George Henry Lewes.

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painting. This experience constantly evinces. The proper manner of
conveying the AFFECTIONS of the mind from one to the other is by words;
there is great insufficiency in all other method of communication; and
so far is a clearness of imagery, from being absolutely necessary to an
influence upon the passions, that they may be considerably operated
upon without presenting any image at all, by certain sounds adapted to
that purpose." If by image is meant only what the eye can see, Burke is
undoubtedly right. But this is obviously not our restricted meaning of
the word when we speak of poetic imagery; and Burke's error becomes
apparent when he proceeds to show that there "are reasons in nature why
an obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than
the clear." He does not seem to have considered that the idea of an
indefinite object can only be properly conveyed by indefinite images;
any image of Eternity or Death that pretended to visual distinctness
would be false. Having overlooked this, he says, "We do not anywhere
meet a more sublime description than this justly celebrated one of
Milton, wherein he gives the portrait of Satan with a dignity so
suitable to the subject.

"He above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a tower; his form had not yet lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruined and the excess
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams; or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations; and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs."

"Here is a very noble picture," adds Burke, "and in what does this
poetical picture consist? In images of a tower, an archangel, the sun
rising through mists, or an eclipse, the ruin of monarchs, and the
revolution of kingdoms." Instead of recognising the imagery here as the
source of the power, he says, "The mind is hurried out of itself,
[rather a strange result!], by a crowd of great and confused images;
which affect because they are crowded and confused For, separate them,
and you lose much of the greatness; and join them, and you infallibly
lose the clearness." This is altogether a mistake. The images are vivid
enough to make us feel the hovering presence of an awe-inspiring figure
having the height and firmness of a tower, and the dusky splendour of a
ruined archangel. The poet indicates only that amount of concreteness
which is necessary for the clearness of the picture, - -only the height
and firmness of the tower and the brightness of the sun in eclipse.
More concretness would disturb the clearness by calling attention to
irrelevant details. To suppose that these images produce the effect
because they are crowded and confused (they are crowded and not
confused) is to imply that any other images would do equally well, if
they were equally crowded. "Separate them, and you lose much of the
greatness." Quite true: the image of the tower would want the splendour
of the sun. But this much may be said of all descriptions which proceed
upon details. And so far from the impressive clearness of the picture
vanishing in the crowd of images, it is by these images that the
clearness is produced: the details make it impressive, and affect our

It should be added that Burke came very near a true explanation in the
following passage: - "It is difficult to conceive how words can move the
passions which belong to real objects without representing these
objects clearly. This is difficult to us because we do not sufficiently
distinguish between a clear expression and a strong expression. The
former regards the understanding; the latter belongs to the passions.
The one describes a thing as it is, the other describes it as it is
felt. Now as there is a moving tone of voice, an impassioned
countenance, an agitated gesture, which affect independently of the
things about which they are exerted, so there are words and certain
dispositions of words which being peculiarly devoted to passionate
subjects, and always used by those who are under the influence of
passion, touch and move us more than those which far more clearly and
distinctly express the subject-matter." Burke here fails to see that
the tones, looks, and gestures are the intelligible symbols of
passion - the "images' in the true sense just as words are the
intelligible symbols of ideas. The subject-matter is as clearly
expressed by the one as by the other; for if the description of a Lion
be conveyed in the symbols of admiration or of terror, the
subject-matter is THEN a Lion passionately and not zoologically
considered. And this Burke himself was led to admit, for he adds, "We
yield to sympathy what we refuse to description. The truth is, all
verbal description, merely as naked description, though never so exact,
conveys so poor and insufficient an idea of the thing described, that
it could scarcely have the smallest eflfect if the speaker did not call
in to his aid those modes of speech that work a strong and lively
feeling in himself. Then, by the contagion of our passions, we catch a
fire already kindled in another." This is very true, and it sets
clearly forth the fact that naked description, addressed to the calm
understanding, has a different subject-matter from description
addressed to the feelings, and the symbols by which it is made
intelligible must likewise differ. But this in no way impugns the
principle of Vision. Intelligible symbols (clear images) are as
necessary in the one case as in the other.


By reducing imagination to the power of forming images, and by
insisting that no image can be formed except out of the elements
furnished by experience, I do not mean to confound imagination with
memory; indeed, the frequent occurrence of great strength of memory
with comparative feebleness of imagination, would suffice to warn us
against such a conclusion.

Its specific character, that which marks it off from simple memory, is
its tendency to selection, abstraction, and recombination. Memory, as
passive, simply recalls previous experiences of objects and emotions;
from these, imagination, as an active faculty, selects the elements
which vividly symbolise the objects or emotions, and either by a
process of abstraction allows these to do duty for the whole, or else
by a process of recombination creates new objects and new relations in
which the objects stand to us or to each other (INVENTION), and the
result is an image of great vividness, which has perhaps no
corresponding reality in the external world.

Minds differ in the vividness with which they recall the elements of
previous experience, and mentally see the absent objects; they differ
also in the aptitudes for selection, abstraction, and recombination:
the fine selective instinct of the artist, which makes him fasten upon
the details which will most powerfully affect us, without any
disturbance of the harmony of the general impression, does not depend
solely upon the vividness of his memory and the clearness with which
the objects are seen, but depends also upon very complex and peculiar
conditions of sympathy which we call genius. Hence we find one man
remembering a multitude of details, with a memory so vivid that it
almost amounts at times to hallucination, yet without any artistic
power; and we may find men - Blake was one - with an imagination of
unusual activity, who are nevertheless incapable, from deficient
sympathy, of seizing upon those symbols which will most affect us. Our
native susceptibilities and acquired tastes determine which of the many
qualities in an object shall most impress us, and be most clearly
recalled. One man remembers the combustible properties of a substance,
which to another is memorable for its polarising property; to one man a
stream is so much water-power, to another a rendezveus for lovers.

In the close of the last paragraph we came face to face with the great
difficulty which constantly arrests speculation on these matters - the
existence of special aptitudes vaguely characterised as genius. These
are obviously incommunicable. No recipe can be given for genius. No man
can be taught how to exercise the power of imagination. But he can be
taught how to aid it, and how to assure himself whether he is using it
or not. Having once laid hold of the Principle of Vision as a
fundamental principle of Art, he can always thus far apply it, that he
can assure himself whether he does or does not distinctly see the
cottage he is describing, the rivulet that is gurgling through his
verses, or the character he is painting; he can assure himself whether
he hears the voice of the speakers, and feels that what they say is
true to their natures; he can assure himself whether he sees, as in
actual experience, the emotion he is depicting; and he will know that
if he does not see these things he must wait until he can, or he will
paint them ineffectively. With distinct Vision he will be able to make
the best use of his powers of expression; and the most splendid powers
of expression will not avail him if his Vision be indistinct. This is
true of objects that never were seen by the eye, that never could be
seen. It is as true of what are called the highest flights of
imagination as of the lowest flights. The mind must SEE the angel or
the demon, the hippogriff or centaur, the pixie or the mermaid.

Ruskin notices how repeatedly Turner, - the most imaginative of
landscape painters, - introduced into his pictures, after a lapse of
many years, memories of something which, however small and unimportant,
had struck him in his earlier studies. He believes that all Turner's
"composition" was an arrangement of remembrances summoned just as they
were wanted, and each in its fittest place. His vision was primarily
composed of strong memory of the place itself, and secondarily of
memories of other places associated in a harmonious, helpful way with
the now central thought. He recalled and selected.

I am prepared to hear of many readers, especially young readers,
protesting against the doctrine of this chapter as prosaic. They have
been so long accustomed to consider imagination as peculiarly
distinguished by its disdain of reality, and Invention as only
admirable when its products are not simply new by selection and
arrangement, but new in material, that they will reject the idea of
involuntary remembrance of something originally experienced as the
basis of all Art. Ruskin says of great artists, "Imagine all that any
of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid
up accurately in their memories as in vast storehouses, extending with
the poets even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the
beginning of their lives, and with painters down to minute folds of
drapery and shapes of leaves and stones; and over all this unindexed
and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and
wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such
a group of ideas as shall justly fit each other." This is the
explanation of their genius, as far as it can be explained.

Genius is rarely able to give any account of its own processes. But
those who have had ample opportunities of intimately knowing the growth
of works in the minds of artists, will bear me out in saying that a
vivid memory supplies the elements from a thousand different sources,
most of which are quite beyond the power of localisation, the
experience of yesterday being strangely intermingled with the dim
suggestions of early years, the tones heard in childhood sounding
through the diapason of sorrowing maturity; and all these kaleidoscopic
fragments are recomposed into images that seem to have a corresponding
reality of their own.

As all Art depends on Vision, so the different kinds of Art depend on
the different ways in which minds look at things. The painter can only
put into his pictures what he sees in Nature; and what he sees will be
different from what another sees. A poetical mind sees noble and
affecting suggestions in details which the prosaic mind will interpret
prosaically. And the true meaning of Idealism is precisely this vision
of realities in their highest and most affecting forms, not in the
vision of something removed from or opposed to realities. Titian's
grand picture of "Peter the Martyr" is, perhaps, as instructive an
example as could be chosen of successful Idealism; because in it we
have a marvellous presentation of reality as seen by a poetic mind. The
figure of the flying monk might have been equally real if it had been
an ignoble presentation of terror - the superb tree, which may almost be
called an actor in the drama, might have been painted with even greater
minuteness, though not perhaps with equal effect upon us, if it had
arrested our attention by its details - the dying martyr and the noble
assassin might have been made equally real in more vulgar types - but
the triumph achieved by Titian is that the mind is filled with a vision
of poetic beauty which is felt to be real. An equivalent reality,
without the ennobling beauty, would have made the picture a fine piece
of realistic art. It is because of this poetic way of seeing things
that one painter will give a faithful representation of a very common
scene which shall nevertheless affect all sensitive minds as ideal,
whereas another painter will represent the same with no greater
fidelity, but with a complete absence of poetry. The greater the
fidelity, the greater will be the merit of each representation; for if
a man pretends to represent an object, he pretends to represent it
accurately: the only difference is what the poetical or prosaic mind
sees in the object.

Of late years there has been a reaction against conventionalism which
called itself Idealism, in favour of DETAILISM which calls itself
Realism. As a reaction it has been of service; but it has led to much
false criticism, and not a little false art, by an obtrusiveness of
Detail and a preference for the Familiar, under the misleading notion
of adherence to Nature. If the words Nature and Natural could be
entirely banished from language about Art there would be some chance of
coming to a rational philosophy of the subject; at present the
excessive vagueness and shiftiness of these terms cover any amount of
sophism. The pots and pans of Teniers and Van Mieris are natural; the
passions and humours of Shakspeare and Moliere are natural; the angels
of Fra Angelico and Luini are natural; the Sleeping Fawn and Fates of
Phidias are natural; the cows and misty marshes of Cuyp and the
vacillations of Hamlet are equally natural. In fact the natural means
TRUTH OF KIND. Each kind of character, each kind of representation,
must be judged by itself. Whereas the vulgar error of criticism is to
judge of one kind by another, and generally to judge the higher by the
lower, to remonstrate with Hamlet for not having the speech and manner
of Mr. Jones, to wish that Fra Angelico could have seen with the eyes
of the Carracci, to wish verse had been prose, and that ideal tragedy
were acted with the easy manner acceptable in drawing-rooms.

The rage for "realism," which is healthy in as far as it insists on
truth, has become unhealthy, in as far as it confounds truth with
familiarity, and predominance of unessential details. There are other
truths besides coats and waistcoats, pots and pans, drawlng-rooms and
suburban villas. Life has other aims besides these which occupy the
conversation of "Society." And the painter who devotes years to a work
representing modern life, yet calls for even more attention to a
waistcoat than to the face of a philosopher, may exhibit truth of
detail which will delight the tailor-mind, but he is defective in
artistic truth, because he ought to be representing something higher
than waistcoats, and because our thoughts on modern life fall very
casually and without emphasis on waistcoats. In Piloty's much-admired
picture of the "Death of Wallenstein" (at Munich), the truth with which
the carpet, the velvet, and all other accessories are painted, is
certainly remarkable; but the falsehood of giving prominence to such
details in a picture representing the dead Wallenstein - as if they were
the objects which could possibly arrest our attention and excite our
sympathies in such a spectacle - is a falsehood of the realistic school.
If a man means to paint upholstery, by all means let him paint it so as
to delight and deceive an upholsterer; but if he means to paint a human
tragedy, the upholsterer must be subordinate, and velvet must not draw
our eyes away from faces.

I have digressed a little from my straight route because I wish to
guard the Principle of Vision from certain misconceptions which might
arise on a simple statement of it. The principle insists on the artist
assuring himself that he distinctly sees what he attempts to represent.
WHAT he sees, and HOW he represents it, depend on other principles. To
make even this principle of Vision thoroughly intelligible in its
application to all forms of Literature and Art, it must be considered
in connection with the two other principles - Sincerity and Beauty,
which are involved in all successful works. In the next chapter we
shall treat of Sincerity.




It is always understood as an expression of condemnation when anything
in Literature or Art is said to be done for effect; and yet to produce
an effect is the aim and end of both.

There is nothing beyond a verbal ambiguity here if we look at it
closely, and yet there is a corresponding uncertainty in the conception
of Literature and Art commonly entertained, which leads many writers
and many critics into the belief that what are called "effects" should
be sought, and when found must succeed. It is desirable to clear up
this moral ambiguity, as I may call it, and to show that the real
method of securing the legitimate effect is not to aim at it, but to
aim at the truth, relying on that for securing effect. The condemnation
of whatever is "done for effect" obviously springs from indignation at
a disclosed insincerity in the artist, who is self-convicted of having
neglected truth for the sake of our applause; and we refuse our
applause to the flatterer, or give it contemptuously as to a mountebank
whose dexterity has amused us.

It is unhappily true that much insincere Literature and Art, executed
solely with a view to effect, does succeed by deceiving the public. But
this is only because the simulation of truth or the blindness of the
public conceals the insincerity. As a maxim, the Principle of Sincerity
is admitted. Nothing but what is true, or is held to be true, can
succeed; anything which looks like insincerity is condemned. In this
respect we may compare it with the maxim of Honesty the best policy. No
far-reaching intellect fails to perceive that if all men were uniformly
upright and truthful, Life would be more victorious, and Literature
more noble. We find, however, both in Life and Literature, a practical
disregard of the truth of these propositions almost equivalent to a
disbelief in them. Many men are keenly alive to the social advantages
of honesty - in the practice of others. They are also strongly impressed
with the conviction that in their own particular case the advantage
will sometimes lie in not strictly adhering to the rule. Honesty is
doubtless the best policy in the long run; but somehow the run here
seems so very long, and a short-cut opens such allurements to impatient
desire. It requires a firm calm insight, or a noble habit of thought,
to steady the wavering mind, and direct it away from delusive
short-cuts: to make belief practice, and forego immediate triumph. Many
of those who unhesitatingly admit Sincerity to be one great condition
of success in Literature find it difficult, and often impossible, to
resist the temptation of an insincerity which promises immediate
advantage. It is not only the grocers who sand their sugar before
prayers. Writers who know well enough that the triumph of falsehood is
an unholy triumph, are not deterred from falsehood by that knowledge.
They know, perhaps, that, even if undetected, it will press on their
own consciences; but the knowledge avails them little. The immediate
pressure of the temptation is yielded to, and Sincerity remains a text
to be preached to others. To gain applause they will misstate facts, to
gain victory in argument they will misrepresent the opinions they
oppose; and they suppress the rising misgivings by the dangerous
sophism that to discredit error is good work, and by the hope that no
one will detect the means by which the work is effected. The saddest
aspect of this procedure is that in Literature, as in Life, a temporary
success often does reward dishonesty. It would be insincere to conceal
it. To gain a reputation as discoverers men will invent or suppress
facts. To appear learned they will array their writings in the
ostentation of borrowed citations. To solicit the "sweet voices" of the
crowd they will feign sentiments they do not feel, and utter what they
think the crowd will wish to hear, keeping back whatever the crowd will
hear with disapproval. And, as I said, such men often succeed for a
time; the fact is so, and we must not pretend that it is otherwise. But
it no more disturbs the fundamental truth of the Principle of
Sincerity, than the perturbations in the orbit of Mars disturb the
truth of Kepler's law.

It is impossible to deny that dishonest men often grow rich and famous,
becoming powerful in their parish or in parliament. Their portraits
simper from shop windows; and they live and die respected. This success
is theirs; yet it is not the success which a noble soul will envy.
Apart from the risk of discovery and infamy, there is the certainty of
a conscience ill at ease, or if at ease, so blunted in its
sensibilities, so given over to lower lusts, that a healthy instinct
recoils from such a state. Observe, moreover, that in Literature the
possible rewards of dishonesty are small, and the probability of
detection great. In Life a dishonest man is chiefly moved by desires
towards some tangible result of money or power; if he get these he has
got all. The man of letters has a higher aim: the very object of his
toil is to secure the sympathy and respect of men; and the rewards of
his toil may be paid in money, fame, or consciousness of earnest
effort. The first of these may sometimes be gained without Sincerity.
Fame may also, for a time, be erected on an unstable ground, though it
will inevitably be destroyed again. But the last and not least reward
is to be gained by every one without fear of failure, without risk of
change. Sincere work is good work, be it never so humble; and sincere
work is not only an indestructible delight to the worker by its very
genuineness, but is immortal in the best sense, for it lives for ever
in its influence. There is no good Dictionary, not even a good Index,
that is not in this sense priceless, for it has honestly furthered the
work of the world, saving labour to others, setting an example to

Whether I make a careful Index, or an inaccurate one, will probably in
no respect affect the money-payment I shall receive. My sins will never
fall heavily on me; my virtue will gain me neither extra pence nor
praise. I shall be hidden by obscurity from the indignation of those
whose valuable time is wasted over my pretence at accuracy, as from the
silent gratitude of those whose time is saved by my honest fidelity.
The consciousness of faithfulness even to the poor index maker may be a
better reward than pence or praise; but of course we cannot expect the
unconscientious to believe this. If I sand my sugar, and tell lies over
my counter, I may gain the rewards of dishonesty, or I may be overtaken
by its Nemesis. But if I am faithful in my work the reward cannot be
withheld from me. The obscure workers who, knowing that they will never
earn renown yet feel an honourable pride in doing their work
faithfully, may be likened to the benevolent who feel a noble delight
in performing generous actions which will never be known to be theirs,
the only end they seek in such actions being the good which is wrought
for others, and their delight being the sympathy with others.

I should be ashamed to insist on truths so little likely to be
disputed, did they not point directly at the great source of bad
Literature, which, as was said in our first chapter, springs from a
want of proper moral guidance rather than from deficiency of talent.

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Online LibraryGeorge Henry LewesThe Principles of Success in Literature → online text (page 5 of 11)