The Principle of Beauty

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XXV: THE PRINCIPLE OF BEAUTY

“I have loved,”said Keats, “the principle of beauty in all things.” It is that to which all I have said has been leading, as many roads unite in one. We must try to use discrimination, not to be so optimistic that we see beauty if it is not there, not to overwhelm every fling that every craftsman has at beauty with gush and panegyric; not to praise beauty in all companies, or to go off like a ripe broom-pod, at a touch. When Walter Pater was confronted with something which courtesy demanded that he should seem to admire, he used to say in that soft voice of his, which lingered over emphatic syllables, “Very costly, no doubt!”

But we must be generous to all beautiful intention, and quick to see any faintest beckoning of the divine quality; and indeedI would not have most people aim at too critical an attitude, for I believe it is more important to enjoy than to appraise; still we must keep the principle in sight, and not degenerate into mere collectors of beautiful impressions. If we simply try to wallow in beauty, we are using it sensually; while if on the other hand we aim at correctness of taste, which is but the faculty of sincere concurrence with the artistic standards of the day, we come to a sterile connoisseurship which has no living inspiration about it. It is the temperate use of beauty which we must aim at, and a certain candour of observation, looking at all things, neither that we may condemn if we can, nor that we may luxuriously abandon ourselves to sensation, but that we may draw from contemplation something of the inner light of life.

I have not here said much about the arts-music, sculpture, painting, architecture- because I do not want to recommend any specialisation in beauty. I know, indeed, several high-minded people, diligent, unoriginal, faithful, who have begun by recognising in a philosophical way the worth and force of beauty, but who, having no direct instinct for it, have bemused themselves by conventional and conscientious study, into the belief that they are on the track of beauty in art, when they have no real appreciation of it at all, no appetite for it, but are only bent on perfecting temperament, and whose unconscious motive has been but a fear of not being in sympathy with men whose ardour they admire, but whose love of beauty they do not really share. Such people tend to gravitate to early Italian painting, because of its historical associations, and because it can be categorically studied. They become what is called ‘purists’ which means little more than a learned submissiveness. In literature they are found to admire Carlyle, Ruskin, and Browning, not because of their method of treating thought, but because of the ethical maxims imbedded-as though one were to love a conserve of plums for the sake of the stones!

One should love great writers and great artists not because of their great thoughts- there are plenty of inferior writers who traffic in great thoughts-but because great artists and writers are the people who can irradiate with a heavenly sort of light common thoughts and motives, so as to show the beauty which underlies them and the splendour that breaks from them.It is possible to treat fine thoughts in a heavy way so as to deprive them of all their rarity and inspiration. The Gospel contains some of the most beautiful thoughts in the world, beautiful because they are common thoughts which every one recognises to be true, yet set in a certain light, just as the sunset with its level, golden, remote glow has the power of transfiguring a familiar scene with a glory of mystery and desire. But one has but to turn over a volume of dull sermons, or the pages of a dreary commentary, to find the thoughts of the Gospel transformed into something that seems commonplace and uninspiring. The beauty of ordinary things depends upon the angle at which you see them and the light which falls upon them; and the work of the great artist and the great writer is to show things at the right angle, and to shut off the confusing muddled cross-lights which conceal the quality of the thing seen.

The recognition of the principle of beauty lies in the assurance that many things have beauty, if rightly viewed, and in the determination to see things in the true light. Thus the soul that desires to see beauty must begin by believing it to be there, must expect to see it, must watch for it, must not be discouraged by those who do not see it, and least of all give heed to those who would forbid one to discern it except in definite and approved forms. The worst of aesthetic prophets is that, like the Scribes, they make a fence about the law, and try to convert the search for principle into the accumulation of detailed tenets.

Let us then never attempt to limit beauty to definite artistic lines; that is the mistake of the superstitious formalist who limits divine influences to certain sanctuaries and fixed ceremonials. The use of the sanctuary and the ceremonial is only to concentrate at one fiery point the wide current of impulsive ardour. The true lover of beauty will await it everywhere, will see it in the town, with its rising roofs and its bleached and blackened steeples, in the seaport with its quaint crowded shipping, in the clustered hamlet with its orchard-closes and high-roofed barns, in the remote country with its wide fields and its converging lines, in the beating of the sea on shingle-bank and promontory; and then if he sees it there, he will see it concentrated and emphasised in pictures of these things, the beauty of which lies so often in the sense of the loving apprehension of the mystery of lights and hues; and then he will trace the same subtle spirit in the forms and gestures and expressions of those among whom he lives, and will go deeper yet and trace the same spirit in conduct and behaviour, in the free and gallant handling of life, in the suppression of mean personal desires, in doing dull and disagreeable things with a fine end in view, in the noble affection of the simplest people; until he becomes aware that it is a quality which runs through everything he sees or hears or feels, and that the eternal difference is whether one views things dully and stupidly, regarding the moment hungrily and greedily, as a dog regards a plateful of food, or whether one looks at it all as a process which has some fine and distant end in view, and sees that all experience, whether it be of things tangible and visible, or of things intellectual and spiritual, is only precious because it carries one forward, forms, moulds, and changes one with a hope of some high and pure resurrection out of things base and hurried into things noble and serene. The need, the absolute need for all and each of us, is to find something strong and great to rest and repose upon. Otherwise one simply falls back on the fact that one exists and on the whole enjoys existing, while one shuns the pain and darkness of ceasing to exist As life goes on, there comes such an impulse to say, “Life is attractive and might be pleasant, but there is always something shadowing it, spoiling it, gnawing at it, a worm in the bud, of which one cannot be rid.” And so one sinks into a despairing apathy.

What then is one born for? Just to live and forget, to be hurt and healed, to be strong and grow weak? That as the spirit falls into faintness, the body should curdle into worse than dust? To give each a memory of things sharp and sweet, that no one else remembers, and then to destroy that?

No, that is not the end! The end is rather to live fully and ardently, to recognise the indestructibility of the spirit, to strip off from it all that wounds and disables it, not by drearily toiling against haunting faults, but by rising as often as we can into serene ardour and deep hopefulness. That is the principle of beauty, to feel that there is something transforming and ennobling us, which we canlay hold of if we wish, and that every time we see the great spirit at work and clasp it close to our feeble will, we soar a step higher and see all things with a wider and a clearer vision.

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