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Title: Interpretations of Poetry and Religion
Author: Santayana, George
Language: English
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The following volume is composed of a number of papers written at
various times and already partially printed; they are now revised and
gathered together in the hope that they may lead the reader, from
somewhat different points of approach, to a single idea. This idea is
that religion and poetry are identical in essence, and differ merely
in the way in which they are attached to practical affairs. Poetry
is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it
merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry.

It would naturally follow from this conception that religious doctrines
would do well to withdraw their pretension to be dealing with matters
of fact. That pretension is not only the source of the conflicts of
religion with science and of the vain and bitter controversies of
sects; it is also the cause of the impurity and incoherence of religion
in the soul, when it seeks its sanctions in the sphere of reality,
and forgets that its proper concern is to express the ideal. For the
dignity of religion, like that of poetry and of every moral ideal, lies
precisely in its ideal adequacy, in its fit rendering of the meanings
and values of life, in its anticipation of perfection; so that the
excellence of religion is due to an idealization of experience which,
while making religion noble if treated as poetry, makes it necessarily
false if treated as science. Its function is rather to draw from
reality materials for an image of that ideal to which reality ought
to conform, and to make us citizens, by anticipation, in the world we

It also follows from our general conception that poetry has a universal
and a moral function. Its rudimentary essays in the region of fancy
and pleasant sound, as well as its idealization of episodes in human
existence, are only partial exercises in an art that has all time and
all experience for its natural subject-matter and all the possibilities
of being for its ultimate theme. As religion is deflected from its
course when it is confused with a record of facts or of natural laws,
so poetry is arrested in its development if it remains an unmeaning
play of fancy without relevance to the ideals and purposes of life. In
that relevance lies its highest power. As its elementary pleasantness
comes from its response to the demands of the ear, so its deepest
beauty comes from its response to the ultimate demands of the soul.

This theory can hardly hope for much commendation either from the
apologists of theology or from its critics. The mass of mankind is
divided into two classes, the Sancho Panzas who have a sense for
reality, but no ideals, and the Don Quixotes with a sense for ideals,
but mad. The expedient of recognizing facts as facts and accepting
ideals as ideals,--and this is all we propose,--although apparently
simple enough, seems to elude the normal human power of discrimination.
If, therefore, the champion of any orthodoxy should be offended at our
conception, which would reduce his artful cosmos to an allegory, all
that could be said to mitigate his displeasure would be that our view
is even less favourable to his opponents than to himself.

The liberal school that attempts to fortify religion by minimizing
its expression, both theoretic and devotional, seems from this point
of view to be merely impoverishing religious symbols and vulgarizing
religious aims; it subtracts from faith that imagination by which faith
becomes an interpretation and idealization of human life, and retains
only a stark and superfluous principle of superstition. For meagre and
abstract as may be the content of such a religion, it contains all
the venom of absolute pretensions; it is no less cursed than the more
developed systems with a controversial unrest and with a consequent
undertone of constraint and suspicion. It tortures itself with the
same circular proofs in its mistaken ambition to enter the plane of
vulgar reality and escape its native element of ideas. It casts a
greater blight than would a civilized orthodoxy on any joyous freedom
of thought. For the respect exacted by an establishment is limited and
external, and not greater than its traditional forms probably deserve,
as normal expressions of human feeling and apt symbols of moral truth.
A reasonable deference once shown to authority, the mind remains, under
such an establishment, inwardly and happily free; the conscience is not
intimidated, the imagination is not tied up. But the preoccupations of
a hungry and abstract fanaticism poison the liberty nominally allowed,
bias all vision, and turn philosophy itself, which should be the purest
of delights and consolations, into an obsession and a burden to the
soul. In such a spectral form religious illusion does not cease to be
illusion. Mythology cannot become science by being reduced in bulk, but
it may cease, as a mythology, to be worth having.

On the other hand, the positivistic school of criticism would seem, if
our theory is right, to have overlooked in its programme the highest
functions of human nature. The environing world can justify itself to
the mind only by the free life which it fosters there. All observation
is observation of brute fact, all discipline is mere repression, until
these facts digested and this discipline embodied in humane impulses
become the starting-point for a creative movement of the imagination,
the firm basis for ideal constructions in society, religion, and art.
Only as conditions of these human activities can the facts of nature
and history become morally intelligible or practically important. In
themselves they are trivial incidents, gossip of the Fates, cacklings
of their inexhaustible garrulity. To regard the function of man as
accomplished when these chance happenings have been recorded by him or
contributed to by his impulsive action, is to ignore his reason, his
privilege,--shared for the rest with every living creature,--of using
Nature as food and substance for his own life. This human life is not
merely animal and passionate. The best and keenest part of it consists
in that very gift of creation and government which, together with all
the transcendental functions of his own mind, man has significantly
attributed to God as to his highest ideal. Not to see in this rational
activity the purpose and standard of all life is to have left human
nature half unread. It is to look to the removal of certain incidental
obstacles in the work of reason as to the solution of its positive
tasks. In comparison with such apathetic naturalism, all the errors
and follies of religion are worthy of indulgent sympathy, since they
represent an effort, however misguided, to interpret and to use the
materials of experience for moral ends, and to measure the value of
reality by its relation to the ideal.

The moral function of the imagination and the poetic nature of religion
form, then, the theme of the following pages. It may not be amiss to
announce it here, as the rather miscellaneous subjects of these essays
might at first sight obscure the common import of them all.





When we consider the situation of the human mind in Nature, its limited
plasticity and few channels of communication with the outer world, we
need not wonder that we grope for light, or that we find incoherence
and instability in human systems of ideas. The wonder rather is that we
have done so well, that in the chaos of sensations and passions that
fills the mind, we have found any leisure for self-concentration and
reflection, and have succeeded in gathering even a light harvest of
experience from our distracted labours. Our occasional madness is less
wonderful than our occasional sanity. Relapses into dreams are to be
expected in a being whose brief existence is so like a dream; but who
could have been sure of this sturdy and indomitable perseverance in the
work of reason in spite of all checks and discouragements?

The resources of the mind are not commensurate with its ambition. Of
the five senses, three are of little use in the formation of permanent
notions: a fourth, sight, is indeed vivid and luminous, but furnishes
transcripts of things so highly coloured and deeply modified by the
medium of sense, that a long labour of analysis and correction is
needed before satisfactory conceptions can be extracted from it. For
this labour, however, we are endowed with the requisite instrument.
We have memory and we have certain powers of synthesis, abstraction,
reproduction, invention,--in a word, we have understanding. But this
faculty of understanding has hardly begun its work of deciphering the
hieroglyphics of sense and framing an idea of reality, when it is
crossed by another faculty--the imagination. Perceptions do not remain
in the mind, as would be suggested by the trite simile of the seal
and the wax, passive and changeless, until time wear off their sharp
edges and make them fade. No, perceptions fall into the brain rather
as seeds into a furrowed field or even as sparks into a keg of powder.
Each image breeds a hundred more, sometimes slowly and subterraneously,
sometimes (when a passionate train is started) with a sudden burst of
fancy. The mind, exercised by its own fertility and flooded by its
inner lights, has infinite trouble to keep a true reckoning of its
outward perceptions. It turns from the frigid problems of observation
to its own visions; it forgets to watch the courses of what should be
its "pilot stars." Indeed, were it not for the power of convention in
which, by a sort of mutual cancellation of errors, the more practical
and normal conceptions are enshrined, the imagination would carry men
wholly away,--the best men first and the vulgar after them. Even as it
is, individuals and ages of fervid imagination usually waste themselves
in dreams, and must disappear before the race, saddened and dazed,
perhaps, by the memory of those visions, can return to its plodding

Five senses, then, to gather a small part of the infinite influences
that vibrate in Nature, a moderate power of understanding to interpret
those senses, and an irregular, passionate fancy to overlay that
interpretation--such is the endowment of the human mind. And what is
its ambition? Nothing less than to construct a picture of all reality,
to comprehend its own origin and that of the universe, to discover
the laws of both and prophesy their destiny. Is not the disproportion
enormous? Are not confusions and profound contradictions to be looked
for in an attempt to build so much out of so little?

Yet the metaphysical ambition we speak of cannot be abandoned, because
whatever picture of things we may carry about in our heads we are bound
to regard as a map of reality; although we may mark certain tracts
of it "unexplored country," the very existence of such regions is
vouched for only by our representation, and is necessarily believed
to correspond to our idea. All we can do is, without abandoning
the aspiration to knowledge which is the inalienable birthright of
reason, to control as best we may the formation of our conceptions; to
arrange them according to their derivation and measure them by their
applicability in life, so prudently watching over their growth that we
may be spared the deepest of sorrows--to survive the offspring of our
own thought.

The inadequacy of each of our faculties is what occasions the intrusion
of some other faculty into its field. The defect of sense calls in
imagination, the defect of imagination calls in reasoning, the defect
of reasoning divination. If our senses were clairvoyant and able to
observe all that is going on in the world, if our instincts were
steady, prompting us to adequate reactions upon these observations, the
fancy might remain free. We should not need to call upon it to piece
out the imperfections of sense and reflection, but we should employ it
only in avowed poetry, only in building dream-worlds alongside of the
real, not interfering with the latter or confusing it, but repeating
its pattern with as many variations as the fertility of our minds
could supply. As it is, the imagination is brought into the service
of sense and instinct, and made to do the work of intelligence. This
substitution is the more readily effected, in that imagination and
intelligence do not differ in their origin, but only in their validity.
Understanding is an applicable fiction, a kind of wit with a practical
use. Common sense and science live in a world of expurgated mythology,
such as Plato wished his poets to compose, a world where the objects
are imaginative in their origin and essence, but useful, abstract, and
beneficent in their suggestions. The sphere of common sense and science
is concentric with the sphere of fancy; both move in virtue of the same
imaginative impulses. The eventual distinction between intelligence and
imagination is ideal; it arises when we discriminate various functions
in a life that is dynamically one. Those conceptions which, after
they have spontaneously arisen, prove serviceable in practice, and
capable of verification in sense, we call ideas of the understanding.
The others remain ideas of the imagination. The shortness of life,
the distractions of passion, and the misrepresentation to which all
transmitted knowledge is subject, have made the testing of ideas by
practice extremely slow in the history of mankind. Hence the impurity
of our knowledge, its confusion with fancy, and its painful inadequacy
to interpret the whole world of human interests. These shortcomings are
so many invitations to foreign powers to intervene, so many occasions
for new waves of imagination to sweep away the landmarks of our old
labour, and flood the whole mind with impetuous dreams.

It is accordingly the profounder minds that commonly yield to the
imagination, because it is these minds that are capable of feeling
the greatness of the problems of life and the inadequacy of the
understanding, with its present resources, to solve them. The same
minds are, moreover, often swayed by emotion, by the ever-present
desire to find a noble solution to all questions, perhaps a solution
already hallowed by authority and intertwined inextricably, for those
who have always accepted it, with the sanctions of spiritual life.
Such a coveted conclusion may easily be one which the understanding,
with its basis in sense and its demand for verification, may not be
able to reach. Therefore the impassioned soul must pass beyond the
understanding, or else go unsatisfied; and unless it be as disciplined
as it is impassioned it will not tolerate dissatisfaction. From what
quarter, then, will it draw the wider views, the deeper harmonies,
which it craves? Only from the imagination. There is no other faculty
left to invoke. The imagination, therefore, must furnish to religion
and to metaphysics those large ideas tinctured with passion, those
supersensible forms shrouded in awe, in which alone a mind of great
sweep and vitality can find its congenial objects. Thus the stone
which the builder, understanding, rejected, becomes the chief stone
of the corner; the intuitions which science could not use remain the
inspiration of poetry and religion.

The imagination, when thus employed to anticipate or correct the
conclusions of the understanding, is of course not called imagination
by those, who appeal to it. The religious teachers call it prophecy or
revelation, the philosophers call it a higher reason. But these names
are merely eulogistic synonyms for imagination, implying (what is
perfectly possible) that the imagination has not misled us. They imply
on the contrary that in the given instances the imagination has hit
upon an ultimate truth. A prophet, unless he be the merely mechanical
vehicle of truths he does not understand, cannot be conceived as
anything but a man of imagination, whose visions miraculously mirror
the truth. A metaphysician who transcends the intellect by his reason
can be conceived only as using his imagination to such good purpose
as to divine by it the ideal laws of reality or the ultimate goals of
moral effort. His reason is an imagination that succeeds, an intuition
that guesses the principle of experience. But if this intuition were of
such a nature that experience could verify it, then that higher reason
or imagination would be brought down to the level of the understanding;
for understanding, as we have defined it, is itself a kind of
imagination, an imagination prophetic of experience, a spontaneity of
thought by which the science of perception is turned into the art of
life. The same absence of verification distinguishes revelation from
science; for when the prophecies of faith are verified, the function
of faith is gone. Faith and the higher reason of the metaphysicians
are therefore forms of imagination believed to be avenues to truth,
as dreams or oracles may sometimes be truthful, not because their
necessary correspondence to truth can be demonstrated, for then they
would be portions of science, but because a man dwelling on those
intuitions is conscious of a certain moral transformation, of a certain
warmth and energy of life. This emotion, heightening his ideas and
giving them power over his will, he calls faith or high philosophy, and
under its dominion he is able to face his destiny with enthusiasm, or
at least with composure.

The imagination, even when its premonitions are not wholly justified
by subsequent experience, has thus a noble role to play in the life
of man. Without it his thoughts would be not only far too narrow
to represent, although it were symbolically, the greatness of the
universe, but far too narrow even to render the scope of his own
life and the conditions of his practical welfare. Without poetry and
religion the history of mankind would have been darker than it is. Not
only would emotional life have been poorer, but the public conscience,
the national and family spirit, so useful for moral organization and
discipline, would hardly have become articulate. By what a complex
and uninspired argumentation would the pure moralist have to insist
upon those duties which the imagination enforces so powerfully in
oaths sworn before the gods, in commandments written by the finger of
God upon stone tablets, in visions of hell and heaven, in chivalrous
love and loyalty, and in the sense of family dignity and honour? What
intricate, what unavailing appeals to positive interests would have to
be made before those quick reactions could be secured in large bodies
of people which can be produced by the sight of a flag or the sound
of a name? The imagination is the great unifier of humanity. Men's
perceptions may be various, their powers of understanding very unequal;
but the imagination is, as it were, the self-consciousness of instinct,
the contribution which the inner capacity and demand of the mind makes
to experience. To indulge the imagination is to express the universal
self, the common and contagious element in all individuals, that
rudimentary potency which they all share. To stimulate the imagination
is to produce the deepest, the most pertinacious emotions. To repress
it is to chill the soul, so that even the clearest perception of the
truth remains without the joy and impetuosity of conviction. The
part played by imagination is thus indispensable; but obviously the
necessity and beneficence of this contribution makes the dangers
of it correspondingly great. Wielding a great power, exercising an
omnipresent function, the imagination may abuse a great force. While
its inspirations coincide with what would be the dictates of reason,
were reason audible in the world, all is well, and the progress of man
is accelerated by his visions; but being a principle _a priori_ the
imagination is an irresponsible principle; its rightness is an inward
rightness, and everything in the real world may turn out to be disposed
otherwise than as it would wish. Our imaginative preconceptions
are then obstacles to the perception of fact and of rational duty;
the faith that stimulated our efforts and increased our momentum,
multiplies our wanderings. The too hasty organization of our thoughts
becomes the cause of their more prolonged disorganization, for to the
natural obscurity of things and the difficulty of making them fit
together among themselves, we add the cross lights of our prejudices
and the impossibility of fitting reality into the frame we have made
for it in our ignorance of its constitution and extent. And as we love
our hopes, and detest the experience that seems to contradict them,
we add fanaticism to our confusion. The habits of the imagination, in
conflict with the facts of sense, thus come to cloud science with
passion, with fiction, with sentimental prejudice. Nor is this the
end of our troubles. For Imagination herself suffers violence in this
struggle; she seeks to reduce herself to conformity with existence,
in the hope of vindicating her nominal authority at the price of some
concessions. She begins to feign that she demanded nothing but what
she finds. Thus she loses her honesty and freedom, becomes a flatterer
of things instead of the principle of their ideal correction, and in
the attempt to prove herself prophetic and literally valid (as in a
moment of infatuation she had fancied herself to be) she forfeits that
symbolic truth, that inner propriety, which gave her a moral value.
Thus the false steps of the imagination lead to a contorted science and
to a servile ideal.

These complications not unnaturally inspire discouragement and a sense
of the hopeless relativity of human thought. Indeed, if there be any
special endowment of mind and body called human nature, as there seems
to be, it is obvious that all human experience must be relative to
that. But the truth, the absolute reality, surrounds and precedes
these operations of finite faculty. What value, then, we may say, have
these various ideals or perceptions, or the conflicts between them?
Are not our senses as human, as "subjective" as our wills? Is not the
understanding as visionary as the fancy? Does it not transform the
Unknowable into as remote a symbol as does the vainest dream?

The answer which a rational philosophy would make to these questions
would be a double one. It is true that every idea is equally relative
to human nature and that nothing can be represented in the human mind
except by the operation of human faculties. But it is not true that all
these products of human ideation are of equal value, since they are not
equally conducive to human purposes or satisfactory to human demands.

The impulse that would throw over as equally worthless every product
of human art, because it is not indistinguishable from some alleged
external reality, does not perceive the serious self-contradictions
under which it labours. In the first place the notion of an external
reality is a human notion; our reason makes that hypothesis, and its
verification in our experience is one of the ideals of science, as its
validity is one of the assumptions of daily life. In throwing over all
human ideas, because they are infected with humanity, all human ideas
are being sacrificed to one of them--the idea of an absolute reality.
If this idea, being human, deserved that such sacrifices should be made
for it, have the other notions of the mind no rights? Furthermore, even
if we granted for the sake of argument a reality which our thoughts
were essentially helpless to represent, whence comes the duty of our
thoughts to represent it? Whence comes the value of this unattainable
truth? From an ideal of human reason. We covet truth. So that the
attempt to surrender all human science as relative and all human ideals
as trivial is founded on a blind belief in one human idea and an
absolute surrender to one human passion.

In spite of these contradictions, which only a dispassionate logic
could thoroughly unravel, the enthusiast is apt to rush on. The vision
of absolute truth and absolute reality intoxicates him, and as he
is too subtle a thinker, too inward a man, to accept the content of
his senses or the conventions of his intelligence for unqualified
verities, he fortifies himself against them with the consciousness of
their relativity, and seeks to rise above them in his meditations.
But to rise to what? To some more elaborate idea? To some object,
like a scientific cosmos or a religious creed, put together by longer
and more indirect processes than those of common perception? Surely
not. If I renounce my senses and vulgar intellect because they are
infected with finitude and smell of humanity, how shall I accept
a work of art, a product of reasoning, or an idol made originally
with hands and now encrusted all over, like the statue of Glaucus,
with traditional accretions? Poetry, science, and religion, in their
positive constructions, are more human, more conditioned, than are the
senses and the common understanding themselves. The lover of inviolate
reality must not look to them. If the data of human knowledge must be
rejected as subjective, how much more should we reject the inferences
made from those data by human thought. The way of true wisdom,
therefore, if true wisdom is to deal with the Absolute, can only lie
in abstention: neither the senses nor the common understanding, and
much less the superstructure raised upon these by imagination, logic,
or tradition, must delude us: we must keep our thoughts fixed upon the
inanity of all this in comparison with the unthinkable truth, with the
undivided and unimaginable reality. Everything, says the mystic, is
nothing, in comparison with the One.

This confusion, the logical contradiction of which we have just seen,
may, for lack of a more specific word, be called mysticism. It consists
in the surrender of a category of thought on account of the discovery
of its relativity. If I saw or reasoned or judged by such a category,
I should be seeing, reasoning, or judging in a specific manner, in
a manner conditioned by my finite nature. But the specific and the
finite, I feel, are odious; let me therefore aspire to see, reason and
judge in no specific or finite manner--that is, not to see, reason or
judge at all. So I shall be like the Infinite, nay I shall become one
with the Infinite and (marvellous thought!) one with the One.

The ideal of mysticism is accordingly exactly contrary to the ideal
of reason; instead of perfecting human nature it seeks to abolish it;
instead of building a better world, it would undermine the foundations
even of the world we have built already; instead of developing our mind
to greater scope and precision, it would return to the condition of
protoplasm--to the blessed consciousness of an Unutterable Reality. In
the primary stages, of course, mysticism does not venture to abolish
all our ideas, or to renounce all our categories of thought. Thus many
Christian mystics have still clung, out of respect for authority,
to traditional theology, and many philosophical mystics have made
some room for life and science in the post-scripts which they, like
Parmenides, have appended to the blank monism of their systems. But
such concessions or hesitations are inconsistent with the mystical
spirit which will never be satisfied, if fully developed and fearless,
with anything short of Absolute Nothing.

For the very reason, however, that mysticism is a tendency to
obliterate distinctions, a partial mysticism often serves to bring
out with wonderful intensity those underlying strata of experience
which it has not yet decomposed. The razing of the edifice of reason
may sometimes discover its foundations. Or the disappearance of one
department of activity may throw the mind with greater energy into
another. So Spinoza, who combined mysticism in morals with rationalism
in science, can bring out the unqualified naturalism of his system
with a purity and impressiveness impossible to men who still retain an
ideal world, and seek to direct endeavour as well as to describe it.
Having renounced all ideal categories, Spinoza has only the material
categories left with which to cover the ground. He thus acquires all
the concentrated intensity, all the splendid narrowness, which had
belonged to Lucretius, while his mystical treatment of the spheres
which Lucretius simply ignored, gives him the appearance of a greater
profundity. So an ordinary Christian who is mystical, let us say,
about time and space, may use his transcendentalism in that sphere to
intensify his positivism in theology, and to emphasize his whole-souled
surrender to a devout life.

What is impossible is to be a transcendentalist "all 'round." In that
case there would be nothing left to transcend; the civil war of the
mind would have ended in the extermination of all parties. The art of
mysticism is to be mystical in spots and to aim the heavy guns of your
transcendental philosophy against those realities or those ideas which
you find particularly galling. Planted on your dearest dogma, on your
most precious postulate, you may then transcend everything else to your
heart's content. You may say with an air of enlightened profundity
that nothing is "really" right or wrong, because in Nature all things
are regular and necessary, and God cannot act for purposes as if
his will were not already accomplished; your mysticism in religion
and morals is kept standing, as it were, by the stiff backing which
is furnished by your materialistic cosmology. Or you may say with a
tone of devout rapture that all sights and sounds are direct messages
from Divine Providence to the soul, without any objects "really"
existing in space; your mysticism about the world of perception and
scientific inference is sustained by the naive theological dogmas
which you substitute for the conceptions of common sense. Yet among
these partialities and blind denials a man's positive insight seems to
thrive, and he fortifies and concentrates himself on his chosen ground
by his arbitrary exclusions. The patient art of rationalizing the
various sides of life, the observational as well as the moral, without
confusing them, is an art apparently seldom given to the haste and
pugnacity of philosophers.

Thus mysticism, although a principle of dissolution, carries with it
the safeguard that it can never be consistently applied. We reach it
only in exceptional moments of intuition, from which we descend to our
pots and pans with habits and instincts virtually unimpaired. Life goes
on; virtues and affections endure, none the worse, the mystic feels,
for that slight film of unreality which envelops them in a mind not
unacquainted with ecstasy. And although mysticism, left free to express
itself, can have no other goal than Nirvana, yet moderately indulged
in and duly inhibited by a residuum of conventional sanity, it serves
to give a touch of strangeness and elevation to the character and to
suggest superhuman gifts. It is not, however, in the least superhuman.
It is hardly even abnormal, being only an exaggeration of a rational
interest in the highest abstractions. The divine, the universal, the
absolute, even the One, are legitimate conceptions. They are terms
of human thought having as such a meaning in language and a place
in speculation. Those who live in the mind, whose passions are only
audible in the keen overtones of dialectic, are no doubt exalted and
privileged natures, choosing a better part which should not be taken
from them. So the poet and the mathematician have their spheres of
abstract and delicate labour, in which a liberal legislator would not
disturb them. Trouble only arises when the dialectician represents
his rational dreams as knowledge of existences, and the mystic his
excusable raptures as the only way of life. Poets and mathematicians do
not imagine that their pursuits raise them above human limitations and
are no part of human life, but rather its only goal and justification.
Such a pretension would be regarded as madness in the mathematician
or the poet; and is not the mystic as miserably a man? Is he not
embodying, at his best, the analytic power of a logician, or the
imagination of an enthusiast, and, at his worst, the lowest and most
obscure passions of human nature?

Yes, in spite of himself, the mystic remains human. Nothing is
more normal than abstraction. A contemplative mind drops easily
its practical preoccupations, rises easily into an ideal sympathy
with impersonal things. The wheels of the universe have a wonderful
magnetism for the human will. Our consciousness likes to lose itself
in the music of the spheres, a music that finer ears are sometimes
privileged to catch. The better side of mysticism is an æsthetic
interest in large unities and cosmic laws. The æsthetic attitude is
not the moral, but it is not for that reason illegitimate. It gives us
refreshment and a foretaste of that perfect adaptation of things to
our faculties and of our faculties to things which, could it extend
to every part of experience, would constitute the ideal life. Such
happiness is denied us in the concrete; but a hint and example of it
may be gathered by an abstracted element of our nature as it travels
through an abstracted world. Such an indulgence adds to the value of
reality only such value as it may itself have in momentary experience;
it may have a doubtful moral effect on the happy dreamer himself. But
it serves to keep alive the conviction, which a confused experience
might obscure, that perfection is essentially possible; it reminds
us, like music, that there are worlds far removed from the actual
which are yet living and very near to the heart. Such is the fruit
of abstraction when abstraction bears any fruit. If the imagination
merely alienates us from reality, without giving us either a model for
its correction or a glimpse into its structure, it becomes the refuge
of poetical selfishness. Such selfishness is barren, and the fancy,
feeding only on itself, grows leaner every day. Mysticism is usually an
incurable disease. Facts cannot arouse it, since it never denied them.
Reason cannot convince it, for reason is a human faculty, assuming a
validity which it cannot prove. The only thing that can kill mysticism
is its own uninterrupted progress, by which it gradually devours every
function of the soul and at last, by destroying its own natural basis,
immolates itself to its inexorable ideal.

Need we ask, after all these reflections, where we should look for
that expansion and elevation of the mind which the mystic seeks so
passionately and so unintelligently? We can find that expansion, in
the first place, in the imagination itself. That is the true realm of
man's infinity, where novelty may exist without falsity and perpetual
diversity without contradiction. But such exercise of imagination
leaves the world of knowledge untouched. Is there no escape from the
prison, as the mystic thinks it, of science and history which shall
yet not carry us beyond reality? Is there no truth beyond conventional
truth, no life behind human existence?

Certainly. Behind the discovered there is the discoverable, beyond
the actual, the possible. Science and history are not exhausted. In
their determinate directions they are as infinite as fancy in its
indetermination. The spectacle which science and history now spread
before us is as far beyond the experience of an ephemeral insect as any
Absolute can be beyond our own; yet we have put that spectacle together
out of just such sensations as the insect may have--out of this
sunlight and this buzz and these momentary throbs of existence. The
understanding has indeed supervened, but it has supervened not to deny
the validity of those sensations, but to combine their messages. We may
still continue in the same path, by the indefinite extension of science
over a world of experience and of intelligible truth. Is that prospect
insufficient for our ambition? With a world so full of stuff before
him, I can hardly conceive what morbid instinct can tempt a man to look
elsewhere for wider vistas, unless it be unwillingness to endure the
sadness and the discipline of the truth.

But can our situation be made better by refusing to understand it? If
we renounced mysticism altogether and kept imagination in its place,
should we not live in a clearer and safer world, as well as in a
truer? Nay, are we sure that this gradually unfolding, intelligible,
and real world would not turn out to be more congenial and beautiful
than any wilful fiction, since it would be the product of a universal
human labour and the scene of the accumulated sufferings and triumphs
of mankind? When we compare the temple which we call Nature, built of
sights and sounds by memory and understanding, with all the wonderful
worlds evocable by the magician's wand, may we not prefer the humbler
and more lasting edifice, not only as a dwelling, but even as a house
of prayer? It is not always the loftiest architecture that expresses
the deepest soul; the inmost religion of the Pagan haunted his
hearth as that of the Christian his catacombs or his hermitage. So
philosophy is more spiritual in her humility and abstinence than in
her short-lived audacities, and she would do well to inscribe over her
gates what, in an ancient Spanish church, may be seen written near the
steep entrance to a little subterraneous crypt:--

    "Wouldst thou pass this lowly door?
    Go, and angels greet thee there;
    For by this their sacred stair
    To descend is still to soar.
    Bid a measured silence keep
    What thy thoughts be telling o'er;
    Sink, to rise with wider sweep
    To the heaven of thy rest,
    For he climbs the heavens best
    Who would touch the deepest deep."



We of this generation look back upon a variety of religious conceptions
and forms of worship, and a certain unsatisfied hunger in our own souls
attaches our attention to the spectacle. We observe how literally
fables and mysteries were once accepted which can have for us now only
a thin and symbolical meaning. Judging other minds and other ages
by our own, we are tempted to ask if there ever was any fundamental
difference between religion and poetry. Both seem to consist in what
the imagination adds to science, to history, and to morals. Men looked
attentively on the face of Nature: their close struggle with her
compelled them to do so: but before making statistics of her movements
they made dramatizations of her life. The imagination enveloped the
material world, as yet imperfectly studied, and produced the cosmos of

Thus the religion of the Greeks was, we might say, nothing but poetry:
nothing but what imagination added to the rudiments of science, to
the first impressions of a mind that pored upon natural phenomena and
responded to them with a quick sense of kinship and comprehension.
The religion of the Hebrews might be called poetry with as good
reason. Their "sense for conduct" and their vivid interest in their
national destiny carried them past any prosaic record of events or
cautious theory of moral and social laws. They rose at once into a
bold dramatic conception of their race's covenant with Heaven: just
such a conception as the playwright would seek out in order to portray
with awful acceleration the ways of passion and fate. Finally, we have
apparently a third kind of poetry in what has been the natural religion
of the detached philosophers of all ages. In them the imagination
touches the precepts of morals and the ideals of reason, attributing
to them a larger scope and more perfect fulfilment than experience can
show them to have. Philosophers ever tend to clothe the harmonies of
their personal thought with universal validity and to assign to their
ideals a latent omnipotence and an ultimate victory over the forces of
unreason. This which is obviously a kind of poetry is at the same time
the spontaneous religion of conscience and thought.

Yet religion in all these cases differs from a mere play of the
imagination in one important respect; it reacts directly upon life;
it is a factor in conduct. Our religion is the poetry in which we
believe. Mere poetry is an ineffectual shadow of life; religion is,
if you will, a phantom also, but a phantom guide. While it tends to
its own expansion, like any growth in the imagination, it tends also
to its application in practice. Such an aim is foreign to poetry. The
inspirations of religion demand fidelity and courageous response on
our part. Faith brings us not only peace, not only the contemplation
of ideal harmonies, but labour and the sword. These two tendencies--to
imaginative growth and to practical embodiment--coexist in every
living religion, but they are not always equally conspicuous. In the
formative ages of Christianity, for instance, while its legends were
being gathered and its dogma fixed, the imaginative expansion absorbed
men's interest; later, when the luxuriant branches of the Church began
to shake off their foliage, and there came a time of year

    "When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,"

the energy of religious thought, released from the enlargement of
doctrine, spent itself upon a more rigid and watchful application of
the residuum of faith.

In the Pagan religion the element of applicability might seem at first
sight to be lacking, so that nothing would subsist but a poetic fable.
An unbiassed study of antiquity, however, will soon dispel that idea.
Besides the gods whom we may plausibly regard as impersonations of
natural forces, there existed others; the spirits of ancestors, the
gods of the hearth, and the ideal patrons of war and the arts. Even the
gods of Nature inspired reverence and secured a cultus only as they
influenced the well-being of man. The worship of them had a practical
import. The conception of their nature and presence became a sanction
and an inspiration in the conduct of life. When the figments of the
fancy are wholly divorced from reality they can have no clearness or
consistency; they can have no permanence when they are wholly devoid of
utility. The vividness and persistence of the figures of many of the
gods came from the fact that they were associated with institutions and
practices which controlled the conception of them and kept it young.
The fictions of a poet, whatever his genius, do not produce illusion
because they do not attach themselves to realities in the world of
action. They have character without power and names without local
habitations. The gods in the beginning had both. Their image, their
haunts, the reports of their apparitions and miracles, gave a nucleus
of empirical reality to the accretions of legend. The poet who came
to sing their praise, to enlarge upon their exploits, and to explain
their cultus, gave less to the gods in honour than he received from
them in inspiration. All his invention was guided by the genius of the
deity, as represented by the traditions of his shrine. This poetry,
then, even in its most playful mood, is not mere poetry, but religion.
It is a poetry in which men believe; it is a poetry that beautifies and
justifies to their minds the positive facts of their ancestral worship,
their social unity, and their personal conscience.

These general reflections may help us to approach the hymns of Homer
in a becoming spirit. For in them we find the extreme of fancy, the
approach to a divorce between the imagination and the faith of the
worshipper. Consequently there is danger that we may allow ourselves
to read these lives of the gods as the composition of a profane poet.
If we did so we should fail to understand not only their spirit as
a whole but many of their parts, in which notes are struck now of
devotion and affectionate pride, now of gratitude and entreaty. These
may be addressed, it is true, to a being that has just been described
as guilty of some signal vice or treachery, and the contradiction may
well stagger a Puritan critic. But the lusts of life were once for
all in the blood of the Pagan gods, who were the articulate voices of
Nature and of passion. The half-meant exaggeration of a well-known
trait in the divinity would not render the poets that indulged in it
unwelcome to the god; he could feel the sure faith and affection of
his worshippers even in their good-humoured laughter at his imaginary
plights and naughtiness. The clown was not excluded from these rites.
His wit also counted as a service.

The Homeric Hymns, if we may trust the impression they produce on
a modern, are not hymns and are not Homer's. They are fragments of
narrative in Ionic hexameter recited during the feasts and fairs at
various Greek shrines. They are not melodies to be chanted with a
common voice by the assemblage during a sacrifice; they are tales
delivered by the minstrel to the listening audience of citizens and
strangers. They usually have a local reference. Thus we find under the
title of a hymn to Apollo a song of Delos and one of Delphi. Delos is
a barren rock; its wealth was due to the temple that attracted to the
place pilgrimages and embassies, not without rich offerings, from many
Greek cities. Accordingly we hear how Leto or Latona, when about to
become the mother of Apollo, wandered about the cities and mountains
of Greece and Asia, seeking a birthplace for her son. None would
receive her, but all the islands trembled at the awful honour of such a
nativity, profitable as the honour might eventually prove,--

                        "Until at length
    The lovely goddess came to Delos' side
    And, making question, spake these wingèd words:
    'Delos, were it thy will to be the seat
    Of my young son Apollo, brightest god,
    And build him a rich fane, no other power
    Should ever touch thee or work ill upon thee.
    I tell thee not thou shalt be rich in kine
    Or in fair flocks, much fruit, or myriad flowers;
    But when Apollo of the far-felt dart
    Hath here his shrine, all men will gather here
    Bringing thee hecatombs.... And though thy soil be poor,
    The gods shall make thee strong against thy foes.'"

The spirit of the island is naturally not averse to so favourable a
proposition but, like some too humble maiden wooed by a great prince,
has some misgivings lest this promise of unexpected good fortune should
veil the approach of some worse calamity. "When the god is born into
the light of day," she says, "will he not despise me, seeing how barren
I am, and sink me in the sea

                        "That ever will
    Oppress my heart with many a watery hill?
    And therefore let him choose some other land,
    Where he shall please, to build at his command
    Temple and grove set thick with many a tree.
    For wretched polypuses breed in me,
    Retiring chambers, and black sea-calves den
    In my poor soil, for penury of men."[1]

Leto reassures the island, however, and swears to build a great
temple there which her son will haunt perpetually, preferring it to
all his other shrines. Delos consents, and Apollo is born amid the
ministrations of all the goddesses except Hera, who sits indignant
and revengeful in the solitudes of Olympus. The child is bathed in
the stream and delicately swaddled; but after tasting the nectar and
ambrosia which one of the nymphs is quick to offer him, he bursts his
bands, calls for his bow and his lyre, and flies upward into the sky
announcing that he will henceforth declare the will of Zeus to mortals.

    "All the immortals stood
    In deep amaze....
    All Delos, looking on him, all with gold
    Was loaded straight, and joy'd to be extoll'd.
    For so she flourished, as a hill that stood
    Crown'd with the flower of an abundant wood."[2]

This legend, with all that accompanies it concerning the glories of
Delos and its gods, and the pilgrimages and games that enlivened the
island, was well-conceived to give form and justification to the
cultus of the temple, and to delight the votaries whom custom or vague
instincts of piety had gathered there. The sacred poet, in another part
of this hymn, does the same service to the even greater sanctuary of
Delphi. He tells us how Apollo wandered over many lands and waters,
and he stops lovingly to recall the names of the various spots that
claimed the honour of having at some time been visited by the god.
The minstrels, wanderers themselves, loved to celebrate in this way
the shores they had seen or heard of, and to fill at the same time
their listener's minds with the spell of sonorous names, the sense of
space and the thrill of mystery. In his journeys Apollo, the hymn tells
us, finally came to the dell and fountain of Delphusa on the skirts
of Parnassus. The nymph of the spot, fearing the encroachments of so
much more powerful a deity, deceived him and persuaded him to plant
his temple on another site, where Parnassus fronts the west, and the
overhanging rocks form a cavern. There Apollo established his temple
for the succour and enlightenment of mankind, while Trophonius and
Agamedes, sons of Erginus, men dear to the immortal gods, built the
approaches of stone.

Thus the divine origin of the temple is vindicated, the structure
described, and the human architects honoured, whose descendants,
very likely, were present to hear their ancestors' praise. But here
a puzzling fact challenges the attention and stimulates the fancy of
the poet: Apollo was a Dorian deity, yet his chief shrine was here
upon Phocian ground. Perhaps some traditions remained to suggest an
explanation of the anomaly; at any rate the poet is not at a loss
for an account of the matter. The temple being established, Apollo
bethought himself what race of priests he should make its ministers:
at least, such is the naïve account in the poem, which expects us
to forget that temples do not arise in the absence of predetermined
servants and worshippers. While pondering this question, however,
Apollo cast his eyes on the sea where it chanced that a swift ship,
manned by many and excellent Cretans, was merrily sailing: whereupon
the god, taking the form of a huge dolphin, leapt into the ship, to the
infinite surprise and bewilderment of those worthy merchants, who, as
innocent as the fishers of the Galilæan Lake of the religious destiny
that awaited them, were thinking only of the pecuniary profits of their
voyage. The presence of the god benumbed their movements, and they
stood silent while the ship sailed before the wind. And the blast,
veering at this place with the changed configuration of the coast, blew
them irresistibly to the very foot of Parnassus, to the little haven of
Crissa. There Apollo appeared to them once more, this time running down
to the beach to meet them in the form of

                    "A stout and lusty fellow,
    His mighty shoulders covered with his mane;
    Who sped these words upon the wings of sound:
    'Strangers, who are ye? and whence sail ye hither
    The watery ways? Come ye to traffic justly
    Or recklessly like pirates of the deep
    Rove ye, adventuring your souls, to bring
    Evil on strangers? Why thus sit ye grieving,
    Nor leap on land, nor strike the mast and lay it
    In your black ship? For so should traders do
    When, sated with the labour of the sea,
    They quit their painted galley for the shore,
    And presently the thought of needful food
    Comes gladsomely upon them.' So he spake,
    Putting new courage in their breasts. To whom
    The Cretan captain in his turn replied:
    'Since thou art nothing like to things of earth
    In form or stature, but most like the gods
    That ever live, Hail, and thrice hail, O Stranger,
    And may the gods pour blessings on thy head.
    Now tell me truly, for I need to know,
    What land is this, what people, from what race
    Descended? As for us, over the deep
    Broad sea, we sought another haven, Pylos,
    Sailing from Crete, for thence we boast to spring;
    But now our ship is cast upon this shore,
    For some god steered our course against our will.'
    Then the far-darter spoke and answered them.
    'Friends, in well-wooded Cnossus hitherto
    Ye have had homes, but ye shall not again
    Return to your good native town, to find
    Each his fair house and well-belovèd wife,
    But here shall ye possess my temple, rich
    And greatly honoured by the tribes of men.
    For I am son to Zeus. Apollo is
    My sacred name. 'Twas I that led you hither
    Over the mighty bosom of the deep,
    Intending you no ill; for ye shall here
    Possess a temple sacred to me, rich,
    And greatly honoured of all mortal men.
    The counsels of the deathless gods shall be
    Revealed to you, and by their will your days
    Shall pass in honour and in peace for ever.
    Come then and, as I bid, make haste to do.
    ... Build by the sea an altar; kindle flame;
    Sprinkle white barley grains thereon, and pray,
    Standing about the altar. And as first
    Ye saw me leap into your swift black bark
    In likeness of a dolphin, so henceforth
    Worship me by the name Delphinius,
    And Delphian ever be my far-seen shrine.'"

Thus the establishment of the Dorian god in Phocis is explained, and
the wealth and dignity of his temple are justified by prophecy and
by divine intention. For Apollo is not satisfied with repeatedly
describing the future temple, by an incidental epithet, as opulent;
that hint would not have been enough for the simplicity of those
merchant sailors, new as they were to the mysteries of priestcraft.
It was necessary for Apollo to allay their fears of poverty by a more
explicit assurance that it will be easy for them to live by the altar.
And what is more, Hermes and all the thieves he inspires will respect
the shrine; its treasures, although unprotected by walls, shall be safe

These were truly, as we see, the hymns of a levitical patriotism. With
Homeric breadth and candour they dilated on the miracles, privileges,
and immunities of the sacred places and their servitors, and they thus
kept alive in successive generations an awe mingled with familiar
interest toward divine persons and things which is characteristic of
that more primitive age. Gods and men were then nearer together, and
both yielded more frankly to the tendency, inherent in their nature, to
resemble one another.

The same quality is found in another fragment, the most beautiful and
the most familiar of all. This is the hymn to Demeter in which two
stories are woven together, one telling of the rape of Persephone, and
the other of the reception of Demeter, disguised in her sorrow, into
the household of Celeus, where she becomes the nurse of his infant son
Demophoon. Both stories belong to the religion of Eleusis, where this
version of them seems intended to be sung. The place was sacred to
Demeter and Persephone and its mysteries dealt particularly with the
passage of souls to the nether world and with their habitation there.
The pathetic beauty of the first fable--in which we can hardly abstain
from seeing some symbolical meaning--expresses for us something of the
mystic exaltation of the local rites; while the other tale of Celeus,
his wife, his daughters, and his son, whom his nurse, the disguised
goddess, almost succeeds in endowing with immortality, celebrates the
ancient divine affinities of the chiefs of the Eleusinian state.

The first story is too familiar to need recounting; who has not heard
of the gentle Persephone gathering flowers in the meadow and suddenly
swallowed by the yawning earth and carried away to Hades, the god of
the nether world, to share his sombre but sublime dominion over the
shades?--a dignity of which she is not insensible, much as she grieves
at the separation from her beloved mother; and how Demeter in turn
is disconsolate and (in her wrath and despair at the indifference of
the gods) conceals her divinity, refuses the fruits of the earth, and
wanders about in the guise of an old woman, nursing her grief, until
at last Zeus sends his messenger to Hades to effect a compromise; and
Persephone, after eating the grain of pomegranate that obliges her to
return yearly to her husband, is allowed to come back to the upper
world to dwell for two-thirds of the year in her mother's company.

The underlying allegory is here very interesting. We observe how the
genius of the Greek religion, while too anthropomorphic to retain any
clear consciousness of the cosmic processes that were symbolized by its
deities and their adventures, was anthropomorphic also in a moral way,
and tended to turn the personages which it ceased to regard as symbols
of natural forces into types of human experience. So the parable of
the seed that must die if it is to rise again and live an immortal, if
interrupted, life in successive generations, gives way in the tale of
Demeter and Persephone, to a prototype of human affection. The devotee,
no longer reminded by his religion of any cosmic laws, was not reduced
to a mere superstition,--to a fable and a belief in the efficacy of
external rites,--he was encouraged to regard the mystery as the
divine counterpart of his own experience. His religion in forgetting
to be natural had succeeded in becoming moral; the gods were now
models of human endurance and success; their histories offered sublime
consolations to mortal destiny. Fancy had turned the aspects of Nature
into persons; but devotion, directed upon these imaginary persons,
turned them into human ideals and into patron saints, thereby relating
them again to life and saving them from insignificance.

A further illustration of the latter transformation may be found in the
second story contained in our hymn. Demeter, weary of her wanderings
and sick at heart, has come to sit down beside a well, near the house
of Celeus. His four young daughters, dancing and laughing, come to
fetch water in their golden jars,--

    "As hinds or heifers gambol in the fields
    When Spring is young."

They speak kindly to the goddess, who asks them for employment. "And
for me," she says,--

    "And for me, damsels, harbour pitiful
    And favouring thoughts, dear children, that I come
    To some good man's or woman's house, to ply
    My task in willing service of such sort
    As agèd women use. A tender child
    I could nurse well and safely in my arms,
    And tend the house, and spread the master's couch
    Recessed in the fair chamber, or could teach
    The maids their handicraft."

The offer is gladly accepted, for Celeus himself has an infant son,
Demophoon, the hope of his race: The aged woman enters the dwelling,
making in her long-robed grief a wonderful contrast to the four
sportive girls:--

    "Who lifting up their ample kirtle-folds
    Sped down the waggon-furrowed way, and shook
    Their curls about their shoulders--yellow gold
    Like crocuses in bloom."

Once within the house, which she awes with her uncomprehended presence,
the goddess sits absorbed in grief, until she is compelled to smile
for a moment at the jests of the quick-witted maid Iambe, and consents
to take in lieu of the wine that is offered her, a beverage of beaten
barley, water, and herbs. These details are of course introduced to
justify the ritual of Eleusis, in which the clown and the barley-water
played a traditional part.

Thus Demeter becomes nurse to Demophoon, but she has ideas of
her duties differing from the common, and worthy of her unusual
qualifications. She neither suckles nor feeds the infant but anoints
him with ambrosia and lays him at night to sleep on the embers of the
hearth. This his watchful mother discovers with not unnatural alarm;
when the goddess reveals herself and departs, foiled in her desire to
make her nursling immortal.

The spirit that animates this fable is not that poetic frivolity which
we are accustomed to associate with Paganism. Here we find an immortal
in profoundest grief and mortals entertaining an angel unawares; we are
told of supernatural food, and of a burning fire that might make this
mortal put on immortality did not the generous but ignorant impulses of
the natural man break in upon that providential purpose and prevent its
consummation. Eleusis was the natural home for such a myth, and we may
well believe that those initiated into the mysteries there were taught
to dwell on its higher interpretation.

But there are other hymns in a lighter vein in which the play of
fancy is not guided by any moral intuition. The hymn to Hermes is one
perpetual ebullition of irresponsible humour.

Hermes is the child of Maia, a nymph of Cyllene whose cave Zeus has
surreptitiously visited while the white-armed Juno--for, unsympathetic
prude as this goddess may be, she must still be beautiful--slept
soundly in Olympus. The child is hardly born when he catches a
tortoise, kills it, scoops out the shell, and makes a lute of it, upon
which he begins to play delicious music. Not satisfied with that feat,
however, he escapes from his cradle, and drives from their pasture
the kine that Apollo has left feeding there. Accused afterward of this
mischief, he defends himself after the following fashion, while he lies
in his crib, holding his new-made lyre lightly in his hand under the
bedclothes. I quote Shelley's version:--

    "'An ox-stealer should be both tall and strong
        And I am but a little new-born thing
      Who yet, at least, can think of nothing wrong.
        My business is to suck, and sleep, and fling
      The cradle-clothes about me all day long,
        Or, half-asleep, hear my sweet mother sing
      And to be washed in water clean and warm
        And hushed and kissed and kept secure from harm.'"
      *       *       *       *       *       *
    "Sudden he changed his plan, and with strange skill
       Subdued the strong Latonian, by the might
     Of winning music, to his mightier will.
       His left hand held the lyre, and in his right
     The plectrum struck the chords: unconquerable
       Up from beneath his hand in circling flight
     The gathering music rose--and sweet as Love
     The penetrating notes did live and move

    "Within the heart of great Apollo. He
       Listened with all his soul, and laughed for pleasure.
     Close to his side stood harping fearlessly
       The unabashèd boy, and to the measure
     Of the sweet lyre there followed loud and free
       His joyous voice: for he unlocked the treasure
     Of his deep song, illustrating the birth
     Of the bright Gods, and the dark desert Earth;

    "And how to the Immortals every one
       A portion was assigned of all that is.
     But chief Mnemosyne did Maia's son
       Clothe in the light of his loud melodies.
     And, as each god was born or had begun,
       He in their order due and fit degrees
     Sung of his birth and being--and did move
     Apollo to unutterable love."

In fact, after the most enthusiastic encomiums on the young god's art,
and on the power of music in general, Apollo offers the child his
protection and friendship:--

    "Now, since thou hast, although so very small,
       Science of arts so glorious, thus I swear,--
     And let this cornel javelin, keen and tall,
       Witness between us what I promise here,--
     That I will lead thee to the Olympian hall,
       Honoured and mighty, with thy mother dear,
     And many glorious gifts in joy will give thee
     And even at the end will ne'er deceive thee."

Hermes is not insensible to this offer and its advantages; he accepts
it with good grace and many compliments, nor does he wish to remain
behind in the exchange of courtesies and benefits: he addresses Apollo

    "Thou canst seek out and compass all that wit
       Can find or teach. Yet, since thou wilt, come, take
     The lyre--be mine the glory giving it--
       Strike the sweet chords, and sing aloud, and wake
     The joyous pleasure out of many a fit
       Of tranced sound--and with fleet fingers make?
     Thy liquid-voiced comrade speak with thee,--
     It can talk measured music eloquently.

    "Then bear it boldly to the revel loud,
       Love-wakening dance, or feast of solemn state,
     A joy by night or day: for those endowed
       With art and wisdom who interrogate
     It teaches, babbling in delightful mood
       All things which make the spirit most elate.
     Soothing the mind with sweet familiar play,
     Chasing the heavy shadows of dismay.

    "To those that are unskilled in its sweet tongue,
       Though they should question most impetuously
     Its hidden soul, it gossips something wrong--
       Some senseless and impertinent reply.
     But thou, who art as wise as thou art strong,
       Canst compass all that thou desirest. I
     Present thee with this music-flowing shell,
     Knowing thou canst interrogate it well...."

Apollo is not slow to learn the new art with which he is ever after
to delight both gods and men; but he is not at first quite at ease in
his mind, fearing that Hermes will not only recapture the lyre but
steal his friend's bow and arrows into the bargain. Hermes, however,
swears by all that is holy never to do so, and the friendship of the
two artful gods is sealed for ever. The minstrel does not forget, at
this point, to remind his hearers, among whom we may imagine not a few
professional followers of Hermes to have been mixed, that the robber's
honour is pledged by his divine patron to respect the treasures of
Apollo's shrines. Let not the votary think, he adds, that Apollo's
oracles are equally useful to good and to bad men: these mysteries
are truly efficacious only for the pious and orthodox who follow the
established traditions of the temple and honour its servants. Apollo

                                 "He who comes consigned
     By voice and wings of perfect augury
     To my great shrine shall find avail in me:

    "Him I will not deceive, but will assist.
       But he who comes relying on such birds
     As chatter vainly, who would strain and twist
       The purpose of the gods with idle words,
     And deems their knowledge light, he shall have missed
       His road--whilst I among my other hoards
     His gifts deposit...."

The wildest fairy-story thus leads easily to a little drama not
without its human charm and moral inspiration; while the legend is
attached to the cultus, and the cultus is intertwined with the practice
and sanctions of daily life. Even here, in its most playful mood,
therefore, this mythological poetry retains the spirit and function
of religion. Even here sacerdotal interests are not forgotten. Delphi
shall be safe; the lyre is Apollo's by right although it be Hermes' by
invention. A certain amiable harmony is after all drawn from the riot
of foolishness. All is sweet and unmalicious and lovable enough, and
the patronage of both the friendly gods, the enthusiast and the wag,
may be invoked with confidence and benefit.

Not less remarkable, although for other reasons, is the hymn to
Aphrodite. Here we find a more human fable and a more serious tone:
while the poem, if we choose to consider it in its allegorical meaning,
touches one of the deepest convictions of the Greek conscience. All the
gods save three--Athena, Artemis, and Hestia,--are subject to the power
of Aphrodite, Zeus at least as much as the rest. In revenge for this
subjection, Zeus determines to make Aphrodite feel the passion which
she boasts to be able to inspire in others.

The fair shepherd Anchises feeds his flocks upon Mount Ida, and with
him Aphrodite is made to fall in love. She presents herself to him in a
human disguise, and meets his advances with a long account of her birth
and parentage, and begs him to take her back to her parents, and having
asked for her hand and fulfilled all customary formalities, to lead her
away as his lawful wife. The passion which at the same time, however,
she is careful to breathe into him cannot brook so long a delay: and
she yields to his impatience. When about to leave him she awakes him
from his sleep, turns upon him the full glance of her divinity, and
reveals her name and his destiny. She will bear him a son, Æneas, who
will be one of the greatest princes and heroes of Troy; but he himself
will be stricken with feebleness and a premature old age, in punishment
for the involuntary sacrilege which he has committed.

The description of the disguised goddess, with its Homeric pomp and
elaborate propriety, is a noble and masterly one, underlined, as
it were, with a certain satirical or dramatic intention; we have
the directness of a Nausicaa, with a more luxurious and passionate
beauty. The revelation of the goddess is wonderfully made, with that
parallel movement of natural causes and divine workings which is so
often to be admired in Homer. The divinity of the visitant appears
only at the moment of her flight, when she becomes a consecration and
an unattainable memory. The sight of deity leaves the eyes dull, like
those of the Platonic prisoners returning from the sunlight of truth
into the den of appearance. Nay more, a communion with the divinity,
closer than is consonant with human frailty, leaves the seer impotent
and a burden upon the world; but this personal tragedy is not without
its noble fruits to posterity. Anchises suffers, but his son Æneas, the
issue of that divine though punishable union, lives to bear, not only
the aged Anchises himself, but the gods of Ilium, out of the ruins of

Such analogies carry us, no doubt, far beyond the intention of the hymn
or of the exoteric religion to which it ministers. The story-teller's
delight in his story is the obvious motive of such compositions, even
when they reflect indirectly the awe in which the divine impersonations
of natural forces were held by the popular religion. All that we may
fairly imagine to have been in the mind of the pious singer is the
sense that something divine comes down among us in the crises of our
existence, and that this visitation is fraught with immense although
vague possibilities of both good and evil. The gods sometimes appear,
and when they do they bring us a foretaste of that sublime victory of
mind over matter which we may never gain in experience but which may
constantly be gained in thought. When natural phenomena are conceived
as the manifestation of divine life, human life itself, by sympathy
with that ideal projection of itself, enlarges its customary bounds,
until it seems capable of becoming the life of the universe. A god
is a conceived victory of mind over Nature. A visible god is the
consciousness of such a victory momentarily attained. The vision soon
vanishes, the sense of omnipotence is soon dispelled by recurring
conflicts with hostile forces; but the momentary illusion of that
realized good has left us with the perennial knowledge of good as an
ideal. Therein lies the essence and the function of religion.

That such a function was fulfilled by this Homeric legend, with all its
love of myth and lust of visible beauty, is witnessed by another short
hymn, which we may quote almost entire by way of conclusion. It is
addressed to Castor and Polydeuces, patrons of sailors no less than of
horsemen and boxers. It is impossible to read it without feeling that
the poet, however entangled he may have been in superstition and fable,
grasped that high essence of religion which makes religion rational. He
felt the power of contemplation to master the contradictions of life
and to overspread experience, sublime but impalpable, like a rainbow
over retreating storms:--

    "Ye wild-eyed Muses, sing the Twins of Jove
    ... Mild Pollux, void of blame,
    And steed-subduing Castor, heirs of fame.
    These are the powers who earth-born mortals save
    And ships, whose flight is swift along the wave.
    When wintry tempests o'er the savage sea
    Are raging, and the sailors tremblingly
    Call on the Twins of Jove with prayer and vow,
    Gathered in fear upon the lofty prow,
    And sacrifice with snow-white lambs--the wind
    And the huge billow bursting close behind
    Even then beneath the weltering waters bear
    The staggering ship,--they suddenly appear,
    On yellow wings rushing athwart the sky,
    And lull the blasts in mute tranquillity
    And strew the waves on the white ocean's bed,
    Fair omen of the voyage; from toil and dread
    The sailors rest, rejoicing in the sight,
    And plough the quiet sea in safe delight."[3]

[1] Chapman's version.

[2] Chapman's version.

[3] Shelley's translation.



Greek religion seems to have contained three factors of unequal
prominence, but ultimately of about equal importance and longevity.
Most obvious, especially if we begin our study with Homer, is the
mythology which presents us with a multitude of gods, male and female,
often related by blood, and having social and even hostile relations
with one another. If we examine their characters, attributes, and
fables, we readily perceive that most of them are impersonations of
natural forces. Some, however, figure prominently as patrons of special
arts or special places, as Apollo of prophecy and music, of Delos and
Delphi; and yet others seem to be wholly personifications of human
powers, as Athena of prudence and of martial and industrial arts.

Underlying this mythology is another element, probably more ancient,
the worship of ancestors, local divinities, and domestic gods. With
these were naturally connected various ritual observances, and
especially the noblest and most important of rites, the sacrifice.
Such practices may be supposed to have belonged originally to the
tribal religion, and to have passed by analogy to the great natural
gods, when these had been once created by the poet and perhaps
identified with the older genius of that spot where their efficacy was
first signally manifested.

Finally, as a third element, we find the religion of the priests,
soothsayers, and magicians, as well as the rites of Orpheus, Bacchus,
and the Great Goddesses at Eleusis. These forms of worship showed
Oriental affinities and partook of a kind of nocturnal horror and
mystical enthusiasm. They were the Greek representatives of the
religion of revelation and of sacraments, and bore much the same
relation to the supernaturalistic elements in Christianity as does
the idea of a shade in Hades to the idea of a soul in heaven. The
fundamental intuitions were the same, but in Pagan times they remained
vague, doubtful, and incoherent.

These three forms of religion lay together in men's minds and habits
throughout the formative period of Greek literature. There was an
occasional rivalry among them, but the tolerance characteristic
of Paganism could reconcile their claims without much difficulty,
and admit them all to a share of honour. The history of the three
elements, however, differs essentially, as might be expected after a
consideration of their respective natures. The antique family religion
lived by inertia; it was obeyed without being justified theoretically,
and remained strong by its very obscurity. Many customs which a man
may have occasion to conform to only once or twice in his life endure
for ages and survive the ebb and flow of intellectual and political
systems. Nursery tales, trivial superstitions, customs connected
with weddings or funerals, or with certain days of the year, have a
strange and irrational persistence; they surprise us by emerging into
prominence after centuries of a sort of subterraneous existence. Thus
the deification of Roman emperors was not the sacrilegious innovation
which it might appear to be, but on the contrary a restoration of the
spirit of the most ancient faith, a revival called to the aid of a new
polity by the mingled statecraft and superstition of the times. Thus,
too, the Christian care in the burial of the dead (contrary as it is to
the theoretical spiritualism of Christianity), the feast of All Souls,
and the prayers for the departed are evidences of the same latent human
religion underlying the cosmic flights and public controversies of

The mysteries, on the other hand, had essentially a spirit of
self-consciousness and propaganda. They came as revelations or as
reforms; they pretended to disclose secrets handed down from remote
antiquity, from the primeval revelation of God to man, or truths
recovered by the inspiration of later prophets supernaturally
illumined. The history of these movements is, accordingly, the
history-of sects. They never constituted the normal and common religion
of the people, and never impressed their spirit on the national
literature. Æschylus or Plato may have borrowed something from them;
but they did so most when they assumed an attitude of open opposition
to the exoteric religion of their country. Thus when Plato makes his
Socrates propound a Pythagorean or Orphic doctrine of transmigration,
he represents the very members of the Socratic circle as surprised,
or as incredulous: and when they are finally silenced by the proofs
advanced, it is only because they are overawed by the dogmatic unction
of a dying sage, who stimulates their imagination with poetic myths,
and confuses their intellect with verbal equivocations. When the mist
of the argument has cleared away, like incense after the sacrifice,
there remains indeed a profound emotion, a catharsis produced by the
sublimity and pathos, so artfully mingled, of both scene and argument;
but the bare doctrine enunciated, true and profound as it is in its
deeper meaning, is quite incapable of appealing to an undisciplined
mind, and could not pass for a religious dogma except for the priestly
robes in which it is dressed. Thus the function of the mysteries
of which Plato's Phædo may be regarded as a philosophic echo, was
to be the vehicle of revolutionary tendencies, tendencies which a
philosopher might privately shape in one way and a superstitious man in
another. Both could find in the spell of an occult ceremonial and in
the prophecies of an oracular creed an escape from the limitations of
the official religion. Mysticism and the claim to illumination found
in these mysteries their natural expression. The many fundamental
questions left unanswered and unasked by Paganism, the many
potentialities of religious emotion left unexercised by it, were thus
allowed to appear.

Independently of these two comparatively silent streams of religious
life, we may trace the current of polytheistic theology,--a current
which naturally left a plainer trace in literature, since it contained
all there might be in Greece of speculation and controversy in
religious matters. The moral sanctions of religion were embodied in the
domestic and civic worship; the pious imagination remained thereby all
the freer to follow the analogies of physical objects in its mythology.
Apollo was the father of Asclepius and the leader of the Muses; his
ideal dignity and beneficence were vouched for by those attributes.
He could well afford, therefore, as the Sun-god, to decimate the
Greek army with the same fatal shafts with which he slew the Python.
The moral function of the god was certain on other grounds, being
enshrined in the local religions of the people. The poet might follow
without scruple the suggestions of experience; he might attribute to
the god the various activities, beneficent and maleficent, observable
in the element over which he presided. This is a liberty taken even
in the most moralistic religions. In the Gospels, for instance, we
sometimes find the kingdom of heaven illustrated by principles drawn
from observation of this world rather than from an ideal conception of
justice; as when we hear that to him that hath shall be given and from
him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Such
characterizations appeal to our sense of fact. They remind us that the
God we are seeking is present and active, that he is the living God;
they are doubtless necessary if we are to keep religion from passing
into a mere idealism and God into the vanishing point of our thought
and endeavour. For we naturally seek to express his awful actuality,
his unchallengeable power, no less than his holiness and beauty. This
sense of the real existence of religious objects can only be maintained
by identifying them with objects of actual experience, with the forces
of Nature, or the passions or conscience of man, or (if it must come to
that) with written laws or visible images.

An instinctive recognition of this necessity kept Greek mythology
ever ready to return to Nature to gather its materials afresh from a
docile, if poetical, observation of reality. The character of the god
must be studied in the manifestations of his chosen element; otherwise
men might forget that, although the form of the god was poetical, his
essence was a positive reality of the most practical kind. Zeus must
still toss his ambrosial locks with a certain irritation, in order
that we may recognize him in the rumblings of the sky; he must still
be capable of wrath and deliberate malice, that his awful hand may be
thought to have hurled the thunderbolt. Cronos must not be forbidden
to devour his children, else we should no longer reverence in him the
inexorable might of time. Mythology was quite right in not shrinking
from such poetic audacities. They were its chief title to legitimacy,
the proof, amid the embroideries of fancy which over-lay the divine
idea, that the god was not an invention, but a fact. He had been found,
he was known. His character, like all character, was merely a principle
which reflection discovered in his observed conduct. The reality, then,
of the mythological gods was initially unquestionable; and the more
faithful the study of Nature by which the poet was inspired, the more
authority did his prophetic vision retain.

But the intense imaginative vitality that must have preceded Homer and
Hesiod, the prodigious gift of sympathetic observation to which we owe
Zeus and Pan and all their endless retinue, was too glorious to last.
No later interpreter could find so much meaning in his text. Mythology
was accordingly placed in a sad dilemma, with either horn fatal to
its life; it must either be impoverished to remain sincere, or become
artificial to remain adequate. The history of Greek religion, on its
speculative side, is nothing but the story of this double decadence.
Reflection upon the process of Nature and desire for philosophic truth
led inevitably to a blank pantheism and to the reduction of positive
traditions to moral allegories. This was the direction taken by the
Stoic theology. On the other hand, adherence to the traditional gods,
with no further vivifying reference to their natural functions in
the world, could lead only to arbitrary fictions, which, having no
foothold or justification in reality, were incapable of withstanding
the first sceptical attack. What an age of imagination had intuited as
truth, an age of reflection could preserve only as fable; and as fable,
accordingly, the religion of the ancients survived throughout the
Christian ages. It remains still the mother-tongue of the imagination
and, in spite of all revolutions and admixtures, is the classic
language of art and poetry, which no other means of expression has

Beginning, however, with that zealous Protestant, the old Xenophanes,
the austerer minds, moralists, naturalists, and wits, united in
decrying the fanciful polytheism of the poets. This criticism was
in one sense unjust; it did not consider the original justification
of mythology in human nature and in the external facts. It was,
like all heresy or partial scepticism, in a sense superficial and
unphilosophical. It was far from conceiving that its own tenets and
assumptions were as groundless, without being as natural or adequate,
as the system it attacked. To a person sufficiently removed by time or
by philosophy from the controversies of sects, orthodoxy must always
appear right and heresy wrong; for he sees in orthodoxy the product of
the creative mind, of faith and constructive logic, but in heresy only
the rebellion of some partial interest or partial insight against the
corollaries of a formative principle imperfectly grasped and obeyed
with hesitation. At a distance, the criticism that disintegrates any
great product of art or mind must always appear short-sighted and
unamiable. Socrates, invoking; the local deities of brooks and meadows,
or paying the debt of a cock to Asclepius (in thanksgiving, it is said,
for a happy death), is more reasonable and noble to our mind than are
the hard denials of Xenophanes or Theodoras. But in their day the
revolt of the sceptics had its relative justification. The imagination
had dried up, and what had once been a natural interpretation of
facts now seemed an artificial addition to them. An elaborate and
irrelevant world of fiction seemed to have been imposed on human
credulity. Mythology was, in fact, already largely irrelevant; the
experience poetized by it had been forgotten and the symbol, in its
insignificance, could not be honestly or usefully retained.

The Greek philosophers, as a rule, proceeded cautiously in these
matters. They passed mythology by with a conventional reverence and
looked elsewhere for the true object of their personal religion. But
the old mythological impulse was not yet spent; it showed itself
still active in all the early philosophers who gave the godhead new
incarnations congruous with the character of their respective physical
systems. To the Socratic School the natural world was no longer the
sphere in which divinity was to be found. They looked for the divine
rather in moral and intelligible ideas. But not only did they carry the
mythological instinct with them into that new field, they also retained
it in the field of Nature, whenever they still regarded Nature as real.
Thus Aristotle, while he rejected the anthropomorphism of the popular
faith, attributing it to political exigencies, turned the forty-nine
spheres, of which he conjectured that the heaven might be composed,
into a pantheon of forty-nine divinities. Every primary movement,
he argued, must be the expression of an eternal essence by which
the movement is justified, as the movement of the mind in thinking
or loving is justified by the truth or excellence of the object of
thought or of love. Without such a worthy object, these spiritual
activities would be irrational; and no less irrational would be the
motion of the spheres, were each not obedient to the influence of some
sacred and immutable principle. Forty-nine gods accordingly exist;
but no more. For, since the essence of each is to be the governing
ideal of a motion, the number of motions in the sky determines the
number of divine first principles. The gods, we see, are still the
souls of Nature; a soul without a body would be a principle without an
application; there can be no gods, then, without a phenomenal function,
no gods that do not appear in the operations of Nature. This astronomic
mythology was surely not less poetical than that of Homer, even if, by
virtue of a certain cold and abstract purity, not unworthy of the stars
of which it spoke, it was more difficult and sublime. We may observe in
it a last application of the ancient mythological method by which the
phenomena of Nature became evidence of the existence and character of
the gods.

But the celestial deities of Aristotle, and the minor creative gods of
Plato that correspond to them, retained too much poetic individuality
for the still poorer imagination of later times. The most religious
of sects during the classical decadence was that of the Stoics; in
them the spirit of conformity, which is a chief part even of the
religions of hope, constituted by its exclusive cultivation a religion
of despair. The name of Zeus, and an equally equivocal use of the word
"reason" to designate the regularity of Nature, served to disguise the
alien brutality of the power or law to which all the gods had been
reduced. Against the background of a materialistic pantheism, in which
Stoic speculation culminated, two positive interests stood out: one,
the resolute and truly human courage with which the Stoic faced the
reality as he conceived it, and kept his dignity and his conscience
pure although heaven might fall; the other, the efforts he made, in his
need for religion, to rejuvenate and reinterpret the pagan forms. The
fables he turned into ethical allegories, the oracles, auspices, and
other superstitious rites, he transformed into quasi-scientific ways of
reading the book of Nature and forecasting events.

This possibility of prophecy constituted the Stoic "providence" which
the sentimentality of modern apologists has been glad to confuse
with the _benevolent_ Providence of Christian dogma, a Providence
making for the salvation of men. The Stoic providence excluded that
essential element of benevolence; it was merely the fact that Nature
was prophetic of her own future, that her parts, both in space and in
time, were magically composed into one living system. Mythology thus
ended with the conception of a single god whose body was the whole
physical universe, whose fable was all history, and whose character
was the principle of the universal natural order. No attempt was made
by the ancient Stoics to make this divinity better or more amiable
than the evidence of experience showed it to be; the self-centred,
self-sufficient Stoic morality, the recourse to suicide, and the
equality in happiness and dignity between the wise man and Zeus, all
prove quite conclusively that nothing more was asked or expected of
Nature than what she chose to give; to be virtuous was in man's power,
and nothing else was a good to man. The universe could neither benefit
nor injure him; and thus we see that, despite a reverential tone and
an occasional reminiscence of the thunderbolts of Zeus, the Stoic's
conscience knew how to scorn the moral nothingness of that blank deity
to which his metaphysics had reduced the genial company of the gods.

Thus the reality which the naturalistic gods had borrowed from the
elements proved to be a dangerous prerogative; being real and manifest,
these gods had to be conceived according to our experience of their
operation, so that with every advance in scientific observation
theology had to be revised, and something had to be subtracted from
the personality and benevolence of the gods. The moral character
originally attributed to them necessarily receded before the clearer
definition of natural forces and the accumulated experience of
national disasters. Finally, little remained of the gods except their
names, reduced to rhetorical synonyms for the various departments of
Nature; Phoebus was nothing but a bombastic way of saying the sun;
Hephæstus became nothing but fire, Eros or Aphrodite nothing but love,
Zeus nothing but the general force and law of Nature. Thus the gods
remained real, but were no longer gods. If belief in their reality
was to be kept up, they could not retain too many attributes that
had no empirical manifestation. They must be reduced, as it were, to
their fighting weight. All that the imagination had added to them by
way of personal character, sanctity, and life must be rejected as
anthropomorphism and fable.

Such is the necessary logic of natural religion. If Nature manifests
the existence of a god, she must to that extent manifest his character;
if she does not manifest his character, she cannot involve his
existence. We observe to-day a process exactly analogous to that by
which the natural divinities of Greece were reduced again to the
physical or social forces from which poetry had originally evoked
their forms. Many minds are grown too timid to build their religious
faith unblushingly on revelation, or on that moral imagination or
inward demand which revelation comes to express and to satisfy. They
seek, therefore, to naturalize the Deity and to identify it with some
principle of history, of Nature, or of logic. But this identification
cannot be made without great concessions on both sides. The
accommodations which ensue inevitably involve many equivocations, and
some misrepresentations of the heterogeneous principles, now natural,
now moral, which it is sought to unify. Confused and agonized by
these contradictions, the natural theologian, if he keep his honesty,
can only rest in the end in a chastened recognition of the facts of
experience, toward which he will, no doubt, exercise his acquired
habits of acquiescence and euphemism. But these habits, the survival
of which gives his philosophy some air of being still a religion, will
not be inherited by his disciples and successors; a pious manner may
survive religious faith, but will not survive it long. The society
to whom the reformer teaches a reticent and embarrassed naturalism
will discard the reticence and avow the naturalism with pride. The
masses of men will see no reason why they should not live out their
native impulses or acquired passions without fear of that environing
power of which they are, after all, the highest embodiment; while a
few thinkers, devout and rational by temperament, will know how to
maintain their dignity of spirit in the face of a universe of which
they ask no favour save the revelation of its laws. Thus irreligion for
the many and Stoicism for the few is the end of natural religion in the
modern world as it was in the ancient.

But natural religion (that is, the turning of the facts and laws of
Nature or of experience into an object of worship) is by no means a
primitive nor an ultimate form of religion; it is rather of all the
forms of religion the most unnatural and the least capable of existing
without a historical and emotional setting, independent of its own
essence and inconsistent with its principle. No nation has ever had
a merely natural religion. What is called by that name has been the
appanage of a few philosophers in ages of religious disintegration,
when the habit of worship, surviving the belief in any proper object
of worship, has been transferred with effort and uncertainty to the
natural order which alone remained before the mind,--to the cosmos,
the self, the state, or humanity. Mythology, of which natural religion
is the last and most abstract phase, was originally religious only in
so far as it was supernatural in so far, I mean, as the analogies of
outer Nature led the poet to conceive some moral ideal, some glorious
being full of youth and serenity, of passion and wisdom. Only when
thus transfigured into the human could the natural seem divine. The
Greeks were never idolaters, and no more worshipped the sun or moon
or the whole of Nature than they did statues of bronze or marble; they
worshipped only the god who had a temporal image in the temple as he
had an eternal image in the sun or in the universe.

It happened, therefore, that in the decay of mythology the gods could
still survive as moral ideals. The more they were cut off from their
accidental foothold in the world of fact, the more clearly could they
manifest their essence as expressions of the world of values. We have
mentioned the fact that the greater gods of Greece were almost wholly
detached from the cosmographical hints which had originally suggested
their character and fable. Thus emancipated, these nobler gods could
survive in the consciousness of the devout, fixed there by their
purely moral significance and poetic truth. Apollo or Athena showed
little or nothing of a naturalistic origin; they were patrons of life,
embodiments of the ideal, objects of contemplation for souls that by
prayer would rise to the semblance of the god to whom they prayed. This
transformation into the moral had been going on from the beginning in
the religious mind of Greece. It was really the legitimate fulfilment
of that translation into the human to which mythology itself was due.
But mythology had merely turned the physical into the personal and
impassioned; religion was now to turn the psychical into the good.
This tendency came to a vivid and rational expression in Plato. The
gods, he declared, should be represented only as they were, _i.e._ as
moral ideals. The scandal of their fables should be removed and they
should be regarded as authors only of the good, in their own lives as
in ours. To refer all things to the efficacy of the gods should be
accounted impiety. They, like the supreme and abstract principle of all
excellence which they embodied, could be the authors only of what is

Had this remarkable doctrine been carried out fully it would have led
to important results. We should have had goodness as the criterion of
divinity, to the exclusion of power. God would have become avowedly an
ideal, a pattern to which the world might or might not conform. Such
potential conformity would have remained dependent on causes, natural
or free, with which God, not being a power, could have nothing to do.
Plato and Aristotle did, in fact, construct a theology on these lines,
but they obscured its purity in their well-meant attempts to connect
(more or less mythically or magically) their own Socratic principle
of excellence with the cosmic principles of the earlier philosophers.
The elements of confusion and pantheism which were thus introduced
into the Socratic philosophy made it more acceptable, perhaps, to the
theologians of later times, in whose religion a pantheistic tendency
was also latent. In the hands of Jewish, Christian, or Mohammedan
commentators the mythical and magical part of the Greek conceptions
was naturally emphasized and the rational part reinterpreted and
obscured. Plato had spoken, in one of his myths, of a Demiurgos, a
personification of the Idea of the Good, who directly or indirectly
made the world in his own image, rendering it as perfect as the
indeterminate Chaos he worked on would allow. Aristotle had spoken of
an intelligence, happy and self-contemplative, who was the principle of
movement in the heavens, and through the heavens in the rest of Nature.
Such expressions had a sound far too congruous with Mosaic doctrine not
to be seized upon with joy by the apologists of the new faiths, who
were glad to invoke the authority of classic poets and philosophers in
favour of doctrines that in their Hebrew expression might so easily
seem crude and irrational to the Gentiles. This assimilation gave to
the casual myths of Plato and to the meagre though bold argumentation
of Aristotle a turn and a significance which they hardly had to their
authors. If we approach these philosophers as we should from the point
of view of Greek literature and life, and prepare ourselves to see
in them the disciples of Socrates rather than (what Plato was once
actually declared to be) the disciples of Moses, we shall see that
they were simply, mythologists of the Ideal; they refined the gods of
tradition into patrons of civic discipline and art, the gods of natural
philosophy into principles of intelligibility and beauty.

The creation described in the Timæus is a transparent parable. Elements
which ethical reflection distinguishes in the field of experience
are turned in that dialogue, with undisguised freedom of fancy, into
so many half-personified primitive powers; the Ideas, the Demiurgos,
Chaos, the Indeterminate, and the "gods of gods." Plato has not
forgotten the lessons of Socrates and Parmenides. He distrusts as much
as they any natural or genetic philosophy of existence. He virtually
tells us that, if we must have a history of creation, we can hardly
do better than to take ideal or moral principles, combine them as we
might so many material elements, and see how the intelligible part
of existence may thus receive a quasi-explanation. God remains the
creator of the good only, because what he is mythically said to create
is merely that in Nature which spontaneously resembles him or conforms
to his idea; only this element in Nature is intelligible or good, and
therefore the principle of goodness may be said to be its cause. Thus,
for example, if we chose to write an Anatomy of Melancholy, we might
attribute to the Demon of Spleen or to the Blue Devils only the sombre
elements of that soulful compound, which, however, the evil imps would
eternally tend to make as absolutely dyspeptic and like unto themselves
as its primordial texture would allow. In exactly such a way Plato,
in his allegorical manner, constructed a universe with a poetical
machinery of moral forces, personified and treated as agents. When
the thin veil of allegory is drawn aside, there remains nothing but a
splendid illustration of the Socratic philosophy; we are taught that
the only science is moral science, and that, if we wish to understand
the world, we must bend our minds to the definition of its qualities
and values, which are all that is intelligible in it. Essences and
values alone are knowable and fixed and amenable to science. If we
insist on history and cosmogony, we must be satisfied with having them
presented to us in allegorical form, and made to follow ethics as the
Timæus follows the Republic. Natural philosophy can be nothing but a
sort of analytic retrospect by which we trace the first glimmerings
and the progressive manifestation in Nature of those ideas which have
authority over our own minds.

Phenomena had for Plato existence without reality, that is, without
intelligibility or value. They were a mere appearance. We need not be
surprised, then, that he refused altogether to construct a theology
by the poetic interpretation of phenomena and preferred to construct
one allegorically out of his moral conceptions, the good and the
ideal. Aristotle, too, while adhering incidentally, as we have seen,
to a purified astronomical theology, capped this with a purified moral
theology of his own. The Platonic picture-gallery of ideas, with
the abstract principle of excellence that unified them, gave place
in his philosophy to an Ideal realized in the concrete and existing
as an individual. We may venture to say that among the thinkers of
all nations Aristotle was the first to reach the conception of what
may fitly be called God. Neither the national deity of the Hebrews,
as then conceived, nor the natural deities of the Gentiles, nor
the half-physical, half-logical abstractions of the earlier Greek
philosophers really corresponded to the notion of a being spiritual,
personal, and perfect, immutable without being abstract, and omnipotent
without effort and without degradation. Aristotle first constructed
this ideal, not out of his fancy, but by building on the solid ground
of human nature and following to their point of union the lines
which moral aspiration and effort actually follow. Nay, the ideal he
pointed to was to be the goal not of human life only but of natural
life in all its forms. The analytic study of Nature (a study which at
the same time must be imaginative and sympathetic) could guide us to
the conception of her inner needs and tendencies and of what their
proper fulfilment would be. We could then see that this fulfilment
would lie in intelligence and thought. Growth is for the sake of the
fruition of life, and the fruition of life consists in the pursuit and
attainment of objects. The moral virtues belong to the pursuit, the
intellectual to the attainment. Knowledge is the end of all endeavour,
the justification and fulfilment of all growth. Intelligence is the
clarification of love.

A being, then, whose life should be a life of pure and complete
knowledge, would embody the goal toward which all Nature strives.
When we ponder duly the short phrases in which Aristotle propounds
his conception of God we find that he has called up before us the
noblest possible object of human thought, the presentiment of that
thought's perfect fulfilment. There is no alloy of naturalism in this
conception, and at the same time no suspicion of irrelevancy. This
God is not a mere title of honour for the psycho-physical universe,
confusedly conceived and lumped together; he is an ultra-mundane ideal,
to be an inviolate standard and goal for all moving reality. Yet he
is not irrelevant to the facts and forces of the world, not the dream
of an abstracted poet. He is an idea which reality everywhere evokes
in evoking its own deepest craving and need. Nothing is so pertinent
and momentous in life as the object we are trying to attain by thought
or action, since that object is the source of our inspiration and
the standard of our success. Thus Aristotle's God is not superfluous,
not invented. This theology is a true idealism, I mean an idealism
itself purely ideal, which establishes the authority of human demands,
ethical, and logical, without impugning the existence or efficacy of
that material universe which it endows with a meaning and a standard.

Yet this rational conception, the natural out-growth of the Socratic
philosophy, establishes a dualism between the actual and the ideal
against which the human mind easily rebels. Aristotle himself was
hardly faithful to it. He tried to prove the existence of his God, and
existence is something quite irrelevant to an ideal. This confusion is
very excusable, especially in an age when the strictly mechanical view
of Nature still seemed hopelessly inadequate. Aristotle consequently
tried to understand the natural world by viewing it systematically
from the point of view of moral science, as Plato had done less
coherently in his myths; and hence came what we must regard as the
great error of Aristotle's philosophy, the belief in the efficacy
of final causes and in the preëxistence of entelechies. But, apart
from this unhappy question of existence, which is, as we have said,
irrelevant to an ideal, Aristotle's conception of God remains, perhaps,
the most philosophical that has yet been constructed. Without any
concessions to sentiment or superstition, it presents us with a sublime
vision of the essentially human, of a nature as free from an unworthy
anthropomorphism as from an inhuman abstractness. It is made both human
and superhuman by the same principle of idealization. It is the final
cause of Nature and man, the realization of their imminent upward
effort, the essence that would contain all their values and escape all
their imperfections.

We may well doubt, however, whether men in general will ever be ready
to accept so austere a theology in guise of a religion; they were
certainly not ready to do so at the end of the classical period. The
inheritance of Paganism fell instead to Christianity, in which ethical
and naturalistic elements were again united, although united in a new
way. For, while the scheme of Paganism, and of all the philosophies
that sought to rationalize Paganism, was cosmic and static, the scheme
of Christianity was historical. They spoke of the dynamic relations of
heaven and earth, or of the immutable hierarchy of ideas and essences;
even Aristotle's God was somehow in spatial relations to the Universe
which he set in motion. The religion of the Hebrews, on the other
hand, had been essentially historical and civic: it had been concerned
with the moral destinies of Israel and the dealings of Jehovah with
his people. Christianity inherited this historical character; its
mysteries occurred in time. Not only the redemption of the world but
the vocation and sanctification of the individual were progressive,
and when the habits and problems of Christian theology were carried
over by the German idealists into the region of pure metaphysics, the
systems they conceived were still systems of evolution. God was to be
manifest in the development of things. For Christianity in its own way
had spoken from the beginning of a gradual and yet to be completed
descent of the divine into the natural by the agency of prophecy, law,
and sacramental institutions; it had represented the relations of God
to man in a vast historic drama, of which creation constituted the
opening, the fall and redemption the nexus, and the last judgment the

Thus appeared a new scheme for the unification of the natural and the
moral. The harmony which the old religion had failed to establish
in space and in Nature, the new sought to establish in history and
in time. It was hoped that life and experience, sin and redemption,
might manifest that divinity which had fled out of the sea and sky,
and which it seemed sacrilege to identify any longer with the animal
vitality of the universe. Whether the same criticism that disintegrated
mythology and isolated its elements of science and of poetry would
not be fatal to the new combination of the moral and the factual in
the history of man, is hardly a question for us here. Suffice it to
point out the problem and to register the solution which was found
in the ancient world to the analogous problem that presented itself
there. The first impulse of the imagination is always to combine
in the object all the elements which lie together in the mind, to
project them indiscriminately into a single conception of reality,
enriched with as many qualities as there are phases and values in our
experience. But these phases and values have diverse origins and do not
permanently hang together. It becomes after a while impossible to keep
them attached to a single image; they have to be distributed according
to their true order and connections, some objectified into a physical
universe of mechanism and law, others built into a system of rational
objects, into a hierarchy of logical and moral ideas. So the lovely
pantheon of the Greeks yielded in time to analysis and was dissolved
into abstract science and conscious fable. So, too, the body and soul
of later religions may come to be divided, when they render back to
earth what they contain of positive history and to the heaven of man's
indomitable idealism what they contain of aspiration and hope.



The deathbed of Paganism was surrounded by doctors. Some, the Stoics,
advised a conversion into pantheism (with an allegorical interpretation
of mythology to serve the purposes of edification); others, the
Neo-Platonists, prescribed instead a supernatural philosophy, where the
efficacy of all traditional rites would be justified by incorporation
into a system of universal magic, and the gods would find their
place among the legions of spirits and demons that were to people
the concentric spheres. But these doctors had no knowledge of the
patient's natural constitution; their medicines, prescribed with the
best intentions, were in truth poisons and only hastened the inevitable
end. Nor had the unfortunate doctors the consolation of being heirs.
Parasites that they were, they perished with the patron on whose
substance they had fed, and Christianity, their despised rival, came
into sole possession.

Yet Neo-Platonism, for all we can see, responded as well as
Christianity to the needs of the time, and had besides great external
advantages in its alliance with tradition, with civil power, and with
philosophy. If the demands of the age were for a revealed religion and
an ascetic morality, Neo-Platonism could satisfy them to the full.
Why, then, should the Hellenic world have broken with the creations
of its own genius, so plastic, eloquent, and full of resource, to
run after foreign gods and new doctrines that must naturally have
been stumbling-blocks to its prejudices, and foolishness to its
intelligence? Shall we say that the triumph of Christianity was a
miracle? Is it not a doubtful encomium on a religion to say that only
by miracle could it come to be believed? Perhaps the forces of human
reason and emotion suffice to explain this faith. We prefer to think
so; otherwise, however complete and final the triumph of Christianity
might be, it would not be justified or beneficent.

Neo-Platonism arose in the midst of the same conditions as
Christianity. There was weariness and disgust with the life of nature,
decay of political virtue, desire for some personal and supernatural
good. It was hardly necessary to preach the doctrine of original
sin to that society; the visible blight that had fallen on classic
civilization was proof enough of that. What it was necessary to preach
was redemption. It was necessary to point to some sphere of refuge and
of healthful resort, where the ignominies and the frivolities of this
world might be forgotten, and where the hunger of a heart left empty
by its corroding passions might be finally satisfied. But where find
such a supernatural world? By what revelation learn its nature and be
assured of its existence?

Neo-Platonism opened vistas into the supernatural, but the avenues of
approach which it had chosen and the principle which had given form
to its system foredoomed it to failure as a religion. This avenue was
dialectic, and this principle the hypostasis of abstractions. Plato
had pointed out this path in his genial allegories. He had, by a
poetical figure, turned the ideas of reason into the component forces
of creation. This was, with him, a method of expression, but being
the only method he was inclined to employ, it naturally entangled
and occasionally, perhaps, deceived his intelligence; for a poet
easily mistakes his inspired tropes for the physiology of Nature. Yet
Platonic dogma, even when meant as such, retained the transparency
and significance of a myth; philosophy was still a language for the
expression of experience, and dialectic a method and not a creed. But
the master's counters, current during six centuries of intellectual
decadence, had become his disciples' money. Each of his abstractions
seemed to them a discovery, each of his metaphors a revelation. The
myths of the great dialogues, and, above all, the fanciful machinery
of the Timæus, interpreted with an incredible literalness and naive
earnestness, such as only Biblical exegesis can rival, formed the
starting point of the new revelation. The method and insight thus
obtained were then employed in filling the _lacunæ_ of the system and
spreading its wings wider and wider, until a prodigious hierarchy of
supernatural existences had been invented, from which the natural world
was made to depend as a last link and lowest emanation.

The baselessness and elaboration of this theology were, of course, far
from being obstacles to its success in such an age. On the contrary,
the less evidence could be found in common experience for what a man
appeared to know, the more deeply, people inferred, must he be versed
in supernatural lore, and the greater, accordingly, was his authority.
Nor was the spell of personal genius and even holiness wanting in the
leaders of the new philosophy to lend it colour and persuasiveness with
the many, to whom metaphysical conceptions are less impressive than
is an eloquent personality, or a reputation for miraculous powers.
Plotinus, to speak only of the greatest of the sect, had, in fact, a
notable success in his day. His lectures at Rome, we are told, were
attended by all the fashion and intellect of the capital; and his large
and systematic thought, his subtlety and precision, his comparatively
sober eloquence, and his assurance, if we may say so, in treading the
clouds, have made him at all times a great authority with those persons
who look in philosophy rather for impressive results than for solid
foundations. His contemporaries were eminently persons of that type. A
hungry man, when you bring him bread, does not stop to make scrupulous
inquiries about the mill or the oven from which you bring it.

But the trouble was that the bread of Plotinus was a stone. The heart
cannot feed on thin and elaborate abstractions, irrelevant to its
needs and divorced from the natural objects of its interest. Men will
often accept the baldest fictions as truths; but it is impossible
for them to give a human meaning to vacuous conceptions, or to grow
to love the categories of logic, interweaving their image with the
actions and emotions of daily life. Religion must spring from the
people; it must draw its form from tradition and its substance from
the national imagination and conscience. Neo-Platonism drew both
form and substance from a system of abstract thought. Its gods were
still-born, being generated by logical dichotomy. Only in the lower
purlieus of the system, filled in by accepting current superstitions,
was there any contact with something like vital religious forces. But
those minor elements--hopes and fears about another world, fasts and
penances, ecstasies and marvels--had no necessary relation to that
metaphysical system. Such practices could be found in every religion,
in every philosophical sect of the time. The Alexandrian dialectic of
the supernatural accordingly remained a mere schema or skeleton, to be
filled in with the materials of some real religion, if such a religion
should arise. As such a schema the Neo-Platonic system actually passed
over to Christian theology, furnishing the latter with its categories,
its language, and its speculative method. But that dialectic served in
Christianity to give form to a religious substance furnished by Hebrew
and apostolic tradition, a religious substance such as, after the Pagan
religion was discredited, Neo-Platonism necessarily lacked and was
powerless to generate.

We have mentioned apostolic tradition. It is fortunately not requisite
for our purpose to discuss the origin of this tradition, much less to
decide how much of what the Christian Church eventually taught might
be traced to its Founder. That is a point which even the most thorough
scholars seem still to decide mainly by their prejudices, perhaps
because other material is lacking on which to base a decision. For our
present object we may admit the most extreme hypotheses as equally
possible. The whole body of Catholic doctrine may have been contained
in the oral teaching of Christ; or, on the other hand, a historical
Jesus may not have existed at all, or may have been one among many
obscure Jewish revolutionists, the one who, by accident, came afterward
to be regarded as the initiator of a movement to which all sorts of
forces contributed, and with which he had really had nothing to do. In
either case the fact remains which alone interests us here; that after
three or four centuries of confused struggles, an institution emerged
which called itself the Catholic Church. This church, possessed of
a recognized hierarchy and a recognized dogma, triumphed, both over
the ancient religion, which it called Paganism, and over its many
collateral rivals, which it called heresies. Why did it triumph? What
was there in its novel dogma and practice that enchained the minds that
Paganism could retain no longer, and that would not be content with
Neo-Platonism, native, philosophical, and pliable as that system was?

The answer, to be adequate, would have to be long; but perhaps we
may indicate the spirit in which it ought to be conceived. Paganism
was a religion, but was discarded because it was not supernatural:
Neo-Platonism could not be maintained because it was not a religion.
Christianity was both. It had its roots in a national faith, moulded
by the trials and passions of a singularly religious people; that
connection with Judaism gave Christianity a foothold in history, a
definite dogmatic nucleus, which it was a true instinct in the Church
never to abandon, much as certain speculative heresies might cry out
against the unnatural union of a theory of redemption with one of
creation, and of a world-denying ascetic idealism, which Christianity
was essentially, with the national laws, the crude deism, and the
strenuous worldliness of the ancient Jews. However, had the Gnostic
or Manichæan heresies been victorious, Christianity would have been
reduced to a floating speculation: its hard kernel of positive dogma,
of Scripture, and of hieratic tradition would have been dissolved. It
would have ceased to represent antiquity or to hand down an ancestral
piety: in fine, by its eagerness to express itself as a perfect
philosophy, it would have ceased to be a religion. How essential an
element its Hebraism was, we can see now by the study of Protestantism,
a group of heresies in which the practical instincts and sentimental
needs of the Teutonic race found expression, by throwing over more or
less completely the Catholic dogma and ritual. Yet in this revolution
the Protestants maintained, or rather increased, the intensity of their
religious consciousness, chiefly by absorbing the elements of Hebrew
law and prophecy which they could find in the Bible and casting into
that traditional form their personal conscience or their national

How inadequate, on the other hand, this Hebraic element would have
been to constitute the supernatural religion that was now needed,
appears very clearly from the case of Philo Judæus. Here was a man,
heir to all the piety and fervour of his race, who at the same time
was a Neo-Platonist three hundred years before Plotinus and, as it
were, the first Father of the Church. But his religion, being national,
was not communicable and, being positivistic, was at fundamental odds
with the spirit of his philosophy. It remained, therefore, as a merely
personal treasure and heirloom, the possession of his private life:
his disciples, had he had any, must either have been Jews themselves
or else must have been the followers merely of his philosophy. His
religion could not have passed to them; they would have regarded it, as
we might regard the Christianity of Kant or the wife-worship of Comte,
as a private circumstance, a detached trait, less damaging, perhaps, to
his philosophy than favourable to his loyal heart.

Philo, in his commentaries on the Bible, sought to envelop and
transform every detail in the light of Platonic metaphysics. His
interpretations are often violent, but the ingenuous artifice of them
would have delighted his contemporaries as much as himself, and was
adopted afterward by all the Fathers and theologians of the Church.
Philo's theology was thus a success, even a model; yet he failed,
because of the inadequacy of his religion. What interest, what
relevance, could it have for any Gentile to hear about the deliverance
of Israel out of Egypt or out of Babylon, or about circumcision and
prescribed meats, or about the sacrifices in the Temple? What charm or
credibility could he find in further promises of glorious kingdoms,
flowing with milk and honey? Such images might later appeal to the
imagination of New England Puritans and make a religion for them: but
what meaning could they have to the weary Pagan? No doubt the Jews
carried with them an ideal of righteousness, and prosperity; but the
Gentile was sick of heroes and high priests and founders of cities.
Stoic virtues were as vain in his eyes as Sybaritic joys. He did not
wish his passions to be flattered, not even his pride or the passion
for a social Utopia. He wished his passions to be mortified and his
soul to be redeemed. He would not look for a Messiah, unless he could
find him on a cross.

That is the essence of the matter. What overcame the world, because
it was what the world desired, was not a moral reform--for that was
preached by every sect; not an ascetic regimen--for that was practised
by heathen gymnosophists and Pagan philosophers; not brotherly love
within the Church--for the Jews had and have that at least in equal
measure; but what overcame the world was what Saint Paul said he
would always preach: Christ and him crucified. Therein was a new
poetry, a new ideal, a new God. Therein was the transcript of the
real experience of humanity, as men found it in their inmost souls
and as they were dimly aware of it in universal history. The moving
power was a fable--for who stopped to question whether its elements
were historical, if only its meaning were profound and its inspiration
contagious? This fable had points of attachment to real life in a
visible brotherhood and in an extant worship, as well as in the
religious past of a whole people. At the same time it carried the
imagination into a new sphere; it sanctified the poverty and sorrow at
which Paganism had shuddered; it awakened tenderer emotions, revealed
more human objects of adoration, and furnished subtler instruments of
grace. It was a whole world of poetry descended among men, like the
angels at the Nativity, doubling, as it were, their habitation, so that
they might move through supernatural realms in the spirit while they
walked the earth in the flesh. The consciousness of new loves, new
duties, fresh consolations, and luminous unutterable hopes accompanied
them wherever they went. They stopped willingly in the midst of their
business for recollection, like men in love; they sought to stimulate
their imaginations, to focus, as it were, the long vistas of an
invisible landscape.

If the importunity of affairs or of ill-subdued passions disturbed
that dream, they could still return to it at leisure in the solitude of
some shrine or under the spell of some canticle or of some sacramental
image; and meantime they could keep their faith in reserve as their
secret and their resource. The longer the vision lasted and the
steadier it became, the more closely, of course, was it intertwined
with daily acts and common affections; and as real life gradually
enriched that vision with its suggestions, so religion in turn
gradually coloured common life with its unearthly light. In the saint,
in the soul that had become already the perpetual citizen of that
higher sphere, nothing in this world remained without reference to the
other, nor was anything done save for a supernatural end. Thus the
redemption was actually accomplished and the soul was lifted above the
conditions of this life, so that death itself could bring but a slight
and unessential change of environment.

Morbid as this species of faith may seem, visionary as it certainly
was, it is not to be confused with an arbitrary madness or with
personal illusions. Two circumstances raised this imaginative piety
to a high dignity and made it compatible with great accomplishments,
both in thought and in action. In the first place the religious world
constituted a system complete and consistent within itself. There was
occasion within it for the exercise of reason, for the awakening and
discipline of emotion, for the exertion of effort. As music, for all
that it contains nothing of a material or practical nature, offers
a field for the development of human faculty and presents laws and
conditions which, within its sphere, must be obeyed and which reward
obedience with the keenest and purest pleasures; so a supernatural
religion, when it is traditional and systematic like Christianity,
offers another world, almost as vast and solid as the real one, in
which the soul may develop. In entering it we do not enter a sphere
of arbitrary dreams, but a sphere of law where learning, experience,
and happiness may be gained. There is more method, more reason, in
such madness than in the sanity of most people. The world of the
Christian imagination was eminently a field for moral experience; moral
ideas were there objectified into supernatural forces, and instead of
being obscured as in the real world by irrational accidents formed an
intelligible cosmos, vast, massive, and steadfast. For this reason the
believer in any adequate and mature supernatural religion clings to
it with such strange tenacity and regards it as his highest heritage,
while the outsider, whose imagination speaks another language or is
dumb altogether, wonders how so wild a fiction can take root in a
reasonable mind.

The other circumstance that ennobled the Christian system was that
all its parts had some significance and poetic truth, although they
contained, or needed to contain, nothing empirically real. The system
was a great poem which, besides being well constructed in itself, was
allegorical of actual experience, and contained, as in a hieroglyph,
a very deep knowledge of the world and of the human mind. For what
was the object that unfolded itself before the Christian imagination,
the vision that converted and regenerated the world? It was a picture
of human destiny. It was an epic, containing, as it were, the moral
autobiography of man. The object of Pagan religion and philosophy had
been a picture of the material cosmos, conceived as a vast animal and
inhabited by a multitude of individual spirits. Even the Neo-Platonists
thought of nothing else, much as they might multiply abstract names for
its principles and fancifully confuse them with the spheres. It was
always a vast, living, physical engine, a cosmos of life in which man
had a determinate province. His spirit, losing its personality, might
be absorbed into the ethereal element from which it came; but this
emanation and absorption was itself an unchanging process, the systole
and diastole of the universal heart. Practical religion consisted in
honouring the nearest gods and accepting from them man's apportioned
goods, not without looking, perhaps, with a reverence that needed
no ritual, to the enveloping whole that prescribed to gods and men
their respective functions. Thus even Neo-Platonism represented man as
a minor incident in the universe, supernatural though that universe
might be. The spiritual spheres were only the invisible repetitions of
the visible, as the Platonic ideas from the beginning had been only a
dialectic reduplication of the objects in this world. It was against
this allotment that the soul was rebelling. It was looking for a
deliverance that should be not so much the consciousness of something
higher as the hope of something better.

Now, the great characteristic of Christianity, inherited from Judaism,
was that its scheme was historical. Not existences but events were the
subject of its primary interest. It presented a story, not a cosmology.
It was an epic in which there was, of course, superhuman machinery,
but of which the subject was man, and, notable circumstance, the Hero
was a man as well. Like Buddhism, it gave the highest honour to a
man who could lead his fellow-men to perfection. What had previously
been the divine reality--the engine of Nature--now became a temporary
stage, built for the exigencies of a human drama. What had been before
a detail of the edifice--the life of man--now became the argument and
purpose of the whole creation. Notable transformation, on which the
philosopher cannot meditate too much.

Was Christianity right in saying that the world was made for man? Was
the account it adopted of the method and causes of Creation conceivably
correct? Was the garden of Eden a historical reality, and were the
Hebrew prophecies announcements of the advent of Jesus Christ? Did the
deluge come because of man's wickedness, and will the last day coincide
with the dramatic denouement of the Church's history? In other words,
is the spiritual experience of man the explanation of the universe?
Certainly not, if we are thinking of a scientific, not of a poetical
explanation. As a matter of fact, man is a product of laws which
must also destroy him, and which, as Spinoza would say, infinitely
exceed him in their scope and power. His welfare is indifferent to
the stars, but dependent on them. And yet that counter-Copernican
revolution accomplished by Christianity--a revolution which Kant should
hardly have attributed to himself--which put man in the centre of the
universe and made the stars circle about him, must have some kind of
justification. And indeed its justification (if we may be so brief on
so great a subject) is that what is false in the science of facts may
be true in the science of values. While the existence of things must
be understood by referring them to their causes, which are mechanical,
their functions can only be explained by what is interesting in their
results, in other words, by their relation to human nature and to
human happiness.

The Christian drama was a magnificent poetic rendering of this side
of the matter, a side which Socrates had envisaged by his admirable
method, but which now flooded the consciousness of mankind with
torrential emotions. Christianity was born under an eclipse, when the
light of Nature was obscured; but the star that intercepted that light
was itself luminous, and shed on succeeding ages a moonlike radiance,
paler and sadder than the other, but no less divine, and meriting no
less to be eternal. Man now studied his own destiny, as he had before
studied the sky, and the woods, and the sunny depths of water; and as
the earlier study produced in his soul--_anima naturaliter poeta_--the
images of Zeus, Pan, and Nereus, so the later study produced the
images of Jesus and of Mary, of Heaven and Hell, of miracles and
sacraments. The observation was no less exact, the translation into
poetic images no less wonderful here than there. To trace the endless
transfiguration, with all its unconscious ingenuity and harmony, might
be the theme of a fascinating science. Let not the reader fancy that in
Christianity everything was settled by records and traditions. The idea
of Christ himself had to be constructed by the imagination in response
to moral demands, tradition giving only the barest external points
of attachment. The facts were nothing until they became symbols; and
nothing could turn them into symbols except an eager imagination on the
watch for all that might embody its dreams.

The crucifixion, for example, would remain a tragic incident without
further significance, if we regard it merely as a historical fact; to
make it a religious mystery, an idea capable of converting the world,
the moral imagination must transform it into something that happens for
the sake of the soul, so that each believer may say to himself that
Christ so suffered for the love of him. And such a thought is surely
the objectification of an inner impulse; the idea of Christ becomes
something spiritual, something poetical. What literal meaning could
there be in saying that one man or one God died for the sake of each
and every other individual? By what effective causal principle could
their salvation be thought to necessitate his death, or his death to
make possible their salvation? By an [Greek: usteron proteron] natural
to the imagination; for in truth the matter is reversed. Christ's death
is a symbol of human life. Men could "believe in" his death, because
it was a figure and premonition of the burden of their experience.
That is why, when some Apostle told them the story, they could say to
him: "Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet: thou hast told me all
things whatsoever I have felt." Thus the central fact of all Christ's
history, narrated by every Evangelist, could still be nothing but a
painful incident, as unessential to the Christian religion as the death
of Socrates to the Socratic philosophy, were it not transformed by
the imagination of the believer into the counterpart of his own moral
need. Then, by ceasing to be viewed as a historical fact, the death of
Christ becomes a religious inspiration. The whole of Christian doctrine
is thus religious and efficacious only when it becomes poetry, because
only then is it the felt counterpart of personal experience and a
genuine expansion of human life.

Take, as another example, the doctrine of eternal rewards and
punishments. Many perplexed Christians of our day try to reconcile
this spirited fable with their modern horror of physical suffering and
their detestation of cruelty; and it must be admitted that the image
of men suffering unending tortures in retribution for a few ignorant
and sufficiently wretched sins is, even as poetry, somewhat repellent.
The idea of torments and vengeance is happily becoming alien to our
society and is therefore not a natural vehicle for our religion. Some
accordingly reject altogether the Christian doctrine on this point,
which is too strong for their nerves. Their objection, of course, is
not simply that there is no evidence of its truth. If they asked for
evidence, would they believe anything? Proofs are the last thing
looked for by a truly religious mind which feels the imaginative
fitness of its faith and knows instinctively that, in such a matter,
imaginative fitness is all that can be required. The reason men reject
the doctrine of eternal punishment is that they find it distasteful
or unmeaning. They show, by the nature of their objections, that they
acknowledge poetic propriety or moral truth to be the sole criterion of
religious credibility.

But, passing over the change of sentiment which gives rise to
this change of doctrine, let us inquire of what reality Christian
eschatology was the imaginative rendering. What was it in the actual
life of men that made them think of themselves as hanging between
eternal bliss and eternal perdition? Was it not the diversity, the
momentousness, and the finality of their experience here? No doubt
the desire to make the reversal of the injustices of this world as
melodramatic and picturesque as possible contributed to the adoption
of this idea; the ideal values of life were thus contrasted with its
apparent values in the most absolute and graphic manner. But we may
say that beneath this motive, based on the exigences of exposition
and edification, there was a deeper intuition. There was the genuine
moralist's sympathy with a philosophic and logical view of immortality
rather than with a superstitious and sentimental one. Another life
exists and is infinitely more important than this life; but it is
reached by the intuition of ideals, not by the multiplication of
phenomena; it is an eternal state not an indefinite succession of
changes. Transitory life ends for the Christian when the balance-sheet
of his individual merits and demerits is made up, and the eternity that
ensues is the eternal reality of those values.

For the Oriental, who believed in transmigration, the individual
dissolved into an infinity of phases; he went on actually and
perpetually, as Nature does; his immortality was a long Purgatory
behind which a shadowy Hell and Heaven scarcely appeared in the form
of annihilation or absorption. This happened because the Oriental mind
has no middle; it oscillates between extremes and passes directly from
sense to mysticism, and back again; it lacks virile understanding and
intelligence creative of form. But Christianity, following in this
the Socratic philosophy, rose to the conception of eternal essences,
forms suspended above the flux of natural things and expressing the
ideal suggestions and rational goals of experience. Each man, for
Christianity, has an immortal soul; each life has the potentiality of
an eternal meaning, and as this potentiality is or is not actualized,
as this meaning is or is not expressed in the phenomena of this
life, the soul is eternally saved or lost. As the tree falleth, so
it lieth. The finality of this brief and personal experiment, the
consequent awful solemnity of the hour of death when all trial is over
and when the eternal sentence is passed, has always been duly felt
by the Christian. The Church, indeed, in answer to the demand for a
more refined and discriminating presentation of its dogma, introduced
the temporary discipline of Purgatory, in which the virtues already
stamped on the soul might be brought to greater clearness and rid of
the alloy of imperfection; but this purification allowed no essential
development, no change of character or fate; the soul in Purgatory was
already saved, already holy.

The harshness of the doctrine of eternal judgment is therefore a
consequence of its symbolic truth. The Church might have been less
absolute in the matter had she yielded more, as she did in the doctrine
of Purgatory, to the desire for merely imaginary extensions of human
experience. But her better instincts kept her, after all, to the
moral interpretation of reality; and the facts to be rendered were
uncompromising enough. Art is long, life brief. To have told men they
would have infinite opportunities to reform and to advance would have
been to feed them on gratuitous fictions without raising them, as it
was the function of Christianity to do, to a consciousness of the
spiritual meaning and upshot of existence. To have speculated about the
infinite extent of experience and its endless transformations, after
the manner of the barbarous religions, and never to have conceived
its moral essence, would have been to encourage a dream which may by
chance be prophetic, but which is as devoid of ideal meaning as of
empirical probability. Christian fictions were at least significant;
they beguiled the intellect, no doubt, and were mistaken for accounts
of external fact; but they enlightened the imagination; they made
man understand, as never before or since, the pathos and nobility of
his life, the necessity of discipline, the possibility of sanctity,
the transcendence and the humanity of the divine. For the divine
was reached by the idealization of the human. The supernatural was
an allegory of the natural, and rendered the values of transitory
things under the image of eternal existences. Thus the finality of
our activity in this world, together with the eternity of its ideal
meanings, was admirably rendered by the Christian dogma of a final

But there was another moral truth which was impressed upon the believer
by that doctrine and which could not be enforced in any other way
without presupposing in him an unusual philosophic acumen and elevation
of mind. That is the truth that moral distinctions are absolute. A
cool philosophy suffices to show us that moral distinctions exist,
since men prefer some experiences to others and can by their action
bring these good and evil experiences upon themselves and upon their
fellows. But a survey of Nature may at the same time impress us with
the fact that these goods and evils are singularly mixed, that there
is hardly an advantage gained which is not bought by some loss, or any
loss which is not an opportunity for the attainment of some advantage.
While it would be chimerical to pretend that such compensation was
always adequate, and that, in consequence, no one condition was ever
really preferable to any other, yet the perplexities into which moral
aspiration is thrown by these contradictory vistas is often productive
of the desire to reach some other point of view, to escape into what
is irrationally thought to be a higher category than the moral. The
serious consideration of those things which are right according to
human reason and interest may then yield to a fanatical reliance on
some facile general notion.

It may be thought, for instance, that what is regular or necessary
or universal is therefore right and good; thus a dazed contemplation
of the actual may take the place of the determination of the ideal.
Mysticism in regard to the better and the worse, by which good and bad
are woven into a seamless garment of sorry magnificence in which the
whole universe is wrapped up, is like mysticism on other subjects; it
consists in the theoretic renunciation of a natural attitude, in this
case of the natural attitude of welcome and repulsion in the presence
of various things. But this category is the most fundamental of all
those that the human mind employs, and it cannot be surrendered so
long as life endures. It is indeed the conscious echo of those vital
instincts by whose operation we exist. Levity and mysticism may do all
they can--and they can do much--to make men think moral distinctions
unauthoritative, because moral distinctions may be either ignored or
transcended. Yet the essential assertion that one thing is really
better than another remains involved in every act of every living
being. It is involved even in the operation of abstract thinking, where
a cogent conclusion, being still coveted, is assumed to be a good, or
in that æsthetic and theoretic enthusiasm before cosmic laws, which is
the human foundation of this mysticism itself.

It is accordingly a moral truth which no subterfuge can elude, that
some things are really better than others. In the daily course of
affairs we are constantly in the presence of events which by turning
out one way or the other produce a real, an irrevocable, increase of
good or evil in the world. The complexities of life, struggling as it
does amidst irrational forces, may make the attainment of one good
the cause of the unattainableness of another; they cannot destroy
the essential desirability of both. The niggardliness of Nature
cannot sterilize the ideal; the odious circumstances which make the
attainment of many goods conditional on the perpetration of some evil,
and which punish every virtue by some incapacity or some abuse,--these
odious circumstances cannot rob any good of its natural sweetness, nor
all goods together of their conceptual harmony. To the heart that has
felt it and that is the true judge, every loss is irretrievable and
every joy indestructible. Eventual compensations may obliterate the
memory of these values but cannot destroy their reality. The future can
only furnish further applications of the principle by which they arose
and were justified.

Now, how utter this moral truth imaginatively, how clothe it in an
image that might render its absoluteness and its force? Could any
method be better than to say: Your eternal destiny is hanging in
the balance: the grace of God, the influences of others, and your
own will reacting upon both are shaping at every moment issues of
absolute importance. What happens here and now decides not merely
incidental pains and pleasures--which perhaps a brave and careless
spirit might alike despise--but helps to determine your eternal
destiny of joy or anguish, and the eternal destiny of your neighbour.
In place of the confused vistas of the empirical world, in which the
threads of benefit and injury might seem to be mingled and lost, the
imagination substituted the clear vision of Hell and Heaven; while
the determination of our destiny was made to depend upon obedience to
recognized duties.

Now these duties may often have been far from corresponding to those
which reason would impose; but the intention and the principle at least
were sound. It was felt that the actions and passions of this world
breed momentous values, values which being ideal are as infinite as
values can be in the estimation of reason--the values of truth, of
love, of rationality, of perfection--although both the length of the
experience in which they arise and the number of persons who share
that experience may be extremely limited. But the mechanical measure
of experience in length, intensity, or multiplication has nothing to
do with its moral significance in realizing truth or virtue. Therefore
the difference in dignity between the satisfactions of reason and
the satisfactions of sense is fittingly rendered by the infinite
disproportion between heavenly and earthly joys. In our imaginative
translation we are justified in saying that the alternative between
infinite happiness and infinite misery is yawning before us, because
the alternative between rational failure or success is actually
present. The decisions we make from moment to moment, on which the
ideal value of our life and character depends, actually constitute in a
few years a decision which is irrevocable.

The Christian doctrine of rewards and punishments is thus in harmony
with moral truths which a different doctrine might have obscured.
The good souls that wish to fancy that everybody will be ultimately
saved, subject a fable to standards appropriate to matters of fact,
and thereby deprive the fable of that moral significance which is its
excuse for being. If every one is ultimately saved, there is nothing
truly momentous about alternative events: all paths lead more or less
circuitously to the same end. The only ground which then remains
for discriminating the better from the worse is the pleasantness or
unpleasantness of the path to salvation. All moral meanings inhere,
then, in this life, and the other life is without significance. Heaven
comes to replace life empirically without fulfilling it ideally. We are
reduced for our moral standards to phenomenal values, to the worth of
life in transitory feeling. These values are quite real, but they are
not those which poetry and religion have for their object. They are
values present to sense, not to reason and imagination.

The ideal of a supervening general bliss presents indeed an abstract
desideratum, but not the ideal involved in the actual forces of life;
that end would have no rational relation to its primary factors; it
would not be built on our instinctive preferences but would abolish
them by a miraculous dream, following alike upon every species of
activity. Moral differences would have existed merely to be forgotten;
for if we say they were remembered, but transcended and put to rest,
we plunge into an even worse contradiction to the conscience and the
will. For if we say that the universal bliss consists in the assurance,
mystically received, that while individual experiences may differ in
value they all equally conduce to the perfection of the universe, we
deny not merely the momentousness but even the elementary validity of
moral distinctions. We assert that the best idea of God is that least
like the ideal of man, and that the nearer we come to the vision of
truth the farther we are from the feeling of preference. In our attempt
to extend the good we thus abolish its essence. Our religion consists
in denying the authority of the ideal, which is its only rational
foundation; and thus that religion, while gaining nothing in empirical
reality, comes to express a moral falsehood instead of a moral truth.

If we looked in religion for an account of facts, as most people do,
we should have to pass a very different judgment on these several
views. The mechanical world is a connected system and Nature seems
to be dynamically one; the intuitions on which mysticism feeds are
therefore true intuitions. The expectation of a millennium is on the
other hand quite visionary, because the evidence of history, while it
shows undeniable progress in many directions, shows that this progress
is essentially relative, partial, and transitory. As for the Christian
doctrine of the judgment, it is something wholly out of relation to
empirical facts, it assumes the existence of a supernatural sphere, and
is beyond the reach of scientific evidence of any kind. But if we look
on religion as on a kind of poetry, as we have decided here to do,--as
on a kind of poetry that expresses moral values and reacts beneficently
upon life,--we shall see that the Christian doctrine is alone
justified. For mysticism is not an imaginative construction at all but
a renunciation or confusion of our faculties; here a surrender of the
human ideal in the presence of a mechanical force that is felt, and
correctly felt, to tend to vaguer results or rather to tend to nothing
in particular. Mysticism is not a religion but a religious disease.
The idea of universal salvation, on the other hand, is the expression
of a feeble sentimentality, a pleasant reverie without structure or
significance. But the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments
is, as we have tried to show, an expression of moral truth, a poetic
rendering of the fact that rational values are ideal, momentous, and

It would be easy to multiply examples and to exhibit the various parts
of Christianity as so many interpretations of human life in its ideal
aspects. But we are not attempting to narrate facts so much as to
advance an idea, and the illustrations given will perhaps suffice
to make our conception intelligible. There is, however, a possible
misunderstanding which we should be careful to avoid in this dangerous
field of philosophic interpretation. In saying that a given religion
was the poetic transformation of an experience, we must not imagine
that it was thought to be such--for it is evident that every sincere
Christian believed in the literal and empirical reality of all that the
Christian epic contained. Nor should we imagine that philosophic ideas,
or general reflections on life, were the origin of religion, and that
afterward certain useful myths, known to be such by their authors, were
mistaken for history and for literal prophecy. That sometimes happens,
when historians, poets, or philosophers are turned by the unintelligent
veneration of posterity into religious prophets. Such was the fate of
Plato, for instance, or of the writer of the "Song of Solomon"; but 110
great and living religion was ever founded in that way.

Had Christianity or any other religion had its basis in literary or
philosophical allegories, it would never have become a religion,
because the poetry of it would never have been interwoven with the
figures and events of real life. No tomb, no relic, no material
miracle, no personal derivation of authority, would have existed to
serve as the nucleus of devotion and the point of junction between
this world and the other. The origin of Christian dogma lay in historic
facts and in doctrines literally meant by their authors. It is one of
the greatest possible illusions in these matters to fancy that the
meaning which we see in parables and mysteries was the meaning they had
in the beginning, but which later misinterpretation had obscured. On
the contrary--as a glance at any incipient religious movement now going
on will show us--the authors of doctrines, however obvious it may be to
every one else that these doctrines have only a figurative validity,
are the first dupes to their own intuitions. This is no less true of
metaphysical theories than of spontaneous superstitions: did their
promulgator understand the character of their justification he would
give himself out for a simple poet, appeal only to cultivated minds,
and never turn his energies to stimulating private delusions, not to
speak of public fanaticisms. The best philosophers seldom perceive the
poetic merit of their systems.

So among the ancients it was not an abstract observation of Nature,
with conscious allegory supervening, that was the origin of mythology,
but the interpretation was spontaneous, the illusion was radical, a
consciousness of the god's presence was the first impression produced
by the phenomenon. Else, in this case too, poetry would never have
become superstition; what made it superstition was the initial
incapacity in people to discriminate the objects of imagination from
those of the understanding. The fancy thus attached its images, without
distinguishing their ideal locus, to the visible world, and men became
superstitious not because they had too much imagination, but because
they were not aware that they had any.

In what sense, then, are we justified in saying that religion expresses
moral ideals? In the sense that moral significance, while not the
source of religions, is the criterion of their value and the reason
why they may deserve to endure. Far as the conception of an allegory
may be from the minds of prophets, yet the prophecy can only take
root in the popular imagination if it recommends itself to some human
interest. There must be some correspondence between the doctrine
announced or the hopes set forth, and the natural demands of the
human spirit. Otherwise, although the new faith might be preached, it
would not be accepted. The significance of religious doctrines has
therefore been the condition of their spread, their maintenance, and
their development, although not the condition of their origin. In
Darwinian language, moral significance has been a spontaneous variation
of superstition, and this variation has insured its survival as a
religion. For religion differs from superstition not psychologically
but morally, not in its origin but in its worth. This worth, when
actually felt and appreciated, becomes of course a dynamic factor and
contributes like other psychological elements to the evolution of
events; but being a logical harmony, a rational beauty, this worth is
only appreciable by a few minds, and those the least primitive and the
least capable of guiding popular movements. Reason is powerless to
found religions, although it is alone competent to judge them. Good
religions are therefore the product of unconscious rationality, of
imaginative impulses fortunately moral.

Particularly does this appear in the early history of Christianity.
Every shade of heresy, every kind of mixture of Christian and other
elements was tried and found advocates; but after a greater or less
success they all disappeared, leaving only the Church standing. For the
Church had known how to combine those dogmas and practices in which
the imagination of the time, and to a great extent of all times, might
find fitting expression. Imaginative significance was the touchstone
of orthodoxy; tradition itself was tested by this standard. By this
standard the canon of Scripture was fixed, so as neither to exclude the
Old Testament, which the pure metaphysicians would have rejected, nor
to accept every gospel that circulated under the name of an apostle,
and which might please a wonder-loving and detail-loving piety. By
the same criterion the ritual was composed, the dogma developed, the
nature of Christ defined, the sacraments and discipline of the Church
regulated. The result was a comprehensive system where, under the
shadow of a great epic, which expanded and interpreted the history
of mankind from the Creation to the Day of Doom, a place was found
for as many religious instincts and as many religious traditions as
possible; while at the same time the dialectic proficiency of an age
that inherited the discipline of Greek philosophy, introduced into the
system a great consistency and a great metaphysical subtlety. Time
mellowed and expanded these dogmas, bringing them into relation with
the needs of a multiform piety; a justification was found both for
asceticism and for a virtuous naturalism, both for contemplation and
for action; and thus it became possible for the Church to insinuate her
sanctions and her spirit into the motives of men, and to embody the
religion of many nations during many ages.

The Church's successes, however, were not all legitimate; they were
not everywhere due to a real correspondence between her forms and the
ideal life of men. It was only the inhabitants of the Græco-Roman
world that were quite prepared to understand her. When the sword, or
the authority of a higher worldly civilization, carried her influence
beyond the borders of the Roman Empire we may observe that her
authority seldom proved stable. She was felt, by those peoples whose
imaginative traditions and whose moral experience she did not express,
to be something alien and artificial. The Teutonic races finally threw
off what they felt to be her yoke. If they reconstructed their religion
out of elements which she had furnished, that was only because religion
is bound to be traditional, and they had been Christians for many
hundred years. A wholly new philosophy or poetry could not have taken
immediate root in their minds; even the philosophy which Germany has
since produced, when the national spirit was reaching, so to speak, its
majority, hardly seems able to constitute an independent religion, but
takes shelter under some form of Christianity, however much the spirit
of that religion may be transformed.

At first, indeed, the new movement took the Bible for its
starting-point. So heterogeneous a book, which was already habitually
interpreted in so many fanciful ways, was indeed an admirable basis
for the imagination to build upon. The self-reliant and dreamy Teuton
could spin out of the Biblical chronicles and rhapsodies convictions
after his own heart; while his fixed persuasion that the Bible was the
word of God, was strengthened (not illegitimately) by his ability to
make it express his own moral ideals. The intensity of his religion was
proportionate to the degree in which he had made it the imaginative
rendering of his own character.

Protestantism in its vital elements was thus a perfectly new, a
perfectly spontaneous religion. The illusion that it was a return to
primitive Christianity was useful for controversial purposes and helped
to justify the iconoclastic passions of the time; but this illusion
did not touch the true essence of Protestantism, nor the secret of its
legitimacy and power as a religion. This was its new embodiment of
human ideals in imaginative forms, whereby those ideals became explicit
and found a remarkable expression in action. These ideals were quite
Teutonic and looked to inner spontaneity and outward prosperity; they
were more allied to those of the Hebrews than to those of the early
Christians, whose religion was all miracles, asceticism, and withdrawal
from the world. Indeed we may say that the typical Protestant was
himself his own church and made the selection and interpretation of
tradition according to the demands of his personal spirit. What the
Fathers did for the Church in the fourth century, the Reformers did for
themselves in the sixteenth, and have continued to do on the occasion
of their various appearances.

If we judge this interpretation by poetic standards, we cannot
resist the conclusion that the old version was infinitely superior.
The Protestant, with his personal resources, was reduced to making
grotesquely and partially that translation of moral life which the
Fathers had made comprehensively and beautifully, inspired as they
were by all the experience of antiquity and all the hopes of youthful
Christendom. Nevertheless, Protestantism has the unmistakable character
of a genuine religion, a character which tradition passively accepted
and dogma, regarded as so much external truth, may easily lose; it
is in correspondence with the actual ideals and instincts of the
believer; it is the self-assertion of a living soul. Its meagreness
and eccentricity are simply evidences of its personal basis. It is in
full harmony with the practical impulses it comes to sanction, and
accordingly it gains in efficiency all that it loses in dignity and

The principle by which the Christian system had developed, although
reapplied by the Protestants to their own inner life, was not
understood by them in its historical applications. They had little
sympathy with the spiritual needs and habits of that Pagan society in
which Christianity had grown up. That society had found in Christianity
a sort of last love, a rejuvenating supersensible hope, and had
bequeathed to the Gospel of Redemption, for its better embodiment and
ornament, all its own wealth of art, philosophy, and devotion. This
embodiment of Christianity represented a civilization through which
the Teutonic races had not passed and which they never could have
produced; it appealed to a kind of imagination and sentiment which
was foreign to them. This embodiment, accordingly, was the object of
their first and fiercest attack, really because it was unsympathetic
to their own temperament but ostensibly because they could not find
its basis in those Hebraic elements of Christianity which make up the
greater bulk of the Bible. They did not value the sublime aspiration
of Christianity to be not something Hebraic or Teutonic but something
Catholic and human; and they blamed everything which went beyond the
accidental limits of their own sympathies and the narrow scope of their
own experience.

Yet it was only by virtue of this complement inherited from Paganism,
or at least supplied by the instincts and traditions on which Paganism
had reposed, that Christianity could claim to approach a humane
universality or to achieve an imaginative adequacy. The problem was to
compose, in the form of a cosmic epic, with metaphysical justifications
and effectual starting-points for moral action, the spiritual
autobiography of man. The central idea of this composition was to be
the idea of a Redemption. Around this were to be gathered and moulded
together elements drawn from Hebrew tradition and scripture, others
furnished by Paganism, together with all that the living imagination
of the time could create. Nor was it right or fitting to make a merely
theoretical or ethical synthesis. Doctrine must find its sensible echo
in worship, in art, in the feasts and fasts of the year. Only when
thus permeating life and expressing itself to every sense and faculty
can a religion be said to have reached completion; only then has the
imagination exhausted its means of utterance.

The great success which Christianity achieved in this immense
undertaking makes it, after classic antiquity, the most important phase
in the history of mankind. It is clear, however, that this success was
not complete. That fallacy from which the Pagan religion alone has
been free, that [Greek: proton pseudos] of all fanaticism, the natural
but hopeless misunderstanding of imagining that poetry in order to
be religion, in order to be the inspiration of life, must first deny
that it is poetry and deceive us about the facts with which we have
to deal--this misunderstanding has marred the work of the Christian
imagination and condemned it, if we may trust appearances, to be
transitory. For by this misunderstanding Christian doctrine was brought
into conflict with reality, of which it pretends to prejudge the
character, and also into conflict with what might have been its own
elements, with all excluded religious instincts and imaginative ideals.
Human life is always essentially the same, and therefore a religion
which, like Christianity, seizes the essence of that life, ought to be
an eternal religion. But it may forfeit that privilege by entangling
itself with a particular account of matters of fact, matters irrelevant
to its ideal significance, and further by intrenching itself, by
virtue of that entanglement, in an inadequate regimen or a too narrow
imaginative development, thus putting its ideal authority in jeopardy
by opposing it to other intuitions and practices no less religious than
its own.

Can Christianity escape these perils? Can it reform its claims, or
can it overwhelm all opposition and take the human heart once more by
storm? The future alone can decide. The greatest calamity, however,
would be that which seems, alas! not unlikely to befall our immediate
posterity, namely, that while Christianity should be discredited no
other religion, more disillusioned and not less inspired, should come
to take its place. Until the imagination should have time to recover
and to reassert its legitimate and kindly power, the European races
would then be reduced to confessing that while they had mastered the
mechanical forces of Nature, both by science and by the arts, they had
become incapable of mastering or understanding themselves, and that,
bewildered like the beasts by the revolutions of the heavens and by
their own irrational passions, they could find no way of uttering the
ideal meaning of their life.



When the fruits of philosophic reflection, condensed into some phrase,
pass into the common language of men, there does not and there cannot
accompany them any just appreciation of their meaning or of the long
experience and travail of soul from which they have arisen. Few
doctrines have suffered more by popularization than the intuitions
of Plato. The public sees in Platonic sayings little more than
phrases employed by unpractical minds to cloak the emptiness of their
yearnings. Finding these fragments of an obsolete speech put to bad
uses, we are apt to ignore and despise them, much as a modern peasant
might despise the fragment of a frieze or a metope which he found
built into his cottage wall. It is not only the works of plastic art
that moulder and disintegrate to furnish materials for the barbarous
masons of a later age: the great edifices of reason also crumble, their
plan is lost, and their fragments, picked where they happen to lie,
become the materials of a feebler thought. In common speech we find
such bits of ancient wisdom embedded; they prove the intelligence of
some ancestor of ours, but are no evidence of our own. When used in
ignorance of their meaning, they become misplaced flourishes, lapses
into mystery in the businesslike plainness of our thought.

Yet there is one man, the archæologist, to whom nothing is so
interesting as just these stones which a practical builder would have
rejected. He forgives the ignorance and barbarism that placed them
where they are; he is absorbed in studying their sculptured surface
and delighted if his fancy can pass from them to the idea of the
majestic whole to which they once belonged. So in the presence of a
much-abused philosophic phrase, we may be interested in reconstructing
the experience which once gave it meaning and form. Words are at least
the tombs of ideas, and the most conventional formulas of poets or
theologians are still good subjects for the archæologist of passion. He
may find a treasure there; or at any rate he may hope to be rewarded
for his labour by the ideal restoration of some once beautiful temple
of Athena.

Something of this kind is what we may now attempt to do with regard to
one or two Platonic ideas, ideas which under the often ironical title
of Platonic love, are constantly referred to and seldom understood.
These ideas may be defined as the transformation of the appreciation
of beautiful things into the worship of an ideal beauty and the
transformation of the love of particular persons into the love of God.
These mystical phrases may acquire a new and more human meaning if we
understand, at least in part, how they first came to be spoken. We
shall then not think of them merely as the reported sayings of Plato
or Plotinus, Porphyry or Proclus; we shall not learn them by rote, as
the unhappy student learns the enigmas, which, in the histories of
philosophy, represent all that survives of the doctrine of a Thales or
a Pythagoras. We shall have some notion of the ideas that once prompted
such speech.

And we shall be the better able to reconstruct those conceptions
inasmuch as the reflection by which they are bred has recurred often
in the world--has recurred, very likely, in our own experience.
We are often Platonists without knowing it. In some form or other
Platonic ideas occur in all poetry of passion when it is seasoned with
reflection. They are particularly characteristic of some Italian poets,
scattered from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. These poets
had souls naturally Platonic; even when they had heard something of
Plato they borrowed nothing from him. They repeated his phrases, when
they did so, merely to throw the authority of an ancient philosopher
over the spontaneous suggestions of their own minds. Their Platonism
was all their own: it was Christian, mediæval, and chivalrous, both
in origin and expression. But it was all the more genuine for being a
reincarnation rather than an imitation of the old wisdom.

Nothing, for example, could be a better object-lesson in Platonism than
the well-known sentimental history of Dante. There is no essential
importance in the question whether Dante could have read anything of
Plato or come indirectly under his influence. The Platonism of Dante,
is, in any case, quite his own. It is the expression of his inner
experience moulded by the chivalry and theology of his time. He tells
us the story himself very quaintly in the "Vita Nuova."

At the age of nine he saw, at a wedding-feast in Florence, Beatrice,
then a child of seven, who became, forthwith, the mistress of his
thoughts. This precocious passion ruled his imagination for life, so
that, when he brings to an end the account of the emotions she aroused
in him by her life and death, he tells us that he determined to speak
no more about her until he should be able to do so more worthily, and
to say of her what had never been said of any woman. In the "Divine
Comedy," accordingly, where he fulfils this promise, she appears
transfigured into a heavenly protectress and guide, whose gentle
womanhood fades into an impersonation of theological wisdom. But this
life-long devotion of Dante to Beatrice was something purely mental
and poetical; he never ventured to woo; he never once descended or
sought to descend from the sphere of silent and distant adoration;
his tenderness remained always tearful and dreamy, like that of a
supersensitive child.

Yet, while his love of Beatrice was thus constant and religious, it
was by no means exclusive. Dante took a wife as Beatrice herself had
taken a husband; the temptations of youth, as well as the affection
of married life, seem to have existed beneath this ideal love, not
unrebuked by it, indeed, but certainly not disturbing it. Should we be
surprised at this species of infidelity? Should we regard it as proof
of the artificiality and hollowness of that so transcendental passion,
and smile, as people have done in the case of Plato himself, at the
thin disguise of philosophy that covers the most vulgar frailties of
human nature? Or, should we say, with others, that Beatrice is a merely
allegorical figure, and the love she is said to inspire nothing but a
symbol for attachment to wisdom and virtue? These are old questions,
and insoluble by any positive method, since they cannot be answered by
the facts but only by our interpretation of them. Our solution can have
little historical value, but it will serve to test our understanding of
the metaphysics of feeling.

To guide us in this delicate business we may appeal to a friend of
Dante, his fellow-poet Guido Cavalcanti, who will furnish us with
another example of this same sort of idealization, and this same sort
of inconstancy, expressed in a manner that will repay analysis. Guido
Cavalcanti had a Beatrice of his own--something of the kind was then
expected of every gentle knight and poet--and Guido's Beatrice was
called Giovanna. Dante seems to acknowledge the parity of his friend's
passion with his own by coupling the names of the two ladies, Monna
Vanna and Monna Bice, in one or two of the sonnets he addresses to
Guido. Now it came to pass that Guido, in the fervour of his devotion,
at once chivalrous and religious, bethought him of making a pilgrimage
to the tomb of Saint James the Apostle, at Compostela in Spain.
Upon this journey--a journey beguiled, no doubt, by thoughts of the
beautiful Giovanna he had left in Florence--he halted in the city of
Toulouse. But at Toulouse, as chance would have it, there lived a
lovely lady by the name of Mandetta, with whom it was impossible for
the chivalrous pilgrim not to fall in love; for chivalry is nothing
but a fine emblazoning of the original manly impulse to fight every
man and love every woman. Now in an interesting sonnet Guido describes
the conflict of these two affections, or perhaps we should rather say,
their union.

    "There is a lady in Toulouse so fair,
       So young, so gentle, and so chastely gay,
     She doth a true and living likeness bear
       In her sweet eyes to Love, whom I obey."

The word I have, to avoid confusion, here rendered by "Love" is in the
original "la Donna mia," "my Lady"; so that we have our poet falling in
love with Mandetta on account of her striking resemblance to Giovanna.
Is this inconstancy or only a more delicate and indirect homage? We
shall see; for Guido goes on to represent his soul, according to his
custom, as a being that dwells and moves about in the chambers of
his heart; and speaking still of Mandetta, the lady of Toulouse, he

    "Within my heart my soul, when she appeared,
       Was filled with longing and was fain to flee
     Out of my heart to her, yet was afeared
       To tell the lady who my Love might be.
     She looked upon me with her quiet eyes,
       And under their sweet ray my bosom burned,
     Cheered by Love's image, that within them lies."

So far we have still the familiar visible in the new and making its
power; Mandetta is still nothing but a stimulus to reawaken the memory
of Giovanna. But before the end there is trouble. The sting of the
present attraction is felt in contrast to the eternal ideal. There is
a necessity of sacrifice, and he cries, as the lady turns away her

    "Alas! they shot an arrow as she turned,
     And with a death-wound from the piercing dart
     My soul came sighing back into my heart."

Perhaps this merely means that the lady was disdainful; had she been
otherwise the poet might never have written sonnets about her, and
surely not sonnets in which her charms were reduced to a Platonic
reminiscence of a fairer ideal. But it is this turning away of the
face of love, this ephemeral quality of its embodiments, that usually
stimulates the imagination to the construction of a supersensible ideal
in which all those evaporated impulses may meet again and rest in an
adequate and permanent object. So that while Guido's "death-wound" was
perhaps in reality nothing but the rebuff offered him by a prospective
mistress, yet the sting of it, in a mind of Platonic habit, served
at once to enforce the distinction between the ideal beauty, so full
of sweetness and heavenly charm, which had tempted the soul out of
his heart on its brief adventure, and the particular and real object
against which the soul was dashed, and from which it returned bruised
and troubled to its inward solitude.

So the meditative Guido represents his experience: a new planet swam
into his ken radiant with every grace and virtue; yet all the magic
of that lady lay in her resemblance to the mysterious Giovanna, the
double of Beatrice, the ideal of the poet's imagination. The soul, at
first, went out eagerly to the new love as to an image and embodiment
of the old, but was afraid, and justly, to mention the ideal in the
presence of the reality. There is always danger in doing that; it
breaks the spell and reduces us again to the old and patient loyalty to
the unseen. The present thing being so like the ideal we unhesitatingly
pursue it: but we are quickly disappointed, and the soul returns
sighing and mortally wounded, as the new object of passion fades away.

We may now understand somewhat better that strange combination of
loyalty and disloyalty which we find in Dante. While the object of
love is any particular thing, it excludes all others; but it includes
all others as soon as it becomes a general ideal. All beauties attract
by suggesting the ideal and then fail to satisfy by not fulfilling
it. While Giovanna remained a woman, Guido, as his after life plainly
showed, had no difficulty in forgetting her and in loving many others
with a frank heart; but when Giovanna had become a name for the
absolute ideal, that sovereign mistress could never be forgotten, and
the thought of her subordinated every particular attachment and called
the soul away from it. Compared with the ideal, every human perfection
becomes a shadow and a deceit; every mortal passion leaves, as Keats
has told us,

    "A heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
     A burning forehead and a parching tongue."

Such is the nature of idealization. Like the Venus of Apelles, in
which all known beauties were combined, the ideal is the union of
all we prize in all creatures; and the mind that has once felt the
irresistible compulsion to create this ideal and to believe in it has
become incapable of unreserved love of anything else. The absolute
is a jealous god; it is a consuming fire that blasts the affections
upon which it feeds. For this reason the soul of Guido, in his sonnet,
is mortally wounded by the shaft of that beauty which has awakened a
vehement longing for perfection without being able to satisfy it. All
things become to the worshipper of the ideal so many signs and symbols
of what he seeks; like the votary who, kneeling now before one image
and now before another, lets his incense float by all with a certain
abstracted impartiality, because his aspiration mounts through them
equally to the invisible God they alike represent.

Another aspect of the same process is well described by Shakespeare, in
whom Italian influences count for much, when he says to the person he
has chosen as the object of his idealization:--

    "Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts
       Which I, by lacking, have supposed dead,
     And there reigns love and all love's loving parts
       And all those friends which I thought buried.
     How many a holy and obsequious tear
       Hath dear religious love stolen from mine eye
     As interest for the dead, which now appear
       But things removed, which hidden in thee lie.
     Thou art the grave where buried love doth live
       Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
     Who all their parts of me to thee did give:
       That due of many now is thine alone.
     Their images I loved I view in thee,
     And thou, all they, hast all the all of me."

We need not, then, waste erudition in trying to prove whether Dante's
Beatrice or Guido's Giovanna or any one else who has been the subject
of the greater poetry of love, was a symbol or a reality. To poets and
philosophers real things are themselves symbols. The child of seven
whom Dante saw at the Florentine feast was, if you will, a reality. As
such she is profoundly unimportant. To say that Dante loved her then
and ever after is another way of saying that she was a symbol to him.
That is the way with childish loves. Neither the conscious spell of the
senses nor the affinities of taste and character can then be powerful,
but the sense of loneliness and the vague need of loving may easily
conspire with the innocence of the eyes to fix upon a single image and
to make it the imaginary goal of all those instincts which as yet do
not know themselves.

When with time these instincts become explicit and select their
respective objects, if the inmost heart still remains unsatisfied, as
it must in all profound or imaginative natures, the name and memory
of that vague early love may well subsist as a symbol for the perfect
good yet unattained. It is intelligible that as time goes on that
image, grown thus consciously symbolic, should become interchangeable
with the abstract method of pursuing perfection--that Beatrice, that
is, should become the same as sacred theology. Having recognized that
she was to his childish fancy what the ideals of religion were to his
mature imagination, Dante intentionally fused the two, as every poet
intentionally fuses the general and the particular, the universal and
the personal. Beatrice thenceforth appeared, as Plato wished that our
loves should, as a manifestation of absolute beauty and as an avenue of
divine grace. Dante merely added his Christian humility and tenderness
to the insight of the Pagan philosopher.

The tendency to impersonality, we see, is essential to the ideal. It
could not fulfil its functions if it retained too many of the traits
of any individual. A blind love, an unreasoning passion, is therefore
inconsistent with the Platonic spirit, which is favourable rather to
abstraction from persons and to admiration of qualities. These may, of
course, be found in many individuals. Too much subjection to another
personality makes the expression of our own impossible, and the ideal
is nothing but a projection of the demands of our imagination. If
the imagination is over-powered by too strong a fascination, by the
absolute dominion of an alien influence, we form no ideal at all. We
must master a passion before we can see its meaning.

For this reason, among others, we find so little Platonism in that
poet in whom we might have expected to find most--I mean in Petrarch.
Petrarch is musical, ingenious, learned, and passionate, but he is
weak. His art is greater than his thought. In the quality of his mind
there is nothing truly distinguished. The discipline of his long and
hopeless love brings him little wisdom, little consolation. He is
lachrymose and sentimental at the end as at the beginning, and his best
dream of heaven, expressed, it is true, in entrancing verse, is only to
hold his lady's hand and hear her voice. Sometimes, indeed, he repeats
what he must have read and heard so often, and gives us his version of
Plato in half a sonnet. Thus, for instance, speaking of his love for
Laura, he says in one place:--

    "Hence comes the understanding of love's scope
     That seeking her to perfect good aspires,
     Accounting little what all flesh desires;
     And hence the spirit's happy pinions ope
     In flight impetuous to the heaven's choirs,
     Wherefore I walk already proud in hope."

If we are looking, however, for more direct expressions of the idealism
of feeling, of love, and the sense of beauty passing into religion,
we shall do well to turn to another Italian, not so great a poet as
Petrarch by any means, but a far greater man--to Michael Angelo.
Michael Angelo justly regarded himself as essentially a sculptor, and
said even of painting that it was not his art; his verses are therefore
both laboured and rough. Yet they have been too much neglected, for
they breathe the same pathos of strength, the same agony in hope, as
his Titanic designs.

Like every Italian of culture in those days, Michael Angelo was in the
habit of addressing little pieces to his friends, and of casting his
thoughts or his prayers into the mould of a sonnet or a madrigal. Verse
has a greater naturalness and a wider range among the Latin peoples
than among the English; poetry and prose are less differentiated. In
French, Italian, and Spanish, as in Latin itself, elegance and neatness
of expression suffice for verse. The reader passes without any sense of
incongruity or anti-climax from passion to reflection, from sentiment
to satire, from flights of fancy to homely details: the whole has a
certain human sincerity and intelligibility which weld it together.
As the Latin languages are not composed of two diverse elements, as
English is of Latin and German, so the Latin mind does not have two
spheres of sentiment, one vulgar and the other sublime. All changes
are variations on a single key, which is the key of intelligence. We
must not be surprised, therefore, to find now a message to a friend,
now an artistic maxim, now a bit of dialectic, and now a confession of
sin, taking the form of verse and filling out the fourteen lines of a
sonnet. On the contrary, we must look to these familiar compositions
for the most genuine evidence of a man's daily thoughts.

We find in Michael Angelo's poems a few recurring ideas, or rather the
varied expression of a single half æsthetic, half religious creed.
The soul, he tells us in effect, is by nature made for God and for
the enjoyment of divine beauty. All true beauty leads to the idea of
perfection; the effort toward perfection is the burden of all art,
which labours, therefore, with a superhuman and insoluble problem.
All love, also, that does not lead to the love of God and merge into
that love, is a long and hopeless torment; while the light of love is
already the light of heaven, the fire of love is already the fire of
hell. These are the thoughts that perpetually recur, varied now with
a pathetic reference to the poet's weariness and old age, now with an
almost despairing appeal for divine mercy, often with a powerful and
rugged description of the pangs of love, and with a pious acceptance
of its discipline. The whole is intense, exalted, and tragic, haunted
by something of that profound terror, of that magnificent strength,
which we admire in the figures of the Sixtine Chapel, those noble
agonies of beings greater than any we find in this world.

What, we may ask, is all this tragedy about? What great sorrow,
what great love, had Michael Angelo or his giants that they writhe
so supernaturally As those decorative youths are sprinkled over the
Sixtine vault, filled, we know not why, with we know not what emotion,
so these scraps of verse, these sibylline leaves of Michael Angelo's,
give us no reason for their passion. They tell no story; there seems to
have been no story to tell. There is something impersonal and elusive
about the subject and occasion of these poems. Attempts have been made
to attribute them to discreditable passions, as also to a sentimental
love for Vittoria Colonna. But the friendship with Vittoria Colonna
was an incident of Michael Angelo's mature years; some of the sonnets
and madrigals are addressed to her, but we cannot attribute to her
influence the passion and sorrow that seem to permeate them all.

Perhaps there is less mystery in this than the curious would have us
see in it. Perhaps the love and beauty, however base their primal
incarnation, are really, as they think themselves, aspirations toward
the Most High. In the long studies and weary journeys of the artist,
in his mighty inspiration, in his intense love of the structural
beauty of the human body, in his vicissitudes of fortune and his
artistic disappointments, in his exalted piety, we may see quite enough
explanation for the burden of his soul. It is not necessary to find
vulgar causes for the extraordinary feelings of an extraordinary man.
It suffices that life wore this aspect to him; that the great demands
of his spirit so expressed themselves in the presence of his world.
Here is a madrigal in which the Platonic theory of beauty is clearly

    "For faithful guide unto my labouring heart
     Beauty was given me at birth,
     To be my glass and lamp in either art.
     Who thinketh otherwise misknows her worth,
     For highest beauty only gives me light
     To carve and paint aright.
     Rash is the thought and vain
     That maketh beauty from the senses grow.
     She lifts to heaven hearts that truly know,
     But eyes grown dim with pain
     From mortal to immortal cannot go
     Nor without grace of God look up again."

And here is a sonnet, called by Mr. Symonds "the heavenly birth of love
and beauty." I borrow in part from his translation:--

    "My love's life comes not from this heart of mine.
     The love wherewith I love thee hath no heart,
     Turned thither whither no fell thoughts incline
     And erring human passion leaves no smart.
     Love, from God's bosom when our souls did part,
     Made me pure eye to see, thee light to shine,
     And I must needs, half mortal though thou art,
     In spite of sorrow know thee all divine.
     As heat in fire, so must eternity
     In beauty dwell; through thee my soul's endeavour.
     Mounts to the pattern and the source of thee;
     And having found all heaven in thine eyes,
     Beneath thy brows my burning spirit flies
     There where I loved thee first to dwell for ever."

Something of this kind may also be found in the verses of Lorenzo de'
Medici, who, like Michael Angelo, was a poet only incidentally, and
even thought it necessary to apologize in a preface for having written
about love. Many of his compositions are, indeed, trivial enough, but
his pipings will not seem vain to the severest philosopher when he
finds them leading to strains like the following, where the thought
rises to the purest sphere of tragedy and of religion:--

    "As a lamp, burning through the waning night,
     When the oil begins to fail that fed its fire
     Flares up, and in its dying waxes bright
     And mounts and spreads, the better to expire;
     So in this pilgrimage and earthly flight
     The ancient hope is spent that fed desire,
     And if there burn within a greater light
     'Tis that the vigil's end approacheth nigher.
     Hence thy last insult, Fortune, cannot move,
     Nor death's inverted torches give alarm;
     I see the end of wrath and bitter moan.
     My fair Medusa into sculptured stone
     Turns me no more, my Siren cannot charm.
     Heaven draws me up to its supernal love."

From such spontaneous meditation Lorenzo could even pass to verses
officially religious; but in them too, beneath the threadbare metaphors
of the pious muse and her mystical paradoxes, we may still feel the
austerity and firmness of reason. The following stanzas, for instance,
taken from his "Laudi Spirituali," assume a sublime meaning if we
remember that the essence to which they are addressed, before being a
celestial Monarch into whose visible presence any accident might usher
us, was a general idea of what is good and an intransitive rational
energy, indistinguishable from the truth of things.

    "O let this wretched life within me die
       That I may live in thee, my life indeed;
     In thee alone, where dwells eternity,
       While hungry multitudes death's hunger feed.
     I list within, and hark! Death's stealthy tread!
     I look to thee, and nothing then is dead.

    "Then eyes may see a light invisible
       And ears may hear a voice without a sound,--
     A voice and light not harsh, but tempered well,
       Which the mind wakens when the sense is drowned,
     Till, wrapped within herself, the soul have flown
     To that last good which is her inmost own.

    "When, sweet and beauteous Master, on that day,
       Reviewing all my loves with aching heart,
       I take from each its bitter self away,
     The remnant shall be thou, their better part.
     This perfect sweetness be his single store
     Who seeks the good; this faileth nevermore.

    "A thirst unquenchable is not beguiled
       By draught on draught of any running river
     Whose fiery waters feed our pangs for ever,
       But by a living fountain undefiled.
     O sacred well, I seek thee and were fain
     To drink; so should I never thirst again."

Having before us these characteristic expressions of Platonic feeling,
as it arose again in a Christian age, divorced from the accidental
setting which Greek manners had given it, we may be better able to
understand its essence. It is nothing else than the application to
passion of that pursuit of something permanent in a world of change,
of something absolute in a world of relativity, which was the essence
of the Platonic philosophy. If we may give rein to the imagination
in a matter which without imagination could not be understood at
all, we may fancy Plato trying to comprehend the power which beauty
exerted over his senses by applying to the objects of love that
profound metaphysical distinction which he had learned to make in his
dialectical studies--the distinction between the appearance to sense
and the reality envisaged by the intellect, between the phenomenon
and the ideal. The whole natural world had come to seem to him like
a world of dreams. In dreams images succeed one another without
other meaning than that which they derive from our strange power
of recognition--a power which enables us somehow, among the most
incongruous transformations and surroundings, to find again the objects
of our waking life, and to name those absurd and unmannerly visions by
the name of father or mother or by any other familiar name. As these
resemblances to real things make up all the truth of our dream, and
these recognitions all its meaning, so Plato thought that all the truth
and meaning of earthly things was the reference they contained to a
heavenly original. This heavenly original we remember and recognize
even among the distortions, disappearances, and multiplications of its
earthly copies.

This thought is easily applicable to the affections; indeed, it is not
impossible that it was the natural transcendence of any deep glance
into beauty, and the lessons in disillusion and idealism given by that
natural metaphysician we call love, that first gave Plato the key to
his general system. There is, at any rate, no sphere in which the
supersensible is approached with so warm a feeling of its reality, in
which the phenomenon is so transparent and so indifferent a symbol of
something perfect and divine beyond. In love and beauty, if anywhere,
even the common man thinks he has visitations from a better world,
approaches to a lost happiness; a happiness never tasted by us in
this world, and yet so natural, so expected, that we look for it at
every turn of a corner, in every new face; we look for it with so much
confidence, with so much depth of expectation, that we never quite
overcome our disappointment that it is not found.

And it is not found,--no, never,--in spite of what we may think when
we are first in love. Plato knew this well from his experience. He
had had successful loves, or what the world calls such, but he could
not fancy that these successes were more than provocations, more
than hints of what the true good is. To have mistaken them for real
happiness would have been to continue to dream. It would have shown
as little comprehension of the heart's experience as the idiot shows
of the experience of the senses when he is unable to put together
impressions of his eyes and hands and to say, "Here is a table; here
is a stool." It is by a parallel use of the understanding that we put
together the impressions of the heart and the imagination and are
able to say, "Here is absolute beauty: here is God." The impressions
themselves have no permanence, no intelligible essence. As Plato said,
they are never anything fixed but are always either becoming or ceasing
to be what we think them. There must be, he tells us, an eternal and
clearly definable object of which the visible appearances to us are the
manifold semblance; now by one trait now by another the phantom before
us lights up that vague and haunting idea, and makes us utter its name
with a momentary sense of certitude and attainment.

Just so the individual beauties that charm our attention and enchain
the soul have only a transitive existence; they are momentary visions,
irrecoverable moods. Their object is unstable; we never can say what
it is, it changes so quickly before our eyes. What is it that a mother
loves in her child? Perhaps the babe not yet born, or the babe that
grew long ago by her suffering and unrecognized care; perhaps the man
to be or the youth that has been. What does a man love in a woman?
The girl that is yet, perhaps, to be his, or the wife that once chose
to give him her whole existence. Where, among all these glimpses, is
the true object of love? It flies before us, it tempts us on, only
to escape and turn to mock us from a new quarter. And yet nothing
can concern us more or be more real to us than this mysterious good,
since the pursuit of it gives our lives whatever they have of true
earnestness and meaning, and the approach to it whatever they have of

So far is this ideal, Plato would say, from being an illusion, that it
is the source of the world, the power that keeps us in existence. But
for it, we should be dead. A profound indifference, an initial torpor,
would have kept us from ever opening our eyes, and we should have no
world of business or pleasure, politics or science, to think about at
all. We, and the whole universe, exist only by the passionate attempt
to return to our perfection, by the radical need of losing ourselves
again in God. That ineffable good is our natural possession; all we
honour in this life is but the partial recovery of our birthright;
every delightful thing is like a rift in the clouds through which we
catch a glimpse of our native heaven. If that heaven seems so far away
and the idea of it so dim and unreal, it is because we are so far from
perfect, so much immersed in what is alien and destructive to the soul.

Thus the history of our loves is the record of our divine
conversations, of our intercourse with heaven. It matters very
little whether this history seems to us tragic or not. In one sense,
all mortal loves are tragic because never is the creature we think
we possess the true and final object of our love; this love must
ultimately pass beyond that particular apparition, which is itself
continually passing away and shifting all its lines and colours. As
Heraclitus could never bathe twice in the same river, because its water
had flowed away, so Plato could never look twice at the same face, for
it had become another. But on the other hand the most unsuccessful
passion cannot be a vain thing. More, perhaps, than if it had found
an apparent satisfaction, it will reveal to us an object of infinite
worth, and the flight of the soul, detached by it from the illusions of
common life, will be more straight and steady toward the ultimate good.

Such, if we are not mistaken, is the lesson of Plato's experience
and also of that of the Italian poets whom we have quoted. Is this
experience something normal? Is it the rational outcome of our own
lives? That is a question which each man must answer for himself.
Our immediate object will have been attained if we have made more
intelligible a tendency which is certainly very common among men, and
not among the men least worthy of honour. It is the tendency to make
our experience of love rational, as scientific thinking is a tendency
to make rational our experience of the outer world. The theories of
natural science are creations of human reason; they change with the
growth of reason, and express the intellectual impulses of each nation
and age. Theories about the highest good do the same; only being less
applicable in practice, less controllable by experiment, they seldom
attain the same distinctness and articulation. But there is nothing
authoritative in those constructions of the intellect, nothing coercive
except in so far as our own experience and reflection force us to
accept them. Natural science is persuasive because it embodies the
momentum of common sense and of the practical arts; it carries on
their spontaneous processes by more refined but essentially similar
methods. Moral science is persuasive under the same conditions, but
these conditions are not so generally found in the minds of men. Their
conscience is often superstitious and perfunctory; their imagination is
usually either disordered or dull. There is little momentum in their
lives which the moralist can rely upon to carry them onward toward
rational ideals. Deprived of this support his theories fall to the
ground; they must seem, to every man whose nature cannot elicit them
from his own experience, empty verbiage and irrelevant dreams.

Nothing in the world of fact obliges us to agree with Michael Angelo
when he says that eternity can no more be separated from beauty than
heat from fire. Beauty is a thing we experience, a value we feel;
but eternity is something problematical. It might well happen that
beauty should exist for a while in our contemplation and that eternity
should have nothing to do with it or with us. It might well happen
that our affections, being the natural expression of our instincts in
the family and in the state, should bind us for a while to the beings
with whom life has associated us--a father, a lover, a child--and that
these affections should gradually fade with the decay of our vitality,
declining in the evening of life, and passing away when we surrender
our breath, without leading us to any single and supreme good, to any
eternal love. If, therefore, the thoughts and consolations we have
been rehearsing have sounded to us extravagant or unnatural, we cannot
justify them by attempting to prove the actual existence of their
objects, by producing the absolute beauty or by showing where and how
we may come face to face with God. We may well feel that beauty and
love are clear and good enough without any such additional embodiments.
We may take the world as it is, without feigning another, and study
actual experience without postulating any that is hypothetical. We can
welcome beauty for the pleasure it affords and love for the happiness
it brings, without asking that these things should receive supernatural

But we should have studied Plato and his kindred poets to little
purpose if we thought that by admitting all this we were rejecting more
than the mythical element that was sometimes mixed with their ideal
philosophy. Its essence is not touched by any acknowledgment of what
seems true or probable in the realm of actual existence. Nothing is
more characteristic of the Platonic mind than a complete indifference
to the continuance of experience and an exclusive interest in its
comprehension. If we wish to understand this classic attitude of
reason, all we need do is to let reason herself instruct us. We do
not need more data, but more mind. If we take the sights and the loves
that our mortal limitations have allowed of, and surrender ourselves
unreservedly to their natural eloquence; if we say to the spirit that
stirs within them, "Be thou me, impetuous one"; if we become, as
Michael Angelo says he was, all eyes to see or all heart to feel, then
the force of our spiritual vitality, the momentum of our imagination,
will carry us beyond ourselves, beyond an interest in our personal
existence or eventual emotions, into the presence of a divine beauty
and an eternal truth--things impossible to realize in experience,
although necessarily envisaged by thought.

As the senses that perceive, in the act of perceiving assert an
absolute reality in their object, as the mind that looks before and
after believes in the existence of a past and a future which cannot
now be experienced, so the imagination and the heart behold, when they
are left free to expand and express themselves, an absolute beauty
and a perfect love. Intense contemplation disentangles the ideal from
the idol of sense, and a purified will rests in it as in the true
object of worship. These are the oracles of reason, the prophecies of
those profounder spirits who in the world of Nature are obedient unto
death because they belong intrinsically to a world where death is
impossible, and who can rise continually, by abstraction from personal
sensibility, into identity with the eternal objects of rational life.

Such a religion must elude popular apprehension until it is translated
into myths and cosmological dogmas. It is easier for men to fill out
the life of the spirit by supplementing the facts of experience by
other facts for which there is no evidence than it is for them to
master the given facts and turn them to spiritual uses. Many can fight
for a doubtful fact when they cannot perform a difficult idealization.
They trust, as all men must, to what they can see; they believe in
things as their faculties represent things to them. By the same right,
however, the rationalizer of experience believes in his visions; he
rests, like the meanest of us, in the present object of his thought.
So long as we live at all we must trust in something, at least in the
coherence and permanence of the visible world and in the value of the
objects of our own desires. And if we live nobly, we are under the same
necessity of believing in noble things. However unreal, therefore,
these Platonic intuitions may seem to those of us whose interests lie
in other quarters, we may rest assured that these very thoughts would
dominate our minds and these eternal companionships would cheer our
desolation, if we had wrestled as manfully with the same passions and
passed through the transmuting fire of as great a love.



We are accustomed to think of the universality of Shakespeare as not
the least of his glories. No other poet has given so many-sided an
expression to human nature, or rendered so many passions and moods
with such an appropriate variety of style, sentiment, and accent. If,
therefore, we were asked to select one monument of human civilization
that should survive to some future age, or be transported to another
planet to bear witness to the inhabitants there of what we have been
upon earth, we should probably choose the works of Shakespeare. In them
we recognize the truest portrait and best memorial of man. Yet the
archæologists of that future age, or the cosmographers of that other
part of the heavens, after conscientious study of our Shakespearian
autobiography, would misconceive our life in one important respect.
They would hardly understand that man had had a religion.

There are, indeed, numerous exclamations and invocations in
Shakespeare which we, who have other means of information, know to
be evidences of current religious ideas. Shakespeare adopts these,
as he adopts the rest of his vocabulary, from the society about
him. But he seldom or never gives them their original value. When
Iago says "'_sblood_" a commentator might add explanations which
should involve the whole philosophy of Christian devotion; but this
Christian sentiment is not in Iago's mind, nor in Shakespeare's, any
more than the virtues of Heracles and his twelve labours are in the
mind of every slave and pander that cries "_hercule"_ in the pages of
Plautus and Terence. Oaths are the fossils of piety. The geologist
recognizes in them the relics of a once active devotion, but they are
now only counters and pebbles tossed about in the unconscious play of
expression. The lighter and more constant their use, the less their

Only one degree more inward than this survival of a religious
vocabulary in profane speech is the reference we often find in
Shakespeare to religious institutions and traditions. There are monks,
bishops, and cardinals; there is even mention of saints, although
none is ever presented to us in person. The clergy, if they have any
wisdom, have an earthly one. Friar Lawrence culls his herbs like a
more benevolent Medea; and Cardinal Wolsey flings away ambition with
a profoundly Pagan despair; his robe and his integrity to heaven are
cold comfort to him. Juliet goes to shrift to arrange her love affairs,
and Ophelia should go to a nunnery to forget hers. Even the chastity
of Isabella has little in it that would have been out of place in
Iphigenia. The metaphysical Hamlet himself sees a "true ghost," but so
far reverts to the positivism that underlies Shakespeare's thinking as
to speak soon after of that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no
traveller returns." There are only two or three short passages in the
plays, and one sonnet, in which true religious feeling seems to break
forth. The most beautiful of these passages is that in "Richard II,"
which commemorates the death of Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk--

    "Many a time hath banished Norfolk fought
     For Jesu Christ in glorious Christian field,
     Streaming the ensign of the Christian cross
     Against black Pagans, Turks, and Saracens;
     And, toiled with works of war, retired himself
     To Italy; and there, at Venice, gave
     His body to that pleasant country's earth,
     And his pure soul unto his captain Christ,
     Under whose colours he had fought so long."

This is tender and noble, and full of an indescribable chivalry and
pathos, yet even here we find the spirit of war rather than that of
religion, and a deeper sense of Italy than of heaven. More unmixed is
the piety of Henry V after the battle of Agincourt:--

                   "O God, thy arm was here;
     And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
     Ascribe we all!--When, without stratagem,
     But in plain shock and even play of battle,
     Was ever known so great and little loss,
     On one part and on the other?--Take it, God,
     For it is none but thine....
     Come, go we in procession to the village,
     And be it death proclaimed through our host,
     To boast of this, or take that praise from God,
     Which is his only....
                                 Do we all holy rites;
     Let there be sung _Non nobis_ and _Te Deum_."

This passage is certainly a true expression of religious feeling, and
just the kind that we might expect from a dramatist. Religion appears
here as a manifestation of human nature and as an expression of human
passion. The passion, however, is not due to Shakespeare's imagination,
but is essentially historical: the poet has simply not rejected, as he
usually does, the religious element in the situation he reproduces.[1]

With this dramatic representation of piety we may couple another, of a
more intimate kind, from the Sonnets:--

    "Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
     Fooled by these rebel powers that thee array,
     Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
     Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
     Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
     Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
     Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
     Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?
     Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
     And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
     Buy terms divine by selling hours of dross,
     Within be fed, without be rich no more:
     Then shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
     And death once dead, there's no more dying then."

This sonnet contains more than a natural religious emotion inspired by
a single event. It contains reflection, and expresses a feeling not
merely dramatically proper but rationally just. A mind that habitually
ran into such thoughts would be philosophically pious; it would be
spiritual. The Sonnets, as a whole, are spiritual; their passion is
transmuted into discipline. Their love, which, whatever its nominal
object, is hardly anything but love of beauty and youth in general,
is made to triumph over time by a metaphysical transformation of the
object into something eternal. At first this is the beauty of the race
renewing itself by generation, then it is the description of beauty in
the poet's verse, and finally it is the immortal soul enriched by the
contemplation of that beauty. This noble theme is the more impressively
rendered by being contrasted with another, with a vulgar love that by
its nature refuses to be so transformed and transmuted. "Two loves,"
cries the poet, in a line that gives us the essence of the whole, "Two
loves I have,--of comfort, and despair."

In all this depth of experience, however, there is still wanting any
religious image. The Sonnets are spiritual, but, with the doubtful
exception of the one quoted above, they are not Christian. And, of
course, a poet of Shakespeare's time could not have found any other
mould than Christianity for his religion. In our day, with our wide and
conscientious historical sympathies, it may be possible for us to find
in other rites and doctrines than those of our ancestors an expression
of some ultimate truth. But for Shakespeare, in the matter of religion,
the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He chose nothing; he
chose to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and of
death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can
suggest and understand.

This positivism, we need hardly say, was not due to any grossness or
sluggishness in his imagination. Shakespeare could be idealistic when
he dreamed, as he could be spiritual when he reflected. The spectacle
of life did not pass before his eyes as a mere phantasmagoria. He
seized upon its principles; he became wise. Nothing can exceed
the ripeness of his seasoned judgment, or the occasional breadth,
sadness, and terseness of his reflection. The author of "Hamlet"
could not be without metaphysical aptitude; "Macbeth" could not
have been written without a sort of sibylline inspiration, or the
Sonnets without something of the Platonic mind. It is all the more
remarkable, therefore, that we should have to search through all the
works of Shakespeare to find half a dozen passages that have so much
as a religious sound, and that even these passages, upon examination,
should prove not to be the expression of any deep religious conception.
If Shakespeare had been without metaphysical capacity, or without
moral maturity, we could have explained his strange insensibility to
religion; but as it is, we must marvel at his indifference and ask
ourselves what can be the causes of it. For, even if we should not
regard the absence of religion as an imperfection in his own thought,
we must admit it to be an incompleteness in his portrayal of the
thought of others. Positivism may be a virtue in a philosopher, but it
is a vice in a dramatist, who has to render those human passions to
which the religious imagination has always given a larger meaning and
a richer depth.

Those greatest poets by whose side we are accustomed to put Shakespeare
did not forego this advantage. They gave us man with his piety and
the world with its gods. Homer is the chief repository of the Greek
religion, and Dante the faithful interpreter of the Catholic. Nature
would have been inconceivable to them without the supernatural, or man
without the influence and companionship of the gods. These poets live
in a cosmos. In their minds, as in the mind of their age, the fragments
of experience have fallen together into a perfect picture, like the
bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. Their universe is a total. Reason
and imagination have mastered it completely and peopled it. No chaos
remains beyond, or, if it does, it is thought of with an involuntary
shudder that soon passes into a healthy indifference. They have a
theory of human life; they see man in his relations, surrounded by a
kindred universe in which he fills his allotted place. He knows the
meaning and issue of his life, and does not voyage without a chart.

Shakespeare's world, on the contrary, is only the world of human
society. The cosmos eludes him; he does not seem to feel the need
of framing that idea. He depicts human life in all its richness and
variety, but leaves that life without a setting, and consequently
without a meaning. If we asked him to tell us what is the significance
of the passion and beauty he had so vividly displayed, and what is the
outcome of it all, he could hardly answer in any other words than those
he puts into the mouth of Macbeth:--

    "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
     Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
     To the last syllable of recorded time;
     And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
     The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
     Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
     That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
     And then is heard no more: it is a tale
     Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
     Signifying nothing."

How differently would Homer or Dante have answered that question!
Their tragedy would have been illumined by a sense of the divinity
of life and beauty, or by a sense of the sanctity of suffering and
death. Their faith had enveloped the world of experience in a world
of imagination, in which the ideals of the reason, of the fancy, and
of the heart had a natural expression. They had caught in the reality
the hint of a lovelier fable,--a fable in which that reality was
completed and idealized, and made at once vaster in its extent and more
intelligible in its principle. They had, as it were, dramatized the
universe, and endowed it with the tragic unities. In contrast with such
a luminous philosophy and so well-digested an experience, the silence
of Shakespeare and his philosophical incoherence have something in
them that is still heathen; something that makes us wonder whether the
northern mind, even in him, did not remain morose and barbarous at its
inmost core.

But before we allow ourselves such hasty and general inferences, we
may well stop to consider whether there is not some simpler answer to
our question. An epic poet, we might say, naturally deals with cosmic
themes. He needs supernatural machinery because he depicts the movement
of human affairs in their generality, as typified in the figures of
heroes whose function it is to embody or to overcome elemental forces.
Such a poet's world is fabulous, because his inspiration is impersonal.
But the dramatist renders the concrete reality of life. He has no
need of a superhuman setting for his pictures. Such a setting would
destroy the vitality of his creations. His plots should involve only
human actors and human motives: the _deus ex machina_ has always been
regarded as an inter-loper on his stage. The passions of man are his
all-sufficient material; he should weave his whole fabric out of them.

To admit the truth of all this would not, however, solve our problem.
The dramatist cannot be expected to put cosmogonies on the boards.
Miracle-plays become dramatic only when they become human. But the
supernatural world, which the playwright does not bring before the
foot-lights, may exist nevertheless in the minds of his characters
and of his audience. He may refer to it, appeal to it, and imply it,
in the actions and in the sentiments he attributes to his heroes. And
if the comparison of Shakespeare with Homer or Dante on the score of
religious inspiration is invalidated by the fact that he is a dramatist
while they are epic poets, a comparison may yet be instituted between
Shakespeare and other dramatists, from which his singular insensibility
to religion will as readily appear.

Greek tragedy, as we know, is dominated by the idea of fate. Even when
the gods do not appear in person, or where the service or neglect
of them is not the moving cause of the whole play,--as it is in the
"Bacchæ" and the "Hippolytus" of Euripides,--still the deep conviction
of the limits and conditions of human happiness underlies the fable.
The will of man fulfils the decrees of Heaven. The hero manifests a
higher force than his own, both in success and in failure. The fates
guide the willing and drag the unwilling. There is no such fragmentary
view of life as we have in our romantic drama, where accidents make the
meaningless happiness or unhappiness of a supersensitive adventurer.
Life is seen whole, although in miniature. Its boundaries and its
principles are studied more than its incidents. The human, therefore,
everywhere merges with the divine. Our mortality, being sharply defined
and much insisted upon, draws the attention all the more to that
eternity of Nature and of law in which it is embosomed. Nor is the
fact of superhuman control left for our reflection to discover; it is
emphatically asserted in those oracles on which so much of the action
commonly turns.

When the Greek religion was eclipsed by the Christian, the ancient way
of conceiving the ultra-human relations of human life became obsolete.
It was no longer possible to speak with sincerity of the oracles and
gods, of Nemesis and [Greek: hubris]. Yet for a long time it was not
possible to speak in any other terms. The new ideas were without
artistic definition, and literature was paralyzed. But in the course
of ages, when the imagination had had time and opportunity to develop
a Christian art and a Christian philosophy, the dramatic poets were
ready to deal with the new themes. Only their readiness in this respect
surpassed their ability, at least their ability to please those who had
any memory of the ancient perfection of the arts.

The miracle-plays were the beginning. Their crudity was extreme and
their levity of the frankest; but they had still, like the Greek plays,
a religious excuse and a religious background. They were not without
dramatic power, but their offences against taste and their demands upon
faith were too great for them to survive the Renaissance. Such plays as
the "Polyeucte" of Corneille and the "Devocion de la Cruz" of Calderon,
with other Spanish plays that might be mentioned, are examples of
Christian dramas by poets of culture; but as a whole we must say that
Christianity, while it succeeded in expressing itself in painting
and in architecture, failed to express itself in any adequate drama.
Where Christianity was strong, the drama either disappeared or became
secular; and it has never again dealt with cosmic themes successfully,
except in such hands as those of Goethe and Wagner, men who either
neglected Christianity altogether or used it only as an incidental
ornament, having, as they say, transcended it in their philosophy.

The fact is, that art and reflection have never been able to unite
perfectly the two elements of a civilization like ours, that draws its
culture from one source and its religion from another. Modern taste has
ever been, and still is, largely exotic, largely a revolution in favour
of something ancient or foreign. The more cultivated a period has been,
the more wholly it has reverted to antiquity for its inspiration. The
existence of that completer world has haunted all minds struggling for
self-expression, and interfered, perhaps, with the natural development
of their genius. The old art which they could not disregard distracted
them from the new ideal, and prevented them from embodying this ideal
outwardly; while the same ideal, retaining their inward allegiance,
made their revivals of ancient forms artificial and incomplete. The
strange idea could thus gain admittance that art was not called to deal
with everything; that its sphere was the world of polite conventions.
The serious and the sacred things of life were to be left unexpressed
and inarticulate; while the arts masqueraded in the forms of a Pagan
antiquity, to which a triviality was at the same time attributed which
in fact it had not possessed. This unfortunate separation of experience
and its artistic expression betrayed itself in the inadequacy of what
was beautiful and the barbarism of what was sincere.

When such are the usual conditions of artistic creation, we need
not wonder that Shakespeare, a poet of the Renaissance, should have
confined his representation of life to its secular aspects, and that
his readers after him should rather have marvelled at the variety of
the things of which he showed an understanding than have taken note of
the one thing he overlooked. To omit religion was after all to omit
what was not felt to be congenial to a poet's mind. The poet was to
trace for us the passionate and romantic embroideries of life; he was
to be artful and humane, and above all he was to be delightful. The
beauty and charm of things had nothing any longer to do with those
painful mysteries and contentions which made the temper of the pious
so acrid and sad. In Shakespeare's time and country, to be religious
already began to mean to be Puritanical; and in the divorce between the
fulness of life on the one hand and the depth and unity of faith on
the other, there could be no doubt to which side a man of imaginative
instincts would attach himself. A world of passion and beauty without
a meaning must seem to him more interesting and worthy than a world of
empty principle and dogma, meagre, fanatical, and false. It was beyond
the power of synthesis possessed by that age and nation to find a
principle of all passion and a religion of all life.

This power of synthesis is indeed so difficult and rare that the
attempt to gain it is sometimes condemned as too philosophical, and
as tending to embarrass the critical eye and creative imagination
with futile theories. We might say, for instance, that the absence of
religion in Shakespeare was a sign of his good sense; that a healthy
instinct kept his attention within the sublunary world; and that he
was in that respect superior to Homer and to Dante. For, while they
allowed their wisdom to clothe itself in fanciful forms, he gave us his
in its immediate truth, so that he embodied what they signified. The
supernatural machinery of their poems was, we might say, an accidental
incumbrance, a traditional means of expression, which they only half
understood, and which made their representation of life indirect and
partly unreal. Shakespeare, on the other hand, had reached his poetical
majority and independence. He rendered human experience no longer
through symbols, but by direct imaginative representation. What I have
treated as a limitation in him would, then, appear as the maturity of
his strength.

There is always a class of minds in whom the spectacle of history
produces a certain apathy of reason. They flatter themselves that they
can escape defeat by not attempting the highest tasks. We need not
here stop to discuss what value as truth a philosophical synthesis may
hope to attain, nor have we to protest against the æsthetic preference
for the sketch and the episode over a reasoned and unified rendering
of life. Suffice it to say that the human race hitherto, whenever it
has reached a phase of comparatively high development and freedom,
has formed a conception of its place in Nature, no less than of the
contents of its life; and that this conception has been the occasion
of religious sentiments and practices; and further, that every art,
whether literary or plastic, has drawn its favourite themes from this
religious sphere. The poetic imagination has not commonly stopped
short of the philosophical in representing a superhuman environment of

Shakespeare, however, is remarkable among the greater poets for being
without a philosophy and without a religion. In his drama there is
no fixed conception of any forces, natural or moral, dominating and
transcending our mortal energies. Whether this characteristic be
regarded as a merit or as a defect, its presence cannot be denied.
Those who think it wise or possible to refrain from searching for
general principles, and are satisfied with the successive empirical
appearance of things, without any faith in their rational continuity or
completeness, may well see in Shakespeare their natural prophet. For
he, too, has been satisfied with the successive description of various
passions and events. His world, like the earth before Columbus, extends
in an indefinite plane which he is not tempted to explore.

Those of us, however, who believe in circumnavigation, and who think
that both human reason and human imagination require a certain totality
in our views, and who feel that the most important thing in life is the
lesson of it, and its relation to its own ideal,--we can hardly find
in Shakespeare all that the highest poet could give. Fulness is not
necessarily wholeness, and the most profuse wealth of characterization
seems still inadequate as a picture of experience, if this picture is
not somehow seen from above and reduced to a dramatic unity,--to that
unity of meaning that can suffuse its endless details with something of
dignity, simplicity, and peace. This is the imaginative power found in
several poets we have mentioned,--the power that gives certain passages
in Lucretius also their sublimity, as it gives sublimity to many
passages in the Bible.

For what is required for theoretic wholeness is not this or that
system but some system. Its value is not the value of truth, but that
of victorious imagination. Unity of conception is an æsthetic merit
no less than a logical demand. A fine sense of the dignity and pathos
of life cannot be attained unless we conceive somehow its outcome
and its relations. Without such a conception our emotions cannot be
steadfast and enlightened. Without it the imagination cannot fulfil
its essential function or achieve its supreme success. Shakespeare
himself, had it not been for the time and place in which he lived, when
religion and imagination blocked rather than helped each other, would
perhaps have allowed more of a cosmic background to appear behind his
crowded scenes. If the Christian in him was not the real man, at least
the Pagan would have spoken frankly. The material forces of Nature,
or their vague embodiment in some northern pantheon, would then have
stood behind his heroes. The various movements of events would have
appeared as incidents in a larger drama to which they had at least
some symbolic relation. We should have been awed as well as saddened,
and purified as well as pleased, by being made to feel the dependence
of human accidents upon cosmic forces and their fated evolution. Then
we should not have been able to say that Shakespeare was without a
religion. For the effort of religion, says Goethe, is to adjust us to
the inevitable; each religion in its way strives to bring about this

[1] "And so aboute foure of the clocke in the afternoone, the Kynge
when he saw no apparaunce of enemies, caused the retreite to be blowen,
and gathering his army togither, gave thankes to almightie god for
so happy a victory, causing his prelates and chapleines to sing this
psalm, _In exitu Israeli de Egipto_, and commandyng every man to kneele
downe on the grounde at this verse; _Non nobis, domine, non nobis, sed
nomini tuo da gloriam_. Which done, he caused _Te Deum_, with certain
anthems, to be song, giving laud & praise to god, and not boasting of
his owne force or any humaine power." HOLINSHED.




It is an observation at first sight melancholy but in the end, perhaps,
enlightening, that the earliest poets are the most ideal, and that
primitive ages furnish the most heroic characters and have the clearest
vision of a perfect life. The Homeric times must have been full of
ignorance and suffering. In those little barbaric towns, in those camps
and farms, in those shipyards, there must have been much insecurity
and superstition. That age was singularly poor in all that concerns
the convenience of life and the entertainment of the mind with arts
and sciences. Yet it had a sense for civilization. That machinery of
life which men were beginning to devise appealed to them as poetical;
they knew its ultimate justification and studied its incipient
processes with delight. The poetry of that simple and ignorant age was,
accordingly, the sweetest and sanest that the world has known; the
most faultless in taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration.
Without lacking variety and homeliness, it bathed all things human in
the golden light of morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty,
instinct with both self-control and heroic frankness. Nowhere else can
we find so noble a rendering of human nature, so spontaneous a delight
in life, so uncompromising a dedication to beauty, and such a gift of
seeing beauty in everything. Homer, the first of poets, was also the
best and the most poetical.

From this beginning, if we look down the history of Occidental
literature, we see the power of idealization steadily decline. For
while it finds here and there, as in Dante, a more spiritual theme
and a subtler and riper intellect, it pays for that advantage by a
more than equivalent loss in breadth, sanity, and happy vigour. And if
ever imagination bursts out with a greater potency, as in Shakespeare
(who excels the patriarch of poetry in depth of passion and vividness
of characterization, and in those exquisite bubblings of poetry and
humour in which English genius is at its best), yet Shakespeare also
pays the price by a notable loss in taste, in sustained inspiration,
in consecration, and in rationality. There is more or less rubbish in
his greatest works. When we come down to our own day _we_ find poets of
hardly less natural endowment (for in endowment all ages are perhaps
alike) and with vastly richer sources of inspiration; for they have
many arts and literatures behind them, with the spectacle of a varied
and agitated society, a world which is the living microcosm of its own
history and presents in one picture many races, arts, and religions.
Our poets have more wonderful tragedies of the imagination to depict
than had Homer, whose world was innocent of any essential defeat,
or Dante, who believed in the world's definitive redemption. Or, if
perhaps their inspiration is comic, they have the pageant of mediæval
manners, with its picturesque artifices and passionate fancies, and the
long comedy of modern social revolutions, so illusory in their aims and
so productive in their aimlessness. They have, moreover, the new and
marvellous conception which natural science has given us of the world
and of the conditions of human progress.

With all these lessons of experience behind them, however, we find
our contemporary poets incapable of any high wisdom, incapable of any
imaginative rendering of human life and its meaning. Our poets are
things of shreds and patches; they give us episodes and studies, a
sketch of this curiosity, a glimpse of that romance; they have no total
vision, no grasp of the whole reality, and consequently no capacity for
a sane and steady idealization. The comparatively barbarous ages had a
poetry of the ideal; they had visions of beauty, order, and perfection.
This age of material elaboration has no sense for those things. Its
fancy is retrospective, whimsical, and flickering; its ideals, when
it has any, are negative and partial; its moral strength is a blind
and miscellaneous vehemence. Its poetry, in a word, is the poetry of

This poetry should be viewed in relation to the general moral crisis
and imaginative disintegration of which it gives a verbal echo; then
we shall avoid the injustice of passing it over as insignificant, no
less than the imbecility of hailing it as essentially glorious and
successful. We must remember that the imagination of our race has been
subject to a double discipline. It has been formed partly in the school
of classic literature and polity, and partly in the school of Christian
piety. This duality of inspiration, this contradiction between the two
accepted methods of rationalizing the world, has been a chief source
of that incoherence, that romantic indistinctness and imperfection,
which largely characterize the products of the modern arts. A main
cannot serve two masters; yet the conditions have not been such as to
allow him wholly to despise the one or wholly to obey the other. To be
wholly Pagan is impossible after the dissolution of that civilization
which had seemed universal, and that empire which had believed itself
eternal. To be wholly Christian is impossible for a similar reason, now
that the illusion and cohesion of Christian ages is lost, and for the
further reason that Christianity was itself fundamentally eclectic.
Before it could succeed and dominate men even for a time, it was
obliged to adjust itself to reality, to incorporate many elements of
Pagan wisdom, and to accommodate itself to many habits and passions at
variance with its own ideal.

In these latter times, with the prodigious growth of material life in
elaboration and of mental life in diffusion, there has supervened upon
this old dualism a new faith in man's absolute power, a kind of return
to the inexperience and self-assurance of youth. This new inspiration
has made many minds indifferent to the two traditional disciplines 5
neither is seriously accepted by them, for the reason, excellent from
their own point of view, that no discipline whatever is needed. The
memory of ancient disillusions has faded with time. Ignorance of the
past has bred contempt for the lessons which the past might teach. Men
prefer to repeat the old experiment without knowing that they repeat it.

I say advisedly ignorance of the past, in spite of the unprecedented
historical erudition of our time for life is an art not to be learned
by observation, and the most minute and comprehensive studies do not
teach us what the spirit of man should have learned by its long living.
We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority
and as an experiment. One reason why history was less interesting
to former ages was that they were less conscious of separation
from the past. The perspective of time was less clear because the
synthesis of experience was more complete. The mind does not easily
discriminate the successive phases of an action in which it is still
engaged; it does not arrange in a temporal series the elements of a
single perception, but posits them all together as constituting a
permanent and real object. Human nature and the life of the world
were real and stable objects to the apprehension of our fore-fathers
; the actors changed, but not the characters or the play. Men were
then less studious of derivations because they were more conscious of
identities. They thought of all reality as in a sense contemporary,
and in considering the maxims of a philosopher or the style of a poet,
they were not primarily concerned with settling his date and describing
his environment. The standard by which they judged was eternal; the
environment in which man found himself did not seem to them subject of
any essential change.

To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we
feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being
itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into
the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and
effervescent than itself. The changing and the permanent elements are,
indeed, everywhere present, and the bias of the observer may emphasize
the one or the other as it will: the only question is whether we find
the significance of things in their variations or in their similarities.

Now the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a
stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavourable to any
true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which
remains eternal. It is a habit of thought that destroys the sense of
the moral identity of all ages, by virtue of its very insistence on the
mechanical derivation of one age from another. Existences that cause
one another exclude one another; each is alien to the rest inasmuch as
it is the product of new and different conditions. Ideas that cause
nothing unite all things by giving them a common point of reference and
a single standard of value.

The classic and the Christian systems were both systems of ideas,
attempts to seize the eternal morphology of reality and describe
its unchanging constitution. The imagination was summoned thereby
to contemplate the highest objects, and the essence of things
being thus described, their insignificant variations could retain
little importance and the study of these variations might well seem
superficial. Mechanical science, the science of causes, was accordingly
neglected, while the science of values, with the arts that express
these values, was exclusively pursued. The reverse has now occurred
and the spirit of life, innocent of any rationalizing discipline
and deprived of an authoritative and adequate method of expression,
has relapsed into miscellaneous and shallow exuberance. Religion
and art have become short-winded. They have forgotten the old maxim
that we should copy in order to be copied and remember in order to
be remembered. It is true that the multiplicity of these incompetent
efforts seems to many a compensation for their ill success, or even a
ground for asserting their absolute superiority. Incompetence, when
it flatters the passions, can always find a greater incompetence to
approve of it. Indeed, some people would have regarded the Tower of
Babel as the best academy of eloquence on account of the variety of
oratorical methods prevailing there.

It is thus that the imagination of our time has relapsed into
barbarism. But discipline of the heart and fancy is always so rare
a thing that the neglect of it need not be supposed to involve any
very terrible or obvious loss. The triumphs of reason have been few
and partial at any time, and perfect works of art are almost unknown.
The failure of art and reason, because their principle is ignored, is
therefore hardly more conspicuous than it was when their principle,
although perhaps acknowledged, was misunderstood or disobeyed. Indeed,
to one who fixes his eye on the ideal goal, the greatest art often
seems the greatest failure, because it alone reminds him of what it
should have been. Trivial stimulations coming from vulgar objects, on
the contrary, by making us forget altogether the possibility of a deep
satisfaction, often succeed in interesting and in winning applause.
The pleasure they give us is so brief and superficial that the wave of
essential disappointment which would ultimately drown it has not time
to rise from the heart.

The poetry of barbarism is not without its charm. It can play with
sense and passion the more readily and freely in that it does not
aspire to subordinate them to a clear thought or a tenable attitude of
the will. It can impart the transitive emotions which it expresses; it
can find many partial harmonies of mood and fancy; it can, by virtue
of its red-hot irrationality, utter wilder cries, surrender itself
and us to more absolute passion, and heap up a more indiscriminate
wealth of images than belong to poets of seasoned experience or of
heavenly inspiration. Irrational stimulation may tire us in the end,
but it excites us in the beginning; and how many conventional poets,
tender and prolix, have there not been, who tire us now without ever
having excited anybody? The power to stimulate is the beginning of
greatness, and when the barbarous poet has genius, as he well may
have, he stimulates all the more powerfully on account of the crudity
of his methods and the recklessness of his emotions. The defects
of such art--lack of distinction, absence of beauty, confusion of
ideas, incapacity permanently to please--will hardly be felt by the
contemporary public, if once its attention is arrested; for no poet
is so undisciplined that he will not find many readers, if he finds
readers at all, less disciplined than himself.

These considerations may perhaps be best enforced by applying them to
two writers of great influence over the present generation who seem to
illustrate them on different planes--Robert Browning and Walt Whitman.
They are both analytic poets--poets who seek to reveal and express
the elemental as opposed to the conventional; but the dissolution
has progressed much farther in Whitman than in Browning, doubtless
because Whitman began at a much lower stage of moral and intellectual
organization; for the good will to be radical was present in both.
The elements to which Browning reduces experience are still passions,
characters, persons; Whitman carries the disintegration further and
knows nothing but moods and particular images. The world of Browning
is a world of history with civilization for its setting and with the
conventional passions for its motive forces. The world of Whitman
is innocent of these things and contains only far simpler and more
chaotic elements. In him the barbarism is much more pronounced; it is,
indeed, avowed, and the "barbaric yawp" is sent "over the roofs of the
world" in full consciousness of its inarticulate character; but in
Browning the barbarism is no less real though disguised by a literary
and scientific language, since the passions of civilized life with
which he deals are treated as so many "barbaric yawps," complex indeed
in their conditions, puffings of an intricate engine, but aimless in
their vehemence and mere ebullitions of lustiness in adventurous and
profoundly ungoverned souls.

Irrationality on this level is viewed by Browning with the same
satisfaction with which, on a lower level, it is viewed by Whitman;
and the admirers of each hail it as the secret of a new poetry
which pierces to the quick and awakens the imagination to a new and
genuine vitality. It is in the rebellion against discipline, in the
abandonment of the ideals of classic and Christian tradition, that this
rejuvenation is found. Both poets represent, therefore, and are admired
for representing, what may be called the poetry of barbarism in the
most accurate and descriptive sense of this word. For the barbarian
is the man who regards his passions as their own excuse for being;
who does not domesticate them either by understanding their cause or
by conceiving their ideal goal. He is the man who does not know his
derivations nor perceive his tendencies, but who merely feels and acts,
valuing in his life its force and its filling, but being careless of
its purpose and its form. His delight is in abundance and vehemence;
his art, like his life, shows an exclusive respect for quantity and
splendour of materials. His scorn for what is poorer and weaker than
himself is only surpassed by his ignorance of what is higher.



The works of Walt Whitman offer an extreme illustration of this
phase of genius, both by their form, and by their substance. It was
the singularity of his literary form--the challenge it threw to
the conventions of verse and of language--that first gave Whitman
notoriety: but this notoriety has become fame, because those
incapacities and solecisms which glare at us from his pages are only
the obverse of a profound inspiration and of a genuine courage.
Even the idiosyncrasies of his style have a side which is not mere
perversity or affectation; the order of his words, the procession of
his images, reproduce the method of a rich, spontaneous, absolutely
lazy fancy. In most poets such a natural order is modified by various
governing motives--the thought, the metrical form, the echo of other
poems in the memory. By Walt Whitman these conventional influences are
resolutely banished. We find the swarms of men and objects rendered
as they might strike the retina in a sort of waking dream. It is
the most sincere possible confession of the lowest--I mean the most
primitive--type of perception. All ancient poets are sophisticated in
comparison and give proof of longer intellectual and moral training.
Walt Whitman has gone back to the innocent style of Adam, when the
animals filed before him one by one and he called each of them by its

In fact, the influences to which Walt Whitman was subject were as
favourable as possible to the imaginary experiment of beginning the
world over again. Liberalism and transcendentalism both harboured
some illusions on that score; and they were in the air which our
poet breathed. Moreover he breathed this air in America, where the
newness of the material environment made it easier to ignore the
fatal antiquity of human nature. When he afterward became aware that
there was or had been a world with a history, he studied that world
with curiosity and spoke of it not without a certain shrewdness. But
he still regarded it as a foreign world and imagined, as not a few
Americans have done, that his own world was a fresh creation, not
amenable to the same laws as the old. The difference in the conditions
blinded him, in his merely sensuous apprehension, to the identity of
the principles.

His parents were farmers in central Long Island and his early years
were spent in that district. The family seems to have been not too
prosperous and somewhat nomadic; Whitman himself drifted through
boyhood without much guidance. We find him now at school, now helping
the labourers at the farms, now wandering along the beaches of Long
Island, finally at Brooklyn working in an apparently desultory way as
a printer and sometimes as a writer for a local newspaper. He must
have read or heard something, at this early period, of the English
classics; his style often betrays the deep effect made upon him by the
grandiloquence of the Bible, of Shakespeare, and of Milton. But his
chief interest, if we may trust his account, was already in his own
sensations. The aspects of Nature, the forms and habits of animals,
the sights of cities, the movement and talk of common people, were his
constant delight. His mind was flooded with these images, keenly felt
and afterward to be vividly rendered with bold strokes of realism and

Many poets have had this faculty to seize the elementary aspects of
things, but none has had it so exclusively; with Whitman the surface
is absolutely all and the underlying structure is without interest and
almost without existence. He had had no education and his natural
delight in imbibing sensations had not been trained to the uses of
practical or theoretical intelligence. He basked in the sunshine of
perception and wallowed in the stream of his own sensibility, as later
at Camden in the shallows of his favourite brook. Even during the civil
war, when he heard the drum-taps so clearly, he could only gaze at the
picturesque and terrible aspects of the struggle, and linger among the
wounded day after day with a canine devotion; he could not be aroused
either to clear thought or to positive action. So also in his poems; a
multiplicity of images pass before him and he yields himself to each
in turn with absolute passivity. The world has no inside; it is a
phantasmagoria of continuous visions, vivid, impressive, but monotonous
and hard to distinguish in memory, like the waves of the sea or the
decorations of some barbarous temple, sublime only by the infinite
aggregation of parts.

This abundance of detail without organization, this wealth of
perception without intelligence and of imagination without taste, makes
the singularity of Whitman's genius. Full of sympathy and receptivity,
with a wonderful gift of graphic characterization and an occasional
rare grandeur of diction, he fills us with a sense of the individuality
and the universality of what he describes--it is a drop in itself yet a
drop in the ocean. The absence of any principle of selection or of a
sustained style enables him to render aspects of things and of emotion
which would have eluded a trained writer. He is, therefore, interesting
even where he is grotesque or perverse. He has accomplished, by the
sacrifice of almost every other good quality, something never so well
done before. He has approached common life without bringing in his
mind any higher standard by which to criticise it; he has seen it,
not in contrast with an ideal, but as the expression of forces more
indeterminate and elementary than itself; and the vulgar, in this
cosmic setting, has appeared to him sublime.

There is clearly some analogy between a mass of images without
structure and the notion of an absolute democracy. Whitman, inclined
by his genius and habits to see life without relief or organization,
believed that his inclination in this respect corresponded with the
spirit of his age and country, and that Nature and society, at least
in the United States, were constituted after the fashion of his own
mind. Being the poet of the average man, he wished, all men to be
specimens of that average, and being the poet of a fluid Nature, he
believed that Nature was or should be a formless flux. This personal
bias of Whitman's was further encouraged by the actual absence of
distinction in his immediate environment. Surrounded by ugly things
and common people, he felt himself happy, ecstatic, overflowing with a
kind of patriarchal love. He accordingly came to think that there was
a spirit of the New World which he embodied, and which was in complete
opposition to that of the Old, and that a literature upon novel
principles was needed to express and strengthen this American spirit.

Democracy was not to be merely a constitutional device for the better
government of given nations, not merely a movement for the material
improvement of the lot of the poorer classes. It was to be a social
and a moral democracy and to involve an actual equality among all
men. Whatever kept them apart and made it impossible for them to be
messmates together was to be discarded. The literature of democracy
was to ignore all extraordinary gifts of genius or virtue, all
distinction drawn even from great passions or romantic adventures. In
Whitman's works, in which this new literature is foreshadowed, there
is accordingly not a single character nor a single story. His only
hero is Myself, the "single separate person," endowed with the primary
impulses, with health, and with sensitiveness to the elementary aspects
of Nature. The perfect man of the future, the prolific begetter of
other perfect men, is to work with his hands, chanting the poems of
some future Walt, some ideally democratic bard. Women are to have
as nearly as possible the same character as men: the emphasis is to
pass from family life and local ties to the friendship of comrades and
the general brotherhood of man. Men are to be vigorous, comfortable,
sentimental, and irresponsible.

This dream is, of course, unrealized and unrealizable, in America as
elsewhere. Undeniably there are in America many suggestions of such
a society and such a national character. But the growing complexity
and fixity of institutions necessarily tends to obscure these traits
of a primitive and crude democracy. What Whitman seized upon as the
promise of the future was in reality the survival of the past. He
sings the song of pioneers, but it is in the nature of the pioneer
that the greater his success the quicker must be his transformation
into something different. When Whitman made the initial and amorphous
phase of society his ideal, he became the prophet of a lost cause.
That cause was lost, not merely when wealth and intelligence began
to take shape in the American Commonwealth, but it was lost at the
very foundation of the world, when those laws of evolution were
established which Whitman, like Rousseau, failed to understand. If we
may trust Mr. Herbert Spencer, these laws involve a passage from the
homogeneous to the heterogeneous, and a constant progress at once in
differentiation and in organization--all, in a word, that Whitman
systematically deprecated or ignored. He is surely not the spokesman
of the tendencies of his country, although he describes some aspects
of its past and present condition: nor does he appeal to those whom he
describes, but rather to the _dilettanti_ he despises. He is regarded
as representative chiefly by foreigners, who look for some grotesque
expression of the genius of so young and prodigious a people.

Whitman, it is true, loved and comprehended men; but this love and
comprehension had the same limits as his love and comprehension of
Nature. He observed truly and responded to his observation with genuine
and pervasive emotion. A great gregariousness, an innocent tolerance of
moral weakness, a genuine admiration for bodily health and strength,
made him bubble over with affection for the generic human creature.
Incapable of an ideal passion, he was full of the milk of human
kindness. Yet, for all his acquaintance with the ways and thoughts of
the common man of his choice, he did not truly understand him. For to
understand people is to go much deeper than they go themselves; to
penetrate to their characters and disentangle their inmost ideals.
Whitman's insight into man did not go beyond a sensuous sympathy;
it consisted in a vicarious satisfaction in their pleasures, and an
instinctive love of their persons. It never approached a scientific or
imaginative knowledge of their hearts.

Therefore Whitman failed radically in his dearest ambition: he can
never be a poet of the people. For the people, like the early races
whose poetry was ideal, are natural believers in perfection. They
have no doubts about the absolute desirability of wealth and learning
and power, none about the worth of pure goodness and pure love. Their
chosen poets, if they have any, will be always those who have known how
to paint these ideals in lively even if in gaudy colours. Nothing is
farther from the common people than the corrupt desire to be primitive.
They instinctively look toward a more exalted life, which they imagine
to be full of distinction and pleasure, and the idea of that brighter
existence fills them with hope or with envy or with humble admiration.

If the people are ever won over to hostility to such ideals, it is
only because they are cheated by demagogues who tell them that if
all the flowers of civilization were destroyed its fruits would
become more abundant. A greater share of happiness, people think,
would fall to their lot could they destroy everything beyond their
own possible possessions. But they are made thus envious and ignoble
only by a deception: what they really desire is an ideal good for
themselves which they are told they may secure by depriving others of
their preeminence. Their hope is always to enjoy perfect satisfaction
themselves; and therefore a poet who loves the picturesque aspects of
labour and vagrancy will hardly be the poet of the poor. He may have
described their figure and occupation, in neither of which they are
much interested; he will not have read their souls. They will prefer
to him any sentimental story-teller, any sensational dramatist, any
moralizing poet; for they are hero-worshippers by temperament, and are
too wise or too unfortunate to be much enamoured of themselves or of
the conditions of their existence.

Fortunately, the political theory that makes Whitman's principle of
literary prophecy and criticism does not always inspire his chants, nor
is it presented, even in his prose works, quite bare and unadorned.
In "Democratic Vistas" we find it clothed with something of the same
poetic passion and lighted up with the same flashes of intuition which
we admire in the poems. Even there the temperament is finer than
the ideas and the poet wiser than the thinker. His ultimate appeal
is really to something more primitive and general than any social
aspirations, to something more elementary than an ideal of any kind. He
speaks to those minds and to those moods in which sensuality is touched
with mysticism. When the intellect is in abeyance, when we would "turn
and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained,"
when we are weary of conscience and of ambition, and would yield
ourselves for a while to the dream of sense, Walt Whitman is a welcome
companion. The images he arouses in us, fresh, full of light and health
and of a kind of frankness and beauty, are prized all the more at such
a time because they are not choice, but drawn perhaps from a hideous
and sordid environment. For this circumstance makes them a better means
of escape from convention and from that fatigue and despair which
lurk not far beneath the surface of conventional life. In casting off
with self-assurance and a sense of fresh vitality the distinctions of
tradition and reason a man may feel, as he sinks back comfortably to
a lower level of sense and instinct, that he is returning to Nature
or escaping into the infinite. Mysticism makes us proud and happy to
renounce the work of intelligence, both in thought and in life, and
persuades us that we become divine by remaining imperfectly human. Walt
Whitman gives a new expression to this ancient and multiform tendency.
He feels his own cosmic justification and he would lend the sanction
of his inspiration to all loafers and holiday-makers. He would be the
congenial patron of farmers and factory hands in their crude pleasures
and pieties, as Pan was the patron of the shepherds of Arcadia: for
he is sure that in spite of his hairiness and animality, the gods
will acknowledge him as one of themselves and smile upon him from the
serenity of Olympus.



If we would do justice to Browning's work as a human document, and
at the same time perceive its relation to the rational ideals of
the imagination and to that poetry which passes into religion, we
must keep, as in the case of Whitman, two things in mind. One is the
genuineness of the achievement, the sterling quality of the vision and
inspiration; these are their own justification when we approach them
from below and regard them as manifesting a more direct or impassioned
grasp of experience than is given to mildly blatant, convention-ridden
minds. The other thing to remember is the short distance to which this
comprehension is carried, its failure to approach any finality, or to
achieve a recognition even of the traditional ideals of poetry and

In the case of Walt Whitman such a failure will be generally felt;
it is obvious that both his music and his philosophy are those of
a barbarian, nay, almost of a savage. Accordingly there is need of
dwelling rather on the veracity and simple dignity of his thought and
art, on their expression of an order of ideas latent in all better
experience. But in the case of Browning it is the success that is
obvious to most people. Apart from a certain superficial grotesqueness
to which we are soon accustomed, he easily arouses and engages the
reader by the pithiness of his phrase, the volume of his passion, the
vigour of his moral judgment, the liveliness of his historical fancy.
It is obvious that we are in the presence of a great writer, of a great
imaginative force, of a master in the expression of emotion. What
is perhaps not so obvious, but no less true, is that we are in the
presence of a barbaric genius, of a truncated imagination, of a thought
and an art inchoate and ill-digested, of a volcanic eruption that
tosses itself quite blindly and ineffectually into the sky.

The points of comparison by which this becomes clear are perhaps
not in every one's mind, although they are merely the elements of
traditional culture, æsthetic and moral. Yet even without reference
to ultimate ideals, one may notice in Browning many superficial signs
of that deepest of all failures, the failure in rationality and the
indifference to perfection. Such a sign is the turgid style, weighty
without nobility, pointed without naturalness or precision. Another
sign is the "realism" of the personages, who, quite like men and women
in actual life, are always displaying traits of character and never
attaining character as a whole. Other hints might be found in the
structure of the poems, where the dramatic substance does not achieve
a dramatic form; in the metaphysical discussion, with its confused
prolixity and absence of result; in the moral ideal, where all energies
figure without their ultimate purposes; in the religion, which breaks
off the expression of this life in the middle, and finds in that
suspense an argument for immortality. In all this, and much more that
might be recalled, a person coming to Browning with the habits of a
cultivated mind might see evidence of some profound incapacity in
the poet; but more careful reflection is necessary to understand the
nature of this incapacity, its cause, and the peculiar accent which its
presence gives to those ideas and impulses which Browning stimulates in

There is the more reason for developing this criticism (which might
seem needlessly hostile and which time and posterity will doubtless
make in their own quiet and decisive fashion) in that Browning did not
keep within the sphere of drama and analysis, where he was strong, but
allowed his own temperament and opinions to vitiate his representation
of life, so that he sometimes turned the expression of a violent
passion into the last word of what he thought a religion. He had a
didactic vein, a habit of judging the spectacle he evoked and of
loading the passions he depicted with his visible sympathy or scorn.

Now a chief support of Browning's popularity is that he is, for
many, an initiator into the deeper mysteries of passion, a means of
escaping from the moral poverty of their own lives and of feeling the
rhythm and compulsion of the general striving. He figures, therefore,
distinctly as a prophet, as a bearer of glad tidings, and it is easy
for those who hail him as such to imagine that, knowing the labour of
life so well, he must know something also of its fruits, and that in
giving us the feeling of existence, he is also giving us its meaning.
There is serious danger that a mind gathering from his pages the raw
materials of truth, the unthreshed harvest of reality, may take him for
a philosopher, for a rationalizer of what he describes. Awakening may
be mistaken for enlightenment, and the galvanizing of torpid sensations
and impulses for wisdom.

Against such fatuity reason should raise her voice. The vital and
historic forces that produce illusions of this sort in large groups of
men are indeed beyond the control of criticism. The ideas of passion
are more vivid than those of memory, until they become memories in
turn. They must be allowed to fight out their desperate battle against
the laws of Nature and reason. But it is worth while in the meantime,
for the sake of the truth and of a just philosophy, to meet the varying
though perpetual charlatanism of the world with a steady protest. As
soon as Browning is proposed to us as a leader, as soon as we are asked
to be not the occasional patrons of his art, but the pupils of his
philosophy, we have a right to express the radical dissatisfaction
which we must feel, if we are rational, with his whole attitude and
temper of mind.

The great dramatists have seldom dealt with perfectly virtuous
characters. The great poets have seldom represented mythologies that
would bear scientific criticism. But by an instinct which constituted
their greatness they have cast these mixed materials furnished by life
into forms congenial to the specific principles of their art, and by
this transformation they have made acceptable in the æsthetic sphere
things that in the sphere of reality were evil or imperfect: in a word,
their works have been beautiful as works of art. Or, if their genius
exceeded that of the technical poet and rose to prophetic intuition,
they have known how to create ideal characters, not possessed, perhaps,
of every virtue accidentally needed in this world, but possessed of
what is ideally better, of internal greatness and perfection. They
have also known how to select and reconstruct their mythology so as to
make it a true interpretation of moral life. When we read the maxims
of Iago, Falstaff, or Hamlet, we are delighted if the thought strikes
us as true, but we are not less delighted if it strikes us as false.
These characters are not presented to us in order to enlarge our
capacities of passion nor in order to justify themselves as processes
of redemption; they are there, clothed in poetry and imbedded in plot,
to entertain us with their imaginable feelings and their interesting
errors. The poet, without being especially a philosopher, stands by
virtue of his superlative genius on the plane of universal reason, far
above the passionate experience which he overlooks and on which he
reflects; and he raises us for the moment to his own level, to send
us back again, if not better endowed for practical life, at least not
unacquainted with speculation.

With Browning the case is essentially different. When his heroes are
blinded by passion and warped by circumstance, as they almost always
are, he does not describe the fact from the vantage-ground of the
intellect and invite us to look at it from that point of view. On the
contrary, his art is all self-expression or satire. For the most part
his hero, like Whitman's, is himself; not appearing, as in the case
of the American bard, _in puris naturalibus,_ but masked in all sorts
of historical and romantic finery. Sometimes, however, the personage,
like Guido in "The Ring and the Book" or the "frustrate ghosts" of
other poems, is merely a Marsyas, shown flayed and quivering to the
greater glory of the poet's ideal Apollo. The impulsive utterances and
the crudities of most of the speakers are passionately adopted by the
poet as his own. He thus perverts what might have been a triumph of
imagination into a failure of reason.

This circumstance has much to do with the fact that Browning, in spite
of his extraordinary gift for expressing emotion, has hardly produced
works purely and unconditionally delightful. They not only portray
passion, which is interesting, but they betray it, which is odious.
His art was still in the service of the will. He had not attained, in
studying the beauty of things, that detachment of the phenomenon, that
love of the form for its own sake, which is the secret of contemplative
satisfaction. Therefore, the lamentable accidents of his personality
and opinions, in themselves no worse than those of other mortals,
passed into his art. He did not seek to elude them: he had no free
speculative faculty to dominate them by. Or, to put the same thing
differently, he was too much in earnest in his fictions, he threw
himself too unreservedly into his creations. His imagination, like
the imagination we have in dreams, was merely a vent for personal
preoccupations. His art was inspired by purposes less simple and
universal than the ends of imagination itself. His play of mind
consequently could not be free or pure. The creative impulse could not
reach its goal or manifest in any notable degree its own organic ideal.

We may illustrate these assertions by considering Browning's treatment
of the passion of love, a passion to which he gives great prominence
and in which he finds the highest significance.

Love is depicted by Browning with truth, with vehemence, and with
the constant conviction that it is the supreme thing in life. The
great variety of occasions in which it appears in his pages and the
different degrees of elaboration it receives, leave it always of the
same quality--the quality of passion. It never sinks into sensuality;
in spite of its frequent extreme crudeness, it is always, in Browning's
hands, a passion of the imagination, it is always love. On the other
hand it never rises into contemplation: mingled as it may be with
friendship, with religion, or with various forms of natural tenderness,
it always remains a passion; it always remains a personal impulse,
a hypnotization, with another person for its object or its cause.
Kept within these limits it is represented, in a series of powerful
sketches, which are for most readers the gems of the Browning gallery,
as the last word of experience, the highest phase of human life.

        "The woman yonder, there's no use in life
    But just to obtain her! Heap earth's woes in one
    And bear them--make a pile of all earth's joys
    And spurn them, as they help or help not this;
    Only, obtain her!"
    "When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
            Either hand
    On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
            Of my face,
    Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
            Each on each....
    O  heart, O blood that freezes, blood that burns!
            Earth's returns
    For whole centuries of folly, noise, and sin--
            Shut them in--
    With their triumphs and their follies and the rest.
            Love is best."

In the piece called "In a Gondola" the lady says to her lover:--

                      "Heart to heart
    And lips to lips! Yet once more, ere we part,
    Clasp me and make me thine, as mine thou art."

And he, after being surprised and stabbed in her arms, replies:--

    "It was ordained to be so, sweet!--and best
     Comes now, beneath thine eyes, upon thy breast:
     Still kiss me! Care not for the cowards; care
     Only to put aside thy beauteous hair
     My blood will hurt! The Three I do not scorn
     To death, because they never lived, but I
     Have lived indeed, and so--(yet one more kiss)--can die."

We are not allowed to regard these expressions as the cries of souls
blinded by the agony of passion and lust. Browning unmistakably adopts
them as expressing his own highest intuitions. He so much admires the
strength of this weakness that he does not admit that it is a weakness
at all. It is with the strut of self-satisfaction, with the sensation,
almost, of muscular Christianity, that he boasts of it through the
mouth of one of his heroes, who is explaining to his mistress the
motive of his faithful services as a minister of the queen:--

         "She thinks there was more cause
    In love of power, high fame, pure loyalty?
    Perhaps she fancies men wear out their lives
    Chasing such shades....
    I worked because I want you with my soul."

Readers of the fifth chapter of this volume need not be reminded here
of the contrast which this method of understanding love offers to that
adopted by the real masters of passion and imagination. They began with
that crude emotion with which Browning ends; they lived it down, they
exalted it by thought, they extracted the pure gold of it in a long
purgation of discipline and suffering. The fierce paroxysm which for
him is heaven, was for them the proof that heaven cannot be found on
earth, that the value of experience is not in experience itself but
in the ideals which it reveals. The intense, voluminous emotion, the
sudden, overwhelming self-surrender in which he rests was for them
the starting-point of a life of rational worship, of an austere and
impersonal religion, by which the fire of love, kindled for a moment by
the sight of some creature, was put, as it were, into a censer, to burn
incense before every image of the Highest Good. Thus love ceased to be
a passion and became the energy of contemplation: it diffused over the
universe, natural and ideal, that light of tenderness and that faculty
of worship which the passion of love often is first to quicken in a
man's breast.

Of this art, recommended by Plato and practised in the Christian Church
by all adepts of the spiritual life, Browning knew absolutely nothing.
About the object of love he had no misgivings. What could the object
be except somebody or other? The important thing was to love intensely
and to love often. He remained in the phenomenal sphere: he was a lover
of experience; the ideal did not exist for him. No conception could be
farther from his thought than the essential conception of any rational
philosophy, namely, that feeling is to be treated as raw material
for thought, and that the destiny of emotion is to pass into objects
which shall contain all its value while losing all its formlessness.
This transformation of sense and emotion into objects agreeable to
the intellect, into clear ideas and beautiful things, is the natural
work of reason; when it has been accomplished very imperfectly, or not
at all, we have a barbarous mind, a mind full of chaotic sensations,
objectless passions, and undigested ideas. Such a mind Browning's was,
to a degree remarkable in one with so rich a heritage of civilization.

The nineteenth century, as we have already said, has nourished the hope
of abolishing the past as a force while it studies it as an object; and
Browning, with his fondness for a historical stage setting and for the
gossip of history, rebelled equally against the Pagan and the Christian
discipline. The "Soul" which he trusted in was the barbarous soul,
the "Spontaneous Me" of his half-brother Whitman. It was a restless
personal impulse, conscious of obscure depths within itself which it
fancied to be infinite, and of a certain vague sympathy with wind and
cloud and with the universal mutation. It was the soul that might have
animated Attila and Alaric when they came down into Italy, a soul not
incurious of the tawdriness and corruption of the strange civilization
it beheld, but incapable of understanding its original spirit; a soul
maintaining in the presence of that noble, unappreciated ruin all its
own lordliness and energy, and all its native vulgarity.

Browning, who had not had the education traditional in his own country,
used to say that Italy had been his university. But it was a school for
which he was ill prepared, and he did not sit under its best teachers.
For the superficial ferment, the worldly passions, and the crimes of
the Italian Renaissance he had a keen interest and intelligence. But
Italy has been always a civilized country, and beneath the trappings
and suits of civilization which at that particular time it flaunted
so gayly, it preserved a civilized heart to which Browning's insight
could never penetrate. There subsisted in the best minds a trained
imagination and a cogent ideal of virtue. Italy had a religion, and
that religion permeated all its life, and was the background without
which even its secular art and secular passions would not be truly
intelligible. The most commanding and representative, the deepest and
most appealing of Italian natures are permeated with this religious
inspiration. A Saint Francis, a Dante, a Michael Angelo, breathe hardly
anything else. Yet for Browning these men and what they represented
may be said not to have existed. He saw, he studied, and he painted a
decapitated Italy. His vision could not mount so high as her head.

One of the elements of that higher tradition which Browning was not
prepared to imbibe was the idealization of love. The passion he
represents is lava hot from the crater, in no way moulded, smelted,
or refined. He had no thought of subjugating impulses into the
harmony of reason. He did not master life, but was mastered by it.
Accordingly the love he describes has no wings; it issues in nothing.
His lovers "extinguish sight and speech, each on each"; sense, as
he says elsewhere, drowning soul. The man in the gondola may well
boast that he can die; it is the only thing he can properly do.
Death is the only solution of a love that is tied to its individual
object and inseparable from the alloy of passion and illusion within
itself. Browning's hero, because he has loved intensely, says that
he has lived; he would be right, if the significance of life were
to be measured by the intensity of the feeling it contained, and if
intelligence were not the highest form of vitality. But had that hero
known how to love better and had he had enough spirit to dominate his
love, he might perhaps have been able to carry away the better part of
it and to say that he could not die; for one half of himself and of his
love would have been dead already and the other half would have been
eternal, having fed--

          "On death, that feeds on men;
    And death once dead, there's no more dying then."

The irrationality of the passions which Browning glorifies, making them
the crown of life, is so gross that at times he cannot help perceiving

          "How perplexed
    Grows belief! Well, this cold clay clod
          Was man's heart:
    Crumble it, and what comes next? Is it God?"

Yes, he will tell us. These passions and follies, however desperate in
themselves and however vain for the individual, are excellent as parts
of the dispensation of Providence:--

    "Be hate that fruit or love that fruit,
     It forwards the general deed of man,
     And each of the many helps to recruit
     The life of the race by a general plan,
         Each living his own to boot."

If we doubt, then, the value of our own experience, even perhaps
of our experience of love, we may appeal to the interdependence of
goods and evils in the world to assure ourselves that, in view of
its consequences elsewhere, this experience was great and important
after all. We need not stop to consider this supposed solution, which
bristles with contradictions; it would not satisfy Browning himself,
if he did not back it up with something more to his purpose, something
nearer to warm and transitive feeling. The compensation for our
defeats, the answer to our doubts, is not to be found merely in a proof
of the essential necessity and perfection of the universe; that would
be cold comfort, especially to so uncontemplative a mind. No: that
answer, and compensation are to come very soon and very vividly to
every private bosom. There is another life, a series of other lives,
for this to happen in. Death will come, and--

              "I shall thereupon
         Take rest, ere I be gone
    Once more on my adventure brave and new,
         Fearless and unperplexed,
         When I wage battle next,
    What weapons to select, what armour to endue."

    "For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
           The black minute's at end,
    And the element's rage, the fiend-voices that rave
           Shall dwindle, shall blend,
    Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
           Then a light, then thy breast,
    O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again
           And with God be the rest!"

Into this conception of continued life Browning has put, as a
collection of further passages might easily show, all the items
furnished by fancy or tradition which at the moment satisfied his
imagination--new adventures, reunion with friends, and even, after
a severe strain and for a short while, a little peace and quiet. The
gist of the matter is that we are to live indefinitely, that all our
faults can be turned to good, all our unfinished business settled, and
that therefore there is time for anything we like in this world and
for all we need in the other. It is in spirit the direct opposite of
the philosophic maxim of regarding the end, of taking care to leave a
finished life and a perfect character behind us. It is the opposite,
also, of the religious _memento mori,_ of the warning that the time
is short before we go to our account. According to Browning, there
is no account: we have an infinite credit. With an unconscious and
characteristic mixture of heathen instinct with Christian doctrine, he
thinks of the other world as heaven, but of the life to be led there as
of the life of Nature.

Aristotle observes that we do not think the business of life worthy
of the gods, to whom we can only attribute contemplation; if Browning
had had the idea of perfecting and rationalizing this life rather than
of continuing it indefinitely, he would have followed Aristotle and
the Church in this matter. But he had no idea of anything eternal; and
so he gave, as he would probably have said,' a filling to the empty
Christian immortality by making every man busy in it about many things.
And to the irrational man, to the boy, it is no unpleasant idea to
have an infinite number of days to live through, an infinite number of
dinners to eat, with an infinity of fresh fights and new love-affairs,
and no end of last rides together.

But it is a mere euphemism to call this perpetual vagrancy a
development of the soul. A development means the unfolding of a
definite nature, the gradual manifestation of a known idea. A
series of phases, like the successive leaps of a water-fall, is no
development. And Browning has no idea of an intelligible good which the
phases of life might approach and with reference to which they might
constitute a progress. His notion is simply that the game of life, the
exhilaration of action, is inexhaustible. You may set up your tenpins
again after you have bowled them over, and you may keep up the sport
for ever. The point is to bring them down as often as possible with
a master-stroke and a big bang. That will tend to invigorate in you
that self-confidence which in this system passes for faith. But it is
unmeaning to call such an exercise heaven, or to talk of being "with
God" in such a life, in any sense in which we are not with God already
and under all circumstances. Our destiny would rather be, as Browning
himself expresses it in a phrase which Attila or Alaric might have
composed, "bound dizzily to the wheel of change to slake the thirst of

Such an optimism and such a doctrine of immortality can give no
justification to experience which it does not already have in its
detached parts. Indeed, those dogmas are not the basis of Browning's
attitude, not conditions of his satisfaction in living, but rather
overflowings of that satisfaction. The present life is presumably a
fair average of the whole series of "adventures brave and new" which
fall to each man's share; were it not found delightful in itself, there
would be no motive for imagining and asserting that it is reproduced
_in infinitum_. So too if we did not think that the evil in experience
is actually utilized and visibly swallowed up in its good effects, we
should hardly venture to think that God could have regarded as a good
something which has evil for its condition and which is for that reason
profoundly sad and equivocal. But Browning's philosophy of life and
habit of imagination do not require the support of any metaphysical
theory. His temperament is perfectly self-sufficient and primary; what
doctrines he has are suggested by it and are too loose to give it more
than a hesitant expression; they are quite powerless to give it any
justification which it might lack on its face.

It is the temperament, then, that speaks; we may brush aside as
unsubstantial, and even as distorting, the web of arguments and
theories which it has spun out of itself. And what does the temperament
say? That life is an adventure, not a discipline; that the exercise
of energy is the absolute good, irrespective of motives or of
consequences. These are the maxims of a frank barbarism; nothing could
express better the lust of life, the dogged unwillingness to learn
from experience, the contempt for rationality, the carelessness about
perfection, the admiration for mere force, in which barbarism always
betrays itself. The vague religion which seeks to justify this attitude
is really only another outburst of the same irrational impulse.

In Browning this religion takes the name of Christianity, and
identifies itself with one or two Christian ideas arbitrarily selected;
but at heart it has far more affinity to the worship of Thor or of
Odin than to the religion of the Cross. The zest of life becomes
a cosmic emotion; we lump the whole together and cry, "Hurrah for
the Universe!" A faith which is thus a pure matter of lustiness and
inebriation rises and falls, attracts or repels, with the ebb and flow
of the mood from which it springs. It is invincible because unseizable;
it is as safe from refutation as it is rebellious to embodiment. But
it cannot enlighten or correct the passions on which it feeds. Like
a servile priest, it flatters them in the name of Heaven. It cloaks
irrationality in sanctimony; and its admiration for every bluff folly,
being thus justified by a theory, becomes a positive fanaticism, eager
to defend any wayward impulse.

Such barbarism of temper and thought could hardly, in a man of
Browning's independence and spontaneity, be without its counterpart in
his art. When a man's personal religion is passive, as Shakespeare's
seems to have been, and is adopted without question or particular
interest from the society around him, we may not observe any analogy
between it and the free creations of that man's mind. Not so when the
religion is created afresh by the private imagination; it is then
merely one among many personal works of art, and will naturally bear a
family likeness to the others. The same individual temperament, with
its limitations and its bias, will appear in the art which has appeared
in the religion. And such is the case with Browning. His limitations
as a poet are the counterpart of his limitations as a moralist and
theologian; only in the poet they are not so regrettable. Philosophy
and religion are nothing if not ultimate; it is their business to deal
with general principles and final aims. Now it is in the conception of
things fundamental and ultimate that Browning is weak; he is strong
in the conception of things immediate. The pulse of the emotion, the
bobbing up of the thought, the streaming of the reverie--these he can
note down with picturesque force or imagine with admirable fecundity.

Yet the limits of such excellence are narrow, for no man can safely go
far without the guidance of reason. His long poems have no structure
--for that name cannot be given to the singular mechanical division of
"The Ring and the Book." Even his short poems have no completeness,
no limpidity. They are little torsos made broken so as to stimulate
the reader to the restoration of their missing legs and arms. What is
admirable in them is pregnancy of phrase, vividness of passion and
sentiment, heaped-up scraps of observation, occasional flashes of
light, occasional beauties of versification,--all like

        "the quick sharp scratch
    And blue spurt of a lighted match."

There is never anything largely composed in the spirit of pure beauty,
nothing devotedly finished, nothing simple and truly just. The poet's
mind cannot reach equilibrium; at best he oscillates between opposed
extravagances; his final word is still a _boutade_, still an explosion.
He has no sustained nobility of style. He affects with the reader a
confidential and vulgar manner, so as to be more sincere and to feel
more at home. Even in the poems where the effort at impersonality is
most successful, the dramatic disguise is usually thrown off in a
preface, epilogue or parenthesis. The author likes to remind us of
himself by some confidential wink or genial poke in the ribs, by some
little interlarded sneer. We get in these tricks of manner a taste of
that essential vulgarity, that indifference to purity and distinction,
which is latent but pervasive in all the products of this mind. The
same disdain of perfection which appears in his ethics appears here in
his verse, and impairs its beauty by allowing it to remain too often
obscure, affected, and grotesque.

Such a correspondence is natural: for the same powers of conception
and expression are needed in fiction, which, if turned to reflection,
would produce a good philosophy. Reason is necessary to the perception
of high beauty. Discipline is indispensable to art. Work from which
these qualities are absent must be barbaric; it can have no ideal form
and must appeal to us only through the sensuousness and profusion of
its materials. We are invited by it to lapse into a miscellaneous
appreciativeness, into a subservience to every detached impression. And
yet, if we would only reflect even on these disordered beauties, we
should see that the principle by which they delight us is a principle
by which an ideal, an image of perfection, is inevitably evoked. We
can have no pleasure or pain, nor any preference whatsoever, without
implicitly setting up a standard of excellence, an ideal of what
would satisfy us there. To make these implicit ideals explicit, to
catch their hint, to work out their theme, and express clearly to
ourselves and to the world what they are demanding in the place of the
actual--that is the labour of reason and the task of genius. The two
cannot be divided. Clarification of ideas and disentanglement of values
are as essential to æsthetic activity as to intelligence. A failure of
reason is a failure of art and taste.

The limits of Browning's art, like the limits of Whitman's, can
therefore be understood by considering his mental habit. Both poets
had powerful imaginations, but the type of their imaginations was low.
In Whitman imagination was limited to marshalling sensations in single
file; the embroideries he made around that central line were simple and
insignificant. His energy was concentrated on that somewhat animal form
of contemplation, of which, for the rest, he was a great, perhaps an
unequalled master. Browning rose above that level; with him sensation
is usually in the background; he is not particularly a poet of the
senses or of ocular vision. His favourite subject-matter is rather the
stream of thought and feeling in the mind; he is the poet of soliloquy.
Nature and life as they really are, rather than as they may appear to
the ignorant and passionate participant in them, lie beyond his range.
Even in his best dramas, like "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon" or "Colombe's
Birthday," the interest remains in the experience of the several
persons as they explain it to us. The same is the case in "The King and
the Book," the conception of which, in twelve monstrous soliloquies, is
a striking evidence of the poet's predilection for this form.

The method is, to penetrate by sympathy rather than to portray by
intelligence. The most authoritative insight is not the poet's or the
spectator's, aroused and enlightened by the spectacle, but the various
heroes' own, in their moment of intensest passion. We therefore miss
the tragic relief and exaltation, and come away instead with the
uncomfortable feeling that an obstinate folly is apparently the most
glorious and choiceworthy thing in the world. This is evidently the
poet's own illusion, and those who do not happen to share it must feel
that if life were really as irrational as he thinks it, it would be
not only profoundly discouraging, which it often is, but profoundly
disgusting, which it surely is not; for at least it reveals the ideal
which it fails to attain.

This ideal Browning never disentangles. For him the crude experience is
the only end, the endless struggle the only ideal, and the perturbed
"Soul" the only organon of truth. The arrest of his intelligence at
this point, before it has envisaged any rational object, explains the
arrest of his dramatic art at soliloquy. His immersion in the forms of
self-consciousness prevents him from dramatizing the real relations
of men and their thinkings to one another, to Nature, and to destiny.
For in order to do so he would have had to view his characters from
above (as Cervantes did, for instance), and to see them not merely
as they appeared to themselves, but as they appear to reason. This
higher attitude, however, was not only beyond Browning's scope, it
was positively contrary to his inspiration. Had he reached it, he
would no longer have seen the universe through the "Soul," but through
the intellect, and he would not have been able to cry, "How the
world is made for each one of us!" On the contrary, the "Soul" would
have figured only in its true conditions, in all its ignorance and
dependence, and also in its essential teachableness, a point against
which Browning's barbaric wilfulness particularly rebelled. Booted
in his persuasion that the soul is essentially omnipotent and that
to live hard can never be to live wrong, he remained fascinated by
the march and method of self-consciousness, and never allowed himself
to be weaned from that romantic fatuity by the energy of rational
imagination, which prompts us not to regard our ideas as mere filling
of a dream, but rather to build on them the conception of permanent
objects and overruling principles, such as Nature, society, and the
other ideals of reason. A full-grown imagination deals with these
things, which do not obey the laws of psychological progression, and
cannot be described by the methods of soliloquy.

We thus see that Browning's sphere, though more subtle and complex
than Whitman's, was still elementary. It lay far below the spheres of
social and historical reality in which Shakespeare moved; far below
the comprehensive and cosmic sphere of every great epic poet. Browning
did not even reach the intellectual plane of such contemporary poets
as Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, who, whatever may be thought of their
powers, did not study consciousness for itself, but for the sake of
its meaning and of the objects which it revealed. The best things that
come into a man's consciousness are the things that take him out of
it--the rational things that are independent of his personal perception
and of his personal existence. These he approaches with his reason,
and they, in the same measure, endow him with their immortality. But
precisely these things--the objects of science and of the constructive
imagination--Browning always saw askance, in the out-skirts of his
field of vision, for his eye was fixed and riveted on the soliloquizing
Soul. And this Soul being, to his apprehension, irrational, did not
give itself over to those permanent objects which might otherwise have
occupied it, but ruminated on its own accidental emotions, on its
love-affairs, and on its hopes of going on so ruminating for ever.

The pathology of the human mind--for the normal, too, is pathological
when it is not referred to the ideal--the pathology of the human
mind is a very interesting subject, demanding great gifts and great
ingenuity in its treatment. Browning ministers to this interest, and
possesses this ingenuity and these gifts. More than any other poet he
keeps a kind of speculation alive in the now large body of sentimental,
eager-minded people, who no longer can find in a definite religion a
form and language for their imaginative life. That this service is
greatly appreciated speaks well for the ineradicable tendency in man to
study himself and his destiny. We do not deny the achievement when we
point out its nature and limitations. It does not cease to be something
because it is taken to be more than it is.

In every imaginative sphere the nineteenth century has been an era
of chaos, as it has been an era of order and growing organization in
the spheres of science and of industry. An ancient doctrine of the
philosophers asserts that to chaos the world must ultimately return.
And what is perhaps true of the cycles of cosmic change is certainly
true of the revolutions of culture. Nothing lasts for ever: languages,
arts, and religions disintegrate with time. Yet the perfecting of such
forms is the only criterion of progress; the destruction of them the
chief evidence of decay. Perhaps fate intends that we should have, in
our imaginative decadence, the consolation of fancying that we are
still progressing, and that the disintegration of religion and the
arts is bringing us nearer to the protoplasm of sensation and passion.
If energy and actuality are all that we care for, chaos is as good as
order, and barbarism as good as discipline--better, perhaps, since
impulse is not then restrained within any bounds of reason or beauty.
But if the powers of the human mind are at any time adequate to the
task of digesting experience, clearness and order inevitably supervene.
The moulds of thought are imposed upon Nature, and the conviction of a
definite truth arises together with the vision of a supreme perfection.
It is only at such periods that the human animal vindicates his title
of rational. If such an epoch should return, people will no doubt
retrace our present gropings with interest and see in them gradual
approaches to their own achievement. Whitman and Browning might well
figure then as representatives of our time. For the merit of being
representative cannot be denied them. The mind of our age, like theirs,
is choked with materials, emotional, and inconclusive. They merely
aggravate our characteristics, and their success with us is due partly
to their own absolute strength and partly to our common weakness. If
once, however, this imaginative weakness could be overcome, and a form
found for the crude matter of experience, men might look back from the
height of a new religion and a new poetry upon the present troubles of
the spirit; and perhaps even these things might then be pleasant to



Those who knew Emerson, or who stood so near to his time and to his
circle that they caught some echo of his personal influence, did
not judge him merely as a poet or philosopher, nor identify his
efficacy with that of his writings. His friends and neighbours, the
congregations he preached to in his younger days, the audiences that
afterward listened to his lectures, all agreed in a veneration for his
person which had nothing to do with their understanding or acceptance
of his opinions. They flocked to him and listened to his word, not
so much for the sake of its absolute meaning as for the atmosphere
of candour, purity, and serenity that hung about it, as about a sort
of sacred music. They felt themselves in the presence of a rare and
beautiful spirit, who was in communion with a higher world. More than
the truth his teaching might express, they valued the sense it gave
them of a truth that was inexpressible. They became aware, if we may
say so, of the ultra-violet rays of his spectrum, of the inaudible
highest notes of his gamut, too pure and thin for common ears.

This effect was by no means due to the possession on the part of
Emerson of the secret of the universe, or even of a definite conception
of ultimate truth. He was not a prophet who had once for all climbed
his Sinai or his Tabor, and having there beheld the transfigured
reality, descended again to make authoritative report of it to the
world. Far from it. At bottom he had no doctrine at all. The deeper he
went and the more he tried to grapple with fundamental conceptions,
the vaguer and more elusive they became in his hands. Did he know what
he meant by Spirit or the "Over-Soul"? Could he say what he understood
by the terms, so constantly on his lips, Nature, Law, God, Benefit, or
Beauty? He could not, and the consciousness of that incapacity was so
lively within him that he never attempted to give articulation to his
philosophy. His finer instinct kept him from doing that violence to his

The source of his power lay not in his doctrine, but in his
temperament, and the rare quality of his wisdom was due less to his
reason than to his imagination. Reality eluded him; he had neither
diligence nor constancy enough to master and possess it; but his mind
was open to all philosophic influences, from whatever quarter they
might blow; the lessons of science and the hints of poetry worked
themselves out in him to a free and personal religion. He differed from
the plodding many, not in knowing things better, but in having more
ways of knowing them. His grasp was not particularly firm, he was far
from being, like a Plato or an Aristotle, past master in the art and
the science of life. But his mind was endowed with unusual plasticity,
with unusual spontaneity and liberty of movement--it was a fairyland
of thoughts and fancies. He was like a young god making experiments in
creation: he blotched the work, and always began again on a new and
better plan. Every day he said, "Let there be light," and every day the
light was new. His sun, like that of Heraclitus, was different every

What seemed, then, to the more earnest and less critical of his
hearers a revelation from above was in truth rather an insurrection
from beneath, a shaking loose from convention, a disintegration of
the normal categories of reason in favour of various imaginative
principles, on which the world might have been built, if it had been
built differently. This gift of revolutionary thinking allowed new
aspects, hints of wider laws, premonitions of unthought of fundamental
unities to spring constantly into view. But such visions were
necessarily fleeting, because the human mind had long before settled
its grammar, and discovered, after much groping and many defeats, the
general forms in which experience will allow itself to be stated. These
general forms are the principles of common sense and positive science,
no less imaginative in their origin than those notions which we now
call transcendental, but grown prosaic, like the metaphors of common
speech, by dint of repetition.

Yet authority, even of this rational kind, sat lightly upon Emerson. To
reject tradition and think as one might have thought if no man had ever
existed before was indeed the aspiration of the Transcendentalists, and
although Emerson hardly regarded himself as a member of that school,
he largely shared its tendency and passed for its spokesman. Without
protesting against tradition, he smilingly eluded it in his thoughts,
untamable in their quiet irresponsibility. He fled to his woods or
to his "pleached garden," to be the creator of his own worlds in
solitude and freedom. No wonder that he brought thence to the tightly
conventional minds of his contemporaries a breath as if from paradise.
His simplicity in novelty, his profundity, his ingenuous ardour must
have seemed to them something heavenly, and they may be excused if they
thought they detected inspiration even in his occasional thin paradoxes
and guileless whims. They were stifled with conscience and he brought
them a breath of Nature; they were surfeited with shallow controversies
and he gave them poetic truth.

Imagination, indeed, is his single theme. As a preacher might under
every text enforce the same lessons of the gospel, so Emerson traces
in every sphere the same spiritual laws of experience--compensation,
continuity, the self-expression of the Soul in the forms of Nature
and of society, until she finally recognizes herself in her own work
and sees its beneficence and beauty. His constant refrain is the
omnipotence of imaginative thought; its power first to make the world,
then to understand it, and finally to rise above it. All Nature is
an embodiment of our native fancy, all history a drama in which the
innate possibilities of the spirit are enacted and realized. While
the conflict of life and the shocks of experience seem to bring us
face to face with an alien and overwhelming power, reflection can
humanize and rationalize that power by conceiving its laws; and with
this recognition of the rationality of all things comes the sense of
their beauty and order. The destruction which Nature seems to prepare
for our special hopes is thus seen to be the victory of our impersonal
interests. To awaken in us this spiritual insight, an elevation of mind
which is at once an act of comprehension and of worship, to substitute
it for lower passions and more servile forms of intelligence--that
is Emerson's constant effort. All his resources of illustration,
observation, and rhetoric are used to deepen and clarify this sort of

Such thought is essentially the same that is found in the German
romantic or idealistic philosophers, with whom Emerson's affinity
is remarkable, all the more as he seems to have borrowed little
or nothing from their works. The critics of human nature, in the
eighteenth century, had shown how much men's ideas depend on their
predispositions, on the character of their senses and the habits of
their intelligence. Seizing upon this thought and exaggerating it, the
romantic philosophers attributed to the spirit of man the omnipotence
which had belonged to God, and felt that in this way they were
reasserting the supremacy of mind over matter and establishing it upon
a safe and rational basis.

The Germans were great system-makers, and Emerson cannot rival them in
the sustained effort of thought by which they sought to reinterpret
every sphere of being according to their chosen principles. But he
surpassed them in an instinctive sense of what he was doing. He never
represented his poetry as science, nor countenanced the formation of
a new sect that should nurse the sense of a private and mysterious
illumination, and relight the fagots of passion and prejudice. He
never tried to seek out and defend the universal implications of his
ideas, and never wrote the book he had once planned on the law of
compensation, foreseeing, we may well believe, the sophistries in which
he would have been directly involved. He fortunately preferred a fresh
statement on a fresh subject. A suggestion once given, the spirit once
aroused to speculation, a glimpse once gained of some ideal harmony,
he chose to descend again to common sense and to touch the earth for a
moment before another flight. The faculty of idealization was itself
what he valued. Philosophy for him was rather a moral energy flowering
into sprightliness of thought than a body of serious and defensible
doctrines. In practising transcendental speculation only in this poetic
and sporadic fashion, Emerson retained its true value and avoided its
greatest danger. He secured the freedom and fertility of his thought
and did not allow one conception of law or one hint of harmony to
sterilize the mind and prevent the subsequent birth within it of other
ideas, no less just and imposing than their predecessors. For we are
not dealing at all in such a philosophy with matters of fact or with
such verifiable truths as exclude their opposites. We are dealing only
with imagination, with the art of conception, and with the various
forms in which reflection, like a poet, may compose and recompose human

A certain disquiet mingled, however, in the minds of Emerson's
contemporaries with the admiration they felt for his purity and
genius. They saw that he had forsaken the doctrines of the Church; and
they were not sure whether he held quite unequivocally any doctrine
whatever. We may not all of us share the concern for orthodoxy which
usually caused this puzzled alarm: we may understand that it was not
Emerson's vocation to be definite and dogmatic in religion any more
than in philosophy. Yet that disquiet will not, even for us, wholly
disappear. It is produced by a defect which naturally accompanies
imagination in all but the greatest minds. I mean disorganization.
Emerson not only conceived things in new ways, but he seemed to think
the new ways might cancel and supersede the old. His imagination was
to invalidate the understanding. That inspiration which should come
to fulfil seemed too often to come to destroy. If he was able so
constantly to stimulate us to fresh thoughts, was it not because he
demolished the labour of long ages of reflection? Was not the startling
effect of much of his writing due to its contradiction to tradition and
to common sense?

So long as he is a poet and in the enjoyment of his poetic license, we
can blame this play of mind only by a misunderstanding. It is possible
to think otherwise than as common sense thinks; there are other
categories beside those of science. When we employ them we enlarge
our lives. We add to the world of fact any number of worlds of the
imagination in which human nature and the eternal relations of ideas
may be nobly expressed. So far our imaginative fertility is only a
benefit: it surrounds us with the congenial and necessary radiation
of art and religion. It manifests our moral vitality in the bosom of

But sometimes imagination invades the sphere of understanding and seems
to discredit its indispensable work. Common sense, we are allowed to
infer, is a shallow affair: true insight changes all that. When so
applied, poetic activity is not an unmixed good. It loosens our hold on
fact and confuses our intelligence, so that we forget that intelligence
has itself every prerogative of imagination, and has besides the
sanction of practical validity. We are made to believe that since the
understanding is something human and conditioned, something which might
have been different, as the senses might have been different, and
which we may yet, so to speak, get behind--therefore the understanding
ought to be abandoned. We long for higher faculties, neglecting those
we have, we yearn for intuition, closing our eyes upon experience. We
become mystical.

Mysticism, as we have said, is the surrender of a category of thought
because we divine its relativity. As every new category, however, must
share this reproach, the mystic is obliged in the end to give them all
up, the poetic and moral categories no less than the physical, so that
the end of his purification is the atrophy of his whole nature, the
emptying of his whole heart and mind to make room, as he thinks, for
God. By attacking the authority of the understanding as the organon
of knowledge, by substituting itself for it as the herald of a deeper
truth, the imagination thus prepares its own destruction. For if the
understanding is rejected because it cannot grasp the absolute, the
imagination and all its works--art, dogma, worship--must presently be
rejected for the same reason. Common sense and poetry must both go by
the board, and conscience must follow after: for all these are human
and relative. Mysticism will be satisfied only with the absolute, and
as the absolute, by its very definition, is not representable by any
specific faculty, it must be approached through the abandonment of all.
The lights of life must be extinguished that the light of the absolute
may shine, and the possession of everything in general must be secured
by the surrender of everything in particular.

The same diffidence, however, the same constant renewal of sincerity
which kept Emerson's flights of imagination near to experience, kept
his mysticism also within bounds. A certain mystical tendency is
pervasive with him, but there are only one or two subjects on which
he dwells with enough constancy and energy of attention to make his
mystical treatment of them pronounced. One of these is the question
of the unity of all minds in the single soul of the universe, which
is the same in all creatures; another is the question of evil and
of its evaporation in the universal harmony of things. Both these
ideas suggest themselves at certain turns in every man's experience,
and might receive a rational formulation. But they are intricate
subjects, obscured by many emotional prejudices, so that the labour,
impartiality, and precision which would be needed to elucidate them are
to be looked for in scholastic rather than in inspired thinkers, and in
Emerson least of all. Before these problems he is alternately ingenuous
and rhapsodical, and in both moods equally helpless. Individuals
no doubt exist, he says to himself. But, ah! Napoleon is in every
schoolboy. In every squatter in the western prairies we shall find an

    "Of Caesar's hand and Plato's brain,
    Of Lord Christ's heart, and Shakespeare's strain."

But how? we may ask. Potentially? Is it because any mind, were it
given the right body and the right experience, were it made over, in a
word, into another mind, would resemble that other mind to the point
of identity? Or is it that our souls are already so largely similar
that we are subject to many kindred promptings and share many ideals
unrealizable in our particular circumstances? But then we should simply
be saying that if what makes men different were removed, men would be
indistinguishable, or that, in so far as they are now alike, they can
understand one another by summoning up their respective experiences
in the fancy. There would be no mysticism in that, but at the same
time, alas, no eloquence, no paradox, and, if we must say the word, no

On the question of evil, Emerson's position is of the same kind. There
is evil, of course, he tells us. Experience is sad. There is a crack
in everything that God has made. But, ah! the laws of the universe
are sacred and beneficent. Without them nothing good could arise. All
things, then, are in their right places and the universe is perfect
above our querulous tears. Perfect? we may ask. But perfect from what
point of view, in reference to what ideal? To its own? To that of a
man who renouncing himself and all naturally dear to him, ignoring
the injustice, suffering, and impotence in the world, allows his will
and his conscience to be hypnotized by the spectacle of a necessary
evolution, and lulled into cruelty by the pomp and music of a tragic
show? In that case the evil is not explained, it is forgotten; it is
not cured, but condoned. We have surrendered the category of the better
and the worse, the deepest foundation of life and reason; we have
become mystics on the one subject on which, above all others, we ought
to be men.

Two forces may be said to have carried Emerson in this mystical
direction; one, that freedom of his imagination which we have already
noted, and which kept him from the fear of self-contradiction; the
other the habit of worship inherited from his clerical ancestors and
enforced by his religious education. The spirit of conformity, the
unction, the loyalty even unto death inspired by the religion of
Jehovah, were dispositions acquired by too long a discipline and rooted
in too many forms of speech, of thought, and of worship for a man like
Emerson, who had felt their full force, ever to be able to lose them.
The evolutions of his abstract opinions left that habit unchanged.
Unless we keep this circumstance in mind, we shall not be able to
understand the kind of elation and sacred joy, so characteristic of
his eloquence, with which he propounds laws of Nature and aspects of
experience which, viewed in themselves, afford but an equivocal support
to moral enthusiasm. An optimism so persistent and unclouded as his
will seem at variance with the description he himself gives of human
life, a description coloured by a poetic idealism, but hardly by an
optimistic bias.

We must remember, therefore, that this optimism is a pious tradition,
originally justified by the belief in a personal God and in a
providential government of affairs for the ultimate and positive good
of the elect, and that the habit of worship survived in Emerson as an
instinct after those positive beliefs had faded into a recognition
of "spiritual laws." We must remember that Calvinism had known how
to combine an awestruck devotion to the Supreme Being with no very
roseate picture of the destinies of mankind, and for more than two
hundred years had been breeding in the stock from which Emerson came
a willingness to be, as the phrase is, "damned for the glory of God."
What wonder, then, that when, for the former inexorable dispensation
of Providence, Emerson substituted his general spiritual and natural
laws, he should not have felt the spirit of worship fail within him?
On the contrary, his thought moved in the presence of moral harmonies
which seemed to him truer, more beautiful, and more beneficent than
those of the old theology. An independent philosopher would not have
seen in those harmonies an object of worship or a sufficient basis
for optimism. But he was not an independent philosopher, in spite
of his belief in independence. He inherited the problems and the
preoccupations of the theology from which he started, being in this
respect like the German idealists, who, with all their pretence of
absolute metaphysics, were in reality only giving elusive and abstract
forms to traditional theology. Emerson, too, was not primarily a
philosopher, but a Puritan mystic with a poetic fancy and a gift for
observation and epigram, and he saw in the laws of Nature, idealized by
his imagination, only a more intelligible form of the divinity he had
always recognized and adored. His was not a philosophy passing into a
religion, but a religion expressing itself as a philosophy and veiled,
as at its setting it descended the heavens, in various tints of poetry
and science.

If we ask ourselves what was Emerson's relation to the scientific and
religious movements of his time, and what place he may claim in the
history of opinion, we must answer that he belonged very little to the
past, very little to the present, and almost wholly to that abstract
sphere into which mystical or philosophic aspiration has carried a few
men in all ages. The religious tradition in which he was reared was
that of Puritanism, but of a Puritanism which, retaining its moral
intensity and metaphysical abstraction, had minimized its doctrinal
expression and become Unitarian. Emerson was indeed the Psyche of
Puritanism, "the latest-born and fairest vision far" of all that "faded
hierarchy." A Puritan whose religion was all poetry, a poet whose
only pleasure was thought, he showed in his life and personality the
meagreness, the constraint, the frigid and conscious consecration which
belonged to his clerical ancestors, while his inmost impersonal spirit
ranged abroad over the fields of history and Nature, gathering what
ideas it might, and singing its little snatches of inspired song.

The traditional element was thus rather an external and unessential
contribution to Emerson's mind; he had the professional tinge, the
decorum, the distinction of an old-fashioned divine; he had also the
habit of writing sermons, and he had the national pride and hope of a
religious people that felt itself providentially chosen to establish a
free and godly commonwealth in a new world. For the rest, he separated
himself from the ancient creed of the community with a sense rather of
relief than of regret. A literal belief in Christian doctrines repelled
him as unspiritual, as manifesting no understanding of the meaning
which, as allegories, those doctrines might have to a philosophic and
poetical spirit. Although as a clergy-man he was at first in the habit
of referring to the Bible and its lessons as to a supreme authority, he
had no instinctive sympathy with the inspiration of either the Old or
the New Testament; in Hafiz or Plutarch, in Plato or Shakespeare, he
found more congenial stuff.

While he thus preferred to withdraw, without rancour and without
contempt, from the ancient fellowship of the church, he assumed an
attitude hardly less cool and deprecatory toward the enthusiasms of the
new era. The national ideal of democracy and freedom had his entire
sympathy; he allowed himself to be drawn into the movement against
slavery; he took a curious and smiling interest in the discoveries of
natural science and in the material progress of the age. But he could
go no farther. His contemplative nature, his religious training, his
dispersed reading, made him stand aside from the life of the world,
even while he studied it with benevolent attention. His heart was fixed
on eternal things, and he was in no sense a prophet for his age or
country. He belonged by nature to that mystical company of devout souls
that recognize no particular home and are dispersed throughout history,
although not without intercommunication. He felt his affinity to the
Hindoos and the Persians, to the Platonists and the Stoics. Like them
he remains "a friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit."
If not a star of the first magnitude, he is certainly a fixed star
in the firmament of philosophy. Alone as yet among Americans, he may
be said to have won a place there, if not by the originality of his
thought, at least by the originality and beauty of the expression he
gave to thoughts that are old and imperishable.



_Man has henceforth this cause of pride: that he has bethought
himself of justice in a universe without justice, and has put justice
there_.--JEAN LAHOR.

The break-up of traditional systems and the disappearance of a
recognized authority from the religious world have naturally led to
many attempts at philosophic reconstruction. Most of these are timid
compromises, which leave first principles untouched and contain in a
veiled form all the old contradictions. Others are advertisements of
some personal notion, some fresh discovery, proposed as a panacea and
as an equivalent for all the heritage of human wisdom. A few thinkers,
however, inspired by more comprehensive sympathies, and at the same
time free from preconceptions, have come nearer to the fundamental
elements of the problem and have given out suggestions which, even if
not satisfactory in their actual form, are helpful and interesting in
their tendency. Such a thinker is the contemporary French poet, Jean
Lahor, who, in a volume of thoughts entitled "La gloire du néant," has
gathered together three philosophical points of view, we might almost
say three religions, and combined their issues in a way which may now
seem again new, but which in reality is as old as wisdom.

The form is literary and the outcome in a sense negative; there is
no attempt to put new wine into old bottles, no apologetic tone, no
unction. Experience is consulted afresh, without preoccupation as to
the results of reflection; and if these results are religious, it is
because any reasoned appreciation of life is bound to be a religion,
even if no conventionally religious elements are imported into the
problem. In fact, those prophets who have said that the Sabbath was
made for man and who have given moral functions to historical religion,
as well as those philosophers who have best understood its nature, have
seemed irreligious to their contemporaries, because they have looked
upon religion as an interpretation of reality, not as a quasi-reality
existing by itself and vouched for merely by tradition and miracle.
Religion is an imaginative echo of things natural and moral: and if
this echo is to be well attuned, our ear must first be attentive to the
natural sounds of which, in religion, we are to develop the harmony.

It is, therefore, not an objection to Jean Lahor's competence to
gather for us the elements of a religion that he is a poet rather
than a theologian and an observer rather than a philosopher, or that
he presents his intuitions without technical apparatus in a series of
highly coloured epigrams and little pictures. On the contrary such
simplicity and directness are an advantage when, as in this case, the
guiding inspiration is religious. It is religious because, on the one
hand, it is imaginative; we are asking ourselves everywhere what Nature
says to us and what we are to say in reply; and on the other hand,
because it is rational, and these messages and reactions are to be
unified into a single science and a single morality. The logical scheme
of the system is not made explicit: there is no argumentation and no
answers are offered to the objections that might naturally suggest
themselves. But the sayings are so arranged and made so to progress
in tone and subject that a system of philosophy is clearly implied in
them; and the essence of this system is at times briefly expressed.

All, as it behooves a poet, is the transcript of personal experience.
We must not look for the inclusion of elements, however important
in themselves, which the author has not found in his own life. The
omissions are in this case as characteristic as the inclusions. We
look in vain, for instance, for any appreciation of Christianity or
of all that side of human nature and experience on which faith in
Christianity rests; we hear nothing of love and its ideal suggestions,
nothing of the aspiration to immortality, nothing of the whole
transcendental attitude toward experience. These are grave omissions.
They may seem to condemn Jean Lahor, if not as a general philosopher,
at least as a representative of an age in which religious thought has
so largely centred about these very questions. But our century has
been an age of confusion; and a man who at its end wishes to attain
some coherence of life and mind, must begin by letting drop much that
the age has held in solution. It is by not being an average that a man
may become a guide. Only by manifesting the direction of change and
embodying that change in his own person can he be a sign of progress.
It remains for time to show whether what survives in a given man has
fortune on its side and contains the inward elements of vitality.
The presumption in this case, when we abstract from our personal
prejudices, will seem to be wholly in favour of our author.

The three influences to which he has yielded and which have moulded
his mind are the pantheism of the Hindoos, our contemporary natural
science, and the ideal of Greek civilization. These three elements
might at first sight seem incongruous, and the principle of selection
by which they are preferred above all others might seem as hard
to find as the principle of union by which they are to be welded
into one philosophy. But a little study of these maxims and of the
autobiographical sketch which precedes them will, I think, enable
us to discover both the principles we miss. The selection of the
three influences in question is due to the poetical temperament and
scientific tastes of the author, to an individual disposition and to
studies which drew him successively to these different sources of
instruction. The principle of synthesis, or rather, we should perhaps
say, of subordination, by which these various habits of thought are
combined in one philosophy, is a moral principle. It is a native power
to conceive the ideal and a native loyalty to the ideal when once
conceived. This moral enthusiasm is in no sense vapid or sentimental;
it hardly comes to the surface in any direct or enthusiastic
expression; but it is betrayed and proved to be sincere, now by a
passionate pessimism about the natural world, now in detailed and
practical demands for a better state of society. A genial individuality
and a well-reasoned form of pessimism are, then, the two factors in the
development of this interesting thinker, the two keys to the apparently
contradictory affinities of his mind.

Our author, as we have said, is a poet, and even if his verses seem
at times a little thin and rhetorical, they prove abundantly what is
evident also in his prose, namely, that he has keen sensations, that
images impress themselves upon him with force, and that any scene
whose elements are gorgeous and picturesque or which is weighted with
tragic emotion, holds his attention and awakens in him the impulse to
literary expression. But this plastic impulse is not powerful, or finds
in the environment insufficient support. Great art and great creative
achievements are rare in the world, and come for the most part only
in those moments and in those places where an unusual concentration
of mental energy and the friction of many kindred minds allow the
scattered sparks of inspiration to merge and to leap into flame. We
need not wonder, therefore, that the æsthetic sensibility of our author
is greater than his artistic success. Of which of our contemporaries
might we not say the same thing? Jean Lahor's attention is analytic; he
is absorbed by his model, he does not absorb it and master it by his
art. He has not enough vigour and determination of thought to create
eternal forms out of the swift hints of perception. He watches rather
passively the flight of his ideas, conscious of their vivacity, of
their beauty, but most of all, alas! of their flight. His last word as
an observer, his message as a poet, is that all things are illusion.
They fade, they pass into one another, the place thereof knows them no
more. Nothing of them remains, absolutely nothing, save the universal
indeterminate force that breeds and devours them perpetually.

A mind thus gifted and thus limited would naturally feel its affinity
to Oriental pantheism as soon as that phase of thought and feeling came
within the radius of its vision. Jean Lahor seems early to have felt an
attraction toward the speculation of the East, and his prolonged study
of that literature could of course only intensify the natural bent of
his mind, and give his thought a more pronounced pantheistic colouring.
Had he been wholly absorbed, however, in such mystical contemplation,
we should have had little to study in him that was new; only one more
case of sensibility and fancy overpowering a timid intellect, one more
gifted nature arrested at the stage of bewilderment.

But as Jean Lahor is only a pseudonym for the man, so the sympathy with
India which that name indicates is only one phase of the thinker. Our
poet pursued the study of medicine; he realized in the concrete the
orderly complexities of natural law and the sordid realities of human
life. The vague, sensuous enthusiasm with which he had followed the
flux of images in his fancy was now sobered by an accurate knowledge
of the miseries, the defeats, the shames that lie beneath. His poetic
sense of illusion was deepened into a moral sense of wrong. The same
keenness of perception, the same power of graphic expression, which
had made him dwell on the luxuriance of Nature now made him paint
the irony and brutality of life. There is here and there a touch of
bitterness and exaggeration in the satire, as if the man of science
felt a personal resentment against a world that had so cheated the poet.

Yet the two descriptions are far from inconsistent; we have merely
learned to understand as a process and to conceive as an inner
experience what before we had admired as a spectacle. A scientific
view has come to give definition and coherence to phenomena which a
poetical pantheism merely saluted as they passed and disappeared into
the primordial darkness, or, if you like, into the primordial light.
The two systems differ in tone and in method, but not in result.
Natural science, like pantheism, presents us with a universal flux, in
which something, we known not what, moves, we know not why, we know
not whither. The method of this transformation may be more or less
accurately described, the general sense of continuity and necessity
may find a more or less specific expression in the various fields
of experience; yet the outcome is still the same whirligig. We find
ourselves in either case confronted by the same _gloire du néant_, by a
nothing that lives and that is beautiful in its nothingness.

These two elements in Jean Lahor's philosophy, the Oriental and
the scientific, would thus tend alike to represent man with his
intelligence as the product and the captive of an irrational engine
called the universe. Many a man accepts this solution and reconciles
himself as best he can to the truth as it appears to him. What is
there, he may say, so dreadful in mutability? What so intolerable in
ultimate ignorance? We know what we need to know, and things last,
perhaps, as long as they deserve to last. So, once convinced that his
naturalistic philosophy is final, a man will silence the demands of
his own reason and call them chimerical. There is nothing to which
men, while they have food and drink, cannot reconcile themselves. They
will put up with present suffering, with the certainty of death, with
solitude, with shame, with wrong, with the expectation of eternal
damnation. In the face of such things, they can not only be happy
for the moment, but solemnly thank God for having brought them into
existence. Habit is stronger than reason, and the respect for fact
stronger than the respect for the ideal; nor would the ideal and reason
ever prevail did they not make up in persistence what they lack in
momentary energy.

It would have been easy, therefore, for Jean Lahor, as for the rest
of us, to remain in the naturalistic world, had he had only poetical
intuition, or only scientific training, or only both. But there was
also in him a third and a moral element, an impulse toward ideal
creation, a spark of Promethean fire. He felt a genuine admiration
for that humane courage which made the Greeks, for all their clear
consciousness of fate, hopeful without illusions and independent
without rebellion. In the bosom of the intractable infinite he still
distinguished the work of human reason--the cosmos of society,
character, and art--like a Noah's ark floating in the Deluge. His
imagination had succumbed to the dream of sense; his art had not
attempted the task of imposing a meaning or an immortal form upon
Nature: but his conscience and his political instinct had held out
against the fascinations of Maya. The Greek asserted himself here
against the barbarian, the moralist against the naturalist. Nor was
this a merely accidental addition or an inconsistency. It was the
explicit expression of that creative reason which had all along chafed
under the dominion of brute fact and of perpetual illusion. The same
moral energy which had made him a pessimist in the presence of Nature
made him an idealist at the threshold of life.

For why should the natural world ever come to be called a world of
illusion? To call the vivid objects of sense illusory is to compare
them to their disadvantage with something else which we conceive as
more worthy of the title of reality. This deeper reality must be
something ideal, something permanent, something conceived by the
intellect, and which only a man having faith in the intellect could
prefer to the objects of sense or fancy. The Hindoos that our author
thinks so much akin to himself would hardly understand this rational
bias of his thought, this foregone dissatisfaction with a world of
infinite change and indefinite structure. They would accept as a
natural fact that perpetual flux which he emphasizes as a paradox and
laments as a calamity. In spite of his studied immersion in sensuous
illusion, he is still a native of the sphere of intelligible things,
and it is only the difficulty of finding the permanent beings which he
is inclined to look for and in the presence of which he could alone
rest, that makes him linger with tragic self-consciousness in the
region of fleeting shadows. Accordingly we need not be surprised by the
somewhat forced and pessimistic note of a pantheism which is really
exotic, and we may be prepared to find the plastic mind asserting
itself ultimately against that system. So Jean Lahor, after the groups
of thoughts which he puts under the title of "L'orient" and "Le ciel du
Nord," adds another group under the title of "Cosmos."

It would require a philosophical treatise of greater pretentions than
the little book before us to explain fully how this cosmos can arise
out of the chaos of mechanical forces, and how the life and the work
of reason can be superposed upon the life of sense and imagination.
Our author's vision, fixed as it is on concrete images and expressed
in detached epigrams, does not always extend to the philosophical
relations of his thoughts. Yet he offers, perhaps unconsciously, an
admirable variation of that revolution of thought which is associated
with the name of Kant. He proposes to us as the work of human
intelligence what is commonly believed to be the work of God. The
universe, apart from us, is a chaos, but it may be made a cosmos by our
efforts and in our own minds. The laws of events, apart from us, are
inhuman and irrational, but in the sphere of human activity they may be
dominated by reason. We are a part of the blind energy behind Nature,
but by virtue of that energy we impose our purposes on the part of
Nature which we constitute or control. We can turn from the stupefying
contemplation of an alien universe to the building of our own house,
knowing that, alien as it is, that universe has chanced to blow its
energy also into our will and to allow itself to be partially dominated
by our intelligence. Our mere existence and the modicum of success we
have attained in society, science, and art are the living proofs of
this human power. The exercise of this power is the task appointed for
us by the indomitable promptings of our own spirit, a task in which we
need not labour without hope.

For as the various plants and animals have found foothold and room
to grow, maintaining for long periods the life congenial to them, so
the human race may be able to achieve something like its perfection
and its ideal, maintaining for an indefinite time all that it values,
not by virtue of an alleged intentional protection of Providence, but
by its own watchful art and exceptional good fortune. The ideal is
itself a function of the reality and cannot therefore be altogether
out of harmony with the conditions of its own birth and persistence.
Civilization is precarious, but it need not be short-lived. Its
inception is already a proof that there exists an equilibrium of forces
which is favourable to its existence; and there is no reason to suppose
this equilibrium to be less stable than that which keeps the planets
revolving in their orbits. There is no impossibility, therefore, in
the hope that the human will may have time to understand itself, and,
having understood itself, to realize the objects of its rational desire.

We see that the "Cosmos" here invoked is not inconsistent with the
"Nothingness" before described. It is a triumph amid illusions, an
order within chaos, _la gloire du néant_. This hint of a reconciliation
between the practical optimism natural to an active being, and the
speculative pessimism inevitable to an intelligent one, is happier
than the muddled solutions of the same problem with which current
philosophies have made us familiar. The philosophy suggested by Jean
Lahor is that of Spinoza, if we subtract from the latter its mystical
optimism, and add a broad appreciation of human culture. Man cannot
attain his happiness by conforming to that which is hostile to himself;
he can thus attain only his dissolution. But by using what is hostile
to himself for his own ends, as far as his energy extends, he can make
an oasis for himself in Nature, and being at peace with himself, be at
peace also with her.

Such a view has some relation to the real conditions of human life and
progress. What is called the higher optimism, on the contrary, commonly
consists in recounting all the evils of existence with a radiant
countenance, and telling us that they are all divine ministers of some
glorious consummation; but what this consummation is never appears, and
we are reduced in practice to a mere glorification of impulse. We are
simply invited to accept the conditions of life as they are, and to
find in incidental successes a compensation for incidental or--as we
should say if we were sincere--for essential failures. Such an optimism
impairs by a kind of philosophic Nature-worship that moral loyalty
which consists in giving the highest honour to the highest, not to the
strongest, things. It substitutes, as pantheism must, the study of
tendencies for the study of ends, and the dignity of success for the
dignity of justice.

This moral confusion our author avoids by his greater sincerity. He has
understood how fundamentally that man is a dupe who does not begin by
settling his accounts with Despair. There is no safety in lies; there
is no safety even in "postulates." Let the worst of the truth appear,
and when it has once seen the light, let it not be immediately wrapped
up again in the swaddling clothes of an equivocal rhetoric. In such a
disingenuous course there is both temerity and cowardice: temerity in
throwing away the opportunity, always afforded by the recognition of
fact, of cultivating the real faculties of human nature; cowardice in
not being willing to face with patience and dignity the situation in
which fate appears to have put us. That Nature is immense, that her
laws are mechanical, that the existence and well-being of man upon
earth are, from the point of view of the universe, an indifferent
incident,--all this is in the first place to be clearly recognized. It
is the lesson which both poetic contemplation and practical science had
taught Jean Lahor.

Had he stopped to subject his opinion to metaphysical criticism, he
would not, I think, have found reason to change it. To subjectify
the universe is not to improve it, much less to dissolve it. The
space I call my idea has all the properties of the space I called
my environment; it has the same inevitable presence and the same
fundamental validity. Because it is a law of our intelligence that
two and two make four, and the implications of that law may be traced
by abstract thought, the world which is subject to that arithmetical
principle is not made more amenable to our higher demands than if it
had been arithmetical of its own sweet will. It is not made docile
by being called our creature. Indeed, what is less docile to us than
ourselves? what less subject to our correction than the foundations of
our own being? So when the Kantian philosophy teaches us to look upon
the enveloping universe as a figment of the understanding and on its
laws as results of mental synthesis and inference, we are still pursued
by the inevitable presence of that figment and confronted involuntarily
by that result. Nay, the conditions of our thought, like the
predispositions of our characters, are the most fatal and inexorable of
our limitations.

Why the world is as it is, whether of itself or by refraction in the
medium of our intellect, is not a question that affects the practical
moralist. What concerns him is that the laws of the world, whatever
their origin, are fixed and unchangeable conditions of our happiness.
We cannot change the world, even if we boast to have made it; we must
in any case learn to live with it, whether it be our parent or our
child. To veil its character with euphemisms or to supply its defects
with superstitious assumptions is a course unworthy of a brave man
and abhorrent to a prudent one. What we should do is to make a modest
inventory of our possessions and a just estimate of our powers in
order to apply both, with what strength we have, to the realization of
our ideals in society, in art, and in science. These will constitute
our Cosmos. In building it--for there is none other that builds it
for us--we shall be carrying on the work of the only race that has
yet seriously attempted to live rationally, the race to which we owe
the name and the idea of a Cosmos, as well as the beginnings of its
realization. We shall then be making that rare advance in wisdom which
consists in abandoning our illusions the better to attain our ideals.



If a critic, in despair of giving a serious definition of poetry,
should be satisfied with saying that poetry is metrical discourse,
he would no doubt be giving an inadequate account of the matter, yet
not one of which he need be ashamed or which he should regard as
superficial. Although a poem be not made by counting of syllables
upon the fingers, yet "numbers" is the most poetical synonym we have
for verse, and "measure" the most significant equivalent for beauty,
for goodness, and perhaps even for truth. Those early and profound
philosophers, the followers of Pythagoras, saw the essence of all
things in number, and it was by weight, measure, and number, as we read
in the Bible, that the Creator first brought Nature out of the void.
Every human architect must do likewise with his edifice; he must mould
his bricks or hew his stones into symmetrical solids and lay them over
one another in regular strata, like a poet's lines.

Measure is a condition of perfection, for perfection requires that
order should be pervasive, that not only the whole before us should
have a form, but that every part in turn should have a form of its
own, and that those parts should be coordinated among themselves as
the whole is coordinated with the other parts of some greater cosmos.
Leibnitz lighted in his speculations upon a conception of organic
nature which may be false as a fact, but which is excellent as an
ideal; he tells us that the difference between living and dead matter,
between animals and machines, is that the former are composed of parts
that are themselves organic, every portion of the body being itself
a machine, and every portion of that machine still a machine, and so
_ad infinitum_; whereas, in artificial bodies the organization is not
in this manner infinitely deep. Fine Art, in this as in all things,
imitates the method of Nature and makes its most beautiful works out of
materials that are themselves beautiful. So that even if the difference
between verse and prose consisted only in measure, that difference
would already be analogous to that between jewels and clay.

The stuff of language is words, and the sensuous material of words
is sound; if language therefore is to be made perfect, its materials
must be made beautiful by being themselves subjected to a measure,
and endowed with a form. It is true that language is a symbol for
intelligence rather than a stimulus to sense, and accordingly the
beauties of discourse which commonly attract attention are merely the
beauties of the objects and ideas signified; yet the symbols have a
sensible reality of their own, a euphony which appeals to our senses
if we keep them open. The tongue will choose those forms of utterance
which have a natural grace as mere sound and sensation; the memory will
retain these catches, and they will pass and repass through the mind
until they become types of instinctive speech and standards of pleasing

The highest form of such euphony is song; the singing voice gives
to the sounds it utters the thrill of tonality,--a thrill itself
dependent, as we know, on the numerical proportions of the vibrations
that it includes. But this kind of euphony and sensuous beauty, the
deepest that sounds can have, we have almost wholly surrendered in our
speech. Our intelligence has become complex, and language, to express
our thoughts, must commonly be more rapid, copious, and abstract than
is compatible with singing. Music at the same time has become complex
also, and when united with words, at one time disfigures them in the
elaboration of its melody, and at another overpowers them in the volume
of its sound. So that the art of singing is now in the same plight as
that of sculpture,--an abstract and conventional thing surviving by
force of tradition and of an innate but now impotent impulse, which
under simpler conditions would work itself out into the proper forms of
those arts. The truest kind of euphony is thus denied to our poetry. If
any verses are still set to music, they are commonly the worst only,
chosen for the purpose by musicians of specialized sensibility and
inferior intelligence, who seem to be attracted only by tawdry effects
of rhetoric and sentiment.

When song is given up, there still remains in speech a certain sensuous
quality, due to the nature and order of the vowels and consonants
that compose the sounds. This kind of euphony is not neglected by the
more dulcet poets, and is now so studied in some quarters that I have
heard it maintained by a critic of relative authority that the beauty
of poetry consists entirely in the frequent utterance of the sound
of "j" and "sh," and the consequent copious flow of saliva in the
mouth. But even if saliva is not the whole essence of poetry, there
is an unmistakable and fundamental diversity of effect in the various
vocalization of different poets, which becomes all the more evident
when we compare those who use different languages. One man's speech, or
one nation's, is compact, crowded with consonants, rugged, broken with
emphatic beats; another man's, or nation's, is open, tripping, rapid,
and even. So Byron, mingling in his boyish fashion burlesque with
exquisite sentiment, contrasts English with Italian speech:--

    "I love the language, that soft bastard Latin
     Which melts like kisses from a female mouth
     And sounds as if it should be writ on satin
     With syllables which breathe of the sweet South,
     And gentle liquids gliding all so pat in
     That not a single accent seems uncouth,
     Like our harsh Northern whistling, granting guttural
     Which we're obliged to hiss and spit and sputter all."

And yet these contrasts, strong when we compare extreme cases, fade
from our consciousness in the actual use of a mother-tongue. The
function makes us unconscious of the instrument, all the more as it
is an indispensable and almost invariable one. The sense of euphony
accordingly attaches itself rather to another and more variable
quality; the tune, or measure, or rhythm of speech. The elementary
sounds are prescribed by the language we use, and the selection we
may make among those sounds is limited; but the arrangement of words
is still undetermined, and by casting our speech into the moulds of
metre and rhyme we can give it a heightened power, apart from its
significance. A tolerable definition of poetry, on its formal side,
might be found in this: that poetry is speech in which the instrument
counts as well as the meaning--poetry is speech for its own sake and
for its own sweetness. As common windows are intended only to admit
the light, but painted windows also to dye it, and to be an object
of attention in themselves as well as a cause of visibility in other
things, so, while the purest prose is a mere vehicle of thought, verse,
like stained glass, arrests attention in its own intricacies, confuses
it in its own glories, and is even at times allowed to darken and
puzzle in the hope of casting over us a supernatural spell.

Long passages in Shelley's "Revolt of Islam" and Keats' "Endymion"
are poetical in this sense; the reader gathers, probably, no definite
meaning, but is conscious of a poetic medium, of speech euphonious
and measured, and redolent of a kind of objectless passion which is
little more than the sensation of the movement and sensuous richness
of the lines. Such poetry is not great; it has, in fact, a tedious
vacuity, and is unworthy of a mature mind; but it is poetical, and
could be produced only by a legitimate child of the Muse. It belongs to
an apprenticeship, but in this case the apprenticeship of genius. It
bears that relation to great poems which scales and aimless warblings
bear to great singing--they test the essential endowment and fineness
of the organ which is to be employed in the art. Without this sensuous
background and ingrained predisposition to beauty, no art can reach the
deepest and most exquisite effects; and even without an intelligible
superstructure these sensuous qualities suffice to give that thrill of
exaltation, that suggestion of an ideal world, which we feel in the
presence of any true beauty.

The sensuous beauty of words and their utterance in measure suffice,
therefore, for poetry of one sort--where these are there is something
unmistakably poetical, although the whole of poetry, or the best of
poetry, be not yet there. Indeed, in such works as "The Revolt of
Islam" or "Endymion" there is already more than mere metre and sound;
there is the colour and choice of words, the fanciful, rich, or
exquisite juxtaposition of phrases. The vocabulary and the texture of
the style are precious; affected, perhaps, but at any rate refined.

This quality, which is that almost exclusively exploited by the
Symbolist, we may call euphuism--the choice of coloured words and
rare and elliptical phrases. If great poets are like architects and
sculptors, the euphuists are like gold-smiths and jewellers; their work
is filigree in precious metals, encrusted with glowing stones. Now
euphuism contributes not a little to the poetic effect of the tirades
of Keats and Shelley; if we wish to see the power of versification
without euphuism we may turn to the tirades of Pope, where metre and
euphony are displayed alone, and we have the outline or skeleton of
poetry without the filling.

    "In spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
     One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right."

We should hesitate to say that such writing was truly poetical; so
that some euphuism would seem to be necessary as well as metre, to the
formal essence of poetry.

An example of this sort, however, takes us out of the merely verbal
into the imaginative region; the reason that Pope is hardly poetical to
us is not that he is inharmonious,--not a defect of euphony,--but that
he is too intellectual and has an excess of mentality. It is easier for
words to be poetical without any thought, when they are felt merely
as sensuous and musical, than for them to remain so when they convey
an abstract notion,--especially if that notion be a tart and frigid
sophism, like that of the couplet just quoted. The pyrotechnics of the
intellect then take the place of the glow of sense, and the artifice
of thought chills the pleasure we might have taken in the grace of

If poetry in its higher reaches is more philosophical than history,
because it presents the memorable types of men and things apart from
unmeaning circumstances, so in its primary substance and texture
poetry is more philosophical than prose because it is nearer to our
immediate experience. Poetry breaks up the trite conceptions designated
by current words into the sensuous qualities out of which those
conceptions were originally put together. We name what we conceive and
believe in, not what we see; things, not images; souls, not voices and
silhouettes. This naming, with the whole education of the senses which
it accompanies, subserves the uses of life; in order to thread our way
through the labyrinth of objects which assault us, we must make a great
selection in our sensuous experience; half of what we see and hear we
must pass over as insignificant, while we piece out the other half with
such an ideal complement as is necessary to turn it into a fixed and
well-ordered world. This labour of perception and understanding, this
spelling of the material meaning of experience is enshrined in our
work-a-day language and ideas; ideas which are literally poetic in the
sense that they are "made" (for every conception in an adult mind is a
fiction), but which are at the same time prosaic because they are made
economically, by abstraction, and for use.

When the child of poetic genius, who has learned this intellectual and
utilitarian language in the cradle, goes afield and gathers for himself
the aspects of Nature, he begins to encumber his mind with the many
living impressions which the intellect rejected, and which the language
of the intellect can hardly convey; he labours with his nameless burden
of perception, and wastes himself in aimless impulses of emotion and
revery, until finally the method of some art offers a vent to his
inspiration, or to such part of it as can survive the test of time and
the discipline of expression.

The poet retains by nature the innocence of the eye, or recovers it
easily; he disintegrates the fictions of common perception into their
sensuous elements, gathers these together again into chance groups as
the accidents of his environment or the affinities of his temperament
may conjoin them; and this wealth of sensation and this freedom of
fancy, which make an extraordinary ferment in his ignorant heart,
presently bubble over into some kind of utterance.

The fulness and sensuousness of such effusions bring them nearer to
our actual perceptions than common discourse could come; yet they may
easily seem remote, overloaded, and obscure to those accustomed to
think entirely in symbols, and never to be interrupted in the algebraic
rapidity of their thinking by a moment's pause and examination of
heart, nor ever to plunge for a moment into that torrent of sensation
and imagery over which the bridge of prosaic associations habitually
carries us safe and dry to some conventional act. How slight that
bridge commonly is, how much an affair of trestles and wire, we can
hardly conceive until we have trained ourselves to an extreme sharpness
of introspection. But psychologists have discovered, what laymen
generally will confess, that we hurry by the procession of our mental
images as we do by the traffic of the street, intent on business,
gladly forgetting the noise and movement of the scene, and looking
only for the corner we would turn or the door we would enter. Yet in
our alertest moment the depths of the soul are still dreaming; the real
world stands drawn in bare outline against a background of chaos and
unrest. Our logical thoughts dominate experience only as the parallels
and meridians make a checker-board of the sea. They guide our voyage
without controlling the waves, which toss for ever in spite of our
ability to ride over them to our chosen ends. Sanity is a madness put
to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.

Out of the neglected riches of this dream the poet fetches his wares.
He dips into the chaos that underlies the rational shell of the world
and brings up some superfluous image, some emotion dropped by the
way, and reattaches it to the present object; he reinstates things
unnecessary, he emphasizes things ignored, he paints in again into
the landscape the tints which the intellect has allowed to fade from
it. If he seems sometimes to obscure a fact, it is only because he is
restoring an experience. We may observe this process in the simplest
cases. When Ossian, mentioning the sun, says it is round as the shield
of his fathers, the expression is poetical. Why? Because he has added
to the word sun, in itself sufficient and unequivocal, other words,
unnecessary for practical clearness, but serving to restore the
individuality of his perception and its associations in his mind.
There is no square sun with which the sun he is speaking of could be
confused; to stop and call it round is a luxury, a halting in the
sensation for the love of its form. And to go on to tell us, what is
wholly impertinent, that the shield of his fathers was round also, is
to invite us to follow the chance wanderings of his fancy, to give us
a little glimpse of the stuffing of his own brain, or, we might almost
say, to turn over the pattern of his embroidery and show us the loose
threads hanging out on the wrong side. Such an escapade disturbs and
interrupts the true vision of the object, and a great poet, rising to
a perfect conception of the sun and forgetting himself, would have
disdained to make it; but it has a romantic and pathological interest,
it restores an experience, and is in that measure poetical. We have
been made to halt at the sensation, and to penetrate for a moment into
its background of dream.

But it is not only thoughts or images that the poet draws in this
way from the store of his experience, to clothe the bare form of
conventional objects: he often adds to these objects a more subtle
ornament, drawn from the same source. For the first element which the
intellect rejects in forming its ideas of things is the emotion which
accompanies the perception; and this emotion is the first thing the
poet restores. He stops at the image, because he stops to enjoy. He
wanders into the by-paths of association because the by-paths are
delightful. The love of beauty which made him give measure and cadence
to his words, the love of harmony which made him rhyme them, reappear
in his imagination and make him select there also the material that
is itself beautiful, or capable of assuming beautiful forms. The link
that binds together the ideas, sometimes so wide apart, which his wit
assimilates, is most often the link of emotion; they have in common
some element of beauty or of horror.

The poet's art is to a great extent the art of intensifying emotions
by assembling the scattered objects that naturally arouse them. He
sees the affinities of things by seeing their common affinities with
passion. As the guiding principle of practical thinking is some
interest, so that only what is pertinent to that interest is selected
by the attention; as the guiding principle of scientific thinking
is some connection of things in time or space, or some identity of
law; so in poetic thinking the guiding principle is often a mood or a
quality of sentiment. By this union of disparate things having a common
overtone of feeling, the feeling is itself evoked in all its strength;
nay, it is often created for the first time, much as by a new mixture
of old pigments Perugino could produce the unprecedented limpidity of
his colour, or Titian the unprecedented glow of his. Poets can thus
arouse sentiments finer than any which they have known, and in the act
of composition become discoverers of new realms of delightfulness and
grief. Expression is a misleading term which suggests that something
previously known is rendered or imitated; whereas the expression is
itself an original fact, the values of which are then referred to
the thing expressed, much as the honours of a Chinese mandarin are
attributed retroactively to his parents. So the charm which a poet, by
his art of combining images and shades of emotion, casts over a scene
or an action, is attached to the principal actor in it, who gets the
benefit of the setting furnished him by a well-stocked mind.

The poet is himself subject to this illusion, and a great part of what
is called poetry, although by no means the best part of it, consists
in this sort of idealization by proxy. We dye the world of our own
colour; by a pathetic fallacy, by a false projection of sentiment,
we soak Nature with our own feeling, and then celebrate her tender
sympathy with our moral being. This aberration, as we see in the case
of Wordsworth, is not inconsistent with a high development of both
the faculties which it confuses,--I mean vision and feeling. On the
contrary, vision and feeling, when most abundant and original, most
easily present themselves in this undivided form. There would be need
of a force of intellect which poets rarely possess to rationalize their
inspiration without diminishing its volume: and if, as is commonly the
case, the energy of the dream and the passion in them is greater than
that of the reason, and they cannot attain true propriety and supreme
beauty in their works, they can, nevertheless, fill them with lovely
images and a fine moral spirit.

The pouring forth of both perceptive and emotional elements in their
mixed and indiscriminate form gives to this kind of imagination the
directness and truth which sensuous poetry possesses on a lower level.
The outer world bathed in the hues of human feeling, the inner world
expressed in the forms of things,--that is the primitive condition of
both before intelligence and the prosaic classification of objects have
abstracted them and assigned them to their respective spheres. Such
identifications, on which a certain kind of metaphysics prides itself
also, are not discoveries of profound genius; they are exactly like
the observation of Ossian that the sun is round and that the shield of
his fathers was round too; they are disintegrations of conventional
objects, so that the original associates of our perceptions reappear;
then the thing and the emotion which chanced to be simultaneous
are said to be one, and we return, unless a better principle of
organization is substituted for the principle abandoned, to the
chaos of a passive animal consciousness, where all is mixed together,
projected together, and felt as an unutterable whole.

The pathetic fallacy is a return to that early habit of thought by
which our ancestors peopled the world with benevolent and malevolent
spirits; what they felt in the presence of objects they took to be a
part of the objects themselves. In returning to this natural confusion,
poetry does us a service in that she recalls and consecrates those
phases of our experience which, as useless to the understanding of
material reality, we are in danger of forgetting altogether. Therein
is her vitality, for she pierces to the quick and shakes us out of our
servile speech and imaginative poverty; she reminds us of all we have
felt, she invites us even to dream a little, to nurse the wonderful
spontaneous creations which at every waking moment we are snuffing out
in our brain. And the indulgence is no mere momentary pleasure; much
of its exuberance clings afterward to our ideas; we see the more and
feel the more for that exercise; we are capable of finding greater
entertainment in the common aspects of Nature and life. When the veil
of convention is once removed from our eyes by the poet, we are better
able to dominate any particular experience and, as it were, to change
its scale, now losing ourselves in its infinitesimal texture, now in
its infinite ramifications.

If the function of poetry, however, did not go beyond this recovery
of sensuous and imaginative freedom, at the expense of disrupting our
useful habits of thought, we might be grateful to it for occasionally
relieving our numbness, but we should have to admit that it was nothing
but a relaxation; that spiritual discipline was not to be gained from
it in any degree, but must be sought wholly in that intellectual
system that builds the science of Nature with the categories of prose.
So conceived, poetry would deserve the judgment passed by Plato on
all the arts of flattery and entertainment; it might be crowned as
delightful, but must be either banished altogether as meretricious
or at least confined to a few forms and occasions where it might do
little harm. The judgment of Plato has been generally condemned by
philosophers, although it is eminently rational, and justified by the
simplest principles of morals. It has been adopted instead, although
unwittingly, by the practical and secular part of mankind, who look
upon artists and poets as inefficient and brain-sick people under whose
spell it would be a serious calamity to fall, although they may be
called in on feast days as an ornament and luxury together with the
cooks, hairdressers, and florists.

Several circumstances, however, might suggest to us the possibility
that the greatest function of poetry may be still to find. Plato,
while condemning Homer, was a kind of poet himself; his quarrel with
the followers of the Muse was not a quarrel with the goddess; and
the good people of Philistia, distrustful as they may be of profane
art, pay undoubting honour to religion, which is a kind of poetry
as much removed from their sphere as the midnight revels upon Mount
Citheron, which, to be sure, were also religious in their inspiration.
Why, we may ask, these apparent inconsistencies? Why do our practical
men make room for religion in the background of their world? Why did
Plato, after banishing the poets, poetize the universe in his prose?
Because the abstraction by which the world of science and of practice
is drawn out of our experience, is too violent to satisfy even the
thoughtless and vulgar; the ideality of the machine we call Nature,
the conventionality of the drama we call the world, are too glaring
not to be somehow perceived by all. Each must sometimes fall back upon
the soul; he must challenge this apparition with the thought of death;
he must ask himself for the mainspring and value of his life. He will
then remember his stifled loves; he will feel that only his illusions
have ever given him a sense of reality, only his passions the hope and
the vision of peace. He will read himself through and almost gather a
meaning from his experience; at least he will half believe that all
he has been dealing with was a dream and a symbol, and raise his eyes
toward the truth beyond.

This plastic moment of the mind, when we become aware of the
artificiality and inadequacy of what common sense perceives, is the
true moment of poetic opportunity,--an opportunity, we may hasten
to confess, which is generally missed. The strain of attention, the
concentration and focussing of thought on the unfamiliar immediacy
of things, usually brings about nothing but confusion. We are dazed,
we are filled with a sense of unutterable things, luminous yet
indistinguishable, many yet one. Instead of rising to imagination, we
sink into mysticism.

To accomplish a mystical disintegration is not the function of any art;
if any art seems to accomplish it, the effect is only incidental, being
involved, perhaps, in the process of constructing the proper object of
that art, as we might cut down trees and dig them up by the roots to
lay the foundations of a temple. For every art looks to the building
up of something. And just because the world built up by common sense
and natural science is an inadequate world (a skeleton which needs the
filling of sensation before it can live), therefore the moment when we
realize its inadequacy is the moment when the higher arts find their
opportunity. When the world is shattered to bits they can come and
"build it nearer to the heart's desire."

The great function of poetry, which we have not yet directly mentioned,
is precisely this: to repair to the material of experience, seizing
hold of the reality of sensation and fancy beneath the surface of
conventional ideas, and then out of that living but indefinite
material to build new structures, richer, finer, fitter to the primary
tendencies of our nature, truer to the ultimate possibilities of the
soul. Our descent into the elements of our being is then justified by
our subsequent freer ascent toward its goal; we revert to sense only to
find food for reason; we destroy conventions only to construct ideals.

Such analysis for the sake of creation is the essence of all great
poetry. Science and common sense are themselves in their way poets of
no mean order, since they take the material of experience and make out
of it a clear, symmetrical, and beautiful world; the very propriety of
this art, however, has made it common. Its figures have become mere
rhetoric and its metaphors prose. Yet, even as it is, a scientific and
mathematical vision has a higher beauty than the irrational poetry of
sensation and impulse, which merely tickles the brain, like liquor,
and plays upon our random, imaginative lusts. The imagination of a
great poet, on the contrary, is as orderly as that of an astronomer,
and as large; he has the naturalist's patience, the naturalist's love
of detail and eye trained to see fine gradations and essential lines;
he knows no hurry; he has no pose, no sense of originality; he finds
his effects in his subject, and his subject in his inevitable world.
Resembling the naturalist in all this, he differs from him in the
balance of his interests; the poet has the concreter mind; his visible
world wears all its colours and retains its indwelling passion and
life. Instead of studying in experience its calculable elements, he
studies its moral values, its beauty, the openings it offers to the
soul: and the cosmos he constructs is accordingly an ideal theatre for
the spirit in which its noblest potential drama is enacted and its
destiny resolved.

This supreme function of poetry is only the consummation of the method
by which words and imagery are transformed into verse. As verse breaks
up the prosaic order of syllables and subjects them to a recognizable
and pleasing measure, so poetry breaks up the whole prosaic picture
of experience to introduce into it a rhythm more congenial and
intelligible to the mind. And in both these cases the operation is
essentially the same as that by which, in an intermediate sphere, the
images rejected by practical thought, and the emotions ignored by
it, are so marshalled as to fill the mind with a truer and intenser
consciousness of its memorable experience. The poetry of fancy, of
observation, and of passion moves on this intermediate level; the
poetry of mere sound and virtuosity is confined to the lower sphere;
and the highest is reserved for the poetry of the creative reason. But
one principle is present throughout,--the principle of Beauty,--the art
of assimilating phenomena, whether words, images, emotions, or systems
of ideas, to the deeper innate cravings of the mind.

Let us now dwell a little on this higher function of poetry and try to
distinguish some of its phases.

The creation of characters is what many of us might at first be
tempted to regard as the supreme triumph of the imagination. If we
abstract, however, from our personal tastes and look at the matter
in its human and logical relations, we shall see, I think, that the
construction of characters is not the ultimate task of poetic fiction.
A character can never be exhaustive of our materials: for it exists
by its idiosyncrasy, by its contrast with other natures, by its
development of one side, and one side only, of our native capacities.
It is, therefore, not by characterization as such that the ultimate
message can be rendered. The poet can put only a part of himself into
any of his heroes, but he must put the whole into his noblest work.
A character is accordingly only a fragmentary unity; fragmentary in
respect to its origin,--since it is conceived by enlargement, so to
speak, of a part of our own being to the exclusion of the rest,--and
fragmentary in respect to the object it presents, since a character
must live in an environment and be appreciated by contrast and by the
sense of derivation. Not the character, but its effects and causes,
is the truly interesting thing. Thus in master poets, like Homer and
Dante, the characters, although well drawn, are subordinate to the
total movement and meaning of the scene There is indeed something
pitiful, something comic, in any comprehended soul; souls, like other
things, are only definable by their limitations. We feel instinctively
that it would be insulting to speak of any man to his face as we should
speak of him in his absence, even if what we say is in the way of
praise: for absent he is a character understood, but present he is a
force respected.

In the construction of ideal characters, then, the imagination is busy
with material,--particular actions and thoughts,--which suggest their
unification in persons; but the characters thus conceived can hardly
be adequate to the profusion of our observations, nor exhaustive, when
all personalities are taken together, of the interest of our lives.
Characters are initially imbedded in life, as the gods themselves are
originally imbedded in Nature. Poetry must, therefore, to render all
reality, render also the background of its figures, and the events
that condition their acts. We must place them in that indispensable
environment which the landscape furnishes to the eye and the social
medium to the emotions.

The visible landscape is not a proper object for poetry. Its
elements, and especially the emotional stimulation which it gives,
may be suggested or expressed in verse; but landscape is not thereby
represented in its proper form; it appears only as an element and
associate of moral unities. Painting, architecture, and gardening, with
the art of stage setting, have the visible landscape for their object,
and to those arts we may leave it. But there is a sort of landscape
larger than the visible, which escapes the synthesis of the eye; it
is present to that topographical sense by which we always live in the
consciousness that there is a sea, that there are mountains, that the
sky is above us, even when we do not see it, and that the tribes of
men, with their different degrees of blamelessness, are scattered over
the broad-backed earth. This cosmic landscape poetry alone can render,
and it is no small part of the art to awaken the sense of it at the
right moment, so that the object that occupies the centre of vision
may be seen in its true lights, coloured by its wider associations,
and dignified by its felt affinities to things permanent and great.
As the Italian masters were wont not to paint their groups of saints
about the Virgin without enlarging the canvas, so as to render a broad
piece of sky, some mountains and rivers, and nearer, perhaps, some
decorative pile; so the poet of larger mind envelops his characters in
the atmosphere of Nature and history, and keeps us constantly aware of
the world in which they move.

The distinction of a poet--the dignity and humanity of his thought--can
be measured by nothing, perhaps, so well as by the diameter of the
world in which he lives; if he is supreme, his vision, like Dante's,
always stretches to the stars. And Virgil, a supreme poet sometimes
unjustly belittled, shows us the same thing in another form; his
landscape is the Roman universe, his theme the sacred springs of
Roman greatness in piety, consistancy, and law. He has not written a
line in forgetfulness that he was a Roman; he loves country life and
its labours because he sees in it the origin and bulwark of civic
greatness; he honours tradition because it gives perspective and
momentum to the history that ensues; he invokes the gods, because they
are symbols of the physical and moral forces, by which Rome struggled
to dominion.

Almost every classic poet has the topographical sense; he swarms
with proper names and allusions to history and fable; if an epithet
is to be thrown in anywhere to fill up the measure of a line, he
chooses instinctively an appellation of place or family; his wine
is not red, but Samian; his gorges are not deep, but are the gorges
of Hæmus; his songs are not sweet, but Pierian. We may deride their
practice as conventional, but they could far more justly deride ours
as insignificant. Conventions do not arise without some reason, and
genius will know how to rise above them by a fresh appreciation of
their rightness, and will feel no temptation to overturn them in favour
of personal whimsies. The ancients found poetry not so much in sensible
accidents as in essential forms and noble associations; and this fact
marks very clearly their superior education. They dominated the world
as we no longer dominate it, and lived, as we are too distracted to
live, in the presence of the rational and the important.

A physical and historical background, however, is of little moment
to the poet in comparison with that other environment of his
characters,--the dramatic situations in which they are involved. The
substance of poetry is, after all, emotion; and if the intellectual
emotion of comprehension and the mimetic one of impersonation are
massive, they are not so intense as the appetites and other transitive
emotions of life; the passions are the chief basis of all interests,
even the most ideal, and the passions are seldom brought into play
except by the contact of man with man. The various forms of love and
hate are only possible in society, and to imagine occasions in which
these feelings may manifest all their inward vitality is the poet's
function,--one in which he follows the fancy of every child, who puffs
himself out in his day-dreams into an endless variety of heroes and
lovers. The thrilling adventures which he craves demand an appropriate
theatre; the glorious emotions with which he bubbles over must at all
hazards find or feign their correlative objects.

But the passions are naturally blind, and the poverty of the
imagination, when left alone, is absolute. The passions may ferment as
they will, they never can breed an idea out of their own energy. This
idea must be furnished by the senses, by outward experience, else the
hunger of the soul will gnaw its own emptiness for ever. Where the
seed of sensation has once fallen, however, the growth, variations,
and exuberance of fancy may be unlimited. Only we still observe (as in
the child, in dreams, and in the poetry of ignorant or mystical poets)
that the intensity of inwardly generated visions does not involve
any real increase in their scope or dignity. The inexperienced mind
remains a thin mind, no matter how much its vapours may be heated and
blown about by natural passion. It was a capital error in Fichte and
Schopenhauer to assign essential fertility to the will in the creation
of ideas. They mistook, as human nature will do, even when at times
it professes pessimism, an ideal for a reality: and because they saw
how much the will clings to its objects, how it selects and magnifies
them, they imagined that it could breed them out of itself. A man who
thinks clearly will see that such self-determination of a will is
inconceivable, since what has no external relation and no diversity
of structure cannot of itself acquire diversity of functions. Such
inconceivability, of course, need not seem a great objection to a man
of impassioned inspiration; he may even claim a certain consistency in
positing, on the strength of his preference, the inconceivable to be a

The alleged fertility of the will is, however, disproved by
experience, from which metaphysics must in the end draw its analogies
and plausibility. The passions discover, they do not create, their
occasions; a fact which is patent when we observe how they seize
upon what objects they find, and how reversible, contingent, and
transferable the emotions are in respect to their objects. A doll
will be loved instead of a child, a child instead of a lover, God
instead of everything. The differentiation of the passions, as far as
consciousness is concerned, depends on the variety of the objects of
experience,--that is, on the differentiation of the senses and of the
environment which stimulates them.

When the "infinite" spirit enters the human body, it is determined
to certain limited forms of life by the organs which it wears; and
its blank potentiality becomes actual in thought and deed, according
to the fortunes and relations of its organism. The ripeness of the
passions may thus precede the information of the mind and lead to
groping in by-paths without issue; a phenomenon which appears not only
in the obscure individual whose abnormalities the world ignores, but
also in the starved, half-educated genius that pours the whole fire of
his soul into trivial arts or grotesque superstitions. The hysterical
forms of music and religion are the refuge of an idealism that has
lost its way; the waste and failures of life flow largely in those
channels. The carnal temptations of youth are incidents of the same
maladaptation, when passions assert themselves before the conventional
order of society can allow them physical satisfaction, and long before
philosophy or religion can hope to transform them into fuel for its own
sacrificial flames.

Hence flows the greatest opportunity of fiction. We have, in a sense,
an infinite will; but we have a limited experience, an experience sadly
inadequate to exercise that will either in its purity or its strength.
To give form to our capacities nothing is required but the appropriate
occasion; this the poet, studying the world, will construct for us out
of the materials of his observations. He will involve us in scenes
which lie beyond the narrow lane of our daily ploddings; he will place
us in the presence of important events, that we may feel our spirit
rise momentarily to the height of his great argument. The possibilities
of love or glory, of intrigue and perplexity, will be opened up before
us; if he gives us a good plot, we can readily furnish the characters,
because each of them will be the realization of some stunted potential
self of our own. It is by the plot, then, that the characters will be
vivified, because it is by the plot that our own character will be
expanded into its latent possibilities.

The description of an alien character can serve this purpose only very
imperfectly; but the presentation of the circumstances in which that
character manifests itself will make description unnecessary, since
our instinct will supply all that is requisite for the impersonation.
Thus it seems that Aristotle was justified in making the plot the chief
element in fiction: for it is by virtue of the plot that the characters
live, or, rather, that we live in them, and by virtue of the plot
accordingly that our soul rises to that imaginative activity by which
we tend at once to escape from the personal life and to realize its
ideal. This idealization is, of course, partial and merely relative to
the particular adventure in which we imagine ourselves engaged. But in
some single direction our will finds self-expression, and understands
itself; runs through the career which it ignorantly coveted, and
gathers the fruits and the lesson of that enterprise.

This is the essence of tragedy: the sense of the finished life, of
the will fulfilled and enlightened: that purging of the mind so much
debated upon, which relieves us of pent-up energies, transfers our
feelings to a greater object, and thus justifies and entertains our
dumb passions, detaching them at the same time for a moment from their
accidental occasions in our earthly life. An episode, however lurid,
is not a tragedy in this nobler sense, because it does not work itself
out to the end; it pleases without satisfying, or shocks without
enlightening. This enlightenment, I need hardly say, is not a matter
of theory or of moral maxims; the enlightenment by which tragedy is
made sublime is a glimpse into the ultimate destinies of our will.
This discovery need not be an ethical gain--Macbeth and Othello attain
it as much as Brutus and Hamlet--it may serve to accentuate despair,
or cruelty, or indifference, or merely to fill the imagination for
a moment without much affecting the permanent tone of the mind. But
without such a glimpse of the goal of a passion the passion has not
been adequately read, and the fiction has served to amuse us without
really enlarging the frontiers of our ideal experience. Memory and
emotion have been played upon, but imagination has not brought anything
new to the light.

The dramatic situation, however, gives us the environment of a single
passion, of life in one of its particular phases; and although a
passion, like Romeo's love, may seem to devour the whole soul, and
its fortunes may seem to be identical with those of the man, yet much
of the man, and the best part of him, goes by the board in such a
simplification. If Leonardo da Vinci, for example, had met in his youth
with Romeo's fate, his end would have been no more ideally tragic than
if he had died at eighteen of a fever; we should be touched rather by
the pathos of what he had missed, than by the sublimity of what he had
experienced. A passion like Romeo's, compared with the ideal scope of
human thought and emotion, is a thin dream, a pathological crisis.

Accordingly Aristophanes, remembering the original religious and
political functions of tragedy, blushes to see upon the boards a
woman in love. And we should readily agree with him, but for two
reasons,--one, that we abstract too much, in our demands upon art, from
nobility of mind, and from the thought of totality and proportion;
the other, that we have learned to look for a symbolic meaning in
detached episodes, and to accept the incidental emotions they cause,
because of their violence and our absorption in them, as in some sense
sacramental and representative of the whole. Thus the picture of an
unmeaning passion, of a crime without an issue, does not appear to
our romantic apprehension as the sorry farce it is, but rather as a
true tragedy. Some have lost even the capacity to conceive of a true
tragedy, because they have no idea of a cosmic order, of general laws
of life, or of an impersonal religion. They measure the profundity of
feeling by its intensity, not by its justifying relations; and in the
radical disintegration of their spirit, the more they are devoured the
more they fancy themselves fed. But the majority of us retain some
sense of a meaning in our joys and sorrows, and even if we cannot
pierce to their ultimate object, we feel that what absorbs us here
and now has a merely borrowed or deputed power; that it is a symbol
and foretaste of all reality speaking to the whole soul. At the same
time our intelligence is too confused to give us any picture of that
reality, and our will too feeble to marshal our disorganized loves into
a religion consistent with itself and harmonious with the comprehended
universe. A rational ideal eludes us, and we are the more inclined to
plunge into mysticism.

Nevertheless, the function of poetry, like that of science, can only be
fulfilled by the conception of harmonies that become clearer as they
grow richer. As the chance note that comes to be supported by a melody
becomes in that melody determinate and necessary, and as the melody,
when woven into a harmony, is explicated in that harmony and fixed
beyond recall; so the single emotion, the fortuitous dream, launched
by the poet into the world of recognizable and immortal forms, looks
in that world for its ideal supports and affinities. It must find them
or else be blown back among the ghosts. The highest ideality is the
comprehension of the real. Poetry is not at its best when it depicts
a further possible experience, but when it initiates us, by feigning
something which as an experience is impossible, into the meaning of the
experience which we have actually had.

The highest example of this kind of poetry is religion; and although
disfigured and misunderstood by the simplicity of men who believe in
it without being capable of that imaginative interpretation of life
in which its truth consists, yet this religion is even then often
beneficent, because it colours life harmoniously with the ideal.
Religion may falsely represent the ideal as a reality, but we must
remember that the ideal, if not so represented, would be despised by
the majority of men, who cannot understand that the value of things
is moral, and who therefore attribute to what is moral a natural
existence, thinking thus to vindicate its importance and value. But
value lies in meaning, not in substance; in the ideal which things
approach, not in the energy which they embody.

The highest poetry, then, is not that of the versifiers, but that of
the prophets, or of such poets as interpret verbally the visions
which the prophets have rendered in action and sentiment rather than
in adequate words. That the intuitions of religion are poetical, and
that in such intuitions poetry has its ultimate function, are truths
of which both religion and poetry become more conscious the more they
advance in refinement and profundity. A crude and superficial theology
may confuse God with the thunder, the mountains, the heavenly bodies,
or the whole universe; but when we pass from these easy identifications
to a religion that has taken root in history and in the hearts of
men, and has come to flower, we find its objects and its dogmas
purely ideal, transparent expressions of moral experience and perfect
counterparts of human needs. The evidence of history or of the senses
is left far behind and never thought of; the evidence of the heart, the
value of the idea, are alone regarded.

Take, for instance, the doctrine of transubstantiation. A metaphor here
is the basis of a dogma, because the dogma rises to the same subtle
region as the metaphor, and gathers its sap from the same soil of
emotion. Religion has here rediscovered its affinity with poetry, and
in insisting on the truth of its mystery it unconsciously vindicates
the ideality of its truth. Under the accidents of bread and wine lies,
says the dogma, the substance of Christ's body, blood, and divinity.
What is that but to treat facts as an appearance, and their ideal
import as a reality? And to do this is the very essence of poetry, for
which everything visible is a sacrament--an outward sign of that inward
grace for which the soul is thirsting.

In this same manner, where poetry rises from its elementary and
detached expressions in rhythm, euphuism, characterization, and
story-telling, and comes to the consciousness of its highest function,
that of portraying the ideals of experience and destiny, then the
poet becomes aware that he is essentially a prophet, and either
devotes himself, like Homer or Dante, to the loving expression of
the religion that exists, or like Lucretius or Wordsworth, to the
heralding of one which he believes to be possible. Such poets are
aware of their highest mission; others, whatever the energy of their
genius, have not conceived their ultimate function as poets. They have
been willing to leave their world ugly as a whole, after stuffing it
with a sufficient profusion of beauties. Their contemporaries, their
fellow-countrymen for many generations, may not perceive this defect,
because they are naturally even less able than the poet himself to
understand the necessity of so large a harmony. If he is short-sighted,
they are blind, and his poetic world may seem to them sublime in its
significance, because it may suggest some partial lifting of their
daily burdens and some partial idealization of their incoherent

Such insensibility to the highest poetry is no more extraordinary than
the corresponding indifference to the highest religion; nobility and
excellence, however, are not dependent on the suffrage of half-baked
men, but on the original disposition of the clay and the potter; I mean
on the conditions of the art and the ideal capacities of human nature.
Just as a note is better than a noise because, its beats being regular,
the ear and brain can react with pleasure on that regularity, so all
the stages of harmony are better than the confusion out of which they
come, because the soul that perceives that harmony welcomes it as the
fulfilment of her natural ends. The Pythagoreans were therefore right
when they made number the essence of the knowable world, and Plato was
right when he said harmony was the first condition of the highest good.
The good man is a poet whose syllables are deeds and make a harmony in
Nature. The poet is a rebuilder of the imagination, to make a harmony
in that. And he is not a complete poet if his whole imagination is not
attuned and his whole experience composed into a single symphony.

For his complete equipment, then, it is necessary, in the first place,
that he sing; that his voice be pure and well pitched, and that his
numbers flow; then, at a higher stage, his images must fit with one
another; he must be euphuistic, colouring his thoughts with many
reflected lights of memory and suggestion, so that their harmony may
be rich and profound; again, at a higher stage, he must be sensuous and
free, that is, he must build up his world with the primary elements of
experience, not with the conventions of common sense or intelligence;
he must draw the whole soul into his harmonies, even if in doing so
he disintegrates the partial systematizations of experience made
by abstract science in the categories of prose. But finally, this
disintegration must not leave the poet weltering in a chaos of sense
and passion; it must be merely the ploughing of the ground before a
new harvest, the kneading of the clay before the modelling of a more
perfect form. The expression of emotion should be rationalized by
derivation from character and by reference to the real objects that
arouse it--to Nature, to history, and to the universe of truth; the
experience imagined should be conceived as a destiny, governed by
principles, and issuing in the discipline and enlightenment of the
will. In this way alone can poetry become an interpretation of life and
not merely an irrelevant excursion into the realm of fancy, multiplying
oar images without purpose, and distracting us from our business
without spiritual gain.

If we may then define poetry, not in the formal sense of giving the
minimum of what may be called by that name, but in the ideal sense
of determining the goal which it approaches and the achievement in
which all its principles would be fulfilled, we may say that poetry is
metrical and euphuistic discourse, expressing thought which is both
sensuous and ideal.

Such is poetry as a literary form; but if we drop the limitation to
verbal expression, and think of poetry as that subtle fire and inward
light which seems at times to shine through the world and to touch the
images in our minds with ineffable beauty, then poetry is a momentary
harmony in the soul amid stagnation or conflict,--a glimpse of the
divine and an incitation to a religious life.

Religion is poetry become the guide of life, poetry substituted
for science or supervening upon it as an approach to the highest
reality. Poetry is religion allowed to drift, left without points of
application in conduct and without an expression in worship and dogma;
it is religion without practical efficacy and without metaphysical
illusion. The ground of this abstractness of poetry, however, is
usually only its narrow scope; a poet who plays with an idea for half
an hour, or constructs a character to which he gives no profound
moral significance, forgets his own thought, or remembers it only as
a fiction of his leisure, because he has not dug his well deep enough
to tap the subterraneous springs of his own life. But when the poet
enlarges his theatre and puts into his rhapsodies the true visions
of his people and of his soul, his poetry is the consecration of his
deepest convictions, and contains the whole truth of his religion. What
the religion of the vulgar adds to the poet's is simply the inertia
of their limited apprehension, which takes literally what he meant
ideally, and degrades into a false extension of this world on its own
level what in his mind was a true interpretation of it upon a moral

This higher plane is the sphere of significant imagination, of relevant
fiction, of idealism become the interpretation of the reality it
leaves behind. Poetry raised to its highest power is then identical
with religion grasped in its inmost truth; at their point of union
both reach their utmost purity and beneficence, for then poetry loses
its frivolity and ceases to demoralize, while religion surrenders its
illusions and ceases to deceive.

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