The Beautiful by John Greenleaf Whittier
Story type: Essay
“A beautiful form is better than a beautiful face;
a beautiful behavior is better than a beautiful form;
it gives a higher pleasure than statues or pictures;
it is the finest of the fine arts.”
EMERSON’S Essays, Second Series, iv., p. 162.
A FEW days since I was walking with a friend, who, unfortunately for himself, seldom meets with anything in the world of realities worthy of comparison with the ideal of his fancy, which, like the bird in the Arabian tale, glides perpetually before him, always near yet never overtaken. He was half humorously, half seriously, complaining of the lack of beauty in the faces and forms that passed us on the crowded sidewalk. Some defect was noticeable in all: one was too heavy, another too angular; here a nose was at fault, there a mouth put a set of otherwise fine features out of countenance; the fair complexions had red hair, and glossy black locks were wasted upon dingy ones. In one way or another all fell below his impossible standard.
The beauty which my friend seemed in search of was that of proportion and coloring; mechanical exactness; a due combination of soft curves and obtuse angles, of warm carnation and marble purity. Such a man, for aught I can see, might love a graven image, like the girl of Florence who pined into a shadow for the Apollo Belvidere, looking coldly on her with stony eyes from his niche in the Vatican. One thing is certain,– he will never find his faultless piece of artistical perfection by searching for it amidst flesh-and-blood realities. Nature does not, as far as I can perceive, work with square and compass, or lay on her colors by the rules of royal artists or the dunces of the academies. She eschews regular outlines. She does not shape her forms by a common model. Not one of Eve’s numerous progeny in all respects resembles her who first culled the flowers of Eden. To the infinite variety and picturesque inequality of Nature we owe the great charm of her uncloying beauty. Look at her primitive woods; scattered trees, with moist sward and bright mosses at their roots; great clumps of green shadow, where limb intwists with limb and the rustle of one leaf stirs a hundred others,–stretching up steep hillsides, flooding with green beauty the valleys, or arching over with leaves the sharp ravines, every tree and shrub unlike its neighbor in size and proportion,–the old and storm- broken leaning on the young and vigorous,–intricate and confused, without order or method. Who would exchange this for artificial French gardens, where every tree stands stiff and regular, clipped and trimmed into unvarying conformity, like so many grenadiers under review? Who wants eternal sunshine or shadow? Who would fix forever the loveliest cloudwork of an autumn sunset, or hang over him an everlasting moonlight? If the stream had no quiet eddying place, could we so admire its cascade over the rocks? Were there no clouds, could we so hail the sky shining through them in its still, calm purity? Who shall venture to ask our kind Mother Nature to remove from our sight any one of her forms or colors? Who shall decide which is beautiful, or otherwise, in itself considered?
There are too many, like my fastidious friend, who go through the world “from Dan to Beersheba, finding all barren,”–who have always some fault or other to find with Nature and Providence, seeming to consider themselves especially ill used because the one does not always coincide with their taste, nor the other with their narrow notions of personal convenience. In one of his early poems, Coleridge has well expressed a truth, which is not the less important because it is not generally admitted. The idea is briefly this: that the mind gives to all things their coloring, their gloom, or gladness; that the pleasure we derive from external nature is primarily from ourselves:–
“from the mind itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous mist,
Enveloping the earth.”
The real difficulty of these lifelong hunters after the beautiful exists in their own spirits. They set up certain models of perfection in their imaginations, and then go about the world in the vain expectation of finding them actually wrought out according to pattern; very unreasonably calculating that Nature will suspend her everlasting laws for the purpose of creating faultless prodigies for their especial gratification.
The authors of Gayeties and Gravities give it as their opinion that no object of sight is regarded by us as a simple disconnected form, but that–an instantaneous reflection as to its history, purpose, or associations converts it into a concrete one,–a process, they shrewdly remark, which no thinking being can prevent, and which can only be avoided by the unmeaning and stolid stare of “a goose on the common or a cow on the green.” The senses and the faculties of the understanding are so blended with and dependent upon each other that not one of them can exercise its office alone and without the modification of some extrinsic interference or suggestion. Grateful or unpleasant associations cluster around all which sense takes cognizance of; the beauty which we discern in an external object is often but the reflection of our own minds.
What is beauty, after all? Ask the lover who kneels in homage to one who has no attractions for others. The cold onlooker wonders that he can call that unclassic combination of features and that awkward form beautiful. Yet so it is. He sees, like Desdemona, her “visage in her mind,” or her affections. A light from within shines through the external uncomeliness,–softens, irradiates, and glorifies it. That which to others seems commonplace and unworthy of note is to him, in the words of Spenser,–
“A sweet, attractive kind of grace;
A full assurance given by looks;
Continual comfort in a face;
The lineaments of Gospel books.”
“Handsome is that handsome does,–hold up your heads, girls!” was the language of Primrose in the play when addressing her daughters. The worthy matron was right. Would that all my female readers who are sorrowing foolishly because they are not in all respects like Dubufe’s Eve, or that statue of the Venus “which enchants the world,” could be persuaded to listen to her. What is good looking, as Horace Smith remarks, but looking good? Be good, be womanly, be gentle,–generous in your sympathies, heedful of the well-being of all around you; and, my word for it, you will not lack kind words of admiration. Loving and pleasant associations will gather about you. Never mind the ugly reflection which your glass may give you. That mirror has no heart. But quite another picture is yours on the retina of human sympathy. There the beauty of holiness, of purity, of that inward grace which passeth show, rests over it, softening and mellowing its features just as the full calm moonlight melts those of a rough landscape into harmonious loveliness. “Hold up your heads, girls!” I repeat after Primrose. Why should you not? Every mother’s daughter of you can be beautiful. You can envelop yourselves in an atmosphere of moral and intellectual beauty, through which your otherwise plain faces will look forth like those of angels. Beautiful to Ledyard, stiffening in the cold of a northern winter, seemed the diminutive, smokestained women of Lapland, who wrapped him in their furs and ministered to his necessities with kindness and gentle words of compassion. Lovely to the homesick heart of Park seemed the dark maids of Sego, as they sung their low and simple song of welcome beside his bed, and sought to comfort the white stranger, who had “no mother to bring him milk and no wife to grind him corn.” Oh, talk as we may of beauty as a thing to be chiselled from marble or wrought out on canvas, speculate as we may upon its colors and outlines, what is it but an intellectual abstraction, after all? The heart feels a beauty of another kind; looking through the outward environment, it discovers a deeper and more real loveliness.
This was well understood by the old painters. In their pictures of Mary, the virgin mother, the beauty which melts and subdues the gazer is that of the soul and the affections, uniting the awe and mystery of that mother’s miraculous allotment with the irrepressible love, the unutterable tenderness, of young maternity,–Heaven’s crowning miracle with Nature’s holiest and sweetest instinct. And their pale Magdalens, holy with the look of sins forgiven,–how the divine beauty of their penitence sinks into the heart! Do we not feel that the only real deformity is sin, and that goodness evermore hallows and sanctifies its dwelling-place? When the soul is at rest, when the passions and desires are all attuned to the divine harmony,–
“Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-ordered law,”
The Haunted Palace, by Edgar A. Poe.
do we not read the placid significance thereof in the human countenance? “I have seen,” said Charles Lamb, “faces upon which the dove of peace sat brooding.” In that simple and beautiful record of a holy life, the Journal of John Woolman, there is a passage of which I have been more than once reminded in my intercourse with my fellow-beings: “Some glances of real beauty may be seen in their faces who dwell in true meekness. There is a harmony in the sound of that voice to which divine love gives utterance.”
Quite the ugliest face I ever saw was that of a woman whom the world calls beautiful. Through its “silver veil” the evil and ungentle passions looked out hideous and hateful. On the other hand, there are faces which the multitude at the first glance pronounce homely, unattractive, and such as “Nature fashions by the gross,” which I always recognize with a warm heart-thrill; not for the world would I have one feature changed; they please me as they are; they are hallowed by kind memories; they are beautiful through their associations; nor are they any the less welcome that with my admiration of them “the stranger intermeddleth not.”