The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


Ephemeral

 

    THE test by which we are accustomed to measure the value of any artistic creation is its ability to survive. Anything which is truly great in art, we say, will have in it such a power of appeal and charm for men that they will be very unwilling to let it die. It will be carefully preserved through the ages for the sake of its rare beauty. We are so fearful that its like may not be easily found again that we build great museums and libraries where it may be received and stored with other treasures of its kind.

    Now while this quality of permanency in art is a convenient measure of universal esteem, it is in itself of no virtue whatever. We value our Virgil and our Greek sculpture, not for their age, but for their beauty. They [Page 190] gather a certain interest and pathos in their very antiquity; they appeal to us by the force of lovely association; they are ripe and venerable. But these charms may often be inherent in less admirable work as well. As far as its antiquity appeals to us, a poor little coin from some buried city is almost as full of suggestion as the Venus of Milo herself. Whether a beautiful object is permanent or impermanent is of no account whatever in valuing its excellence as art.

    A statue may be more lovely in one material than in another; that will depend on the colour and texture of the material, not on its enduring quality. A figure in snow that would not outlive the hour might be just as lovely as one in marble. Beauty never perishes, indeed; but it endures by virtue of its essence and influence; it is not dependent on the permanence of gross matter for its immortality. That would be a precarious immortality at best. Rather is the permanence of beauty typified in the frail perishable hue and [Page 191] form of the flowers and ephemera, so slight, so easily destroyed, and yet as enduring in their species as the elephant or yew. In every butterfly that floats down the summer breeze, you see the symbol of the ephemeral loveliness which it is art’s ambition to embody. In this ephemeral quality, acting and dancing are the two arts nearest to nature. They cannot be recorded, but perish as soon as they are born. While for music and poetry we have invented some means of preservation, they are essentially impermanent in their beauty. They are arts which appeal to the ear, fleeting as the wind over the sea.

    We are in the habit of thinking of poetry at least as being a written art, dependent on paper and print for its life. That is largely so, but it ought not to be so at all. For poetry, like music, must be rendered in sound before it can come to its full effect and influence. And this aspect of the art of poetry we should keep much more constantly in mind (at least it seems to me) if we are to maintain [Page 192] our love for it and our power in it to any efficient degree.

    It is seldom, on the contrary, that poetry (to speak of only one art) ever has the opportunity of reaching its fit hearers in its untarnished glory. Our good readers are so lamentably few, our taste for reading aloud is almost nil. The spread of elementary knowledge and the prevalence of journalism, however admirable they may be in themselves, have tended to deterioration of the excellent art of reading aloud, and so have had an ill effect, too, I daresay, on the art of poetry itself.

    In thinking of poetry, then, let us think of it as something that must be heard to be appreciated at its best. In that way we shall not only come to place poetry in its true relation to ourselves; we shall be aiding, ever so little it may be, in readjusting the status of poetry and in emphasizing the beautiful and sympathetic quality its ephemeral nature elicits. [Page 193]