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.
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.
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.
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.
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]