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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

The Man In The Work

Title:     The Man In The Work
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

The general mind possesses a kind of divination which discovers itself in those comments, criticisms, and judgments which pass from man to man through a wide area and sometimes through long periods of time. The opinion which appears at first glance to be an expression of materialism often shows, upon closer study, an element of idealism or a touch of spiritual discernment. It is customary, for instance, to say of a man that he lives in his works; as if the enduring quality of his fame rested in and was dependent upon the tangible products of his genius or his skill. There is truth in the phrase even when its scope is limited to this obvious meaning; but there is a deeper truth behind the truism,--the truth that a man lives in his works, not only because they commemorate but because they express him. They are products of his skill; but they are also the products of his soul. The man is revealed in them, and abides in them, not as a statue in a temple, but as a seed in the grain and the fruit. They have grown out of him, and they uncover the secrets of his spiritual life. No man can conceal himself from his fellows; everything he fashions or creates interprets and explains him.

This deepest significance of work has always been divined even when it has not been clearly perceived. Men have understood that there is a spiritual quality even in the most material products of a man's activity, and, even in ruder times, they have discerned the inner relation of the things which a man makes with the man himself. In our time, when the immense significance of this essential harmony between spirit and product has been accepted as a guiding principle in historic investigation, the stray spear-head and broken potsherd are prized by the anthropologist, because a past race lives in them. The lowest and commonest kind of domestic vessels and implements disclose to the student of to-day not only the stage of manual skill which their makers had reached, but also the general ideas of life which those makers held. When it comes to the higher products, character, temperament, and genius are discerned in every mutilated fragment. The line on an urn reveals the spirit of the unknown sculptor who cut it in the enduring stone. It has often been said that if every memorial of the Greek race save the Parthenon had perished, it would be possible to gain a clear and true impression of the spiritual condition and quality of that race.

The great artists are the typical and representative men of the race, and whatever is true of them is true, in a lesser degree, of men in general. There is in the work of every great sculptor, painter, writer, composer, architect, a distinctive and individual manner so marked and unmistakable as to identify the man whenever and wherever a bit of his work appears. If a statue of Phidias were to be found without any mark of the sculptor upon it, there would be no delay in determining whose work it was; no educated musician would be uncertain for a moment about a composition of Wagner's if he heard it for the first time without knowledge of its source; nor would a short story from the hand of Hawthorne remain unclaimed a day after its publication. Now, this individual manner and quality, so evident that it is impossible not to recognise it whenever it appears, is not a trick of skill; it has its source in a man's temperament and genius; it is the subtlest and most deep-going disclosure of his nature. In so far as a spiritual quality can be contained and expressed in any form of speech known among men--and all the arts are forms of speech--that which is most secret and sacred in a man is freely given to the world in his work.

Work is sacred, therefore, not only because it is the fruit of self- denial, patience, and toil, but because it uncovers the soul of the worker. We deal with each other on so many planes, and have so much speech with each other about things of little moment, that we often lose the sense of the sanctity which attaches to personality whenever it appears. There come moments, however, when some intimate experience is confided to us, and then, in the pause of talk, we become aware that we are in presence of a human soul behind the familiar face of our friend, and that we are on holy ground. In such moments the quick emotion, the sudden thrill, bear eloquent witness to that deeper and diviner life in which we all share, but of which we rarely seem aware. This perception of the presence of a man's soul comes to us when we stand before a true work of art. We not only uncover our heads, but our hearts are uncovered as well. Here is one who through all his skill speaks to us in a language which we understand, but which we rarely hear. A great work of art not only liberates the imagination, but the heart as well; for it speaks to us more intimately than our friends are able to speak, and that reticence which holds us back from perfect intercourse when we look into each other's faces vanishes. A few lines read in the solitude of the woods, or before the open fire, often kindle the emotion and imagination which slumber within us; in companionship with the greatest minds our shyness vanishes; we not only take but give with unconscious freedom. When we reach this stage we have reached the man who lives not only by but in the work, and whose innermost nature speaks to us and confides in us through the form of speech which he has chosen.

The higher the quality of the work, the clearer the disclosure of the spirit which fashioned it and gave it the power to search and liberate. The plays of Sophocles are, in many ways, the highest and most representative products of the Greek literary genius; they show that genius at the moment when all its qualities were in harmony and perfectly balanced between the spiritual vision which it formed of life, and the art form to which it commits that precious and impalpable possession. One of the distinctive qualities of these plays is their objectivity; their detachment from the moods and experiences of the dramatist. This detachment is so complete that at first glance every trace of the dramatist seems to have been erased. But there are many passages besides the famous lines descriptive of the grove at Colonus which betray the personality behind the plays; and, studied more closely, the very detachment of the drama from the dramatist is significant of character. In the poise, harmony, and balance of these beautiful creations there is revealed the instinct for proportion, the self-control and the subordination of the parts to the whole which betray a nature committed by its very instincts to a passionate devotion to beauty. In one of the poems of our own century which belongs in the first rank of artistic achievements, "In Memoriam," the highest themes are touched with the strength of one who knows how to face the problems of life with impartial and impersonal courage, and with the tenderness of one whose own heart has felt the immediate pressure of these tremendous questions. So every great work, whether personal or impersonal in intention, conveys to the intelligent reader an impression of the thought behind the skill, and of the character behind the thought. Goethe frankly declared that his works constituted one great confession. All work is confession and revelation as well.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: The Man In The Work