Beauty: the Vision whereunto,
In joy, with pantings, from afar,
Through sound and odour, form and hue,
And mind and clay, and worm and star—
Now touching goal, now backward hurled—
Toils the indomitable world.
La vie est un degré de l’échelle des mondes
Que nous devons franchir pour arriver ailleurs.
Mankind at its best and most promising—I propose now to take a glance at a more cheerful aspect of human life. In the fine arts man has travelled farther from the animals and nearer to the angels than in any other of his enterprises or accomplishments. He is there in some measure a creator. And we shall not, I fancy, be required to argue the proposition that of all his multifarious undertakings the production of music and poetry, of painting and sculpture have been the least denounced and condemned. You may not be greatly interested in these forms of human activity, but you will let them pass, you will not be enraged by them. They have not, indeed, altogether escaped the censure of the stricter moralists, but I have never heard of a society for their suppression. It would, I think, be difficult to prove that music and poetry, painting and sculpture have been responsible for much infelicity; easy, on the contrary, to show that they have added considerably to the sum of human happiness. Artists have in their works given to their fellow creatures the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain.
Now, if indisputable, this claim, in so carping and contentious a world as ours, is, when we come to consider it, of singular interest, and, it may be, of high importance. The peculiar place of the arts in human esteem, if we understood aright the reasons for it, should throw light on many dark matters, even the most obscure. For it is in the exploration of human nature rather than of the material world that we are likely to come to some understanding of our most pressing problems. Its secrets lie deeper than the secrets of the vault of heaven, and the astronomy of souls is a more difficult science than that of the stars. And it almost seems as if nature had taken man into partnership to carry on her creative design. For in the arts he has planted new flowers in her garden, which some think fairer than any of her own, since in the pictures, the music and the poems much has been said that nature herself never so much as thought, and could not herself have said. What shall we conclude, then? To see where we stand we shall have, I fear, to go back to the beginning.
The universe has brought us into existence, which is, of course, the fundamental thing, the basis of everything. Life, however, we have discovered, is not enough. Simply to be, to exist, is not in itself sufficient. We ask for more than existence, we ask for a happy existence, free from all vexation—in a word, for heaven. For some reason nature, possibly because she had done all she could, probably for some other and profounder reason, having given us life, stayed her hand, with the unfortunate results we see. She produced a world, but thoughtlessly failed or neglected to produce a paradise, leaving that undertaking to us; the making of a heaven for ourselves—a difficult business. And the best we have been able to do so far is to create a dream world, a world of the imagination, superior in a number of ways to the world in which we actually live, much pleasanter if less substantial. The root of the satisfaction the arts provide is thus easily explained. In the imaginative representation of the world and life we are freed of their disagreeable features, which are, as everyone knows, pretty numerous. ‘Since’, said Bacon, ‘the world is in proportion inferior to the soul, there is agreeable to the spirit of man a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness and a more absolute variety than can be found in the nature of things.’
Quite true, but how did we come to pitch our requirements so high? The other animals placidly accept things as they are. The soul of man, you might think, had strayed out of its native country into a dry and thirsty land, and recalls its happier childhood. Like the traveller lost in the desert, it revisits in dreams the country known in earlier days, or was it before birth? Since, then, in music and poetry the lost paradise is in a measure regained, where like birds we are free to fly whither we please, their appeal to human nature may, we think, easily be understood. The poet Blake, you remember, pertinently enquires:
What do we here,
In this land of unbelief and fear?
The land of dreams is better far,
Above the light of the Northern Star.
Very good, and all quite simple. You may say that dreams, and artists, who are the purveyors of dreams, with dreams to sell, reminding us of something lost and certainly in universal demand, a painless existence, have thus found favour in our eyes. But where is this bright paradise for which we pine, and how did we come to leave it? Meditate a little longer, recall the ancient fables of the Garden of Eden and of the Golden Age, those strange echoes from the depths of the human soul, and you presently find yourself at the heart of a great mystery, immersed in the metaphysics of Being and Becoming, surveying heights where there is no secure foothold for human reason, and only to be trodden by philosophical mountaineers. What are we to understand by these alarming terms?
Avoiding, as we must, the technical language of the academic schools, and putting upon them our own interpretation, let us begin by saying that there are two modes of existence, which we may call passive and active ways of existing, its positive and negative poles. As we have had so often to remind ourselves in speaking of the One and the Many, we are surrounded by a great multitude of things, to which in the aggregate we give the name, nature. Nature presents an astonishing scene of varied shapes and colours, and of creatures pursuing innumerable and diverse ways of life. As the support of these surroundings, of all we see, know and experience, human reason is driven to postulate some underlying foundation or principle upon which they rest, the ground of all that is, or appears, which is the
Form in all forms, and of all souls the soul.
This is Being, which exists in its own right: ‘The One, without Predicates’ of Plotinus, to which many names have been given—the Absolute, Mind or God. You may call it what you will. Let us call it simply Being, ‘ageless and deathless’, the all-pervading Spirit in whom ‘our dark foundations rest’, revealed in the world’s existence and the surprising aspirations of the mind.
As we cannot doubt, though no eye has ever seen it, that the moon has another side than that she presents to the earth, so with this sustaining principle. Reason compels us to assume behind the visible scene its everlasting presence. Further, as we have previously agreed, Being in isolation, undisclosed or undistributed Being, is with difficulty, if at all, to be distinguished from Not-Being. A power never manifested, how could it be known? The world with which we are acquainted is a manifold. It has many observable parts. By that airy syllable ‘world’ we mean an assemblage of particulars, a variety, a heterogeneous multiplicity, interlocked and most intimately associated, yet, in appearance and on the surface at least, infinitely diversified. Now Being is not open to our inspection, and if it is to exhibit or reveal itself, if it is to be explicitly known as a world, it must somehow pass into Becoming, an active state, or, you may say, be projected on a different plane, the plane of measurable extension and duration, of space and time, with which we have some little acquaintance. And this variegated, moving pageant we term the world is just this other mode or pole of Being, its progressive manifestation or creation, which thus declares itself, and becomes visible in action. ‘What appears’, as Anaxagoras said, ‘is a vision of the unseen.’
The world of our acquaintance, the Many or nature, is, then, Being externalised, our view of it; and Becoming is, we might say, its revealed or lighted side. How this actualisation or manifestation has come about we need not ask. It is clean beyond our range. Somehow from pure Being has emerged the procession of the starry universe, and all that followed in its train. Somehow in Becoming, in this diversified scene, the true nature of Being is displayed.
Observe now, bearing in mind that the language we employ is necessarily metaphorical and figurative, that in these two modes of existence, the passive and the active, we have our own small share. We describe them as our sleeping and waking states. We may think of a man asleep as in Being, as alive, as a potential force, but if we are to think of him as his true self we must see him awake. Not when alone and asleep, but when at the opposite pole of his existence, when he has exchanged passivity for activity, does he reveal his true nature. When he is awake, when he is up and doing, we come to know him on his lighted side.
And what of the man himself, how is he affected? In his waking condition, in his state of active Becoming, he has sacrificed something, the sweet oblivion in which men forget their anxieties, the pauper his poverty, the diseased his sickness, the ruined man the loss of his wealth, the bereaved his bereavement. The man awake has left behind him the divine repose, the heavenly peace he enjoyed in the blissful condition simply of Being. He has, you might say, mounted the battlements, and is now perpetually oh anxious guard. He looks out upon the battle in the plain beneath him, upon the conflicts, the antagonisms, the swaying tide of events, in which he has his own part to play. He is no longer alone with himself, but immersed in the seething flux of the public world, a man among innumerable other men and creatures, whose desires, aims and purposes run counter to his own. He has entered the turbulent arena of the contending opposites.
The waking state affords, indeed, opportunities denied him when alone in the quiet he has left, opportunities to see and be seen, occasions for the acquisition of experiences, the exercise of his energies, in which there is perpetual delight, opportunities for expansion, for becoming more than he has so far been. But all at a price, the price of unremitting anxiety, watchfulness, frustration, disappointment, wounds and pain. He gains, doubtless, much, yet he has relinquished the blessed ease of his former state. He is an exile from Nirvana, the Nirvana of pure Being. In the realm of Becoming we are busy among other creatures like ourselves. We enjoy the pursuit of our personal inclinations, the exertion of our powers. Its adventures and undertakings have their value. But they are only to be had in the society of the Many, the others like ourselves, bent equally upon their separate ends and individual needs. They are only to be enjoyed amid the crowd of jostling fellow travellers, pushing and elbowing their way through the streets and markets, a bustling, noisy, hearty, pleasure-seeking, love-making, jesting, quarrelling, competitive, making-the-best-of-it crowd.
The soul in solitude, the sleeping soul, is in seclusion and at peace, but it is at a standstill. In that quiescent state, however heavenly it be, there can be no fulfilment of its nature, nothing accomplished. A man asleep, what can he be said to be? All differences between him and other men are obliterated. He is neither a pagan nor a Christian. He belongs to no party and assists no cause. He is neither a lover of beauty nor a searcher for truth, neither a good nor a bad man. He is an occupant of space, but his existence has neither value nor significance, and his Being is hardly to be distinguished from Not-Being. Yet a touch may wake him, may transform him into a maker of history, a poet, a founder of states, an Alexander or Napoleon storming through the world, a demi-god, worshipped by millions; a touch may transfigure him into the statesman, the saint, the thinker, whose force the world may feel, and by whose power the centuries may be shaken.
The soul, we may agree, exists for itself, and is concerned for itself. None the less for the growth and expansion of its native and latent powers it is in need of an arena, a world of souls. If I am to exist in any true sense it can only be in relation with other existences. You may say, indeed, if you like, that the realm of Being is the world of reality, the realm of Becoming a world of appearances. There is no more favourite thesis with philosophers. You may say with Shelley that, lost in its stormy visions, ‘we keep’ there ‘with phantoms an unprofitable strife’; nevertheless, it is in the latter state, and there only, that experience is possible, or a realisation of the nature that to the soul essentially belongs. It was built for this voyage. And the company of others is as much a necessity for each living thing as the necessity of remaining simply itself alone.
Here, then, is the dilemma. Which is the better state, which to be preferred, Being or Becoming? In which is the soul’s true home? Can we say either, or should we say both? We can only reply that the question was answered once upon a time by the many souls in the bosom of the One, the One of Being. They could find in its eternal tranquillity no field for development. Existence there did not suffice them. And the desire to be awake, to be abroad and at work for themselves, to be makers of their own world, that, or a creative fiat which launched them into Becoming, gave birth to the universe we see and know.
So we may most reasonably account, as it seems to me, for things as they are and our present state. I can think of no better way. For the universe is no unorganised conglomeration of senseless things. It has a structure which calls for explanation. We are certainly not to suppose the whole of Being as once and for all, and in its present actualisation, complete. Its resources are vast, and there will always remain more to be revealed. We must think of Being as manifesting in space and time all that it can be, displaying there its inexhaustible wealth, unfolding itself in the succeeding phases of a world without end. And that process is throughout periodic or rhythmical, exhibited to us in the lesser rhythms, echoes of the unseen and greater—in the seasonal pulsations of nature, the alternation of her phases of activity and repose. The undulations of whatever it be that underlies matter, or constitutes it, are invariably periodic. A molecule of hydrogen vibrates, we are told, 450 million times a second. The souls, too, in the universe similarly display their twofold nature, in that they are wayfarers, continually passing from quiescent Being into active Becoming, and from active Becoming into quiescent Being. In our pulses throbs the pulse of nature in her alternating phases.
The running winds of springtime call
For culmination and repose,
And autumn, letting roses fall,
Sighs for the spring that brings the rose.
Nor can we suppose ourselves here and now to have full knowledge of ourselves, or to be fully known. For as the whole of Being is displayed at any time on the plane of action only in process and in part, so also with its constituent souls.
Empedocles is cited as saying that ‘of necessity Love and Strife control things and move them part of the time, and that they are at rest during the intervening time’. If the One reassemble the Many, it will send them forth again as before. No one has yet shown us, or can show us, that it will be a different Many, as some philosophies assume. Why should it be? The bonds of affection are as real as the sympathies between electrons and protons. All that exists, all reality, is permanent, and spaces and times are for the souls but the media of their intercommunication with each other. They will sleep out the nights, but the days will see them again. ‘There is’, as Sir Thomas Browne said, ‘something in us that can be without us, and will be after us; though it is strange that it has no history of what it was before us, nor cannot tell us how it entered in us.’ The souls which were in the beginning within the whole of Being ‘last’, in the words of Leibniz, ‘as long as the universe’, and ‘go from better to better … although most of this takes place imperceptibly, and sometimes with great circuits backwards.’
And what could be more simple or reasonable, more agreeable to thought, than the balanced rhythm of repose and activity that nature exhibits in her ebb and flow, in the counterpoise or antiphony of sleep and waking, death and life, withdrawal and renewal? As a longing for activity and companionship, native to the soul, invades it in the sphere of Being, so its counterpart, a longing for release from the buffetings of Becoming, the sailor’s longing for a haven, returns it to the peace of Being.
Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.
So rocked in nature’s cradle we feel the motion of her rising and her falling tides. Whatever the varying shapes and alliances the vision of life presents, nothing can enter existence that was not for ever there, nothing passes out of existence. You cannot go in and out, enter or leave the universe as if it were a house amid surrounding scenery. And the vast assembly of which Being consists has in Becoming its scene of action. Theirs is the patterned world around us, theirs the figured tapestry on the loom of time. What else than overwhelming, what less than wonderful and terrible, could it be when we consider its extent, duration, and the myriad agencies and activities, ‘the many operations of gods and men’, as Plutarch has it, there represented?
We have fetched a wide compass. What, you may ask, have Being and Becoming, or the cosmic rhythms to do with the music and poetry, painting and sculpture, we set out to discuss? Here is the answer in the words of Hegel. ‘It is in works of art that nations have deposited their profoundest intuitions, and ideas of their hearts; and fine art is frequently the key—with many nations there is no other—to the understanding of their wisdom and of their religion.’ Yes, but why? Why in the fine arts? Why in them rather than in the religions themselves, in the sciences and philosophies, the civic structures, the political institutions should we have the key to the human soul, to the deepest strata of its intuitions, its innermost wisdom? For the simple reason, shall we not answer, that they speak in the language of the soul rather than of the intellect, in a universal language, universally understood?
‘There seems’, said Aristotle, ‘to be a sort of relationship between the soul on the one hand, and harmonies and rhythms on the other.’ There is, indeed, such a relationship. And there is an undeniable knowledge possessed by the soul, when it keeps silence and appears to be asleep. The human body contains, or consists of, a vast system of inter-related rhythmical processes. If that be so, and we are in no doubt that it is so, and if these processes preserve it in an environment which is itself a system of rhythms, the accentuated, pulsing system of nature, whose swelling and subsiding waves are everywhere in their periods clearly in a thousand ways to be discerned—as, for example, even in the ripple which the distribution of the lines in the spectrum so exquisitely displays—if in sober fact we are from birth to death, in soul and body, in all our vital processes immersed in a pulsing ocean, it would, indeed, be surprising if in such a rhythmical universe we were left unmoved by the rhythmical arts, which reproduce its measures, and thus play upon the corresponding and fundamental strings of our nature. ‘Whatever is harmonically disposed’, in Sir Thomas Browne’s words, ‘delights in harmony’, and music, he held, following the inspired thought of Pythagoras, ‘is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World … such a melody as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding.’ Schopenhauer was of the same opinion. ‘We may regard the phenomenal world, or nature, and music as two different expressions of the same thing.’
Is this mere mystical rhetoric? I do not think so. Through rhythm we are in the closest, most vital and intimate relationship with the entire Cosmos, which in this, its primary and proper language, speaks to us in every fibre of our being. And with compelling authority, an authority the human race has from the earliest times and in all lands acknowledged. From prehistoric ages music appears in association with the magical, religious and medicinal rites of all primitive peoples, invariably accompanied, as they were, with an incantation, a song or chant. ‘Tis, then, no unwarrantable thought that in the highest reaches of the rhythmical arts we are privileged to hear, however fitfully, utterances ‘above a mortal mouth’, when
‘Tis scarce like sound, it tingles through the frame
As lightning tingles.
To the soul’s instincts and intuitions, such as direct the lives of animals, by which they navigate their course, the talent of the spider, the genius of the bee, the occult chemistry by which the caterpillar transforms itself into a butterfly, to these mysterious powers that brilliant detective, the wide-awake intellect, has no vestige of a clue. Nor could it have. For consciousness is not thought, nor thought an activity of consciousness, nor possibly even assisted by it. Thought, noticed or unnoticed, proceeds like a subterranean stream on its unruffled course. The poor soul, despised, denied existence, laughed out of court by the rationalists, how much more it knows, how many more miracles it can perform; how it must smile to itself at their pride and blind, groping labours. So far, indeed—as they fondly imagine—from enlarging our vision in the brain and nervous system of the body, nature has there, and of deliberation, contracted and concentrated our conscious attention upon the outer world, as with a searchlight directed upon a selected situation, confining our observation to things of the present hour. By them, its mortal instruments, the soul’s horizon is narrowed, its sight confined. They are there, the nerves and brain, and of necessity, to contract, not to widen its field of attention, to anchor, to preoccupy its gaze. They focus, you may say, a single wave-length of its ray on mundane and material things. For the truth is that ‘The ear, the eye doth make us deaf and blind.’
So it is that our conscious lives are our surface lives, and upon our association with nature at the deeper levels, upon our wider and true selves nature herself draws down the blind. She would have us, undistracted, attend only to this place and this moment, the events of here and now. By our bodily senses we are limited to the realm of Becoming, pre-engaged with a particular part of the universe, to the immediate surroundings of our daily lives, which are at this present our instant and direct concern. Our senses are our guides to action in a restricted field. For that field only nature has given us eyes and ears; and with it alone, that is with sensible things, the intellect and its servant the brain are qualified to deal.
Yet to conclude that field the beginning and the end of things were sheer delusion. Who is not aware that there are hours in which the soul sinks, as it were, beneath the threshold of its conscious and daily experiences, when its ties with the body are relaxed, when it stands at gaze within its spiritual environment. For, as we have seen, we must admit the possibility of supersensible knowledge. And it is to this wider field, haunted by such strange fleeting gleams as are not to be translated into the coinage of the brain, the speech adapted to the traffic of social life, that we are in happy moments afforded entrance by poetry and the other arts. Surprised and momentarily absorbed, as Professor Stewart so well described in his Myths of Plato, by their imagery and rhythms, we are caught up into the abiding presence of ‘That which was, and is and ever shall be’, and it is then ‘We feel that we are greater than we know’.
For rhythm appears to be the distinctive and peculiar dialect, or style of the soul, its idiom or vernacular—as ordinary language is the natural tongue of the workaday intelligence—a vernacular instantly acceptable, and by all men understood. Hence, as Emerson phrased it, ‘You can speak truth uncontradicted in verse, you cannot in prose’. Imagery, too, has upon us an occult and arresting power. Of this staying or arresting influence, the momentary entrancement of attention an image induces, since we have not time to dwell upon it, take a single instance, from Browning’s poem, Colombe’s Birthday:
I will keep your honour safe;
With mine I trust you as the sculptor trusts
Yon marble woman with the marble rose,
Loose on her hand, she never will let fall.
Where lies the charm of such an image? It checks the mind’s hurrying motions, and in such moments of absorption we awake to an amazed and speculative wonder, and hear the overtones of existence.
If you are enamoured of theories of art you will not have far to go. They are legion, and for the most part as uninstructive as they are numerous. For they are without metaphysical roots. And, however the notion displeases you, theories without metaphysical roots are things of nought, bubbles blown to burst. No doubt, wherever we look, bewilderment is our portion. Nevertheless, though everything has by some philosopher been disproved, something must be true. And we are not, I believe, far from the truth when we say that Being is not to be separated from Becoming, nor Becoming from Being. Not from one principle, but from two opposing principles, were the worlds set in motion. In the sweep of their majestic alternation, the primary and original pulse of their oscillating phases, all existence partakes, and in their greater, the lesser rhythms, echoing through the universe, have their source.
You will not, I trust, accuse me of mounting the horse, obscurity, to escape the dragon, nonsense. I have no other aim than to attain the intelligible while avoiding the absurd—no trivial task in this region of discourse. And if you think these opinions strange, it is not by reason of their strangeness they miss the truth, but much more probably because they are not strange enough. We might think and discourse of the divine arts in many and interesting ways, as, for example, of music and poetry as arts of time, of painting and sculpture as arts of space. But all are music in its Greek and widest sense, the ordered and shapely, the measured, the flowing, the melodious. They are a rhythmical sisterhood. And we are not deceived if we regard each as a species of divination, and the artist as a man feeling his way into reality, attempting, in his own medium and manner, to fathom the inner significance of life’s experiences, to penetrate its secret depths, to see things in a wider perspective. In the presence of Turner’s or Tintoretto’s pictures Ruskin felt as a man might feel in the presence of some supernatural being.
Pause for a moment and consider what it is we in truth desire, of what we are in search. Nothing else, surely, than a reconciliation between ourselves and the world to which we belong, that is—may we not say?—an attunement or concord between Being and Becoming, which if attainable were pure felicity, a reconciliation or harmony which human wisdom and experience fail in the world they so anxiously contemplate either to perceive or to effect. Yet since in the arts they are in a manner found together, in essence one, for this reason human nature derives from the arts its deepest satisfactions. Poetry appears to be something we have always known in our hearts, but have never before had so vividly presented to us. In these arts of divination the waking consults the dreaming mind; the surface consciousness, in search of more favourable omens, enquires of the oracle, of the better informed and wiser soul. And the inspired priestess by whom the world is seen in the wider perspective answers, ‘Your experience is real, but consult the god within you and know that this real is not the whole of reality.’
The happiness the arts provide is the happiness of life more truly divined, more fully understood. Face to face with the stupendous fact of existence, our sense of it quickened, we are startled into a recognition of its unsearchable depths and unfathomable significance. Not otherwise, as we have so often said, save for this everlasting Becoming, whose tossing waves and dizzying changes we bemoan, could there be a universe, or creatures like ourselves. And to contrast it to its disadvantage with the fancied perfections of some other state of unbroken felicity, to suppose that for this of ours some diviner form of existence might be substituted, were no wiser than the attempt to draw a circle without a centre, or to imagine a triangular planet. For what were Being without a corresponding Becoming or Heaven without a contrasting earth? How necessary is this Becoming to give to Being substance, reality, content, meaning. From earth and Becoming are derived all the values of paradise and Being—which but for them were ‘faultily faultless, splendidly null’. No occupations there, no thoughts to think, no memories to recall, no desires to satisfy. From the fountain of life, from
The slow sweet hours that bring us all things good,
The slow sad hours that bring us all things ill,
are derived all our possessions, all the wealth and substance, all subjects and qualities, all that makes us what we are. But for Becoming and its imperfections there were nothing in that perfect world we talk of to give meaning to existence. There were neither aspirations nor visions, neither hopes to ponder nor proposals to entertain. This poor earth gives gifts to Heaven, which, destitute of the teeming experiences earth provides, were sunk in poverty. Heaven could make no Don Quixotes or Sancho Panzas, no Hamlets or Falstaffs, no heroes or martyrs, no Stoics or Epicureans, no Sapphos or Shelleys, no jesters or humorists, or indeed anything of interest, without the assistance of this our dear, painful and toiling lower world. A heaven without change, without events, neither gods nor men could long endure.
Look now at the nature of these engaging arts, which link Being and Becoming, the moving and the unmoving, the changeless and the changing, in which we taste the delight of activity while at rest, where order is imposed upon disorder, and discord melts into harmony, by whose transforming magic sadness is made sweet, the heartaches translated into loveliness, metamorphosed into melody, and music made of pain.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a light-foot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping,
The light-foot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping,
In fields where roses fade.
And however impossible in our eyes the reconciliation between Being and Becoming may seem, yet look back into history, into the past, and you perceive it in a sense already achieved. In our excursions into the past, in our intimacy with what has been, we taste a spiritual quality. We are no longer in communication with flesh and blood but with immortal essences. How perfect it is, the past, to which nothing can be added, and from which nothing can be taken away! It is no longer material, it has become a vision. To it belongs the statuesque dignity of repose, the quality of everlastingness, never more to be troubled by the restlessness of change. Over the past time has thrown a transfiguring veil. Its agitations are at an end. A great stillness reigns over the centuries that are gone. The battles and revolutions, the pains and pestilences, the frustrations and miseries have lost their power to wound. The thunderbolts have all been hurled.
For Hector Zeus took forth and bare him far
From dust, and dying and the storm of war.
Only on the canvas of history the pictures of it remain, the eternal fascination of all that men have thought, and desired, and suffered and done.
Yet the storm of Becoming, the furious gale by which the ship of the world has been driven on its voyage, what do we not owe to it? We owe it everything. What is to be wondered at, admired, regretted, loved and hated—the whole scene of things. Is the voyage, then, to be deplored or welcomed? That is for you to say. It has bequeathed to us the procession of events, the architecture of thought, the passions and ideals which constitute the tissue, fabric or stuff, the filling, the substance of existence. The tempest of Becoming which produced them has blown over, and they are merged in the tranquillity of Being. None the less we must allow their abiding presence. There they are on the canvas of the past, the Becoming and the Being harmonised, reconciled and at one. And there they are, the records of human industry and genius, stars shining in a quiet sky, the books, the statues and the pictures, which in their strange immobility preserve the strong, passionate life of generations upon generations, so that we see with Homer’s eyes, think the thoughts of Sophocles or Virgil, sit down to conversation with Cervantes and share the vision of Michael Angelo.
And may we not say that the charm of all aesthetic experience consists in this, that it, too, presents the storm in the golden frame of peace? That it reconciles the opposites in the arrest or staying of the flux? Nothing is there denied, nothing denied of the tyrannies and injustices, the frets and fevers, the injurious wrongs that tax the intelligence and freeze the heart. Nothing is denied, all is affirmed. Yet as time with its magic wand deals with the past, so the divine arts with the troubles of the world. They have done their worst, and have no longer any power to harm. They can be remembered and contemplated without the former and accompanying pain.
Thus in poetry and painting, music and sculpture, the necessary and complementary character of Being and Becoming can be in a measure perceived and understood. ‘For nothing’, as Plato thought, ‘can have any sense except by reason of that of which it is the shadow.’ And here the opposites, ‘His Darkness and His Brightness’ meet. None can deny that there is within us an unsubduable thirst for existence, the will to live, a need for activity only to be satisfied in the realm of Becoming, in reaching out to more than we already are. Nor can it be denied, such is the nature of the human soul, that it shares in the pulsations of the universe, its alternating periods of withdrawal and renewal, of action and repose. For refreshment, for the harvesting of its toils, it demands a seasonal ascent into Being. And since in the arts it perceives dimly and through a veil the attunement of the opposites, it judges the harvest worth the pains, finding the world, in Plutarch’s phrase, ‘more good than bad’, as Plato argued and Aristotle, too, agreed.
In his essay on Virgil Frederick Myers notes how many Virgilian lines have a history. ‘On this line’, he writes, enumerating each as he tells its story, ‘On this line the poet’s own voice faltered as he read; at this Augustus and Octavia melted into passionate weeping. Here is the verse which Augustine quotes as typical in its majestic rhythm of all the pathos and the glory of pagan art, from which the Christian was bound to flee. This is the couplet which Fénelon could never read without admiring tears. This line Filippo Strozzi scrawled on his prison wall, when he slew himself to avoid worse ill. These are the words which like a trumpet call roused Savonarola to seek the things that are above. And this line Dante heard on the lips of the Church Triumphant, at the opening of the Paradise of God.’ Consider the significance of this passage. Here we have lines of verse with a history of their own, a separate life, which like individuals have gone out into the world with power upon it, moulded the minds of men, influenced the course of events, lines which have lived, and still live and move and have their powerful being. Walt Whitman made a profound remark when he said ‘All music is what awakes in you when you are reminded by the instruments’. In vain would the harper harp to soulless things; nor could this enlargement of the consciousness, this sudden widening of the horizon, this spiritual suggestiveness belong to art, were it without warrant in the ultimate facts of the universe and our responsive selves. Beethoven is reported to have said, ‘I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy … the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend’.
‘What is thought’, it has been said, ‘takes the spatial form, what is felt takes the time form.’ And, as Lessing pointed out, the poet, and we may add the composer, has to deal, such is his medium, with our appreciation of sequence in time, the painter and sculptor with our perception of space. The peculiarity of the arts of time lies here, that their measures are intensive, not dimensional, the measures of our inner sense of time, of an order in which past, present and future are associated—memory of a past note or chord in relationship with a present, and anticipating a resolving note or chord to come, each of which were of itself without significance or value.
Painting and sculpture take another route to the capture of the mind. As Bergson has shown, the intellect bent upon an understanding of the nature of things, dominated as it is by the idea of action, stays the ever-altering patterns to dwell upon them, and the better to appreciate their character. And in painting and sculpture, arts of space, with which the intellect is so closely associated, the movement of Becoming is stayed for our contemplation. And then a strange thing happens, a curious experience supervenes, with which you may be familiar. I have myself, for example, gazed with fascinated attention at the pediment sculptures at Olympia, which exhibit all types of action, until I seemed to become a part of their immobility, to have a share in their eternal calm, set free from all the pains and passions there presented, and now at rest. As Wilkie, the painter, stood in the Escurial, gazing at Titian’s picture of the Last Supper, an aged monk said to him, ‘I have sat daily in sight of that picture for nearly threescore years; during that time my companions have dropped off, one after another, more than one generation has passed away, and there the figures in that picture have remained unchanged. I look at them until I sometimes think that they are the realities, and we are but the shadows.’
It seems as if in these mysterious arts we become aware, not indeed that the world is a perfect harmony—neither art nor philosophy has provided for us that demonstration—but that it contains harmonies, rhythms with which we find ourselves intimately in tune. These arts seem to be in possession of a secret, which they half reveal, an answer to the question—‘How comes it that existence with all its agitations, pains and anxieties, is somehow in itself a happiness?’ They answer it in their reconciliation of Being and Becoming. As Professor Stewart puts it in his Myths of Plato, ‘There’, in the picture, ‘are the horses galloping over the snow, under the sleigh-driver’s lash, their bells jangling, and the wolves barking close behind: there they are, all motion and sound, in a strange world of rest and silence.’
It is Plato’s doctrine, and none more defensible, that the soul before it entered the realm of Becoming existed in the universe of Being. Released from the region of time and space, it returns to its former abode, ‘the Sabbath, or rest of souls’, into communion with itself. After a season of quiet ‘alone with the Alone’, of assimilation of its earthly experiences and memories, refreshed and invigorated, it is seized again by the desire for further trials of its strength, further knowledge of the universe, the companionship of former friends, by the desire to keep in step and on the march with the moving world. There it seeks out and once more animates a body, the medium of communication with its fellow travellers, and sails forth in that vessel upon a new venture in the ocean of Becoming.
Many, no doubt, will be its ventures, many its voyages. For not until all the possibilities of Being have been manifested in Becoming, not until all the good, beauty and happiness of which existence allows have, by the wayfaring soul, been experienced, not until it has become all that it is capable of becoming—and who can tell to what heights of power and vision it may climb?—is it fitted to choose for itself the state and society which best meets its many requirements, as its natural and enduring habitation.