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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Seaboard Parish - Volume 3 - Chapter 4. The Art Of Nature
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The Seaboard Parish - Volume 3 - Chapter 4. The Art Of Nature Post by :DavidS Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2117

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The Seaboard Parish - Volume 3 - Chapter 4. The Art Of Nature


We had a week of hazy weather after this. I spent it chiefly in my study and in Connie's room. A world of mist hung over the sea; it refused to hold any communion with mortals. As if ill-tempered or unhappy, it folded itself in its mantle and lay still.

What was it thinking about? All Nature is so full of meaning, that we cannot help fancying sometimes that she knows her own meanings. She is busy with every human mood in turn--sometimes with ten of them at once--picturing our own inner world before us, that we may see, understand, develop, reform it.

I was turning over some such thought in my mind one morning, when Dora knocked at the door, saying that Mr. Percivale had called, and that mamma was busy, and would I mind if she brought him up to the study.

"Not in the least, my dear," I answered; "I shall be very glad to see him."

"Not much of weather for your sacred craft, Percivale," I said as he entered. "I suppose, if you were asked to make a sketch to-day, it would be much the same as if a stupid woman were to ask you to take her portrait?"

"Not quite so bad as that," said Percivale.

"Surely the human face is more than nature."

"Nature is never stupid."

"The woman might be pretty."

"Nature is full of beauty in her worst moods; while the prettier such a woman, the more stupid she would look, and the more irksome you would feel the task; for you could not help making claims upon her which you would never think of making upon Nature."

"I daresay you are right. Such stupidity has a good deal to do with moral causes. You do not ever feel that Nature is to blame."

"Nature is never ugly. She may be dull, sorrowful, troubled; she may be lost in tears and pallor, but she cannot be ugly. It is only when you rise into animal nature that you find ugliness."

"True in the main only; for no lines of absolute division can be drawn in nature. I have seen ugly flowers."

"I grant it; but they are exceptional; and none of them are without beauty."

"Surely not. The ugliest soul even is not without some beauty. But I grant you that the higher you rise the more is ugliness possible, just because the greater beauty is possible. There is no ugliness to equal in its repulsiveness the ugliness of a beautiful face."

A pause followed.

"I presume," I said, "you are thinking of returning to London now, there seems so little to be gained by remaining here. When this weather begins to show itself I could wish myself in my own parish; but I am sure the change, even through the winter, will be good for my daughter."

"I must be going soon," he answered; "but it would be too bad to take offence at the old lady's first touch of temper. I mean to wait and see whether we shall not have a little bit of St. Martin's summer, as Shakspere calls it; after which, hail London, queen of smoke and--"

"And what?" I asked, seeing he hesitated.

"'And soap,' I was fancying you would say; for you never will allow the worst of things, Mr. Walton."

"No, surely I will not. For one thing, the worst has never been seen by anybody yet. We have no experience to justify it."

We were chatting in this loose manner when Walter came to the door to tell me that a messenger had come from Mrs. Stokes.

I went down to see him, and found her husband.

"My wife be very bad, sir," he said. "I wish you could come and see her."

"Does she want to see me?' I asked.

"She's been more uncomfortable than ever since you was there last," he said.

"But," I repeated, "has she said she would like to see me?"

"I can't say it, sir," answered the man.

"Then it is you who want me to see her?"

"Yes, sir; but I be sure she do want to see you. I know her way, you see, sir. She never would say she wanted anything in her life; she would always leave you to find it out: so I got sharp at that, sir."

"And then would she allow she had wanted it when you got it her?"

"No, never, sir. She be peculiar--my wife; she always be."

"Does she know that you have come to ask me now?"

"No, sir."

"Have you courage to tell her?"

The man hesitated.

"If you haven't courage to tell her," I resumed, "I have nothing more to say. I can't go; or, rather, I will not go."

"I will tell her, sir."

"Then you will tell her that I refused to come until she sent for me herself."

"Ben't that rather hard on a dying woman, sir?"

"I have my reasons. Except she send for me herself, the moment I go she will take refuge in the fact that she did not send for me. I know your wife's peculiarity too, Mr. Stokes."

"Well, I _will tell her, sir. It's time to speak my own mind."

"I think so. It was time long ago. When she sends for me, if it be in the middle of the night, I shall be with her at once."

He left me and I returned to Percivale.

"I was just thinking before you came," I said, "about the relation of Nature to our inner world. You know I am quite ignorant of your art, but I often think about the truths that lie at the root of it."

"I am greatly obliged to you," he said, "for talking about these things. I assure you it is of more service to me than any professional talk. I always think the professions should not herd together so much as they do; they want to be shone upon from other quarters."

"I believe we have all to help each other, Percivale. The sun himself could give us no light that would be of any service to us but for the reflective power of the airy particles through which he shines. But anything I know I have found out merely by foraging for my own necessities."

"That is just what makes the result valuable," he replied. "Tell me what you were thinking."

"I was thinking," I answered, "how everyone likes to see his own thoughts set outside of him, that he may contemplate them _objectively, as the philosophers call it. He likes to see the other side of them, as it were."

"Yes, that is, of course, true; else, I suppose, there would be no art at all."

"Surely. But that is not the aspect in which I was considering the question. Those who can so set them forth are artists; and however they may fail of effecting such a representation of their ideas as will satisfy themselves, they yet experience satisfaction in the measure in which they have succeeded. But there are many more men who cannot yet utter their ideas in any form. Mind, I do expect that, if they will only be good, they shall have this power some day; for I do think that many things we call differences in kind, may in God's grand scale prove to be only differences in degree. And indeed the artist--by artist, I mean, of course, architect, musician, painter, poet, sculptor--in many things requires it just as much as the most helpless and dumb of his brethren, seeing in proportion to the things that he can do, he is aware of the things he cannot do, the thoughts he cannot express. Hence arises the enthusiasm with which people hail the work of an artist; they rejoice, namely, in seeing their own thoughts, or feelings, or something like them, expressed; and hence it comes that of those who have money, some hang their walls with pictures of their own choice, others--"

"I beg your pardon," said Percivale, interrupting; "but most people, I fear, hang their walls with pictures of other people's choice, for they don't buy them at all till the artist has got a name."

"That is true. And yet there is a shadow of choice even there; for they won't at least buy what they dislike. And again the growth in popularity may be only what first attracted their attention--not determined their choice."

"But there are others who only buy them for their value in the market."

"'Of such is not the talk,' as the Germans would say. In as far as your description applies, such are only tradesmen, and have no claim to be considered now."

"Then I beg your pardon for interrupting. I am punished more than I deserve, if you have lost your thread."

"I don't think I have. Let me see. Yes. I was saying that people hang their walls with pictures of their choice; or provide music, &c., of their choice. Let me keep to the pictures: their choice, consciously or unconsciously, is determined by some expression that these pictures give to what is in themselves--the buyers, I mean. They like to see their own feelings outside of themselves."

"Is there not another possible motive--that the pictures teach them something?"

"That, I venture to think, shows a higher moral condition than the other, but still partakes of the other; for it is only what is in us already that makes us able to lay hold of a lesson. It is there in the germ, else nothing from without would wake it up."

"I do not quite see what all this has to do with Nature and her influences."

"One step more, and I shall arrive at it. You will admit that the pictures and objects of art of all kinds, with which a man adorns the house he has chosen or built to live in, have thenceforward not a little to do with the education of his tastes and feelings. Even when he is not aware of it, they are working upon him,--for good, if he has chosen what is good, which alone shall be our supposition."

"Certainly; that is clear."

"Now I come to it. God, knowing our needs, built our house for our needs--not as one man may build for another, but as no man can build for himself. For our comfort, education, training, he has put into form for us all the otherwise hidden thoughts and feelings of our heart. Even when he speaks of the hidden things of the Spirit of God, he uses the forms or pictures of Nature. The world is, as it were, the human, unseen world turned inside out, that we may see it. On the walls of the house that he has built for us, God has hung up the pictures--ever-living, ever-changing pictures--of all that passes in our souls. Form and colour and motion are there,--ever-modelling, ever-renewing, never wearying. Without this living portraiture from within, we should have no word to utter that should represent a single act of the inner world. Metaphysics could have no existence, not to speak of poetry, not to speak of the commonest language of affection. But all is done in such spiritual suggestion, portrait and definition are so avoided, the whole is in such fluent evanescence, that the producing mind is only aided, never overwhelmed. It never amounts to representation. It affords but the material which the thinking, feeling soul can use, interpret, and apply for its own purposes of speech. It is, as it were, the forms of thought cast into a lovely chaos by the inferior laws of matter, thence to be withdrawn by what we call the creative genius that God has given to men, and moulded, and modelled, and arranged, and built up to its own shapes and its own purposes."

"Then I presume you would say that no mere transcript, if I may use the word, of nature is the worthy work of an artist."

"It is an impossibility to make a mere transcript. No man can help seeing nature as he is himself, for she has all in her; but if he sees no meaning in especial that he wants to give, his portrait of her will represent only her dead face, not her living impassioned countenance."

"Then artists ought to interpret nature?"

"Indubitably; but that will only be to interpret themselves--something of humanity that is theirs, whether they have discovered it already or not. If to this they can add some teaching for humanity, then indeed they may claim to belong to the higher order of art, however imperfect they may be in their powers of representing--however lowly, therefore, their position may be in that order."

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