle, if it be one. Miss Bronte, for instance, who in de- lineating many of her characters was as pure an imaginative artist as ever lived, certainly violated• it in drawing most of her heroines, putting clown living feelings, sincerely enough seen, but half raw and bleeding, as she -wrote. The consequence is that all her heroines, from the Professor (who is a heroine in man's clothes) to Lucy Snow in Villette, affect us painfully, and often even with a sense of indelicacy, for which there is nothing in the subject-matter, only in the manner, to account. The secret of it is that we feel the individual experience protruding through the artistic medium, and this gives us just the same sort of shudder as what the doctors call a compound fracture, where the bone protrudes through the flesh. When natures less intrinsically pure than Miss Bronte's are guilty of the same offence against art, the effect is often not only inartistic, but immoral. The glorifying halo of art is pierced, and you have the horrid picture not of universal humanpassion,butof anindividual lust. Shelley, we think, was now and then guilty of this literary indecency, certainly not in the Cenci, which is, as Mr. Buchanan says, a perfectly artistic poem, but certainly in parts of The Revolt of Islam and Epipsychidion. Goethe was guilty of it in the grossest form in the Elective Affinities. We doubt if either Shakespeare or Milton were wholly guiltless of it, assuredly not Milton. And there are passages in some of Shakespeare's earlier plays, especially, we are disposed to think, Romeo and Juliet; which he does not seem to have created pure out of the transmuted experience of his imagina- tion, but took, in some degree, baldly out of his personal experience. Of course one is always liable to err in judging such a question. It is a matter for the utmost delicacy of moral discrimination -whether the connection of thought and language seems to flow from the creative effort of the poet, —using of course the materials of his own spiritual, moral, and sensuous life as the elements on which his imagination works,---or to spring out of an individual experience which is tacked mechanically on to that creative effort. Everything which Shakespeare puts into Cleopatra's mouth has on it the indelible stamp of birth through the imagination. But this is not uniformly the case to our apprehension in Shakespeare. In his younger poems we see traces that with him, as with all young men of strong and glowing vitality, individual- sensations some- times interrupted the play of his creative power, and forced them- selves into his poetry without having been first passed through the alembic of his great imagination. It is certainly so with the sensuous poetry of Milton, which always strikes us as having more of personal and individual sensation in it than of imaginative conception. He makes Satan and Sin, for instance, in Paradise Lost, converse together of their former intercourse in language which, instead of bringing vividly- before us the supernatural beings whom he is depicting, calls up at once• the conflict of sensual passion and spiritual loathing in the breast of a great Puritan divine. No doubt the deficiency is (hie chiefly to Milton's want of dramatic power, which obliged' him, when he attempted drama, to draw directly on his own experience, instead of on the transfigured imaginative forms of that experience, but it is nevertheless true that Milton's sensuousness reads much more like the record of personal sensation decked out in the gorgeous clothing of a fine imagination, than like new births of imaginative conception. The ornament is imaginative, but not the substance of the thought. It is otherwise in the address to Light and the exquisite lyrics, like Il Penseroso. There still we see the grand per- sonality of the old Puritan, but it is not direct personal experience ; there is the " lyrical cry " about it which shows you that he was not describing his actual experience, but his sublimated experience, that he was not, as he wrote, suffering, from his own blindness, but, on the contrary, rejoicing in the spiritual vision of light ; that he was not, as he described the ideal of calm melancholy, soberly dejected himself, but, on the contrary, exulting in the creative joy. There is not this mark of creative energy in his sensuous poetry ; to us at least he seems there to be drawing on his own senses, and merely ornamenting with his imagination. And no doubt the reason why sensual poetry so much oftener fails to take the true imaginative stamp, and seems to be impressed with the mark of individual experience, is that it is far more difficult to generalize bodily feelings than any others ; they tend to egotism more than any others •; they have less of the universal in them. Shakespeare indeed often, if not always, succeeded in his dramas, but certainly not always, in his sonnets and earlier poems. Shelley almost always failed in the sensual elements of his lyrics. In. the Cenci alone he succeeded perfeetlyin mergingevery.sensual element in the imagi- native strength of his conception. We cannot help thinking that even Mr. Swinburne, whose volume has been so universally and in general so deservedly blamed for atrocious immorality, succeeds in one of his most bitterly blamed. poems, Faustine, in so com- pletely absorbing the mind in the imaginative conception of a thoroughly • hateful figure, a Roman Messalirra, that no mind capable of entering into the horror of the picture would be sullied for a moment by the delineation. It is entirely otherwise with his Anactoria, and Phtedra, and other foul stuff, worst of all, The Leper, which we think no critics can speak worse of than they deserve ; not only-the imaginative conception does not give birth or seem to give birth to the thoughts, but the traces of the most morbid details of an individual psychology are thrust shockingly forward.

On the whole, we are persuaded that no sincerity of vision, not even sincerity of heart and soul in writing, is a sufficient guarantee for that artistic halo which preserves absolutely against the im- mediate contamination of an immoral subject. And we are still more sure that even where this imaginative nimbus is actually provided, though all danger of immediate taint is certainly removed, the whole intellectual and imaginative system of an immoral mind may diffuse a subtle poison which the worst literary immorality, in the common and coarser use of the term, could never convey.