Democratic Art

Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the editor.

[From Walt Whitman: A Study, 1893, which appeared one year after Whitman's death, and on the very day of Symonds' own death. Much of Symonds' study is a reprint of the section on Whitman in Modern Ethics, 1891, and a re-working, in December 1892, of an essay on Whitman which first appeared in Essays Speculative and Suggestive (1890). The following excerpts represent a summing up of his view of the liberating effects of democratic art.]

There are two aspects under which the problem of democratic art must be regarded. In the first place, we have to ask what sort of art, including literature under this title, democracy requires. To this question Whitman, in his Democratic Vistas, gives an answer: turbid in expression, far from lucid, but pregnant with sympathetic intelligence of the main issues. In the second place, we have to ask what elements are furnished to the artist by the people, which have not already been worked out in the classical and feudal forms and their derivatives. Whitman attempts to supply us with an answer to this second question also, not in his speculative essays, but in the mass of imaginative compositions which he designates by the name of poems or notes for poems. His report upon both topics may be postponed for the moment, while we revert to the revolution effected by the romantic movement of a hundred years ago. It behooves us to review the clearance of obsolete obstructions, and to survey the new ground gained, whereon our hopes are founded of a future reconstruction.

Delivered from scholastic traditions regarding style and the right subjects to be handled — delivered form pedantry and blind reactionary fervour — delivered from dependence upon aristocratic and ecclesiastical authority — sharing the emancipation of the intellect by modern science and the enfranchisement of the individual by new political conceptions — the poet or the artist is brought immediately face to face with the wonderful fresh world of men and things he has to interpret and to recreate. The whole of nature, seen for the first time with sane eyes, the whole of humanity, liberated for the first time from caste and class distinctions, invite his sympathy. Now dawns upon his mind the beauty, the divinity, which lies enfolded in the simplest folk, the commonest objects presented to his senses. He perceives the dignity of human occupations, the grace inherent in each kind of labour well performed. He discovered that love is a deity in the cottage no less than in king's chambers; not with the supercilious condescension of Tasso's Aminta or Guarini's Pastor Fido, but with a reverent recognition of the praesens deus in the heart of every man and woman. In order to make Florizel and Perdita charming, it is no longer necessary that they should be prince and princess in disguise; nor need the tale of Daphnis and Chloe now be written with that lame conclusion of lost children restored to wealthy high-born parents. Heroism steps forth from the tent of Achilles; chivalry descends from the arm-gaunt charger of the knight; loyalty is seen to be no mere devotion to a dynasty; passionate friendship quits the brotherhood of Pylades and the dear embraces of Peirithous. None of these high virtues belonging to heroic and chivalrous society are lost to us. They are brought within reach, instead of being relegated to some remote region in the past, or deemed the special property of privileged classes. The engine-driver steering his train at night over perilous viaducts, the life-boat man, the member of a fire- brigade assailing houses toppling to their ruin among flames; these are found to be no less heroic than Theseus grappling the Minotaur in Cretan labyrinths. And so it is with the chivalrous respect for womanhood and weakness, with loyal self-dedication to the principle or cause, with comradeship uniting men in brotherhood, with passion fit for tragedy, with beauty shedding light from heaven on human habitations. They were though to dwell far off in antique fable or dim mediaeval legend. They appeared to our fancy clad in glittering armour, plumed and spurred, surrounded with the aureole of noble birth. We now behold them at our house-doors, in the streets and fields around us. Conversely, our eyes are no longer shut to the sordidness and baseness which royal palaces and princely hearts may harbour — to the meanness of the Court of the Valois, to the vulgarity of the Court of Charles II, to the vile tone of a Prince Regent, to the dishonour, dishonesty, and disloyalty toward women which have always, more or less, prevailed in so- called good society.

This extended recognition of the noble and the lovely qualities in human life, the qualities upon which pure poetry and art must seize, is due partially to what we call democracy. But it implies something more than that word is commonly supposed to denote — a new and more deeply religious way of looking at mankind, a gradual triumph after so many centuries of the spirit which is Christ's, an enlarged faculty for piercing below externals and appearances to the truth and essence of things. God,the divine, is recognised as immanent in nature, and in the soul and body of humanity; not external to these things, not conceived of as creative from outside, or as incarnated in any single personage, but as all-pervasive, all-constitutive, everywhere, and inspiring all. That is the democratic philosophy; and science has contributed in no small measure to produce it.

Meanwhile, we need not breach the abandonment of high time- honoured themes. Why should we seek to break the links which bind us to the best of that far past from which we came? Achilles has not ceased to be a fit subject for poem or statue, because we discern heroism in an engine-driver. Lovely knights and Flora Macdonald, Peirithous and Pylades, King Cophetua and Burd Helen, abide with all the lustre of their strength and grace and charm. They have lost nothing because others have gained — because we now acknowledge that the chivalry, the loyalty, the comradeship, the love, the pathos, which made their store is admirable, are shared by living men and women, whose names have not been sounded through fame's silver trumpet.

I have hitherto touched but lightly upon the extension of the sphere of beauty which may be expected from democratic art. Through it we shall be led to discover the infinite varieties of lovely form which belong peculiarly to the people. Caste and high birth have no monopoly of physical comeliness. It may even be maintained that social conditions render it impossible for them to display more than a somewhat limited range of beauty. Goethe, I think, defined good society as that which furnished no material for poetry. We might apply this paradox to plastic art, and say that polished gentlemen and ladies do not furnish the best materials for sculpture and painting. How hardly shall they who wear evening clothes and ball-dresses enter into the kingdom of the grandest plastic art! The sculpture of Pheidias, the fresco of Buonarroti, demand suggestions from the body, indications of the nude. The sublimest attitudes of repose imply movements determined by specific energy. There is a characteristic beauty in each several kind of diurnal service, which waits to be elucidated. The superb poise of the mower, as he swings his scythe; the muscles of the blacksmith, bent for an unerring stroke upon the anvil; the bowed form of the reaper, with belt tightened round his loins; the thresher's arm uplifted, while he swings the flail; the elasticity of oarsmen rising from their strain against the waive; the jockey's grip across his saddle; the mountaineer's slow, swinging stride; the girl at the spinning-wheel, or carrying the water-bucket on her head, or hanging linen on the line, or busied with her china-closet: in each and ever motive of this kind — and the list might be indefinitely prolonged, for all trades and occupations have some distinguishing peculiarity — there appears a specific note of grace inalienable from the work performed. The artists of previous ages did not wholly neglect this truth. Indeed, they were eager to avail themselves of picturesque suggestions on the lines here indicated. Yet they used these motives mainly as adjuncts to themes of more attractive import, and subordinated them to what was deemed some loftier subject. Consequently, these aspects of life did not receive the attention they deserve; and the stores of beauty inherent in human industries have been only partially developed. It is the business of democratic art to unfold them fully. The time has come when the noble and beautiful qualities of the people demand a prominent place among worthy artistic motives.

An arduous task lies before poetry and the arts, if they are to bring themselves into proper relation with the people; not, as is vulgarly supposed, because the people will debase their standard, but because it will be hard for them to express the real dignity, and to satisfy the keen perceptions and the pure taste of the people.

There is a danger lest the solution of this problem should suffer from being approached too consciously. What we want is simplicity, emotional directness, open-mindedness, intelligent sympathy, keen and yet reverent curiosity, the scientific combined with the religious attitude toward fact. It will not do to be doctrinaire or didactic. Patronage and condescension are the worst of evils here. The spirit of Count Tolstoi, it that could descend in some new Pentecost, would prepare the world for democratic art.

Above all things, the middle-class conception of life must be transcended. Decency, comfort, sobriety, maintenance of appearances, gradual progression up a social ladder which is scaled by tenths of inches, the chapel or the church, the gig or the barouche, the growing balance at one's bankers, the addition of esquire to our name or of a red rosette to our button-hole, the firm resolve to keep well abreast with next-door neighbours, if not ahead of them, in business and respectability — all these things, which characterise the middle-class man wherever he appears, are good in their way. It were well that the people should incorporate these virtues. But there are corresponding defects in the bourgeoisie which have to be steadily rejected — an unwillingness to fraternise, an incapacity for comradeship, a habit of looking down on so- called inferiors, a contempt for hand-labour, a confusion of morality with prejudice and formula, a tendency to stifle religion in the gas of dogmas and dissenting shibboleths, an obstinate insensibility to ideas. Snobbery and Pharisaism, in one form or another, taint the middle-class to its core. Self- righteousness and personal egotism and ostrich-fear corrode it. We need to deliver our souls from these besetting sins, and to rise above them into more ethereal atmosphere. The man of letters, the artist, who would fain prove himself adequate to democracy in its noblest sense, must emerge from earthy vapours of complacent self and artificial circumstance and decaying feudalism. It is his privilege to be free, and to represent freedom. It is his function to find a voice or mode of utterance, an ideal of form, which shall be on a par with nature delivered from unscientific canons of interpretation, and with mankind delivered from obsolescent class-distinctions.

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After all, the great thing is, if possible, to induce people to study Whitman for themselves. I am convinced that, especially for young men, his spirit, if intelligent understood and sympathised with, must be productive of incalculable good. This, I venture to emphasise by relating what he did for me. I had received the ordinary English gentleman's education at Harrow and Oxford. Being physically below the average in health and strength, my development proceeded more upon the intellectual than the athletic side. In a word, I was decidedly academical, and in danger of becoming a prig. What was more, my constitution in the year 1865 seemed to have broken down, and no career in life lay open to me. In the autumn of that year, my friend Frederic Myers read me aloud a poem from Leaves of Grass. We were together in his rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, and I can well remember the effect of his sonorous voice rolling out sentence after sentence, sending electric thrills through the very marrow of my mind. (It was a piece from "Calamus," beginning "Long I thought that that knowledge alone would suffice me." Curiously enough, this has been omitted from subsequent editions, for what reasons I know not.) I immediately procured the Boston edition of 1860-61, and began to study it attentively. It cannot be denied that much in Whitman puzzled and repelled me. But it was the aesthetic, not the moral, sensibility that suffered; for I felt at once that his method of treating sexual things (the common stumbling-block to beginners) was the right one, and wished that I had come across "Children of Adam" several years earlier. My academical prejudices, the literary instincts trained by two decades of Greek and Latin studies, the refinements of culture, and the exclusiveness of aristocratic breeding, revolted against the uncouthness, roughness, irregularity, coarseness, of the poet and his style. But, in course of a short time, Whitman delivered my soul of these debilities. As I have elsewhere said in print, he taught me to comprehend the harmony between the democratic spirit, science, and that larger religion to which the modern world is being led by the conception of human brotherhood, and by the spirituality inherent in any really scientific view of the universe. He gave body, concrete vitality, to the religious creed which I had been already forming for myself upon the study of Goethe, Greek and Roman Stoics, Giordano Bruno, and the founders of the evolutionary doctrine. He inspired me with faith, and made me feel that optimism was not unreasonable. This gave me great cheer in those evil years of enforced idleness and intellectual torpor which my health imposed upon me. Moreover, he helped to free me from many conceits and pettinesses to which academical culture is liable. He opened my eyes to the beauty, goodness and greatness which may be found in all worthy human beings, the humblest and the highest. He made me respect personality more than attainments or position in the world. Through him, I stripped my soul of social prejudices. Through him, I have been able to fraternise in comradeship with men of all classes and several races, irrespective of their caste, creed, occupation, and special training. To him I owe some of the best friends I now can claim — sons of the soil, hard workers, "natural and nonchalant," "powerful uneducated" persons.

Only those who have been condemned by imperfect health to take a back-seat in life sofar as physical enjoyments are concerned, and who have also chosen the career of literary study, can understand what is meant by the deliverance from foibles besetting invalids and pedants for which I have to thank Walt Whitman.

What he has done for me, I feel he will do for others — for each and all of those who take counsel with him, and seek from him a solution of difficulties differing in kind according to the temper of the individual — if only they approach him in the right spirit of confidence and open-mindedness.

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