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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Limitations of “Word-Painting”
By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781)
 
From ‘Laocoön’

WHAT I have been saying of corporeal objects in general applies even more forcibly to beautiful ones.  1
  Physical beauty results from the harmony of a number of parts which can be embraced in one glance. It is therefore essential that those parts should be close together; and since things whose parts are close together are the proper subjects of painting, that art alone can represent physical beauty.  2
  The poet, who can only set down one after another the elements of the beautiful object, should therefore abstain wholly from the description of physical beauty by itself. He ought to feel that these elements arranged in sequence cannot possibly produce the same effect as if in juxtaposition; that the comprehensive glance we try to throw back over them at the end of the enumeration produces no harmonious picture; and that it transcends the power of human imagination to realize the effect of a given pair of eyes, a given nose, and a given mouth together, unless we can call to mind a like combination in nature or art.  3
  Here again Homer is the model of models. He says—Nireus was handsome; Achilles was very handsome; Helen was of godlike beauty. But he is nowhere enticed into giving a minuter detail of their beauties. Yet the whole poem is based on Helen’s loveliness. How a modern poet would have reveled in specifications of it!  4
  Even Constantine Manasses tried to adorn his bare Chronicle with a portrait of Helen. I feel grateful to him for the attempt; for really I should not know where else to turn for so striking an example of the folly of venturing on what Homer’s wise judgment refrained from undertaking. When I read in his book—
  “She was a woman passing fair, fine-browed, finest complexioned,
Fine-cheeked, fine-featured, full-eyed, snowy-skinned,
Quick-glancing, dainty, a grove full of graces,
White-armed, voluptuous, breathing out frank beauty,
The complexion very fair, the cheeks rosy,
The countenance most charming, the eye blooming;
Beauty unartificial, unrouged, her own skin,
Dyed the brightest rose-color a warmer glow,
As if one stained ivory with splendid purple.
Her neck long, passing white, whence in legend
The Swan-born they termed the beautiful Helen,”—
it is like seeing stones rolled up a mountain, on whose crest they are to be built into a noble structure, but all of which roll down the other side. What picture does this huddle of words leave with us? How did Helen look? No two readers in a thousand would have the same mental image of her….
  5
  Virgil, by imitating Homer’s self-restraint, has achieved a fair success. His Dido is only the very beautiful (pulcherrima) Dido. All the other details he gives refer to her rich ornaments and superb apparel…. If on this account any one turned against him what the old artist said to one of his pupils who had painted an elaborately dressed Helen,—“You have painted her rich because you could not paint her lovely,”—Virgil would answer: “I am not to blame that I could not paint her lovely. The fault is in the limitations of my art, and it is to my credit that I have kept within them.”  6
 
 
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