IT IS BECOMING fashionable to take criticism seriously or, more exactly, serious critics are trying to make it so. How far they have succeeded may be measured by the fact that we are no longer ashamed to reprint our reviews: how far they are justified is another question. It is one the answer to which must depend a good deal on our answer to that old and irritating query—is beauty absolute? For, if the function of a critic be merely to perform the office of a sign-post, pointing out what he personally likes and stimulating for that as much enthusiasm as possible, his task is clearly something less priestlike than it would be if, beauty being absolute, it were his to win for absolute beauty adequate appreciation.
I do not disbelieve in absolute beauty any more than I disbelieve in absolute truth. On the contrary, I gladly suppose that the proposition—this object must be either beautiful or not beautiful—is absolutely true. Only, can we recognize it? Certainly, at moments we believe that we now can. We believe it when we are taken unawares and bowled over by the purely aesthetic qualities of a work of art. The purely aesthetic qualities, I say, because we can be thrown into that extraordinarily lucid and unself-conscious transport wherein we are aware only of a work of art and our reaction to it by aesthetic qualities alone.
Every now and then the beauty, the bald miracle, the “significant form”—if I may venture the phrase—of a picture, a poem or a piece of music—of something, perhaps, with which we had long believed ourselves familiar—springs from an unexpected quarter and lays us flat. We were not on the look-out for that sort of thing and we abandon ourselves without one meretricious gesture of welcome. What we feel has nothing to do with a pre-existent mood; we are transported into a world washed clean of all past experience aesthetic or sentimental. When we have picked ourselves up we begin to suppose that such a state of mind, must have been caused by something of which the significance was inherent and the value absolute. “This,” we say, “is absolute beauty.” Perhaps it is. Only, let us hesitate to give that rather alarming style to anything that has moved us less rapturously or less spontaneously.
For ninety-nine out of a hundred of our aesthetic experiences have been carefully prepared. Art rarely catches us: we go half way to meet it, we hunt it down even with a pack of critics. In our chastest moments we enter a concert-hall or gallery with the deliberate intention of being moved; in our most abandoned we pick up Browning or Alfred de Musset and allow our egotism to bask in their oblique flattery. Now when we come to art with a mood of which we expect it to make something brilliant or touching there can be no question of being possessed by absolute beauty. The emotion that we obtain is thrilling enough, and exquisite may be; but it is self-conscious and reminiscent: it is conditioned. It is conditioned by our mood: what is more—critics please take note—this precedent mood, not only colors and conditions our experience, but draws us inevitably towards those works of art in which it scents sympathy and approval. To a reflective moralist Wordsworth will always mean more than a yellow primrose meant to Peter Bell. In our moments of bitter disillusionment it is such a comfort to jest with Pope and His Lordship that we lose all patience with the advanced politician who prefers Blake. And, behold we are in a world of personal predilections, a thousand miles from absolute values.
Discussion of this question is complicated by the fact that a belief in the absolute nature of beauty is generally considered meritorious. It can be hitched onto, and even made to support, a disbelief in the theory that the universe is a whimsical and unpremeditated adventure which rolls merrily down the road to ruin without knowing in the least where it is going or caring to go anywhere in particular. This theory is unpopular. Wherefore, absolute beauty is too often fitted into a whole system of absolutes, or rather into The Absolute; and of course it would be intolerable to suppose that we could ever fail to recognize—should I say Him? Unluckily, history and personal experience—those two black beasts of a priori idealists—here await us. If beauty be absolute, the past was sometimes insensitive, or we are: for the past failed to recognize the beauty of much that seems to us supremely beautiful, and sincerely admired much that to us seems trash. And we, ourselves, did we never despise what today we adore? Murillo and Salvator Rosa and forgers of works by both enjoyed for years the passionate admiration of the cognoscenti. In Dr. Johnson’s time “no composition in our language had been oftener perused than Pomfret’s ‘Choice.’” If ever there was a man who should have been incapable of going wrong about poetry that man was Thomas Gray. How shall we explain his enthusiasm for Macpherson’s fraud? And if there be another of whom the bowling over might be taken as conclusive evidence in the court of literary appeal that other is surely Coleridge. Hark to him: “My earliest acquaintances will not have forgotten the undisciplined eagerness and impetuous zeal, with which I labored to make proselytes, not only of my companions, but of all with whom I conversed, of whatever rank, and in whatever place. . . . And with almost equal delight did I receive the three or four following publications of the same author.” That author was the Reverend Mr. Bowles.