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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Differing Spheres of Poetry and Painting

By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781)

From ‘Laocoön’

IF it be true that painting uses for its imitations wholly different means or signs from poetry,—namely, forms and colors in space instead of articulate tones in time,—if it be incontestable that these signs must bear a suitable relation to the thing signified, then coexistent signs can represent only coexistent objects, and successive signs only successive objects.

Coexistent objects are called bodies; consequently bodies with their visible attributes are the proper objects of painting.

Successive objects are called in general actions; consequently actions are the proper objects of poetry.

Bodies exist, however, not only in space, but also in time. They continue, and at every moment of their duration appear differently and in different relations to each other. Each of these momentary appearances and relations is the effect of a preceding and can be the cause of a succeeding one, and therefore the centre of an action; consequently painting can imitate actions, but only suggestively through bodies.

On the other hand, actions cannot exist in themselves, but must inhere in certain beings. So far as these beings are bodies or are regarded as bodies, poetry describes bodies, but only suggestively through actions.

Painting can use in its coexistent compositions only a single moment of the action; and must therefore choose the most pregnant one, which will render what precedes and follows most comprehensible.

In like manner poetry in its progressive imitations can use only a single property of bodies; and must therefore choose the one that awakens the most sensible image of the body, for the purpose to which it is to be put.

Hence the rule of singleness in picturesque epithets and of frugality in descriptions of material objects.

I should have less confidence in this dry deduction, if it were not fully confirmed by the practice of Homer; or if it were not rather the practice of Homer, from which I have derived it. The grand style of the Greeks can be determined and elucidated only by these principles, which are also justified by the opposite style of so many modern poets, who wish to vie with the painter in provinces in which they are necessarily surpassed by him….

Homer has usually but one stroke for one thing. A ship is to him now the black ship, now the hollow ship, now the swift ship, at most the well-rowed black ship. Further than this he does not indulge in any word-painting of the ship. But he makes a minute picture of the starting, the sailing, or the landing of the ship; a picture from which the painter who wishes to put it all on canvas would be obliged to make half a dozen pictures.