Subconscious Art

    THERE is a general recognition of the fact, but no clear comprehension of the power, of subconsciouness expressing itself in various forms of art. We readily recognize in a painting, a poem, a piece of music, the presence of a force (“a something” we are likely to call it), which we do not readily define. We say perhaps that the picture has soul; it sways us, we know not why; it allures us, we cannot tell how. A too exact critic might perhaps ridicule our susceptibility to a vague charm we could not pretend to understand. His very philosophic and rational mind would insist on clarity, on definiteness. For him the painting must be logical, conclusive, limpid. But somehow, we say, we do not care whether [Page 147] it means anything or not, so longs as it moves us pleasurably. We can enjoy Browing’s “Child Roland” or William Moriss’s “Blue Closet” without asking what they mean. And we are right, too. Art does not always have to mean something obvious. Some poetry is addressed to the mind and some is not. The best poetry, of course, addresses the mind and emotions as well. But just as a deal of good poetry has been written which appeals chiefly to the rational self in us (nearly all of Pope and Dryden, for example), so a good deal has been written which appeals to our irrational instinctive self. And indeed, in all poetry, even the most rational, there are certain qualities which pass the threshold of the outer mind and pass in to sway the mysterious subconscious person who inhabits us.
    The most obvious of the qualities in poetry, is the metre or rhythm. The measure of verse has an influence on us beyond our reckoning, potent and ever present, though unrecognized. So that the simplest, most unexalted statement [Page 148] of truth, commonplace though it be, if once thrown into regular verse, comes to us with an added force. Perhaps I should say with a new force. It may not make a statement any plainer to our mind, to versify it; it may not make it any stronger mentally; but it gives it a power and influence of a sort it did not possess before. This added power is one of the things that distinguish poetry from prose, – art from science. Now the principle of recurrence is the underlying principle of rhythm and meter and rhyme and alliteration. And I wonder whether this constant reiteration, this regular pulsing recurrence in poetry, does not act as a mesmeric or hypnotic agent.
    It is quite true that good art is the expression, not only of the rational waking objective self, the self which is clever and intentional and inductive, but of the deeper unreasoning self, as well. It is also true that good art impresses the deeper as well as the shallower self. The outer objective self may be extremely brilliant, may master technique and [Page 149] become skilled in every lore of the craft, may, indeed, become as masterful in execution as the masters themselves, and yet if it have not the aid of a great strong inner subjective, unconscious self, it can do nothing of permanent human interest. You know how accurate a draughtsman may be, and how learned in anatomy, and yet how dismal and uninspired his paintings after all. You know what brilliant execution a pianist may have, and yet how cold his recitals may leave you. This is the achievement of intentional mind unassisted by the subconscious spirit. And necessary as it is, it is not alone sufficient.
    To attain the best results in art we must have both the personalities of the artist working at once. All the skill which training and study can give must be at his command, to serve as the alphabet or medium of his art, and at the same time the submerged, unsleeping self must be set free for active creation. Scientific formulae are an admirable means of communication between mind and mind, but [Page 150] art is a means of communication for the whole being, — mind, body and spirit.

    This being so, it is necessary, in doing any creative work, to cultivate the power of submerging our useful, objective self far enough to give free play to the greater subjective self, the self beyond the threshold. This is exactly what occurs in hypnosis, and I dare say the beat and rhythm of poetry serves just such a purpose.

            “Dearest, three months ago,
            When the mesmerizer Snow
            With his hand’s first sweep
            Put the earth to sleep —”

    In these lines of Browning’s there resides, I am certain, a power like that he describes. It resides in all poetry. It is the magic we feel but cannot fathom, the charm we must follow, discredit it as we may.
    Apply this test to any good piece of poetry of which you are fond. Take Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” for instance. That poem appeals to our mind with a definite idea, a [Page 151] definite image, which you may easily transpose into prose. The poem might be translated without loss of the thought. But what of the magic charm of the lines:

“For though the flood may bear me beyond the boundary of time,
I hope to see my Pilot’s face when I shall have crossed the bar.”

    I have not altered the thought, but I have destroyed the stanza. The spell has vanished with the metre. The reason that Tennyson’s verse is more pleasing than our mangled version of it is this – simply that it speaks to us more completely. It not only appeals to our intelligence, but it appeals to our sense and soul as well. The soul has memories of regions and lives of which we have never heard. The soul dwells with us as tacitly as a silent companion who should share our habitation for years, yet never reveal the secrets of his earlier life. And good poetry and good art have much to say to this work-a-day understanding [Page 152] of ours; yet they have more to say to the soul within us, which comprehends everything. The difficulty is in obtaining access to the soul and securing egress for it. The creative artist must subordinate cunning to intuition, and he must embody his beautiful creations in some form that will be able to elude the too vigilant reason of his fellows and gain instant access to their spirit.
    If I were a poet I should not merely wish to set down my conclusions about life and the universe; I could accomplish that better by being a trained philosopher. I should not merely want to convey to you new and important facts of nature; I could do that better by being a scientist. I should not want to convince your mind only, for I could do that better by logic and rhetoric. But I should wish to do all these things and to win your sympathy as well. I should not only wish to make you believe what I say, but to believe it passionately, — with your whole heart. In order to do this I should have to secure free communication [Page 153] of spirit, as well as of mind. I should not only have to satisfy reason, I should have to lull and charm it. I should have to hypnotize that good warder of your house before he would allow me to enter. Just as I had to mesmerize myself with the cadence of my lines before I could fully make them express my whole nature, so you in your turn as reader would have to feel their undefinable magic before you could appreciate and enjoy my poems to the utmost capacity of your nature. I could only secure this result through the senses, through the monotonous music of my verse.
    This may seem to you nothing more than the wisdom of the snake-charmer. Well, that is all it is. But that is enough [Page 154].