« PreviousContinue »
nature, who remembers their proverbial taste, and their habit of selecting for their temples and oracular shrines, localities of peculiar beauty and sublimity, like those historic promontories of the Ægean sea, which seem fit bulwarks for the throne of the deities of Olympus. But the description of nature in her manifold diversity was not a characteristic of Greek poetic literature, save where some moral or human interest was connected with it, and gave it special significence. One would hardly have expected to find this characteristic in the literature of “the lively Grecian in his land of hills :” it is as if he had thought, with our Sidney Smith, that the real use of the country is to find food for cities; or with Dr. Johnson, who, we are told, preferred a walk down Fleet Street to the finest scenes in the country, though he at all events felt the force of their associations, as he pitied the man whose patriotism did not glow upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety lid not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona. It has been truly observed, that with the Greek poets, and with the painters also, in the best periods of Greek art, landscape is always the mere back-ground of the picture, in the foreground of which human figures are moving. So that, whereas in our own times we have not only delightful poems, but an entire school of painting, devoted to landscape, and find the representation of the picturesque made prominent even in epic and other poetry; natural scenery is touched only in brief and suggestive phrases by the Greek poets, undoubted as was their sensibility to the beauties of nature, and their discriminating power of perception of the beautiful. In the pages of Homer himself, the father of Greek poetry, we have more minute and tantalising descriptions of splendid feasts than references to natural scenery, yet Homer's poetry exhibits a genuine love of nature : witness the epithets, of admirable significance and descriptive truth, which he applies to the unfruitful sea, the cloudy mountains, the starry heavens, the rosy-fingered morning, and to many other natural objects, but it is a love which discerns a sympathy between the aspects of nature and the vicissitudes of human feeling. Nature and her scenery was subordinate in interest to the actions, passions, and aspirations of man. So, too, it is as suggesting to the chained Prometheus an image of glad
ness and hope that Æschylus mentions the sea stretched before the Titan, and describes the many-twinkling smile of ocean, and the light reflected from its dancing ripples.
But if the poetry of the Greeks is not devoted to the description of natural beauty, Greek sculpture for ever testifies to their perception of ideal perfection in form. The polytheism of Greece was the province of sculpture, for here its positive and defined outline, its strong and self-existing material, fully satisfied the imagination. But the hero and the god demanded ideal excellence ; for in them humanity was viewed ennobled into a nature imperishable and divine. The human form was accordingly represented with the greatest symmetry of which the mind could conceive it capable ; all that was noble and majestic in nature was collected and moulded by the sculptor; all that was gross or inharmonious was refined away. Cicero puts this well in a passage of the “Orator:”
“the ingenious artist, when he was tracing out the form of a Jupiter or a Minerva, did not borrow the likeness from any particular object; but a certain admirable semblance of beauty was present to his mind which he viewed and dwelt upon, and by which his skill and his hand were guided.” Thus it was that the artist embodied the essence of grace, dignity, and power; all that was lofty and full of energy stood displayed in the figure of the hero—a magical serenity, a heavenly calm, was thrown over the whole figure of the god. For in formative art as well as in poetry, imagination, when it addresses kindred minds, paints nature, not absolutely, but as contemplated by man. It is remarkable that, with Christian subjects for the theme, all modern sculpture should have been so immeasurably inferior to ancient heathen art; while painting seems to have warmed under the finger-touch of Christianity, and the great masters have given us creations that, like Raffaelle's, look like beings of celestial race, round which the very airs of heaven seem to hover_beings too pure for the passions and temptations of humanity.
Greek art had such command of poetical expression, and carried the element of form to such perfection, that works of Greek sculptors have as much power over our feelings as the highest poetry. We cannot look upon the imperishable monuments of Grecian art without feeling that there is a voice to the
heart of the living from the works of the dead; that their actions and their thoughts are capable of awakening as much ardour and emotion as the examples which surround us in our own age, or the direct influences of existing nature.
Thracian tradition celebrated the divinities of Olympus as the bringers of good and averters of evil, but nevertheless represented Zeus as supreme-the father of gods and men, having his dwelling in the ether, and supremely governing the world. The mythology of the Greeks surrounded them with self-existent powers which their creative imagination personified and humanized, making the symbol of the running fountain a Naiad pouring her urn; and of the sun, a fair-haired youth in a golden car. Deity appeared near and friendly, and in human form; and it was for this reason that sculpture became so peculiarly connected with the mythology of Greece, and gave it characteristic expression.
The Greeks deified the powers of nature: they found deities in wood, mountain, stream, and sea,
The cloud-born idols of this lower air.
The voices of their gods were heard in the roar of the thunder, and the murmur of the waves; in the whispering of the pines, and the ringing fall of the stream; and thus it was that to the Grecian mind,
The woods that wave o'er Delphi's steep,
Every old poetic mountain,
Every shade and hallow'd fountain,
Inspiration breath'd around. But, although the spiritual was made manifest only by sensible objects, these superstitions of the Greeks brought tributes to the shrine of art which still excite the admiration of the world, and to which poetry and sculpture have sent their votaries in every age.
The Greeks may have derived the art of sculpture from the Assyrians or the Egyptians, but none of the old Assyrian or Egyptian spirit was perpetuated in the works of Greece. Into the grim and colossal character of elder art the Greeks infused their own sense and soul: wheresoever it was that they derived the first notions of the art, Greek sculptors inspired it with grace and beauty, and gave it an expression, and embodied it in forms, that were never dreamed of on the banks of Nile. With fertile harvests of art they covered the isles of Greece, and shed over inanimate marble the grace of a life that is gone.
Their statues remain to this day unrivalled—undisputed standards of the most perfect symmetry of form; and, amid the ruins of " dead empires,” their marble deities seem alone infused with animation. So inextinguishable are the sparks of olden fire, amidst the scattered reliques of Greek sculpture, that they have animated all subsequent plastic art, just as letters owe their preservation to Greek poetry—to those equally lasting compositions which the sister muse inspired beneath the soft skies and poetic hills of Greece. There the sculptor perpetuated in forms of ideal beauty the imaginary gods of whom the poet sang ;
he invested them with the perfections and attributes of unknown divinity, and threw the purple light of life over the cold marble forms of a fanciful mythology; and thus
The verse and sculpture bore an equal part,
I have dwelt thus long on the poetry and sculpture of the Greeks, for they are parts of “the whole extended chain which binds us to the Ionic cities of the Ægean sea :” but after this glance at Grecian art, let us now consider the powers of poetry in comparison with those of the imitative arts as forms of poetical expression. And first let us compare the province and power of Painting with the province and power of Sculpture. Painting has a much wider scope than sculpture. The imitation of nature, or the production of an ideal beauty that rivals nature, is the language by which the sculptor addresses the mind ; and he relies on the beauty of form and the expression of character for his strength, since sculpture is more severe than painting, and cannot please the eye by radiance and colour, or the other accessories of pictorial art. The sculptor's creations must charm not by what they seem to be, but by what they are. Painting
employs illusion as well as imitation : in painting the variety and contrast of colour, the use of chiaroscuro, the glow of sunshine and the cool of shade, combine to render life-like and vivid the silent poesy of form. Sculpture embodies in the pure, cold, impassive marble, the abstract ideal of beauty, the grace and sentiment of an action, the form of power. The harmony of rich and brilliant colours has a gratifying effect upon the sense of sight; in this respect Painting has an advantage over Sculpture. The mellow contrast and rich variety of colouring, with its consequences of light and shade, and its capabilities of perspective, give to Painting an infinitely wider range of objects for representation. Painting and Sculpture assimilate in the representation of animated forms and human action; but Painting, by her command of accessories, aids her illusion, and concentrates at one point the attention of the spectator. Painting has been justly said to gain effect by contrast, and aggrandize by comparison. But Sculpture, cold and colourless, stony and severe, without accessories to produce illusion or please the sense before it addresses the imagination, must have beauty of conception, dignity of character, and consummate force and freedom of outline, before it can engage the mind-the creative mind—which transfers life and motion to the inanimate representation of perfect form. Leonardo da Vinci, when engaged on his immortal picture of the Last Supper, and endeavouring to embody in the head of the Saviour the sublime image which filled his mind, felt the inadequacy of human art to represent the highest of sacred themes; and, unmatched as he was in depth of genius, in power of reflection, and in knowledge of art, shrank from the attempt to embody his conception of Deity interwoven with human nature. When at the last moment he delineated the head of the Saviour, this completion of his wonderful work was attributed to guidance from no mortal hand. The sculptor, no doubt, "might work a head of Christ to as noble proportion and fullness as Leonardo da Vinci, but the profound, settled light of benignity, the look of mercy, the inbreathed holiness," would elude his art : he might make us admire as much, but not feel. As the softer enchantments of beauty are found in the eye, in the colouring of the face, in the settled light, or the fugitive blush, the sculptor's