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Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"; an essay on the Wagnerian drama

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A new work on Wagner requires some justification. It might be urged that, since the Meister has been dead for some decades and the violence of party feeling may be assumed to have somewhat abated, we are now in a position to form a sober estimate of his work, to review his aims, and judge of his measure of success.

Such, however, is not my purpose in the following pages. I conceive that the endeavour to estimate an artist's work involves a misconception of the nature of art. We can estimate products of utility, things expressible in figures, the weight of evidence, a Bill for Parliament, a tradesman's profits. But a work of art is written for our pleasure, and all that we can attempt is to understand it. True, we must judge in a certain sense, we must weigh and estimate before we can arrive at understanding; but it is one thing to meditate in the privacy of one's own mind, quite another to publish these constructive processes as an end in themselves, to set up critical "laws" and expect that poets are going to conform to them.

Art, says Ruskin, is a language, a vehicle of thought, in itself nothing. Plato's teaching in the third book of his Republic is the same, and the idea of the secondary nature of art, of its value only as the expression of something else, of a human or moral purpose only fully expressible in the drama, is the nucleus of all Wagner's theoretical writing. In private conversation and in his letters he often spoke very emphatically. "I would joyfully sacrifice and destroy everything that I have produced if I could hope thereby to further freedom and justice."[1]

[Footnote 1: The episode which gave rise to this remark is too long torelate in the text, but is highly characteristic and instructive forWagner's attitude towards art. It will be found in the sixth volume ofGlasenapp's biography, p. 309.]

Let us clearly keep in mind the distinction here involved between the two elements of every work of art: matter and form, substance and technique, [Greek: onta] and [Greek: gignomena], Brahm and Mâyâ, Wille und Vorstellung, the emotional and the intellectual life of man, or, untechnically, what he feels and his communication of those feelings to others as a social being. With the first of these the critic has nothing to do; the matter is given; all he has to consider is whether it has found adequate expression—that is, to try to understand the language, that when he has mastered it he may help others to do so according to his ability. I do not say that the matter is one to which we are indifferent. On the contrary, it is far the more important of the two, since the thing expressed is prior to its expression. Only it is no concern of the critic, because we may fairly assume that if the technical expression is correct and intelligible the artist has already told us what he wishes to convey in the most perfect language of which that idea is susceptible, and that any attempt to put it into the lower and more prosy language of the critic would only weaken and distort the thought....