The Critic as Artist: Part II

Oscar Wilde

Persons: the same. Scene: the same.

ERNEST
The ortolans were delightful, and the Chambertin perfect, and now let us return to the point at issue.

GILBERT
Ah! don’t let us do that. Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing. Let us talk about Moral Indignation, its Cause and Cure, a subject on which I think of writing: or about The Survival of Thersites, as shown by the English comic papers; or about any topic that may turn up.

ERNEST
No; I want to discuss the critic and criticism. You have told me that the highest criticism deals with art, not as exprеssive, but as impressive purеly, and is consequently both creative and independent, is in fact an art by itself, occupying the same relation to creative work that creative work does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought. Well, now, tell me, will not the critic be sometimes a real interpreter?

GILBERT
Yes; the critic will be an interpreter, if he chooses. He can pass from his synthetic impression of the work of art as a whole, to an analysis or exposition of the work itself, and in this lower sphere, as I hold it to be, there are many delightful things to be said and done. Yet his object will not always be to explain the work of art. He may seek rather to deepen its mystery, to raise round it, and round its maker, that mist of wonder which is dear to both gods and worshippers alike. Ordinary people are ‘terribly at ease in Zion.’ They propose to walk arm in arm with the poets, and have a glib ignorant way of saying, ‘Why should we read what is written about Shakespeare and Milton? We can read the plays and the poems. That is enough.’ But an appreciation of Milton is, as the late Rector of Lincoln remarked once, the reward of consummate scholarship. And he who desires to understand Shakespeare truly must understand the relations in which Shakespeare stood to the Renaissance and the Reformation, to the age of Elizabeth and the age of James; he must be familiar with the history of the struggle for supremacy between the old classical forms and the new spirit of romance, between the school of Sidney, and Daniel, and Johnson, and the school of Marlowe and Marlowe’s greater son; he must know the materials that were at Shakespeare’s disposal, and the method in which he used them, and the conditions of theatric presentation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, their limitations and their opportunities for freedom, and the literary criticism of Shakespeare’s day, its aims and modes and canons; he must study the English language in its progress, and blank or rhymed verse in its various developments; he must study the Greek drama, and the connection between the art of the creator of the Agamemnon and the art of the creator of Macbeth; in a word, he must be able to bind Elizabethan London to the Athens of Pericles, and to learn Shakespeare’s true position in the history of European drama and the drama of the world.

The critic will certainly be an interpreter, but he will not treat Art as a riddling Sphinx, whose shallow secret may be guessed and revealed by one whose feet are wounded and who knows not his name. Rather, he will look upon Art as a goddess whose mystery it is his province to intensify, and whose majesty his privilege to make more marvellous in the eyes of men.

And here, Ernest, this strange thing happens. The critic will indeed be an interpreter, but he will not be an interpreter in the sense of one who simply repeats in another form a message that has been put into his lips to say. For, just as it is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life that we call nationality, so, by curious inversion, it is only by intensifying his own personality that the critic can interpret the personality and work of others, and the more strongly this personality enters into the interpretation the more real the interpretation becomes, the more satisfying, the more convincing, and the more true.

ERNEST
I would have said that personality would have been a disturbing element.

GILBERT
No; it is an element of revelation. If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.

ERNEST
What, then, is the result?

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