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Inquiries And Opinions - Invention And Imagination Post by :ben.g Category :Nonfictions Author :Brander Matthews Date :May 2012 Read :775

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Inquiries And Opinions - Invention And Imagination

Probably not a few readers of Prof. Barrett Wendell's suggestive lectures on the 'Temper of the Seventeenth Century in English Literature' were surprized to be told that a chief peculiarity of the greatest of dramatic poets "was a somewhat sluggish avoidance of needless invention. When anyone else had done a popular thing, Shakspere was pretty sure to imitate him and to do it better. But he hardly ever did anything first." In other words, Shakspere was seeking, above all else, to please the contemporary playgoers; and he was prompt to undertake any special type of piece they had shown a liking for; so we can see him borrowing, one after another, the outer form of the chronicle-play from Marlowe, of the tragedy-of-blood from Kyd, of romantic-comedy from Greene, and of dramatic-romance from Beaumont and Fletcher. And in like manner Moliere was content to return again and again to the type of play which he had taken over from the Italian comedy-of-masks.

This "sluggish avoidance of needless invention," which is characteristic of Shakspere--and of Moliere also, altho in a less degree--is evidenced not only by their eager adoption of an accepted type of play, an outer form of approved popularity, it is obvious also in their plots, wherein we find situations, episodes, incidents drawn from all sorts of sources. In all the twoscore of Shakspere's plays, comic and tragic and historic, there are very few, indeed, the stories of which are wholly of his own making. The invention of Moliere is not quite so sluggish; and there are probably three or four of his plays the plots of which seem to be more or less his own; but even in building up these scant exceptions he never hesitated to levy on the material available in the two hundred volumes of uncatalogued French and Spanish and Italian plays, set down in the inventory of his goods drawn up at his death. Apparently Shakspere and Moliere accepted in advance Goethe's theory that much time may be lost in mere invention, whereas, "with a given material all goes easier and better. Facts and characters being provided, the poet has only the task of animating the whole. He preserves his own fulness ... since he has only the trouble of execution."

It has long been a commonplace of criticism that great poets seldom invent their myths; and it may in time become a commonplace of criticism that they seldom invent their forms. But in default of the lesser invention, they have the larger imagination; and there is no pedantry in seeking to emphasize the distinction between these two qualities, often carelessly confused. Invention is external and imagination is internal. The poets, by the mere fact that they are poets, possess the power of imagination, which alone gives vitality and significance to the ready-made plots they are willing to run into ready-made molds. Invention can do no more than devise; imagination can interpret. The details of 'Romeo and Juliet' may be more or less contained in the tale of the Italian novelist; but the inner meaning of that ideal tragedy of youthful love is seized and set forth only by the English dramatist.

Imagination in its fullest meaning must be held to include invention; but invention is only one of the less important elements of imagination; and it is the element which seems to be more or less negligible when the other elements are amply developed. La Fontaine, one of the most individual of French poets, devised only a few--and not the best--of the delightful fables he related with unfailing felicity. Calderon, who was the most imaginative of the dramatists of Spain, was perhaps the least inventive of them all, contentedly availing himself of the situations, and even of the complete plots of his more fertile fellow-playwrights; and two of his most characteristic dramas, for example, two in which he has most adequately exprest himself, the 'Alcalde of Zalamea' and the 'Physician of His Own Honor,' are borrowed almost bodily from his fecund contemporary Lope de Vega. Racine seems to have found a special pleasure in treating anew the themes Euripides had already dealt with almost a score of centuries earlier. Tennyson, to take another example, displayed not a little of this "sluggish avoidance of needless invention," often preferring to apply his imagination to the transfiguring of what Malory or Miss Mitford, Froude or Freeman had made ready for his hand. This eschewing of overt originality fitted him all the more to be spokesman of his time, and to voice the ideals of his race and of his day. Tennyson, so Sir Leslie Stephen told us, "could express what occurred to everybody in language that could be approached by nobody." Browning, on the other hand, made his own plots, and on the whole made them none too well, especially in his dramatic poems, in the structure of which he was entirely neglectful of the accepted forms of the theater of his own time--accepted forms of which Shakspere and Moliere would have availed themselves instinctively. It was not Browning, but Whitman--and Whitman in 1855, when the bard of Manhattan had not yet shown the stuff that was in him--that Lowell had in mind in the letter where he says "when a man aims at originality he acknowledges himself consciously unoriginal.... The great fellows have always let the stream of their activity flow quietly."

What is true of the poets is true also of the painters; and Lowell, who did not lose his Yankee shrewdness in the galleries of Italy, saw this also and phrased it happily in another of his letters. "The great merit, it seems to me, of the old painters was that they did not try to be original." The old painters were following in the footsteps of painters still older, from whom they received the accepted formulas for representing the subjects most likely to be ordered by customers. These accepted formulas representing the Annunciation, for instance, the Disputing in the Temple, the Crucifixion even, were passed down from one generation of artists to another; and in each successive generation the greatest painter was generally he who had no strong desire to be different from his fellows, and who was quite willing to express himself in the patterns which were then accepted traditions of his craft. To a student of the work of the generation that went before, there is often little or no invention in some of the mightiest masterpieces of painting, however much imagination there may be. The painters who wrought these masterpieces were only doing what their immediate predecessors had been doing, the same thing more or less in the same way--but with infinitely more insight, power, and inspiration. As Professor Butcher has put it tersely, "the creative art of genius does not consist in bringing something out of nothing, but in taking possession of material that exists, in appropriating it, interpreting it anew."

In the very ingenious and highly original tale called the 'Murders in the Rue Morgue,' the earliest of all detective-stories, Poe displayed his remarkable gift of invention; but he revealed his share of penetrative imagination far more richly in the simpler story of the 'Fall of the House of Usher.' Wilkie Collins had more invention than Dickens, as Dickens had more than Thackeray. Indeed, Thackeray, indolent as he was by temperament, was not infrequently "sluggish in his avoidance of needless invention." He kept his eye intent on the lurking inconsistencies of human nature, and did not give his best thought to the more mechanical element of the novelist's art. Cooper and Dumas were far more fertile in the invention of situations than was Thackeray; and even Scott, careless as he was in his easy habit of narration, gave more of his thought to the constructing of unexpected scenes.

Three centuries ago Sidney asserted that "it is not riming and versing that maketh a poet, no more than a long gown maketh an advocate"; and to-day we know that it is not skill in plot-making or ingenuity in devising unforeseen situations which proves the story-teller's possession of imagination. It is scarcely needful now to repeat that 'Called Back' and 'She'--good enough stories, both of them, each in its kind--did not demand a larger imaginative effort on the part of their several authors than was required to write the 'Rise of Silas Lapham' or 'Daisy Miller.' More invention there may be in the late Hugh Conway's tale and in Mr. Haggard's startling narrative of the phenix-female; but it is invention that we discover in their strange stories rather than imagination. Indeed, he is an ill-equipt critic who does not recognize the fact that it calls for less imagination to put together a sequence of unexpected happenings such as we enjoy in the fictions of the neo-romanticists than is needed to vitalize and make significant the less exciting portrayals of character which we find in the finer narratives of the true realists.

It was Dr. Johnson who declared, rather ponderously, it is true, but none the less shrewdly, that "the irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a while by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted and the many can only repose on the stability of truth." Johnson was speaking here from the point of view of the reader only; but he might have noted also that the "irregular combinations of fanciful invention" tend to lose their interest even for the very writers who have been successful in supplying their readers with the "pleasures of sudden wonder." For example, in the opening years of this twentieth century the witty historian of the kingdom of Zenda--that land of irresponsible adventure which lies seemingly between the Forest of Arden and the unexplored empire of Weissnichtwo--this historian, after regaling us with brisk and brilliant chronicles of that strange country and of the adjacent territory, apparently wearied of these pleasant inventions of his and wisht to come to a closer grapple with the realities of life and character. But he soon found that this task was not so easy as it appeared--not so easy, indeed, as the earlier writing had been; and 'Quisante,' for all its cleverness, did not prove its author's possession of the informing imagination which alone can give life and meaning to a novel dealing with men and women as they are in the real world.

Not unlike is the case of the narrator of the manifold and varied deductions of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, that British reincarnation of Poe's M. Dupin. There is danger of unfairness in accepting the authenticity of words put into a man's mouth by any interviewer, however well intentioned; and there is, therefore, a possibility that the biographer of the Brigadier Gerard did not confess his own slight esteem for the many tales of invented adventure which had given him his wide-spread popularity. But there is an accent of veracity in the reported assertion of the author of 'A Duet with an Occasional Chorus' that this is the book closest to his heart, because it is an honest attempt to deal with the facts of life as they stare us in the face to-day. And yet 'A Duet' is unknown to a tithe of the countless readers who have devoured its writer's other volumes with avidity. And what is more to the point, it does not--favorite of its author tho it is--it does not deserve to be known so widely. This is because it is not so good as the other books of the same writer, not so good in its kind as they are in theirs. The tales that dealt with Sherlock Holmes and Brigadier Gerard and the White Company are works of invention mainly; and the writer had proved himself capable of adroit and ingenious invention. 'A Duet,' dealing with the commonplaces of life, needed not invention, which would indeed almost be out of place in a humdrum chronicle; it demanded imagination to interpret the commonplace and to transfigure the humdrum, revealing their essential significance. And this imagination the author had not at his call, in spite of his command over the more showy invention.

It may not be without interest to consider how another writer of our time, not seeking for originality, happened to find it, and how his acceptance of certain literary patterns, so to call them--patterns inherited from the remote and shadowy past of our race--led him to an unforeseen effort of illuminative imagination, which suddenly elevated what he had done and gave it a significance far wider and far deeper than the author had foreseen. In the two successive volumes of the 'Jungle Book' (as it was originally published) there are two sets of stories commingled and yet sharply distinct. One group deals with the boyhood of Mowgli among the beasts of the forest; and to many of us these linked tales represent the highest achievement of Mr. Kipling's genius; they seem as assured of survival as anything which the nineteenth century has transmitted to the twentieth. The other stories, the 'White Seal' and the 'Undertakers' and their companions, stand on a lower level; they are good stories, no doubt,--very good, indeed, one or two of them. But they have an added importance in that they seem to have been the needful accompaniment of the Mowgli tales; they may be considered as the underbrush that at first protected the growth of the loftier tree.

They are modern examples of the beast-fable, latter-day amplifications of the simple tale of animals credited with human cunning, such as primitive man told to his naked children as they huddled around the embers in the cave, which was then their only home. The beast-fable is a literary pattern of an undiscoverable antiquity, as alluring to-day as ever before, since the child in us fortunately never dies. It is a pattern which Mr. Kipling has handled with a constant affection and with a large freedom. His earlier animal tales dealt with wild beasts, or at least with the creatures of the forests and of the ocean beyond the influence of man and remote from his haunts. Soon he availed himself of the same pattern to tell stories of animals domesticated and in close contact with man; and thus he gave us the 'Walking Delegate' and the 'Maltese Cat.' In time betook a further step and applied to the iron horse of the railroad the method which had enabled him to set before us the talk of the polo pony and of the blooded trotter; and thus he was led to compose '007,' in which we see the pattern of the primitive beast-fable so stretched as to enable us to overhear the intimate conversation of humanized locomotives, the steeds of steel that puff and pant in and out of the roundhouse in an American railroad yard. Yet one more extension of the pattern enabled him to take a final step; after having given a human soul to separate engines, he proceeded then to animate the several parts of a single machine. And thus we have 'How the Ship Found Herself' and the later 'Below the Mill-dam.' But altho these are successive stages of the primitive beast-fable as it has been modified in Mr. Kipling's restless hands, there is little flagrant originality, even at the end, since 'How the Ship Found Herself' is seen to be only an up-to-date version of one of the earliest fables, the 'Belly and the Members.'

Interesting as it may be to clamber up into the spreading family-tree of fiction, it is not here that we must seek for the stem from which the Mowgli stories ultimately flowered. These stories are not directly derived from the beast-fable, altho his mastery of that literary pattern may have helped the author to find his final form. They are a development from one of his own tales, 'In the Rukh,' included at first in 'Many Inventions,' and now transferred to its proper place at the end of the book in which the adventures of Mowgli are recorded. In that first tale, which is now the last, we have set before us the impression Mowgli and his little brothers, the wolves, made upon two white men in the Indian service; and incidentally we are permitted to snatch a glimpse or two of Mowgli's youth in the jungle. But the story is told from the point of view of these white men; and it is small wonder that when the author came to look again at what he had written he saw how rich it was in its possibilities. He was moved to go back to narrate the whole series of Mowgli's adventures from the very beginning, with Mowgli himself as the center of the narrative and with little obtrusion of the white man's civilization.

There was invention in this early story, and imagination also, altho not so abundant. But as the author brooded over the incidents of Mowgli's babyhood there in the thick of the forest, in the midst of the beasts, whose blood-brother he became, suddenly his imagination revealed to him that the jungle and all its inhabitants must be governed by law, or else it was a realm of chaos. It is this portrayal of wild life subject to an immitigable code which gives its sustaining moral to the narrative of Mowgli's career. As Mr. Kipling said to me once, "When I had found the Law of the Jungle the rest was easy!" For him it may have been easy, since his invention is ever fresh and fertile; but the finding of the Law of the Jungle--that transcended mere invention with all its multiplied ingenuities--that was a stroke of imagination.

This distinction between imagination and invention may not be as important as that between imagination and fancy urged by Wordsworth a century ago; and no doubt there is always danger in any undue insistence upon catchwords, which are often empty of meaning, and which are sometimes employed to convey a misleading suggestion. This distinction has its own importance, however, and it is not empty or misleading. It needs to be accepted in art as it has been accepted in science, in which domain a fertile discovery is recognized as possible only to the imagination, while a specific device is spoken of as an invention. Newton and Darwin were discoverers by their possession of imagination; whereas the telegraph and the telephone are to be credited to humbler inventors, making application of principles already discovered.

This opening century of ours is an era of extraordinary dexterity and of wide-spread cleverness, and we need to be put on our guard against the risk of mistaking the products of our abundant invention for the rarer gifts of inspiring imagination. It is well for us to be reminded now and again that the great masters, painters and poets alike, novelists and dramatists, have often displayed "a sluggish avoidance of needless invention" at the very minute when their robust imagination was putting forth its full strength.

(1904.)

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