The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Secret of Art


    AS in Homer’s line, “Many are the tongues of mortals, but the speech of the immortals is one,” so the secrets of the artist are many, but there is only one secret of art. Lacking that, we may spend lifelong toil in the pursuit of perfection; we may master a brilliant technique and compass the profoundest thought; the architecture of our work may be sound and its finish flawless; none the less without the secret it will be futile. We may heed every tradition, follow every hint of written or unwritten lore; yes, and we may even fling every accepted creed of our craft to the four winds, and build anew with the intuitive instinct we call originality, so that we will endure awhile, filling all eyes with wonder and every mouth with praise, and yet [Page 98] we will fail ultimately if the secret was not in our heart.

    There is a sort of greatness about a true masterpiece that makes itself felt we hardly know how, that moves us we do not know why; just as there is a sort of greatness about some men, which compels an unreserved enthusiasm and loyalty toward them. It is the quality which endears people to us. This man may be brave and irreproachable; that one may be clever to bewilderment; yet, if they are not lovable, we meet them and part without regret. They convince us, and charm, and even win; yet a moment later we are left as cold as before. Here may be a play, or a book, or an exhibition of pictures, which is the talk of the town, and which dazzles the sense with its novel beauty; yet somehow, while drawing our utmost commendation and provoking not a single palpable criticism, it never stirs us from the centre of our being. ;We sit in approving calm, even with generous applause, unwarmed, unfired. [Page 99]

    But show me, perhaps, ever so hasty a sketch of gray morning, a half-finished scrap of purple sea-beach, or a couple of stanzas like

                                      “Under the wide and starry sky,
                                       Dig my grave and let me lie,”
or, —
                                      “The year’s at the spring,
                                       The day’s at the morn,”

and just because it has the echo of the secret in it, I shall never recall it without a quickening joy. It has entered in to be a part of me for ever; and whatever I do, whatever I say, will have in it some minute reverberation of the echo of that secret.

    What quality of art can it be, so magical, so vague, so strong? You must ask first what quality it is in men. For art is no more than the universal speech of humanity; and whatever taint there is in a character will be betrayed in the voice; though only the wise know this. What quality is it in the personality that makes it most memorable to its fellows? [Page 100] A man to be remembered must have endeared himself to men. He will not be remembered for wealth, nor power, nor wit, unless he have used it beneficently, winning regard as he won command. So you may say love is the secret of art, as it is the secret of life.

    To be inevitable (in our recent phrase), to have the inescapable magic, this is the aim of the artist. If you analyze this strange potency, it seems to resolve itself into the essence of endearment. It is, as we say, the heart of the matter; it draws our attachment, our unreasoned devotion, our love. There are, of course, works of mediocre value, which enlist the crudest affections, and yet are patently false and worthless to the better judgment; but I do not mean these watery sentimental things. I am speaking of the rare achievements of art, such as came from the hands of Blake and Corot and Wordsworth. Think, for instance, of that beautiful lyric: [Page 101]

                                    “I wandered lonely as a cloud,
                                     That floats on high o’er vales and hills.”

    You would not say that it embodied a very common human sentiment; you would say it is rather a poem for the cultivated. And yet, I think, the quality in it which holds us, the indwelling spirit behind that bewitching mask of words, is the spirit of love. The heart of the man, one is sure, must have been greatly moved before he could speak so. And we, in our turn, are greatly moved under the spell of that wizard cadence. At first it might seem a mere trick of the senses, a skill in accents, the craft of melodious syllables. It is more than that. We say it is intensity or lyric ardour. But no craftsmanship, however cunning, can match that volatile charm, nor arrest the fleeting glamour of such lines. Yet surely, if the wonder worker were only a master of skill and no more, his intricacies could be studied and his secret caught. But no, strive as we may, there is no imitation of consummate art possible. You can no more [Page 102] make a new poem which shall be Wordsworth’s, than you can make a new man out of clay.

    The secret of art and the secret of nature are one — the slow, patient, absorbing, generous process of love — sustaining itself everywhere on loveliness and life, and remanifesting itself afresh in ever new forms of vitality and loveliness. It is because of this quality, and in proportion to this quality that we value every shed of art, and are at such pains to preserve it. By the simplest natural law, humanity cares for those things which ameliorate its lot, and lets go in the long run everything that hurts or retards it. If a man is mean or cruel or false or self-absorbed, his force and cleverness may still carry him far; indeed he may come to great eminence in fame and power. The deep, foolish, blind heart of goodness in man is deluded by his display. But by and by, in the advance of thought, he will be forgotten, because his unit of influence was never for the best, was never [Page 103] needful for sustaining the world. In the enlargement of aspiration in man, whatever hinders that development will be abandoned. We shall not be fooled for ever. And he only is on the winning side, who can see in the march of history a laborious trail cut through the underbrush of experience from darkened valley to sunlit crest, who can perceive whither the blind by-paths led the lost adventurers, and who will hold resolutely to that steep road — the prevailing undoubtful trend of truth.

    Of nations you may say the same, and of art you may say the same. There have been unnecessary tribes that have perished in their inutility, because in the large wise scope of progress, in the preservation of the fair and the good, they have had no part to play. And in art, which is only the embodiment of the hope of the world, all that was petty or self-centred has perished and is perishing from day to day. It has endured for awhile; it has pleased us by its cleverness, or beguiled us [Page 104] by its charm, when we have been too near to understand its tendency. With man’s avidity for truth and goodness (in spite of a monstrous inertia), he is ready to follow the wildest departures which promise more light and a liberation from wrong. But as these prove unavailing, he will leave them for others. The history of art, like the history of man, is a jungle full of blind trails leading no-whither; and you will find they were abandoned because they did not lead toward goodness, toward what was good for man; because they did not make toward the spaciousness and freshness of truth.

    Long ago, of course, art was more simple and unconscious than it has since become; and the devout soul of the artist dwelt in his deft fingers. It was impossible for him to do anything without conviction; he had never heard of technique; and the pride of barren skill had not been born. The man and his work were one. This is not to say that consummate care for workmanship, and untiring [Page 105] diligence for perfection, are wrong; it is merely to say that between the soul and the body of art there can be no divorce — that each is necessary, and neither can survive alone.

    Is modern art frivolous, vapid, unmanly? Pray who made it so? Any art is just as great as great as the age that produced it. And for my part I do not believe that art can fail any more than I believe that speech can cease, or nature withhold her changing seasons. If we are fallen on paltry times, as some would have us believe, let us change the times. The earth is just as fair and beautiful and generous as it ever was; and we are coming to understand it better than our fathers could. Let us love it as well. Have done with falsehood and greed, and the millennium will begin tomorrow, with paradise in your own dooryard. There is no other spirit in which life can be made worth while, and there is no other secret of a great art. [Page 106]