John Campbell Shairp



Aesthetic Poetry: Dante Gabriel Rossetti.



Literatur: Shairp
Literatur: The Contemporary Review


IN December last, the President of the Royal Academy delivered an interesting lecture to the students of the Academy, in which he addressed himself to the question, What is the proper end and aim of Art, and in what relation does Art stand to Morals and Religion? In answering these questions, Sir Frederick Leighton set himself vigorously to combat the didactic theory of Art — that which maintains that the first duty of all artistic production is to inculcate a moral lesson or a Christian truth, and that the worth and dignity of a work of art is to be measured by the degree in which it performs this duty. Yet, while entirely repudiating this view, he strongly maintained that the moral force or weakness of the artist's character would reveal itself in his work — that the ethos of the artist tinges every work of his hand, and moulds it silently, but with the certainty of fate.

With regard to the didactic theory of Art, he showed very clearly that it did not hold in the case of Spanish painting, especially in that of its greatest master, Velasquez; neither did it square with all the facts regarding either the Italian or the Flemish school of painters. But in arguing the whole question, Sir Frederick Leighton narrows the issue to the direct inculcation of some moral truth, and by so narrowing it has no difficulty in overthrowing the didactic theory. For the purpose of inculcating moral precepts, teaching definite truths to the understanding, the simplest spoken homily, if sincere in spirit and lofty in tone, is more effective, as he tells us, than all the creations of all the most pious painters and sculptors, from Giotto to Michael Angelo. This is true. But it is one thing to disprove the didactic theory — quite another to invalidate the moral significance of art. There are many avenues by which the soul can be reached, stirred, and elevated beside the understanding. Do not indirect and quite inarticulate influences often melt into us more power[18]fully, do us more good, than the clearest, most forcible appeals to the intellect? Who has not felt if, after listening to the best spoken discourse, he has wandered forth alone into the fields, that there was something in the silent face of Nature which sank more into him, more soothed and reconciled his whole inner being, than any words of man? The same is the effect of the finest music, though no one could express in language what it conveys.

Sir Frederick's own view is that the function of Art is to speak to the emotional sense — to awaken the emotions throughout their whole range up to the highest in the scale. If so, he would, no doubt, allow that the highest emotions are those which are born in the highest regions of man's nature, which connect themselves with the greatest ideas of the intellect, the deepest ethical truths, and the noblest spiritual faiths. Art, if it is high art, cannot stop with the exhibition of colour, or form, or sound, however exquisite. These sensible media it employs, not for their own sakes, not to produce merely pleasant sensations, or to convey clear-cut conceptions, but the artist so touches these that through them he may set vibrating fine spiritual echoes, and prolong them endlessly 'through the sounding corri dors of the soul.' And in proportion to the mass, the variety, the complexity, and the elevation of these emotional echoes which he awakens, is the dignity and excellence of his work. This is a very different thing from saying that Art must directly inculcate ethical truth. The mind which is in the didactic attitude, which sets instruction of any kind before it as its purpose, is by that very act cut off from the true sources of inspiration. By all means let art be free to range over the whole expanse of Nature and of human life, and to express, as far as it can, all the emotions which these awaken in men. We must not limit its province to the ethical or the religious region — much less must it impose on itself a didactic aim, or confine itself to this. Indeed, the idea of imposing on it any aim beyond that of expressing the delight it has in the objects it loves, and the thrilling emotions which spring from the contemplation of these, is alien to the very nature of poetic or artistic inspiration. It is the characteristic of genius that it is unconscious alike of its methods and its aims. It cannot tell how it produces its results, or why. It is something more than a merely natural power, this which we call inspiration. It proceeds by a path we cannot trace, works in a way inexplicable by the understanding. This is so; therefore let genius work as it lists, untrammelled by didactic purpose. And yet, if we can suppose two men of equal genius, of equal artistic power, one of whom dwells by instinct and habitually on the higher moral and spiritual levels, while the other is conversant only with things earthly and mundane — can any one doubt whose hand of the two would mould the finest creations? Genius, whether pictorial or poetic, achieves the noblest results, when it is led, not of set purpose, but by unconscious sympathy, to live in the highest regions of being, and to express the emotions which are native there. And the art [19] of such a one will be, in the truest sense, moral and religious, though it never dreamt of inculcating anything. It will be so in the best way, that is, by instinct and unawares. So, then, we conclude, that while it is true that art is the vehicle to express all emotions, it is at the same time true, as has been said, that 'it has always found itself at its best when its instinct has led it to express the higher religious and moral emotions.' As a friend lately well expressed it, 'Our sense of beauty is so allied and akin to our moral sense that whenever mere beauty is aimed at in a work of art, we feel a deficiency. The beauty is ten times as lovely if there is a soul of moral purity seen through it by the eye that seeks the inward beyond the outward.' It comes, then, to this, that if we would reach the highest beauty, we must forget beauty and ascend beyond it. One instance more of a well-known law of ethics, that it is not always true "that to get a thing you must aim at it. There are some things which can only be gained by renouncing them." And the highest beauty is one of these. Or to adapt words from Cardinal Newman: 'The highest beauty and moral goodness are inseparably connected, but they who cultivate the goodness for the beauty's sake are artistic, not moral, and will never reach the beauty, because they can never really love the goodness.' For the apprehension of the highest beauty, there is needed not merely a fine sensibility and a cultivated taste. The sense of it does not come merely from the intellect, or from the æsthetic faculties, as they are called — something more is needed, even a heart, pure and right.

Mr. Ruskin has told us that if the sense of beauty begins with pleasure at the sight of an object, it does not stop there but includes joy in and love of the object, then a perception of kindness in a superior intelligence — finally thankfulness and reverence toward that intelligence. To borrow words of the lately-departed Dr. John Brown, 'All beauty of thought, passion, affection, form, sound, colour, and touch, whatever stirs our mortal and immortal frame, not only comes from, but is centred in God, in His unspeakable perfections. This we believe to be not only morally, but, in its widest sense, philosophically true, as the white light rays itself out into the prismatic colours, making our world what it is — as if all that we behold were the spectrum of the unseen Eternal.'

This, the moral theory of beauty, Mr. Ruskin has unfolded throughout his works, and especially in the second volume of his 'Modern Painters;' and he deserves our gratitude for the strong witness he has borne to the doctrine, that all sublimity and all beauty is an adumbration of the unseen character of the Eternal One.

I am well aware that there are other theories of Beauty than this, which measure it by quite other standards. There are those who hold that Beauty should be sought for its only sake, quite apart from any moral meaning it may be alleged to have. They proclaim loudly what is called the moral indifference of Art, and that to try to connect it with moral ideas or spiritual reality is to narrow and sectarianize it. They deprecate entirely in their idea of Beauty any transcendental reference, [20] and say that it has certain occult qualities of its own, which may be known and appreciated only by a refined nature and a cultivated taste. Such persons, one soon perceives, mean primarily by Beauty, sensuous beauty, grace of form and outline, richness or delicacy of colour. Painting, as the highest of those arts which deal with sensuous beauty, they take especially under their wing, and not painting only but all the arts which minister to the adornment of outward life. But such a pursuit of Beauty, genuine though it may be at first, because it has no root in the deeper, more universal side of human nature, swiftly degenerates into a mere fashion. What is new, rare, or antique, or out of the way, gets valued because it is so, not from any spiritual meaning or intrinsic worth it possesses. A surprise, a new sensation comes to be the one thing desired. Hence comes affectation, and artificial, as opposed to natural and healthy, sentiment. Mannerism, modishness, exclusiveness, the spirit of coterie, are the accompaniments of this mental habit, which craves for beauty, divorced from truth of life, without any really human and ethical root.

What this spirit is producing in the region of Art it is not for me to say — many of my readers know this for themselves. Do not its results meet us at this moment in all our galleries? It more concerns me here to note how a kindred spirit reveals itself in our poetry and criticism. In these, too, there has been for some time apparent a tendency — perhaps born of the artistic tendency, certainly closely allied to it — to make much of sensuous beauty, apart from any inward meaning it conveys. We have a poetry in which beauty of form and outline, gracefulness of attitude, richness of colouring are attempted to be portrayed in the most elaborate, sometimes affected, diction, and with the most high-wrought and luscious melody of words. In the pursuit of this sensuous beauty men have gone back, as they supposed, to the Greeks, whom they fancied to be the great masters of it. But they have forgot that in the best and greatest of the Greeks — in Homer, Pindar, Æschylus, and Sophocles — colour and grace of attitude are rigorously subordinated to the exhibition of great human qualities, or of moral truths. Indeed this worship of sensuous beauty, for its own sake, is not the growth of a vigorous age, strong in manhood, but is the mark of a late and decadent civilization. To appeal to the imagination chiefly through the eye, divorced from high thought, tends very surely to degrade the imagination and to lower the soul. The boundary line between the sensuous and the sensual may not in theory be easily defined, but in practice it is easily crossed, and there are not a few instances in modern literature in which it has been crossed very decidedly. If when the eye discerns beauty, the beauty does not become the index of something higher than itself, if to the soul it is not a step by which it springs upward, very speedily it becomes a snare to lure it downward. The senses of sight and smell, gorgeous colour, and richness of perfume, these minister most readily to sensuous delight, and these are the sensations which sensuous poets [21] most affect. The ear is a more spiritual sense, and so we find the spiritual poet making sound, not sight, ally itself to the finest beauty.

    . . . 'She shall lean her ear
      In many a secret place,
. Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
  And beauty born of murmuring sound
      Shall pass into her face.'

But the poet who is chief favorite with all the modern beauty-worshippers is Keats. In his earliest poem, 'Endymion,' there is little else but a revelling in sensuous delights; but, before his brief life closed, he had begun, as Mr. Arnold has lately well shown, to feel his way upward, to apprehend a severer, more spiritual beauty. Had he lived he would probably have risen from sensuous impressions to the moral meanings of things. As it is, the works he has left exemplify the first part of his famous line 'Beauty is Truth.' The second part, 'Truth is Beauty,' he had not yet attained to show. Keats has had many followers among recent poets, but they have mostly seized on his lower phase and exaggerated it, and have not risen to the height toward which he himself was latterly tending. If Keats is their prime favorite, there are others of our poets whom this school have, in an exclusive sort of way, appropriated as their own possession. Shelley, Coleridge, and Blake are high in the admiration of the abler men of the school, while their second-rate followers affect to despise Wordsworth as a tiresome proser, Byron and Scott as shocking Philistines; even Shakespeare they would taboo, if they dared. Such are the vagaries of some, but it would not be fair to credit the stronger heads of any school with the absurdities of its weaker brethren.

One of the latest and greatest of the school of Keats, if we may venture so to tabulate him, has but recently passed from amongst us. This sudden and lamented loss has probably made many look into the poetry of Dante Rossetti, who before had been strangers to it. There exists, I believe, a circle of intimate friends, who have long known his powers, and admired the fruits of them, and the views of these admirers are to be met with, at times, in contemporary literature. It may perhaps be worth while for one of the uninitiated to give the impressions this poetry has made on him, coming to it recently with a fresh eye and an unprejudiced mind.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Contemporary Review.
Bd. 42, 1882, Juli, S. 17-32.

Unser Auszug: S. 17-21.

Gezeichnet: J. C. SHAIRP.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Contemporary Review   online

The Contemporary Review   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 1. Toronto 1966.





Wiederholt in




Literatur: Shairp

Allison, Sarah D.: Reductive Reading. A Syntax of Victorian Moralizing. Baltimore 2018.

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Christ, Carol T.: Victorian Poetics. In: A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Hrsg. von Richard Cronin u.a. Malden, MA 2002, S. 1-21.

Crawford, Robert: The Modern Poet. Poetry, Academia, and Knowledge since the 1750s. Oxford u.a. 2004.

Evangelista, Stefano: British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece. Hellenism, Reception, Gods in Exile. Basingstoke u.a. 2009.

Wootton, Sarah: Consuming Keats. Nineteenth-Century Representations in Art and Literature. Basingstoke u.a. 2006.



Literatur: The Contemporary Review

Ehnes, Caley: Victorian Poetry and the Poetics of the Literary Periodical. Edinburgh 2019.

King, Andrew / Plunkett, Andrew (Hrsg.): Victorian Print Media. A Reader. Oxford 2005.

King, Andrew u.a. (Hrsg.): The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers. London u. New York 2019.

Li, Hao: Victorian Periodical Publishing and Ethical Debates: Subjectivity, Evidence, and the Formation of Ethos. In: Victorian Periodicals Review 51.1 (2018), S. 168-185.

Palmegiano, E. M.: Perceptions of the Press in Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals. A Bibliography. London u.a. 2012.

Zwierlein, Anne-Julia: Viktorianische Zeitschriften als multimediale, polyvokale und außerparlamentarische Plattformen. In: Handbuch Zeitschriftenforschung. Hrsg. von Oliver Scheiding u. Sabina Fazli. Bielefeld 2023, S. 273-288.
DOI: 10.14361/9783839451137-018



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer