Art Theory - Elements Of Orgination
( Originally Published 1869 )
The following appear to me to be the principal and essential elements which are made use of in the exercise of imagination, and the endowment of any subject or object with which serves to conduce mainly to its imaginative effect :ól. The idea of obscurity. 2. That of the possession of power. 3. That of the possession of energy. 4. That of novelty. 5. That of the possession of vastness. 6. That of supernaturality. 7. That of dignity. 8. That of the possession of the quality of noxiousness. 9. That of the possession of the quality of divineness.
Each of these elements, like those of delineation and of the picturesque, are characterized by the particular qualities and powers appertaining to them, as whether active or passive, originating or merely derivative; whether independent by themselves, or merely auxiliary to certain others ;, and also whether essential or dispensable in the constitution of the property to which they contribute.
These several elements will now be examined and analysed separately in their order.
(1.) By the element of obscurity, I mean such a degree of mystery or uncertainty that the nature of the being described, or the object represented, is but dimly to be discerned, and its whole character is but faintly perceivable. Obscurity is also an important element of imagination, because from its excitement of perplexity it conduces to fear. All our emotions of terror are more or less connected with obscurity, which at once sets the imagination at work to discover a new path, in order that the mind may extricate itself from the maze in which it is bewildered.
This element is passive as Aegards its operation, but in its nature originating. It is also independent in itself, and acts in a direct manner in the promotion of imaginative effects, for which, however, although very important, it is not in every case absolutely essential.
In some branches of artistical composition, nevertheless, definity in the description is absolutely necessary, as in the representation of form by sculpture, where everything is substantial and real, and nothing can be left uncertain, or for conjecture to supply. This is not always essential in painting, where on some occasions parts may be obscure, as by being thrown into a dense shade, when nothing but a general outline of the form of the object is rendered visible; or in the case of mere rough sketches, to which I have before alluded, where a few lines serve to create a general conception of the design, and set the mind at work to fill up the details and complete the composition. Indeed, darkness of itself seems to have a natural tendency to excite the imagination to activity. All our ideas of ghosts and goblins and supernatural beings, were generated in the dark, and obscurity is inseparably associated with them.
In poetry the introduction of this important element of imaginative description, may be availed of to a still greater ex-tent. Here a mere vague obscure representation of some subjects may be far from inefficient, and what is wanting to complete the description may be more than supplied by the imagination being set at work by apt inferences and associations to form the most original conceptions, and fill up the design.
Infinity and obscurity, so far as they both lead the mind to wander forth into the vast unlimited expanse of imaginative effort, and to conjure up new objects of wonder and curiosity, are closely allied to each other. Our notions of the Deity, which are mainly derived from what we hear of His attributes, are greatly heightened by our endless conjectures and dark speculations concerning Him.
The imaginative effect of obscurity in description is very finely and powerfully illustrated by the following quotation from the Book of Job,* representing the appearance of a spirit :
"In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men,
In music great scope is allowed to the range of the imagination, from the obscurity and indefiniteness which are, indeed, almost inseparable from descriptions in this art.
Architecture, to a very limited, if to any extent, admits of the introduction of this element into its compositions. In costume it may be availed of so far as regards the colour of the materials, as in the case of certain armour, and in mourning dresses. In gardening it is effected through the gloomy shades and thick gloom which are produced by the particular disposition of the grounds, and by the introduction of trees or plants of this character, or the overhanging of rocks or steep banks. Some of the most imaginative poetical descriptions are those of dark and obscure scenes in the recesses of dense forests.
(2.) By the element of power is meant the possession of such a degree of strength or capacity of some kind, as is sufficient to accomplish certain great and important results connected with the transaction under consideration. No subject or object wholly devoid of power can be highly imaginative in its nature. Weakness is, probably, the surest foil to imaginative effort that can exist.
This element is active as regards its operation, and originating in its nature. It is, as regards its effect, independent of any other element, and operates in a direct manner, and is indispensable in the constitution of any representation or description which is highly imaginative.
The attribution to any being or object of powers or capacities of a vast or important nature, has a great effect in raising the imagination, and of exciting ideas in the mind concerning it corresponding with those qualities or powers. In the quotations which in some of the succeeding pages are given from Milton, it will be observed how prodigiously he has heightened the imaginative description of the supernatural beings he has introduced, by the attribution to them in an extraordinary degree of the qualities and powers of vast strength and magnitude and courage and prowess.
In the following passage from Isaiah, a very sublime, imaginative, and effective description is afforded of the Deity, not by any representation of his personal appearance or form, but by conveying to us ideas of the stupendous and amazing qualities and attributes with which he is endowed :
" Who bath measured the waters in the hollow of His hand?
Behold the nations are as a drop of a bucket,
It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth,
An extremely noble and imaginative account of the attributes of the Deity is contained in the following quotation from one of the Psalms, t especially as regards His omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience ; and by a reference to which we are led to imbibe ideas of His general capacity and majesty :
" Whither shall I go from Thy spirit?
The following description of the Almighty is contained in another Psalm,* which, from the observance of the principle to which I have before referred, affords perhaps the loftiest and most effective and striking representation of the presence of the Deity that is anywhere to be found : ---
" The earth trembled and quaked ;
Here the ideas of amazing power, of obscurity, of energy, of dignity, and of supernatural manifestations in the person of the Divinity Himself, all combine together, and conduce to the extraordinary imaginative effect of the representation.
The account of the attributes of the Almighty, which is contained in the Book of Job, t is one of transcendent imaginary power. Here the combination together of many sublime and terrible images, the obscurity with which the whole is invested, and the introduction of the supernatural, are the main elements which conduce to its effect. But the principal and leading one of all is the idea of the qualities of vast strength and might which the description affords, and with the attribution of which it winds up. Great grandeur is also infused into the representation
"To whom hast Thou uttered words ?
(3.) By the element of energy is here meant the putting fully into force the power that is possessed. Any being may be endowed with great strength, but unless this is actually exercised, and some demonstration of its reality is thus afforded, its effect on the mind is lost.
This element is active as regards its operation and originating in its nature; but it is rather auxiliary to power than independent of any other elements. Its effect is direct, and it is essential as an element in the constitution of imaginative efforts.
Milton's Satan, in the descriptions of him already quoted,* is distinguished as much for his energy and the vast extent of this quality, as for his power; and to this they owe a large share of their imaginative effect. In the case of any animated being, our imagination is at once stimulated byan idea of its energy. In this respect, however, the present element is mainly to be regarded as united with, and lending force to the preceding one of power, so that the observations already made respecting that element, are, to a large extent, applicable to the present one also. Energy is, in fact, but the active exertion of the quality of power possessed by any subject.
(4.) By the element of novelty, is here meant the possession of such a new and unaccustomed unknown character, as causes us to be wholly unacquainted with the nature of the subject or object presented. This is, indeed, not only a leading, but an essential element of imagination. Without it, all efforts of this kind would be lifeless and inefficient.
Novelty is consequently absolutely indispensable as an element here; but in its operation it is passive. In its nature it is originating; and it is independent of any other element, and direct in its effect.
In Virgil's account of the infernal regions in the sixth book of the `∆neid,' and in Milton's descriptions in ` Paradise Lost,' the imaginative effect is much heightened by the novelty of the scenes presented. Novelty, indeed, materially excites our imagination, as being unaccustomed and strange to the mind; and in fact of itself renders a subject to a certain degree imaginative. But when this element is united with those of obscurity power and energy, its imaginative quality and force are greatly increased.
(5.) The element of vastness comprehends greatness of dimension above the common order, in any subject or object. This is essential in imaginative efforts to raise the mind to any extent, which expands correspondingly with the subject of its contemplation.
In its operation, however, it is but passive, and in its nature derivative only, and it is merely auxiliary to other elements, while its effect as regards the influence which it produces is quite direct.
How greatly is the imagination raised in the description of the Deity contained in the quotations from the Psalms in the present chapter, by the quality of vastness which is attributed to Him ! Vastness, however, like energy, may be regarded mainly as an appendage to and an acceleration of power, and as operating in the same way as an element of imagination; so that most of the remarks applied to power, are to a large extent appropriate to vastness also.
(6.) The element of supernaturality implies a character in any particular subject, whether as regards its constitution or its qualities, which is not regulated by, or confined to the known laws of nature. The notion of an object being supernatural, like that of its being novel, serves at once to set the imagination at work.
In its operation this element must accordingly be deemed to be active, and in its nature it is originating. It is independent of any other element, and direct in its effect, but is not absolutely essential. Nevertheless, nothing tends so much to aid, and to give freedom and vigour to the imagination, as endowing the being who is the subject of it with attributes which are beyond and additional to those which are within the ordinary laws of nature. Milton's ' Satan,' and Michael Angelo's 'Last Judgment,' owe to this the main share of their imaginative power. This is therefore a leading element of imagination. The general use of and resort to the supernatural, have been fully discussed in a separate section of the present chapter,* and many of the observations there used with regard to that subject are applicable here.
(7.) Dignity, which is also an element of grandeur, and has already been defined as such,t is essential as a collateral element in every subject of an imaginative character in order to endow it with that importance which it should possess. The idea of meanness or lowness at once damps and utterly destroys all imaginative effect in any object, while dignity forthwith raises and ennobles the mind to a degree adapted for imaginative efforts.
This element, as regards its operation, is passive, and it is derivative in its nature. It is rather auxiliary to other elements than independent by itself. In its effect it is direct, but it is not absolutely essential and indispensable.
Dignity as an element of imagination is closely allied to power and vastness, contributing with them to throw an air of grandeur over the subjects in which they are inherent, whereby the operation of the imagination is extensively aided, inasmuch as few subjects can be highly imaginative, without possessing some or more of the elements of grandeur.
(8.) The idea of noxiousness, by which is meant the power and the disposition of any being to inflict injury on other beings, seems to be more or less associated with every great subject of imaginative effort, as its entire harmlessness appears quite to destroy its capacity of this character, and consequent effect on the mind.
This element is active as regards its operation, and originating in its nature. It is independent of the other elements, and in its effect direct, but it is not indispensable.
The imaginative effect of Satan's description by Milton, is vastly raised by the notion afforded of his power and disposition to injure and destroy. Hence he becomes terrible as well as grand. Spirits owe much of their imaginative energy to this circumstance. So also in Dante,* the following description of a forest which. is so graphically and powerfully given, is much aided in effect by representing it of a dusky hue, and by the heaviness, deformity, and denseness of the boughs; but more especially by the barren and venomous nature of its productions, and of the animals who make this place their retreat.
"We enter'd on a forest, where no track
The idea of noxiousness also contributes essentially to aid the operation of the imagination by the excitement of fear which it directly occasions, conducing indeed more powerfully to this than any other subject.
(9.) The notion of divineness in any imaginative subject, by which is meant the affinity or resemblance of any object or being to the Divine nature, either as regards its origin its character or the quality of its action, greatly heightens its effect and ennobles its nature, and is more or less essential to every great effort of this kind, inasmuch as the Divinity is the source of all greatness and power throughout the universe. Every extensively imaginative description has consequently an air of divineness cast over it, and the subject of it is supposed to originate in the operation of the Author of the universe, the highest ultimate object of every imaginative effort. Divineness as regards imaginative subjects may be said to be allied to the supernatural, and to dignity also, as whatever is Divine partakes extensively of both these qualities. But divineness includes in its nature a sublimity far superior to anything in either of the former elements.
As regards its operation this element is passive, but in its nature it is originating. It is independent of all the other elements, and in its effect it is direct. But it is not absolutely essential in the constitution of imaginative description or representation.