o. wilde – the english renaissance of art

Oscar Wilde – The English Renaissance of Art
AMONG the many debts which we owe to the supreme aesthetic faculty
of Goethe is that he was the first to teach us to define beauty in
terms the most concrete possible, to realise it, I mean, always in
its special manifestations. So, in the lecture which I have the
honour to deliver before you, I will not try to give you any
abstract definition of beauty – any such universal formula for it
as was sought for by the philosophy of the eighteenth century –
still less to communicate to you that which in its essence is
incommunicable, the virtue by which a particular picture or poem
affects us with a unique and special joy; but rather to point out
to you the general ideas which characterise the great English
Renaissance of Art in this century, to discover their source, as
far as that is possible, and to estimate their future as far as
that is possible.

I call it our English Renaissance because it is indeed a sort of
new birth of the spirit of man, like the great Italian Renaissance
of the fifteenth century, in its desire for a more gracious and
comely way of life, its passion for physical beauty, its exclusive
attention to form, its seeking for new subjects for poetry, new
forms of art, new intellectual and imaginative enjoyments: and I
call it our romantic movement because it is our most recent
expression of beauty.

It has been described as a mere revival of Greek modes of thought,
and again as a mere revival of mediaeval feeling. Rather I would
say that to these forms of the human spirit it has added whatever
of artistic value the intricacy and complexity and experience of
modern life can give: taking from the one its clearness of vision
and its sustained calm, from the other its variety of expression
and the mystery of its vision. For what, as Goethe said, is the
study of the ancients but a return to the real world (for that is
what they did); and what, said Mazzini, is mediaevalism but

It is really from the union of Hellenism, in its breadth, its
sanity of purpose, its calm possession of beauty, with the
adventive, the intensified individualism, the passionate colour of
the romantic spirit, that springs the art of the nineteenth century
in England, as from the marriage of Faust and Helen of Troy sprang
the beautiful boy Euphorion.

Such expressions as ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ are, it is true,
often apt to become the mere catchwords of schools. We must always
remember that art has only one sentence to utter: there is for her
only one high law, the law of form or harmony – yet between the
classical and romantic spirit we may say that there lies this
difference at least, that the one deals with the type and the other
with the exception. In the work produced under the modern romantic
spirit it is no longer the permanent, the essential truths of life
that are treated of; it is the momentary situation of the one, the
momentary aspect of the other that art seeks to render. In
sculpture, which is the type of one spirit, the subject
predominates over the situation; in painting, which is the type of
the other, the situation predominates over the subject.

There are two spirits, then: the Hellenic spirit and the spirit of
romance may be taken as forming the essential elements of our
conscious intellectual tradition, of our permanent standard of
taste. As regards their origin, in art as in politics there is but
one origin for all revolutions, a desire on the part of man for a
nobler form of life, for a freer method and opportunity of
expression. Yet, I think that in estimating the sensuous and
intellectual spirit which presides over our English Renaissance,
any attempt to isolate it in any way from in the progress and
movement and social life of the age that has produced it would be
to rob it of its true vitality, possibly to mistake its true
meaning. And in disengaging from the pursuits and passions of this
crowded modern world those passions and pursuits which have to do
with art and the love of art, we must take into account many great
events of history which seem to be the most opposed to any such
artistic feeling.

Alien then from any wild, political passion, or from the harsh
voice of a rude people in revolt, as our English Renaissance must
seem, in its passionate cult of pure beauty, its flawless devotion
to form, its exclusive and sensitive nature, it is to the French
Revolution that we must look for the most primary factor of its
production, the first condition of its birth: that great
Revolution of which we are all the children though the voices of
some of us be often loud against it; that Revolution to which at a
time when even such spirits as Coleridge and Wordsworth lost heart
in England, noble messages of love blown across seas came from your
young Republic.

It is true that our modern sense of the continuity of history has
shown us that neither in politics nor in nature are there
revolutions ever but evolutions only, and that the prelude to that
wild storm which swept over France in 1789 and made every king in
Europe tremble for his throne, was first sounded in literature
years before the Bastille fell and the Palace was taken. The way
for those red scenes by Seine and Loire was paved by that critical
spirit of Germany and England which accustomed men to bring all
things to the test of reason or utility or both, while the
discontent of the people in the streets of Paris was the echo that
followed the life of Emile and of Werther. For Rousseau, by silent
lake and mountain, had called humanity back to the golden age that
still lies before us and preached a return to nature, in passionate
eloquence whose music still lingers about our keen northern air.
And Goethe and Scott had brought romance back again from the prison
she had lain in for so many centuries – and what is romance but

Yet in the womb of the Revolution itself, and in the storm and
terror of that wild time, tendencies were hidden away that the
artistic Renaissance bent to her own service when the time came – a
scientific tendency first, which has borne in our own day a brood
of somewhat noisy Titans, yet in the sphere of poetry has not been
unproductive of good. I do not mean merely in its adding to
enthusiasm that intellectual basis which in its strength, or that
more obvious influence about which Wordsworth was thinking when he
said very nobly that poetry was merely the impassioned expression
in the face of science, and that when science would put on a form
of flesh and blood the poet would lend his divine spirit to aid the
transfiguration. Nor do I dwell much on the great cosmical emotion
and deep pantheism of science to which Shelley has given its first
and Swinburne its latest glory of song, but rather on its influence
on the artistic spirit in preserving that close observation and the
sense of limitation as well as of clearness of vision which are the
characteristics of the real artist.

The great and golden rule of art as well as of life, wrote William
Blake, is that the more distinct, sharp and defined the boundary
line, the more perfect is the work of art; and the less keen and
sharp the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism and
bungling. ‘Great inventors in all ages knew this – Michael Angelo
and Albert Durer are known by this and by this alone’; and another
time he wrote, with all the simple directness of nineteenth-century
prose, ‘to generalise is to be an idiot.’

And this love of definite conception, this clearness of vision,
this artistic sense of limit, is the characteristic of all great
work and poetry; of the vision of Homer as of the vision of Dante,
of Keats and William Morris as of Chaucer and Theocritus. It lies
at the base of all noble, realistic and romantic work as opposed to
the colourless and empty abstractions of our own eighteenth-century
poets and of the classical dramatists of France, or of the vague
spiritualities of the German sentimental school: opposed, too, to
that spirit of transcendentalism which also was root and flower
itself of the great Revolution, underlying the impassioned
contemplation of Wordsworth and giving wings and fire to the eagle-
like flight of Shelley, and which in the sphere of philosophy,
though displaced by the materialism and positiveness of our day,
bequeathed two great schools of thought, the school of Newman to
Oxford, the school of Emerson to America. Yet is this spirit of
transcendentalism alien to the spirit of art. For the artist can
accept no sphere of life in exchange for life itself. For him
there is no escape from the bondage of the earth: there is not
even the desire of escape.

He is indeed the only true realist: symbolism, which is the
essence of the transcendental spirit, is alien to him. The
metaphysical mind of Asia will create for itself the monstrous,
many-breasted idol of Ephesus, but to the Greek, pure artist, that
work is most instinct with spiritual life which conforms most
clearly to the perfect facts of physical life.

‘The storm of revolution,’ as Andre Chenier said, ‘blows out the
torch of poetry.’ It is not for some little time that the real
influence of such a wild cataclysm of things is felt: at first the
desire for equality seems to have produced personalities of more
giant and Titan stature than the world had ever known before. Men
heard the lyre of Byron and the legions of Napoleon; it was a
period of measureless passions and of measureless despair;
ambition, discontent, were the chords of life and art; the age was
an age of revolt: a phase through which the human spirit must
pass, but one in which it cannot rest. For the aim of culture is
not rebellion but peace, the valley perilous where ignorant armies
clash by night being no dwelling-place meet for her to whom the
gods have assigned the fresh uplands and sunny heights and clear,
untroubled air.

And soon that desire for perfection, which lay at the base of the
Revolution, found in a young English poet its most complete and
flawless realisation.

Phidias and the achievements of Greek art are foreshadowed in
Homer: Dante prefigures for us the passion and colour and
intensity of Italian painting: the modern love of landscape dates
from Rousseau, and it is in Keats that one discerns the beginning
of the artistic renaissance of England.

Byron was a rebel and Shelley a dreamer; but in the calmness and
clearness of his vision, his perfect self-control, his unerring
sense of beauty and his recognition of a separate realm for the
imagination, Keats was the pure and serene artist, the forerunner
of the pre-Raphaelite school, and so of the great romantic movement
of which I am to speak.

Blake had indeed, before him, claimed for art a lofty, spiritual
mission, and had striven to raise design to the ideal level of
poetry and music, but the remoteness of his vision both in painting
and poetry and the incompleteness of his technical powers had been
adverse to any real influence. It is in Keats that the artistic
spirit of this century first found its absolute incarnation.

And these pre-Raphaelites, what were they? If you ask nine-tenths
of the British public what is the meaning of the word aesthetics,
they will tell you it is the French for affectation or the German
for a dado; and if you inquire about the pre-Raphaelites you will
hear something about an eccentric lot of young men to whom a sort
of divine crookedness and holy awkwardness in drawing were the
chief objects of art. To know nothing about their great men is one
of the necessary elements of English education.

As regards the pre-Raphaelites the story is simple enough. In the
year 1847 a number of young men in London, poets and painters,
passionate admirers of Keats all of them, formed the habit of
meeting together for discussions on art, the result of such
discussions being that the English Philistine public was roused
suddenly from its ordinary apathy by hearing that there was in its
midst a body of young men who had determined to revolutionise
English painting and poetry. They called themselves the pre-
Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In England, then as now, it was enough for a man to try and produce
any serious beautiful work to lose all his rights as a citizen; and
besides this, the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – among whom the names
of Dante Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais will be familiar to you
– had on their side three things that the English public never
forgives: youth, power and enthusiasm.

Satire, always as sterile as it in shameful and as impotent as it
is insolent, paid them that usual homage which mediocrity pays to
genius – doing, here as always, infinite harm to the public,
blinding them to what is beautiful, teaching them that irreverence
which is the source of all vileness and narrowness of life, but
harming the artist not at all, rather confirming him in the perfect
rightness of his work and ambition. For to disagree with three-
fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first
elements of sanity, one of the deepest consolations in all moments
of spiritual doubt.

As regards the ideas these young men brought to the regeneration of
English art, we may see at the base of their artistic creations a
desire for a deeper spiritual value to be given to art as well as a
more decorative value.

Pre-Raphaelites they called themselves; not that they imitated the
early Italian masters at all, but that in their work, as opposed to
the facile abstractions of Raphael, they found a stronger realism
of imagination, a more careful realism of technique, a vision at
once more fervent and more vivid, an individuality more intimate
and more intense.

For it is not enough that a work of art should conform to the
aesthetic demands of its age: there must be also about it, if it
is to affect us with any permanent delight, the impress of a
distinct individuality, an individuality remote from that of
ordinary men, and coming near to us only by virtue of a certain
newness and wonder in the work, and through channels whose very
strangeness makes us more ready to give them welcome.

LA PERSONNALITE, said one of the greatest of modem French critics,

But above all things was it a return to Nature – that formula which
seems to suit so many and such diverse movements: they would draw
and paint nothing but what they saw, they would try and imagine
things as they really happened. Later there came to the old house
by Blackfriars Bridge, where this young brotherhood used to meet
and work, two young men from Oxford, Edward Burne-Jones and William
Morris – the latter substituting for the simpler realism of the
early days a more exquisite spirit of choice, a more faultless
devotion to beauty, a more intense seeking for perfection: a
master of all exquisite design and of all spiritual vision. It is
of the school of Florence rather than of that of Venice that he is
kinsman, feeling that the close imitation of Nature is a disturbing
element in imaginative art. The visible aspect of modern life
disturbs him not; rather is it for him to render eternal all that
is beautiful in Greek, Italian, and Celtic legend. To Morris we
owe poetry whose perfect precision and clearness of word and vision
has not been excelled in the literature of our country, and by the
revival of the decorative arts he has given to our individualised
romantic movement the social idea and the social factor also.

But the revolution accomplished by this clique of young men, with
Ruskin’s faultless and fervent eloquence to help them, was not one
of ideas merely but of execution, not one of conceptions but of

For the great eras in the history of the development of all the
arts have been eras not of increased feeling or enthusiasm in
feeling for art, but of new technical improvements primarily and
specially. The discovery of marble quarries in the purple ravines
of Pentelicus and on the little low-lying hills of the island of
Paros gave to the Greeks the opportunity for that intensified
vitality of action, that more sensuous and simple humanism, to
which the Egyptian sculptor working laboriously in the hard
porphyry and rose-coloured granite of the desert could not attain.
The splendour of the Venetian school began with the introduction of
the new oil medium for painting. The progress in modern music has
been due to the invention of new instruments entirely, and in no
way to an increased consciousness on the part of the musician of
any wider social aim. The critic may try and trace the deferred
resolutions of Beethoven to some sense of the incompleteness of the
modern intellectual spirit, but the artist would have answered, as
one of them did afterwards, ‘Let them pick out the fifths and leave
us at peace.’

And so it is in poetry also: all this love of curious French
metres like the Ballade, the Villanelle, the Rondel; all this
increased value laid on elaborate alliterations, and on curious
words and refrains, such as you will find in Dante Rossetti and
Swinburne, is merely the attempt to perfect flute and viol and
trumpet through which the spirit of the age and the lips of the
poet may blow the music of their many messages.

And so it has been with this romantic movement of ours: it is a
reaction against the empty conventional workmanship, the lax
execution of previous poetry and painting, showing itself in the
work of such men as Rossetti and Burne-Jones by a far greater
splendour of colour, a far more intricate wonder of design than
English imaginative art has shown before. In Rossetti’s poetry and
the poetry of Morris, Swinburne and Tennyson a perfect precision
and choice of language, a style flawless and fearless, a seeking
for all sweet and precious melodies and a sustaining consciousness
of the musical value of each word are opposed to that value which
is merely intellectual. In this respect they are one with the
romantic movement of France of which not the least characteristic
note was struck by Theophile Gautier’s advice to the young poet to
read his dictionary every day, as being the only book worth a
poet’s reading.

While, then, the material of workmanship is being thus elaborated
and discovered to have in itself incommunicable and eternal
qualities of its own, qualities entirely satisfying to the poetic
sense and not needing for their aesthetic effect any lofty
intellectual vision, any deep criticism of life or even any
passionate human emotion at all, the spirit and the method of the
poet’s working – what people call his inspiration – have not
escaped the controlling influence of the artistic spirit. Not that
the imagination has lost its wings, but we have accustomed
ourselves to count their innumerable pulsations, to estimate their
limitless strength, to govern their ungovernable freedom.

To the Greeks this problem of the conditions of poetic production,
and the places occupied by either spontaneity or self-consciousness
in any artistic work, had a peculiar fascination. We find it in
the mysticism of Plato and in the rationalism of Aristotle. We
find it later in the Italian Renaissance agitating the minds of
such men as Leonardo da Vinci. Schiller tried to adjust the
balance between form and feeling, and Goethe to estimate the
position of self-consciousness in art. Wordsworth’s definition of
poetry as ‘emotion remembered in tranquillity’ may be taken as an
analysis of one of the stages through which all imaginative work
has to pass; and in Keats’s longing to be ‘able to compose without
this fever’ (I quote from one of his letters), his desire to
substitute for poetic ardour ‘a more thoughtful and quiet power,’
we may discern the most important moment in the evolution of that
artistic life. The question made an early and strange appearance
in your literature too; and I need not remind you how deeply the
young poets of the French romantic movement were excited and
stirred by Edgar Allan Poe’s analysis of the workings of his own
imagination in the creating of that supreme imaginative work which
we know by the name of THE RAVEN.

In the last century, when the intellectual and didactic element had
intruded to such an extent into the kingdom which belongs to
poetry, it was against the claims of the understanding that an
artist like Goethe had to protest. ‘The more incomprehensible to
the understanding a poem is the better for it,’ he said once,
asserting the complete supremacy of the imagination in poetry as of
reason in prose. But in this century it is rather against the
claims of the emotional faculties, the claims of mere sentiment and
feeling, that the artist must react. The simple utterance of joy
is not poetry any more than a mere personal cry of pain, and the
real experiences of the artist are always those which do not find
their direct expression but are gathered up and absorbed into some
artistic form which seems, from such real experiences, to be the
farthest removed and the most alien.

‘The heart contains passion but the imagination alone contains
poetry,’ says Charles Baudelaire. This too was the lesson that
Theophile Gautier, most subtle of all modern critics, most
fascinating of all modern poets, was never tired of teaching –
‘Everybody is affected by a sunrise or a sunset.’ The absolute
distinction of the artist is not his capacity to feel nature so
much as his power of rendering it. The entire subordination of all
intellectual and emotional faculties to the vital and informing
poetic principle is the surest sign of the strength of our

We have seen the artistic spirit working, first in the delightful
and technical sphere of language, the sphere of expression as
opposed to subject, then controlling the imagination of the poet in
dealing with his subject. And now I would point out to you its
operation in the choice of subject. The recognition of a separate
realm for the artist, a consciousness of the absolute difference
between the world of art and the world of real fact, between
classic grace and absolute reality, forms not merely the essential
element of any aesthetic charm but is the characteristic of all
great imaginative work and of all great eras of artistic creation –
of the age of Phidias as of the age of Michael Angelo, of the age
of Sophocles as of the age of Goethe.

Art never harms itself by keeping aloof from the social problems of
the day: rather, by so doing, it more completely realises for us
that which we desire. For to most of us the real life is the life
we do not lead, and thus, remaining more true to the essence of its
own perfection, more jealous of its own unattainable beauty, is
less likely to forget form in feeling or to accept the passion of
creation as any substitute for the beauty of the created thing.

The artist is indeed the child of his own age, but the present will
not be to him a whit more real than the past; for, like the
philosopher of the Platonic vision, the poet is the spectator of
all time and of all existence. For him no form is obsolete, no
subject out of date; rather, whatever of life and passion the world
has known, in desert of Judaea or in Arcadian valley, by the rivers
of Troy or the rivers of Damascus, in the crowded and hideous
streets of a modern city or by the pleasant ways of Camelot – all
lies before him like an open scroll, all is still instinct with
beautiful life. He will take of it what is salutary for his own
spirit, no more; choosing some facts and rejecting others with the
calm artistic control of one who is in possession of the secret of

There is indeed a poetical attitude to be adopted towards all
things, but all things are not fit subjects for poetry. Into the
secure and sacred house of Beauty the true artist will admit
nothing that is harsh or disturbing, nothing that gives pain,
nothing that is debatable, nothing about which men argue. He can
steep himself, if he wishes, in the discussion of all the social
problems of his day, poor-laws and local taxation, free trade and
bimetallic currency, and the like; but when he writes on these
subjects it will be, as Milton nobly expressed it, with his left
hand, in prose and not in verse, in a pamphlet and not in a lyric.
This exquisite spirit of artistic choice was not in Byron:
Wordsworth had it not. In the work of both these men there is much
that we have to reject, much that does not give us that sense of
calm and perfect repose which should be the effect of all fine,
imaginative work. But in Keats it seemed to have been incarnate,
and in his lovely ODE ON A GRECIAN URN it found its most secure and
faultless expression; in the pageant of the EARTHLY PARADISE and
the knights and ladies of Burne-Jones it is the one dominant note.

It is to no avail that the Muse of Poetry be called, even by such a
clarion note as Whitman’s, to migrate from Greece and Ionia and to
placard REMOVED and TO LET on the rocks of the snowy Parnassus.
Calliope’s call is not yet closed, nor are the epics of Asia ended;
the Sphinx is not yet silent, nor the fountain of Castaly dry. For
art is very life itself and knows nothing of death; she is absolute
truth and takes no care of fact; she sees (as I remember Mr.
Swinburne insisting on at dinner) that Achilles is even now more
actual and real than Wellington, not merely more noble and
interesting as a type and figure but more positive and real.

Literature must rest always on a principle, and temporal
considerations are no principle at all. For to the poet all times
and places are one; the stuff he deals with is eternal and
eternally the same: no theme is inept, no past or present
preferable. The steam whistle will not affright him nor the flutes
of Arcadia weary him: for him there is but one time, the artistic
moment; but one law, the law of form; but one land, the land of
Beauty – a land removed indeed from the real world and yet more
sensuous because more enduring; calm, yet with that calm which
dwells in the faces of the Greek statues, the calm which comes not
from the rejection but from the absorption of passion, the calm
which despair and sorrow cannot disturb but intensify only. And so
it comes that he who seems to stand most remote from his age is he
who mirrors it best, because he has stripped life of what is
accidental and transitory, stripped it of that ‘mist of familiarity
which makes life obscure to us.’

Those strange, wild-eyed sibyls fixed eternally in the whirlwind of
ecstasy, those mighty-limbed and Titan prophets, labouring with the
secret of the earth and the burden of mystery, that guard and
glorify the chapel of Pope Sixtus at Rome – do they not tell us
more of the real spirit of the Italian Renaissance, of the dream of
Savonarola and of the sin of Borgia, than all the brawling boors
and cooking women of Dutch art can teach us of the real spirit of
the history of Holland?

And so in our own day, also, the two most vital tendencies of the
nineteenth century – the democratic and pantheistic tendency and
the tendency to value life for the sake of art – found their most
complete and perfect utterance in the poetry of Shelley and Keats
who, to the blind eyes of their own time, seemed to be as wanderers
in the wilderness, preachers of vague or unreal things. And I
remember once, in talking to Mr. Burne-Jones about modern science,
his saying to me, ‘the more materialistic science becomes, the more
angels shall I paint: their wings are my protest in favour of the
immortality of the soul.’

But these are the intellectual speculations that underlie art.
Where in the arts themselves are we to find that breadth of human
sympathy which is the condition of all noble work; where in the
arts are we to look for what Mazzini would call the social ideas as
opposed to the merely personal ideas? By virtue of what claim do I
demand for the artist the love and loyalty of the men and women of
the world? I think I can answer that.

Whatever spiritual message an artist brings to his aid is a matter
for his own soul. He may bring judgment like Michael Angelo or
peace like Angelico; he may come with mourning like the great
Athenian or with mirth like the singer of Sicily; nor is it for us
to do aught but accept his teaching, knowing that we cannot smite
the bitter lips of Leopardi into laughter or burden with our
discontent Goethe’s serene calm. But for warrant of its truth such
message must have the flame of eloquence in the lips that speak it,
splendour and glory in the vision that is its witness, being
justified by one thing only – the flawless beauty and perfect form
of its expression: this indeed being the social idea, being the
meaning of joy in art.

Not laughter where none should laugh, nor the calling of peace
where there is no peace; not in painting the subject ever, but the
pictorial charm only, the wonder of its colour, the satisfying
beauty of its design.

You have most of you seen, probably, that great masterpiece of
Rubens which hangs in the gallery of Brussels, that swift and
wonderful pageant of horse and rider arrested in its most exquisite
and fiery moment when the winds are caught in crimson banner and
the air lit by the gleam of armour and the flash of plume. Well,
that is joy in art, though that golden hillside be trodden by the
wounded feet of Christ and it is for the death of the Son of Man
that that gorgeous cavalcade is passing.

But this restless modern intellectual spirit of ours is not
receptive enough of the sensuous element of art; and so the real
influence of the arts is hidden from many of us: only a few,
escaping from the tyranny of the soul, have learned the secret of
those high hours when thought is not.

And this indeed is the reason of the influence which Eastern art is
having on us in Europe, and of the fascination of all Japanese
work. While the Western world has been laying on art the
intolerable burden of its own intellectual doubts and the spiritual
tragedy of its own sorrows, the East has always kept true to art’s
primary and pictorial conditions.

In judging of a beautiful statue the aesthetic faculty is
absolutely and completely gratified by the splendid curves of those
marble lips that are dumb to our complaint, the noble modelling of
those limbs that are powerless to help us. In its primary aspect a
painting has no more spiritual message or meaning than an exquisite
fragment of Venetian glass or a blue tile from the wall of
Damascus: it is a beautifully coloured surface, nothing more. The
channels by which all noble imaginative work in painting should
touch, and do touch the soul, are not those of the truths of life,
nor metaphysical truths. But that pictorial charm which does not
depend on any literary reminiscence for its effect on the one hand,
nor is yet a mere result of communicable technical skill on the
other, comes of a certain inventive and creative handling of
colour. Nearly always in Dutch painting and often in the works of
Giorgione or Titian, it is entirely independent of anything
definitely poetical in the subject, a kind of form and choice in
workmanship which is itself entirely satisfying, and is (as the
Greeks would say) an end in itself.

And so in poetry too, the real poetical quality, the joy of poetry,
comes never from the subject but from an inventive handling of
rhythmical language, from what Keats called the ‘sensuous life of
verse.’ The element of song in the singing accompanied by the
profound joy of motion, is so sweet that, while the incomplete
lives of ordinary men bring no healing power with them, the thorn-
crown of the poet will blossom into roses for our pleasure; for our
delight his despair will gild its own thorns, and his pain, like
Adonis, be beautiful in its agony; and when the poet’s heart breaks
it will break in music.

And health in art – what is that? It has nothing to do with a sane
criticism of life. There is more health in Baudelaire than there
is in [Kingsley]. Health is the artist’s recognition of the
limitations of the form in which he works. It is the honour and
the homage which he gives to the material he uses – whether it be
language with its glories, or marble or pigment with their glories
– knowing that the true brotherhood of the arts consists not in
their borrowing one another’s method, but in their producing, each
of them by its own individual means, each of them by keeping its
objective limits, the same unique artistic delight. The delight is
like that given to us by music – for music is the art in which form
and matter are always one, the art whose subject cannot be
separated from the method of its expression, the art which most
completely realises the artistic ideal, and is the condition to
which all the other arts are constantly aspiring.

And criticism – what place is that to have in our culture? Well, I
think that the first duty of an art critic is to hold his tongue at
all times, and upon all subjects: C’EST UN GRAND AVANTAGE DE

It is only through the mystery of creation that one can gain any
knowledge of the quality of created things. You have listened to
PATIENCE for a hundred nights and you have heard me for one only.
It will make, no doubt, that satire more piquant by knowing
something about the subject of it, but you must not judge of
aestheticism by the satire of Mr. Gilbert. As little should you
judge of the strength and splendour of sun or sea by the dust that
dances in the beam, or the bubble that breaks on the wave, as take
your critic for any sane test of art. For the artists, like the
Greek gods, are revealed only to one another, as Emerson says
somewhere; their real value and place time only can show. In this
respect also omnipotence is with the ages. The true critic
addresses not the artist ever but the public only. His work lies
with them. Art can never have any other claim but her own
perfection: it is for the critic to create for art the social aim,
too, by teaching the people the spirit in which they are to
approach all artistic work, the love they are to give it, the
lesson they are to draw from it.

All these appeals to art to set herself more in harmony with modern
progress and civilisation, and to make herself the mouthpiece for
the voice of humanity, these appeals to art ‘to have a mission,’
are appeals which should be made to the public. The art which has
fulfilled the conditions of beauty has fulfilled all conditions:
it is for the critic to teach the people how to find in the calm of
such art the highest expression of their own most stormy passions.
‘I have no reverence,’ said Keats, ‘for the public, nor for
anything in existence but the Eternal Being, the memory of great
men and the principle of Beauty.’

Such then is the principle which I believe to be guiding and
underlying our English Renaissance, a Renaissance many-sided and
wonderful, productive of strong ambitions and lofty personalities,
yet for all its splendid achievements in poetry and in the
decorative arts and in painting, for all the increased comeliness
and grace of dress, and the furniture of houses and the like, not
complete. For there can be no great sculpture without a beautiful
national life, and the commercial spirit of England has killed
that; no great drama without a noble national life, and the
commercial spirit of England has killed that too.

It is not that the flawless serenity of marble cannot bear the
burden of the modern intellectual spirit, or become instinct with
the fire of romantic passion – the tomb of Duke Lorenzo and the
chapel of the Medici show us that – but it is that, as Theophile
Gautier used to say, the visible world is dead, LE MONDE VISIBLE A

Nor is it again that the novel has killed the play, as some critics
would persuade us – the romantic movement of France shows us that.
The work of Balzac and of Hugo grew up side by side together; nay,
more, were complementary to each other, though neither of them saw
it. While all other forms of poetry may flourish in an ignoble
age, the splendid individualism of the lyrist, fed by its own
passion, and lit by its own power, may pass as a pillar of fire as
well across the desert as across places that are pleasant. It is
none the less glorious though no man follow it – nay, by the
greater sublimity of its loneliness it may be quickened into
loftier utterance and intensified into clearer song. From the mean
squalor of the sordid life that limits him, the dreamer or the
idyllist may soar on poesy’s viewless wings, may traverse with
fawn-skin and spear the moonlit heights of Cithaeron though Faun
and Bassarid dance there no more. Like Keats he may wander through
the old-world forests of Latmos, or stand like Morris on the
galley’s deck with the Viking when king and galley have long since
passed away. But the drama is the meeting-place of art and life;
it deals, as Mazzini said, not merely with man, but with social
man, with man in his relation to God and to Humanity. It is the
product of a period of great national united energy; it is
impossible without a noble public, and belongs to such ages as the
age of Elizabeth in London and of Pericles at Athens; it is part of
such lofty moral and spiritual ardour as came to Greek after the
defeat of the Persian fleet, and to Englishman after the wreck of
the Armada of Spain.

Shelley felt how incomplete our movement was in this respect, and
has shown in one great tragedy by what terror and pity he would
have purified our age; but in spite of THE CENCI the drama is one
of the artistic forms through which the genius of the England of
this century seeks in vain to find outlet and expression. He has
had no worthy imitators.

It is rather, perhaps, to you that we should turn to complete and
perfect this great movement of ours, for there is something
Hellenic in your air and world, something that has a quicker breath
of the joy and power of Elizabeth’s England about it than our
ancient civilisation can give us. For you, at least, are young;
‘no hungry generations tread you down,’ and the past does not weary
you with the intolerable burden of its memories nor mock you with
the ruins of a beauty, the secret of whose creation you have lost.
That very absence of tradition, which Mr. Ruskin thought would rob
your rivers of their laughter and your flowers of their light, may
be rather the source of your freedom and your strength.

To speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance
of the movements of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the
sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside, has been
defined by one of your poets as a flawless triumph of art. It is a
triumph which you above all nations may be destined to achieve.
For the voices that have their dwelling in sea and mountain are not
the chosen music of Liberty only; other messages are there in the
wonder of wind-swept height and the majesty of silent deep –
messages that, if you will but listen to them, may yield you the
splendour of some new imagination, the marvel of some new beauty.

‘I foresee,’ said Goethe, ‘the dawn of a new literature which all
people may claim as their own, for all have contributed to its
foundation.’ If, then, this is so, and if the materials for a
civilisation as great as that of Europe lie all around you, what
profit, you will ask me, will all this study of our poets and
painters be to you? I might answer that the intellect can be
engaged without direct didactic object on an artistic and
historical problem; that the demand of the intellect is merely to
feel itself alive; that nothing which has ever interested men or
women can cease to be a fit subject for culture.

I might remind you of what all Europe owes to the sorrow of a
single Florentine in exile at Verona, or to the love of Petrarch by
that little well in Southern France; nay, more, how even in this
dull, materialistic age the simple expression of an old man’s
simple life, passed away from the clamour of great cities amid the
lakes and misty hills of Cumberland, has opened out for England
treasures of new joy compared with which the treasures of her
luxury are as barren as the sea which she has made her highway, and
as bitter as the fire which she would make her slave.

But I think it will bring you something besides this, something
that is the knowledge of real strength in art: not that you should
imitate the works of these men; but their artistic spirit, their
artistic attitude, I think you should absorb that.

For in nations, as in individuals, if the passion for creation be
not accompanied by the critical, the aesthetic faculty also, it
will be sure to waste its strength aimlessly, failing perhaps in
the artistic spirit of choice, or in the mistaking of feeling for
form, or in the following of false ideals.

For the various spiritual forms of the imagination have a natural
affinity with certain sensuous forms of art – and to discern the
qualities of each art, to intensify as well its limitations as its
powers of expression, is one of the aims that culture sets before
us. It is not an increased moral sense, an increased moral
supervision that your literature needs. Indeed, one should never
talk of a moral or an immoral poem – poems are either well written
or badly written, that is all. And, indeed, any element of morals
or implied reference to a standard of good or evil in art is often
a sign of a certain incompleteness of vision, often a note of
discord in the harmony of an imaginative creation; for all good
work aims at a purely artistic effect. ‘We must be careful,’ said
Goethe, ‘not to be always looking for culture merely in what is
obviously moral. Everything that is great promotes civilisation as
soon as we are aware of it.’

But, as in your cities so in your literature, it is a permanent
canon and standard of taste, an increased sensibility to beauty (if
I may say so) that is lacking. All noble work is not national
merely, but universal. The political independence of a nation must
not be confused with any intellectual isolation. The spiritual
freedom, indeed, your own generous lives and liberal air will give
you. From us you will learn the classical restraint of form.

For all great art is delicate art, roughness having very little to
do with strength, and harshness very little to do with power. ‘The
artist,’ as Mr. Swinburne says, ‘must be perfectly articulate.’

This limitation is for the artist perfect freedom: it is at once
the origin and the sign of his strength. So that all the supreme
masters of style – Dante, Sophocles, Shakespeare – are the supreme
masters of spiritual and intellectual vision also.

Love art for its own sake, and then all things that you need will
be added to you.

This devotion to beauty and to the creation of beautiful things is
the test of all great civilised nations. Philosophy may teach us
to bear with equanimity the misfortunes of our neighbours, and
science resolve the moral sense into a secretion of sugar, but art
is what makes the life of each citizen a sacrament and not a
speculation, art is what makes the life of the whole race immortal.

For beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm. Philosophies
fall away like sand, and creeds follow one another like the
withered leaves of autumn; but what is beautiful is a joy for all
seasons and a possession for all eternity.

Wars and the clash of armies and the meeting of men in battle by
trampled field or leaguered city, and the rising of nations there
must always be. But I think that art, by creating a common
intellectual atmosphere between all countries, might – if it could
not overshadow the world with the silver wings of peace – at least
make men such brothers that they would not go out to slay one
another for the whim or folly of some king or minister, as they do
in Europe. Fraternity would come no more with the hands of Cain,
nor Liberty betray freedom with the kiss of Anarchy; for national
hatreds are always strongest where culture is lowest.

‘How could I?’ said Goethe, when reproached for not writing like
Korner against the French. ‘How could I, to whom barbarism and
culture alone are of importance, hate a nation which is among the
most cultivated of the earth, a nation to which I owe a great part
of my own cultivation?’

Mighty empires, too, there must always be as long as personal
ambition and the spirit of the age are one, but art at least is the
only empire which a nation’s enemies cannot take from her by
conquest, but which is taken by submission only. The sovereignty
of Greece and Rome is not yet passed away, though the gods of the
one be dead and the eagles of the other tired.

And we in our Renaissance are seeking to create a sovereignty that
will still be England’s when her yellow leopards have grown weary
of wars and the rose of her shield is crimsoned no more with the
blood of battle; and you, too, absorbing into the generous heart of
a great people this pervading artistic spirit, will create for
yourselves such riches as you have never yet created, though your
land be a network of railways and your cities the harbours for the
galleys of the world.

I know, indeed, that the divine natural prescience of beauty which
is the inalienable inheritance of Greek and Italian is not our
inheritance. For such an informing and presiding spirit of art to
shield us from all harsh and alien influences, we of the Northern
races must turn rather to that strained self-consciousness of our
age which, as it is the key-note of all our romantic art, must be
the source of all or nearly all our culture. I mean that
intellectual curiosity of the nineteenth century which is always
looking for the secret of the life that still lingers round old and
bygone forms of culture. It takes from each what is serviceable
for the modern spirit – from Athens its wonder without its worship,
from Venice its splendour without its sin. The same spirit is
always analysing its own strength and its own weakness, counting
what it owes to East and to West, to the olive-trees of Colonus and
to the palm-trees of Lebanon, to Gethsemane and to the garden of

And yet the truths of art cannot be taught: they are revealed
only, revealed to natures which have made themselves receptive of
all beautiful impressions by the study and worship of all beautiful
things. And hence the enormous importance given to the decorative
arts in our English Renaissance; hence all that marvel of design
that comes from the hand of Edward Burne-Jones, all that weaving of
tapestry and staining of glass, that beautiful working in clay and
metal and wood which we owe to William Morris, the greatest
handicraftsman we have had in England since the fourteenth century.

So, in years to come there will be nothing in any man’s house which
has not given delight to its maker and does not give delight to its
user. The children, like the children of Plato’s perfect city,
will grow up ‘in a simple atmosphere of all fair things’ – I quote
from the passage in the REPUBLIC – ‘a simple atmosphere of all fair
things, where beauty, which is the spirit of art, will come on eye
and ear like a fresh breath of wind that brings health from a clear
upland, and insensibly and gradually draw the child’s soul into
harmony with all knowledge and all wisdom, so that he will love
what is beautiful and good, and hate what is evil and ugly (for
they always go together) long before he knows the reason why; and
then when reason comes will kiss her on the cheek as a friend.’

That is what Plato thought decorative art could do for a nation,
feeling that the secret not of philosophy merely but of all
gracious existence might be externally hidden from any one whose
youth had been passed in uncomely and vulgar surroundings, and that
the beauty of form and colour even, as he says, in the meanest
vessels of the house, will find its way into the inmost places of
the soul and lead the boy naturally to look for that divine harmony
of spiritual life of which art was to him the material symbol and

Prelude indeed to all knowledge and all wisdom will this love of
beautiful things be for us; yet there are times when wisdom becomes
a burden and knowledge is one with sorrow: for as every body has
its shadow so every soul has its scepticism. In such dread moments
of discord and despair where should we, of this torn and troubled
age, turn our steps if not to that secure house of beauty where
there is always a little forgetfulness, always a great joy; to that
CITTE DIVINA, as the old Italian heresy called it, the divine city
where one can stand, though only for a brief moment, apart from the
division and terror of the world and the choice of the world too?

This is that CONSOLATION DES ARTS which is the key-note of
Gautier’s poetry, the secret of modern life foreshadowed – as
indeed what in our century is not? – by Goethe. You remember what
he said to the German people: ‘Only have the courage,’ he said,
‘to give yourselves up to your impressions, allow yourselves to be
delighted, moved, elevated, nay instructed, inspired for something
great.’ The courage to give yourselves up to your impressions:
yes, that is the secret of the artistic life – for while art has
been defined as an escape from the tyranny of the senses, it is an
escape rather from the tyranny of the soul. But only to those who
worship her above all things does she ever reveal her true
treasure: else will she be as powerless to aid you as the
mutilated Venus of the Louvre was before the romantic but sceptical
nature of Heine.

And indeed I think it would be impossible to overrate the gain that
might follow if we had about us only what gave pleasure to the
maker of it and gives pleasure to its user, that being the simplest
of all rules about decoration. One thing, at least, I think it
would do for us: there is no surer test of a great country than
how near it stands to its own poets; but between the singers of our
day and the workers to whom they would sing there seems to be an
ever-widening and dividing chasm, a chasm which slander and mockery
cannot traverse, but which is spanned by the luminous wings of

And of such love I think that the abiding presence in our houses of
noble imaginative work would be the surest seed and preparation. I
do not mean merely as regards that direct literary expression of
art by which, from the little red-and-black cruse of oil or wine, a
Greek boy could learn of the lionlike splendour of Achilles, of the
strength of Hector and the beauty of Paris and the wonder of Helen,
long before he stood and listened in crowded market-place or in
theatre of marble; or by which an Italian child of the fifteenth
century could know of the chastity of Lucrece and the death of
Camilla from carven doorway and from painted chest. For the good
we get from art is not what we learn from it; it is what we become
through it. Its real influence will be in giving the mind that
enthusiasm which is the secret of Hellenism, accustoming it to
demand from art all that art can do in rearranging the facts of
common life for us – whether it be by giving the most spiritual
interpretation of one’s own moments of highest passion or the most
sensuous expression of those thoughts that are the farthest removed
from sense; in accustoming it to love the things of the imagination
for their own sake, and to desire beauty and grace in all things.
For he who does not love art in all things does not love it at all,
and he who does not need art in all things does not need it at all.

I will not dwell here on what I am sure has delighted you all in
our great Gothic cathedrals. I mean how the artist of that time,
handicraftsman himself in stone or glass, found the best motives
for his art, always ready for his hand and always beautiful, in the
daily work of the artificers he saw around him – as in those lovely
windows of Chartres – where the dyer dips in the vat and the potter
sits at the wheel, and the weaver stands at the loom: real
manufacturers these, workers with the hand, and entirely delightful
to look at, not like the smug and vapid shopman of our time, who
knows nothing of the web or vase he sells, except that he is
charging you double its value and thinking you a fool for buying
it. Nor can I but just note, in passing, the immense influence the
decorative work of Greece and Italy had on its artists, the one
teaching the sculptor that restraining influence of design which is
the glory of the Parthenon, the other keeping painting always true
to its primary, pictorial condition of noble colour which is the
secret of the school of Venice; for I wish rather, in this lecture
at least, to dwell on the effect that decorative art has on human
life – on its social not its purely artistic effect.

There are two kinds of men in the world, two great creeds, two
different forms of natures: men to whom the end of life is action,
and men to whom the end of life is thought. As regards the latter,
who seek for experience itself and not for the fruits of
experience, who must burn always with one of the passions of this
fiery-coloured world, who find life interesting not for its secret
but for its situations, for its pulsations and not for its purpose;
the passion for beauty engendered by the decorative arts will be to
them more satisfying than any political or religious enthusiasm,
any enthusiasm for humanity, any ecstasy or sorrow for love. For
art comes to one professing primarily to give nothing but the
highest quality to one’s moments, and for those moments’ sake. So
far for those to whom the end of life is thought. As regards the
others, who hold that life is inseparable from labour, to them
should this movement be specially dear: for, if our days are
barren without industry, industry without art is barbarism.

Hewers of wood and drawers of water there must be always indeed
among us. Our modern machinery has not much lightened the labour
of man after all: but at least let the pitcher that stands by the
well be beautiful and surely the labour of the day will be
lightened: let the wood be made receptive of some lovely form,
some gracious design, and there will come no longer discontent but
joy to the toiler. For what is decoration but the worker’s
expression of joy in his work? And not joy merely – that is a
great thing yet not enough – but that opportunity of expressing his
own individuality which, as it is the essence of all life, is the
source of all art. ‘I have tried,’ I remember William Morris
saying to me once, ‘I have tried to make each of my workers an
artist, and when I say an artist I mean a man.’ For the worker
then, handicraftsman of whatever kind he is, art is no longer to be
a purple robe woven by a slave and thrown over the whitened body of
a leprous king to hide and to adorn the sin of his luxury, but
rather the beautiful and noble expression of a life that has in it
something beautiful and noble.

And so you must seek out your workman and give him, as far as
possible, the right surroundings, for remember that the real test
and virtue of a workman is not his earnestness nor his industry
even, but his power of design merely; and that ‘design is not the
offspring of idle fancy: it is the studied result of accumulative
observation and delightful habit.’ All the teaching in the world
is of no avail if you do not surround your workman with happy
influences and with beautiful things. It is impossible for him to
have right ideas about colour unless he sees the lovely colours of
Nature unspoiled; impossible for him to supply beautiful incident
and action unless he sees beautiful incident and action in the
world about him.

For to cultivate sympathy you must be among living things and
thinking about them, and to cultivate admiration you must be among
beautiful things and looking at them. ‘The steel of Toledo and the
silk of Genoa did but give strength to oppression and lustre to
pride,’ as Mr. Ruskin says; let it be for you to create an art that
is made by the hands of the people for the joy of the people, to
please the hearts of the people, too; an art that will be your
expression of your delight in life. There is nothing ‘in common
life too mean, in common things too trivial to be ennobled by your
touch’; nothing in life that art cannot sanctify.

You have heard, I think, a few of you, of two flowers connected
with the aesthetic movement in England, and said (I assure you,
erroneously) to be the food of some aesthetic young men. Well, let
me tell you that the reason we love the lily and the sunflower, in
spite of what Mr. Gilbert may tell you, is not for any vegetable
fashion at all. It is because these two lovely flowers are in
England the two most perfect models of design, the most naturally
adapted for decorative art – the gaudy leonine beauty of the one
and the precious loveliness of the other giving to the artist the
most entire and perfect joy. And so with you: let there be no
flower in your meadows that does not wreathe its tendrils around
your pillows, no little leaf in your Titan forests that does not
lend its form to design, no curving spray of wild rose or brier
that does not live for ever in carven arch or window or marble, no
bird in your air that is not giving the iridescent wonder of its
colour, the exquisite curves of its wings in flight, to make more
precious the preciousness of simple adornment.

We spend our days, each one of us, in looking for the secret of
life. Well, the secret of life is in art.

Lascia un commento