E312: British Literature since 1760


Alfred J. Drake. Office: 424 University Hall
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Text upon which this Online Edition is Based: "The Decay of Lying: a Dialogue," in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Edited by James Knowles. Vol. XXV. January-June, 1889. Pp. 35-56. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co. This is the first published version of the essay that appeared in Wilde's 1891 Intentions.


SCENE.-The Library of a Country House in England.

Cyril (coming in through the open window from the terrace).
My dear Vivian, don't coop yourself up all day in the library. It is
a perfectly lovely afternoon. Let us go and lie on the grass and
smoke cigarettes and enjoy nature.

Vivian. Enjoy nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely
lost that faculty. People tell us that art makes us love nature more
than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us; and that
after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her
that had escaped us. My own experience is that the more we study
art, the less we care for nature. What art really reveals to us is
nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary
monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. When I look at a
landscape I cannot help seeing all its defects. It is fortunate for
us, however, that nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have
had no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to
teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature,
that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself, but in
the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness, of the man who
looks at her.

C. Well, you need not look at the landscape. You can lie on
the grass and smoke and talk.

V. But nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy
and damp, and full of horrid little black insects. Why, even Maple
can make you a more comfortable seat than nature can. Nature
pales before the Tottenham Court Road. I don't complain. If
nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented
architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we
all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us,
fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so
necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is absolutely the result
of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal.


One's individuality absolutely leaves one. And then nature is so
indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park
here, I always feel that I am no more to nature than the cattle that
browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch.
Nothing is clearer than that Nature hates Mind. Thinking is the
most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as of
any other disease. Fortunately, in England at least, it is not
catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our
national stupidity. I only hope we shall be able to keep this great
historic bulwark of our happiness for many years to come; but I am
afraid that we are beginning to be over-educated; at least everybody
who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching-that is really what
our enthusiasm for education has come to. In the meantime you
had better go back to your wearisome uncomfortable Nature, and
leave me to correct my proofs.

C. Writing an article! That is not very consistent after what
you have just said.

V. Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctri-
naire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter
end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice? Not I.
Like Emerson, I write over the door of my library the word 'Whim.'
Besides, my article is really a most salutary and valuable warning.
If it is attended to, there may be a new Renaissance of Art.

C. What is the subject?

V. I intend to call it 'The Decay of Lying: A Protest.'

C. Lying! I should have thought our politicians kept up that

V. I assure you they do not. They never rise beyond the level
of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss,
to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his
frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy,
natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie?
Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently
unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just
as well speak the truth at once. No, the politicians won't do, and
besides, what I am pleading for is lying in art. Shall I read you
what I have written? It might do you a great deal of good.

C. Certainly, if you give me a cigarette. Thanks. By the way,
what magazine do you intend it for?

V. For the Retrospective Review. I think I told you that we
had revived it.

C. Whom do you mean by 'we'?

V. Oh, the Tired Hedonists of course. It is a club to which I
belong. We are supposed to wear faded roses in our button-holes
when we meet, and to have a sort of cult for Domitian. I am afraid
you are not eligible. You are too fond of simple pleasures.


C. I should be black-balled on the ground of animal spirits, I

V. Probably. Besides, you are a little too old. We don't admit
anyone who is of the usual age.

C. Well, I should fancy you are all a good deal bored with each

V. We are. That is one of the objects of the club. Now, if you
promise not to interrupt too often, I will read you my article.

C. (flinging himself down on the sofa). All right.

V. (reading in a very clear, musical voice). 'THE DECAY OF
LYING: A PROTEST.-One of the chief causes of the curiously
commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is un-
doubtedly the decay of lying as an art, a science, and a social
pleasure. The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the
form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under
the guise of fiction. The blue-book is rapidly becoming his ideal
both for method and manner. He has his tedious "document
humain," his miserable little "coin de la création," into which he
peers with his microscope. He is to be found at the Librairie
Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his
subject. He has not even the courage of other people's ideas, but
insists on going directly to life for everything, and ultimately, between
encyclopædias and personal experience, he comes to the ground, having
drawn his types from the family circle or from the weekly washer-
woman, and having acquired an amount of useful information from
which he never, even in his most thoughtful moments, can thoroughly
free himself.

'The loss that results to literature in general from this false ideal
of our time can hardly be overestimated. People have a careless
way of talking about a "born liar," just as they talk about a "born
poet." But in both cases they are wrong. Lying and poetry are
arts-arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other-and they
require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion.
Indeed, they have their technique, just as the more material arts
of painting and sculpture have, their subtle secrets of form and
colour, their craft-mysteries, their deliberate artistic methods. As
one knows the poet by his fine music, so one can recognise the liar
by his rich rhythmic utterance, and in neither case will the casual
inspiration of the moment suffice. Here, as elsewhere, practice
must precede perfection. But in modern days while the fashion of
writing poetry has become far too common, and should, if possible, be
discouraged, the fashion of lying has almost fallen into disrepute.
Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration
which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by
the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really


great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He
either falls into careless habits of accuracy--'

C. My dear Vivian!

V. Please don't interrupt in the middle of a sentence. 'He
either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting
the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are
equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the
imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid
and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements
made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who
are younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are
so like life that no one can possibly believe them. This is no isolated
instance that we are giving. It is simply one example out of many;
and if something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our
monstrous worship of facts, art will become sterile, and beauty will
pass away from the land.

'Even Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, that delightful master of
delicate and fanciful prose, is tainted with this modern vice, for we
positively know no other name for it. There is such a thing as rob-
bing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The
Black Arrow is so inartistic that it does not contain a single ana-
chronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads
dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet. As for Mr. Rider
Haggard, who really has, or had once, the makings of a perfectly
magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected of genius that
when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels bound to invent
a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as a kind of
cowardly corroboration. Nor are our other novelists much better.
Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it was a painful duty, and wastes
upon mean motives and imperceptible "points of view" his neat
literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire. Mrs.
Oliphant prattles pleasantly about curates, lawn-tennis parties, domes-
ticity, and other wearisome things. Mr. Marion Crawford has im-
molated himself upon the altar of local colour. He is like the lady
in the French comedy who is always talking about "le beau ciel
d'Italie." Besides, he has fallen into a bad habit of uttering moral
platitudes. At times he is almost edifying. Robert Elsmere is
of course a masterpiece-a masterpiece of the "genre ennuyeux," the
one form of literature that the English people seem to thoroughly
enjoy. Indeed it is only in England that such a novel could be
possible. As for that great and daily increasing school of novelists for
whom the sun always rises in the East-End, the only thing that can
be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw.
'In France, though nothing so deliberately tedious as Robert
Elsmere has been produced, things are not much better. M. Guy


de Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style,
strips life of the few poor rags that still cover her, and shows us foul
sore and festering wound. He writes lurid little tragedies in which
everybody is ridiculous; bitter comedies at which one cannot laugh for
very tears. M. Zola, true to the lofty principle that he lays down in
one of his pronunciamientos on literature, "L'homme de génie n'a
jamais de l'esprit," is determined to show that, if he has not got genius,
he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds! He is not without
power. Indeed at times, as in Germinal, there is something almost
epic in his work. But his work is entirely wrong from beginning to
end, and wrong not on the ground of morals but on the ground
of art. From any ethical standpoint his work is just what it should
be. He is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they
happen. What more can any moralist desire? I have no sympathy
at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is
simply the rage of Caliban on seeing his own face in a glass. But from
the standpoint of art, what can be said in favour of the author of
L'Assomoir, Nana, and Pot-Bouille? Nothing. M. Ruskin once
described the characters in George Eliot's novels as being like the
sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus, but M. Zola's characters are much
worse. They have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The
record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what
happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm,
beauty, and imaginative power. We don't want to be harrowed and
disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders. M.
Daudet is better. He has esprit, a light touch, and an amusing
style. But he has lately committed literary suicide. Nobody can
possibly care for Delobelle with his "Il faut lutter pour l'art," or for
Valmajour with his eternal refrain about the nightingale, or for the
poet in Jack with his "mots cruels," now that we have learned from
Vingt Ans de ma Vie littéraire that these characters were taken
directly from life. To me they seem to have suddenly lost all their
vitality, all the few qualities they ever possessed. The only real
people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base
enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that
they are creations and not boast of them as copies. As for M. Paul
Bourget, the master of the roman psychologique, he commits the
error of imagining that the men and women of modern life are capable
of being infinitely analysed for an innumerable series of chapters. In
point of fact what is interesting about people in good society-and
M. Bourget never moves out of the Faubourg-is the mask that each
one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask. It is
a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same
stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is
not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy,
and the young prince his moments of coarse humour. Where we


differ from each other is purely in accidentals: in dress, in manner,
tone of voice, personal appearance, tricks of habit, and the like. The
more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear.
Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called
human nature. Indeed, as anyone who has ever worked among the
poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of man is no mere poet's
dream, it is a terrible reality; and if a writer insists upon analysing
the upper classes he might just as well write of match-girls and
costermongers at once.' However, my dear Cyril, I will not detain
you any further on this point. I quite admit that modern novels
have many good points. All I say is that, as a class, they are quite

C. That is certainly a very grave qualification, but I must say
that I think you are rather unfair in some of your strictures. I like
Robert Elsmere for instance. Not that I can look upon it as a
serious work. As a statement of the problems that confront the
earnest Christian it is ridiculous and antiquated. It is simply
Arnold's Literature and Dogma with the literature left out. It is
as much behind the age as Paley's Evidences, or Colenso's method
of Biblical exegesis. Nor could anything be less impressive than the
unfortunate hero gravely heralding a dawn that rose long ago, and
so completely missing its true significance that he proposes to carry
on the business of the old firm under the new name. On the
other hand, it contains several clever caricatures, and a heap of de-
lightful quotations, and Green's philosophy very pleasantly sugars the
somewhat bitter pill of the author's fiction. I also cannot help ex-
pressing my surprise that you have said nothing about the two
novelists whom you are always reading, Balzac and George Meredith.
Surely they are realists, both of them?

V. Ah! Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illu-
mined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered every-
thing, except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except
tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate. Some-
body in Shakespeare-Touchstone, I think-talks about a man who
is always breaking his shins over his own wit, and it seems to me that
this might serve as the basis of a criticism of Meredith's style. But
whatever he is, he is not a realist. Or rather I would say that he
is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father.
By deliberate choice he has made himself a romanticist. He has
refused to bow the knee to Baal, and after all, even if the man's fine
spirit did not revolt against the noisy assertions of realism, his style
would be quite sufficient of itself to keep life at a respectful dis-
tance. By its means he has planted round his garden a hedge
full of thorns, and with some wonderful roses. As for Balzac, he
was a most remarkable combination of the artistic temperament with
the scientific spirit. The latter he bequeathed to his disciples: the


former was entirely his own. The difference between such a book as
M. Zola's L'Assommoir and Balzac's Illusions Perdues is the differ-
ence between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality. 'All
Balzac's characters,' said Baudelaire, 'are gifted with the same
ardour of life that animated himself. All his fictions are as deeply
coloured as dreams. Each mind is a weapon loaded to the muzzle
with will. The very scullions have genius.' A steady course of
Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances
to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent
fiery-coloured existence. They dominate us and defy scepticism.
One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de
Rubempré. It is a grief from which I have never been able to com-
pletely rid myself. But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was.
He created life, he did not copy it. I admit, however, that he set
far too high a value on modernity of form, and that, consequently,
there is no book of his that, as an artistic masterpiece, can rank
with Salammbô, or Esmond, or The Cloister and the Hearth, or the
Vicomte de Bragelonne.

C. Do you object to modernity of form then?

V. Yes. It is a huge price to pay for a very poor result. Pure
modernity of form is always somewhat vulgarising. It cannot help
being so. The public imagine that, because they are interested in
their immediate surroundings, art should be interested in them also,
and should take them as her subject-matter. But the mere fact that
they are interested in these things makes them unsuitable subjects
for art. The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the
things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or neces-
sary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure,
or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the envi-
ronment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. To
art's subject-matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should,
at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling
of any kind. It is exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her
sorrows are such an admirable motive for a tragedy. I do not know
anything in the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic
career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister
and the Hearth, a book as much above Romola as Romola is above
Daniel Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt
to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict
prisons and the management of private lunatic asylums. Charles
Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to
arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration;
but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of
beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of modern life like a common
pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the
angels to weep over. Believe me, my dear Cyril, modernity of form


and modernity of subject-matter are entirely and absolutely wrong.
We have mistaken the common livery of the age for the vesture of
the Muses, and spend our days in the sordid streets and hideous
suburbs of our vile cities when we should be out on the hillside with
Apollo. Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birth-
right for a mess of facts.

C. There is something in what you say, and there is no doubt
that whatever amusement we may find in reading an absolutely
modern novel, we have rarely any artistic pleasure in re-reading it.
And this is perhaps the best rough test of what is literature and
what is not. If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again,
there is no good reading it at all. But what do you say about the
return to Life and Nature? This is the panacea that is always being
recommended to us.

V. (taking up his proofs). I will read you what I say on that
subject. The passage comes later on in the article, but I may as
well read it now:-

'The popular cry of our time is "Let us return to Life and
Nature; they will recreate Art for us, and send the red blood coursing
through her veins; they will give her feet swiftness and make her
hand strong." But, alas! we are mistaken in our amiable and well-
meaning efforts. Nature is always behind the age; and as for Life,
she is the solvent that breaks up Art, the enemy that lays waste her

C. What do you mean by saying that nature is always behind
the age?

V. Well, perhaps that is rather obscure. What I mean is this.
If we take nature to mean natural simple instinct as opposed to self-
conscious culture, the work produced under this influence is always
old-fashioned, antiquated, and out of date. If, on the other hand,
we regard nature as the collection of phenomena external to man,
people only discover in her what they bring to her. She has no
suggestions of her own. Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was
never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already
hidden there. He went moralising about the district, but his good
work was produced when he returned, not to nature but to poetry.
Poetry gave him 'Laodamia,' and the fine sonnets, and the 'Ode to
Immortality,' and nature gave him 'Martha Ray' and 'Peter Bell.'
C. I think that view might be questioned. I am rather inclined
to believe in the 'impulse from a vernal wood,' though of course
the artistic value of such an impulse depends entirely on the kind of
temperament that receives it. However, proceed with your article.
V. (reading). 'Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely
imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and
non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated
with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed


circle. Art takes Life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and
refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents,
imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the im-
penetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treat-
ment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives
Art out into the wilderness. This is the decadence, and it is from
this that we are now suffering.

Take the case of the English drama. At first in the hands of
the monks dramatic art was abstract, decorative, and mythological.
Then she enlisted life in her service, and using some of life's external
forms, she created an entirely new race of beings, whose sorrows
were more terrible than any sorrow man has ever felt, whose joys
were keener than lover's joys, who had the rage of the Titans and
the calm of the gods, who had monstrous and marvellous sins,
monstrous and marvellous virtues. To them she gave a language
different from that of actual life, a language full of resonant music
and sweet rhythm, made stately by solemn cadence, or made delicate
by fanciful rhyme, jewelled with wonderful words, and enriched
with lofty diction. She clothed her children in strange raiment
and gave them masks, and at her bidding the antique world rose
from its marble tomb. A new Cæsar stalked through the streets
of risen Rome, and with purple sail and flute-led oars another
Cleopatra passed up the river to Antioch. Old myth and legend
and dream took form and substance. History was entirely re-
written, and there was hardly one of the dramatists who did not re-
cognise that the object of art is not simple truth but complex beauty.
In this they were perfectly right. Art herself is simply a form of
exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing
more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.

'But life soon shattered the perfection of the form. Even in
Shakespeare we can see the beginning of the end. It shows itself
by the gradual breaking up of the blank verse in the later plays,
by the predominance given to prose, and by the over-importance
assigned to characterisation. The passages in Shakespeare-and
they are many-where the language is uncouth, vulgar, exaggerated,
fantastic, obscene even, are due entirely to life calling for an echo
of its own voice, and rejecting the intervention of beautiful style,
through which alone it should be allowed to find expression.
Shakespeare is not by any means a flawless artist. He is too fond
of going directly to life, and borrowing life's natural utterance. He
forgets that when art surrenders her imaginative medium she
surrenders everything. Goethe says somewhere-
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
"It is in working within limits that the master reveals himself,"
and the limitation, the very condition, of any art is style. How-
ever, we will not linger any longer over Shakespeare's realism. 'The


Tempest is the best of palinodes. All that we desired to point out
was, that the magnificent work of the Elizabethan and Jacobean
artists contained within itself the seeds of its own dissolution, and
that if it drew some of its strength from using life as rough material,
it drew all its weakness from using life as an artistic method. As
the inevitable result of this substitution of an imitative for a
creative medium, this surrender of an imaginative form, we have the
modern English melodrama. The characters in these plays talk on
the stage exactly as they would talk off it; they are taken directly
from life and reproduce its vulgarity down to the smallest detail;
they have the gait, manner, costume, and accent of real people;
they would pass unnoticed in a third-class railway carriage. And
yet how wearisome the plays are! They do not succeed in pro-
ducing even that impression of reality at which they aim, and which
is their only reason for existing. As a method realism is a
complete failure.

'What is true about the drama and the novel is no less true
about those arts that we call the decorative arts. The whole
history of decorative art in Europe is the record of the struggle
between Orientalism, with its frank rejection of imitation, its love
of artistic convention, its dislike to the actual representation of any
object in nature, and our own imitative spirit. Wherever the
former has been paramount, as in Byzantium, Sicily, and Spain, by
actual contact, or in the rest of Europe by the influence of the
Crusades, we have had beautiful and imaginative work in which the
visible things of life are transmuted into artistic conventions, and
the things that life has not are invented and fashioned for her.
But wherever we have returned to life and nature, our work has
always become vulgar, common, and uninteresting. Modern tapestry,
with its aërial effects, its elaborate perspective, its broad expanses
of waste sky, its faithful and laborious realism, has no beauty what-
soever. The pictorial glass of Germany is absolutely detestable. We
are beginning to weave possible carpets in England, but only because
we have returned to the method and spirit of the East. Our rugs
and carpets of twenty years ago, with their healthy national feeling,
their inane worship of nature, their sordid reproductions of visible
objects, have become, even to the Philistine, a source of laughter. A
cultured Mahomedan once remarked to me, 'You Christians are so
occupied in misinterpreting the fourth commandment that you have
never thought of making an artistic application of the second.' He
was perfectly right, and the whole truth of the matter is this: the
proper school to learn art in is not Life but Art.'

And now let me read you a passage which deals with the common-
place character of our literature:-

'It was not always thus. We need not say anything about the
poets, for they, with the unfortunate exception of Mr. Wordsworth,


have always been faithful to their high mission, and are universally
recognised as being absolutely unreliable. But in the works of
Herodotus, who, in spite of the shallow and ungenerous attempts of
modem sciolists to verify his history, may be justly called the
"Father of Lies;" in the published speeches of Cicero and the
biographies of Suetonius; in Tacitus at his best; in Pliny's Natural
History; in Hanno's Periplus; in all the early chronicles; in
the Lives of the Saints; in Froissart and Sir Thomas Mallory; in the
travels of Marco Polo; in Olaus Magnus, and Aldrovandus, and
Conrad Lycosthenes, with his magnificent Prodigiorum et Osten-
torum Chronicon; in the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini; in
the memoirs of Casanuova; in Defoe's History of the Plague; in
Boswell's Life of Johnson; in Napoleon's despatches, and in the
works of our own Carlyle, whose French Revolution is one of the
most fascinating historical romances ever written, facts are either
kept in their proper subordinate position, or else entirely excluded
on the general ground of dulness. Now everything is changed.
Facts are not merely finding a footing in history, but they are
usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of
Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are
vulgarising mankind. The crude commercialism of America, its
materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things,
and its lack of imagination and of high, unattainable ideals, are
entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero, a
man, who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a
lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washing-
ton and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space
of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.'

C. My dear boy!

V. I assure you it is quite true, and the amusing part of the
whole thing is that the story of the cherry-tree is an absolute myth.
However, you must not think that I am too despondent about the
artistic future of America or of our own country. Listen to this:-
'That some change will take place before this century has drawn
to its close, we have no doubt whatsoever. Bored by the tedious
and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to
exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person
whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose state-
ments are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time
liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be
present, society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the
cultured and fascinating liar. Who he was who first, without ever
having gone out to the rude chase, told the wondering cave-men at
sunset how he had dragged the Megatherium from the purple dark-
ness of its jasper cave, or slain the Mammoth in single combat and
brought back its gilded tusks, we cannot tell, and not one of our


modern anthropologists, with all their much-boasted science, has had
the ordinary courage to tell us. Whatever was his name or race, he
was certainly the true founder of social intercourse. For the aim of the
liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very
basis of civilised society, and without him a dinner party, even at
the mansions of the great, is as dull as a lecture at the Royal Society
or a debate at the Incorporated Authors.

'Nor will he be welcomed merely by society. Art, breaking from
the prison-house of realism, will run to greet him and will kiss his
false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the
great secret of all her manifestations, the secret that truth is entirely
and absolutely a matter of style. While Life-poor, probable, un-
interesting human life-tired of repeating herself for the benefit of
Mr. Herbert Spencer, scientific historians, and the compilers of
statistics in general, will follow meekly after him, and try to repro-
duce, in her own simple and untutored way, some of the marvels of
which he talks.

'No doubt there will always be critics who, like a recent writer
in the Saturday Review, will gravely censure the teller of fairy
tales for his defective knowledge of natural history, who will measure
imaginative work by their own lack of any imaginative faculty, and
who will hold up their inkstained hands in horror if some honest
gentleman, who has never been farther than the yew trees of his own
garden, pens a fascinating book of travels like Sir John Mandeville,
or, like great Raleigh, writes a whole history of the world, in prison,
and without knowing anything about the past. To excuse them-
selves they will try and shelter under the shield of him who made
Prospero the magician, and gave him Caliban and Ariel as his
servants, who heard the Tritons blowing their horns round the coral-
reefs of the Enchanted Isle and the fairies singing to each other in a
wood near Athens, who led the phantom kings in dim procession
across the misty Scottish heath, and hid Hecate in a cave with the
weird sisters. They will call upon Shakespeare-they always do-
and will quote that hackneyed passage about Art holding up the
mirror to Nature, forgetting that this unfortunate aphorism is
deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of
his absolute insanity in art-matters.'

C. Ahem! Ahem! Another cigarette, please.

V. My dear fellow, whatever you may say, it is merely a dramatic
utterance, and no more represents Shakespeare's real views upon art
than the speeches of Iago represent his real views upon morals. But
let me get to the end of the passage:-

'Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside, herself.
She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance.
She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no botanist
knows of, birds that no museum possesses. She makes and unmakes


many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet
thread. Hers are the "forms more real than living man,'' and hers
the great archetypes of which things that have existence are but
unfinished copies. Nature has, in her eyes, no laws, no uniformity.
She can work miracles at her will, and when she calls monsters from
the deep they come. She can bid the almond tree blossom in winter,
and send the snow upon the ripe cornfield. At her word the frost
lays its silver finger on the burning mouth of June, and the winged
lions creep out from the hollows of the Lydian hills. The dryads
peer from the thicket as she passes by, and the brown fauns smile
strangely at her when she comes near them. She has hawk-faced
gods that worship her, and the centaurs gallop at her side.'

C. Is that the end of this dangerous article?

V. No. There is one more passage, but it is purely practical.
It simply suggests some methods by which we could revive this lost
art of lying.

C. Well, before you read me that, I should like to ask you a
question. What do you mean by saying that life, 'poor, probable,
uninteresting human life,' will try to reproduce the marvels of art?
I can quite understand your objection to art being treated as a mirror.
You think it would reduce genius to the position of a cracked look-
ing-glass. But you don't mean to say that you seriously believe
that life imitates art, that life in fact is the mirror, and art the

V. Certainly I do. Paradox though it may seem-and paradoxes
are always dangerous things-it is none the less true that life imitates
art far more than art imitates life. We have all seen in our own
day in England how a certain curious and fascinating type of beauty,
invented and emphasised by two imaginative painters, has so influenced
life that whenever one goes to a private view or to an artistic salon
one sees here the mystic eyes of Rossetti's dream, the long ivory
throat, the strange square-cut jaw, the loosened shadowy hair that
he so ardently loved, there the sweet maidenhood of 'The Golden
Stair,' the blossom-like mouth and weary loveliness of the 'Laus
Amoris,' the passion-pale face of Andromeda, the thin hands and
lithe beauty of the Vivien in 'Merlin's Dream.' And it has always
been so. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to
reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.
Neither Holbein nor Vandyck found in England what they have
given us. They brought their types with them, and Life with her
keen imitative faculty set herself to supply the master with models.
The Greeks, with their quick artistic instinct, understood this, and
set in the bride's chamber the statue of Hermes or of Apollo, that
she might bear children like the works of art that she looked at.
They knew that life gains from art not merely spirituality, depth of
thought and passion, soul-turmoil or soul-peace, but that she can


form herself on the very lines and colours of art, and can reproduce
the dignity of Pheidias as well as the grace of Praxiteles. Hence
came their objection to realism. They disliked it on purely social
grounds. They felt that it inevitably makes people ugly, and they
were perfectly right. We try to improve the conditions of the race
by means of good air, sunlight, wholesome water, and hideous bare
buildings for the better housing of the people. But these things
merely produce health, they do not produce beauty. For this art is
required, and the true disciples of the great artist are not his studio-
imitators, but those who become like his works of art, be they plastic
as in Greek days, or pictorial as in modern times: in fact, Life is Art's
best, Art's only pupil.

As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most
obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the
case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack
Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-
women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen
who are returning from the city by leaping out on them, with black
masks and loaded revolvers. This interesting phenomenon, which
always occurs after the appearance of a new edition of either of the
books I have named, is usually attributed to the influence of litera-
ture on the imagination. But this is a mistake. The imagination
is essentially creative and always seeks for a new form. The boy-
burglar is simply the inevitable result of life's imitative instinct.
He is Fact, occupied, as Fact usually is, with trying to reproduce
Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale
through the whole of life. Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism
that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The
world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy. The
Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake
without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a
purely literary product. He was invented by Tourgénieff, and com-
pleted by Dostoieffski. Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau,
as surely as the People's Palace rose out of the débris of a novel.
Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds
it to its purpose. The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely
an invention of Balzac. Our Luciens de Rubempré, our Rastignacs,
and De Marsays made their first appearance in the Comédie Humaine,
We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary addi-
tions, the whim or fancy of a great novelist. I once asked a lady, who
knew Thackeray intimately, whether he had had any model for Becky
Sharp. She told me that Becky was an invention, but that the
idea of the character had been partly suggested by a governess who
lived in the neighbourhood of Kensington Square, and was the com-
panion of a very selfish and rich old woman. I inquired what became
of the governess, and she replied that, oddly enough, some years


after the appearance of Vanity Fair, the governess ran away with
the nephew of the lady with whom she was living, and for a short
time made a great splash in society, quite in Mrs. Rawdon Crawley's
style, and entirely by Mrs. Rawdon Crawley's methods. Ultimately
she came to grief, disappeared to the Continent, and used to
be occasionally seen at Monte Carlo and other gambling places.
The noble gentleman from whom the same great sentimentalist
drew Colonel Newcome died a few months after The Newcomes
had reached a fourth edition, with the word 'Adsum' on his lips.
Shortly after Mr. Stevenson published his curious psychological
story of transformation, a friend of mine, called Mr. Hyde, was
in the north of London, and being anxious to get to a railway
station, he took what he thought was a short cut, lost his way, and
found himself in a network of mean, evil-looking streets. Feeling
rather nervous he was walking extremely fast, when suddenly out of
an archway ran a child right between his legs. The child fell on the
pavement, he tripped over it, and trampled upon it. Being of course
very much frightened and not a little hurt, it began to scream, and
in a few seconds the whole street was full of rough people who kept
pouring out of the houses like ants. They surrounded him, and asked
him his name. He was just about to give it when he suddenly
remembered the opening incident in Mr. Stevenson's story. He was
so filled with horror at having realised in his own person that terrible
scene, and at having done accidentally what the Mr. Hyde of fiction
had done with deliberate intent, that he ran away as hard as he could
go. He was, however, very closely followed, and he finally took refuge
in a surgery, the door of which happened to be open, where he ex-
plained to a young man, apparently an assistant, who happened to be
there, exactly what had occurred. The crowd was induced to go
away on his giving them a small sum of money, and as soon as the
coast was clear he left. As he passed out, the name on the brass
door-plate of the surgery caught his eye. It was 'Jekyll.'
Here the imitation was of course accidental. In the following
case the imitation was self-conscious. In the year 1879, just after
I had left Oxford, I met at a reception at the house of one of the
Foreign Ministers a lady who interested me very much, not merely
in appearance, but in nature. What interested me most in her was
her strange vagueness of character. She seemed to have no person-
ality at all, but simply the possibility of many types. Sometimes
she would give herself up entirely to art, turn her drawing-room
into a studio, and spend two or three days a week at picture-galleries
or museums. Then she would take to attending race-meetings,
would wear the most horsey clothes, and talk about nothing but
betting. She was a kind of Proteus, and as much a failure in all
her transformations as the sea-god was when Odysseus got hold of


him. One day a serial began in one of the French magazines. At
that time I used to read serial stories, and I well remember the
shock of surprise I felt when I came to the description of the heroine.
She was so like my friend that I brought her the magazine, and she
recognised herself in it immediately, and seemed fascinated by the
resemblance. I should tell you, by the way, that the story was
translated from the Russian, so that the author had not taken his
type from my friend. Well, to put the matter briefly, some months
afterwards I was in Venice, and finding the magazine in the
reading-room of the hotel, I took it up to see what had become of
the heroine. It was a most piteous tale, as the heroine had ended
by running away with a man inferior to her, not merely in social
station, but in nature and intellect also. I wrote to my friend that
evening, and added a postscript to the effect that her double had
behaved in a very silly manner. I don't know why I wrote, but I
remember I had a sort of dread over me that she might do the same
thing. Before my letter had reached her, she had run away with a man
who deserted her in six months. I saw her in 1884 in Paris, where
she was living with her mother, and I asked her whether the story had
had anything to do with her action. She told me that she had felt
an absolutely irresistible impulse to follow the heroine step by step
in her strange and fatal progress, and that it was with a feeling
of real terror that she had looked forward to the last few chapters of
the story. When they appeared it seemed to her that she was com-
pelled to reproduce them in life, and she did so. It was a most
clear example of this imitative instinct of which I was speaking, and
an extremely tragic one.

However, I do not wish to dwell any further upon individual
instances. Personal experience is a most vicious and limited circle.
All that I desire to point out is the general principle that life imi-
tates art far more than art imitates life, and I feel sure that if you
think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the
mirror up to art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined
by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in
fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life-the energy of life,
as Aristotle would call it-is simply the desire for expression, and
art is always presenting various forms through which this expression
can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they
be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because
Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand
Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of
what we owe to the imitation of Cæsar.

C. The theory is certainly a very curious one. But even ad-
mitting this strange imitative instinct in life, surely you would
acknowledge that art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of


its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under
whose influence it is produced.

V. Certainly not! Art never expresses anything but itself.
This is the principle of my new æsthetics; and it is this, and not
any vital connection between form and substance, as Mr. Pater
fancies, that makes music the true type of all the arts. Of course,
nations and individuals, with that healthy natural vanity which is
the secret of life, are always under the impression that it is of them
that the Muses are talking, always trying to find in the calm dignity
of imaginative art some mirror of their own turbid passions, always
forgetting that the singer of life is not Apollo, but Marsyas. Remote
from reality, and with her eyes turned away from the shadows of the
cave, Art reveals her own perfection, and the wondering crowd that
watches the opening of the marvellous, many-petalled rose fancies
that it is its own history that is being told to it, its own spirit that
is finding expression in a new form. But it is not so. The highest
art rejects the burden of the human spirit, and gains more from a
new medium or a fresh material than she does from any enthusiasm
for art, or from any lofty passion, or from any great awakening of
the human consciousness. She develops purely on her own lines.
She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols,
her reflections, her echoes.

Even those who hold that Art is representative of time and place
and people, cannot help admitting that the more imitative an art is,
the less it represents to us the spirit of its age. The evil faces of
the Roman emperors look out at us from the foul porphyry and spotted
jasper in which the realistic artists of the day delighted to work, and
we fancy that in those cruel lips and heavy sensual jaws we can find
the secret of the ruin of the Empire. But it was not so. The vices
of Tiberius could not destroy that great civilisation, any more than
the virtues of the Antonines could save it. It fell for other, for
greater reasons. The sibyls and prophets of the Sistine may indeed
serve to interpret for some that new birth of the emancipated spirit
that we call the Renaissance; but what do the drunken boors and
brawling peasants of Dutch art tell us about the great soul of
Holland? The more abstract, the more ideal an art is, the more it
reveals to us the temper of its age. If we wish to understand a
nation by means of its art, let us look at its architecture or its music.
C. I do not quite agree with you there. The spirit of an age
may be best expressed in the abstract ideal arts, for the spirit itself
is abstract and ideal; but for the visible aspect of an age, for its
look, as the phrase goes, we must surely go to the arts of imitation.
V. I don't think so. After all, what the imitative arts really give
us are merely the various styles of particular artists, or of particular
schools of artists. Surely you don't imagine that the people of


the Middle Ages bore any resemblance at all to the figures on
mediæval stained glass, or in mediæval stone and wood carving, or
on mediæval metal-work, or tapestries, or illuminated MSS. They
were probably very ordinary-looking people, with nothing grotesque,
or remarkable, or fantastic about them. The Middle Ages, as we
know them in art, are simply a form of style, and there is no reason
at all why an artist with this style should not be produced in the
nineteenth century. No great artist ever sees things as they really
are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example
from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese art. Now,
do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are pre-
sented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have
never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are
the deliberate creation of certain artists. If you set a picture by
Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a
real Japanese gentleman or lady, or beside a photograph of a Japanese
gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resem-
blance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not
unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are
extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary
about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There
is no such country, there are no such people. One of our most
charming painters, whose tiny full-length portraits of children are so
beautiful and so powerful that he should be named the Velasquez to
the Court of Lilliput, went recently to Japan in the foolish hope of
seeing the Japanese. All he saw, all he had the chance of painting,
were a few lanterns and some fans. He was unable to discover the
inhabitants, as delightful exhibition at Messrs. Dowdeswell's Gallery
showed only too well. He did not know that the Japanese people are,
as I have said, simply a mode of style, a whimsical fancy of art. Take
the Greeks. Do you think that Greek art ever tells us what the Greek
people were like? Do you believe that the Athenian women were
like the stately dignified figures of the Parthenon frieze, or like
those marvellous goddesses who sat in the triangular pediments of
the same building? If you judge from the art, they certainly
were so. But read an authority, like Aristophanes for instance.
You will find that the Athenian ladies laced tightly, wore high-
heeled shoes, dyed their hair yellow, painted and rouged their
faces, and were exactly like any silly fashionable or fallen creature
of our own day. We look back on the ages entirely through the
medium of Art, and Art very fortunately has never once told us the

C. But modern portraits by English painters, what of them?
Surely they are like the people they pretend to represent?

V. Quite so. They are so like them that a hundred years from


now no one will believe in them. The only portraits that one
believes in are portraits where there is very little of the sitter and a
great deal of the artist. Holbein's portraits of the men and women
of his time impress us with a sense of their absolute reality. But
this is simply because Holbein compelled life to accept his conditions,
to restrain itself within his limitations, to reproduce his type, and to
appear as he wished it to appear. It is style that makes us believe
in a thing-nothing but style. Most of our modern portrait painters
never paint what they see. They paint what the public sees, and
the public never sees anything.

C. Well, after that I think I should like to hear the end of your

V. With pleasure. Whether it will do any good I really cannot
say. Ours is certainly the dullest and most prosaic century possible.
Why, even Sleep has played us false, and has closed up the gates of
ivory, and opened the gates of horn. The dreams of the great middle
classes of this country, as recorded in Mr. Myers's two bulky volumes
on the subject and in the Transactions of the Psychical Society, are
the most depressing things I have ever read. There is not even a
fine nightmare among them. They are commonplace, sordid, and
probable. As for the Church I cannot conceive anything better for
the culture of a country than the presence in it of a body of men
whose duty it is to believe in the supernatural, to perform daily
miracles, and to keep alive that mythopœic faculty which is so
essential for the imagination. But in the English Church a man
succeeds, not through his capacity for belief, but through his capacity
for disbelief. Ours is the only Church where the sceptic stands at
the altar, and where St. Thomas is regarded as the ideal apostle.
Many a worthy clergyman, who passes his life in good works of
kindly charity, lives and dies unnoticed and unknown; but it is suffi-
cient for some shallow uneducated passman out of either University
to get up in his pulpit and express his doubts about Noah's ark or
Balaam's ass or Jonah and the whale, for half of London to flock to
his church and to sit open-mouthed in rapt admiration at his superb
intellect. The growth of common sense in the English Church is a
thing very much to be regretted. It is really a degrading concession to
a low form of realism. However, I must read the end of my article:-
'What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to
revive this old art of lying. Much of course may be done, in the
way of educating the public, by amateurs in the domestic circle, at
literary lunches, and at afternoon teas. But this is merely the light
and graceful side of lying, such as was probably heard at Cretan
dinner parties. There are many other forms. Lying for the sake
of gaining some immediate personal advantage, for instance-lying
for a moral purpose, as it is usually called-though of late it has been


rather looked down upon, was extremely popular with the antique
world. Athena laughs when Odysseus tells her what a Cambridge
professor once elegantly termed a 'whopper,' and the glory of men-
dacity illumines the pale brow of the stainless hero of Euripidean
tragedy, and sets amongst the noble women of the world the young
bride of one of Horace's most exquisite odes. Later on what at first had
been merely a natural instinct was elevated into a self-conscious
science. Elaborate rules were laid down for the guidance of man-
kind, and an important school of literature grew up round the
subject. Indeed, when one remembers the excellent philosophical
treatise of Sanchez on the whole question, one cannot help regretting
that no one has ever thought of publishing a cheap and condensed
edition of the works of that great casuist. A short primer, "When
to Lie and how," if brought out in an attractive and not too expen-
sive form, would no doubt command a large sale, and would prove
of real practical service to many earnest and deep-thinking people.
Lying for the sake of the improvement of the young, which is the
basis of home education, still lingers amongst us, and its advantages
are so admirably set forth in the early books of the Republic that it
is unnecessary to dwell upon them here. It is a form of lying for
which all good mothers have peculiar capabilities, but it is capable
of still further development, and has been sadly overlooked by the
School Board. Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is of course
well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leader-
writer is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a some-
what dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond
a kind of ostentatious obscurity. The only form of lying that is
absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake, and the highest
development of this is, as we have already pointed out, lying in Art.
Just as those who do not love Plato more than truth cannot pass
beyond the threshold of the Academe, so those who do not love
beauty more than truth never know the inmost shrine of Art. The
solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx
in Flaubert's marvellous tale, and fantasy, La Chimère, dances round
it, and calls to it with her false, flute-toned voice. It may not hear
her now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with
the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her
and try to borrow her wings.

'And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens, how joyous we
shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be
found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of
wonder, will return to the land. The very aspect of the world will
change to our startled eyes. Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and
Leviathan, and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on the
delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were actually


readable. Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the
phœnix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall lay our
hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad's head. The
hippogriff will stand in our stalls, champing his gilded oats, and
over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and
impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happen,
of things that are not and that should be. But before this comes to
pass we must cultivate the lost art of lying.'

C. Then we must certainly cultivate it at once. But in order to
avoid making any error I want you to briefly tell me the doctrines of
the new æsthetics.

V. Briefly, then, they are these. Art never expresses anything
but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and
develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an
age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being
the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and
the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own
progress. Sometimes it returns on its own footsteps, and revives some
old form, as happened in the archaistic movement of late Greek art,
and in the pre-Raphaelite movement of our own day. At other times
it entirely anticipates its age, and produces in one century work that it
takes another century to understand, to appreciate, and to enjoy. In
no case does it reproduce its age. To pass from the art of a time to
the time itself is the great fallacy of all historians.

The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning
to life and nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and
nature may sometimes be used as part of art's rough material, but
before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into
artistic conventions. The moment art surrenders its imaginative
medium it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a com-
plete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are
modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter. To us, who
live in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for
art except our own. The only beautiful things are things that do
not concern us. It is, to have the pleasure of quoting myself,
exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are so suit-
able a motive for a tragedy.

The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art
imitates Life. This results not merely from Life's imitative instinct,
but from the fact that the desire of Life is simply to find expression,
and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may
realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been formularised
before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light
on the history of Art.

The last doctrine is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue


things, is the proper aim of Art. But of this I think I have spoken
at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace, where
'the milk-white peacock glimmers like a ghost,' while the evening
star 'washes the dusk with silver.' At twilight nature becomes
a wonderfully suggestive effect and is not without loveliness, though
perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.
Come! We have talked long enough.