Simplicity by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

No doubt one of the most charming creations in all poetry is Nausicaa, the white-armed daughter of King Alcinous. There is no scene, no picture, in the heroic times more pleasing than the meeting of Ulysses with this damsel on the wild seashore of Scheria, where the Wanderer had been tossed ashore by the tempest. The place of this classic meeting was probably on the west coast of Corfu, that incomparable island, to whose beauty the legend of the exquisite maidenhood of the daughter of the king of the Phaeacians has added an immortal bloom.

We have no difficulty in recalling it in all its distinctness: the bright morning on which Nausicaa came forth from the palace, where her mother sat and turned the distaff loaded with a fleece dyed in sea-purple, mounted the car piled with the robes to be cleansed in the stream, and, attended by her bright-haired, laughing handmaidens, drove to the banks of the river, where out of its sweet grasses it flowed over clean sand into the Adriatic. The team is loosed to browse the grass; the garments are flung into the dark water, then trampled with hasty feet in frolic rivalry, and spread upon the gravel to dry. Then the maidens bathe, give their limbs the delicate oil from the cruse of gold, sit by the stream and eat their meal, and, refreshed, mistress and maidens lay aside their veils and play at ball, and Nausicaa begins a song. Though all were fair, like Diana was this spotless virgin midst her maids. A missed ball and maidenly screams waken Ulysses from his sleep in the thicket. At the apparition of the unclad, shipwrecked sailor the maidens flee right and left. Nausicaa alone keeps her place, secure in her unconscious modesty. To the astonished Sport of Fortune the vision of this radiant girl, in shape and stature and in noble air, is more than mortal, yet scarcely more than woman:

“Like thee, I saw of late,
In Delos, a young palm-tree growing up
Beside Apollo’s altar.”

When the Wanderer has bathed, and been clad in robes from the pile on the sand, and refreshed with food and wine which the hospitable maidens put before him, the train sets out for the town, Ulysses following the chariot among the bright-haired women. But before that Nausicaa, in the candor of those early days, says to her attendants:

“I would that I might call
A man like him my husband, dwelling here
And here content to dwell.”

Is there any woman in history more to be desired than this sweet, pure-minded, honest-hearted girl, as she is depicted with a few swift touches by the great poet?–the dutiful daughter in her father’s house, the joyous companion of girls, the beautiful woman whose modest bearing commands the instant homage of man. Nothing is more enduring in literature than this girl and the scene on the–Corfu sands.

The sketch, though distinct, is slight, little more than outlines; no elaboration, no analysis; just an incident, as real as the blue sky of Scheria and the waves on the yellow sand. All the elements of the picture are simple, human, natural, standing in as unconfused relations as any events in common life. I am not recalling it because it is a conspicuous instance of the true realism that is touched with the ideality of genius, which is the immortal element in literature, but as an illustration of the other necessary quality in all productions of the human mind that remain age after age, and that is simplicity. This is the stamp of all enduring work; this is what appeals to the universal understanding from generation to generation. All the masterpieces that endure and become a part of our lives are characterized by it. The eye, like the mind, hates confusion and overcrowding. All the elements in beauty, grandeur, pathos, are simple–as simple as the lines in a Nile picture: the strong river, the yellow desert, the palms, the pyramids; hardly more than a horizontal line and a perpendicular line; only there is the sky, the atmosphere, the color-those need genius.

We may test contemporary literature by its confortuity to the canon of simplicity–that is, if it has not that, we may conclude that it lacks one essential lasting quality. It may please;–it may be ingenious –brilliant, even; it may be the fashion of the day, and a fashion that will hold its power of pleasing for half a century, but it will be a fashion. Mannerisms of course will not deceive us, nor extravagances, eccentricities, affectations, nor the straining after effect by the use of coined or far-fetched words and prodigality in adjectives. But, style? Yes, there is such a thing as style, good and bad; and the style should be the writer’s own and characteristic of him, as his speech is. But the moment I admire a style for its own sake, a style that attracts my attention so constantly that I say, How good that is! I begin to be suspicious. If it is too good, too pronouncedly good, I fear I shall not like it so well on a second reading. If it comes to stand between me and the thought, or the personality behind the thought, I grow more and more suspicious. Is the book a window, through which I am to see life? Then I cannot have the glass too clear. Is it to affect me like a strain of music? Then I am still more disturbed by any affectations. Is it to produce the effect of a picture? Then I know I want the simplest harmony of color. And I have learned that the most effective word-painting, as it is called, is the simplest. This is true if it is a question only of present enjoyment. But we may be sure that any piece of literature which attracts only by some trick of style, however it may blaze up for a day and startle the world with its flash, lacks the element of endurance. We do not need much experience to tell us the difference between a lamp and a Roman candle. Even in our day we have seen many reputations flare up, illuminate the sky, and then go out in utter darkness. When we take a proper historical perspective, we see that it is the universal, the simple, that lasts.

I am not sure whether simplicity is a matter of nature or of cultivation. Barbarous nature likes display, excessive ornament; and when we have arrived at the nobly simple, the perfect proportion, we are always likely to relapse into the confused and the complicated. The most cultivated men, we know, are the simplest in manners, in taste, in their style. It is a note of some of the purest modern writers that they avoid comparisons, similes, and even too much use of metaphor. But the mass of men are always relapsing into the tawdry and the over-ornamented. It is a characteristic of youth, and it seems also to be a characteristic of over-development. Literature, in any language, has no sooner arrived at the highest vigor of simple expression than it begins to run into prettiness, conceits, over-elaboration. This is a fact which may be verified by studying different periods, from classic literature to our own day.

It is the same with architecture. The classic Greek runs into the excessive elaboration of the Roman period, the Gothic into the flamboyant, and so on. We, have had several attacks of architectural measles in this country, which have left the land spotted all over with houses in bad taste. Instead of developing the colonial simplicity on lines of dignity and harmony to modern use, we stuck on the pseudo-classic, we broke out in the Mansard, we broke all up into the whimsicalities of the so-called Queen Anne, without regard to climate or comfort. The eye speedily tires of all these things. It is a positive relief to look at an old colonial mansion, even if it is as plain as a barn. What the eye demands is simple lines, proportion, harmony in mass, dignity; above all, adaptation to use. And what we must have also is individuality in house and in furniture; that makes the city, the village, picturesque and interesting. The highest thing in architecture, as in literature, is the development of individuality in simplicity.

Dress is a dangerous topic to meddle with. I myself like the attire of the maidens of Scheria, though Nausicaa, we must note, was “clad royally.” But climate cannot be disregarded, and the vestment that was so fitting on a Greek girl whom I saw at the Second Cataract of the Nile would scarcely be appropriate in New York. If the maidens of one of our colleges for girls, say Vassar for illustration, habited like the Phaeacian girls of Scheria, went down to the Hudson to cleanse the rich robes of the house, and were surprised by the advent of a stranger from the city, landing from a steamboat–a wandering broker, let us say, clad in wide trousers, long topcoat, and a tall hat–I fancy that he would be more astonished than Ulysses was at the bevy of girls that scattered at his approach. It is not that women must be all things to all men, but that their simplicity must conform to time and circumstance. What I do not understand is that simplicity gets banished altogether, and that fashion, on a dictation that no one can trace the origin of, makes that lovely in the eyes of women today which will seem utterly abhorrent to them tomorrow. There appears to be no line of taste running through the changes. The only consolation to you, the woman of the moment, is that while the costume your grandmother wore makes her, in the painting, a guy in your eyes, the costume you wear will give your grandchildren the same impression of you. And the satisfaction for you is the thought that the latter raiment will be worse than the other two–that is to say, less well suited to display the shape, station, and noble air which brought Ulysses to his knees on the sands of Corfu.

Another reason why I say that I do not know whether simplicity belongs to nature or art is that fashion is as strong to pervert and disfigure in savage nations as it is in civilized. It runs to as much eccentricity in hair-dressing and ornament in the costume of the jingling belles of Nootka and the maidens of Nubia as in any court or coterie which we aspire to imitate. The only difference is that remote and unsophisticated communities are more constant to a style they once adopt. There are isolated peasant communities in Europe who have kept for centuries the most uncouth and inconvenient attire, while we have run through a dozen variations in the art of attraction by dress, from the most puffed and bulbous ballooning to the extreme of limpness and lankness. I can only conclude that the civilized human being is a restless creature, whose motives in regard to costumes are utterly unfathomable.

We need, however, to go a little further in this question of simplicity. Nausicaa was “clad royally.” There was a distinction, then, between her and her handmaidens. She was clad simply, according to her condition. Taste does not by any means lead to uniformity. I have read of a commune in which all the women dressed alike and unbecomingly, so as to discourage all attempt to please or attract, or to give value to the different accents of beauty. The end of those women was worse than the beginning. Simplicity is not ugliness, nor poverty, nor barrenness, nor necessarily plainness. What is simplicity for another may not be for you, for your condition, your tastes, especially for your wants. It is a personal question. You go beyond simplicity when you attempt to appropriate more than your wants, your aspirations, whatever they are, demand–that is, to appropriate for show, for ostentation, more than your life can assimilate, can make thoroughly yours. There is no limit to what you may have, if it is necessary for you, if it is not a superfluity to you. What would be simplicity to you may be superfluity to another. The rich robes that Nausicaa wore she wore like a goddess. The moment your dress, your house, your house-grounds, your furniture, your scale of living, are beyond the rational satisfaction of your own desires–that is, are for ostentation, for imposition upon the public–they are superfluous, the line of simplicity is passed. Every human being has a right to whatever can best feed his life, satisfy his legitimate desires, contribute to the growth of his soul. It is not for me to judge whether this is luxury or want. There is no merit in riches nor in poverty. There is merit in that simplicity of life which seeks to grasp no more than is necessary for the development and enjoyment of the individual. Most of us, in all conditions; are weighted down with superfluities or worried to acquire them. Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough.

The needs of every person differ from the needs of every other; we can make no standard for wants or possessions. But the world would be greatly transformed and much more easy to live in if everybody limited his acquisitions to his ability to assimilate them to his life. The destruction of simplicity is a craving for things, not because we need them, but because others have them. Because one man who lives in a plain little house, in all the restrictions of mean surroundings, would be happier in a mansion suited to his taste and his wants, is no argument that another man, living in a palace, in useless ostentation, would not be better off in a dwelling which conforms to his cultivation and habits. It is so hard to learn the lesson that there is no satisfaction in gaining more than we personally want.

The matter of simplicity, then, comes into literary style, into building, into dress, into life, individualized always by one’s personality. In each we aim at the expression of the best that is in us, not at imitation or ostentation.

The women in history, in legend, in poetry, whom we love, we do not love because they are “clad royally.” In our day, to be clad royally is scarcely a distinction. To have a superfluity is not a distinction. But in those moments when we have a clear vision of life, that which seems to us most admirable and desirable is the simplicity that endears to us the idyl of Nausicaa.