The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


Of Vigour

 

     YOU may say at once that the necessity of vigour is self-evident. But one must distinguish between vigour, the cultivable virtue, and vitality, the essence of life. The former we may acquire, the latter is the gift of the gods. We may display vitality with little vigour; and with a spark of that indispensable fire we may kindle a conflagration of energy.

     In the realm of art and expression this or that achievement may have essential vitality and still be lacking in vigour. And yet it is vigour that gives art its power and makes it prevail. You may see a painting or a piece of modelling, accurate, poised, beautiful, delicate, and quite flawless in execution; so that at first you are inclined to pronounce it a bit [Page 24] of perfect art; until after a time it grows tame; you begin to tire of it; the charm of mere loveliness of line or tone has not been enough to hold your admiration. The thing has lacked vigour; it has not that electric power of impressing itself upon one, so needful to make perfection more perfect still. For perfection is not merely the cutting way of imperfections, but the energizing and vitalizing of the chosen form. It is not enough in art to secure perfect form, a perfect colour, a perfect tone; it is necessary also (it is even more necessary) to make them live. It is not enough to create shapes of beauty; we must give them vigour as well, so that they may survive and prevail against what is indifferent and unlovely and inimical to joy. Passive beauty is well, but active beauty is best.

     Then, too, lack of vigour will mean lack of growth. The artist who has no exuberance, no superabundance of vigour to impart to his creations, will not have enough to ensure his own development. What he is he will remain. [Page 25] You need look for no wonder-working from him in future years. All his skilled hand was able to do it has done. The limited energy at his command has accomplished his utmost in its faultless, but unliving, creations; and no superfluous vitality remains to be transmuted into new vitality of the art or to expend itself in new enterprises of culture.

    With vigour we may hope for anything, without it there is no future. It was vigour, the profusion of energy, the redundance of vitality, that created and sustains the earth; and nothing short of this will create it anew in forms of beauty under the hand of the artist, or lend to these forms the endurance needed to confront the wear of time.

    How necessary, then, for the artist to have vigour at all costs — vigour for the whole personality, body, mind, and spirit! And certainly quite as necessary for all of us laymen as well. And it will not suffice us to have mental vigour alone, or physical vigour alone, or moral vigour alone; we must have a balance [Page 26] of these. For otherwise we should make no real progress; we should begin to revolve upon ourselves, and be deflected from our true course. But a complete and poised personal vigour, strong, intelligent, and happy — who shall say how far it may not go, or set limits to its achievement?

    We recognize this need of a balance of vigour in our academic training, where athletics are encouraged, to counteract the bad physical effects of overmentalization. And college sports have come to be almost as important as college studies. There is one important difference, however. College studies are a training of the mind; college sports are not an educational training of the body. They serve to develop muscle to some extent; but they do so in a very primitive and ineffectual way. They are not followed to give vigour to the personality through the body, as they should be followed; but to dissipate its energy. They are not an education, but a diversion, an amusement. If colleges made it their [Page 27] object to see which men could read the greatest number of books in a given time, or memorize the greatest number of facts, that would be a scheme of mental training paralleled to the physical training we now have. And yet with a very little wise direction of physical culture in our schools and colleges an enormous result could be obtained in added vigour. We have, of course, a few teachers who perceive this need, but as yet their influence has made too little headway against the tide of popular misapprehension on this point. It is not generally perceived that the usual physical development of the modern athlete is onesided and unlovely; that his muscle is not only cultivated at the expense of his character (or rather, I should say to the neglect of his mind and spirit), but that even his physique has not the grace and ease and beauty which should inherently belong to it. The modern college man ought surely to rival the ancient Greek for beauty, for vigour of mind and spirit as well as of body. Instead of that, [Page 28] the average college man who has given much time to athletics is sadly lacking in gracefulness and poise. Our idea of the college athlete is perilously like the figure of a well-groomed young ruffian.

    Now ruffianism is no essential part of a good physical training. It exists in our standard of physical excellence, because our men are badly taught — or rather because they are not taught at all. Athletics are cultivated (as it is called), but proper motion, proper use and control of body, with due regard to a directing mind and an indwelling spirit, are almost nowhere inculcated. The result is strength, rather than vigour — ruffianism, rather than refinement.

    Yet physical training may be made one of the most powerful agents for the highest culture of character. [Page 29]