It remains for me to say a few words about this third kind of sentimental poetry—some few words and no more, for I propose to speak of it at another time with the developments particularly demanded by the theme.
This kind of poetry generally presents the idea and description of an innocent and happy humanity. This innocence and bliss seeming remote from the artificial refinements of fashionable society, poets have removed the scene of the idyl from crowds of worldly life to the simple shepherd's cot, and have given it a place in the infancy of humanity before the beginning of culture. These limitations are evidently accidental; they do not form the object of the idyl, but are only to be regarded as the most natural means to attain this end. The end is everywhere to portray man in a state of innocence: which means a state of harmony and peace with himself and the external world.
But a state such as this is not merely met with before the dawn of civilization; it is also the state to which civilization aspires, as to its last end, if only it obeys a determined tendency in its progress. The idea of a similar state, and the belief of the possible reality of this state, is the only thing that can reconcile man with all the evils to which he is exposed in the path of civilization; and if this idea were only a chimera, the complaints of those who accuse civil life and the culture of the intelligence as an evil for which there is no compensation, and who represent this primitive state of nature that we have renounced as the real end of humanity—their complaints, I say, would have a perfectly just foundation. It is, therefore, of infinite importance for the man engaged in the path of civilization to see confirmed in a sensuous manner the belief that this idea can be accomplished in the world of sense, that this state of innocence can be realized in it; and as real experience, far from keeping up this belief, is rather made incessantly to contradict it, poetry comes here, as in many other cases, in aid of reason, to cause this idea to pass into the condition of an intuitive idea, and to realize it in a particular fact. No doubt this innocence of pastoral life is also a poetic idea, and the imagination must already have shown its creative power in that. But the problem, with this datum, becomes infinitely simpler and easier to solve; and we must not forget that the elements of these pictures already existed in real life, and that it was only requisite to gather up the separate traits to form a whole. Under a fine sky, in a primitive society, when all the relations are still simple, when science is limited to so little, nature is easily satisfied, and man only turns to savagery when he is tortured by want. All nations that have a history have a paradise, an age of innocence, a golden age. Nay, more than this, every man has his paradise, his golden age, which he remembers with more or less enthusiasm, according as he is more or less poetical. Thus experience itself furnishes sufficient traits to this picture which the pastoral idyl executes. But this does not prevent the pastoral idyl from remaining always a beautiful and an encouraging fiction; and poetic genius, in retracing these pictures, has really worked in favor of the ideal. For, to the man who has once departed from simple nature, and who has been abandoned to the dangerous guidance of his reason, it is of the greatest importance to find the laws of nature expressed in a faithful copy, to see their image in a clear mirror, and to reject all the stains of artificial life. There is, however, a circumstance which remarkably lessens the aesthetic value of these sorts of poetry. By the very fact that the idyl is transported to the time that precedes civilization, it also loses the advantages thereof; and by its nature finds itself in opposition to itself. Thus, in a theoretical sense, it takes us back at the same time that in a practical sense it leads us on and ennobles us. Unhappily it places behind us the end towards which it ought to lead us, and consequently it can only inspire us with the sad feeling of a loss, and not the joyous feeling of a hope. As these poems can only attain their end by dispensing with all art, and by simplifying human nature, they have the highest value for the heart, but they are also far too poor for what concerns the mind, and their uniform circle is too quickly traversed. Accordingly we can only seek them and love them in moments in which we need calm, and not when our faculties aspire after movement and exercise. A morbid mind will find its cure in them, a sound soul will not find its food in them. They cannot vivify, they can only soften. This defect, grounded in the essence of the pastoral idyll, has not been remedied by the whole art of poets. I know that this kind of poem is not without admirers, and that there are readers enough who prefer an Amyntus and a Daphnis to the most splendid masterpieces of the epic or the dramatic muse; but in them it is less the aesthetical taste than the feeling of an individual want that pronounces on works of art; and their judgment, by that very fact, could not be taken into consideration here. The reader who judges with his mind, and whose heart is sensuous, without being blind to the merit of these poems, will confess that he is rarely affected by them, and that they tire him most quickly. But they act with so much the more effect in the exact moment of need. But must the truly beautiful be reduced to await our hours of need? and is it not rather its office to awaken in our soul the want that it is going to satisfy?
The reproaches I here level against the bucolic idyl cannot be understood of the sentimental. The simple pastoral, in fact, cannot be deprived of aesthetic value, since this value is already found in the mere form. To explain myself: every kind of poetry is bound to possess an infinite ideal value, which alone constitutes it a true poetry; but it can satisfy this condition in two different ways. It can give us the feeling of the infinite as to form, by representing the object altogether limited and individualizing it; it can awaken in us the feeling of the infinite as to matter, in freeing its object from all limits in which it is enclosed, by idealizing this object; therefore it can have an ideal value either by an absolute representation or by the representation of an absolute. Simple poetry takes the former road, the other is that of sentimental poetry. Accordingly the simple poet is not exposed to failure in value so long as he keeps faithfully to nature, which is always completely circumscribed, that is, is infinite as regards form. The sentimental poet, on the contrary, by that very fact, that nature only offers him completely circumscribed objects, finds in it an obstruction when he wishes to give an absolute value to a particular object. Thus the sentimental poet understands his interests badly when he goes along the trail of the simple poet, and borrows his objects from him—objects which by themselves are perfectly indifferent, and which only become poetical by the way in which they are treated. By this he imposes on himself without any necessity the same limits that confine the field of the simple poet, without, however, being able to carry out the limitation properly, or to vie with his rival in absolute definiteness of representation. He ought rather, therefore, to depart from the simple poet, just in the choice of object; because, the latter having the advantage of him on the score of form, it is only by the nature of the objects that he can resume the upper hand.
Applying this to the pastoral idyls of the sentimental poet, we see why these poems, whatever amount of art and genius be displayed in them, do not fully satisfy the heart or the mind. An ideal is proposed in it, and, at the same time, the writer keeps to this narrow and poor medium of pastoral life. Would it not have been better, on the contrary, to choose for the ideal another frame, or for the pastoral world another kind of picture? These pictures are just ideal enough for painting to lose its individual truth in them, and, again, just individual enough for the ideal in them to suffer therefrom. For example, a shepherd of Gessner can neither charm by the illusion of nature nor by the beauty of imitation; he is too ideal a being for that, but he does not satisfy us any more as an ideal by the infinity of the thought: he is a far too limited creature to give us this satisfaction. He will, therefore, please up to a certain point all classes of readers, without exception, because he seeks to unite the simple with the sentimental, and he thus gives a commencement of satisfaction to the two opposite exigencies that may be brought to bear on any particular part of a poem; but the author, in trying to unite the two points, does not fully satisfy either one or the other exigency, as you do not find in him either pure nature or the pure ideal; he cannot rank himself as entirely up to the mark of a stringent critical taste, for taste does not accept anything equivocal or incomplete in aesthetical matters. It is a strange thing that, in the poet whom I have named, this equivocal character extends to the language, which floats undecided between poetry and prose, as if he feared either to depart too far from nature, by speaking rhythmical language, or if he completely freed himself from rhythm, to lose all poetic flight. Milton gives a higher satisfaction to the mind, in the magnificent picture of the first human pair, and of the state of innocence in paradise;—the most beautiful idyl I know of the sentimental kind. Here nature is noble, inspired, simple, full of breadth, and, at the same time, of depth; it is humanity in its highest moral value, clothed in the most graceful form.
Thus, even in respect to the idyl, as well as to all kinds of poetry, we must once for all declare either for individuality or ideality; for to aspire to give satisfaction to both exigencies is the surest means, unless you have reached the terminus of perfection, to miss both ends. If the modern poet thinks he feels enough of the Greeks' mind to vie with them, notwithstanding all the indocility of his matter, on their own ground, namely that of simple poetry, let him do it exclusively, and place himself apart from all the requirements of the sentimental taste of his age. No doubt it is very doubtful if he come up to his models; between the original and the happiest imitation there will always remain a notable distance; but, by taking this road, he is at all events secure of producing a really poetic work. If, on the other hand, he feels himself carried to the ideal by the instinct of sentimental poetry, let him decide to pursue this end fully; let him seek the ideal in its purity, and let him not pause till he has reached the highest regions without looking behind him to know if the real follows him, and does not leave him by the way. Let him not lower himself to this wretched expedient of spoiling the ideal to accommodate himself to the wants of human weakness, and to turn out mind in order to play more easily with the heart. Let him not take us back to our infancy, to make us buy, at the cost of the most precious acquisitions of the understanding, a repose that can only last as long as the slumber of our spiritual faculties; but let him lead us on to emancipation, and give us this feeling of higher harmony which compensates for all his troubles and secures the happiness of the victor! Let him prepare as his task an idyl that realizes the pastoral innocence, even in the children of civilization, and in all the conditions of the most militant and excited life; of thought enlarged by culture; of the most refined art; of the most delicate social conventionalities—an idyl, in short, that is made, not to bring back man to Arcadia, but to lead him to Elysium.
This idyl, as I conceive it, is the idea of humanity definitely reconciled with itself, in the individual as well as in the whole of society; it is union freely re-established between inclination and duty; it is nature purified, raised to its highest moral dignity; in short, it is no less than the ideal of beauty applied to real life. Thus, the character of this idyl is to reconcile perfectly all the contradictions between the real and the ideal, which formed the matter of satirical and elegiac poetry, and, setting aside their contradictions, to put an end to all conflict between the feelings of the soul. Thus, the dominant expression of this kind of poetry would be calm; but the calm that follows the accomplishment, and not that of indolence—the calm that comes from the equilibrium re-established between the faculties, and not from the suspending of their exercise; from the fulness of our strength, and not from our infirmity; the calm, in short, which is accompanied in the soul by the feeling of an infinite power. But precisely because idyl thus conceived removes all idea of struggle, it will be infinitely more difficult than it was in two previously-named kinds of poetry to express movement; yet this is an indispensable condition, without which poetry can never act on men's souls. The most perfect unity is required, but unity ought not to wrong variety; the heart must be satisfied, but without the inspiration ceasing on that account. The solution of this problem is properly what ought to be given us by the theory of the idyl.
Now, what are the relations of the two poetries to one another, and their relations to the poetic ideal? Here are the principles we have established.
Nature has granted this favor to the simple poet, to act always as an indivisible unity, to be at all times identical and perfect, and to represent, in the real world, humanity at its highest value. In opposition, it has given a powerful faculty to the sentimental poet, or, rather, it has imprinted an ardent feeling on him; this is to replace out of himself this first unity that abstraction has destroyed in him, to complete humanity in his person, and to pass from a limited state to an infinite state. They both propose to represent human nature fully, or they would not be poets; but the simple poet has always the advantage of sensuous reality over the sentimental poet, by setting forth as a real fact what the other aspires only to reach. Every one experiences this in the pleasure he takes in simple poetry.
We there feel that the human faculties are brought into play; no vacuum is felt; we have the feeling of unity, without distinguishing anything of what we experience; we enjoy both our spiritual activity and also the fulness of physical life. Very different is the disposition of mind elicited by the sentimental poet. Here we feel only a vivid aspiration to produce in us this harmony of which we had in the other case the consciousness and reality; to make of ourselves a single and same totality; to realize in ourselves the idea of humanity as a complete expression. Hence it comes that the mind is here all in movement, stretched, hesitating between contrary feelings; whereas it was before calm and at rest, in harmony with itself, and fully satisfied.
But if the simple poet has the advantage over the sentimental poet on the score of reality; if he causes really to live that of which the other can only elicit a vivid instinct, the sentimental poet, in compensation, has this great advantage over the simple poet: to be in a position to offer to this instinct a greater object than that given by his rival, and the only one he could give. All reality, we know, is below the ideal; all that exists has limits, but thought is infinite. This limitation, to which everything is subject in sensuous reality, is, therefore, a disadvantage for the simple poet, while the absolute, unconditional freedom of the ideal profits the sentimental poet. No doubt the former accomplishes his object, but this object is limited; the second, I admit, does not entirely accomplish his, but his object is infinite. Here I appeal to experience. We pass pleasantly to real life and things from the frame of mind in which the simple poet has placed us. On the other hand, the sentimental poet will always disgust us, for a time, with real life. This is because the infinite character has, in a manner, enlarged our mind beyond its natural measure, so that nothing it finds in the world of sense can fill its capacity. We prefer to fall back in contemplation on ourselves, where we find food for this awakened impulse towards the ideal world; while, in the simple poet, we only strive to issue out of ourselves, in search of sensuous objects. Sentimental poetry is the offspring of retirement and science, and invites to it; simple poetry is inspired by the spectacle of life, and brings back life.
I have styled simple poetry a gift of nature to show that thought has no share in it. It is a first jet, a happy inspiration, that needs no correction, when it turns out well, and which cannot be rectified if ill turned out. The entire work of the simple genius is accomplished by feeling; in that is its strength, and in it are its limits. If, then, he has not felt at once in a poetic manner—that is, in a perfectly human manner—no art in the world can remedy this defect. Criticism may help him to see the defect, but can place no beauty in its stead. Simple genius must draw all from nature; it can do nothing, or almost nothing, by its will; and it will fulfil the idea of this kind of poetry provided nature acts in it by an inner necessity. Now, it is true that all which happens by nature is necessary, and all the productions, happy or not, of the simple genius, which is disassociated from nothing so much as from arbitrary will, are also imprinted with this character of necessity; momentary constraint is one thing, and the internal necessity dependent on the totality of things another. Considered as a whole, nature is independent and infinite; in isolated operations it is poor and limited. The same distinction holds good in respect to the nature of the poet. The very moment when he is most happily inspired depends on a preceding instant, and consequently only a conditional necessity can be attributed to him. But now the problem that the poet ought to solve is to make an individual state similar to the human whole, and consequently to base it in an absolute and necessary manner on itself. It is therefore necessary that at the moment of inspiration every trace of a temporal need should be banished, and that the object itself, however limited, should not limit the flight of the poet. But it may be conceived that this is only possible in so far as the poet brings to the object an absolute freedom, an absolute fulness of faculties, and in so far as he is prepared by an anterior exercise to embrace all things with all his humanity. Now he cannot acquire this exercise except by the world in which he lives, and of which he receives the impressions immediately. Thus simple genius is in a state of dependence with regard to experience, while the sentimental genius is forced from it. We know that the sentimental genius begins its operation at the place where the other finishes its own: its virtue is to complete by the elements which it derives from itself a defective object, and to transport itself by its own strength from a limited state to one of absolute freedom. Thus the simple poet needs a help from without, while the sentimental poet feeds his genius from his own fund, and purifies himself by himself. The former requires a picturesque nature, a poetical world, a simple humanity which casts its eyes around; for he ought to do his work without issuing from the sensuous sphere. If external aid fails him, if he be surrounded by matter not speaking to mind, one of two things will happen: either, if the general character of the poet-race is what prevails in him, he issues from the particular class to which he belongs as a poet, and becomes sentimental to be at any rate poetic; or, if his particular character as simple poet has the upper hand, he leaves his species and becomes a common nature, in order to remain at any rate natural. The former of these two alternatives might represent the case of the principal poets of the sentimental kind in Roman antiquity and in modern times. Born at another period of the world, transplanted under another sky, these poets who stir us now by ideas, would have charmed us by individual truth and simple beauty. The other alternative is the almost unavoidable quicksand for a poet who, thrown into a vulgar world, cannot resolve to lose sight of nature.
I mean, to lose sight of actual nature; but the greatest care must be given to distinguish actual nature from true nature, which is the subject of simple poetry. Actual nature exists everywhere; but true nature is so much the more rare because it requires an internal necessity that determines its existence. Every eruption of passion, however vulgar, is real—it may be even true nature; but it is not true human nature, for true human nature requires that the self-directing faculty in us should have a share in the manifestation, and the expression of this faculty is always dignified. All moral baseness is an actual human phenomenon, but I hope not real human nature, which is always noble. All the faults of taste cannot be surveyed that have been occasioned in criticism or the practice of art by this—confusion between actual human nature and true human nature. The greatest trivialities are tolerated and applauded under the pretext that they are real nature. Caricatures not to be tolerated in the real world are carefully preserved in the poetic world and reproduced according to nature! The poet can certainly imitate a lower nature; and it enters into the very definition of a satirical poet: but then a beauty by its own nature must sustain and raise the object, and the vulgarity of the subject must not lower the imitator too much. If at the moment he paints he is true human nature himself, the object of his paintings is indifferent; but it is only on this condition we can tolerate a faithful reproduction of reality. Unhappy for us readers when the rod of satire falls into hands that nature meant to handle another instrument, and when, devoid of all poetic talent, with nothing but the ape's mimicry, they exercise it brutally at the expense of our taste!
But vulgar nature has even its dangers for the simple poet; for the simple poet is formed by this fine harmony of the feeling and thinking faculty, which yet is only an idea, never actually realized. Even in the happiest geniuses of this class, receptivity will always more or less carry the day over spontaneous activity. But receptivity is always more or less subordinate to external impressions, and nothing but a perpetual activity of the creative faculty could prevent matter from exercising a blind violence over this quality. Now, every time this happens the feeling becomes vulgar instead of poetical.
No genius of the simple class, from Homer down to Bodmer, has entirely steered clear of this quicksand. It is evident that it is most perilous to those who have to struggle against external vulgarity, or who have parted with their refinement owing to a want of proper restraint. The first-named difficulty is the reason why even authors of high cultivation are not always emancipated from platitudes—a fact which has prevented many splendid talents from occupying the place to which they were summoned by nature. For this reason, a comic poet whose genius has chiefly to deal with scenes of real life, is more liable to the danger of acquiring vulgar habits of style and expression—a fact evidenced in the case of Aristophanes, Plautus, and all the poets who have followed in their track. Even Shakspeare, with all his sublimity, suffers us to fall very low now and then. Again, Lope De Vega, Moliere, Regnard, Goldoni worry us with frequent trifling. Holberg drags us down into the mire. Schlegel, a German poet, among the most remarkable for intellectual talent, with genius to raise him to a place among poets of the first order; Gellert, a truly simple poet, Rabener, and Lessing himself, if I am warranted to introduce his name in this category—this highly-cultivated scholar of criticism and vigilant examiner of his own genius—all these suffer in different degrees from the platitudes and uninspired movements of the natures they chose as the theme of their satire. With regard to more recent authors of this class, I avoid naming any of them, as I can make no exceptions in their case.
But not only is simple genius exposed to the danger of coming too near to vulgar reality; the ease of expression, even this too close approximation to reality, encourages vulgar imitators to try their hand in poetry. Sentimental poetry, though offering danger enough, has this advantage, to keep this crowd at a distance, for it is not for the first comer to rise to the ideal; but simple poetry makes them believe that, with feeling and humor, you need only imitate real nature to claim the title of poet. Now nothing is more revolting than platitude when it tries to be simple and amiable, instead of hiding its repulsive nature under the veil of art. This occasions the incredible trivialities loved by the Germans under the name of simple and facetious songs, and which give them endless amusement round a well-garnished table. Under the pretext of good humor and of sentiment people tolerate these poverties: but this good humor and this sentiment ought to be carefully proscribed. The Muses of the Pleisse, in particular, are singularly pitiful; and other Muses respond to them, from the banks of the Seine, and the Elbe. If these pleasantries are flat, the passion heard on our tragic stage is equally pitiful, for, instead of imitating true nature, it is only an insipid and ignoble expression of the actual. Thus, after shedding torrents of tears, you feel as you would after visiting a hospital or reading the "Human Misery" of Saltzmann. But the evil is worse in satirical poetry and comic romance, kinds which touch closely on every-day life, and which consequently, as all frontier posts, ought to be in safer hands. In truth, he less than any other is called on to become the painter of his century, who is himself the child and caricature of his century. But as, after all, nothing is easier than to take in hand, among our acquaintances, a comic character—a big, fat man—and draw a coarse likeness of him on paper, the sworn enemies of poetic inspiration are often led to blot some paper in this way to amuse a circle of friends. It is true that a pure heart, a well-made mind, will never confound these vulgar productions with the inspirations of simple genius. But purity of feeling is the very thing that is wanting, and in most cases nothing is thought of but satisfying a want of sense, without spiritual nature having any share. A fundamentally just idea, ill understood, that works of bel esprit serve to recreate the mind, contributes to keep up this indulgence, if indulgence it may be called when nothing higher occupies the mind, and reader as well as writer find their chief interest therein. This is because vulgar natures, if overstrained, can only be refreshed by vacuity; and even a higher intelligence, when not sustained by a proportional culture, can only rest from its work amidst sensuous enjoyments, from which spiritual nature is absent.
Poetic genius ought to have strength enough to rise with a free and innate activity above all the accidental hinderances which are inseparable from every confined condition, to arrive at a representation of humanity in the absolute plenitude of its powers; it is not, however, permitted, on the other hand, to emancipate itself from the necessary limits implied by the very idea of human nature; for the absolute only in the circle of humanity is its true problem. Simple genius is not exposed to overstep this sphere, but rather not to fill it entirely, giving too much scope to external necessity, to accidental wants, at the expense of the inner necessity. The danger for the sentimental genius is, on the other hand, by trying to remove all limits, of nullifying human nature absolutely, and not only rising, as is its right and duty, beyond finite and determinate reality, as far as absolute possibility, or in other terms to idealize; but of passing even beyond possibility, or, in other words, dreaming. This fault—overstraining—is precisely dependent on the specific property of the sentimental process, as the opposite defect, inertia, depends on the peculiar operation of the simple genius. The simple genius lets nature dominate, without restricting it; and as nature in her particular phenomena is always subject to some want, it follows that the simple sentiment will not be always exalted enough to resist the accidental limitations of the present hour. The sentimental genius, on the contrary, leaves aside the real world, to rise to the ideal and to command its matter with free spontaneity. But while reason, according to law, aspires always to the unconditional, so the sentimental genius will not always remain calm enough to restrain itself uniformly and without interruption within the conditions implied by the idea of human nature, and to which reason must always, even in its freest acts, remain attached. He could only confine himself in these conditions by help of a receptivity proportioned to his free activity; but most commonly the activity predominates over receptivity in the sentimental poet, as much as receptivity over activity in the simple poet. Hence, in the productions of simple genius, if sometimes inspiration is wanting, so also in works of sentimental poetry the object is often missed. Thus, though they proceed in opposite ways, they will both fall into a vacuum, for before the aesthetic judgment an object without inspiration, and inspiration without an object, are both negations.
The poets who borrow their matter too much from thought, and rather conceive poetic pictures by the internal abundance of ideas than by the suggestions of feeling, are more or less likely to be addicted to go thus astray. In their creations reason makes too little of the limits of the sensuous world, and thought is always carried too far for experience to follow it. Now, when the idea is carried so far that not only no experience corresponds to it—as is the case in the beau ideal—but also that it is repugnant to the conditions of all possible experience, so that, in order to realize it, one must leave human nature altogether, it is no longer a poetic but an exaggerated thought; that is, supposing it claims to be representable and poetical, for otherwise it is enough if it is not self-contradictory. If thought is contradictory it is not exaggeration, but nonsense; for what does not exist cannot exceed. But when the thought is not an object proposed to the fancy, we are just as little justified in calling it exaggerated. For simple thought is infinite, and what is limitless also cannot exceed. Exaggeration, therefore, is only that which wounds, not logical truth, but sensuous truth, and what pretends to be sensuous truth. Consequently, if a poet has the unhappy chance to choose for his picture certain natures that are merely superhuman and cannot possibly be represented, he can only avoid exaggeration by ceasing to be a poet, and not trusting the theme to his imagination. Otherwise one of two things would happen: either imagination, applying its limits to the object, would make a limited and merely human object of an absolute object—which happened with the gods of Greece—or the object would take away limits from fancy, that is, would render it null and void, and this is precisely exaggeration.
Extravagance of feeling should be distinguished from extravagance of portraiture; we are speaking of the former. The object of the feeling may be unnatural, but the feeling itself is natural, and ought accordingly to be shadowed forth in the language of nature. While extravagant feelings may issue from a warm heart and a really poetic nature, extravagance of portraiture always displays a cold heart, and very often a want of poetic capacity. Therefore this is not a danger for the sentimental poet, but only for the imitator, who has no vocation; it is therefore often found with platitude, insipidity, and even baseness. Exaggeration of sentiment is not without truth, and must have a real object; as nature inspires it, it admits of simplicity of expression and coming from the heart it goes to the heart. As its object, however, is not in nature, but artificially produced by the understanding, it has only a logical reality, and the feeling is not purely human. It was not an illusion that Heloise had for Abelard, Petrarch for Laura, Saint Preux for his Julia, Werther for his Charlotte; Agathon, Phanias, and Peregrinus—in Wieland—for the object of their dreams: the feeling is true, only the object is factitious and outside nature. If their thought had kept to simple sensuous truth, it could not have taken this flight; but on the other hand a mere play of fancy, without inner value, could not have stirred the heart: this is only stirred by reason. Thus this sort of exaggeration must be called to order, but it is not contemptible: and those who ridicule it would do well to find out if the wisdom on which they pride themselves is not want of heart, and if it is not through want of reason that they are so acute. The exaggerated delicacy in gallantry and honor which characterizes the chivalrous romances, especially of Spain, is of this kind; also the refined and even ridiculous tenderness of French and English sentimental romances of the best kind. These sentiments are not only subjectively true, but also objectively they are not without value; they are sound sentiments issuing from a moral source, only reprehensible as overstepping the limits of human truth. Without this moral reality how could they stir and touch so powerfully? The same remark applies to moral and religious fanaticism, patriotism, and the love of freedom when carried up to exaltation. As the object of these sentiments is always a pure idea, and not an external experience, imagination with its proper activity has here a dangerous liberty, and cannot, as elsewhere, be called back to bounds by the presence of a visible object. But neither the man nor the poet can withdraw from the law of nature, except to submit to that of reason. He can only abandon reality for the ideal; for liberty must hold to one or the other of these anchors. But it is far from the real to the ideal; and between the two is found fancy, with its arbitrary conceits and its unbridled freedom. It must needs be, therefore, that man in general, and the poet in particular, when he withdraws by liberty of his understanding from the dominion of feeling, without being moved to it by the laws of reason—that is, when he abandons nature through pure liberty—he finds himself freed from all law, and therefore a prey to the illusions of phantasy.
It is testified by experience that entire nations, as well as individual men, who have parted with the safe direction of nature, are actually in this condition; and poets have gone astray in the same manner. The true genius of sentimental poetry, if its aim is to raise itself to the rank of the ideal, must overstep the limits of the existing nature; but false genius oversteps all boundaries without any discrimination, flattering itself with the belief that the wild sport of the imagination is poetic inspiration. A true poetical genius can never fall into this error, because it only abandons the real for the sake of the ideal, or, at all events, it can only do so at certain moments when the poet forgets himself; but his main tendencies may dispose him to extravagance within the sphere of the senses. His example may also drive others into a chase of wild conceptions, because readers of lively fancy and weak understanding only remark the freedom which he takes with existing nature, and are unable to follow him in copying the elevated necessities of his inner being. The same difficulties beset the path of the sentimental genius in this respect, as those which afflict the career of a genius of the simple order. If a genius of this class carries out every work, obedient to the free and spontaneous impulses of his nature, the man devoid of genius who seeks to imitate him is not willing to consider his own nature a worse guide than that of the great poet. This accounts for the fact that masterpieces of simple poetry are commonly followed by a host of stale and unprofitable works in print, and masterpieces of the sentimental class by wild and fanciful effusions,—a fact that may be easily verified on questioning the history of literature.
Two maxims are prevalent in relation to poetry, both of them quite correct in themselves, but mutually destructive in the way in which they are generally conceived. The first is, that "poetry serves as a means of amusement and recreation," and we have previously observed that this maxim is highly favorable to aridity and platitudes in poetical actions. The other maxim, that "poetry is conducive to the moral progress of humanity," takes under its shelter theories and views of the most wild and extravagant character. It may be profitable to examine more attentively these two maxims, of which so much is heard, and which are so often imperfectly understood and falsely applied.
We say that a thing amuses us when it makes us pass from a forced state to the state that is natural to us. The whole question here is to know in what our natural state ought to consist, and what a forced state means. If our natural state is made to consist merely in the free development of all our physical powers, in emancipation from all constraint, it follows that every act of reason by resisting what is sensuous, is a violence we undergo, and rest of mind combined with physical movement will be a recreation par excellence. But if we make our natural state consist in a limitless power of human expression and of freely disposing of all our strength, all that divides these forces will be a forced state, and recreation will be what brings all our nature to harmony. Thus, the first of these ideal recreations is simply determined by the wants of our sensuous nature; the second, by the autonomous activity of human nature. Which of these two kinds of recreation can be demanded of the poet? Theoretically, the question is inadmissible, as no one would put the human ideal beneath the brutal. But in practice the requirements of a poet have been especially directed to the sensuous ideal, and for the most part favor, though not the esteem, for these sorts of works is regulated thereby. Men's minds are mostly engaged in a labor that exhausts them, or an enjoyment that sets them asleep. Now labor makes rest a sensible want, much more imperious than that of the moral nature; for physical nature must be satisfied before the mind can show its requirements. On the other hand, enjoyment paralyzes the moral instinct. Hence these two dispositions common in men are very injurious to the feeling for true beauty, and thus very few even of the best judge soundly in aesthetics. Beauty results from the harmony between spirit and sense; it addresses all the faculties of man, and can only be appreciated if a man employs fully all his strength. He must bring to it an open sense, a broad heart, a spirit full of freshness. All a man's nature must be on the alert, and this is not the case with those divided by abstraction, narrowed by formulas, enervated by application. They demand, no doubt, a material for the senses; but not to quicken, only to suspend, thought. They ask to be freed from what? From a load that oppressed their indolence, and not a rein that curbed their activity.
After this can one wonder at the success of mediocre talents in aesthetics? or at the bitter anger of small minds against true energetic beauty? They reckon on finding therein a congenial recreation, and regret to discover that a display of strength is required to which they are unequal. With mediocrity they are always welcome; however little mind they bring, they want still less to exhaust the author's inspiration. They are relieved of the load of thought; and their nature can lull itself in beatific nothings on the soft pillow of platitude. In the temple of Thalia and Melpomene—at least, so it is with us—the stupid savant and the exhausted man of business are received on the broad bosom of the goddess, where their intelligence is wrapped in a magnetic sleep, while their sluggish senses are warmed, and their imagination with gentle motions rocked.
Vulgar people may be excused what happens to the best capacities. Those moments of repose demanded by nature after lengthy labor are not favorable to aesthetic judgment, and hence in the busy classes few can pronounce safely on matters of taste. Nothing is more common than for scholars to make a ridiculous figure, in regard to a question of beauty, besides cultured men of the world; and technical critics are especially the laughing-stock of connoisseurs. Their opinion, from exaggeration, crudeness, or carelessness guides them generally quite awry, and they can only devise a technical judgment, and not an aesthetical one, embracing the whole work, in which feeling should decide. If they would kindly keep to technicalities they might still be useful, for the poet in moments of inspiration and readers under his spell are little inclined to consider details. But the spectacle which they afford us is only the more ridiculous inasmuch as we see these crude natures—with whom all labor and trouble only develop at the most a particular aptitude,—when we see them set up their paltry individualities as the representation of universal and complete feeling, and in the sweat of their brow pronounce judgment on beauty.
We have just seen that the kind of recreation poetry ought to afford is generally conceived in too restricted a manner, and only referred to a simple sensuous want. Too much scope, however, is also given to the other idea, the moral ennobling the poet should have in view, inasmuch as too purely an ideal aim is assigned.
In fact, according to the pure ideal, the ennobling goes on to infinity, because reason is not restricted to any sensuous limits, and only finds rest in absolute perfection. Nothing can satisfy whilst a superior thing can be conceived; it judges strictly and admits no excuses of infirmity and finite nature. It only admits for limits those of thought, which transcends time and space. Hence the poet could no more propose to himself such an ideal of ennobling (traced for him by pure (didactic) reason) any more than the coarse ideal of recreation of sensuous nature. The aim is to free human nature from accidental hinderances, without destroying the essential ideal of our humanity, or displacing its limits. All beyond this is exaggeration, and a quicksand in which the poet too easily suffers shipwreck if he mistakes the idea of nobleness. But, unfortunately, he cannot rise to the true ideal of ennobled human nature without going some steps beyond it. To rise so high he must abandon the world of reality, for, like every ideal, it is only to be drawn from its inner moral source. He does not find it in the turmoil of worldly life, but only in his heart, and that only in calm meditation. But in this separation from real life he is likely to lose sight of all the limits of human nature, and seeking pure form he may easily lose himself in arbitrary and baseless conceptions. Reason will abstract itself too much from experience, and the practical man will not be able to carry out, in the crush of real life, what the contemplative mind has discovered on the peaceful path of thought. Thus, what makes a dreamy man is the very thing that alone could have made him a sage; and the advantage for the latter is not that he has never been a dreamer, but rather that he has not remained one.
We must not, then, allow the workers to determine recreation according to their wants, nor thinkers that of nobleness according to their speculations, for fear of either a too low physical poetry, or a poetry too given to hyperphysical exaggeration. And as these two ideas direct most men's judgments on poetry, we must seek a class of mind at once active, but not slavishly so, and idealizing, but not dreamy; uniting the reality of life within as few limits as possible, obeying the current of human affairs, but not enslaved by them. Such a class of men can alone preserve the beautiful unity of human nature, that harmony which all work for a moment disturbs, and a life of work destroys; such alone can, in all that is purely human, give by its feelings universal rules of judgment. Whether such a class exists, or whether the class now existing in like conditions answers to this ideal conception, I am not concerned to inquire. If it does not respond to the ideal it has only itself to blame. In such a class—here regarded as a mere ideal—the simple and sentimental would keep each other from extremes of extravagance and relaxation. For the idea of a beautiful humanity is not exhausted by either, but can only be presented in the union of both.