By Charles Matthews

Monday, April 18, 2011

4. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 54-73

Symbolism: Imagination and Nature; Symbolic Nature (William Blake, William Wordsworth, Charles Baudelaire, W.B. Yeats, Paul Klee). Symbolism: Imagination and Thought; The State of Doubt (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, John Keats, Gustave Flaubert)

William Blake: The Eternal World of Vision

Thomas Phillips, William Blake, 1802
In the first selection, a 1799 letter to a clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Trusler, Blake asserts,
This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision. I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes.... But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. 
Blake champions the imagination because it gives him an entree to the significance of the external world: "To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination," and for the great poets -- he cites Homer, Virgil and Milton in particular -- Imagination is the vehicle for "Spiritual Sensation." As for his own works of visual art, he is particularly pleased that "Children ... have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than I even hoped." Not that there is anything inherently more receptive about children: "Some Children are Fools & so are some Old Men. But There is a vast Majority on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation."
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment, pen and watercolor, 1808
William Blake, watercolor illustration for Robert Blair's The Grave, 1805
Blake's painting of the Last Judgment was to be part of an exhibit in 1810, but the exhibit was canceled and the work was subsequently lost. The watercolor versions shown above follow the plan Blake outlined for the painting. In the second excerpt in this section of The Modern Tradition, written in 1810 for the catalog of the canceled exhibition, Blake discusses the work, insisting that it is "not Fable or Allegory but Vision. Fable or Allegory are a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry. Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably.... The Hebrew Bible & the Gospel of Jesus are not Allegory, but Eternal Vision or Imagination of All that Exists."

For Blake, art is a rejection of mutability, of the impermanence of existence: "This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body." It is also a rejection of materialism, "of Bad Art & Science. Mental Things are alone Real; what is call'd Corporeal, Nobody Knows of its Dwelling Place: it is in Fallacy, & its Existence is an Imposture." The material world is illusory, and Blake the visionary sees through it: The sun is not "a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea" to Blake. Instead it is "an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'" The trick is to see through nature to the eternity behind it: "I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro' it & not with it."

William Wordsworth: Natural Apocalypse

William Wordsworth in 1789
The selection from The Prelude reprinted here is a considerably tamer version of Blake's nature mysticism. Wordsworth regards an event -- or rather the recognition of an event -- as an epiphany, or what he would elsewhere call a "spot of time." The event in itself has no grand significance in material terms: The party he is traveling with has crossed the Alps. But the awareness that they have done so is "translated by our feelings" into something greater, and
Imagination -- here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind's abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveleler. 
Imagination produces "a flash that has revealed / The invisible world." And so, at least for a time, the natural phenomena they encounter -- waterfalls, winds, rocks, crags, clouds, darkness and light -- become symbols of something beyond the material world, they
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end. 
It's probably worth noting here that "apocalypse" has come to denote the events attendant on the end of the world, when the word's Greek origins meant "uncovering" or "revelation." An apocalypse is a revelation of truths, and not the truths themselves. So what Wordsworth means here is not a vision of the end of the world, but simply the unveiling of the meaning behind the surface phenomena of existence. He senses, but can't articulate, something eternal, which is precisely what Blake was getting at when he asserted that the imagination gives one visions of eternity.

Charles Baudelaire: The Temple of Nature

Charles Baudelaire, c. 1863
Baudelaire's poem "Correspondances" (1857) posits that nature is a temple, and by extrapolation we might suggest that the artist is its  priest, translating the "babel of words" uttered by the temple's "living pillars." The senses receive the sights, the colors, the sounds and scents as finite manifestations of infinite things. In the poem, Baudelaire lays particular emphasis on the sense of smell, which is the most intimate and subjective of the senses, taking in "perfumes" that are "fresh and cool," "mellow," "green," "perverse, rich, and triumphant." And in turn, these odors evoke the tactile ("the bodies of children"), the auditory ("oboes"), and the visual ("fields"), as well as such moral qualities as perversity, richness and triumph.

W.B. Yeats: Symbol as Revelation

John Butler Yeats, William Butler Yeats, 1900
Everybody likes to complain about journalists, and in this essay, "The Symbolism of Poetry" (1900), Yeats is out to disabuse the readers of the notion, apparently foisted upon them by journalists, that artists proceed without any higher aim or theoretical purpose. And here, of course, he proceeds to enunciate his own.

He cites several lines of verse in which metaphor takes on a larger symbolic role, beginning with Robert Burns's
The white moon is setting behind the white wave,
And Time is setting with me, O!
He says, quite correctly, "Take from them the whiteness of the moon and of the wave, whose relation to the setting of Time is too subtle for the intellect, and you take from them their beauty." And he's right: an 18th-century critic might object that neither the moon nor the wave is, strictly speaking, white. But we only have to go to Melville's great discourse on "The Whiteness of the Whale" to observe the symbolic power of the adjective. As Yeats puts it, "All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their pre-ordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions." The italics in that quotation are mine, to emphasize the seeming oxymoron: If precise, then why indefinable? But that's the point: Symbols evoke precise emotions, but if they were definable, we wouldn't need symbols to evoke them.

The function of the symbol in art, as Yeats sees it, is to bring unity out of multiplicity: "when sound, and colour, and form are in a musical relation, a beautiful relation to one another, they become as it were one sound, one colour, one form, and evoke an emotion that is made out of their distinct evocations and yet is one emotion." And it is the artist who, by perceiving the power of the symbol, translates that power to the rest of the world: "I am certainly never certain, when I hear of some war, or of some religious excitement or of some new manufacture, or of anything else that fills the ear of the world, that it has not happened because of something that a boy piped in Thessaly." Okay, that's a bit extravagant. But try this one on for truth: "I doubt ... that love itself would be more than an animal hunger but for the poet and his shadow the priest." (That subordination of the religious to the artistic is quite lovely.)

Poets and musicians achieve their effects by species of hypnotism, Yeats asserts:
The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols. If certain sensitive persons listen persistently to the ticking of a watch, or gaze persistently on the monotonous flashing of a light, they fall into the hypnotic trance; and rhythm is but the ticking of a watch made softer, that one must needs listen, and various, that one may not be swept beyond memory or grow weary of listening; while the patterns of the artist are but the monotonous flash woven to take the eyes in a subtler enchantment.
And "enchantment" is the aim, or at least as long as it is in service of something of value. The emptying out of religious belief has, in Yeats's view, crippled the world turning it toward the materialistic. "How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men's hearts that we call the progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men's heartstrings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?"  If the piping of a Thessalian boy can cause people to go to war, then artists need to be conscious of the ends toward which their work can move people. Artists need to avoid the didactic, the moralizing, the anecdotal, and "that brooding over scientific opinion that so often extinguished the central flame in Tennyson." They need to discover the symbolic force of the world around them, to "return to imagination" and to understand "that the laws of art, which are the hidden laws of this world, can alone bind the imagination."

To return to the topic of rhythm, Yeats "would cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone; and we would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination, that neither desires nor hates, because it has done with time, and only wishes to gaze upon some reality, some beauty."

Paul Klee: Eternal Genesis

Paul Klee, date unknown
The excerpts are from Klee's On Modern Art (posthumously published in 1945), and are a series of brief, epigrammatic paragraphs. Klee asserts that the artist's role is defined by the word "creation" and that art is perpetually generative, creating a new nature as it were.
The deeper he looks, the more readily he can extend his view from the present to the past, the more deeply he is impressed by the one essential image of creation itself, of Genesis, rather than by the image of nature, the finished product. 
We are back here to the distinction between natura naturata ("the finished product") and natura naturans ("creation itself'" or the act of creating). Klee looks to the artist to create new things, not to reproduce the things already created.
Paul Klee, Flower Myth, 1918

The artist's role is "not to provide a scientific check on the truth of nature" but to demand "freedom," defined as "the right to develop, as great Nature herself develops." The source of it all is, of course, imagination, and "What springs from this source, whatever it may be called, dream, idea or phantasy -- must be taken seriously only if it unites with the proper creative means to form a work of art." He retorts to the critics of his own work, who have called it "childish," that the label "most have originated from those linear compositions of mine in which I tried to combine a concrete image, say that of a man, with the pure representation of the linear element.
Had I wished to present the man "as he is," then I  should have had to use such a bewildering confusion of line that pure elementary representation would have been our of the question. The result would have been vagueness beyond recognition.

And anyway, I do not wish to represent the man as he is, but only as he might be.
Paul Klee, Miraculous Landing, or the "112!"  1920
Paul Klee, Adam and Little Eve, 1921

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Escape From Ideas

Joseph Karl Stieler, Goethe age 69, 1828
Artists are always irritated by being asked, "What are you trying to say?" and Goethe, to judge from this excerpt from J.P. Eckermann's Conversations of Goethe (1836), was no exception.
"It was ... not in my line, as a poet, to strive to embody anything abstract. I received in my mind impressions, and those of a sensual, animated, charming, varied, hundredfold kind, just as a lively imagination presented them; and I had, as a poet, nothing more to do than artistically to round off and elaborate such views and impressions, and by means of a lively representation so to bring them forward that others might receive the same impression in hearing or reading my  representation of them."
This is the artist as medium between the universe and the observer. But the role doesn't come with any responsibility to make the message simple and comprehensible: "I am rather of the opinion, that the more incommensurable, and the more incomprehensible to the understanding, a poetic production is, so much the better it is." (So much for anyone who has tried to find a simple message in Faust.)

As for the role of religion in art, "'Religion,' said Goethe, 'stands in the same relation to art as any other of the higher interests in life." What predominates for the artist is not dogma but the human element: "Art must address itself to those organs with which we apprehend it; otherwise it misses its effect. A religious material may be a good subject for art, on only in so far as it possesses general human interest." That's why portraits of the Madonna and Child have always been popular.

John Keats: Negative Capability

William Hilton, John Keats, date unknown
This famous excerpt from Keats's letter to his brothers George and Thomas has a phrase in it that I think is often mispronounced, and therefore misunderstood: "negative capability." I think the word isn't NEGative but neGAtive -- i.e., the function of negating. And we shouldn't lose the context in which Keats came up with this powerful concept: He had been to a dinner with some friends "who say things which make one start, without making one feel." Their conversation "only served to convince me how superior humour is to wit." The priority given to feeling over intellect here is characteristic, and it feeds into his though about Shakespeare's "Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Keats isn't against fact and reason, he just wants to put it in its place, and its place isn't in literature.

Gustave Flaubert: Art Without Conclusions

Gustave Flaubert, date unknown
In this 1857 letter to Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie, with whom Flaubert carried on an extended correspondence, he rejects the idea that human beings can ever "attain to absolute knowledge of truth and goodness." In fact, the only road to happiness is to avoid the delusion that certainty is possible. "Life is such a hideous business that the only method of bearing it is to avoid it. And one does avoid it by living in Art, in the ceaseless quest for Truth presented by Beauty." (The kinship with Keats's conclusion, "Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," is evident, except that Keats's formulation of that dictum is loaded with irony.)
Superficial, limited creatures, rash, feather-brained souls, demand a conclusion from everything; they want to know the purpose of life and the dimensions of the infinite. Picking up a handful of sand in their poor, puny grasp, they say to the Ocean: "I shall now count the grains on your shores." but when the sand slips through their fingers and the sum proves long, they stamp and burst into tears. Do you know what we should do on that shore? Either kneel down or walk. You must walk. 
The advice is not to cease from questioning, but to cease from hoping for a definitive answer. Strive, but don't overreach. "No great genius has come to final conclusions; no great book ever does so, because humanity itself is forever on the march and can arrive at no goal. Homer comes to no conclusions, nor does Shakespeare, nor Goethe, nor even the Bible." Thus Flaubert rejects not only religion but also politics, believing instead in "the perpetual evolution of humanity and in its ever-changing forms, and consequently I abominate all those frames which men try to cram it into by main force, all the formulas by which they define it, and all the plans they devise for it.... it seems idiotic to me to seek the best religion or the best government. For me, the one on its deathbed is the best, since it is then making way for another."

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