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Literary Obscurity

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


Frequently, the difference between the artistic and scientific method might be said to be owing merely to the different degrees of rapidity with which the thoughts are moving. This fact will be evident upon recalling the condition usually accompanying the mind's imaginative and, therefore, partially subconscious actions. It will be found to be a condition of emotive excitement. Listen to the children as they watch a display of fireworks. With what facility they recognize resemblances! Roosters, churches, fans, and fountains,—these are what they imagine to be in shapes suggesting nothing to their parents. Yet when some excitement strong enough to appeal to these latter has succeeded in moving them, they, too, will become unexpectedly imaginative. As for the intelligent artist, there is reason to suppose that imaginative results in his case, also, are owing to mental action too rapid for him to be conscious of all its processes. This fact, indeed, is often very effectively represented in artistic products, especially in literature, the words of which are particularly fitted to reveal exactly what is taking place in the thoughts to which the words give expression. Recall the ellipses and consequent obscurity in which writers like Carlyle and Browning indulge. In almost every instance where obscurity of this kind is observable, some additional reflection would have enabled the writer to recall and to reveal the missing links of thought, and thus to give his expressions the effects of careful precision. In many cases we may criticize his not doing this. But had he done it in all cases, would the result have been as artistic as it is? Thus expressed, would it not have represented a conception in all of its details clearly present to the conscious mind? But art, as we have found, represents a conception of a part of which the mind is conscious and of a part of which, owing to the rapidity of its processes, the mind is not conscious. Thus this effect of obscurity, so often recognized as being for some vague reason particularly artistic, is seen to be so because it accords exactly with the requirements of art.—Idem, III.


The conclusions that have been reached thus far concur in serving to prove that poetry as an art must have form, the very sounds of the single and consecutive words of which must represent the phases and movements, physical, intellectual, or emotional, of which they are supposed to be significant; and it has been shown that great poets like Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton are great masters of representative expression in this sense. It follows from these facts that there is no artistic warrant for producing effects of sound through insertion, transposition, alteration, omission, or other use of words, that by violating the laws of grammar or lexicography obscures the meaning.. . This statement agrees not only with the most recent deductions of physiological aesthetics, but also with those of common sense. The test of form in every case is its fitness to represent, at least clearly, if not, as it sometimes should, brilliantly, every line and color, every phase and movement, every fact and suggestion of the ideas to be expressed. If this test be borne in mind, there can still be plenty of poetic failures from lack of poetic ideas, but no failures from a mere lack of the very easily obtained knowledge of the rudimentary principles of poetic technique. Poetry as a Representative Art, XIV.


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