Oscar Wilde

AMONG the many debts which we owe to the supreme aesthetic faculty

of Goethe is that he was the first to teach us to define beauty in

terms the most concrete possible, to realise it, I mean, always in

its special manifestations. So, in the lecture which I have the

honour to deliver before you, I will not try to give you any

abstract definition of beauty - any such universal formula for it

as was sought for by the philosophy of the eighteenth century -

still less to communicate to you that which in its essence is

incommunicable, the virtue by which a particular picture or poem

affects us with a unique and special joy; but rather to point out

to you the general ideas which characterise the great English

Renaissance of Art in this century, to discover their source, as

far as that is possible, and to estimate their future as far as

that is possible.

I call it our English Renaissance because it is indeed a sort of

new birth of the spirit of man, like the great Italian Renaissance

of the fifteenth century, in its desire for a more gracious and

comely way of life, its passion for physical beauty, its exclusive

attention to form, its seeking for new subjects for poetry, new

forms of art, new intellectual and imaginative enjoyments: and I

call it our romantic movement because it is our most recent

expression of beauty.

It has been described as a mere revival of Greek modes of thought,

and again as a mere revival of mediaeval feeling. Rather I would

say that to these forms of the human spirit it has added whatever

of artistic value the intricacy and complexity and experience of

modern life can give: taking from the one its clearness of vision

and its sustained calm, from the other its variety of expression

and the mystery of its vision. For what, as Goethe said, is the

study of the ancients but a return to the real world (for that is

what they did); and what, said Mazzini, is mediaevalism but


It is really from the union of Hellenism, in its breadth, its

sanity of purpose, its calm possession of beauty, with the

adventive, the intensified individualism, the passionate colour of

the romantic spirit, that springs the art of the nineteenth century

in England, as from the marriage of Faust and Helen of Troy sprang

the beautiful boy Euphorion.

Such expressions as 'classical' and 'romantic' are, it is true,

often apt to become the mere catchwords of schools. We must always

remember that art has only one sentence to utter: there is for her

only one high law, the law of form or harmony - yet between the

classical and romantic spirit we may say that there lies this

difference at least, that the one deals with the type and the other

with the exception. In the work produced under the modern romantic

spirit it is no longer the permanent, the essential truths of life

that are treated of; it is the momentary situation of the one, the

momentary aspect of the other that art seeks to render. In

sculpture, which is the type of one spirit, the subject

predominates over the situation; in painting, which is the type of

the other, the situation predominates over the subject.

There are two spirits, then: the Hellenic spirit and the spirit of

romance may be taken as forming the essential elements of our

conscious intellectual tradition, of our permanent standard of

taste. As regards their origin, in art as in politics there is but

one origin for all revolutions, a desire on the part of man for a

nobler form of life, for a freer method and opportunity of

expression. Yet, I think that in estimating the sensuous and

intellectual spirit which presides over our English Renaissance,

any attempt to isolate it in any way from in the progress and

movement and social life of the age that has produced it would be

to rob it of its true vitality, possibly to mistake its true

meaning. And in disengaging from the pursuits and passions of this

crowded modern world those passions and pursuits which have to do

with art and the love of art, we must take into account many great

events of history which seem to be the most opposed to any such

artistic feeling.

Alien then from any wild, political passion, or from the harsh

voice of a rude people in revolt, as our English Renaissance must

seem, in its passionate cult of pure beauty, its flawless devotion

to form, its exclusive and sensitive nature, it is to the French

Revolution that we must look for the most primary factor of its

production, the first condition of its birth: that great

Revolution of which we are all the children though the voices of

some of us be often loud against it; that Revolution to which at a

time when even such spirits as Coleridge and Wordsworth lost heart

in England, noble messages of love blown across seas came from your

young Republic.

It is true that our modern sense of the continuity of history has

shown us that neither in politics nor in nature are there

revolutions ever but evolutions only, and that the prelude to that

wild storm which swept over France in 1789 and made every king in

Europe tremble for his throne, was first sounded in literature

years before the Bastille fell and the Palace was taken. The way

for those red scenes by Seine and Loire was paved by that critical

spirit of Germany and England which accustomed men to bring all

things to the test of reason or utility or both, while the

discontent of the people in the streets of Paris was the echo that

followed the life of Emile and of Werther. For Rousseau, by silent

lake and mountain, had called humanity back to the golden age that

still lies before us and preached a return to nature, in passionate

eloquence whose music still lingers about our keen northern air.

And Goethe and Scott had brought romance back again from the prison

she had lain in for so many centuries - and what is romance but


Yet in the womb of the Revolution itself, and in the storm and

terror of that wild time, tendencies were hidden away that the

artistic Renaissance bent to her own service when the time came - a

scientific tendency first, which has borne in our own day a brood

of somewhat noisy Titans, yet in the sphere of poetry has not been

unproductive of good. I do not mean merely in its adding to

enthusiasm that intellectual basis which in its strength, or that

more obvious influence about which Wordsworth was thinking when he

said very nobly that poetry was merely the impassioned expression

in the face of science, and that when science would put on a form

of flesh and blood the poet would lend his divine spirit to aid the

transfiguration. Nor do I dwell much on the great cosmical emotion

and deep pantheism of science to which Shelley has given its first

and Swinburne its latest glory of song, but rather on its influence

on the artistic spirit in preserving that close observation and the

sense of limitation as well as of clearness of vision which are the

characteristics of the real artist.

The great and golden rule of art as well as of life, wrote William

Blake, is that the more distinct, sharp and defined the boundary

line, the more perfect is the work of art; and the less keen and

sharp the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism and

bungling. 'Great inventors in all ages knew this - Michael Angelo

and Albert Durer are known by this and by this alone'; and another

time he wrote, with all the simple directness of nineteenth-century

prose, 'to generalise is to be an idiot.'

And this love of definite conception, this clearness of vision,

this artistic sense of limit, is the characteristic of all great

work and poetry; of the vision of Homer as of the vision of Dante,

of Keats and William Morris as of Chaucer and Theocritus. It lies

at the base of all noble, realistic and romantic work as opposed to

the colourless and empty abstractions of our own eighteenth-century

poets and of the classical dramatists of France, or of the vague

spiritualities of the German sentimental school: opposed, too, to

that spirit of transcendentalism which also was root and flower

itself of the great Revolution, underlying the impassioned

contemplation of Wordsworth and giving wings and fire to the eagle-

like flight of Shelley, and which in the sphere of philosophy,

though displaced by the materialism and positiveness of our day,

bequeathed two great schools of thought, the school of Newman to

Oxford, the school of Emerson to America. Yet is this spirit of

transcendentalism alien to the spirit of art. For the artist can

accept no sphere of life in exchange for life itself. For him

there is no escape from the bondage of the earth: there is not

even the desire of escape.

He is indeed the only true realist: symbolism, which is the

essence of the transcendental spirit, is alien to him. The

metaphysical mind of Asia will create for itself the monstrous,

many-breasted idol of Ephesus, but to the Greek, pure artist, that

work is most instinct with spiritual life which conforms most

clearly to the perfect facts of physical life.

'The storm of revolution,' as Andre Chenier said, 'blows out the

torch of poetry.' It is not for some little time that the real

influence of such a wild cataclysm of things is felt: at first the

desire for equality seems to have produced personalities of more

giant and Titan stature than the world had ever known before. Men

heard the lyre of Byron and the legions of Napoleon; it was a

period of measureless passions and of measureless despair;

ambition, discontent, were the chords of life and art; the age was

an age of revolt: a phase through which the human spirit must

pass, but one in which it cannot rest. For the aim of culture is

not rebellion but peace, the valley perilous where ignorant armies

clash by night being no dwelling-place meet for her to whom the

gods have assigned the fresh uplands and sunny heights and clear,

untroubled air.

And soon that desire for perfection, which lay at the base of the

Revolution, found in a young English poet its most complete and

flawless realisation.

Phidias and the achievements of Greek art are foreshadowed in

Homer: Dante prefigures for us the passion and colour and

intensity of Italian painting: the modern love of landscape dates

from Rousseau, and it is in Keats that one discerns the beginning

of the artistic renaissance of England.

Byron was a rebel and Shelley a dreamer; but in the calmness and

clearness of his vision, his perfect self-control, his unerring

sense of beauty and his recognition of a separate realm for the

imagination, Keats was the pure and serene artist, the forerunner

of the pre-Raphaelite school, and so of the great romantic movement

of which I am to speak.

Blake had indeed, before him, claimed for art a lofty, spiritual

mission, and had striven to raise design to the ideal level of

poetry and music, but the remoteness of his vision both in painting

and poetry and the incompleteness of his technical powers had been

adverse to any real influence. It is in Keats that the artistic

spirit of this century first found its absolute incarnation.

And these pre-Raphaelites, what were they? If you ask nine-tenths

of the British public what is the meaning of the word aesthetics,

they will tell you it is the French for affectation or the German

for a dado; and if you inquire about the pre-Raphaelites you will

hear something about an eccentric lot of young men to whom a sort

of divine crookedness and holy awkwardness in drawing were the

chief objects of art. To know nothing about their great men is one

of the necessary elements of English education.

As regards the pre-Raphaelites the story is simple enough. In the

year 1847 a number of young men in London, poets and painters,

passionate admirers of Keats all of them, formed the habit of

meeting together for discussions on art, the result of such

discussions being that the English Philistine public was roused

suddenly from its ordinary apathy by hearing that there was in its

midst a body of young men who had determined to revolutionise

English painting and poetry. They called themselves the pre-

Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In England, then as now, it was enough for a man to try and produce

any serious beautiful work to lose all his rights as a citizen; and

besides this, the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - among whom the names

of Dante Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais will be familiar to you

- had on their side three things that the English public never

forgives: youth, power and enthusiasm.

Satire, always as sterile as it in shameful and as impotent as it

is insolent, paid them that usual homage which mediocrity pays to

genius - doing, here as always, infinite harm to the public,

blinding them to what is beautiful, teaching them that irreverence

which is the source of all vileness and narrowness of life, but

harming the artist not at all, rather confirming him in the perfect

rightness of his work and ambition. For to disagree with three-

fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first

elements of sanity, one of the deepest consolations in all moments

of spiritual doubt.

As regards the ideas these young men brought to the regeneration of

English art, we may see at the base of their artistic creations a

desire for a deeper spiritual value to be given to art as well as a

more decorative value.

Pre-Raphaelites they called themselves; not that they imitated the

early Italian masters at all, but that in their work, as opposed to

the facile abstractions of Raphael, they found a stronger realism

of imagination, a more careful realism of technique, a vision at

once more fervent and more vivid, an individuality more intimate

and more intense.

For it is not enough that a work of art should conform to the

aesthetic demands of its age: there must be also about it, if it

is to affect us with any permanent delight, the impress of a

distinct individuality, an individuality remote from that of

ordinary men, and coming near to us only by virtue of a certain

newness and wonder in the work, and through channels whose very

strangeness makes us more ready to give them welcome.

LA PERSONNALITE, said one of the greatest of modem French critics,


But above all things was it a return to Nature - that formula which

seems to suit so many and such diverse movements: they would draw

and paint nothing but what they saw, they would try and imagine

things as they really happened. Later there came to the old house

by Blackfriars Bridge, where this young brotherhood used to meet

and work, two young men from Oxford, Edward Burne-Jones and William

Morris - the latter substituting for the simpler realism of the

early days a more exquisite spirit of choice, a more faultless

devotion to beauty, a more intense seeking for perfection: a

master of all exquisite design and of all spiritual vision. It is

of the school of Florence rather than of that of Venice that he is

kinsman, feeling that the close imitation of Nature is a disturbing

element in imaginative art. The visible aspect of modern life

disturbs him not; rather is it for him to render eternal all that

is beautiful in Greek, Italian, and Celtic legend. To Morris we

owe poetry whose perfect precision and clearness of word and vision

has not been excelled in the literature of our country, and by the

revival of the decorative arts he has given to our individualised

romantic movement the social idea and the social factor also.

But the revolution accomplished by this clique of young men, with

Ruskin's faultless and fervent eloquence to help them, was not one

of ideas merely but of execution, not one of conceptions but of


For the great eras in the history of the development of all the

arts have been eras not of increased feeling or enthusiasm in

feeling for art, but of new technical improvements primarily and

specially. The discovery of marble quarries in the purple ravines

of Pentelicus and on the little low-lying hills of the island of

Paros gave to the Greeks the opportunity for that intensified

vitality of action, that more sensuous and simple humanism, to

which the Egyptian sculptor working laboriously in the hard

porphyry and rose-coloured granite of the desert could not attain.

The splendour of the Venetian school began with the introduction of

the new oil medium for painting. The progress in modern music has

been due to the invention of new instruments entirely, and in no

way to an increased consciousness on the part of the musician of

any wider social aim. The critic may try and trace the deferred

resolutions of Beethoven to some sense of the incompleteness of the

modern intellectual spirit, but the artist would have answered, as

one of them did afterwards, 'Let them pick out the fifths and leave

us at peace.'

And so it is in poetry also: all this love of curious French

metres like the Ballade, the Villanelle, the Rondel; all this

increased value laid on elaborate alliterations, and on curious

words and refrains, such as you will find in Dante Rossetti and

Swinburne, is merely the attempt to perfect flute and viol and

trumpet through which the spirit of the age and the lips of the

poet may blow the music of their many messages.

And so it has been with this romantic movement of ours: it is a

reaction against the empty conventional workmanship, the lax

execution of previous poetry and painting, showing itself in the

work of such men as Rossetti and Burne-Jones by a far greater

splendour of colour, a far more intricate wonder of design than

English imaginative art has shown before. In Rossetti's poetry and

the poetry of Morris, Swinburne and Tennyson a perfect precision

and choice of language, a style flawless and fearless, a seeking

for all sweet and precious melodies and a sustaining consciousness

of the musical value of each word are opposed to that value which

is merely intellectual. In this respect they are one with the

romantic movement of France of which not the least characteristic

note was struck by Theophile Gautier's advice to the young poet to

read his dictionary every day, as being the only book worth a

poet's reading.

While, then, the material of workmanship is being thus elaborated

and discovered to have in itself incommunicable and eternal

qualities of its own, qualities entirely satisfying to the poetic

sense and not needing for their aesthetic effect any lofty

intellectual vision, any deep criticism of life or even any

passionate human emotion at all, the spirit and the method of the

poet's working - what people call his inspiration - have not

escaped the controlling influence of the artistic spirit. Not that

the imagination has lost its wings, but we have accustomed

ourselves to count their innumerable pulsations, to estimate their

limitless strength, to govern their ungovernable freedom.

To the Greeks this problem of the conditions of poetic production,

and the places occupied by either spontaneity or self-consciousness

in any artistic work, had a peculiar fascination. We find it in

the mysticism of Plato and in the rationalism of Aristotle. We

find it later in the Italian Renaissance agitating the minds of

such men as Leonardo da Vinci. Schiller tried to adjust the

balance between form and feeling, and Goethe to estimate the

position of self-consciousness in art. Wordsworth's definition of

poetry as 'emotion remembered in tranquillity' may be taken as an

analysis of one of the stages through which all imaginative work

has to pass; and in Keats's longing to be 'able to compose without

this fever' (I quote from one of his letters), his desire to

substitute for poetic ardour 'a more thoughtful and quiet power,'

we may discern the most important moment in the evolution of that

artistic life. The question made an early and strange appearance

in your literature too; and I need not remind you how deeply the

young poets of the French romantic movement were excited and

stirred by Edgar Allan Poe's analysis of the workings of his own

imagination in the creating of that supreme imaginative work which

we know by the name of THE RAVEN.

In the last century, when the intellectual and didactic element had

intruded to such an extent into the kingdom which belongs to

poetry, it was against the claims of the understanding that an

artist like Goethe had to protest. 'The more incomprehensible to

the understanding a poem is the better for it,' he said once,

asserting the complete supremacy of the imagination in poetry as of

reason in prose. But in this century it is rather against the

claims of the emotional faculties, the claims of mere sentiment and

feeling, that the artist must react. The simple utterance of joy

is not poetry any more than a mere personal cry of pain, and the

real experiences of the artist are always those which do not find

their direct expression but are gathered up and absorbed into some

artistic form which seems, from such real experiences, to be the

farthest removed and the most alien.

'The heart contains passion but the imagination alone contains

poetry,' says Charles Baudelaire. This too was the lesson that

Theophile Gautier, most subtle of all modern critics, most

fascinating of all modern poets, was never tired of teaching -

'Everybody is affected by a sunrise or a sunset.' The absolute

distinction of the artist is not his capacity to feel nature so

much as his power of rendering it. The entire subordination of all

intellectual and emotional faculties to the vital and informing

poetic principle is the surest sign of the strength of our


We have seen the artistic spirit working, first in the delightful

and technical sphere of language, the sphere of expression as

opposed to subject, then controlling the imagination of the poet in

dealing with his subject. And now I would point out to you its

operation in the choice of subject. The recognition of a separate

realm for the artist, a consciousness of the absolute difference

between the world of art and the world of real fact, between

classic grace and absolute reality, forms not merely the essential

element of any aesthetic charm but is the characteristic of all

great imaginative work and of all great eras of artistic creation -

of the age of Phidias as of the age of Michael Angelo, of the age

of Sophocles as of the age of Goethe.

Art never harms itself by keeping aloof from the social problems of

the day: rather, by so doing, it more completely realises for us

that which we desire. For to most of us the real life is the life

we do not lead, and thus, remaining more true to the essence of its

own perfection, more jealous of its own unattainable beauty, is

less likely to forget form in feeling or to accept the passion of

creation as any substitute for the beauty of the created thing.

The artist is indeed the child of his own age, but the present will

not be to him a whit more real than the past; for, like the

philosopher of the Platonic vision, the poet is the spectator of

all time and of all existence. For him no form is obsolete, no

subject out of date; rather, whatever of life and passion the world

has known, in desert of Judaea or in Arcadian valley, by the rivers

of Troy or the rivers of Damascus, in the crowded and hideous

streets of a modern city or by the pleasant ways of Camelot - all

lies before him like an open scroll, all is still instinct with

beautiful life. He will take of it what is salutary for his own

spirit, no more; choosing some facts and rejecting others with the

calm artistic control of one who is in possession of the secret of


There is indeed a poetical attitude to be adopted towards all

things, but all things are not fit subjects for poetry. Into the

secure and sacred house of Beauty the true artist will admit

nothing that is harsh or disturbing, nothing that gives pain,

nothing that is debatable, nothing about which men argue. He can

steep himself, if he wishes, in the discussion of all the social

problems of his day, poor-laws and local taxation, free trade and

bimetallic currency, and the like; but when he writes on these

subjects it will be, as Milton nobly expressed it, with his left

hand, in prose and not in verse, in a pamphlet and not in a lyric.

This exquisite spirit of artistic choice was not in Byron:

Wordsworth had it not. In the work of both these men there is much

that we have to reject, much that does not give us that sense of

calm and perfect repose which should be the effect of all fine,

imaginative work. But in Keats it seemed to have been incarnate,

and in his lovely ODE ON A GRECIAN URN it found its most secure and

faultless expression; in the pageant of the EARTHLY PARADISE and

the knights and ladies of Burne-Jones it is the one dominant note.

It is to no avail that the Muse of Poetry be called, even by such a

clarion note as Whitman's, to migrate from Greece and Ionia and to

placard REMOVED and TO LET on the rocks of the snowy Parnassus.

Calliope's call is not yet closed, nor are the epics of Asia ended;

the Sphinx is not yet silent, nor the fountain of Castaly dry. For

art is very life itself and knows nothing of death; she is absolute

truth and takes no care of fact; she sees (as I remember Mr.

Swinburne insisting on at dinner) that Achilles is even now more

actual and real than Wellington, not merely more noble and

interesting as a type and figure but more positive and real.

Literature must rest always on a principle, and temporal

considerations are no principle at all. For to the poet all times

and places are one; the stuff he deals with is eternal and

eternally the same: no theme is inept, no past or present

preferable. The steam whistle will not affright him nor the flutes

of Arcadia weary him: for him there is but one time, the artistic

moment; but one law, the law of form; but one land, the land of

Beauty - a land removed indeed from the real world and yet more

sensuous because more enduring; calm, yet with that calm which

dwells in the faces of the Greek statues, the calm which comes not

from the rejection but from the absorption of passion, the calm

which despair and sorrow cannot disturb but intensify only. And so

it comes that he who seems to stand most remote from his age is he

who mirrors it best, because he has stripped life of what is

accidental and transitory, stripped it of that 'mist of familiarity

which makes life obscure to us.'

Those strange, wild-eyed sibyls fixed eternally in the whirlwind of

ecstasy, those mighty-limbed and Titan prophets, labouring with the

secret of the earth and the burden of mystery, that guard and

glorify the chapel of Pope Sixtus at Rome - do they not tell us

more of the real spirit of the Italian Renaissance, of the dream of

Savonarola and of the sin of Borgia, than all the brawling boors

and cooking women of Dutch art can teach us of the real spirit of

the history of Holland?

And so in our own day, also, the two most vital tendencies of the

nineteenth century - the democratic and pantheistic tendency and

the tendency to value life for the sake of art - found their most

complete and perfect utterance in the poetry of Shelley and Keats

who, to the blind eyes of their own time, seemed to be as wanderers

in the wilderness, preachers of vague or unreal things. And I

remember once, in talking to Mr. Burne-Jones about modern science,

his saying to me, 'the more materialistic science becomes, the more

angels shall I paint: their wings are my protest in favour of the

immortality of the soul.'

But these are the intellectual speculations that underlie art.

Where in the arts themselves are we to find that breadth of human

sympathy which is the condition of all noble work; where in the

arts are we to look for what Mazzini would call the social ideas as

opposed to the merely personal ideas? By virtue of what claim do I

demand for the artist the love and loyalty of the men and women of

the world? I think I can answer that.

Whatever spiritual message an artist brings to his aid is a matter

for his own soul. He may bring judgment like Michael Angelo or

peace like Angelico; he may come with mourning like the great

Athenian or with mirth like the singer of Sicily; nor is it for us

to do aught but accept his teaching, knowing that we cannot smite

the bitter lips of Leopardi into laughter or burden with our

discontent Goethe's serene calm. But for warrant of its truth such

message must have the flame of eloquence in the lips that speak it,

splendour and glory in the vision that is its witness, being

justified by one thing only - the flawless beauty and perfect form

of its expression: this indeed being the social idea, being the

meaning of joy in art.

Not laughter where none should laugh, nor the calling of peace

where there is no peace; not in painting the subject ever, but the

pictorial charm only, the wonder of its colour, the satisfying

beauty of its design.

You have most of you seen, probably, that great masterpiece of

Rubens which hangs in the gallery of Brussels, that swift and

wonderful pageant of horse and rider arrested in its most exquisite

and fiery moment when the winds are caught in crimson banner and

the air lit by the gleam of armour and the flash of plume. Well,

that is joy in art, though that golden hillside be trodden by the

wounded feet of Christ and it is for the death of the Son of Man

that that gorgeous cavalcade is passing.

But this restless modern intellectual spirit of ours is not

receptive enough of the sensuous element of art; and so the real

influence of the arts is hidden from many of us: only a few,

escaping from the tyranny of the soul, have learned the secret of

those high hours when thought is not.

And this indeed is the reason of the influence which Eastern art is

having on us in Europe, and of the fascination of all Japanese

work. While the Western world has been laying on art the

intolerable burden of its own intellectual doubts and the spiritual

tragedy of its own sorrows, the East has always kept true to art's

primary and pictorial conditions.

In judging of a beautiful statue the aesthetic faculty is

absolutely and completely gratified by the splendid curves of those

marble lips that are dumb to our complaint, the noble modelling of

those limbs that are powerless to help us. In its primary aspect a

painting has no more spiritual message or meaning than an exquisite

fragment of Venetian glass or a blue tile from the wall of

Damascus: it is a beautifully coloured surface, nothing more. The

channels by which all noble imaginative work in painting should

touch, and do touch the soul, are not those of the truths of life,

nor metaphysical truths. But that pictorial charm which does not

depend on any literary reminiscence for its effect on the one hand,

nor is yet a mere result of communicable technical skill on the

other, comes of a certain inventive and creative handling of

colour. Nearly always in Dutch painting and often in the works of

Giorgione or Titian, it is entirely independent of anything

definitely poetical in the subject, a kind of form and choice in

workmanship which is itself entirely satisfying, and is (as the

Greeks would say) an end in itself.

And so in poetry too, the real poetical quality, the joy of poetry,

comes never from the subject but from an inventive handling of

rhythmical language, from what Keats called the 'sensuous life of

verse.' The element of song in the singing accompanied by the

profound joy of motion, is so sweet that, while the incomplete

lives of ordinary men bring no healing power with them, the thorn-

crown of the poet will blossom into roses for our pleasure; for our

delight his despair will gild its own thorns, and his pain, like

Adonis, be beautiful in its agony; and when the poet's heart breaks

it will break in music.

And health in art - what is that? It has nothing to do with a sane

criticism of life. There is more health in Baudelaire than there

is in [Kingsley]. Health is the artist's recognition of the

limitations of the form in which he works. It is the honour and

the homage which he gives to the material he uses - whether it be

language with its glories, or marble or pigment with their glories

- knowing that the true brotherhood of the arts consists not in

their borrowing one another's method, but in their producing, each

of them by its own individual means, each of them by keeping its

objective limits, the same unique artistic delight. The delight is

like that given to us by music - for music is the art in which form

and matter are always one, the art whose subject cannot be

separated from the method of its expression, the art which most

completely realises the artistic ideal, and is the condition to

which all the other arts are constantly aspiring.

And criticism - what place is that to have in our culture? Well, I

think that the first duty of an art critic is to hold his tongue at

all times, and upon all subjects: C'EST UN GRAND AVANTAGE DE


It is only through the mystery of creation that one can gain any

knowledge of the quality of created things. You have listened to

PATIENCE for a hundred nights and you have heard me for one only.

It will make, no doubt, that satire more piquant by knowing

something about the subject of it, but you must not judge of

aestheticism by the satire of Mr. Gilbert. As little should you

judge of the strength and splendour of sun or sea by the dust that

dances in the beam, or the bubble that breaks on the wave, as take

your critic for any sane test of art. For the artists, like the

Greek gods, are revealed only to one another, as Emerson says

somewhere; their real value and place time only can show. In this

respect also omnipotence is with the ages. The true critic

addresses not the artist ever but the public only. His work lies

with them. Art can never have any other claim but her own

perfection: it is for the critic to create for art the social aim,

too, by teaching the people the spirit in which they are to

approach all artistic work, the love they are to give it, the

lesson they are to draw from it.

All these appeals to art to set herself more in harmony with modern

progress and civilisation, and to make herself the mouthpiece for

the voice of humanity, these appeals to art 'to have a mission,'

are appeals which should be made to the public. The art which has

fulfilled the conditions of beauty has fulfilled all conditions:

it is for the critic to teach the people how to find in the calm of

such art the highest expression of their own most stormy passions.

'I have no reverence,' said Keats, 'for the public, nor for

anything in existence but the Eternal Being, the memory of great

men and the principle of Beauty.'

Such then is the principle which I believe to be guiding and

underlying our English Renaissance, a Renaissance many-sided and

wonderful, productive of strong ambitions and lofty personalities,

yet for all its splendid achievements in poetry and in the

decorative arts and in painting, for all the increased comeliness

and grace of dress, and the furniture of houses and the like, not

complete. For there can be no great sculpture without a beautiful

national life, and the commercial spirit of England has killed

that; no great drama without a noble national life, and the

commercial spirit of England has killed that too.

It is not that the flawless serenity of marble cannot bear the

burden of the modern intellectual spirit, or become instinct with

the fire of romantic passion - the tomb of Duke Lorenzo and the

chapel of the Medici show us that - but it is that, as Theophile

Gautier used to say, the visible world is dead, LE MONDE VISIBLE A


Nor is it again that the novel has killed the play, as some critics

would persuade us - the romantic movement of France shows us that.

The work of Balzac and of Hugo grew up side by side together; nay,

more, were complementary to each other, though neither of them saw

it. While all other forms of poetry may flourish in an ignoble

age, the splendid individualism of the lyrist, fed by its own

passion, and lit by its own power, may pass as a pillar of fire as

well across the desert as across places that are pleasant. It is

none the less glorious though no man follow it - nay, by the

greater sublimity of its loneliness it may be quickened into

loftier utterance and intensified into clearer song. From the mean

squalor of the sordid life that limits him, the dreamer or the

idyllist may soar on poesy's viewless wings, may traverse with

fawn-skin and spear the moonlit heights of Cithaeron though Faun

and Bassarid dance there no more. Like Keats he may wander through

the old-world forests of Latmos, or stand like Morris on the

galley's deck with the Viking when king and galley have long since

passed away. But the drama is the meeting-place of art and life;

it deals, as Mazzini said, not merely with man, but with social

man, with man in his relation to God and to Humanity. It is the

product of a period of great national united energy; it is

impossible without a noble public, and belongs to such ages as the

age of Elizabeth in London and of Pericles at Athens; it is part of

such lofty moral and spiritual ardour as came to Greek after the

defeat of the Persian fleet, and to Englishman after the wreck of

the Armada of Spain.

Shelley felt how incomplete our movement was in this respect, and

has shown in one great tragedy by what terror and pity he would

have purified our age; but in spite of THE CENCI the drama is one

of the artistic forms through which the genius of the England of

this century seeks in vain to find outlet and expression. He has

had no worthy imitators.

It is rather, perhaps, to you that we should turn to complete and

perfect this great movement of ours, for there is something

Hellenic in your air and world, something that has a quicker breath

of the joy and power of Elizabeth's England about it than our

ancient civilisation can give us. For you, at least, are young;

'no hungry generations tread you down,' and the past does not weary

you with the intolerable burden of its memories nor mock you with

the ruins of a beauty, the secret of whose creation you have lost.

That very absence of tradition, which Mr. Ruskin thought would rob

your rivers of their laughter and your flowers of their light, may

be rather the source of your freedom and your strength.

To speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance

of the movements of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the

sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside, has been

defined by one of your poets as a flawless triumph of art. It is a

triumph which you above all nations may be destined to achieve.

For the voices that have their dwelling in sea and mountain are not

the chosen music of Liberty only; other messages are there in the

wonder of wind-swept height and the majesty of silent deep -

messages that, if you will but listen to them, may yield you the

splendour of some new imagination, the marvel of some new beauty.

'I foresee,' said Goethe, 'the dawn of a new literature which all

people may claim as their own, for all have contributed to its

foundation.' If, then, this is so, and if the materials for a

civilisation as great as that of Europe lie all around you, what

profit, you will ask me, will all this study of our poets and

painters be to you? I might answer that the intellect can be

engaged without direct didactic object on an artistic and

historical problem; that the demand of the intellect is merely to

feel itself alive; that nothing which has ever interested men or

women can cease to be a fit subject for culture.

I might remind you of what all Europe owes to the sorrow of a

single Florentine in exile at Verona, or to the love of Petrarch by

that little well in Southern France; nay, more, how even in this

dull, materialistic age the simple expression of an old man's

simple life, passed away from the clamour of great cities amid the

lakes and misty hills of Cumberland, has opened out for England

treasures of new joy compared with which the treasures of her

luxury are as barren as the sea which she has made her highway, and

as bitter as the fire which she would make her slave.

But I think it will bring you something besides this, something

that is the knowledge of real strength in art: not that you should

imitate the works of these men; but their artistic spirit, their

artistic attitude, I think you should absorb that.

For in nations, as in individuals, if the passion for creation be

not accompanied by the critical, the aesthetic faculty also, it

will be sure to waste its strength aimlessly, failing perhaps in

the artistic spirit of choice, or in the mistaking of feeling for

form, or in the following of false ideals.

For the various spiritual forms of the imagination have a natural

affinity with certain sensuous forms of art - and to discern the

qualities of each art, to intensify as well its limitations as its

powers of expression, is one of the aims that culture sets before

us. It is not an increased moral sense, an increased moral

supervision that your literature needs. Indeed, one should never

talk of a moral or an immoral poem - poems are either well written

or badly written, that is all. And, indeed, any element of morals

or implied reference to a standard of good or evil in art is often

a sign of a certain incompleteness of vision, often a note of

discord in the harmony of an imaginative creation; for all good

work aims at a purely artistic effect. 'We must be careful,' said

Goethe, 'not to be always looking for culture merely in what is

obviously moral. Everything that is great promotes civilisation as

soon as we are aware of it.'

But, as in your cities so in your literature, it is a permanent

canon and standard of taste, an increased sensibility to beauty (if

I may say so) that is lacking. All noble work is not national

merely, but universal. The political independence of a nation must

not be confused with any intellectual isolation. The spiritual

freedom, indeed, your own generous lives and liberal air will give

you. From us you will learn the classical restraint of form.

For all great art is delicate art, roughness having very little to

do with strength, and harshness very little to do with power. 'The

artist,' as Mr. Swinburne says, 'must be perfectly articulate.'

This limitation is for the artist perfect freedom: it is at once

the origin and the sign of his strength. So that all the supreme

masters of style - Dante, Sophocles, Shakespeare - are the supreme

masters of spiritual and intellectual vision also.

Love art for its own sake, and then all things that you need will

be added to you.

This devotion to beauty and to the creation of beautiful things is

the test of all great civilised nations. Philosophy may teach us

to bear with equanimity the misfortunes of our neighbours, and

science resolve the moral sense into a secretion of sugar, but art

is what makes the life of each citizen a sacrament and not a

speculation, art is what makes the life of the whole race immortal.

For beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm. Philosophies

fall away like sand, and creeds follow one another like the

withered leaves of autumn; but what is beautiful is a joy for all

seasons and a possession for all eternity.

Wars and the clash of armies and the meeting of men in battle by

trampled field or leaguered city, and the rising of nations there

must always be. But I think that art, by creating a common

intellectual atmosphere between all countries, might - if it could

not overshadow the world with the silver wings of peace - at least

make men such brothers that they would not go out to slay one

another for the whim or folly of some king or minister, as they do

in Europe. Fraternity would come no more with the hands of Cain,

nor Liberty betray freedom with the kiss of Anarchy; for national

hatreds are always strongest where culture is lowest.

'How could I?' said Goethe, when reproached for not writing like

Korner against the French. 'How could I, to whom barbarism and

culture alone are of importance, hate a nation which is among the

most cultivated of the earth, a nation to which I owe a great part

of my own cultivation?'

Mighty empires, too, there must always be as long as personal

ambition and the spirit of the age are one, but art at least is the

only empire which a nation's enemies cannot take from her by

conquest, but which is taken by submission only. The sovereignty

of Greece and Rome is not yet passed away, though the gods of the

one be dead and the eagles of the other tired.

And we in our Renaissance are seeking to create a sovereignty that

will still be England's when her yellow leopards have grown weary

of wars and the rose of her shield is crimsoned no more with the

blood of battle; and you, too, absorbing into the generous heart of

a great people this pervading artistic spirit, will create for

yourselves such riches as you have never yet created, though your

land be a network of railways and your cities the harbours for the

galleys of the world.

I know, indeed, that the divine natural prescience of beauty which

is the inalienable inheritance of Greek and Italian is not our

inheritance. For such an informing and presiding spirit of art to

shield us from all harsh and alien influences, we of the Northern

races must turn rather to that strained self-consciousness of our

age which, as it is the key-note of all our romantic art, must be

the source of all or nearly all our culture. I mean that

intellectual curiosity of the nineteenth century which is always

looking for the secret of the life that still lingers round old and

bygone forms of culture. It takes from each what is serviceable

for the modern spirit - from Athens its wonder without its worship,

from Venice its splendour without its sin. The same spirit is

always analysing its own strength and its own weakness, counting

what it owes to East and to West, to the olive-trees of Colonus and

to the palm-trees of Lebanon, to Gethsemane and to the garden of


And yet the truths of art cannot be taught: they are revealed

only, revealed to natures which have made themselves receptive of

all beautiful impressions by the study and worship of all beautiful

things. And hence the enormous importance given to the decorative

arts in our English Renaissance; hence all that marvel of design

that comes from the hand of Edward Burne-Jones, all that weaving of

tapestry and staining of glass, that beautiful working in clay and

metal and wood which we owe to William Morris, the greatest

handicraftsman we have had in England since the fourteenth century.

So, in years to come there will be nothing in any man's house which

has not given delight to its maker and does not give delight to its

user. The children, like the children of Plato's perfect city,

will grow up 'in a simple atmosphere of all fair things' - I quote

from the passage in the REPUBLIC - 'a simple atmosphere of all fair

things, where beauty, which is the spirit of art, will come on eye

and ear like a fresh breath of wind that brings health from a clear

upland, and insensibly and gradually draw the child's soul into

harmony with all knowledge and all wisdom, so that he will love

what is beautiful and good, and hate what is evil and ugly (for

they always go together) long before he knows the reason why; and

then when reason comes will kiss her on the cheek as a friend.'

That is what Plato thought decorative art could do for a nation,

feeling that the secret not of philosophy merely but of all

gracious existence might be externally hidden from any one whose

youth had been passed in uncomely and vulgar surroundings, and that

the beauty of form and colour even, as he says, in the meanest

vessels of the house, will find its way into the inmost places of

the soul and lead the boy naturally to look for that divine harmony

of spiritual life of which art was to him the material symbol and


Prelude indeed to all knowledge and all wisdom will this love of

beautiful things be for us; yet there are times when wisdom becomes

a burden and knowledge is one with sorrow: for as every body has

its shadow so every soul has its scepticism. In such dread moments

of discord and despair where should we, of this torn and troubled

age, turn our steps if not to that secure house of beauty where

there is always a little forgetfulness, always a great joy; to that

CITTE DIVINA, as the old Italian heresy called it, the divine city

where one can stand, though only for a brief moment, apart from the

division and terror of the world and the choice of the world too?

This is that CONSOLATION DES ARTS which is the key-note of

Gautier's poetry, the secret of modern life foreshadowed - as

indeed what in our century is not? - by Goethe. You remember what

he said to the German people: 'Only have the courage,' he said,

'to give yourselves up to your impressions, allow yourselves to be

delighted, moved, elevated, nay instructed, inspired for something

great.' The courage to give yourselves up to your impressions:

yes, that is the secret of the artistic life - for while art has

been defined as an escape from the tyranny of the senses, it is an

escape rather from the tyranny of the soul. But only to those who

worship her above all things does she ever reveal her true

treasure: else will she be as powerless to aid you as the

mutilated Venus of the Louvre was before the romantic but sceptical

nature of Heine.

And indeed I think it would be impossible to overrate the gain that

might follow if we had about us only what gave pleasure to the

maker of it and gives pleasure to its user, that being the simplest

of all rules about decoration. One thing, at least, I think it

would do for us: there is no surer test of a great country than

how near it stands to its own poets; but between the singers of our

day and the workers to whom they would sing there seems to be an

ever-widening and dividing chasm, a chasm which slander and mockery

cannot traverse, but which is spanned by the luminous wings of


And of such love I think that the abiding presence in our houses of

noble imaginative work would be the surest seed and preparation. I

do not mean merely as regards that direct literary expression of

art by which, from the little red-and-black cruse of oil or wine, a

Greek boy could learn of the lionlike splendour of Achilles, of the

strength of Hector and the beauty of Paris and the wonder of Helen,

long before he stood and listened in crowded market-place or in

theatre of marble; or by which an Italian child of the fifteenth

century could know of the chastity of Lucrece and the death of

Camilla from carven doorway and from painted chest. For the good

we get from art is not what we learn from it; it is what we become

through it. Its real influence will be in giving the mind that

enthusiasm which is the secret of Hellenism, accustoming it to

demand from art all that art can do in rearranging the facts of

common life for us - whether it be by giving the most spiritual

interpretation of one's own moments of highest passion or the most

sensuous expression of those thoughts that are the farthest removed

from sense; in accustoming it to love the things of the imagination

for their own sake, and to desire beauty and grace in all things.

For he who does not love art in all things does not love it at all,

and he who does not need art in all things does not need it at all.

I will not dwell here on what I am sure has delighted you all in

our great Gothic cathedrals. I mean how the artist of that time,

handicraftsman himself in stone or glass, found the best motives

for his art, always ready for his hand and always beautiful, in the

daily work of the artificers he saw around him - as in those lovely

windows of Chartres - where the dyer dips in the vat and the potter

sits at the wheel, and the weaver stands at the loom: real

manufacturers these, workers with the hand, and entirely delightful

to look at, not like the smug and vapid shopman of our time, who

knows nothing of the web or vase he sells, except that he is

charging you double its value and thinking you a fool for buying

it. Nor can I but just note, in passing, the immense influence the

decorative work of Greece and Italy had on its artists, the one

teaching the sculptor that restraining influence of design which is

the glory of the Parthenon, the other keeping painting always true

to its primary, pictorial condition of noble colour which is the

secret of the school of Venice; for I wish rather, in this lecture

at least, to dwell on the effect that decorative art has on human

life - on its social not its purely artistic effect.

There are two kinds of men in the world, two great creeds, two

different forms of natures: men to whom the end of life is action,

and men to whom the end of life is thought. As regards the latter,

who seek for experience itself and not for the fruits of

experience, who must burn always with one of the passions of this

fiery-coloured world, who find life interesting not for its secret

but for its situations, for its pulsations and not for its purpose;

the passion for beauty engendered by the decorative arts will be to

them more satisfying than any political or religious enthusiasm,

any enthusiasm for humanity, any ecstasy or sorrow for love. For

art comes to one professing primarily to give nothing but the

highest quality to one's moments, and for those moments' sake. So

far for those to whom the end of life is thought. As regards the

others, who hold that life is inseparable from labour, to them

should this movement be specially dear: for, if our days are

barren without industry, industry without art is barbarism.

Hewers of wood and drawers of water there must be always indeed

among us. Our modern machinery has not much lightened the labour

of man after all: but at least let the pitcher that stands by the

well be beautiful and surely the labour of the day will be

lightened: let the wood be made receptive of some lovely form,

some gracious design, and there will come no longer discontent but

joy to the toiler. For what is decoration but the worker's

expression of joy in his work? And not joy merely - that is a

great thing yet not enough - but that opportunity of expressing his

own individuality which, as it is the essence of all life, is the

source of all art. 'I have tried,' I remember William Morris

saying to me once, 'I have tried to make each of my workers an

artist, and when I say an artist I mean a man.' For the worker

then, handicraftsman of whatever kind he is, art is no longer to be

a purple robe woven by a slave and thrown over the whitened body of

a leprous king to hide and to adorn the sin of his luxury, but

rather the beautiful and noble expression of a life that has in it

something beautiful and noble.

And so you must seek out your workman and give him, as far as

possible, the right surroundings, for remember that the real test

and virtue of a workman is not his earnestness nor his industry

even, but his power of design merely; and that 'design is not the

offspring of idle fancy: it is the studied result of accumulative

observation and delightful habit.' All the teaching in the world

is of no avail if you do not surround your workman with happy

influences and with beautiful things. It is impossible for him to

have right ideas about colour unless he sees the lovely colours of

Nature unspoiled; impossible for him to supply beautiful incident

and action unless he sees beautiful incident and action in the

world about him.

For to cultivate sympathy you must be among living things and

thinking about them, and to cultivate admiration you must be among

beautiful things and looking at them. 'The steel of Toledo and the

silk of Genoa did but give strength to oppression and lustre to

pride,' as Mr. Ruskin says; let it be for you to create an art that

is made by the hands of the people for the joy of the people, to

please the hearts of the people, too; an art that will be your

expression of your delight in life. There is nothing 'in common

life too mean, in common things too trivial to be ennobled by your

touch'; nothing in life that art cannot sanctify.

You have heard, I think, a few of you, of two flowers connected

with the aesthetic movement in England, and said (I assure you,

erroneously) to be the food of some aesthetic young men. Well, let

me tell you that the reason we love the lily and the sunflower, in

spite of what Mr. Gilbert may tell you, is not for any vegetable

fashion at all. It is because these two lovely flowers are in

England the two most perfect models of design, the most naturally

adapted for decorative art - the gaudy leonine beauty of the one

and the precious loveliness of the other giving to the artist the

most entire and perfect joy. And so with you: let there be no

flower in your meadows that does not wreathe its tendrils around

your pillows, no little leaf in your Titan forests that does not

lend its form to design, no curving spray of wild rose or brier

that does not live for ever in carven arch or window or marble, no

bird in your air that is not giving the iridescent wonder of its

colour, the exquisite curves of its wings in flight, to make more

precious the preciousness of simple adornment.