Brain Pickings

Herman Melville on Art


On the mystical mastery of wrestling with the angel.

“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” philosopher Alain de Botton assured in Art as Therapy, one of the best art books of 2013. “Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard declared in what became one of the most beautiful definitions of art. But how do we lay the bricks that pave that way and construct the soul? From the 1954 gem Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau — comes this magnificent meditation on art from Herman Melville, in a poem unambiguously titled “Art”:


In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt — a wind to freeze;
Sad patience — joyous energies;
Humility — yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity — reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel — Art.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

Also from Reader and Writer, which is a treat in its entirety, see Melville’s poetic daily routine. Pair with history’s finest definitions of art.

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