[1] Classic and Romantic Art

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“Now the very conditions of modern life require an almost tyrannical concentration on the natural law. The problems that have been engaging more and more the attention of the Occident since the rise of the great Baconian movement have been the problems of power and speed and utility. The enormous mass of machinery that has been accumulated in the pursuit of these ends requires the closest attention and concentration if it is to be worked efficiently. At the same time the man of the West is not willing to admit that he is growing in power alone, he likes to think that he is growing also in wisdom.

Only by keeping this situation in mind can we hope to understand how emotional romanticism has been able to develop into a vast system of sham spirituality…”


Rousseau and Romanticism (1919)

Chapter X. The Present Outlook.

By Irving Babbitt

It has been my endeavor throughout this book to show that classic and romantic art, though both at their best highly imaginative, differ in the quality of the imagination. I pointed out in my first chapter that in his recoil from the intellectual romanticism of the Renaissance and the mediaeval romanticism of actual adventure the neo-classicist came to rest his literary faith on “reason” (by which he meant either ordinary good sense or abstract reasoning), and then opposed this reason or judgment to imagination. This supposed opposition between reason and imagination was accepted by the romantic rebels against neo-classicism and has been an endless source of confusion to the present day. Though both neo-classicists and romanticists achieved much admirable work, work which is likely to have a permanent appeal, it is surely no small matter that they both failed on the whole to deal adequately with the imagination and its role whether in literature or life. Thus Dryden attributes the immortality of the Aeneid to its being “a well-weighed judicious poem. Whereas poems which are produced by the vigor of imagination only have a gloss upon them at the first which time wears off, the works of judgment are like the diamond; the more they are polished, the more lustre they receive.” 1 Read on and you will find that Dryden thus stresses judgment by way of protest against the Cavalier Marini and the imaginative unrestraint that he and other intellectual romanticists display. Dryden thus obscures the fact that what gives the immortalizing touch to the Aeneid is not mere judgment but imagination —a certain quality of imagination. Even the reader who is to enter properly into the spirit of Virgil needs more than judgment —he needs to possess in some measure the same quality of imagination. The romantic answer to the neo-classic distrust of the imagination was the apotheosis of the imagination, but without sufficient discrimination as to its quality, and this led only too often to an anarchy of the imagination —an anarchy associated, as we have seen, in the case of the Rousseauist, with emotion rather than with thought or action.

1 Dedication of the Aeneid (1697).

The modern world has thus tended to oscillate between extremes in its attitude towards the imagination, so that we still have to turn to ancient Greece for the best examples of works in which the imagination is at once disciplined and supreme. Aristotle, I pointed out, is doing little more than give an account of this Greek practice when he says that the poet ranks higher than the historian because he achieves a more general truth, but that he can achieve this more general truth only by being a master of illusion. Art in which the illusion is not disciplined to the higher reality counts at best on the recreative side of life. “Imagination,” says Poe, “feeling herself for once unshackled, roamed at will among the ever-changing wonders of a shadowy and unstable land.” 1 To take seriously the creations of this type of imagination is to be on the way towards madness. Every madhouse, indeed, has inmates who are very imaginative in the fashion Poe here describes. We must not confuse the concentric or ethical with the eccentric imagination if we are to define rightly the terms classic and romantic or indeed to attain to sound criticism at all. My whole aim has been to show that a main stream of emotional sophistry that takes its rise in the eighteenth century and flows down through the nineteenth involves just such a confusion.

1 Adventure of one Hans Pfaal.

The general distinction between the two types of imagination would seem sufficiently clear. To apply the distinction concretely is, it must be admitted, a task infinitely difficult and delicate, a task that calls for the utmost degree of the esprit de finesse. In any particular case there enters an element of vital novelty. The relation of this vital novelty to the ethical or permanent element in life is something that cannot be determined by any process of abstract reasoning or by any rule of thumb; it is a matter of immediate perception. The art of the critic is thus hedged about with peculiar difficulties. It does not follow that Aristotle himself because he has laid down sound principles in his Poetics, would always have been right in applying them. Our evidence on this point is as a matter of fact somewhat scanty.

Having thus admitted the difficulty of the undertaking we may ourselves attempt a few concrete illustrations of how sound critical standards tended to suffer in connection with the romantic movement. Leaving aside for the moment certain larger aspects of the ethical imagination that I am going to discuss presently, let us confine ourselves to poetry. Inasmuch as the ethical imagination does not in itself give poetry but wisdom, various cases may evidently arise: a man may be wise without being poetical; he may be poetical without being wise; he may be both wise and poetical.

We may take as an example of the person who was wise without being poetical Dr. Johnson. Though most persons would grant that Dr. Johnson was not poetical, it is well to remember that this generalization has only the approximate truth that a literary generalization can have. The lines on Levet have been inserted and rightly in anthologies. If not on the whole poetical, Johnson was, as Boswell says, eminently fitted to be a “majestic teacher of moral and religious wisdom.” Few men have had a firmer grasp on the moral law or been freer from the various forms of sophistry that tend to obscure it. Unlike Socrates, however, of whom he reminds us at times by his ethical realism, Johnson rests his insight not on a positive but on a traditional basis. To say that Johnson was truly religious is only another way of saying that he was truly humble, and one of the reasons for his humility was his perception of the ease with which illusion in man passes over into delusion, and even into madness. His chapter on the “Dangerous Prevalence of Imagination” in “Rasselas” not only gives the key to that work but to much else in his writings. What he opposes to this dangerous prevalence of imagination is not a different type of imagination but the usual neo-classical reason or judgment or “sober probability.” His defence of wisdom against the gathering naturalistic sophistries of his time is therefore somewhat lacking in imaginative prestige. He seemed to be opposing innovation on purely formalistic and traditional grounds in an age which was more and more resolutely untraditional and which was determined above all to emancipate the imagination from its strait-jacket of formalism. Keats would not have hesitated to rank Johnson among those who “blasphemed the bright Lyrist to his face.”

Keats himself may serve as a type of the new imaginative spontaneity and of the new fullness and freshness of sensuous perception. If Johnson is wise without being poetical, Keats is poetical without being wise, and here again we need to remember that distinctions of this kind are only approximately true. Keats has written lines that have high seriousness. He has written other lines which without being wise seem to lay claim to wisdom— notably the lines in which, following Shaftesbury and other aesthetes, he identifies truth and beauty; an identification that was disproved for practical purposes at least as far back as the Trojan War. Helen was beautiful, but was neither good nor true. In general, however, Keats’s poetry is not sophistical. It is simply delightfully recreative. There are signs that Keats himself would not have been content in the long run with a purely recreative role—to be “the idle singer of an empty day.” Whether he would ever have achieved genuine ethical purpose is a question. In working out a wise view of life he did not, like Dante, have the support of a great and generally accepted tradition. It is not certain again that he would ever have developed the critical keenness that enabled a Sophocles to work out a wise view of life in a less traditional age than that of Dante. The evidence is rather that Keats would have succumbed, to his own poetical detriment, to some of the forms of sham wisdom current in his day, especially the new humanitarian evangel.

1 His attempt to rewrite Hyperion from a humanitarian point of view is a dismal failure.

In any case we may contrast Sophocles and Dante with Keats as examples of poets who were not merely poetical but wise —wise in the relative and imperfect sense in which it is vouchsafed to mortals to achieve wisdom. Sophocles and Dante are not perhaps more poetical than Keats —it is not easy to be more poetical than Keats. As Tennyson says, “there is something magic and of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything he wrote.” Yet Sophocles and Dante are not only superior to Keats, but in virtue of the presence of the ethical imagination in their work, superior not merely in degree but in kind. Not that even Sophocles and Dante maintain themselves uniformly on the level of the ethical imagination. There are passages in Dante which are less imaginative than theological. Passages of this kind are even more numerous in Milton, a poet who on the whole is highly serious.1 It is in general easy to be didactic, hard to achieve ethical insight.

1 There is also a strong idyllic element in Paradise Lost as Rousseau {Emile, v) and Schiller {Essay on Naive and Sentimental Poetry) were among the first to point out. Critics may be found even to-day who, like Tennyson, prefer the passages which show a richly pastoral imagination to the passages where the ethical imagination is required but where it does not seem to prevail sufficiently over theology.

If Keats is highly imaginative and poetic without on the whole rising to high seriousness or sinking to sophistry, Shelley, on the other hand, illustrates in his imaginative activity the confusion of values that was so fostered by romanticism. Here again I do not wish to be too absolute. Shelley has passages especially in his “Adonis” that are on a high level. Yet nothing is more certain than that the quality of his imagination is on the whole not ethical but Arcadian or pastoral. In the name of his Arcadia conceived as the “ideal” he refuses to face the facts of life. I have already spoken of the flimsiness of his “Prometheus Unbound” as a solution of the problem of evil. What is found in this play is the exact opposite of imaginative concentration on the human law. The imagination wanders irresponsibly in a region quite outside of normal human experience. We are hindered from enjoying the gorgeous iridescences of Shelley’s cloudland by Shelley’s own evident conviction that it is not a cloudland, an “intense inane,” but a true empyrean of the spirit. And our irritation at Shelley’s own confusion is further increased by the long train of his indiscreet admirers. Thus Professor C. H. Herford writes in the “Cambridge History of English Literature” that what Shelley has done in the “Prometheus Unbound,” is to give “magnificent expression to the faith of Plato and of Christ”!1 Such a statement in such a place is a veritable danger signal, an indication of some grave spiritual bewilderment in the present age. To show the inanity of these attempts to make a wise man of Shelley it is enough to compare him not with Plato and Christ, but with the poet whom he set out at once to continue and contradict —with Aeschylus. The “Prometheus Bound” has the informing ethical imagination that the “Prometheus Unbound” lacks, and so in its total structure belongs to an entirely different order of art. Shelley, indeed, has admirable details. The romanticism of nympholeptic longing may almost be said to culminate, at least in England, in the passage I have already cited (“My soul is an enchanted boat”). There is no reason why in recreative moods one should not imagine one soul an enchanted boat and float away in a musical rapture with the ideal dream companion towards Arcady. But to suppose that revery of this kind has anything to do with the faith of Plato and of Christ, is to fall from illusion into dangerous delusion.

1 xii, 74.

We may doubt whether if Shelley had lived longer he would ever have risen above emotional sophistry and become more ethical in the quality of his imagination. Such a progress from emotional sophistry to ethical insight we actually find in Goethe; and this is the last and most complex case we have to consider. Johnson, I have said, is wise without being poetical, and Keats poetical without being wise; Sophocles is both poetical and wise, whereas Shelley is poetical, but with a taint of sophistry or sham wisdom. No such clear-cut generalization can be ventured about Goethe. I have already quoted Goethe’s own judgment on his “Werther” as weakness seeking to give itself the prestige of strength, and perhaps it would be possible to instance from his early writings even worse examples of a morbid emotionalism (e.g. “Stella”). How about “Faust” itself? Most Germans will simply dismiss such a question as profane. With Hermann Grimm they are ready to pronounce “Faust” the greatest work of the greatest poet of all times, and of all peoples. Yet it is not easy to overlook the sophistical element in both parts of “Faust.” I have already commented on those passages that would seem especially sophistical: the passage in which the devil is defined as the spirit that always says no strikes at the very root of any proper distinction between good and evil. The passage again in which Faust breaks down all precise discrimination in favor of mere emotional intoxication is an extreme example of the Rousseauistic art of “making madness beautiful.” The very conclusion of the whole poem, with its setting up of work according to the natural law as a substitute for work according to the human law, is an egregious piece of sham wisdom. The result of work according to the human law, of ethical efficiency in short, is an increasing serenity; and it is not clear that Faust is much calmer at the end of the poem than he is at the beginning. According to Dr. Santayana he is ready to carry into heaven itself his romantic restlessness — his desperate and feverish attempts to escape from ennui.1 Perhaps this is not the whole truth even in regard to “Faust”; and still less can we follow Dr. Santayana when he seems to discover in the whole work of Goethe only romantic restlessness. At the very time when Goethe was infecting others with the wild expansiveness of the new movement, he himself was beginning to strike out along an entirely different path. He writes in his Journal as early as 1778: “A more definite feeling of limitation and in consequence of true broadening.” Goethe here glimpses the truth that lies at the base of both humanism and religion. He saw that the romantic disease was the imaginative and emotional straining towards the unlimited (Hang zum Unbegrenzten), and in opposition to this unrestraint he was never tired of preaching the need of working within boundaries. It may be objected that Goethe is in somewhat the same case here as Rousseau: that the side of his work which has imaginative and emotional driving power and has therefore moved the world is of an entirely different order. We may reply that Goethe is at times both poetical and wise. Furthermore in his maxims and conversations where he does not rise to the poetical level, he displays a higher quality of wisdom than Rousseau. At his best he shows an ethical realism worthy of Dr. Johnson, though in his attitude towards tradition he is less Johnsonian than Socratic. Like Socrates he saw on what terms a break with the past may be safely attempted. “Anything that emancipates the spirit,” he says, “without a corresponding growth in self-mastery, is pernicious.” We may be sure that if the whole modern experiment fails it will be because of the neglect of the truth contained in this maxim. Goethe also saw that a sound individualism must be rightly imaginative. He has occasional hints on the role of illusion in literature and life that go far beneath the surface.

1 Three Philosophical Poets, 188.

Though the mature Goethe, then, always stands for salvation by work, it is not strictly correct to say that it is work only according to the natural law. In Goethe at his best the imagination accepts the limitations imposed not merely by the natural, but also by the human law. However, we must admit that the humanistic Goethe has had few followers either in Germany or elsewhere, whereas innumerable persons have escaped from the imaginative unrestraint of the emotional romanticist, as Goethe himself likewise did, by the discipline of science.

The examples I have chosen should suffice to show how my distinction between two main types of imagination — the ethical type that gives high seriousness to creative writing and the Arcadian or dalliant type that does not raise it above the recreative level—works out in practice. Some such distinction is necessary if we are to understand the imagination in its relation to the human law. But in order to grasp the present situation firmly we need also to consider the imagination in its relation to the natural law. I have just said that most men have escaped from the imaginative anarchy of the emotional romanticist through science. Now the man of science at his best is like the humanist at his best, at once highly imaginative and highly critical. By this cooperation of imagination and intellect they are both enabled to concentrate effectively on the facts, though on facts of a very different order. The imagination reaches out and perceives likenesses and analogies whereas the power in man that separates and discriminates and traces causes and effects tests in turn these likenesses and analogies as to their reality: for we can scarcely repeat too often that though the imagination gives unity it does not give reality. If we were all Aristotles or even Goethes we might concentrate imaginatively on both laws, and so be both scientific and humanistic; but as a matter of fact the ordinary man’s capacity for concentration is limited. After a spell of concentration on either law he aspires to what Aristotle calls “relief from tension.” Now the very conditions of modern life require an almost tyrannical concentration on the natural law. The problems that have been engaging more and more the attention of the Occident since the rise of the great Baconian movement have been the problems of power and speed and utility. The enormous mass of machinery that has been accumulated in the pursuit of these ends requires the closest attention and concentration if it is to be worked efficiently. At the same time the man of the West is not willing to admit that he is growing in power alone, he likes to think that he is growing also in wisdom.

Only by keeping this situation in mind can we hope to understand how emotional romanticism has been able to develop into a vast system of sham spirituality. I have said that the Rousseauist wants unity without reality. If we are to move towards reality, the imagination must be controlled by the power of discrimination and the Rousseauist has repudiated this power as “false and secondary.” But a unity that lacks reality can scarcely be accounted wise. The Baconian, however, accepts this unity gladly. He has spent so much energy in working according to the natural law that he has no energy left for work according to the human law. By turning to the Rousseauist he can get the “relief from tension” that he needs and at the same time enjoy the illusion of receiving a vast spiritual illumination. Neither Rousseauist nor Baconian carry into the realm of the human law the keen analysis that is necessary to distinguish between genuine insight and some mere phantasmagoria of the emotions. I am speaking especially, of course, of the interplay of Rousseauistic and Baconian elements that appear in certain recent philosophies like that of Bergson. According to Bergson one becomes spiritual by throwing overboard both thought and action, and this is a very convenient notion of spirituality for those who wish to devote both thought and action to utilitarian and material ends. It is hard to see in Bergson’s intuition of the creative flux and perception of real duration anything more than the latest form of Rousseau’s transcendental idling. To work with something approaching frenzy according to the natural law and to be idle according to the human law must be accounted a rather one-sided view of life. The price the man of to-day has paid for his increase in power is, it should seem, an appalling superficiality in dealing with the law of his own nature. What brings together Baconian and Rousseauist in spite of their surface differences is that they are both intent on the element of novelty. But if wonder is associated with the Many, wisdom is associated with the One. Wisdom and wonder are moving not in the same but in opposite directions. The nineteenth century may very well prove to have been the most wonderful and the least wise of centuries. The men of this period—and I am speaking of course of the main drift —were so busy being wonderful that they had no time, apparently, to be wise. Yet their extreme absorption in wonder and the manifoldness of things can scarcely be commended unless it can be shown that happiness also results from all this revelling in the element of change. The Rousseauist is not quite consistent on this point. At times he bids us boldly set our hearts on the transitory. Aimez, says Vigny, ce que jamais on ne venir deux fois. But the Rousseauist strikes perhaps a deeper chord when looking forth on a world of flux he utters the anguished exclamation of Leconte de Lisle: Qu’est-ce que tout cela qui n’est pas éternel? Even as one swallow, says Aristotle, does not make a spring, so no short time is enough to determine whether a man deserves to be called happy. The weakness of the romantic pursuit of novelty and wonder and in general of the philosophy of the beautiful moment— whether the erotic moment1 or the moment of cosmic revery—is that  it does not reckon sufficiently with the something deep down in the human breast that craves the abiding. To pin one’s hope of happiness to the fact that “the world is so full of a number of things” is an appropriate sentiment for a “Child’s Garden of Verse.” For the adult to maintain an exclusive Bergsonian interest in “the perpetual gushing forth of novelties” would seem to betray an inability to mature. The effect on a mature observer of an age so entirely turned from the One to the Many as that in which we are living must be that of a prodigious peripheral richness joined to a great central void.

1 After telling of the days when “ il n’y avait pour moi ni passé ni avenir et je goûtais à la fois les délices de mille siècles,” Saint-Preux concludes: “Hélas! vous avez disparu comme un éclair. Cette éternité de bonheur ne fut qu’un instant de ma vie. Le temps a repris sa lenteur dans les moments de mon désespoir, et l’ennui mesure par longues années le reste infortuné de mes jours” (Nouvelle Heloise, Pt. in, Lettre vi).

What leads the man of to-day to work with such energy according to the natural law and to be idle according to the human law is his intoxication with material success. A consideration that should therefore touch him is that in the long run not merely spiritual success or happiness, but material prosperity depends on an entirely different working. Let me revert here for a moment to my previous analysis: to work according to the human law is simply to rein in one’s impulses. Now the strongest of all the impulses is the will to power. The man who does not rein in his will to power and is at the same time very active according to the natural law is in a fair way to become an efficient megalomaniac. Efficient megalomania, whether developed in individuals of the same group or in whole national groups in their relations with one another, must lead sooner or later to war. The efficient megalomaniacs will proceed to destroy one another along with the material wealth to which they have sacrificed everything else; and then the meek, if there are any meek left, will inherit the earth.

“If I am to judge by myself,” said an eighteenth-century Frenchman, “man is a stupid animal.” Man is not only a stupid animal in spite of his conceit of his own cleverness but we are here at the source of his stupidity. The source is the moral indolence that Buddha with his almost infallible sagacity defined long ago. In spite of the fact that his spiritual and in the long run his material success hinge on his ethical effort, man persists in dodging this effort, in seeking to follow the line of least or lesser resistance. An energetic material working does not mend but aggravate the failure to work ethically and is therefore especially stupid. Just this combination has in fact led to the crowning stupidity of the ages— the Great War. No more delirious spectacle has ever been witnessed than that of hundreds of millions of human beings using a vast machinery of scientific efficiency to turn life into a hell for one another. It is hard to avoid concluding that we are living in a world that has gone wrong on first principles, a world that, in spite of all the warnings of the past, has allowed itself to be caught once more in the terrible naturalistic trap. The dissolution of civilization with which we are threatened is likely to be worse in some respects than that of Greece or Rome in view of the success that has been attained in “perfecting the mystery of murder.” Various traditional agencies are indeed still doing much to chain up the beast in man. Of these the chief is no doubt the Church. But the leadership of the Occident is no longer here. The leaders have succumbed in greater or less degree to naturalism 1 and so have been tampering with the moral law. That the brutal imperialist who brooks no obstacle to his lust for dominion has been tampering with this law goes without saying; but the humanitarian, all adrip with brotherhood and profoundly convinced of the loveliness of his own soul, has been tampering with it also, and in a more dangerous way for the very reason that it is less obvious. This tampering with the moral law, or what amounts to the same thing, this overriding of the veto power in man, has been largely a result, though not a necessary result, of the rupture with the traditional forms of wisdom. The Baconian naturalist repudiated the past because he wished to be more positive and critical, to plant himself upon the facts. Yet the veto power is itself a fact, —the weightiest with which man has to reckon. The Rousseauistic naturalist threw off traditional control because he wished to be more imaginative. Yet without the veto power the imagination falls into sheer anarchy. Both Baconian and Rousseauist were very impatient of any outer authority that seemed to stand between them and their own perceptions. Yet the veto power is nothing abstract, nothing that one needs to take on hearsay, but is very immediate. The naturalistic leaders may be proved wrong without going beyond their own principles, and their wrongness is of a kind to wreck civilization.

1 The Church, so far as it has become humanitarian, has itself succumbed to naturalism.

I have no quarrel, it is scarcely necessary to add, either with the man of science or the romanticist when they keep in their proper place. As soon however as they try, whether separately or in unison, to set up some substitute for humanism or religion, they should be at once attacked, the man of science for not being sufficiently positive and critical, the romanticist for not being rightly imaginative.

End of part [1]