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The Unit of the World

Frontispiece from Poems (1921) by Alice Meynell, from a drawing by John Singer Sargent

Frontispiece from Poems (1921) by Alice Meynell, from a drawing by John Singer Sargent

Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 - 1685 ), The Spinner, 1652, etching on laid paper, 13.7 x 17.5 cm (5 3/8 x 6 7/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 – 1685 ), The Spinner, 1652, etching on laid paper, 13.7 x 17.5 cm (5 3/8 x 6 7/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

The following is an excerpt from The Unit of the World, an essay by the Victorian writer and suffragist, Alice Meynell, from her book, The Rhythm of Life:

The quarrel of Art with Nature goes on apace.  The painters have long been talking of selecting, then of rejecting, or even, with Mr. Whistler, of supplanting.  And then Mr. Oscar Wilde, in the witty and delicate series of inversions which he headed ‘The Decay of Lying,’ declared war with all the irresponsibility naturally attending an act so serious.  He seems to affirm that Nature is less proportionate to man than is architecture; that the house is built and the sofa is made measurable by the unit measure of the body; but that the landscape is set to some other scale.  ‘I prefer houses to the open air.  In a house we all feel of the proper proportions.  Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is absolutely the result of indoor life.’  Nevertheless, before it is too late, let me assert that though nature is not always clearly and obviously made to man’s measure, he is yet the unit by which she is measurable.  The proportion may be far to seek at times, but the proportion is there.  Man’s farms about the lower Alps, his summer pastures aloft, have their relation to the whole construction of the range; and the range is great because it is great in regard to the village lodged in a steep valley in the foot hills.  The relation of flower and fruit to his hands and mouth, to his capacity and senses (I am dealing with size, and nothing else), is a very commonplace of our conditions in the world.  The arm of man is sufficient to dig just as deep as the harvest is to be sown.  And if some of the cheerful little evidences of the more popular forms of teleology are apt to be baffled, or indefinitely postponed, by the retorts that suggest themselves to the modern child, there remains the subtle and indisputable witness borne by art itself: the body of man composes with the mass and the detail of the world.  The picture is irrefutable, and the picture arranges the figure amongst its natural accessories in the landscape, and would not have them otherwise.

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