The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Criticism and the Essay IV.


By Professor W. G. Howard

GOETHE admonishes the artist to create in forms of beauty, not to talk about beauty, and it is certain that no man ever became a poet from the study of an "art of poetry." Language is abstract, and art is concrete, the understanding is slow and emotion is swift, the reason may be convinced, but the senses cannot be persuaded. There is no disputing about tastes. Nevertheless, we know that taste can be cultivated, and that understanding not only makes the taste more discriminating but also multiplies the sources of aesthetic pleasure. Artists as well as amateurs and philosophers have ever sought to further such understanding.

The sculptor or the painter, whose primary means of expression are forms and colors, assumes the secondary function of teacher when he places at the disposal of his "school" the results of his studies in technique or theory. The philosophical lover of art delights to speculate on the constituents of beauty, and the critic boldly formulates the laws upon the basis of which he judges and classifies. Poetry, probably the earliest of the fine arts, was first subjected to this aesthetic legislation; but music, dancing, sculpture, and painting were soon brought under the same dominion, and have long been regarded as sisters of one and the same household with poetry.


Especially since the revival of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, practice in the arts has been accomplished by a running commentary of theory. The men of the Renaissance, having before them not merely numerous examples of Greek sculpture and the epics of Homer and Virgil, but also Aristotle's "Poetics" and Horace's "Art of Poetry," and seeing in these products of antiquity the height of human achievement, attempted in various ways to apply the canons of ancient taste to the settlement of contemporary problems. Accordingly, we find in Italy and, following the Italians, in France, England, and Germany, many writers on aesthetics only gradually emancipating themselves from the constraint of certain axioms which, being ancient, are unhesitatingly received as authoritative. Thus, all of the fine arts are, with Aristotle, regarded as arts of imitation—imitation, not of real but of ideal nature, of beautiful nature, as the French call it; and this vague and elusive conception is usually left without any very illuminating definition. Similarly, a painting is thought of, after Simonides, as a dumb poem, and a poem as a speaking picture; and, repeating a misunderstood phrase of Horace, men confidently say, "Like picture, like poetry."

The tendency is, then, to assimilate or at most to compare the several arts, and few observations penetrate beneath the surface. Artists calculated proportions and devised elaborate rules of technical procedure; writers of poetics discussed diction and rhetorical figures; but in treatises on painting and poetry alike, three "parts"—invention, disposition, and coloring—furnished the traditional subdivisions. Intelligence and industry seemed competent, if not to vie with the ancient genius, at least to follow the paths that the ancients had trod. With all their formalism, however, the critics seldom failed to insist that the end of art is to arouse emotion; to instruct, indeed, but also, as Horace had said, to please. Now pleasure is a personal reaction. We may ask what it is that pleases us in a work of art, or what there is in us that makes us sensitive to æsthetic pleasure; and the principal advance that modern theory has made beyond the point reached by the Renaissance consists in a better answer to the second question. In other words, our theory has, or seeks, a psychological foundation.


To be sure, that modern work in which the sharpest line is drawn between the fields of painting and poetry, Lessing's "Laocoön," appears to treat the two arts in their most objective aspect, and is, in fact, far more concerned with the means than with the purpose or the substance of artistic expression. Lessing argues that if the means of painting be lines and colors in space, and the means of poetry articulate words in time, then evidently painting most properly addresses itself to the treatment of stationary bodies, and poetry to the treatment of successive actions; so that the attempt, carried too far, to represent actions in painting and to describe bodies in poetry is a perversion of the legitimate means of painting and poetry. We should not forget the qualifications that Lessing made to this rigid principle, nor the fact that he published only the first part of his projected treatise. He referred the effect of painting as well as of poetry to the imagination. But his purpose was to establish boundaries determinable by the difference in artistic means; and his "Laocoön" is a rationalistic document based upon knowledge and observation of external facts, not upon a study of internal reactions.


Among the many predecessors of Lessing in the realm of aesthetic speculation, two men, not philosophers by profession, are conspicuous for attention to the personal phenomena which he did not much consult; the Abbé Dubos in France and Edmund Burke[1] in England. Dubos recognizes differences in the arts conditioned by their symbols of expression; but he compares and rates the arts according to their effect upon the senses, and so prepares the way for a purely impressionistic criticism. Burke did not agree with the Frenchman's ratings, nor did he in any manner imitate his book, however much he respected it; but he was in substantial agreement with Dubos as to the operation of aesthetic causes; and just as Dubos saw in the desire of the mind to be stimulated by something the prime motive for interest in the arts, Burke found in two of our strongest passions, love and terror, a definition of the chief ends of artistic endeavor, the beautiful and the sublime.[2] Burke was not much affected by painting. This art, the aim of which is to represent the beautiful, has, he says, little effect on our passions. But poetry, to which he was sensitive, and which, he holds, does not depend for its effect upon the power of raising sensible images, is capable of stirring the passions with a vague sense of the sublime, and is, strictly speaking, not an art of imitation.


Though reached by a different process, Burke's conclusion as to the province of poetry is, in its negative aspect, identical with Lessing's: words are ill adapted to the vivid presentation of objects by means of detailed description. And though crude and materialistic, his "Inquiry" is an excellent introduction to the study of aesthetics as a branch of psychology. The real founder of this science, however, and the philosopher from whom it derives its name, was a contemporary of Burke's in Germany, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten.

Adopting the monistic system of Leibnitz and Wolf, Baumgarten, a clear thinker and a lover of poetry, but no connoisseur of the formative arts, undertook to fill the gap left by his forerunners in the logic of the lower powers of the soul, that is, the senses. His theory of the beautiful is general; he defines beauty as the perfection of sensuous perception; but clinging to the maxim, "Like picture, like poetry," he does not, in his application of the theory, progress far beyond the treatment of poetry as the typical art, rating it, like Burke, higher than painting. Poetry he defines as perfect sensuous speech. So Milton says that poetry is more simple, sensuous, and passionate than prose. And that perfection which is the definition of beauty and of poetry is a set of harmonious relationships in the object and between the object and the sensitive soul, of which the intellect may take cognizance, but of which, above all, the senses make us conscious, being impressed with an extensive clearness separable from intensive distinctness; so that a poem is a poem not for the accuracy of any "imitation," nor for the loftiness of its idea, nor for the elegance of its forms, but for the fullness of its appeal to those functions which most immediately respond to man's contact with his material environment; that is to say, for intuitively perceptible reality.


Baumgarten's doctrine was taken up by Lessing's friend, Mendelssohn; it furnished fundamental presuppositions for "Laocoön"; and it persisted to the time of Kant and Schiller. Kant, the analyst and rationalist, tended to separate the spheres of reason, sense, and morals, and to refer all three to subjective judgment. But Schiller,[3] his disciple, fired as he was by moral enthusiasm, wished to find an objective foundation for a theory of the beautiful that should make æsthetics a mediator between science and ethics, and should give to the beautiful the sanction of a perfecter of the mind, the heart, and the will. Not unlike Lessing, whose "Education of the Human Race"[4] meant a gradual liberation from leading strings and final reliance upon trained natural faculties, Schiller conceived æsthetic education as a process of freeing man from bondage to the senses and leading him through culture to a state of more perfect nature, in which, as of old among the Greeks, truth and goodness shall be garbed in beauty. Civilization has been won through specialization, division of labor; it is a gain for the community, but at the loss of harmonious development of powers in the individual life. The beautiful soul longs to restore the balance. If this be impossible in the world of actuality, it is attainable in the world of appearance. There the mind is free to follow the image of beauty and to endow this image with the wealth of all its knowledge and all its goodness not for any ulterior purpose, but in obedience to a native impulse. And so the poet is the sole modern representative of perfect humanity, with all his powers, intellectual, sensuous, and moral, cooperating toward the realization of an ideal.

  1. Harvard Classics, xxiv, 11ff.
  2. H. C., xxiv, 29ff.
  3. H. C., xxxii, 209ff.
  4. H. C., xxxii, 185ff. See also Goethe's "Introduction to the Propyläen," xxxix, 264ff, and Hume, "On the Standard of Taste," xxvii, 203.