The Expression Of Human Life In Art

WHEN we consider what has been accomplished in the field of art our first impression is of so overwhelming a wealth and variety that it seems impossible to gather it all in a single statement. How shall we define art so as to include works as remote from each other as the Ramayana and the songs of Burns, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the music of Chopin, the Poem of Job and the frescoes of Andrea del Sarto? Can it be possible to find a unifying principle for all these? The problem is bewildering; yet we individually may respond to all these types of art; they all are our heritage. Thus, there must be some element common to them all to make possible the universal human appeal.

To find this element, turn for a moment to a brief poem coming from a time as remote as possible from our own, a Hymn to the Dawn from the ancient Vedic literature:

“She shines upon us like a young wife, rousing every living being to go to his work. The fire had to be kindled by men; she brought light by striking down darkness.

She rose up, spreading far and wide, and moving toward every one. She grew in brightness, wearing her brilliant garment. The mother of the cows (of the morning clouds), the leader of the days, she shone gold-colored, lovely to behold.

She, the fortunate, who brings the eye of the god, who leads the white and lovely steed (of the sun), the Dawn was seen, revealed by her rays, with brilliant treasures she follows every one.

Thou, who art a blessing where thou art near, drive away the unfriendly; make the pastures wide, give us safety ! Remove the haters, bring treasures ! Raise up wealth to the worshiper, thou mighty Dawn.

Shine for us with thy best rays, thou bright Dawn, thou who lengthenest our life, thou the love of all, who givest us food, who givest us wealth in cows, horses and chariots.

Thou, daughter of the sky, thou high-born Dawn, whom the Vasishthas magnify with songs, give us riches high and wide: all ye gods, protect us always with your-blessings!”

Our first impression from this old song is one of strangeness. Far as it is from us in time, it is still farther from our way of thought and life. We do not worship the Dawn, it is not a goddess to us. Moreover, with our way of life, we rarely see the Dawn; yet read more closely, and the feeling of remoteness vanishes. After all, the old poet is merely recording, under different expressions, universal experience. Light is always a miracle to a fresh mind. It is not that “God said, Let there be light, and there was light;” God says, Let there be light, and there is light, with each morning. The spreading of the rosy fingers of the Dawn over the sky, the “growing in brightness,” the “bringing the eye of the god,” the sun—is it not an ever fresh miracle? The fire on the hearth “had to be kindled by men”—by hard labor in primitive times, striking one stone upon another or rubbing two sticks together ; “she brought light by striking clown darkness.” The housewife of the home moves toward this person or that one; this housewife of the sky “moves toward every one,” “rousing every living being to go to his work,” this “mother of the cows”—the light morning clouds that promise the life-giving milk of the rain. The earthly woman is revealed by light shining upon her; this goddess of the sky is “revealed by her rays,” “Iovely to behold.” Is it not just what any unspoiled nature, with fresh awakened senses, sees in the Dawn?

Then, changing the key, the universal meaning of light to the spirit of man is given. Light has always been the symbol of safety and goodness, darkness of evil and danger. Little children still cry in the dark; and men, children of a larger growth, still tremble before the darkness that shrouds the unknown. So the eternal prayer: “Drive away the unfriendly,” “give us safety,” “thou who art a blessing where thou art near;” and, as the day gives opportunity for work, “raise up wealth to the worshiper, thou mighty Dawn.” Thus, in other language, the poem gives simply and in the metaphor of strong, direct appreciation, the two permanent aspects of man’s relation to the everlasting miracle of light.

Thus it is everywhere : art is always an expression of some phase of man’s life or relation to nature; and it is this universal human basis that makes possible our appreciation of works so varied, coming from such different sources in place and time. You turn to the Antigone of Sophocles : how strange it is, this story of a sister who brings herself to ‘suffer death in cruel fashion merely that she may give the rites of the dead to the body of her brother. How foolish you say: his soul would not have suffered had the rites been omitted; but hear what she says. The tyrant asks:

“And thou didst dare to disobey these laws?”

Antigone responds: “Yes, for it was not Zeus who gave them forth, Nor Justice, dwelling with the gods below, Who traced these laws for all the sons of men; Nor did I deem thy edicts strong enough, That thou, a mortal man, shouldst overpass The unwritten laws of God, that know not change. They are not of today nor yesterday, But live forever, nor can man assign When first they sprang to being. Not through fear Of any man’s resolve was I prepared Before the gods to bear the penalty Of sinning against these.”

Then we understand : while we, with our different belief and training, might have chosen a different particular action, she was doing only what all noble souls have ever done—giving up her own lesser good for the greater good of one she loved. So the strangeness disappears, and the common human experience —thank God it is common—comes home to us through a form which seems so far away. Thus always art is an expression of some aspect of the common basis of human life.

This is evidenced also by the fact that the different fine arts actually spring from one historical source—an act of worship in the early Greek world, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter.. Further, reversing the problem, masterpieces in widely different arts may produce the same dominant impression upon us, thus proving the unity in the basis from which they spring. This likeness among masterpieces in different fields is indeed so strong that there are great artists working in totally different spheres who, nevertheless, are brothers across the centuries. The particular avenue of their artistic expression seems relatively incidental; they sound the same deeps and produce the same type of effect. Compare, in poetry, AEschylus, in sculpture and painting, Michael Angelo, in music, Beethoven : these men are truly brothers across the centuries. They are the titanic dreamers, thinkers who sheer down to the very heart of life. Their brooding is so vast that any artistic form is too small to embody it. Thus, much as they give, their supreme power lies in stimulating the imagination to go on beyond what is given to a still vaster world. It is of small consequence that one was poet, another painter and sculptor, and the third musical artist. Aeschylus is closer to Michael Angelo than to his contemporary, Sophocles, in the same field of poetry; while Michael Angelo is nearer Beethoven than to his fellow-painter, Raphael, working in the same place and time.

Take as a second group, similarly related, Sophocles in poetry, Raphael in painting, and Mozart in music. These, too, are brothers across the centuries; for they- are the finished artists, not brooding upon vast, unconquerable dreams, not peering awe-struck into the abyss, but clothing a wisely limited content in exquisitely harmonious form. They rest us, more than they stimulate, satisfy with perfect beauty, rather than exalt with irregular reaches of sublime power. Thus their kinship in the spirit : Mozart, modern German, is closer to the Greek poet, Sophocles, than to his fellow-musician, Beethoven, and Raphael is more akin to Mozart than to his Italian contemporary and brother in painting, Michael Angelo.

To clinch the argument consider a third group : Andrea del Sarto in painting, Chopin in music, Heine in poetry. Do you see why these three are classed together as in their own way brothers across the centuries? With marvellous technical skill and astonishing ease of execution, these men are neither titanic thinkers nor, characteristically, the artists who rest us with balanced harmony. They are rather the personal revealers; we long to grope behind their work to some deep of experience explaining its character. They sing in minor key and paint with a subtle mingling of light and shadow. In the elusive paintings of Andrea, in the sobbing harmonies of Chopin pushed almost to the point of discord, in the haunting melodies of Heine, alike is voiced a strange sadness—the hunger and pain of a spirit too delicately sensitive and too keenly responsive to every appeal of beauty and desire to find life easy or comfortable in such a world as ours. Thus these three are closer together than each was to his fellow artists in the same field, of the same place and time.

This unity of spirit and impression among works of art so remote from each other sufficiently proves the unity of human experience in and behind all art. One person is like all; that is why we can understand each other. Life is made of a few simple, common elements. As the physical life is made of fresh air, sunshine, nourishing food and exercise, so the spiritual life is made of love and work, hunger to know truth and appreciate beauty, aspiration toward the ideal. “One is like all.” The novels and dramas of the world’s literature focus upon two or three problems—half of them on personal love ; and in this unity of common experience is the basis of all appreciation of art, since every work of art is the expression of some aspect of this common life. Even when art attempts the merest imitation of objective nature it is still expression, since it embodies the human love of reality and de-sire of incarnating it in artistic form.

Since life is made of so few and simple elements, and art is always an expression of this common basis, what makes possible the fresh appeal in a new work of art? The answer is found first in the fact that art expresses the common basis of human life only through the medium of personality. Now each personality is unique and unparalleled. If one is like all, each is also different from all others. Life is, in each individual, a fresh equation of old forces: the basis is universal, the form unique. > Thus as art expresses the common basis of human life only through the medium of personality, the old elements are stamped with the fresh quality of the transmuting medium. How the wealth of old northern mythology is transformed as it is passed through the spectrum of Wagner’s genius. Dante gathers up the world of medieval experience, but stamps it all with the color of his own character. The common tendencies of the renaissance receive widely different form through such contrasting personalities as Raphael and Michael Angelo.

Art, moreover, expresses the basis of human experience always in definitely limited form, and herein lies the further reason for its ever new appeal. The altar at which every artist must perpetually bow is the shrine of the goddess of limits. The undefined is never the artistic, and the more rigid the limitation, the more perfect may be the art. Vague, brooding emotions and thoughts become art only as they receive this rigid definition in form. While Faust dwells with “The Mothers” he is in the presence of the vast, uncreate energies from which all beauty springs ; but it is only when out of them the one perfectly limited form of Helena is called into being that art is born.

Thus it is that each new expression of art, because it is born through the medium of personality into definitely limited form, may have its fresh appeal. A poet of the day, not of the highest power, has dared to take a subject-matter as old as Europe, which received artistic expression for all time through the genius of the father of western poetry, Homer, in the song of world-wandering Ulysses; yet when we take Stephen Phillips’s Ulysses, and listen to his hero as, standing on the shore of Calypso’s island, he voices his hunger to see “Gaunt Ithaca stand up out of the surge,” or hear him murmur “little Telemachus,” the tears come to our eyes and we are moved anew with the eternal hunger for wife and child and home.

Fortunately for our illustration there are available two little poems brief enough to quote, both written by gifted lyric poets and dealing with the same theme. On the 16th of April, 1746, Charles Edward Stuart, with the Scotch highlanders, fought at Culloden, or Drumossie Moor, near Inverness, his last unavailing battle for the English crown. He and his highlanders were utterly cut to pieces by the Duke of Cumberland with the English troops. Early in the year 1746, Collins—a poet of great lyrical power—wrote the following Ode in memory of the English who fell in the war against the Pretender :

“How sleep the Brave, who sink to rest By all their country’s wishes blest ! When Spring, with dewy fingers cold, Returns to deck their hallow’d mold, She there shall dress a sweeter sod Than Fancy’s feet have ever trod.

By fairy hands their knell is rung, By forms unseen their dirge is sung: There Honor comes, a pilgrim gray, To bless the turf that wraps their clay; And Freedom shall awhile repair To dwell a weeping hermit there!”

Robert Burns also wrote a Lament for Cut loden, for the Scotch highlanders who fell in defeat. It is also a little lyric of two stanzas:

Nae joy nor pleasure can she see; For e’en and morn she cries, Alas ! And aye the saut tear blin’s her ee: Drumossie moor—Drumossie day— A waefu’ day it was to me ! For there I lost my father dear, My father dear, and brethren three.

Their winding-sheet the bluidy clay, Their graves are growing green to see: And by them lies the dearest lad That ever blest a woman’s ee ! Now was to thee, thou cruel lord, A bluidy man I trow thou be ; For mony a heart thou hast made sair That ne’er did wrong to thine or thee.”

Both these are exquisite lyrics : which makes the stronger appeal? Well, a small fraction of readers—those who are peculiarly responsive to stately, allegorical imagery, who rank Spenser beside Shakespeare and have the ear rather than the eye memory—would prefer the Ode of Collins ; but all the rest of us respond more deeply to the appeal of Burns. The reason is not difficult to state : one man is more than a multitude of men. The grief of one Scotch lassie appeals more powerfully than the statement that so many thousand men fell in a certain battle. It is only through the individual that we appreciate humanity. You read in the newspaper that a factory has been shut down and six hundred men are out of work; and then you pass on to the next item about Mrs. Somebody’s dinner party, and the one statement makes almost as much impression as the other; but if it has ever been your lot to live next door to a family in which the husband and father was out of work, you understand. If you have seen the man’s face, day after day, as he kissed his wife good-bye and went on the unavailing search for work; if you have seen the tears in her eyes as she turned into the house ; if you have watched the children grow paler and more hungry-looking day by day, you know what it means that six hundred men are out of work. One man is more than a multitude of men ; the individual is the key to the whole; and it is because art always expresses the common basis of human experience only through the medium of personality and in definitely limited form that its appeal may be eternally fresh and new.

All art is thus expression; but, I need scarcely add, not all expression is art. To be art, the expression must be adequate and harmonious. This does not mean that art should produce only what is pleasing to the senses: the notion that art must always do this is one of the further unwarranted superstitions prevalent in our time. The principle is that the body of expression should be appropriately married to the soul of meaning. Gloom, for example, is not sensuously pleasing, but the gloom that broods upon the recumbent figures from the hand of Michael Angelo, on the Medicean tombs, is beautiful, because it perfectly expresses the mood Michael Angelo wished to embody.

Tennyson is one of the most consistently, almost monotonously melodious poets in the English language ; yet there are harshly discordant lines in Tennyson, and they are artistic because they are harsh. When Tennyson represents himself as returning in In Memoriam to the street before the house from which his friend had gone out never to return, he paints the scene as in the early morning, with the day breaking in dismal rain. The whole brief canto of three stanzas is masterly, and the closing two lines are:

“And ghastly through the drizzling rain On the bald street breaks the blank day.”

Note the harsh sound and painful association of the words. Moreover, the last line is all monosyllabic, and Pope showed long ago what happens when

“—ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

It is impossible to make poetry out of monosyllables, for the regular metrical stress will too rarely correspond to the natural emphasis to make music. Further, in Tennyson’s line the metrical stress falls just where it ought not in ordinarily good poetry—on the unimportant words. Thus, scanned conventionally, the line reads :

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Read the two lines, however, just as they are, or let them read themselves through you:

“And ghastly through the drizzling rain, on the bald street breaks the blank day.”

and you are left with the same clutch at your throat and the same sob in your heart that Tennyson felt. That is art: adequately and harmoniously marrying the body of expression to the soul of thought, feeling and imagination.

How far art should go in portraying the physically horrible and the morally depraved is an open question. My own feeling is that there are deeps so terrible that art would better draw the curtain and leave them unsounded; but one thing is certain: whatever art does venture to portray must be given in form appropriate to the content expressed. If that is painful and discordant, so must be the body of true artistic expression. Thus as Dante comes to the lowest pit of hell we find him saying :

“If I had rhymes both rough and stridulous, As were appropriate to the dismal hole Down upon which thrust all the other rocks,

I would press out the juice of my conception More fully; but because I have them not, Not without fear I bring myself to speak;

For ’tis no enterprise to take in jest, To sketch the bottom of all the universe,

Nor for a tongue that cries Mamma and Babbo.”

That is, he would deliberately use harsher music, if he could find it, to express harmoniously the moral horror of the nether hell.

Let us sum up our work to this point: art is the adequate and harmonious expression of some aspect of man’s life or relation to nature, through the medium of personality, in definitely limited form.