The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


The Note of Gladness

 

    THERE is some inherent reason for the rightness of joy in art. It holds its place there by at title even more inalienable than its title to a place in actual life. There is reason, too, for a belief in joy as the core and essence of good art, as the one ingredient most needful. For joy is, as it were, the last grain to turn the balance; it makes all the difference between success and failure, between life and death. Joy, mere gladness in living, is the tiny increment which keeps life dominant and sane. When that is taken from us, we are left to slow or swift disintegration, disaster, dejection, and death.

    Of all the good gifts which ever came out of the wallet of the Fairy Godmother, the gift of natural gladness is the greatest and best. It is to the soul what health is to the [Page 122] body, what sanity is to the mind, — the test of normality. The most fortunate of mortals are those whom Nature has endowed with a wholesome power of assimilating life, just as she endows her field-bred children with a good digestion. A quick and ready appetite for life, a capacity for smiling contentment, and a glad willingness, are the great things, — these and courage. For after all life needs courage, long-enduring, stubborn, unflinching courage. The bare problem of life is so difficult, the fine art of living so well-nigh impossible, that surely no man yet can ever have looked at it with realization without a sudden terror at heart. Yet there is laid upon us all the prime duty of joy, the obligation to be glad, the necessity for happiness.

    In spite of pain and failure and weariness and exhaustion, happiness is still our business, the one thing to be attained and maintained at all risks and costs. It is not cheap, cannot be bought in the open market, is not to be confused with the pleasure of the moment, [Page 123] which is often only distraction. Sometimes the Great Vender says to us: “Would you buy happiness? Very sorry, sirs, but happiness is particularly scarce to-day. The crop is not overplenty this season. Here is some pleasure, however, much cheaper and almost as good. We sell a great deal of it. Many of our customers prefer it to the genuine article. May I put you up a sample?

    Now, woe be to you, beauteous mortal, if you listen to that strain. Against that fallacious but alluring speech you are to set your face for ever like a rock. Have happiness or nothing. How are you to know the false from the true, do you ask? Well, we are provided with an instinct in that direction, and you will find it not easy to deceive yourself for long with any specious counterfeit of joy. True happiness differs from pleasure in being more thorough, complete, and indubitable. We are so constituted for it, so dependent on it, and so immemorially nourished by it, that the substitution is palpable at once. Happiness [Page 124] is really a complete poise of being, and comes upon us only when we have secured a measure of health, a measure of certitude of mind, and a measure of rectitude of conduct. So small a thing can overturn it! A little overtaxing of the physical powers, a little misuse of any faculty, a little deflection from the ways of kindliness, sincerity, frankness, and all our balance and self-poise may be undone, all our modest store of happiness scattered to the air.

    Now, whatever the strange element of sadness or evil may be in the great universe, it seems that all men and women may be divided into two great classes, — the majority, which is always for progress and assurance and glad certainty about life, and the minority, which is full of trepidation and fear and gloomy foreboding. We each of us belong to one party or the other, the successful or the unsuccessful, the brave or the timid, the happy or the sad. It is an innate difference, a prenatal endowment, possibly; as if from the first we had been destined for the one faction [Page 125] of humanity or the other, — the great majority or the great minority, the joyous or the sorry-hearted. Yet much may be achieved by culture, and we must never capitulate to the odious doctrine of original depravity.

    There are in art also, which is no more than an image and reflection of life, two main trends, — the greater trend toward gladness and faith and strength, and the lesser trend toward sorrow and doubt and decay. To the one belongs the masters, to the other the minor craftsmen. A minor poet or a minor painter, as it seems to me, is not essentially minor because of the slightness of his gift, but because of its timorous and uncertain quality. And the big men are big because they have the gift of gladness. Or is that they are glad and well assured because they are big? Sure it is, in any case, that the two phenomena appear together.

    And that, too, is natural, for on the principle that to him that hath shall be given, the strong acquire strength, the glad acquire new [Page 126] gladness, taking these treasures from their weaker fellows. So the great, glad, strong world, the vast majority, cares most for strength, for sanity, for gladness in art and letters, as it does in life; while the utterances of sorrow and the voices of doubt are obscured and lost. We care in the long run only to preserve the work of the masters; while the work of the minor artists, however charming, passes with its age.

    True, there is always a note of wistfulness in art, as there is in life; and it must be present even in the strongest, gladdest utterances, else they could have no profound hold upon us. The great works of art and literature are those which represent life in its entirety, with its dominant desires and joys, indeed, but with its heaviness and sorrow and dejection as well. Any piece of art which should be wholly given over to the predominance of animal spirits, or of unmitigated joyousness, with no trace of the tedium of time or the bleak loneliness of the soul, could have no abiding claim [Page 127] to universal regard. It could not speak to universal man in his common tongue. For joy, after all, is aristocratic; and those immortal teachers on whom the world has loved to lean have also been well versed in the democracy of sadness. They have taught us that it is a prime duty of the heart to rejoice, yet they themselves have ever known how hard that duty is.

    So in art, in letters, those who teach us through means of beauty have always left a trace of sorrow in their work, which else had been hardly human. They have felt, perhaps, the sublime faith which is unperturbed in the face of the enormous riddle; they have been sure of the ultimate triumph of reason, of beauty, of goodness; but they have been aware, also, of the terribleness of actual ugliness and evil. And through their admonitions to gladness, their helpful assurances to bravery and effort, there has always sounded the undernote of human pathos — the ground tone of mortality. [Page 128]

    These are the great ones, these are the masters, these are they to whom we must turn for consolation and counsel. They have known and suffered life even as ourselves, and yet they have been able to endure and to smile. Their dicta about life, therefore, are infinitely valuable in this difficult task of living. And I think it behooves us, in however small a way we may be called on to serve the world in art, to follow so far as we can their splendid examples of gladness and courage. Let the burden of sadness be what it may, let the final solution seem never so impossible, let our spirits be submerged in all but utter despair, there yet remains the obligation which none may escape, — to bear witness to a still more universal truth, to testify to a gladness in life underlying all our sorrows. We may not be able to hold it, or call it ours, or give expression to any of its phrases; our own destiny may preclude that; none the less must we acknowledge its overlordship, and admit that doubt and sorrow are merely of the moment. [Page 129]