It may seem unreasonable to non-poetic people, but what the poet nevertheless demands is a kind of society in which tranquillity, withdrawal, is a natural right. He* must be able to go into the press and out of it as easily as he passes from his own house into the street. The charge he makes against the modern world is that it has invaded his house of quiet, invaded it with cares and rumours, insistent politics and totalitarian wars.
The poet is therefore compelled to demand, for poetic reasons that the world shall be changed. It cannot be said that his demand is unreasonable: it is the first condition of his existence as a poet.
The Symptoms of Decadence
Art's wider significance is biological. It is no idle play of surplus energies, no mere lustre on the hard surface of reality, as materialists have tended to argue. It springs from the centre of life. It is the finest tone of our vitality, the reflexion of harmonious form, the very echo of the organic rhythm of the universe. A nation without art may achieve external order; it may accumulate wealth and exercise power. But if it is without aesthetic sensibility, these things will perish as if from their own weight, their lack of balance and proportion.
Perhaps no civilisation is destined to survive many centuries, but when a civilisation is stricken, we shall then notice, along with a declining birth-rate and an increasing debt, first the censure of originality in art and then art's complete subservience and defeat. The decline and fall of a civilisation naturally involves the decline and fall of its art; but is is a mistake to assume that art perishes simply because its social foundations are withdrawn. The foundations are the art, and they perish from a rot that has invaded the whole structure. Psychologists say that our minds contain two contrary impulses - the will to live and the will to die; and that the curve of life is the result of the contest between them. So with a civilisation. It has a will to live and a will to die; and the highest expression of its will to live is free and original art.
The Secret of Success
With rare exceptions public education throughout the world today concentrates on the inculcation of intellectual knowledge, for which it requires the development of such facilities as memory, analysis, enumeration, classification and generalization. These are faculties that may either deaden or depress the aesthitic sensibility, which needs for its development concreteness, sensational acuteness, emotional spotnineity, attention, contemplation, wholeness of vision or apprehension, and generally what Keats called 'negative capability'.
About 1808, thirty years after they were delivered, Blake wrote some annotations in his copy of the Discourses which showed the reaction of native genius to such a man as Reynolds and to his precepts. 'This man,' he declared, 'was fired by Satan to depress art,' and Blake had 'nothing but indignation and resentment' to express as he read the discourses of one who had been 'applauded and rewarded by the rich and great'. 'I consider Reynolds Discourses to the Royal Academy as the simulations of the hypocrite who smiles particularly where he means to betray. His praise of Rafael is like the hysteric smile of revenge. His softness and candour, the hidden trap and poisoned feast. He praised Michelangelo for qualities which Michelangelo abhorred, and he blames Rafael for the only qualities which Rafael valued' - there is much more vituperation of this kind, about forty pages of it, but apart from a defence of Blake's own style in painting (delineation as against chiaroscuro) they return again and again to two themes: tradition and individual talent, and patronage. Reynolds 'mocked' inspiration and vision ('then and now, and I hope will always remain, my element, my eternal dwelling place') and he rigged the market in favour of his own kind of art - 'the rich men of England form themselves into a society to sell and not to buy pictures. The artist who does not throw his contempt on such trading exhibitions, does not know either his own interest or his duty ... The inquiry in England is not whether a man has talents and genius, but whether he is passive and polite and a virtuous ass and obedient to noblemen's opinions in art and scince. If he is, he is a good man. If not, he must be starved.'
The Secret of Success
It should be impossible in questions of taste to fool all the public all the time, but in fact, once an artist has become fashionable by clever methods of publicity, it takes many years of patient criticism to destroy his false reputation - so few people read serious criticism.
The Psychology of Reaction
Here I must stress a distinction that I have been making all my life between reason and scientific method. But let me on this occasion rely on Gilbert Murray, whose name I have just evoked. At the end of the essay in question he has an eloquent passage which I would like to quote:
"The Uncharted surrounds us on every side and we must needs have some relation towards it, a relation which will depend on the general discipline of a man's mind and the bias of his whole character. As far as knowledge and conscious reason will go, we should follow resolutely their austere guidance. When they cease, as cease they must, we must use as best we can those fainter powers of apprehension and surmise and sensitiveness by which, after all, most high truth has been reached as well as most high art and poetry; careful not to neglect the real needs of men and women through basing out life on dreams; and remembering above all to walk gently in a world where the lights are dim and the very stars wander."
Here is an admission, by an apostle of reason, that knowledge and conscious reason will only carry us so far in an understanding of reality, and that when we reach the limit of their powers, 'we must use as best we can those fainter powers of apprehension and surmise and sensitiveness by which, after all, most high truth has been reached as well as most high art and poetry'. I believe that Professor Murray puts these processes in their wrong order-that it is only when we have first used these powers of apprehension and surmise and sensitiveness that it becomes possible to use the powers of conscious reason, for reason is not a wholly conceptual activity, a spinning of abstraction from mental vacuity: it is, in so far as it remains vital, a metaphorical activity, given energy and scope by the imagination.
The Psychology of Reaction
The normal person stills the voice of the deep, orientates himself to the outer world, becomes a good mixer, a conservative in politics and a reactionary in art. The psychotic person surrenders to his subjective self, shuns society, is suspicious of his fellow workers, is sexually morbid and philosophically pessimistic or nihilistic. (p_-)
The Arts and Peace
If man is no longer responsible to himself, but to an abstraction, he has a thousand chances to be evasive, to be weak, to be mistaken. If he acts, no longer instinctively and automatically, but by calculation and with circumspection, he tends to act ambiguously and intolerantly.
*It's always 'he' with Herbert.