Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 3. George Brimley; E. S. Dallas; The Gay Science

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 3. George Brimley; E. S. Dallas; The Gay Science

In the case of Brimley, principles are rather implied than stated; they are to be inferred from his judgments on particular works. The attempts in English to make the statement of a principle the main object have been few and incomplete; but, among the few, that of Eneas Sweetland Dallas deserves honourable mention. Both by blood and by training, Dallas was drawn towards a philosophical treatment of his subject, for he was of Scottish parentage, and he studied at Edinburgh under Sir William Hamilton. His journalistic career carried him, at times, far enough away from philosophy; but, when he had leisure to write a volume, his thoughts took a philosophic cast—both in the somewhat immature Poetics, an Essay on Poetry, and in that unhappily named book, The Gay Science. How he came to write, also, the pseudonymous Kettner’s Book of the Table, a Manual of Cookery, it is not altogether easy to understand. The Gay Science is, certainly, one of the most remarkable works of its class that we possess. It is, first of all, lucid both in thought and in style; and it is suggestive in a very rare degree. The preface proclaims that the author’s purpose is “to settle the first principles of Criticism.” But, while Dallas feels himself to be a pioneer, he is not unconscious of the limits of his actual achievement, and admits that he has done little more than lay down the groundwork of a science. It must be remembered that his design was never carried to completion; there were to have been four volumes, but only two were written. The incurable English distrust of system condemned the book to oblivion. The Gay Science is psychological from the foundation, and, in more points than one, anticipates by a generation the development of opinion. In nothing is this anticipation more remarkable than in Dallas’s view of what is now called the subliminary self. This, he holds, lies at the root of all art. Aristotle’s theory that art is imitation, is, in his opinion, false, and “has transmitted an hereditary squint to criticism.” What art does is not to imitate what any eye can see, but, rather, to bring into clear vision what is first apprehended only by “the hidden soul.” Art has to do with pleasure, but not alone with the pleasure which the sensual man recognises as such; there is hidden pleasure, as well as a hidden soul. It is everywhere the subliminary self which is active in art, and the subliminary self to which true art appeals. Dallas prided himself most of all on his analysis of imagination, and imagination he pronounced to be “but another name for the automatic action of the mind or any of its faculties.” Everywhere, then, The Gay Science moves in the region of ideas. Dallas has a refreshing confidence that there is a cause for everything in art as well as in physical science: a cause, for example, why the earlier poets of modern civilisation delight most of all in sunrise, while those of the nineteenth century delight in sunset. This is clearly an importation, through Hamilton, of the German spirit; and, if Dallas appears to be guilty of that excess with which he charged German criticism—that it is “all idea”—it must be remembered that his work is incomplete, and that the unwritten concluding volumes would have redressed the balance.