Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. VI. The Conduct of Life
WAS never form and never face
So sweet to SEYD as only grace
Which did not slumber like a stone
But hovered gleaming and was gone.
Beauty chased he everywhere,
In flame, in storm, in clouds of air.
He smote the lake to feed his eye
With the beryl beam of the broken wave.
He flung in pebbles well to hear
The moments music which they gave.
Oft pealed for him a lofty tone
From nodding pole and belting zone.
He heard a voice none else could hear
From centered and from errant sphere.
The quaking earth did quake in rhyme,
Seas ebbed and flowed in epic chime.
In dens of passion, and pits of woe,
He saw strong Eros struggling through,
To sun the dark and solve the curse,
And beam to the bounds of the universe.
While thus to love he gave his days
In loyal worship, scorning praise,
How spread their lures for him, in vain,
Thieving Ambition and paltering Gain!
He thought it happier to be dead,
To die for Beauty, than live for bread.
THE SPIRAL1 tendency of vegetation infects education also. Our books approach very slowly the things we most wish to know. What a parade we make of our science, and how far off and at arms length it is from its objects! Our botany is all names, not powers: poets and romancers talk of herbs of grace and healing, but what does the botanist know of the virtues of his weeds?2 The geologist lays bare the strata and can tell them all on his fingers; but does he know what effect passes into the man who builds his house in them? what effect on the race that inhabits a granite shelf? what on the inhabitants of marl and of alluvium?
We should go to the ornithologist with a new feeling if he could teach us what the social birds say when they sit in the autumn council, talking together in the trees. The want of sympathy makes his record a dull dictionary. His result is a dead bird. The bird is not in its ounces and inches, but in its relations to nature; and the skin or skeleton you show me is no more a heron than a heap of ashes or a bottle of gases into which his body has been reduced, is Dante or Washington.3 The naturalist is led from the road by the whole distance of his fancied advance. The boy had juster views when he gazed at the shells on the beach or the flowers in the meadow, unable to call them by their names, than the man in the pride of his nomenclature. Astrology interested us, for it tied man to the system. Instead of an isolated beggar, the farthest star felt him and he felt the star. However rash and however falsified by pretenders and traders in it, the hint was true and divine, the souls avowal of its large relations, and that climate, century, remote natures as well as near, are part of its biography. Chemistry takes to pieces, but it does not construct. Alchemy, which sought to transmute one element into another, to prolong life, to arm with power,that was in the right direction. All our science lacks a human side. The tenant is more than the house.4 Bugs and stamens and spores, on which we lavish so many years, are not finalities; and man, when his powers unfold in order, will take nature along with him, and emit light into all her recesses. The human heart concerns us more than the poring into microscopes, and is larger than can be measured by the pompous figures of the astronomer.
We are just so frivolous and skeptical. Men hold themselves cheap and vile; and yet a man is a fagot of thunderbolts. All the elements pour through his system; he is the flood of the flood and fire of the fire; he feels the antipodes and the pole as drops of his blood; they are the extension of his personality. His duties are measured by that instrument he is; and a right and perfect man would be felt to the centre of the Copernican system.5 T is curious that we only believe as deep as we live. We do not think heroes can exert any more awful power than that surface-play which amuses us. A deep man believes in miracles, waits for them, believes in magic, believes that the orator will decompose his adversary; believes that the evil eye can wither, that the hearts blessing can heal; that love can exalt talent; can overcome all odds.6 From a great heart secret magnetisms flow incessantly to draw great events. But we prize very humble utilities, a prudent husband, a good son, a voter, a citizen, and deprecate any romance of character; and perhaps reckon only his money value, his intellect, his affection,as a sort of bill of exchange easily convertible into fine chambers, pictures, music and wine.
The motive of science was the extension of man, on all sides, into nature, till his hands should touch the stars, his eyes see through the earth, his ears understand the language of beast and bird, and the sense of the wind; and, through his sympathy, heaven and earth should talk with him. But that is not our science. These geologies, chemistries, astronomies, seem to make wise, but they leave us where they found us. The invention is of use to the inventor, of questionable help to any other. The formulas of science are like the papers in your pocket-book, of no value to any but the owner. Science in England, in America, is jealous of theory, hates the name of love and moral purpose.7 There s a revenge for this inhumanity. What manner of man does science make? The boy is not attracted. He says, I do not wish to be such a kind of man as my professor is. The collector has dried all the plants in his herbal, but he has lost weight and humor.8 He has got all snakes and lizards in his phials, but science has done for him also, and has put the man into a bottle. Our reliance on the physician is a kind of despair of ourselves. The clergy have bronchitis, which does not seem a certificate of spiritual health. Macready thought it came of the falsetto of their voicing. An Indian prince, Tisso, one day riding in the forest, saw a herd of elk sporting. See how happy, he said, these browsing elks are! Why should not priests, lodged and fed comfortably in the temples, also amuse themselves? Returning home, he imparted this reflection to the king. The king, on the next day, conferred the sovereignty on him, saying, Prince, administer this empire for seven days; at the termination of that period I shall put thee to death. At the end of the seventh day the king inquired, From what cause hast thou become so emaciated? He answered, From the horror of death. The monarch rejoined, Live, my child, and be wise. Thou hast ceased to take recreation, saying to thyself, In seven days I shall be put to death. These priests in the temple incessantly meditate on death; how can they enter into healthful diversions? But the men of science or the doctors or the clergy are not victims of their pursuits more than others.9 The miller, the lawyer and the merchant dedicate themselves to their own details, and do not come out men of more force. Have they divination, grand aims, hospitality of soul and the equality to any event which we demand in man, or only the reactions of the mill, of the wares, of the chicane?
No object really interests us but man, and in man only his superiorities; and though we are aware of a perfect law in nature, it has fascination for us only through its relation to him, or as it is rooted in the mind. At the birth of Winckelmann, more than a hundred years ago, side by side with this arid, departmental, post mortem science, rose an enthusiasm in the study of Beauty;10 and perhaps some sparks from it may yet light a conflagration in the other. Knowledge of men, knowledge of manners, the power of form and our sensibility to personal influence never go out of fashion. These are facts of a science which we study without book, whose teachers and subjects are always near us.
So inveterate is our habit of criticism that much of our knowledge in this direction belongs to the chapter of pathology. The crowd in the street oftener furnishes degradations than angels or redeemers, but they all prove the transparency. Every spirit makes its house, and we can give a shrewd guess from the house to the inhabitant. But not less does nature furnish us with every sign of grace and goodness.11 The delicious faces of children, the beauty of school-girls, the sweet seriousness of sixteen, the lofty air of well-born, well-bred boys, the passionate histories in the looks and manners of youth and early manhood and the varied power in all that well-known company that escort us through life,we know how these forms thrill, paralyze, provoke, inspire and enlarge us.12
Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty; for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain or method, moral beauty or beauty of the soul.
The ancients believed that a genius or demon took possession at birth of each mortal, to guide him; that these genii were sometimes seen as a flame of fire partly immersed in the bodies which they governed; on an evil man, resting on his head; in a good man, mixed with his substance. They thought the same genius, at the death of its ward, entered a new-born child, and they pretended to guess the pilot by the sailing of the ship. We recognize obscurely the same fact, though we give it our own names. We say that every man is entitled to be valued by his best moment. We measure our friends so. We know they have intervals of folly, whereof we take no heed, but wait there appearings of the genius, which are sure and beautiful.13 On the other side, everybody knows people who appear beridden, and who, with all degrees of ability, never impress us with the air of free agency. They know it too, and peep with their eyes to see if you detect their sad plight. We fancy, could we pronounce the solving word and disenchant them, the cloud would roll up, the little rider would be discovered and unseated, and they would regain their freedom. The remedy seems never to be far off, since the first step into thought lifts this mountain of necessity. Thought is the pent air-ball which can rive the planet, and the beauty which certain objects have for him is the friendly fire which expands the thought and acquaints the prisoner that liberty and power await him.
The question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces to thinking of the foundations of things. Goethe said, The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature which, but for this appearance, had been forever concealed from us. And the working of this deep instinct makes all the excitementmuch of it superficial and absurd enoughabout works of art, which leads armies of vain travellers every year to Italy, Greece and Egypt. Every man values every acquisition he makes in the science of beauty, above his possessions. The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity was served, would remain unsatisfied. But as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.
I am warned by the ill fate of many philosophers not to attempt a definition of Beauty. I will rather enumerate a few of its qualities. We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes.14 It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality. We say love is blind, and the figure of Cupid is drawn with a bandage round his eyes. Blind: yes, because he does not see what he does not like; but the sharpest-sighted hunter in the universe is Love, for finding what he seeks, and only that; and the mythologists15 tell us that Vulcan was painted lame and Cupid blind, to call attention to the fact that one was all limbs, and the other all eyes. In the true mythology Love is an immortal child, and Beauty leads him as a guide: nor can we express a deeper sense than when we say, Beauty is the pilot of the young soul.
Beyond their sensuous delight, the forms and colors of nature have a new charm for us in our perception that not one ornament was added for ornament, but each is a sign of some better health or more excellent action. Elegance of form in bird or beast, or in the human figure, marks some excellence of structure: or, beauty is only an invitation from what belongs to us. T is a law of botany that in plants the same virtues follow the same forms. It is a rule of largest application, true in a plant, true in a loaf of bread, that in the construction of any fabric or organism any real increase of fitness to its end is an increase of beauty.
The lesson taught by the study of Greek and of Gothic art, of antique and of Pre-Raphaelite painting, was worth all the research,namely, that all beauty must be organic; that outside embellishment is deformity. It is the soundness of the bones that ultimates itself in a peach-bloom complexion; health of constitution that makes the sparkle and the power of the eye. T is the adjustment of the size and of the joining of the sockets of the skeleton that gives grace of outline and the finer grace of movement. The cat and the deer cannot move or sit inelegantly. The dancing-master can never teach a badly built man to walk well. The tint of the flower proceeds from its root, and the lustres of the seashell begin with its existence.16 Hence our taste in building rejects paint, and all shifts, and shows the original grain of the wood: refuses pilasters and columns that support nothing, and allows the real supporters of the house honestly to show themselves. Every necessary or organic action pleases the beholder. A man leading a horse to water, a farmer sowing seed, the labors of haymakers in the field, the carpenter building a ship, the smith at his forge, or whatever useful labor, is becoming to the wise eye.17 But if it is done to be seen, it is mean. How beautiful are ships on the sea! but ships in the theatre,or ships kept for picturesque effect on Virginia Water by George IV., and men hired to stand in fitting costumes at a penny an hour! What a difference in effect between a battalion of troops marching to action, and one of our independent companies on a holiday! In the midst of a military show and a festal procession gay with banners, I saw a boy seize an old tin pan that lay rusting under a wall, and poising it on the top of a stick, he set it turning and made it describe the most elegant imaginable curves, and drew away attention from the decorated procession by this startling beauty.
Another text from the mythologists. The Greeks fabled that Venus was born of the foam of the sea. Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond. The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression. Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms. Any fixedness, heaping or concentration on one feature,a long nose, a sharp chin, a hump-back,is the reverse of the flowing, and therefore deformed. Beautiful as is the symmetry of any form, if the form can move we seek a more excellent symmetry.18 The interruption of equilibrium stimulates the eye to desire the restoration of symmetry, and to watch the steps through which it is attained. This is the charm of running water, sea waves, the flight of birds and the locomotion of animals. This is the theory of dancing, to recover continually in changes the lost equilibrium, not by abrupt and angular but by gradual and curving movements. I have been told by persons of experience in matters of taste that the fashions follow a law of gradation and are never arbitrary. The new mode is always only a step onward in the same direction as the last mode, and a cultivated eye is prepared for and predicts the new fashion. This fact suggests the reason of all mistakes and offence in our own modes. It is necessary in music, when you strike a discord, to let down the ear by an intermediate note or two to the accord again; and many a good experiment, born of good sense and destined to succeed, fails only because it is offensively sudden. I suppose the Parisian milliner who dresses the world from her imperious boudoir will know how to reconcile the Bloomer costume to the eye of mankind, and make it triumphant over Punch himself, by interposing the just gradations. I need not say how wide the same law ranges, and how much it can be hoped to effect. All that is a little harshly claimed by progressive parties may easily come to be conceded without question, if this rule be observed.19 Thus the circumstances may be easily imagined in which woman may speak, vote, argue causes, legislate and drive a coach, and all the most naturally in the world, if only it come by degrees. To this streaming or flowing belongs the beauty that all circular movement has; as the circulation of waters, the circulation of the blood, the periodical motion of planets, the annual wave of vegetation, the action and reaction of nature; and if we follow it out, this demand in our thought for an ever onward action is the argument for the immortality.
One more text from the mythologists is to the same purpose,Beauty rides on a lion. Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy.20 The cell of the bee is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax; the bone or the quill of the bird gives the most alar strength with the least weight. It is the purgation of superfluities, said Michael Angelo. There is not a particle to spare in natural structures. There is a compelling reason in the uses of the plant for every novelty of color or form; and our art saves material by more skilful arrangement, and reaches beauty by taking every superfluous ounce that can be spared from a wall, and keeping all its strength in the poetry of columns. In rhetoric, this art of omission is a chief secret of power, and, in general, it is proof of high culture to say the greatest matters in the simplest way.21
Veracity first of all, and forever. Rien de beau que le vrai. In all design, art lies in making your object prominent, but there is a prior art in choosing objects that are prominent. The fine arts have nothing casual, but spring from the instincts of the nations that created them.
Beauty is the quality which makes to endure. In a house that I know, I have noticed a block of spermaceti lying about closets and mantel-pieces, for twenty years together, simply because the tallow-man gave it the form of a rabbit; and I suppose it may continue to be lugged about unchanged for a century. Let an artist scrawl a few lines or figures on the back of a letter, and that scrap of paper is rescued from danger, is put in portfolio, is framed and glazed, and, in proportion to the beauty of the lines drawn, will be kept for centuries. Burns writes a copy of verses and sends them to a newspaper, and the human race take charge of them that they shall not perish.
As the flute is heard farther than the cart, see how surely a beautiful form strikes the fancy of men, and is copied and reproduced without end. How many copies are there of the Belvedere Apollo, the Venus, the Psyche, the Warwick Vase, the Parthenon and the Temple of Vesta?22 These are objects of tenderness to all. In our cities an ugly building is soon removed and is never repeated, but any beautiful building is copied and improved upon, so that all masons and carpenters work to repeat and preserve the agreeable forms, whilst the ugly ones die out.
The felicities of design in art or in works of nature are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form. All men are its lovers. Wherever it goes it creates joy and hilarity, and everything is permitted to it. It reaches its height in woman. To Eve, say the Mahometans, God gave two thirds of all beauty. A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope and eloquence in all whom she approaches. Some favors of condition must go with it, since a certain serenity is essential, but we love its reproofs and superiorities.23 Nature wishes that woman should attract man, yet she often cunningly moulds into her face a little sarcasm, which seems to say, Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of man than any I yet behold. French mémoires of the sixteenth century celebrate the name of Pauline de Viguier, a virtuous and accomplished maiden who so fired the enthusiasm of her contemporaries by her enchanting form, that the citizens of her native city of Toulouse obtained the aid of the civil authorities to compel her to appear publicly on the balcony at least twice a week, and as often as she showed herself, the crowd was dangerous to life.24 Not less in England in the last century was the fame of the Gunnings, of whom Elizabeth married the Duke of Hamilton, and Maria, the Earl of Coventry. Walpole says, The concourse was so great, when the Duchess of Hamilton was presented at court, on Friday, that even the noble crowd in the drawing-room clambered on chairs and tables to look at her. There are mobs at their doors to see them get into their chairs, and people go early to get places at the theatres, when it is known they will be there. Such crowds, he adds elsewhere, flock to see the Duchess of Hamilton, that seven hundred people sat up all night, in and about an inn in Yorkshire, to see her get into her post-chaise next morning.
But why need we console ourselves with the fames of Helen of Argos, or Corinna, or Pauline of Toulouse, or the Duchess of Hamilton? We all know this magic very well, or can divine it. It does not hurt weak eyes to look into beautiful eyes never so long. Women stand related to beautiful nature around us, and the enamoured youth mixes their form with moon and stars, with woods and waters, and the pomp of summer.25 They heal us of awkwardness by their words and looks. We observe their intellectual influence on the most serious student. They refine and clear his mind; teach him to put a pleasing method into what is dry and difficult. We talk to them and wish to be listened to; we fear to fatigue them, and acquire a facility of expression which passes from conversation into habit of style.26
That Beauty is the normal state is shown by the perpetual effort of nature to attain it. Mirabeau had an ugly face on a handsome ground; and we see faces every day which have a good type but have been marred in the casting; a proof that we are all entitled to beauty, should have been beautiful if our ancestors had kept the laws,as every lily and every rose is well. But our bodies do not fit us, but caricature and satirize us. Thus, short legs which constrain us to short, mincing steps are a kind of personal insult and contumely to the owner; and long stilts again put him at perpetual disadvantage, and force him to stoop to the general level of mankind. Martial ridicules a gentleman of his day whose countenance resembled the face of a swimmer seen under water. Saadi describes a schoolmaster so ugly and crabbed that a sight of him would derange the ecstasies of the orthodox. Faces are rarely true to any ideal type, but are a record in sculpture of a thousand anecdotes of whim and folly. Portrait painters say that most faces and forms are irregular and unsymmetrical; have one eye blue and one gray; the nose not straight, and one shoulder higher than another; the hair unequally distributed, etc. The man is physically as well as metaphysically a thing of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors, and a misfit from the start.
A beautiful person among the Greeks was thought to betray by this sign some secret favor of the immortal gods; and we can pardon pride, when a woman possesses such a figure that wherever she stands, or moves, or leaves a shadow on the wall, or sits for a portrait to the artist, she confers a favor on the world.27 And yetit is not beauty that inspires the deepest passion. Beauty without grace is the hook without the bait. Beauty, without expression, tires. Abbé Ménage said of the President Le Bailleul that he was fit for nothing but to sit for his portrait. A Greek epigram intimates that the force of love is not shown by the courting of beauty, but when the like desire is inflamed for one who is ill-favored. And petulant old gentlemen, who have chanced to suffer some intolerable weariness from pretty people, or who have seen cut flowers to some profusion, or who see, after a world of pains have been successfully taken for the costume, how the least mistake in sentiment takes all the beauty out of your clothes,affirm that the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.28
We love any forms, however ugly, from which great qualities shine. If command, eloquence, art or invention exist in the most deformed person, all the accidents that usually displease, please and raise esteem and wonder higher. The great orator was an emaciated, insignificant person, but he was all brain. Cardinal De Retz says of De Bouillon, With the physiognomy of an ox, he had the perspicacity of an eagle. It was said of Hooke, the friend of Newton, He is the most, and promises the least, of any man in England. Since I am so ugly, said Du Guesclin,29 it behooves that I be bold. Sir Philip Sidney, the darling of mankind, Ben Jonson tells us, was no pleasant man in countenance, his face being spoiled with pimples, and of high blood, and long. Those who have ruled human destinies like planets for thousands of years, were not handsome men. If a man can raise a small city to be a great kingdom, can make bread cheap, can irrigate deserts, can join oceans by canals, can subdue steam, can organize victory, can lead the opinions of mankind, can enlarge knowledge,tis no matter whether his nose is parallel to his spine, as it ought to be, or whether he has a nose at all; whether his legs are straight, or whether his legs are amputated: his deformities will come to be reckoned ornamental and advantageous on the whole. This is the triumph of expression, degrading beauty, charming us with a power so fine and friendly and intoxicating that it makes admired persons insipid, and the thought of passing our lives with them insupportable.30 There are faces so fluid with expression, so flushed and rippled by the play of thought, that we can hardly find what the mere features really are. When the delicious beauty of lineaments loses its power, it is because a more delicious beauty has appeared; that an interior and durable form has been disclosed.31 Still, Beauty rides on her lion, as before. Still, it was for beauty that the world was made. The lives of the Italian artists, who established a despotism of genius amidst the dukes and kings and mobs of their stormy epoch, prove how loyal men in all times are to a finer brain, a finer method than their own. If a man can cut such a head on his stone gatepost as shall draw and keep a crowd about it all day, by its beauty, good nature, and inscrutable meaning;if a man can build a plain cottage with such symmetry as to make all the fine palaces look cheap and vulgar; can take such advantages of nature that all her powers serve him; making use of geometry, instead of expense; tapping a mountain for his water-jet; causing the sun and moon to seem only the decorations of his estate;this is still the legitimate dominion of beauty.32
The radiance of the human form, though sometimes astonishing, is only a burst of beauty for a few years or a few months at the perfection of youth, and in most, rapidly declines. But we remain lovers of it, only transferring our interest to interior excellence. And it is not only admirable in singular and salient talents, but also in the world of manners.
But the sovereign attribute remains to be noted. Things are pretty, graceful, rich, elegant, handsome, but, until they speak to the imagination, not yet beautiful. This is the reason why beauty is still escaping out of all analysis. It is not yet possessed, it cannot be handled. Proclus says, It swims on the light of forms. It is properly not in the form, but in the mind. It instantly deserts possession, and flies to an object in the horizon.33 If I could put my hand on the North Star, would it be as beautiful? The sea is lovely, but when we bathe in it the beauty forsakes all the near water. For the imagination and senses cannot be gratified at the same time. Wordsworth rightly speaks of a light that never was on sea or land, meaning that it was supplied by the observer; and the Welsh bard warns his countrywomen, that
Half of their charms with Cadwallon shall die.34
The new virtue which constitutes a thing beautiful is a certain cosmical quality, or a power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality. Every natural featuresea, sky, rainbow, flowers, musical tonehas in it somewhat which is not private but universal, speaks of that central benefit which is the soul of nature, and thereby is beautiful.35 And in chosen men and women I find somewhat in form, speech and manners, which is not of their person and family, but of a humane, catholic and spiritual character, and we love them as the sky. They have a largeness of suggestion, and their face and manners carry a certain grandeur, like time and justice.36
The feat of the imagination is in showing the convertibility of every thing into every other thing. Facts which had never before left their stark common sense suddenly figure as Eleusinian mysteries. My boots and chair and candlestick are fairies in disguise, meteors and constellations. All the facts in nature are nouns of the intellect, and make the grammar of the eternal language. Every word has a double, treble or centuple use and meaning. What! has my stove and pepper-pot a false bottom? I cry you mercy, good shoe-box! I did not know you were a jewel-case. Chaff and dust begin to sparkle, and are clothed about with immortality.37 And there is a joy in perceiving the representative or symbolic character of a fact, which no bare fact or event can ever give. There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination.
The poets are quite right in decking their mistresses with the spoils of the landscape, flower-gardens, gems, rainbows, flushes of morning and stars of night, since all beauty points at identity; and whatsoever thing does not express to me the sea and sky, day and night, is somewhat forbidden and wrong. Into every beautiful object there enters somewhat immeasurable and divine, and just as much into form bounded by outlines, like mountains on the horizon, as into tones of music or depths of space. Polarized light showed the secret architecture of bodies; and when the second-sight of the mind is opened, now one color or form or gesture, and now another, has a pungency, as if a more interior ray had been emitted, disclosing its deep holdings in the frame of things.
The laws of this translation we do not know, or why one feature or gesture enchants, why one word or syllable intoxicates; but the fact is familiar that the fine touch of the eye, or a grace of manners, or a phrase of poetry, plants wings at our shoulders; as if the Divinity, in his approaches, lifts away mountains of obstruction, and deigns to draw a truer line, which the mind knows and owns. This is that haughty force of beauty, vis superba formæ, which the poets praise,under calm and precise outline the immeasurable and divine; Beauty hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky.38
All high beauty has a moral element in it, and I find the antique sculpture as ethical as Marcus Antoninus; and the beauty ever in proportion to the depth of thought. Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs. An adorer of truth we cannot choose but obey, and the woman who has shared with us the moral sentiment,her locks must appear to us sublime. Thus there is a climbing scale of culture, from the first agreeable sensation which a sparkling gem or a scarlet stain affords the eye, up through fair outlines and details of the landscape, features of the human face and form, signs and tokens of thought and character in manners, up to the ineffable mysteries of the intellect. Wherever we begin, thither our steps tend: an ascent from the joy of a horse in his trappings, up to the perception of Newton that the globe on which we ride is only a larger apple falling from a larger tree; up to the perception of Plato that globe and universe are rude and early expressions of an all-dissolving Unity,the first stair on the scale to the temple of the Mind.
Note 1. The boyish writings of Emerson show little evidence of love of nature. City-bred and precociously steeped in classic English and Latin, and with mates of similar tastes who had neither guns nor boats, and hardly fishing-rodshe attended natures school late and irregularly. The early verses Peters Field (Poems, Appendix) show how to the imaginations of the Emerson brothers in the birch-girt sites of the Indian villages on the bluffs above Concord River
The fields of Thessaly grew green,
Old gods forsook the skies.
All was imputed classicism. The journals of the undergraduate and the young divine show little real sense of beauty until Love, the awakener, came. The poems to Ellen when absent show that now to him, as to other lovers, the world was new. Soon after her death he shook off the Hebraism which he found a bond, and, remembering his early intuition that
Man in the bush with God may meet,
made his home in the country for the rest of his life. How he found the ancient Earth freshened with the dew, as if just from the Creators hand each morning, all new and undescribed, he has told in Literary Ethics, and that the wonder and charm that each day brought to the eye stood for a spiritual reality which it was for man to interpret. The sense of beauty, once awakened, of course grew through life. Of natural beauty he had a keen sense. Thoreau showed him the secrets of the Concord region. William Ellery Channing, a humorist and a poet, if he had not an artists hand, nor always an artists ear, had an artists eye, and cultivated Emersons in their walks. Two very near friends, Mr. Samuel Gray Ward and Miss Caroline Sturgis, and also Horatio Greenough the sculptor, were helpful to his appreciation of ancient and modern art, but the work of the Greeks, by its simplicity and repose, commanded his untutored admiration from the first.
In the Motto, Seyd (or Saadi, of which name it is another version, and by one of these names Mr. Emerson usually calls his ideal Poet), following luring and evanescent Beauty, finds that there is nothing so low but that in it the purged eye may find a trace of her; for she pervades the universe, and is synonymous with Love, the highest Wisdom. This trinity Emerson everywhere celebrates. Thus in the Ode to Beauty, he wrote:
Note 2. Thoreau stood absolved from this charge. To the keen eye of the naturalist he added an artists delicate sense of color, and the poets thought. He knew what to do with his facts, and he saw, like his friend, almost conscious life and virtue in tree or flower. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson took much pleasure in the book on birds of the more human Nuttall. [back]
Note 4. Mr. Emerson could pardon much to men whose eager minds led them to speculations on matter and its laws far beyond what they could prove, and even fanciful, like Paracelsus, Van Helmont, Swedenborg, Lavater, Hahnemann, Oken, Gall and Spurzheim. [back]
Note 5. Among his fragmentary verses were these lines:
Note 6. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.The Transcendentalist, Nature, Addresses and Lectures, p. 335. Miracle? he wrote in the journal, It is all miracle! [back]
Note 8. A good instance of Mr. Emersons exact and classical use of a word is this of humor primarily for moisture, or sap, as we might say, and incidentally in its more ordinary modern meaning. [back]
Note 9. In contrast to the memento mori, garnishing alike the grave-stones and sermons, in Mr. Emersons youth, he adopted Goethes brave motto, Think on living, and saw no coming death. Nor to his mind was getting a livelihood more than a preparatory step to life. [back]
Note 10. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (171768), the Prussian student of ancient art, and founder of archæology, attracted the attention, by his work Reflections on Greek Art, of the Elector of Saxony, who pensioned him and sent him to Rome to study. His taste and attainments there procured him consideration and furtherance in his researches, and he passed the rest of his life in Italy. His History of Ancient Art was his important work. It was much valued by Mr. Emerson. [back]
Note 11. Mr. Emerson regularly attended church during the first years of his residence in Concord. One day when the preaching was bad he wrote in the journal for 1838: At church I saw that beautiful child , and my fine, natural, manly neighbor who brought the bread and wine to the communicants with so clear an eye and excellent face and manners. That was all I saw that looked like God at church. [back]
Note 12. In the Poet (Poems, Appendix) is a passage which evidently refers to his own home in youth:
Note 13. The demon ([Greek]), or genius presiding over the life of a man, is alluded to in Platos Laws, the Phædo, the Cratylus and elsewhere. In the Symposium Love is spoken of as a great spirit ([Greek]), like all that is spiritual, intermediate between the divine and mortal for God mingles not with man, and through this power all the intercourse and speech of God with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The Neoplatonists speak of the demons. See in the poem Dæmonic Love the lines concerning them, and also, in the Fragments on Life in the Appendix, these, which are very like the expressions in the text here:
Note 18. The onward and upward Flowing in creation appears through all Emersons writings. He delighted to trace the doctrine in the myths of Asia or of Greece, or its modern forms in the writings of the anatomists, or to see its workings in art-galleries, or city drawing-rooms, Concord woods or Western settlements.
Note 19. The canon of Art, that transitions require attention, based on Natures methods, alike in the race and the individual, is here used in the minor morals of taste, as elsewhere to show good out of evil. [back]
Note 20. In the notes on Beauty Mr. Emerson quotes the line of Keats in Hyperion:
Note 22. Yet Nature always outranked Art with Emerson, and he wrote, You admire your Etruscan vase, and with reason, but I also have a cup and cover that pleases me better, to wit, the Earth and Sky. [back]
Note 23. Best of all is the admonition that comes to me from a demand of beauty, so naturally made, wheresoever her eye rests, that our ways of life, our indolences, indulgences and want of heroic action are shamed. Yet I love the reproof. When that which is so fair and noble passes, I am enlarged, my thoughts grow spacious, the chambers of the brain, the lobes of the heart are bigger. How am I cheered by traits of that vis superba formæ. [back]
Note 24. Mr. Emerson found this remarkable story in a German book, published in Darmstadt in 1835, called Letters to Johann Heinrich Merck, from Goethe, Herder, Wieland and others. Among these is a letter from Sömmering to Merck, dated at Mainz, November 29, 1786, in which this enthusiastic collector asks, Is there not in the library of your Prince the Paule-graphie, ou déscription des beautés de Paule de Viguier, par M. Minut, Baron de Casteras. Inquire for it again. Do you know that I possess the hand of this Paule? [The hand alluded to was 268 years old.] Bear in mind that I cannot yet get any information where the book can be found. It is not in Paris, Leipsic or Göttingen. The book, from the pen of an ardent admirer, appeared in Lyonsonly a few copiesand is not here [Darmstadt]. The renowned beauty, however, was really such an object of universal wonder, bewitching charm, virtue and refinement, that, according to the report of a woman who was her contemporary, etc.here follow the words translated by Mr. Emerson in his paragraph about her. The story of this sixteenth-century beauty whose body, unlike Helens, seems to have been a fitting case for her soul, is so remarkable and little known that it should be given here. It is derived from the encyclopædia of Larousse. Paule de Viguier, baroness of Fontenille, generally known under the name of La Belle, a celebrated Frenchwoman born at Toulouse 1518, died there 1610. Her father and mother were of noble old Languedoc families. Through her charming face, the graces of her mind, and her moral virtues she greatly interested her contemporaries. When in 1533 Francis I. visited Toulouse, they chose Paule to speak for them to him. He passed before the tower of Arnauld-Bernard, when from its top he saw the beautiful fourteen-year-old girl descend by means of a machine. She was clothed in white, wreathed with flowers, a rose-garland on her head over her curls, and her exquisite figure, girdled with blue, recalled the Greek statues then found in Italy. She made a poetic speech and then offered the keys of the city to Francis, who could not keep from a cry of admiration. He gave her the surname of Belle-Paule, by which she is always known. Among her many lovers she chose Philippe de Laroche, baron of Fontenille, but her family made her marry the Sire de Baynaquet, counsellor of Parliament. After two years she became a widow and then married Philippe and was entirely happy. In 1563 she was at the height of her beauty, which lasted till old age. Catherine de Medici in the tour of the provinces had Paule presented to her and said that she surpassed her reputation. The Constable of Montmorency said: La baronne est une des merveilles de lunivers. Cest lhonneur de Toulouse et de son siècle. She received the most distinguished men of her day, was studious, and wrote elegant and graceful verses. Her townsmen thought Paule the first of the four marvels of Toulouse: witness this bit of patois:
La belle Paoula, San Sarni,
Lou Bazaclé, Mathali.
The beautiful Paule, the church of St. Sernin, the mill of Bazaclé and the musician Mathali. Her chronicles say that every one followed when she went out. Then she stayed in, and they formed crowds under her windows. Finally the fathers of the city had to interfere in the interest of public safety. They required her to walk in public with her face bare two days a week. She was nearly a centenarian when she died and was buried in the church of the Augustines. The most curious monument of her is a book by Gabriel de Minut, Baron of Casteras, Seneschal of Rouerque. Its title was De la beauté, discours divers pris aux deux belles façons de parler, desquelles le grec et lhébreu usent, lhébreu Job, et le grec Calon kAgathon, voulant signifier ce qui est naturellement beau, et naturellement bon; avec la Paulegraphie, un déscription des beautés dune dame toulousaine nominée La Belle Paule. This book is rare to-day. It was dedicated to Catherine de Medici, published in Lyons (1587 in 8vo) by Charlotte de Minut, sister of the author, très-indigne abbesse du pauvre monastère de Sainte Claire de Toulouse. [back]
Note 26. In the chapter Manners, in the second series of Essays, is a passage which it pleased Mr. Emerson to put in Oriental guise, as a supposed description of the Persian beauty Lilla, which is suggested by this part of Beauty. Also the following is from a loose sheet probably from this lecture: The life of man is environed with beauty and, as in his habitation, so in more affecting manner, in the face and form of his race. We cannot see the effect of human beauty without suspecting for it a deeper origin than simply a material onenor the overpowering influence of form without assurance that something higher than form is the cause. The lover invokes flowers, gems, winds, stars, angels, gods; whatsoever the imagination or religion can suggest, unites itself with this personal image in his heart. In the mind is an instinctive connection between external grace and whatsoever is most profound in human nature. I will venture to add, in confirmation of the ancient sentence that Beauty is the flower of Virtue, that in the impression which beauty makes on us what is finest is moral. The most piquant attraction of a long descended maiden is the imputation of an immaculate innocence, a sort of wild virtue, savage and fragrant as the violets, and when we see such a charm in a crowded drawing-room the imagination is surprised and captivated at meeting the Divinity amidst flowers and trifles. A beautiful person has somewhat universal in her expression, and draws all eyes and hearts into a feeling, not of the desire of appropriation, but somewhat far higher. [back]
begins the unconscious lover of Maud in Tennysons poem, but then goes on to discover redeeming irregularities of feature which have begun to enthral him. As the daguerreotypist at Providence told Mr. Emerson, symmetry is the exception, asymmetry the rule. In the busts of Mr. Emerson by French and by Morse the differences in his face as seen from the right or left side are marked and interesting, one giving the aspect of the man in solitude or in a public character and one that of friendship or domestic relations. [back]
Note 29. Bertrand du Guesclin, the great Constable of France, who, after the death of Edward III., won back for his country most of the possessions which England had held. Cardinal de Retz had also the detraction from his personal appearance. In some sheets, probably once part of this lecture, Mr. Emerson speaks thus of the posthumous consolations of the ugly: I noticed lately that however highly we value all personal felicities and advantages, yet, in biography, we read with equal interest, that the man was ugly, or that he was poor, or awkward, etc. Of Cardinal De Retz, Tallemant des Réaux writes, Un petit homme noir, qui ny voyait que de fort près, laid, et maladroit de ses mains en toutes choses. Cromwells warts do him no harm with the most fastidious reader of history. [back]
Note 30. It is told of George Fuller, whose paintings have a charm of the south wind, which, as Mr. Emerson says,
With a net of shining haze
Tints the human countenance
With a color of romance,
that, when some one asked him why he did not get a prettier model for his Gypsy Girl, he cried out, God strike me dead when I paint anything pretty! [back]
Note 31. From a lecture, 1866: Beauty unequally bestowed;Yes, but the highest beauty is that of expression, and the same man is handsome or ugly as he gives utterance to good or bad feeling. I noticed, the other day, that when a man whom I had always remarked as a handsome person, was venting democratic politics, his whole expression changed, and became mean and paltry. That is, nature distributed vulgar beauty unequally, as if she did not value it; but the most precious beauty she put in our own hands, that of expression. What pity that beauty is not the rulesince everybody might have been handsome as well as not. Or, if the moral laws must have their revenge, like Indians, for every violation, what pity that everybody is not promoted on the battlefield, as our generals are, by a good action. My servant squints and steals: I persuade her to better behaviour; she restores the long-lost trinket, and, at the same moment, the strabismus should be healed. Journal, 1839. Beauty dwells also in the Will. You plant a tree for your son, or for mankind in the next age. Decline also the low suggestion, stablish the lofty purpose in the moment when it flits so evanescently by, and you plant bodily beauty for the next age.Who saw you do the mean act? Ah, brother! your manners saw you and they shall always report it to men. [back]
Note 32. Mr. Emerson was no landscape-gardener, but he found unlooked-for adornments to his pasture:
Note 36. I saw a hand whose beauty seemed to me to express Hope and Purity, and as that hand goes working, grasping, beckoning on, in the daily life of its owner, some of this high virtue, I think, will pass out of it. [back]
Note 37. The Poet (in the unfinished verses of that name in the Appendix of the Poems), when his inspiration is coming on him, cries,
How all things sparkle!
The dust is alive,
To the birth they arrive:
I snuff the breath of my morning afar,
I see the pale lustres condense to a star.
Dr. Holmes, in spite of the humor of the passage about the momentary glamour of even the stove, the pepper-pot, and the shoe-box, cannot but regard it as almost indicating momentary mental aberration, certainly as being unsafe reading for would-be poets of the late Nineteenth Century School, and sure to cost Emerson readers among solid men of Boston. But he adds that, had the reader seen the lecturers smile as he delivered one of his playful statements of a run-away truth, fact unhorsed by the imagination, sometimes by wit or humor, he would have found a meaning in his words which the featureless printed page could never show him. Dr. Holmes holds his friend to account for neglecting the poets and artists duty of Selection, and draws the line at the poets imagination allowing itself to
Note 38. I seek beauty in the arts and in song, and in emotion, for itself, and suddenly I find it to be sword and shield. For dwelling there in its depths I find myself above the region of Fear, and unassailable, like a god at the Olympian tables. Thus Emersons celebration of Beauty is, like the Psalms of King David, a Song of Degrees: Journal, 1850. The artist now should draw men together by praising nature, show them the joy of naturalists in famous Indian glens,natural botanic gardens,in the profusion of new genera, that they could only relieve themselves by cries of joy; then the joy of the conchologist in his Helix pulcherrima, whose elegant white pattern becomes invisible in water, visible again when dry. Let him unroll the earth and sky and show the splendour of colour and of form; then let him, on the top of this delight, add a finer, by disclosing the secrets of intellectual law; tell them a secret that will drive them crazy; and things that require no system to make them pertinent, but make everything else impertinent. I think, give me the memory to tell of, or the imagination; and I could win the ear of reasonable people, and make them think common daylight was worth something. Afterwards let him whisper in their ear the moral laws
More fair than heavens broad pathway paved with stars
Which Dion learned to measure with delight.
There was the problem to solve of the presence everywhere, alike in the household, or flitting before him in the wood-path, of this
Lavish, lavish Promiser
Nigh persuading gods to err.
Why do we seek this lurking Beauty in skies, in poems, in drawings? Ah, because then we are safe, then we neither sicken nor die. I think we fly to Beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature. We are made immortal by this kiss. We are immortal, at once, by the contemplation of beauty. Strange, strange that the door to it should thus perversely be through the prudent, the punctual, the frugal, the careful. And, that the adorers of Beauty, musicians, painters, Byrons, Shelleys, Keatses, and such like men, should turn themselves out of doors, out of sympathies and out of themselves! In the chapter on Beauty in his first book, Nature, Mr. Emerson had already arrived at the thought ever afterwards a part of his joyful faith: Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe. God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty are but different faces of the same All. [back]