Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘The Art Work of the Future’
By Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Translation of William Ashton Ellis

WHERESOEVER the folk made poetry,—and only by the folk, or in the footsteps of the folk, can poetry be really made,—there did the poetic purpose rise to life alone upon the shoulders of the arts of dance and tone, as the head of the full-fledged human being. The lyrics of Orpheus would never have been able to turn the savage beasts to silent, placid adoration, if the singer had but given them forsooth some dumb and printed verse to read: their ears must be enthralled by the sonorous notes that came straight from the heart; their carrion-spying eyes be tamed by the proud and graceful movements of the body,—in such a way that they should recognize instinctively in this whole man no longer a mere object for their maw, no mere objective for their feeding powers, but for their hearing and their seeing powers,—before they could be attuned to duly listen to his moral sentences.  1
  Neither was the true folk-epic by any means a mere recited poem: the songs of Homer, such as we now possess them, have issued from the critical siftings and compilings of a time in which the genuine epos had long since ceased to live. When Solon made his laws and Pisistratus introduced his political régime, men searched among the ruins of the already fallen epos of the folk, and pieced the gathered heap together for reading service,—much as in the Hohenstaufen times they did with the fragments of the lost Nibelungenlieder. But before these epic songs became the object of such literary care, they had flourished mid the folk, eked out by voice and gesture, as a bodily enacted art work; as it were, a fixed and crystallized blend of lyric song and dance, with predominant lingering on portrayal of the action and reproduction of the heroic dialogue. These epic-lyrical performances form the unmistakable middle stage between the genuine older lyric and tragedy,—the normal point of transition from the one to the other.  2
  Tragedy was therefore the entry of the art work of the folk upon the public arena of political life; and we may take its appearance as an excellent touchstone for the difference in procedure between the art creating of the folk and the mere literary-historical making of the so-called cultured art world. At the very time when live-born Epos became the object of the critical dilettanteism of the court of Pisistratus, it had already shed its blossoms in the people’s life: yet not because the folk had lost its true afflatus; but since it was already able to surpass the old, and from unstanchable artistic sources to build the less perfect art work up, until it became the more perfect. For while those pedants and professors in the prince’s castle were laboring at the construction of a literary Homer, pampering their own unproductivity with their marvel at their wisdom, by aid of which they yet could only understand the thing that long had passed from life,—Thespis had already slid his car to Athens, had set it up beside the palace walls, dressed out his stage, and stepping from the chorus of the folk, had trodden its planks; no longer did he shadow forth the deeds of heroes, as in the epos, but in these heroes’ guise enacted them.  3
  With the folk, all is reality and deed; it does, and then rejoices in the thought of its own doing. Thus the blithe folk of Athens, inflamed by persecution, hunted out from court and city the melancholy sons of Pisistratus; and then bethought it how, by this its deed, it had become a free and independent people. Thus it raised the platform of its stage, and decked itself with tragic masks and raiment of some god or hero, in order itself to be a god or hero: and tragedy was born; whose fruits it tasted with the blissful sense of its own creative force, but whose metaphysical basis it handed, all regardless, to the brain-racking speculation of the dramaturgists of our modern court-theatres.  4
  Tragedy flourished for just so long as it was inspired by the spirit of the folk, and as this spirit was a veritably popular,—i.e., a communal one. When the national brotherhood of the folk was shivered into fragments, when the common bond of its religion and primeval customs was pierced and severed by the sophist needles of the egoistic spirit of Athenian self-dissection,—then the folk’s art work also ceased: then did the professors and the doctors of the literary guilds take heritage of the ruins of the fallen edifice, and delved among its beams and stones; to pry, to ponder, and to rearrange its members. With Aristophanian laughter, the folk relinquished to these learned insects the refuse of its meal, threw art upon one side for two millennia, and fashioned of its innermost necessity the history of the world; the while those scholars cobbled up their tiresome history of literature by order of the supreme court of Alexander.  5
  The career of poetry, since the breaking-up of tragedy, and since her own departure from community with mimetic dance and tone, can be easily enough surveyed, despite the monstrous claims which she has raised. The lonely art of poetry prophesied no more: she no longer showed, but only described; she merely played the go-between, but gave naught from herself: she pieced together what true seers had uttered, but without the living bond of unity; she gave the catalogue of a picture gallery, but not the paintings. The wintry stem of speech, stripped of its summer wreath of sounding leaves, shrank to the withered, toneless signs of writing; instead of to the ear, it dumbly now addressed the eye; the poet’s strain became a written dialect,—the poet’s breath the penman’s scrawl.  6
  There sate she then, the lonely, sullen sister, behind her reeking lamp in the gloom of her silent chamber,—a female Faust, who, across the dust and mildew of her books, from out the uncontenting warp and woof of thought, from off the everlasting rack of fancies and of theories, yearned to step forth into actual life; with flesh and bone, and spick and span, to stand and go ’mid real men, a genuine human being. Alas! the poor sister had cast away her flesh and bone in over-pensive thoughtlessness; a disembodied soul, she could only now describe that which she lacked, as she watched it from her gloomy chamber, through the shut lattice of her thought, living and stirring its limbs amid the dear but distant world of sense: she could only picture, ever picture, the beloved of her youth; “so looked his face, so swayed his limbs, so glanced his eye, so rang the music of his voice.” But all this picturing and describing, however deftly she attempted to raise it to a special art, how ingeniously soever she labored to fashion it by forms of speech and writing, for art’s consoling recompense,—it still was but a vain, superfluous labor, the stilling of a need which only sprang from a failing that her own caprice had bred; it was nothing but the indigent wealth of alphabetical signs, distasteful in themselves, of some poor mute.  7
  The sound and sturdy man, who stands before us clad in panoply of actual body, describes not what he wills and whom he loves; but wills and loves, and imparts to us by his artistic organs the joy of his own willing and his loving. This he does with the highest measure of directness in the enacted drama. But it is only to the straining for a shadowy substitute, an artificially objective method of description,—on which the art of Poetry, now loosed from all substantiality, must exercise her utmost powers of detail,—that we have to thank this million-membered mass of ponderous tomes, by which she still, at bottom, can only trumpet forth her utter helplessness. This whole impassable waste of stored-up literature—despite its million phrases and centuries of verse and prose, without once coming to the living Word—is nothing but the toilsome stammering of aphasia-smitten Thought, in its struggle for transmutation into natural articulate utterance.  8
  This Thought—the highest and most conditioned faculty of artistic man—had cut itself adrift from fair warm Life, whose yearning had begotten and sustained it, as from a hemming, fettering bond that clogged its own unbounded freedom: so deemed the Christian yearning, and believed that it must break away from physical man, to spread in heaven’s boundless æther to freest waywardness. But this very severance was to teach that thought and this desire how inseparable they were from human nature’s being: how high soever they might soar into the air, they still could do this in the form of bodily man alone. In sooth, they could not take the carcass with them, bound as it was by laws of gravitation; but they managed to abstract a vapory emanation, which instinctively took on again the form and bearing of the human body. Thus hovered in the air the poet’s Thought, like a human-outlined cloud that spread its shadow over actual, bodily earth-life, to which it evermore looked down; and into which it needs must long to shed itself, just as from earth alone it sucked its steaming vapors. The natural cloud dissolves itself in giving back to earth the conditions of its being: as fruitful rain it sinks upon the meadows, thrusts deep into the thirsty soil, and steeps the panting seeds of plants, which open then their rich luxuriance to the sunlight,—to that light which had erstwhile drawn the lowering cloud from out the fields. So should the poet’s thought once more impregnate life; no longer spread its idle canopy of cloud ’twixt life and light.  9
  What Poetry perceived from that high seat was after all but life: the higher did she raise herself, the more panoramic became her view; but the wider the connection in which she was now enabled to grasp the parts, the livelier arose in her the longing to fathom the depths of this great whole. Thus Poetry turned to science, to philosophy. To the struggle for a deeper knowledge of nature and of man, we stand indebted for that copious store of literature whose kernel is the poetic musing [gedankenhaftes Dichten] which speaks to us in human and in natural history, and in philosophy. The livelier do these sciences evince the longing for a genuine portrayal of the known, so much the nearer do they approach once more the artist’s poetry; and the highest skill in picturing to the senses the phenomena of the universe must be ascribed to the noble works of this department of literature. But the deepest and most universal science can, at the last, know nothing else but life itself; and the substance and the sense of life are naught but man and nature. Science therefore can only gain her perfect confirmation in the work of art; in that work which takes both man and nature,—in so far as the latter attains her consciousness in man,—and shows them forth directly. Thus the consummation of Knowledge is its redemption into Poetry; into that poetic art, however, which marches hand in hand with her sister arts towards the perfect Art work;—and this art work is none other than the drama.  10
  Drama is only conceivable as the fullest expression of a joint artistic longing to impart; while this longing, again, can only parley with a common receptivity. Where either of these factors lacks, the drama is no necessary, but merely an arbitrary, art product. Without these factors being at hand in actual life, the poet, in his striving for immediate presentation of the life that he had apprehended, sought to create the drama for himself alone; his creation therefore fell, perforce, a victim to all the faults of arbitrary dealing. Only in exact measure as his own proceeded from a common impulse, and could address itself to a common interest, do we find the necessary conditions of drama fulfilled,—since the time of its recall to life,—and the desire to answer those conditions rewarded with success.  11
  A common impulse toward dramatic art work can only be at hand in those who actually enact the work of art in common; these, as we take it, are the fellowships of players. At the end of the Middle Ages, we see that those who later overmastered them and laid down their laws from the standpoint of absolute poetic art, have earned themselves the fame of destroying root-and-branch that which the man who sprang directly from such a fellowship, and made his poems for and with it, had created for the wonder of all time. From out the inmost, truest nature of the folk, Shakespeare created [dichete] for his fellow-players that drama which seems to us the more astounding as we see it rise by might of naked speech alone, without all help of kindred arts. One only help it had, the fancy of his audience, which turned with active sympathy to greet the inspiration of the poet’s comrades. A genius the like of which was never heard, and a group of favoring chances ne’er repeated, in common made amends for what they lacked in common. Their joint creative force however was need; and where this shows its nature-bidden might, there man can compass even the impossible to satisfy it: from poverty grows plenty, from want an overflow; the boorish figure of the homely folk’s-comedian takes on the bearing of a hero, the raucous clang of daily speech becomes the sounding music of the soul, the rude scaffolding of carpet-hung boards becomes a world-stage with all its wealth of scene. But if we take away this art work from its frame of fortunate conditions, if we set it down outside the realm of fertile force which bore it from the need of this one definite epoch, then do we see with sorrow that the poverty was still but poverty, the want but want; that Shakespeare was indeed the mightiest poet of all time, but his art work was not yet the work for every age; that not his genius, but the incomplete and merely will-ing, not yet can-ing, spirit of his age’s art had made him but the Thespis of the tragedy of the future. In the same relation as stood the car of Thespis, in the brief time-span of the flowering of Athenian art, to the stage of Æschylus and Sophocles—so stands the stage of Shakespeare, in the unmeasured spaces of the flowering time of universal human art, to the theatre of the future. The deed of the one and only Shakespeare, which made of him a universal man, a very god, is yet but the kindred deed of the solitary Beethoven, who found the language of the artist-manhood of the future: only where these twain Prometheuses—Shakespeare and Beethoven—shall reach out hands to one another; where the marble creations of Phidias shall bestir themselves in flesh and blood; where the painted counterfeit of nature shall quit its cribbing-frame on the warm-life-blown framework of the future stage,—there first, in the communion of all his fellow-artists, will the poet also find redemption.  12

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