The Sense of Beauty

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson

XXIV: THE SENSE OF BEAUTY

There is one difficulty which stands at the threshold of dealing with the sense of beauty so as to give it due importance and preponderance, and that is that it seems with many people to be so frail a thing, and to visit the mind only as the last grace of a mood of perfect serenity and well-being. Many people, and those not the least thoughtful and intelligent, find by experience that it is almost the first thing to disappear in moments of stress and pressure. Physical pain, grief, pre-occupation, business, anxiety, all seem to have the power of quenching it instantaneously, until one is apt to feel that it is a thing of infinite delicacy and tenderness, and can only co-exist with a tranquillity which it is hard in life to secure. The result of this no doubt is that manyactive-minded and forcible people are ready to think little of it, and just regard it as a mood that may accompany a well-earned holiday, and even so to be sparingly indulged.

It is also undoubtedly true that in many robust and energetic people the sense of what is beautiful is so far atrophied that it can only be aroused by scenes and places of almost melodramatic picturesqueness, by ancient buildings clustered on craggy eminences, great valleys with the frozen horns of mountains, wind-ravaged and snow-streaked, peering over forest edges, the thunder and splendour of great sea-breakers plunging landward under rugged headlands and cliff-fronts. But all this pursuit of sensational beauty is to mistake its quality; the moment it is thus pursued it ceases to be the milk and honey of life, and it becomes a kind of stimulant which excites rather than tranquillises. I do not mean that one should of set purpose avoid the sight of wonderful prospects and treasure-houses of art, or act as the poet Gray did when he was travelling with Horace Walpole in the Alps, when they drew up the blinds of their carriage to exclude the sight of such prodigious and unmanning horrors!

Still I think that if one is on the right track, and if beauty has its due place and value in life, there will be less and less impulse to go far afield for it, in search of something to thrill the dull perception and quicken it into life. I believe that people ought to be content to live most of their lives in the same place, and to grow to love familiar scenes. Familiarity with a scene ought not to result in the obliteration of all consciousness of it: One ought rather to find in use and affection an increased power of subtle interpretation, a closer and finer understanding of the qualities which underlie the very simplest of English landscapes. I live, myself, for most of the year in a countryside that is often spoken of by its inhabitants as dull, tame, and featureless; yet I cannot say with what daily renewal of delight I wander in the pastoral Cambridge landscape, with its long low lines of wold, its whitewalled, straw-thatched villages embowered in orchards and elms, its slow willow-bound streams, its level fenland, with the far-seen cloud-banks looming overhead: or again in the high-ridged, well-wooded land of Sussex, where I often live, the pure lines of the distant downs seen over the richly coloured intervening weald grow daily more dear and intimate, and appeal more and more closely to the deepest secrets of sweetness and delight. For as we train ourselves to the perception of beauty, we become more and more alive to a fine simplicity of effect; we find the lavish accumulation of rich and magnificent glories bewildering and distracting.

And this is the same with other arts; we no longer crave to be dazzled and flooded by passionate and exciting sensation, we care less and less for studied mosaics of word and thought, and more and more for clearness and form and economy and austerity. Restless exuberance becomes unwelcome, complexity and intricacy weary us; we begin to perceive the beauty of what Fitzgerald called the ‘great still books.’ We do not desire a kaleidoscopic pageant of blending and colliding emotions, but crave for something distinctly seen, entirely grasped, perfectly developed. Because we are no longer in search of something stimulating and exciting, something to make us glide and dart among the surge and spray of life, but what we crave for is rather a calm and reposeful absorption in a thought which can yield us all its beauty, and assure us of the existence of a principle in which we can rest and abide. As life goes on, we ought not to find relief from tedium only in a swift interchange and multiplication of sensations; we ought rather to attain a simple and sustained joyfulness which can find nurture in homely and familiar things.

If again the sense of beauty is so frail a thing that it is at the mercy of all intruding and jarring elements, it is also one of the most patient and persistent of quiet forces. Like the darting fly which we scare from us, it returns again and again to settle on the spot which it has chosen. There are, it is true, troubled and anxious hours when the beauty round us seems a cruel and intrusive thing, mocking us with a peace which we cannot realise, and torturing us with the reminder of the joy we have lost. There are days when the only way to forget our misery is to absorb ourselves in some practical energy; but that is because we have not learned to love beauty in the right way. If we have only thought of it as a pleasant ingredient in our cup of joy, as a thing which we can just use as we can use wine, to give us an added flush of unreasonable content, then it will fail us when we need it most. When a man is under the shadow of a bereavement, he can test for himself how he has used love. If he finds that the loving looks and words and caresses of those that are left to him are a mere torture to him, then he has used love wrongly, just as a selfish and agreeable delight; but if he finds strength and comfort in the yearning sympathy of friend and beloved, reassurance in the strength of the love that is left him, and confidence in the indestructibility of affection, then he has used love wisely and purely, loving it for itself, for its beauty and holiness, and not only for the warmth and comfort it has brought him.

So, if we have loved beauty well, have seen in it a promise of ultimate joy, a sign of a deliberate intention, a message from a power that does not send sorrow and anxiety wantonly, cruelly and indifferently, an assurance of something that waits to welcome and bless us, then beauty is not a mere torturing menace, a heartless and unkind parading of joy which we cannot feel, but a faithful pledge of something secure and everlasting, which will return to us again and again in ever fuller measure, even if the flow of it be sometimes suspended.

We ought then to train and practise our sense of beauty, not selfishly and luxuriously, but so that when the dark hour comes it may help us to realise that all is not lost, may alleviate our pain by giving us the knowledge that the darkness is the interruption, but that the joy is permanent and deep and certain.

Thus beauty, instead of being for us but as the melody swiftly played when our hearts are high, a mere momentary ray, a happy accident that befalls us, may become to us a deep and vital spring of love and hope, of which we may say that it is there waiting for us, like the home that awaits the traveller over the weary upland at the foot of the far-looming hill.It may come to us as a perpetual sign that we are not forgotten, and that the joy of which it makes mention survives all interludes of strife and uneasiness. It is easy to slight and overlook it, but if we do that, we are deluded by the passing storm into believing that confusion and not peace is the end. As George Meredith nobly wrote, during the tragic and fatal illness of his wife, “Here I am in the very pits of tragic life . . . Happily for me, I have learnt to live much in the spirit, and see brightness on the other side of life, otherwise this running of my poor doe with the inextricable arrow in her flanks would pull me down too.” The spirit, the brightness of the other side, that is the secret which beauty can communicate, and the message which she bears upon her radiant wings.

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