A sensuous art

‘Ella on the stairs’ by Peter Brown. https://www.mallgalleries.org.uk

Inverted Commas 21: Words resonant

“‘Literature,’ he re-enunciated in his mind, ‘is the sensuous art of causing exquisite impressions by means of words.’ And yet there was something more […]” — Chapter IV

‘The Hill of Dreams’

In Arthur Machen’s 1907 novel The Hill of Dreams the young Lucian Taylor (alias Machen himself) is in Caermaen (a stand-in for Caerleon in Machen’s native Wales) imagining himself in a tavern enjoying the town’s ancient splendour as an outpost of the Roman Empire.

He sits, listening to the hubbub of conversation, doubtless enunciated in everything from educated to vernacular Latin, because as a bookish clergyman’s son Lucian has been thoroughly tutored in the classics.

And as he sits he muses: “The rich sound of the voices impressed him above all things, and he saw that words have a far higher reason than the utilitarian office of imparting a man’s thought.” What follows is a gradual laying out of his creed regarding beauty and its raison d’être.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ‘Fantasy of an Ancient Bath‘ (1755/1760)

As has already become evident Lucian is a budding aesthete, with intimations of synaesthesia. This is unsurprising because like his creator he grew up in an age of aestheticism, when certain leading artists proclaimed the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, “art for art’s sake” (in Latin ars gratia artis, in German Kunst für die Kunst). Théophile Gautier, John Ruskin, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and many others, all were to assert that art needed to serve no moral, political, or didactic purpose but to exist of itself, independent of any social and utilitarian requirements. Lucian thinks along similar lines when he considers language:

The common notion that language and linked words are important only as a means of expression he found a little ridiculous; as if electricity were to be studied solely with the view of ‘wiring’ to people, and all its other properties left unexplored, neglected.

Let’s pass over whether his analogy is a close fit or not because, having downgraded its somewhat prosaic usefulness, he goes further:

Language, he understood, was chiefly important for the beauty of its sounds, by its possession of words resonant, glorious to the ear, by its capacity, when exquisitely arranged, of suggesting wonderful and indefinable impressions, perhaps more ravishing and farther removed from the domain of strict thought than the impressions excited by music itself.

Some of us might appreciate monologues and conversations, all speech really, as akin to abstract music if we were to drain meaning from the words themselves, but Lucian is aflame with the insights that occur to him. Surrounded in his imagination by a pleasing buzz of conversation in a babble of Latin dialects, as sunlight shafts through the tavern doors and the scent of exotic flowers perfumes the air, he believes he has alighted upon a deep mystery:

Here lay hidden the secret of the sensuous art of literature; it was the secret of suggestion, the art of causing delicious sensation by the use of words. In a way, therefore, literature was independent of thought; the mere English listener, if he had an ear attuned, could recognise the beauty of a splendid Latin phrase.

You have to admire Lucian’s tentative steps towards deeper thinking. Perhaps he was reacting against a strict kind of utilitarianism, even the kind of morality defined by John Stuart Mill, which declared that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Lucian seems to be enunciating the aesthetic position which thinks that essentially art is its own justification, and that the utilitarian approach – that art has the immediate and moral function to serve society – is to him somewhat anathema.

Philip Guston: ‘Dial’ (1956)

Myself, I think art is like two sides of the same coin: art can also serve two masters, though not necessarily at the same time. Language itself is a tool for conveying emotions, beliefs, observations, information, warnings, affection and so on; but so can body language, mime, sign language, dance, facial expressions, letters, printed matter, not forgetting much else under the umbrella of artistic expression. Language can also be beautiful in itself regardless of meaning, and in common with abstract art can evoke what Lucian terms “wonderful and indefinable impressions”.

A sensuous art causing exquisite impressions, regardless of the words’ meanings: yes, Lucian sees himself as an aesthete, yet what dangers such an exclusive path can lead him is explored more fully in Machen’s novel: months later, when Lucian returned to his London bedsit, he “spied a little bottle on the mantelpiece, a bottle of dark blue glass, and he trembled and shuddered before it, as if it were a fetish …” Clearly the “words resonant” weren’t quite enough.

More discussions of literary and other quotes can be found under the tag Inverted Commas

I reviewed The Hill of Dreams for Annabel’s Dewithon, Reading Wales Month 2023

15 thoughts on “A sensuous art

  1. Pingback: Reading Wales 2023 – Book Jotter

    1. You’re welcome, Paula. I’m hoping to read a YA novel by Catherine Fisher later this month – you may remember that as a Newport poet and novelist she wrote the intro for Machen’s novel in the Library of Wales edition I read.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. As a musician I too get seduced by the sound of words,.Karen, whether sung or spoken: an Italian aria, Chinese opera, a North Walian accent – as Lewis Carroll wrote, “Look after the sense and the sounds will look after themselves”…

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I repeat (or re-enunciate, if you don’t prefer), surely perfectly acceptable? enunicate. verb. formal. transitive or intransitive. “to pronounce words or parts of words clearly” (Cambridge Dictionary).

          Etymonline.com gives an extended history for the origins of “re-” as a prefix and quotes the Oxford English Dictionary: From the extended senses in “again,” re- becomes “repetition of an action,” and in this sense it is extremely common as a formative element in English, applicable to any verb. OED writes that it is “impossible to attempt a complete record of all the forms resulting from its use,” and adds that “The number of these is practically infinite ….”

          Writing a century ago Machen would have been following a tradition which mixed a classical languages education with a familiarity of standard literary texts in English. “Re-evaluate” would not, in my opinion, be a word to stumble over regarding its suitability or applicability.


            1. Yes, it is quite a bit pseudo-intellectual and over-verbose, I agree. But then Machen was inclined to go over the top, certainly in this work – he wasn’t the greatest stylist, in my opinion.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this; while I had thought in terms of words having their own beauty, I hadn’t quite considered the parallel with art in that sense. Perhaps everything in that way has both these threads–a meaning in themselves, and then towards an object.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m sure that this janiform (resembling the god Janus, having two faces looking in opposite directions) aspect of words – which allows them to be used as metaphors as well as for their original intended signification – is something that both philosophers and philologists have long recognised. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.