Laocoon by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
In 1766, while acting as secretary to the governor of Breslau,
Lessing wrote his celebrated "Laocoon,"
I.—On the Limits of Painting and Poetry
Winkelman has pronounced a noble simplicity and
quiet grandeur, displayed in the posture no less than in
the expression, to be the characteristic feature common to
all the Greek masterpieces of painting and sculpture.
"As," says he, "the depths of the sea always remain
calm, however violently the surface may rage, so the expression
in the figures of the Greeks, under every form
of passion, shows a great and self-collected soul.
"This spirit is portrayed in the countenance of Laocoon,
but not in the countenance alone. Even under
the most violent suffering the pain discovers itself in
every muscle and sinew of his body, and the beholder,
while looking at the agonised conditions of the stomach,
without viewing the face and other parts, believes that
he almost feels the pain himself. The pain expresses
itself without any violence, both in the features and in
the whole posture. Laocoon suffers, but he suffers as
the Philoctetes of Sophocles. His misery pierces us to
the very soul, but inspires us with a wish that we could
endure misery like that great man.
"The expressing of so great a soul is far higher than
the painting of beautiful nature. The artist must feel
within himself that strength of spirit which he would
imprint on his marble. Greece had philosophers and
artists in one person. Philosophy gave her hand to art,
and inspired its figures with no ordinary souls."
The above remarks are founded on the argument that
"the pain in the face of Laocoon does not show itself
with that force which its intensity would have led us to
expect." This is correct. But I confess I differ from
Winkelman as to what, in his opinion, is the basis of this
wisdom, and as to the universality of the rule which he
deduces from it. I acknowledge I was startled, first by
the glances of disapproval which he casts on Virgil, and,
secondly, by the comparison with Philoctetes. From
this point I shall begin, writing down my thoughts as
they were developed in me.
"Laocoon suffers as does the Philoctetes of
Sophocles." But how does this last suffer? It is curious
that his sufferings should leave such a different impression
behind them. The cries and mild imprecations
with which he filled the camp and interrupted the sacrifices
echoed through the desolate island. The same
sounds of despair fill the theatre in the poet's imitation.
A cry is the natural expression of bodily pain.
Homer's wounded heroes frequently fall to the ground
with cries. They are in their actions beings of higher
order; in their feelings, true men.
We more civilised and refined Europeans of a wiser
and later age are forbidden to cry and weep, and even
our ancestors were taught to suppress lamentation at
loss, and to die laughing under the bites of adders. Not
so the Greeks. They felt and feared, and gave utterance
to pain and sorrow, only nothing must hold them
back from duty.
Now for my inference. If it be true that, a cry at the
sensation of bodily pain, according to the old Greek
way of thinking, is quite compatible with greatness of
soul, it cannot have been for the sake of expressing such
greatness that the artist avoided imitating his shriek in
marble. Another reason must be found for his deviation
from his rival, the poet, who has expressed it with
the happiest results.
Be it fable or history, it is love that made the first
essay in the plastic arts, and never wearied of guiding
the hands of the masters of old. Painting now may be
defined generally as "the imitation of bodies of matter on
a level surface"; but the wise Greek allotted for it narrower
limits, and confined it to imitations of the beautiful
only; his artists painted nothing else. It was the perfection
of their work that absorbed them. Among the ancients
beauty was the highest law of the plastic arts. To
beauty everything was subordinated. There are passions
by which all beautiful physical lines are lost
through the distortion of the body, but from all such
emotions the ancient masters abstained entirely. Rage
and despair disgrace none of their productions, and I
dare maintain that they never painted a fury.
Indignation was softened down to seriousness. Grief
was lessened into mournfulness. All know how Timanthes
in his painting of the sacrifice of Iphigenia shows
the sorrow of the bystanders, but has concealed the face
of the father, who should show it more than all. He
left to conjecture what he might not paint. This concealment
is a sacrifice to beauty by the artist, and it
shows how art's first law is the law of beauty.
Now apply this to Laocoon. The master aimed at the
highest beauty compatible with the adopted circumstances
of bodily pain. He must soften shrieks into sighs. For
only imagine the mouth of Laocoon to be forced open,
and then judge.
But art in modern times has been allowed a far wider
sphere. It has been affirmed that its limitations extend
over the whole of visible nature, of which the beautiful
is but a small part. And as nature is ever ready to
sacrifice beauty to higher aims, so should the artist
render it subordinate to his general design. But are
there not other considerations which compel the artist
to put certain limits to expression, and prevent him
from ever drawing it at its highest intensity?
I believe that the fact that it is to a single moment that
the material limits of art confine all its limitations, will
lead us to similar views.
If the artist out of ever-varying nature can only make
use of a single moment, while his works are meant to
stand the test not only of a passing glance, but of a long
and repeated contemplation, it is clear that this moment
cannot be chosen too happily. Now that only is a happy
choice which allows the imagination free scope. In
the whole course of a feeling there is no moment which
possesses this advantage so little as its highest stage.
There is nothing beyond this, and the presentation of extremes
to the eye clips the wings of fancy, prevents her
from soaring beyond the impression of the senses, and
compels her to occupy herself with weaker images. Thus
if Laocoon sighs, the imagination can hear him shriek;
but if he shrieks, it can neither rise above nor descend
below this representation without seeing him in a condition
which, as it will be more endurable, becomes less
interesting. It either hears him merely moaning, or
sees him already dead.
Of the frenzied Ajax of Timomachus we can form
some judgment from the account of Philoctetes. Ajax
does not appear raging among herds and slaughtering
cattle instead of men; but the master exhibits him sitting
wearied with these deeds of insanity, and that is really
the raging Ajax. We can form the most lively idea of
the extremity of his frenzy from the shame and despair
which he himself feels at the thought of it. We see
the storm in the wrecks and corpses which it had strewn
on the beach.
Perhaps hardly any of the above remarks concerning
the necessary limits of the artist would be found equally
applicable to poetry. It is undeniable that the whole
realm of the perfectly excellent lies open to the imitation
of the poet, that excellence of outward form which we
call beauty being only one of the least of the means
by which he can interest us in his characters.
Moreover, the poet is not compelled to concentrate his
picture into a single moment. He can take up every
action of his hero at its source, and pursue it to its issue
through all possible variations. Each of these, which
would cost the artist a separate work, costs the poet but
a single trait. What wonderful skill has Sophocles
shown in strengthening and enlarging, in his tragedy of
Philoctetes, the idea of bodily pain! He chose a wound,
and not an internal malady, because the former admits
of a more lively representation than the latter. This
wound was, moreover, a punishment divinely decreed.
But to the Greeks a wound from a poisoned arrow was
but an ordinary incident. Why, then, in the case of
Philoctetes only was it followed by such dreadful consequences?
Sophocles felt full well that, however great he made
the bodily pain to his hero, it would not have sufficed of
itself to excite any remarkable degree of sympathy. He
therefore combined it with other evils—the complete
lack of society, hunger, and all the hardships to which
such a man under terrible privations is exposed when
cast on a wild, deserted isle of the Cyclades.
Imagine, now, a man in these conditions, but give him
health and strength and industry, and he becomes a
Crusoe, whose lot, though not indifferent to us, has no
great claim on our sympathy. On the other hand, imagine
a man afflicted by a painful and incurable disease,
but at the same time surrounded by kind friends. For
him we should feel sympathy, yet this would not endure
throughout. Only when both cases are combined do we
see nothing but despair, which excites our amazement
and horror. Typical beauty arises from the harmonious
effect of numerous parts, all of which the sight is capable
of comprehending at the same time. It requires, therefore,
that these parts should lie near each other; and
since things whose parts lie near each other are the
peculiar objects of plastic beauty, these it is, and these
only, which can imitate typical beauty. The poet, since
he can only exhibit in succession its component parts,
entirely abstains from the description of typical beauty.
He feels that these parts, ranged one after the other,
cannot possibly have the effect they produce when closely
In this respect Homer is a pattern of patterns. He
says Nireus was beautiful, Achilles still more so, Helen
was endowed with divine beauty. But nowhere does
he enter on a detailed sketch of these beauties, and yet
the whole Iliad is based on the loveliness of Helen.
In this point, in which he can imitate Homer by merely
doing nothing, Virgil is also tolerably happy. His
heroine Dido, too, is never anything more than pulcherrima
Dido (loveliest Dido). When he wishes to be more
circumstantial, he is so in the description of her rich dress
Lucian, also, was too acute to convey any idea of the
body of Panthea otherwise than by reference to the
most lovely female statues of the old artists.
Yet what is this but the acknowledgment that language
by itself is here without power; that poetry falters
and eloquence grows speechless unless art in some
measure serve them as an interpreter?
But, it will be said, does not poetry lose too much if we
deprive her of all objects of typical beauty? Who
would deprive her of them? Because we would debar
her from wandering among the footsteps of her sister
art, without ever reaching the same goal as she, do we
exclude her from every other, where art in her turn must
gaze after her steps with fruitless longings?
Even Homer, who so pointedly abstains from all
detailed descriptions of typical beauties, from whom we
but just learn that Helen had white arms and lovely
hair, even he, with all this, knew how to convey to us
an idea of her beauty which far exceeds anything that
art is able to accomplish.
III.—Beauty and Charm
Again, another means which poetry possesses of rivalling
art in the description of typical beauty is the change
of beauty into charm. Charm is beauty in motion, and is
for this very reason less suitable to the painter than to
the poet. The painter can only leave motion to conjecture,
while in fact his figures are motionless. Consequently,
with him charm becomes grimace.
But in poetry it remains what it is, a transitory beauty
which we would gladly see repeated. It comes and goes,
and since we can generally recall to our minds a movement
more easily and vividly than forms or colours,
charm necessarily in the same circumstances produces a
stronger effect than beauty.
Zeuxis painted a Helen, and had the courage to write
below the picture those renowned lines of Homer in
which the enraptured elders confess their sensations.
Never had painting and poetry been engaged in such
contest. The contest remained undecided, and both deserved
For just as a wise poet showed us the beauty which
he felt he could not paint according to its constituent
parts, but merely in its effect, so the no less wise painter
showed us that beauty by nothing but those parts, deeming
it unbecoming for his art to resort to any other means
for aid. His picture consisted of a single figure, undraped,
of Helen, probably the one painted for the people
In beauty a single unbecoming part may disturb the
harmonious effect of many, without the object necessarily
becoming ugly. For ugliness, too, requires several unbecoming
parts, all of which we must be able to comprehend
at the same view before we experience sensations
the opposite of those which beauty produces.
According to this, therefore, ugliness in its essence
could be no subject of poetry; yet Homer has painted
extreme ugliness in Thersites, and this ugliness is described
according to its parts near each other. Why in
the case of ugliness did he allow himself the license from
which he had abstained in that of beauty? A successive
enumeration of the elements of beauty will annihilate
its effects. Will not a similar cause produce a similar
effect in the case of ugliness?
Undoubtedly it will; but it is in this very fact that the
justification of Homer lies. The poet can only take
advantage of ugliness so far as it is reduced in his description
into the less repugnant appearance of bodily
imperfection, and ceases, as it were, in point of effect, to
be ugliness. Thus, what he cannot make use of by itself
he can use as the ingredient for the purpose of producing
and strengthening certain mixed sensations.
These mixed feelings are the ridiculous and the horrible.
Homer makes Thersites ugly in order to make
him ridiculous. He is not made so, however, merely by
his ugliness, for ugliness is an imperfection, and the contrast
of perfection with imperfections is required to
produce the ridiculous. To this I may add that the contrast
must not be too sharp and glaring, and that the
contrasts must blend into each other.
The wise and virtuous Ęsop does not become ridiculous
because of ugliness attributed to him. For his
misshapen body and beautiful mind are as oil and vinegar;
however much you shake them together, they always
remain distinct to the taste. They will not amalgamate
to produce a third quality. The body produces annoyance;
the soul, pleasure; each has its own effect.
It is only when the deformed body is also fragile and,
sickly, when it impedes the soul, that the annoyance and
pleasure melt into each other.
For, let us suppose that the instigations of the malicious
and snarling Thersites had resulted in mutiny, that the
people had forsaken their leaders and departed in the
ships, and that these leaders had been massacred by a
revengeful foe. How would the ugliness of Thersites
appear then? If ugliness, when harmless, may be ridiculous,
when hurtful it is always horrible. In Shakespeare's
"King Lear," Edmund, the bastard Count of
Gloucester, is no less a villain than Richard, Duke of
Gloucester, in "King Richard III." How is it, then, that
the first excites our loathing so much less than the second?
It is because when I hear the former, I listen to
a devil, but see him as an angel of light; but in listening
to Richard I hear a devil and see a devil.