Idealizing the real, realizing the ideal

Just some notes from recent reading.

From James Joyce’s Stephen Hero:

The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and ‘re-embody’ it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.

From Ernest de Selincourt’s introduction to Spenser: Poetical Works:

The idealist, starting from the actual world of which he has experience, distils from it what seems to be its essence, and creates another world of spiritual and moral conceptions which becomes as real for him as that from which he created it. This other world is not peopled with dead abstractions. The prosaic analyst may ‘murder to dissect’: the artist does not merely extract and isolate, he recreates. To him ideas depend for their reality upon the vividness with which they kindle his imagination. His mind has, as it were, a centre in two worlds, and it may work with equal freedom upon material drawn from either. That imaginative vision, which gives to the world of fact a higher reality by expressing the soul that informs it, gives to the world of ideas a sensuous incarnation which utters its voice in song.

In the allegory of the Faerie Queene these two worlds meet and fuse. But the fusion is not complete, and the children of each world bear upon their forms traces of their origin. Hence, two types of allegory may often be distinguished. At times the poet starts from the idea, and the process of incarnation follows. Human qualities are then abstracted into the rarefied atmosphere of thought and presented to his imagination for conscious artistic handling. The result is somewhat formal personification, cast in the traditional mould of mediaeval allegory, and executed in the manner of a pageant or a Morality. At its worst it is mechanical in structure and somewhat arbitrary in its symbolism; but it is seldom unrelieved by vivid detail that gives it an independent life, and at its best it turns an abstract conception with triumphant success into concrete living form. The Masque of Cupid (III. 12) embraces the quaintly emblematic figures of Dissemblance twisting her two clewes of silk, and Suspect peeping through his lattis, and along with them the haunting picture of Fear, ‘all armed from top to toe,’ yet taking fright even at the clash and the glitter of his own coat of mail. Of this kind is much of the incidental allegory in the Faerie Queene, and Spenser has used to the full the opportunities it offers to his rich power over colour and form, and his genius for imaginative description. But when his mind is turned rather upon the warm realities of life itself, the process is different. Human qualities, justice, temperance, and the rest, are still realized in their essence, but they are seen to be present in living human beings. Hence he does not present an abstract conception by a human symbol, but accepts under his idealizing vision a human being as the symbol of his conception. Britomart is not the abstract conception of Chastity, but a real woman who expresses in her personality and her conduct, along with many other powers and some human weakness, the essential quality of chastity. Una may be Truth, but she is far more. She is a woman with sufficient individuality to be ‘pre-eminently dear’ to that poet who of all others delighted to find his happiness ‘in this world, which is the world of all of us.’ And such in the main is the structural allegory of the Faerie Queene. The characters, indeed, are seldom presented with the subtle and complex detail of a realist. Spenser’s whole artistic method is that of idealization, and of emphasis on the essential. But for all that he bases it on life. Sometimes, indeed, it is impossible to determine whether the ideal conception or the character which expresses it was his initial inspiration, whether in Sir Calidore he thought first of Courtesy or of Sir Philip Sidney, whether he drew Timias from Ralegh or found himself in his delineation of reckless honour falling back unconsciously upon his knowledge of his daring and impetuous friend. Allegory of this kind can easily be distinguished from the more obvious personification, however vivid; it has all the character of myth, which, apart from its symbolism, has complete artistic life.

Thus Spenser idealizes real persons, and he breathes life into abstractions. He sees Hope not merely as a symbolic figure leaning upon an anchor, but as a living woman, whose face bears signs of the anguish hidden at her heart. He sees Lord Grey not simply as a sagacious and just-minded man, but as the faery knight of Justice. By his side he sets Talus, the iron man, that most powerful embodiment of Justice in the abstract. In Sir Artegal and his remorseless squire the different types of allegory are seen at once in their boldest contrast and in perfect harmony. . . . The real meets the ideal in faery land, and its kinship is acknowledged.

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