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To have copied the great ancient, without his
and sweep of thought, would have given a truly bad style. To study the works of our predecessors until their intrinsic merits sink into the soul, and make themselves at home there, is truly to profit by them. For then we grow rich by their wealth, while they become transformed into our image, are renovated by our spiritual life, and come forth again laden with a new message to mankind.
Many circumstances, as sameness of geographical situation and local scenery, of religion, of education, habits, hereditary constitution and political relations, conspire to give a similarity of style to those of the same age and country. The aggregate of a nation presents a singleness of character not less distinct than any one of its component members. The most cursory observer can not fail to distinguish from each other at first sight the works of Egypt, of Assyria, of Greece, of India, of China, or of Mexico. A truly national style is never fabricated by a combination for that purpose, but naturally proceeds from the operation of common causes, without the cognizance, in the first instance, of those from whom it springs.
For the same reason, different periods of national history have each their respective styles. If sometimes one dominant appears to be the leader, it will always
, be found that he is as much indebted to the age, in style of thinking, as the age is to him for style of expression. If Phidias embodied the highest perfection of ideal art, the cultivated taste of that remarkable age had largely contributed to form his conceptions of the beautiful. Cicero received from the period in which he lived, many elements of that beautiful diction wherewith he graced it; and if Shakspeare matured the style of English dramatic composition, he was sustained by an age more devoted to the drama than any other in England, either before or since. While, however, such men have features in common with their time, I do not mean to say that their greatness is to be so explained. For, in all the higher achievements of their genius, they rise above the common standardnay, the common appreciation of any time. Together with features which stamp them of a particular age and country, they have others peculiar to themselves : so that, while we detect Spenser and Shakspeare, and Massinger and Jonson, to be of the reign of Elizabeth, we can not hesitate a moment in distinguishing the style of any one of them as specially his own. never be a fair judge of style who has not fully studied the age and nation to which it belongs, and who can not think himself back into a sympathy therewith; not in order to assume its likeness, but that he may truly apprehend its causes, and the amount of truth and error it contains.
Form, color, drawing, musical sounds, are, like language, worthless without something to conveysome moral truth instinctive to the life of man. good work, the moral will not appear in one part alone, nor stand in any need of explanation. The statue will breathe it in every limb, it will dictate every note of the music, and no chorus will be needed to preach it into the drama—and in the romance it will not stare in like a sheeted ghost at the close, but live and move throughout, the embodied spirit of the whole.
The world, though sinful, has decency enough to honor the appearance of virtue. Though they may take secret pleasure in an immoral work, they will not have the effrontery to praise it as such. God has put salt enough into the dead body to keep it from such utter corruption. The indecent disclosures of Pompeii are withheld from public view, and the prurient productions of prostituted genius are sold by stealth. He is an exceptionally degraded specimen of humanity, who is not ashamed of his vices. The great majority of the corrupt, though they may be shameless among their own class, attempt to cover their corruptions in more respectable company. It is not safe, therefore, for one's own reputation, to contemplate no higher motive, to pander to the tastes of the depraved. Who would covet the praise of the most skillful execution, in a work calculated to bring a blush to the cheek of virtue. Low pruriency may give a certain kind of undercurrent popularity; but the universal voice of those who confer all permanent and valuable renown, will consign an immoral work to contempt and oblivion. Whoever courts the favor of the vicious, hangs a millstone about the neck of his own fame. A fault in morals is a fault in art.
But genius wofully executes its divine commission if it descend to feel the check of popular morality. To breathe upon the heart of man, secularized by worldly business, the atmosphere of holy beauty; to recommend the charms of truth and goodness; to win, thereby, the affections of men from vice and error, and fan those lofty aspirations, which are kindred to devotion, is the noble moral of art.
Fine taste is a cognate of natural piety; and art, in her proper place, and proudest triumphs, a servant of religion.
-Gerard on Taste. Alison on Taste. Hartley on Man, Part I., Chap. 1v., § 1. Coleridge. Henry Nelson Coleridge, Introduction to Greek Poets.