The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Laokoon

LAOKOON. To the scholarly world outside of Germany ‘Laokoon’ (1766) is probably better known than any other of Lessing's works — an interesting poem by Matthew Arnold testifies to its fame. It represents the culmination of a wave of critical inquiry which swept over the whole of western Europe; with regard to contemporary poetic practice it was a polemic of irresistible timeliness; and in every respect it is a characteristic work of its clearheaded and sure-handed author.

‘Laokoon’ has to do with the boundaries of painting and poetry. It delimits the respective fields of sister arts which have indeed much in common, but properly possess each a special sphere. Mutual accommodation may be expected of the sisters, and is provided for; nevertheless, either can only at her peril invade the peculiar domain of the other. So much had been recognized in Europe since the time of the Renaissance. Italians, Frenchmen and Englishmen — all of the more important of them known to Lessing — had for generations meditated and written on the problems that he treated, and some had endeavored to distinguish what belonged to one sister from what belonged to the other. But the prevailing tendency had been to assimilate, to evaluate and to compare, whereas he contrasted. Before Lessing two texts from antiquity had been thought to warrant emphasis upon likeness: Horace's phrase in the ‘Art of Poetry’ Ut pictura poesis (“as a picture is, so is poetry”) and the saying attributed to Simonides of Ceos, “A picture is mute poetry; poetry is a speaking picture.” There were recognized, however, the facts that speaking takes time, and sight may be momentary; that a mute object is an object in space, whereas words — the medium of poetry — neither are objects nor have any existence in space: in short, that both the matter and the manner of poetry and painting are, as Plutarch had declared, different one from the other.

Differences in manner or medium of artistic creation are manifest: forms and colors are in no sense like words or language. That the matter suitable to the two arts is also different was demonstrated by Diderot, when he invited attention to the treatment of one and the same subject in the two media, and showed how absurd would be the appearance on canvas of a man submerged, up to his head, in spite of the effective handling of such a scene in the poetry of Virgil.

This hint, and a similar one from Winckelmann and Moses Mendelssohn with reference to the statue of Laocoön, and Virgil's narrative in the second book of the ‘Æneid,’ gave Lessing the starting point for his discussion; — for his discussion, not for the development of his ideas; these he had derived from consideration of the practice of Homer, a practice vividly brought to Lessing's attention by a passage in Burke's essay ‘On the Sublime and Beautiful.’ Upon the basis of first principles discovered in Homer, Lessing built up his theory of the fundamental difference between poetry and painting. But the first 15 chapters of ‘Laokoon’ pursue an inductive method to which he gave a casual air by taking up the views of three of his most distinguished predecessors: Winckelmann, Joseph Spence and Count Caylus. Then, in chapter 16, he formulated his results in dogmatic, deductive fashion, essentially as follows: The symbols, or means of expression, in painting are lines and colors; the symbols, or means of expression, in poetry are articulate words. Lines and colors are properties of bodies, the parts of which coexist in space; articulate words have no existence in space, but succeed one another in time. If, therefore, as is evident, there should be a suitable relation between the subject of artistic treatment and the means employed, the proper subject for painting is something, the constituent parts of which coexist in space, i.e., bodies; and the proper subject for poetry is something, the constituent parts of which succeed one another in time, i.e., movements or, in general, actions. Painting can represent action only suggestively, by means of bodies; poetry can represent bodies only suggestively, by means of action. Painting can represent only a single moment, but can suggest other moments; poetry can present a body to view, but will give it the aspect which it bears at a definite moment, the moment of mention. The painter will choose a pregnant moment, i.e., one which gives the imagination free play with cause and effect; and the poet will choose a significant aspect, i.e., one which gives the imagination a vivid picture of present reality. But the painter will suggest, he cannot tell, a story, and the poet will present, he cannot exhaustively describe, a body — instead, he will translate a work into the terms of an operation, and will transform beauty into grace. Grace is beauty in motion. Space is the realm of the painter; the realm of the poet is time.

Lessing's treatise was a protest against two abuses that ran riot in his day: excessive allegorizing in painting, excessive detailed description in poetry. Painting subordinated beauty to “poetic” substance and ran the risk of unintelligibility; “pictorial” poetry dissipated its energy in the vain endeavor to assemble the parts of extensive objects which defied imaginative unification. Lessing was more concerned with poetry than with painting; he was a poor visualizer, but quick to respond to sensory-motor appeal. Further, he cared more for ideas than for things, more for action than for being. His rationalistic mind dealt chiefly with the objective aspect of arts which must, in the last analysis, justify their methods by their subjective effect upon the whole man, the sensuous even before the rational. But he made a theoretical distinction which is unassailable, however much it may be subject to modification when applied to specific cases. Lessing himself was ready and willing to relax the rigidity of his demarcations. The ‘Laokoon’ as we have it is but the first part of a treatise planned to comprehend music and dancing as well as painting and poetry. We need not regret that it remained a fragment. What the treatise gained in completeness it might have lost in incisiveness. The first part, that we have, is a masterpiece of composition, a work of art, in which discussion of abstract principles is made marvelously concrete and stimulating. Translated by Ellen Frothingham (Boston 1874), and by Sir Robert Phillimore (London 1874). Edited by W. G. Howard (New York 1910). Cf. Irving Babbitt, ‘The New Laokoon’ (Boston 1910).

Assistant Professor of German, Harvard University.