JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter II.
The Conservative Principle of Literature.

WE are now prepared to consider the element in a classic that causes it to outlive the people whose genius gave it birth. We have found that according as it embodies the sublime or beautiful with a corresponsive sympathy -- that is, in proportion as it reflects the splendor of God in His creatures -- in proportion as it speaks the Word -- it is an immortal production. The mere outward expression, no matter how graceful and polished it be, does not guarantee immortality; long ago did the poet tell us as much: "Mortal works shall perish; much less will the bloom and elegance of language survive. . . . It is not enough that poems be beautiful; let them also be affecting. "{1} Not that a classic can dispense with grace and polish of expression. The form should be adequate to the thought A beautiful idea must needs be cast in a beautiful mould. Destroy the form in which the idea is fully expressed and there remains but a vague conception or a broken utterance. It is the soul of language that makes the language undying. That soul is the ideal as interpreted by genius. When it reflects the splendor of the Divinity, it becomes enshrined in its beauty, and lights up dark ways through the ages, as the moon gives light and comfort with the borrowed rays of the sun. It is this splendor, reflected in language vigorous, fresh, and polished to a high degree of beauty and fitness, that has preserved the ancient classics. It is this same splendor that glows in all that is best in our modern literature. Read the all-pervading thought of each of the world's three great poets. How runs the key-note of their themes?

That which flavors the Homeric poems with the divine afflatus, is surely not Achilles' wrath, or Hector's prowess, or the Grecian quarrels, or Ulysses' cunning. Pervading all this -- pervading the inner thought of those noble epics -- is an innate feeling of helplessness, giving vent to the frequent outburst of natural, unaffected piety, in which the stoutest heart confesses dependence on the heavenly powers, and calls on their assistance to shield him or to guide his shaft. The truth constantly recurring in every variety of note at the blind bard's command, is that all men have need of -- yearn after -- the assistance of Heaven.

We open the Odyssey at random. We read how Odysseus is recognized by the gods as beyond all mortals in understanding and in piety.{2} He is known to men as Odysseus of many devices.{3} But in all the buffetings of fortune to which he has been subjected, he is careful to refer the goods and ills of life that have befallen him, not to his own merits or devisings, but to the will of the gods.{4} And the great lesson which this noble poem seems to inculcate, is summed up in these words: "One thing the god will give and another withhold, even as he will, for with him all things are possible."{5} The underlying conception is the inadequacy of man's self-help and his dependence upon the unseen world.

It is a great mistake to consider such interventions of the deities mere "poetical machinery," as though they were scaffoldings -- simply aids to construct the poem -- and not, as they really are, an essential part of its existence. The principle of its vitality. The sylphs and gnomes in Pope's Rape of the Lock, the enchantments in the Jerusalem Delivered of Tasso, and the mythological aids in the Lusiads of Camoens, may bear such an explanation -- may be regarded as mere accidentals, not at all affecting the main expression of their poems -- but the heroes of the Homeric poems are as earnest in their devotions to their titular gods as is the Christian to his patron saint.

In Dante's great poem, mingled with an ardent love for his country and a strong faith in the tenets of his religion, is a third element which absorbs these two; it is an insatiable thirst for knowledge -- an ardent passion for philosophy, which he personifies in his Beatrice -- and from the union of all three elements has sprung the Divina Commedia. Now, the lesson he constantly repeats is his inability to know things of himself, and the dependence of all knowledge on the divine Idea:

" -- That which dies not,
And that which can die, are but each the beam
Of that idea, which our Sovereign Sire
Engendereth loving." -- {6}

In Shakespeare there is plainly asserted, in the grand array of passion personified in his masterpieces, an overwhelming feeling of retributive justice and of an all-ruling Providence, which is imparted rather by insinuation than by any direct assertion; and that feeling he himself has summed up in his own masterly words:

"There is a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."{7}

Thus it is we find all thought, all genuine literature, as well as the universe itself, mirroring forth the Divinity. All point to one creative source; all speak one Word. Back of the outward word, behind the form and construction in which a classic is clothed, is something more than the mere incidents and circumstances with which it deals. They are transient and contingent; but this element partakes of the immutable and the necessary, for it is of essences. It is absent from all mere copy-work. He who undertakes to describe for description's sake, or who simply remembers and repeats, or who makes art the whole aim of his writing, enshrines not the pages of his book in this conservative principle; for he has not a vivifying idea, and still less an ideal. The ideal, then, is the conservative principle of all literature. A literary production is entitled to be considered a classic in proportion as it fittingly expresses the ideal as conceived by an age or nation. This law supplies a safe canon by which to determine, at least approximately, the classic merit of a literary work.

{1} "Mortalia facta peribunt:
Nedum sermonum stet honos et gratia vivax. . . .
Non satis est pulchra esse poëmata; dulcia sunto."
-- Horace, Ars Poetica, 68, 69, 99.

{2} Odyssey, i. 66, 67.

{3} Ibid, X.

{4} Odyssey, Xiv., 197, 198.

{5} Ibid., xiv., 444, 445.

{6} "Ciò che non muore e ciò che può morire
Non é se non splendor di quella idea
Che partorisce, amando, il nostro Sire."
-- Paradiso, xiii, 52-54.

{7} Hamlet, Act. V. sc. ii.

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