In Whitman's Hand


About this Item

Title: Lessing's Laocoön

Creators: Walt Whitman, J.D.W.

Annotation Date: After January 1, 1851

Base Document Citation: J.D.W., "Lessing's Laocoön," American Whig Review 13 (January 1851), 21–26.

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00055

Source: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Transcribed from digital images of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the marginalia and annotations, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Sarah Sussman, Nicole Gray, Ty Alyea, Lauren Grewe, and Matt Cohen


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1851.Lessing's Laocoön.21

excites no desire that it does not satisfy. Strictly artistic groups of statuary should then require no label or explanation to make them agreeable and instructive. A sleeping infant, in marble, requires no text nor comment to enhance its value. A blind beggar led by a child stands for the natural symbol of certain truly divine sentiments—innocence, humility, submission to the will of God, and dutifulness. And surely, if the statuary has expressed all these in his group, it needs no label nor explanation, no quotation from Marmontel, to enhance its value. If in any particular the ancients have excelled us, it is in this, that their artists represented sublime and constant emotions, such as are in themselves complete. The statue of Niobe weeping over her children represents the instant access of a grief, which at once annihilates and replaces all other emotions, which pervades the whole mind and the whole body, which is actionless through despair, and, therefore, representable in the marble. A grief without remedy, and therefore without irritation ; for it is the incompleteness of sorrow, the tincture of a lingering hope, that inspires it and leads to vehement action. In general the art of the statuary leads him to prefer a sublime or extremely pathetic subject, and for the very reason assigned : the quiet vision of the enthusiast, whose open eyes behold only spiritual things, and whose body sleeps in apathy while the spirit is exalted, is representable in the marble. The countenance of the sage or grave philosopher is more beautifuiful in marble than in life, perhaps for the very reason that the spirit of mere wisdom partakes more of acquiescence and submission than of action. The famous statue of the Listening Slave, so called, but by Winkelman otherwise designated, represents another species of rest, that of cunning and expectation. The Dying Gladiator, the Apollo Belvidere, the Hercules in Apotheosis, the Medician Venus, the very Caryatides—statues in the places of pillars—serve to illustrate the art of antiquity, and to show the superiority of judgment of the statuaries of Greece over those of later days. They knew the limits of their art, what it could and what it could not express, and they seldom attempted anything beyond those limits. Their bas-reliefs encroach a little upon the province of painting, but not essentially upon that of poetry. From their eminent successes and the universal admiration which attends their works, we are forced to concede them the highest praise of criticism, which is that they knew, first, how to choose the highest subjects that could be executed in marble; and second, that they carried their execution to a degree unsurpassed by those who have come after them.

In illustrating the difference between the artist and the poet, Lessing gives us a beautiful example in the picture of Pandarus, from the Fourth Book of the Iliad, which picture, he says, is one of the most finished and most illusive in the whole poem:—

"Each moment is delineated, from the grasping of the bow to the flight of the arrow ; and these moments are all so closely connected, and yet so distinct one from another, were we unacquainted with the use of the bow, we might learn it from this picture alone. We see Pandarus drawing forth his bow; he fastens it on the string, opens his quiver, and chooses a new and well-feathered arrow. He adjusts the arrow to the string, and draws back the string with the channelled end of the arrow, till they come in contact with his breast, while the iron end of the arrow approaches the bow. The large rounded bow now strikes asunder with a mighty noise, the string vibrates with a ringing sound, off springs the arrow, and flies swiftly to its mark."

This series of actions would require a dozen different statues, set in order, for their representation. Homer paints them in a paragraph. He does not describe the bow, nor the arrow, nor the person of the archer— these he leaves to imagination, aided by experience; but he gives us the series of actions performed by these, tending all to the accomplishment of the work which he has in hand—the destruction of Troy, or rather of its hero, Hector; or, if we go still farther, the glory of Greece, in the persons of its kings.

"The painter can only employ," says Lessing, "one single moment of the action, and he must therefore select as far as possible that which is at once expressive of the past and pregnant with the future. In like manner the poet, in his consecutive imitations, can employ but one single attribute of bodies, and must, therefore, select that which awakens the most sensible image of the body, under that particular aspect which he has chosen to represent. On this principle is founded the rule of unity in the pictorial or descriptive epithets of the poet, and of parsimony in his delineations of bodily objects."

We see that the unity of poetry is a unity of progress toward a certain end,—the rise, the culmination, and the catastrophe of a single passion in a single individual, reflected

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in the inferior members of the group that move with him. And this rule of unity holds throughout the entire range of poetic art, from the point of the epigram, and the single thought of the sonnet, even to the sublime passion of the ode, and the glory and the majestic ambition of the epic, in which the entire force of human character, in one or in a few persons, is concentrated for a series of years upon the attainment of a single purpose. But this rule of unity, as it appears in the trunk and larger proportions, so carries itself into the minutest leaves, the very if's and and's of a vitally organized poem. Every word should have a vital connection with every other in the entire work, and every word should express, or assist in expressing, an act which is a part of the entire action, the whole, together and apart, having a defined and certain aim; and thus all disputes about the unities are set at naught by the very nature and necessity of art.

"Such principles as I have expressed," says Lessing, "will alone enable us to define and explain the grandeur of Homer's style, as well as to estimate as it deserves the opposite practice of so many modern poets, who vainly seek to compete with the painter on a point on which they must of necessity be surpassed by him. I find that Homer paints nothing but progressive actions, and each body, each individual thing which he introduces, he delineates only on account of the part it bears in these actions, and even then in general with but a single trait. Is it then surprising that the painter can find little or nothing to do where Homer has employed his powers of delineation, and that the only field he can find to work on is where the story brings together a number of beautiful bodies in fine positions, and within a space advantageous to art, however slight the poet's delineation of all these circumstances may be?"

Lessing proceeds to illustrate this great discovery, which, if a new school of constructive art shall ever arise in this country, must be taken as its corner-stone, and in defiance of that abominable miscellaneousness and confusion of purpose which characterize the modern school, by certain well chosen examples from Homer. Thus Homer characterizes the ship by a single trait—the black

ship, or, the hollow ship; but of the embarkation, the sailing, and the landing, he draws a highly finished picture, because they are actions, or rather a single action, whose successions belong to poetry. If it becomes necessary for Homer to fix our view longer than usual on a single object, even then it will be found that no picture is presented which the painter could follow with his pencil.

"He contrives, by numberless artifices, to place this single object in a series of successive movements, each of which exhibits it under a different aspect, and in the last of which the painter must wait to see it before he can fully exhibit what has been described by the poet. For instance, if Homer wishes to delineate the car of Juno, he makes Hebe put it together, bit by bit, before our eyes; we see the wheels, the axles, the seat of the car, the braces and the reins, not so much in actual combination, as in the progress of combination, under the hands of Hebe: the wheels are the only part on which Homer bestows more than one trait, delineating the eight brazen spokes, the golden circles, the bands of brass, and the silver naves, each separately and particularly. One would almost be inclined to think that the poet had chosen to dwell so much longer on the wheels than the other parts, out of deference to the more important service required from them in reality."

"Bright Hebe waits; by Hebe ever young,
The whirling wheels are to the chariot hung.
On the bright axle turns the bidden wheel
Of sounding brass; the polished axle steel.
Eight brazen spokes in radiant order flame,
The circles gold, of uncorrupted frame,
Such as the heavens produce; and round the gold
Two brazen rings of work divine were rolled.
The bossy naves of solid silver shone;
Braces of gold suspend the moving throne:
The car, behind, an arching figure bore;
The bending concave form'd an arch before.
Silver the beam, th' extended yoke was gold,
And golden reins th' immortal coursers hold."

Lessing's second illustration is a description from Homer of the king, Agamemnon, putting on his dress. We see him draw on the soft tunic, throw the broad mantle around him, fasten his elegant sandals, gird on his sword, and lastly, seize the regal sceptre. Another poet would have delineated the dress and left us without the action. We should have had a tailor's card of Agamemnon.

"First on his limbs a slender vest he drew,
Around him next the royal mantle threw.
Th' embroidered sandals on his feet were tied;
The starry falchion glitter'd at his side;
And last his arm the massy sceptre loads,
Unstained, immortal, and the gift of gods."

Again, in describing the sceptre of the king he supposes that we have already seen it. Instead of a description he gives us its history. First, it is the work of Vulcan, it glitters in the hands of Jove, it marks the dignity of Mercury, it is the baton of Pelops, the staff of Atreus, and, finally, the ruling sceptre of the king of Argos. This makes the sceptre, if we may so speak, respectable in

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our eyes; and by such a description, a stick of wood, stuck full of copper nails, is made the significant usher of a line of heroic images, representing dignity and authority in every grade.

Again, when Achilles swears by his sceptre, the poet traces it from the green tree upon its native mountains to the hands of the hero, acquiring attributes of dignity.

The delineation of the bow of Pandarus is another wonderful instance of the skill of the poet, who attaches to it a high degree of interest.

It has long been a matter of wonder among critics that Dryden, a poet of inferior skill to Pope in the management of verse, should be generally better esteemed by the ripest judges. We believe that an inquiry into the peculiarities of these writers will establish for the elder of the two a great superiority in epic force, in the qualities of action and vital unity. The imitators of Pope and Dryden, understanding nothing of the true vitality of art, imitated only their versification, their antithetic turn, and their epigrammatic point. That the writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were ignorant of the true principles of classic art, discovered or revived by Lessing, we have evidence enough to fill entire libraries, libraries commenting on, and imitating in a frigid manner, the classic unities. Impressed with the idea that unity was necessary to a work of art, they conceived of it as an artificial band, holding the parts of the work together, as the tire of a wheel gives unity, and not as the specific or vital principle of an animal gives unity to it. In treating of the episode and of episodic description, mechanical critics have regarded them as so many ornamental flourishes nailed or stuck upon the body of the work, and for which any other might have been substituted with equal propriety.

In the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller, of which there is a translated American edition, we find an apparent and continued effort on the part of those great writers and critics to solve the epic and dramatic problem of unity, independently of Lessing, and almost without reference to him, and with signal ill-success. The criticisms of Goethe and Schiller have no entireness, and show the dimmest appreciation of the root principle of epos and drama—an appreciation so dim, the uninitiated reader will perhaps never discover it at all; and in the

works of these poetic artists there is acknowledged by all a want of unity and want of action, which ranks them far below the models of antiquity.

The purposes of art are simple, and not speculative; its materials derived from nature and tradition, and not from excogitation and analysis; and perhaps it is impossible for any but a people whose actions are free and unrestrained, who have great and national purposes, simple and heroic views, and

an experience of life, varied upon sea and land, in peace and war, and through the vicissitudes of calamity and brilliant fortune, to produce an original and classic school of poetry,—a people who believe, or incline to believe, that what they think and can do is the best, saving what their fathers thought and did before them, and who scorn and detest the barbarism and corruption of neighboring monarchies. Had Greece been

flooded with an Asiatic literature, generated from the vice and luxury of courts, would she ever have produced a Homer or an Aristotle? And will America ever produce great writers and artists who will transmit our glory to future generations, while she is cloyed and debilitated with the sweet and sickly literature of French libertinism and English servilism? Great geniuses may be,

indeed, in a measure, self-developed, but the imitative instinct puts them in strong and intimate sympathy with the age, the men, and the books with whom they converse. Let the young poet, and whoever wishes to excel as a writer and a speaker, beware of his company. If he associates with triflers, neglecting the harsh and disciplinary contacts of duty and business, and if, instead of serious poems and histories, he steeps his intellect in the muddy floods of sentimental fiction, the trifling and sensual, his moral power must decline, the pride and freedom of his soul be impaired, his hours of thought expended in useless reverie or idle criticism; despondency and low despair will take the place of manly ambition. To the inexperienced it is perhaps necessary to add this caution—not to mistake verbal and rhetorical criticism, and classical nibbling, for a study of great models. Sublime and beautiful works should be read as one views a majestic landscape, by a rapid and comprehensive glance. Magnitude is said to be an element of the sublime. To appreciate the sublimity of Milton or Homer, one must take in all at

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once an entire member of their work,—a secret of criticism which, unhappily, few of our classical scholars possess; for these gentlemen judge a man's scholarship by the neatness and prosody of his quotations from Horace, and their knowledge of the great writers of their own and other tongues is ofttimes more correct than organic; but the poet and the writer who works from a central, living principle, must work from a consciousness very different from that of the analyst, or dissector. English treatises of criticism too often resemble a hand-book called the Dublin Dissector, which the student holds in his left hand open, while, with the scalpel in his right, he separates the integument from the muscle. The treatise of Lessing, on the contrary, desorves to be called an organic treatise, because it shows us the vital principle in the living work.

In the seventeenth section our author dwells at length upon the impropriety of detailed delineations of bodily objects in poetry. The signs of speech are arbitrary. When a word is uttered, or written, it signifies nothing to the hearer or reader except by reference to his own experience. The poet cannot describe a thing which no one has ever seen, so that the imagination shall receive it. He can describe only the changes, combinations, and actions of things that have been seen and are already known, or which the imagination shapes from experience, or from pictorial representations. Milton's angels have a human form, speak the English language, and their music was the music known to Milton; their armor is that of English knights, their artillery the modern cannon. Thus, in the detail of his work, the greatest of all inventors invented nothing.

no in-


He could change, he could magnify; he could darken and illuminate, combine and put in action; he could inspire his angels with the great passion familiar to his own spirit; he could give them the theology and the skepticism which agitated his own intellect, and there invention ceased. His learning fills out the work coldly and heavily, the pedant and poet contending for mastery; his detailed descriptions of things without action, leave the imagination dull and stagnant; but when he puts in motion the angelic hosts, we hear the clash of armor, the sound of chariot-wheels, and the thunder of artillery—your bosoms burn with the ardor of the fight—and then the poet seems to be a creator, or inventor, in the right sense.

America has produced many authors who have excelled in the description of natural scenery. Every one is familiar with the exquisite delineations of Bryant and Longfellow, in those beautiful and pathetic little poems, "The Water-fowl," and the "Loss of the Hesperus." There are touches in these of natural description unsurpassed in their kind. Many of equal or superior beauty are quoted by the readers of Tennyson; but these excellent poets do not describe for the sake of describing; they do not encroach upon the province of the landscape painter; they speak only of what we have seen and are familiar with, and then give us the changes, dramatic motives and pathetic incidents, which the phenomena of nature occasion, attend, or suggest. They combine in their poems the two-fold genius of ode and elegy; the elegy describing and lamenting past scenes, the ode, interior passions of an instant. In all that they write there is motion and life, and therefore, we dare say, they are popular and admired.

"I do not deny," says Lessing, "to speech in general, the power of delineating a bodily whole, by means of its separate parts; this it possesses, because its signs, although consecutive, are yet arbitrary. But I deny that this power is possessed by speech, considered as the mechanical means of poetry, because such verbal delineations of bodies would be deficient in that illusion on which poetry mainly rests; and for this plain reason, that the entireness of the body being destroyed by the consecutive nature of the discourse, and an analysis of the whole into its parts being thus effected, the ultimate reunion of those parts, in the imagination, must always be a work of very great difficulty, and in many cases would even be impossible. Where, therefore, no illusive effect is required, where the understanding of the reader alone is addressed, and where the only aim of the author is to convey distinct, and, as far as possible, complete ideas, those delineations of bodies which are excluded from poetry, properly so called, may with perfect propriety be introduced, and may be employed with much advantage not only by the prose writer, but by the didactic poet, who is, in fact, no poet at all"

Lessing quotes instances from Virgil of purely didactic and descriptive poetry, which are only a more agreeable paraphrase of prose, and exhibit skill in language, and a knowledge of husbandry, and nothing more.

"Except in such cases as these, the detailed delineation of bodily objects—without the Homeric artifice of rendering co-existent parts actually consecutive,

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to which I have already alluded—has always been regarded by the best critics as an uninteresting and trifling performance, for which little or no genius is required. When the poetaster feels himself at a loss, he sets to work, as Horace tells us, to delineate a grove, an altar, a rivulet meandering through pleasant meadows, a rapid stream, or perhaps a rainbow."

"When the judgment of Pope had become matured by years and experience, he looked back, we are told, with great contempt on the pictorial essays of his youthful muse. He insisted that it was indispensable for any one who desired to render himself really worthy of the name of a poet, to renounce as early as possible the taste for dry delineation; and compared a merely descriptive poem to a feast composed of nothing but sauces."

Lessing recommends that the poet who has conceived a work in which a series of images are brought forward, with sentiments sparingly interwoven, should change his plan, and make his poem a series of sentiments with but a slight admixture of images. But, after all, the most perfect descriptive poem must consist of an indistinguishable mixture, a perfect blending of imagery and sentiment.

The eighteenth section of our author's work continues the subject. The practice of certain painters who have represented in one picture an entire story—as when Titian gives in one piece the entire story of the Prodigal Son; or as if Cole's four pictures of the Course of Life had been blended into one piece—is condemned as an encroachment of the painter upon the territory of the poet, and serves to show that successions, not in time, but in space, are the proper sphere of the painter. Lessing argues an equal absurdity in those poetical descriptions which give scenes without motion from object to object.

And yet there is a certain liberty allowed, both to the painter and the poet. The painter may unite two distinct moments in the posture of a figure. The artist may have the sense and the courage to force a rule of art, in order to attain a greater perfection of expression. The poet may dwell momentarily upon an object, suspending, for a certain time, the entire movement of his piece. The painter may sometimes represent a falling body with effect, as has been done by Hogarth; but these are accidental to the main design, and rather heighten than impair the harmony of the whole. Thus, the figures on the right and left of a picture, may seem to be in rapid action, while the more important figures are at rest. A forest scene may indicate the movement of a tempest so as to produce a perfect illusion, without violating the unity and fixed lights and shadows of the whole. There is a broad margin allowed in all arts for an apparent departure from their peculiar principles.

One of the most brilliant chapters in this work is the critique on the two descriptions of a shield—the shield of Achilles, by Homer, and the shield of Æneas, by Virgil.

"Homer," says Lessing, "has composed upwards of a hundred magnificent verses in describing every circumstance connected with the shield of Achilles —its form, the material of which it was composed, and the figures with which its immense surface was covered, so minutely, and so exactly, that modern sculptors have found no difficulty in executing imitations of it, corresponding in every particular. This wonderful example of poetic painting is executed by Homer without the least departure from the principle adhered to by him throughout his work. The shield is epically described—that is to say, created out of the rude iron and brass, by the hands of the poet. Its figures spring gradually and successively into view; the orb rises from an edge to its full splendor. Homer brings before our eyes not so much the shield itself, however, as the divine artist who is employed in making it. We cannot forbear noticing, at this opportunity, that of all descriptions in the ancient poets, those of mechanical and agricultural labor are the most interesting and exquisitely wrought. The idea of indignity or disgrace did not attach itself, in the sublime age of the epos, to mechanical labor. The stigma seems to be feudal, and is certainly the disgrace of our time. Thank God, we are approaching a new age, when labor shall no longer

be a disgrace, but shall be dignified, as in heroic ages, by sages and poets, with the highest honors of humanity; and in the day when toil is honored and men are free, when they have ceased to 'love

a lord,' perhaps we shall have other heroes and poets, it may be, even greater than those of antiquity —but not while we are cursed with a servile literature, and a more servile art.

"We see the divine artist approach the anvil with his hammer and pincers, and when he has finished forging the plate out of the rough ore, we perceive the figures destined for their embellishment, rising one after another from the surface beneath the judicious strokes of his hammer. We never once lose sight of the workman, until his labor is completed, and then the amazement with which we regard his work is mingled with the confident faith of eye-witnesses to its execution."

Is not the above the finest piece of criticism that ever escaped a modern pen—the richest in suggestion, the most refined and discriminating, and with the greatest possible breadth of appreciation? Certainly nothing in Longinus approaches it, in comprehensiveness;

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and to have surpassed Longinus is to have surpassed all critics, not even excepting the favorite Goethe, whose subtleties, entitled criticisms, show, indeed, wonderful observation, but fall short in comprehensiveness, in the place of which they have often only mysteriousness. In the criticism of Lessing, the artist finds laid open for him, and clearly expressed, the rules by which he must work, if ever he succeed; rules derived not from speculation, but from a truly Baconian analysis (with an aesthetic guidance) of the greatest works that have been produced.

Virgil's description of the shield of Æneas is treated by Lessing with great severity, and apparently with great justice. Moral simplicity of intention is wanting in the work. It is made a vehicle of flattery. Virgil introduces us to a view of the god Vulcan busied with the Cyclops, and produces a few celebrated lines. He then leads us off into a different scene; Venus and Æneas appear together in conversation; the shield is leaning against the trunk of an oak—it might have been any other tree, or a rock. The hero Æneas has already inspected, and admired, and handled the arms in a very common- place manner, which only excites the restless desire of the reader to get him out of the way, and handle them for one's self. And then follows what Lessing pronounces to be a tame and tedious description, made by the poet, of the figures wrought upon the shield, while Venus and Æneas stand by, either whispering in a side scene, or with signs of great impatience, we may suppose, for the poet to have done with his tedious ciceronism and cease from making them ridiculous. "Homer," says Lessing, "makes the god elaborate the decorations of the shield because he, the divine artist, with that high moral simplicity which characterizes true art, desires to produce a piece of workmanship worthy of his skill. Virgil, on the contrary, would lead us to imagine that the shield was executed for the sake of the ornaments." A degradation of the armor itself, of the poet, and of the divine artist, Hephistos.

The twentieth section of the Laocoön, following out the principle already laid down by our author, prohibits the description of personal beauty by the poet, except in the most general terms. Homer tells us that Nireus was beautiful—that Achilles was still more so, and that the beauty of Helen was divine. "Nowhere do we find him entering into a circumstantial delineation of these examples of beauty; yet the beauty of Helen was the very pivot on which turns the entire fabric of the poem. How luxuriantly would one of our modern poets have dwelt on its details." These elaborate encroachments upon the province of the painter create confusion, and confusion only, in the imagination. The painter or the statuary can alone give us the picture or the statue of a Helen. After quoting an example from the Italians of this kind of description, Lessing draws a distinction between admiration for an artist and admiration for his work. We may admire the artist for the knowledge he displays, and the beautiful materials he brings together; we may condemn the work from its failure to produce a powerful and simple effect upon the imagination.

Beauty should be described in poetry by its effects alone, by the grace of its actions, and by the admiration and the ardor which it excites. The only remaining topic of general interest touched upon in the Laocoön, is the use of deformity as a subject in art. It is argued that deformity is not a fit subject for the painter or the statuary, but is very proper for the uses of poetry; to this, however, there must be certain liberties permitted, since deformity may be used to set off beauty, oven in painting; and we know that in the department of humorous painting, deformity is employed with great effect. The examination of this part of the Laocoön requires a separate treatment; and with every acknowledgment of his great genius, we here take our leave of the author with a protest and reservation against these conclusions of his twenty-fourth and twenty- fifth chapters.

J. D. W.


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