Freshness of Feeling

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]

Audubon watercolor

The primary charm of art resides in the freshness of feeling which it reveals and conveys. An art which discloses fatigue, weariness, exhaustion of emotion, deadening of interest, has parted with its magical spell; for vitality, emotion, passionate interest in the experiences of life, devout acceptance of the facts of life, are the prime characteristics of art in those moments when its veracity and power are at the highest point. A great work of art may be tragic in the view of life which it presents, but it must show no sign of the succumbing of the spirit to the appalling facts with which it deals; even in those cases in which, as in the tragedy of "King Lear," blind fate seems relentlessly sovereign over human affairs, the artist must disclose in his attitude and method a sustained energy of spirit. Nothing shows so clearly a decline in creative force as a loss of interest on the part of the artist in the subject or material with which he deals.

That fresh bloom which lies on the very face of poetry, and in which not only its obvious but its enduring charm resides, is the expression of a feeling for nature, for life, and for the happenings which make up the common lot, which keeps its earliest receptivity and responsiveness. When a man ceases to care deeply for things, he ceases to represent or interpret them with insight and power. The preservation of feeling is, therefore, essential in all artistic work; and when it is lost, the artist becomes an echo or an imitation of his nobler self and work. It is the beautiful quality of the true art instinct that it constantly sees and feels the familiar world with a kind of childlike directness and delight. That which has become commonplace to most men is as full of charm and novelty to the artist as if it had just been created. He sees it with fresh eyes and feels it with a fresh heart. To such a spirit nothing becomes stale and hackneyed; everything remains new, fresh, and significant. It has often been said that if it were not for the children the world would lose the faith, the enthusiasm, the delight which constantly renew its spirit and reinforce its courage. A world grown old in feeling would be an exhausted world, incapable of production along spiritual or artistic lines. Now, the artist is always a child in the eagerness of his spirit and the freshness of his feeling; he retains the magical power of seeing things habitually, and still seeing them freshly. Mr. Lowell was walking with a friend along a country road when they came upon a large building which bore the inscription, "Home for Incurable Children." "They'll take me there some day," was the half-humorous comment of a sensitive man, to whom life brought great sorrows, but who retained to the very end a youthful buoyancy, courage, and faculty of finding delight in common things.

It is a significant fact that the greatest men and women never lose the qualities which are commonly associated with youth,—freshness of feeling, zest for work, joy in life. Goethe at eighty-four studied the problems of life with the same deep interest which he had felt in them at thirty or forty; Tennyson's imagination showed some signs of waning power in extreme old age, but the magic of feeling was still fresh in his heart; Dr. Holmes carried his blithe spirit, his gayety and spontaneity of wit, to the last year of his life; and Mr. Gladstone at eighty-six was one of the most eager and aspiring men of his time. Genius seems to be allied to immortal youth; and in this alliance resides a large part of its power. For the man of genius does not demonstrate his possession of that rare and elusive gift by seeing things which have never been seen before, but by seeing with fresh interest what men have seen so often that they have ceased to regard it. Novelty is rarely characteristic of great works of art; on the contrary, the facts of life which they set before us are familiar, and the thoughts they convey by direct statement or by dramatic illustration have always been haunting our minds. The secret of the artist resides in the unwearied vitality which brings him to such close quarters with life, and endows him with directness of sight and freshness of feeling. Daisies have starred fields in Scotland since men began to plough and reap, but Burns saw them as if they had sprung from the ground for the first time; forgotten generations have seen the lark rise and heard the cuckoo call in England, but to Wordsworth the song from the upper sky and the notes from the thicket on the hill were full of the music of the first morning. Shakespeare dealt with old stories and constantly touched upon the most familiar things; but with what new interest he invests both theme and illustration! One may spend a lifetime in a country village, surrounded by people who are apparently entirely uninteresting; but if one has the eye of a novelist for the facts of life, the power to divine character, the gift to catch the turn of speech, the trick of voice, the peculiarity of manner, what resources, discoveries, and diversion are at hand! The artist never has to search for material; it is always at hand. That it is old, trite, stale to others, is of no consequence; it is always fresh and significant to him.

This freshness of feeling is not in any way dependent on the character of the materials upon which it plays; it is not an irresponsible temperamental quality which seeks the joyful or comic facts of life and ignores its sad and tragic aspects. The zest of spirit which one finds in Shakespeare, for instance, is not a blind optimism thoughtlessly escaping from the shadows into the sunshine. On the contrary, it is drawn by a deep instinct to study the most perplexing problems of character, and to drop its plummets into the blackest abysses of experience. Literature deals habitually with the most somber side of the human lot, and finds its richest material in those awful happenings which invest the history of every race with such pathetic interest; and yet literature, in its great moments, overflows with vitality, zest of spirit, freshness of spirit! There is no contradiction in all this; for the vitality which pervades great art is not dependent upon external conditions; it has its source in the soul of the artist. It is the immortal quality in the human spirit playing like sunshine on the hardest and most tragic facts of experience. It often suggests no explanation of these facts; it is content to present them with relentless veracity; but even when it offers no solution of the tragic problem, the tireless interest which it feels, the force with which it illustrates and describes, the power of moral organization and interpretation which it reveals, carry with them the conviction that the spirit of man, however baffled and beaten, is superior to all the accidents of fortune, and indestructible even within the circle of the blackest fate. As Oedipus, old, blind, and smitten, vanishes from our sight, we think of him no longer as a great figure blasted by adverse fate, but as a great soul smitten and scourged, and yet still invested with the dignity of immortality. The dramatist, even when he throws no light on the ultimate solution of the problem with which he is dealing, feels so deeply and freshly, and discloses such sustained strength, that the vitality with which the facts are exhibited and the question stated affirms its superiority over all the adversities and catastrophes of fortune.

This freshness of feeling, which is the gift of men and women of genius, must be possessed in some measure by all who long to get the most out of life and to develop their own inner resources. To retain zest in work and delight in life we must keep freshness of feeling. Its presence lends unfailing charm to its possessor; its loss involves loss of the deepest personal charm. It is essential in all genuine culture, because it sustains that interest in events, experience, and opportunity upon which growth is largely conditioned; and there is no more effective means of preserving and developing it than intimacy with those who have invested all life with its charm. The great books are reservoirs of this vitality. When our own interest begins to die and the world turns gray and old in our sight, we have only to open Homer, Shakespeare, Browning, and the flowers bloom again and the skies are blue; and the experiences of life, however tragic, are matched by a vitality which is sovereign over them all.



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