The World's Beauty
In the glowing summer days we are Nature's willing thralls. She invites us into her world to come and play. With the glee of children, we accept her invitation, and wander entranced in her realm of enchantments. To us all, prince or peasant, she offers royal entertainment. We step out of doors and are at once encircled by a more than regal pomp. She feasts us with beauty. No need to travel a thousand miles for it ; it is here at hand. Our own island is packed with loveliness. We wander over four continents to discover we had left the best behind us. And this festival has been repeating itself without fail through thousands of years. We talk of the dark ages, but it is pleasant to remember that through
them all Nature was giving our ancestors such good times. Chaucer's springs and summers were just as intoxicating as ours. The birds sang as merrily, the wild flowers were as sweet, the leaf of elm and oak was as green and comely, the streams were as clear, the skies as blue as in this year of grace. And it was good to be alive.
Has it ever occurred to us to investigate the meaning of the world's beauty P How comes it that Nature everywhere, whether in the wing of insect, or the clothing of the forest, or the blue concave above, or the clear depths of the river, or the craggy summit of the mountain, shapes her-self to this loveliness, this grandeur P Why do we call a thing beautiful P What is beauty P Here we are upon questions that go deep. In search of answers we find ourselves thrown straight back upon the soul and its structure. For the beautiful is evidently a spiritual perception. Put a horse in front of our noblest prospect and it sees nothing of what we mean by the word. And the perception is one that unfolds only gradually in man himself. The savage has little sense of it. It has taken ages to develop this special response. And yet it lies in the depth of every soul, and in proportion as that soul moves towards its typal perfection does the sentiment find amplitude and volume of expression.
But what, we may again ask, is this response ?
What is contained in our idea of beauty ? On this subject philosophers and scientists have discoursed abundantly from varying standpoints. Materialists, who have felt themselves here put on their mettle, have discussed it as an affair of curves, surfaces and sensory impressions. Schopenhauer has treated it with a more than usual exaggeration and incoherence of statement. When all has been said it remains that the recognition of beauty by the mind can be explained satisfactorily in only one way. The term we have just used is in. itself the key. Our feeling here is a re-cognition, that is a re-knowing, a reminder of what the soul already knows, of what is native to its realm. Schelling is on the track of all this when he treats of the external world as another expression of the same eternal Life that finds itself in our consciousness. The beauty of Nature is the work of a supreme Artist whose fundamental ideas are reproduced, however faintly, in our own. Without such a relationship to begin with there could be no possible recognition of beauty on our part. A painter who exhibited his picture would be astonished to learn that the public were admiring it on the strength of ideas entirely foreign to any he had himself put into it. The very basis of our comprehension, not to say appreciation, of a picture's merit lies in the fellowship of our feeling with that of the artist. And the law which obtains in the Academy rules, so far as we can see, through all the worlds.
But we have not nearly exhausted the problems opened by this theme. Another, and a by no means simple one, comes up when we touch the relation of beauty to morality. We remember once propounding it to a couple of Anglican clergymen, in whose company we were watching a gorgeous sunset on the Jungfrau. "Is there any link between this splendour and the beauty of holiness P Is there any natural affinity between the grace of sainthood and the grace of external form P " The question seemed new to them, and to be hardly a serious one. There was an excuse for this attitude, for at first sight the subjects seem scarcely compressible into the same category. And further observation appears to add positive reasons against any such alliance. The sense for external loveliness has had apparently no connection with high moral character. The ages in which it has been most conspicuous, as that of the Greeks under Pericles, and of the Renaissance in Italy, were conspicuous, we are told, for their dissoluteness. The artist world has been generally a Bohemian world.
But statements of this kind need to be taken with a certain reservation. When we hear these sweeping verdicts upon certain classes and periods, we are reminded of Talleyrand's saying : " Il n'y a rien qui s'arrange aussi facilement que les faits." As to the Italian Renaissance, let us remember it produced a remarkable literature devoted to the idealisation of love and the redemption of it from the grosser elements. Nor were all its artists libertines. It produced a Michael Angelo as well as a Benvenuto Cellini. The designer of St. Peter's, the painter of the Sistine Chapel, the writer of the sonnets had artist enough in him for half a dozen ordinary reputations. And yet it is he who could say we have it in one of his letters to his father " It is enough to have bread and to live in the faith of Christ, even as I do here, for I live humbly, neither do I care for the life or honours of this world." No man in these later ages has had a mind more teeming with images of immortal beauty than our own Milton, but " his soul was like a star and dwelt apart." Our own times have seen a Wordsworth, a Ruskin, a Tennyson, natures all of them in which the sense of beauty both in Nature and in art reached its highest expression, and all of whom found in it an immediate ally of spiritual perfection. And when we mention the contrary instances, what do they prove ? Not the immorality, assuredly, of these men's sense of form, but the imperfect development of their other senses. Their report of one portion of God's Palace Beautiful is not the less accurate that they saw not the whole of it. That a given musician is a rake is no evidence that the laws of music which be obeys are not Divine. He has eyes only for a piece of Heaven's law, not its wholeness. The whole argument here, in fact, seems summed in the nature of Christ. If the Gospels speak truly there was never a nature that thrilled more exquisitely to the world's beauty. Yet never nature set forth so surely God's holiness.
The more comprehensively the subject is studied the more sure will become our conviction that there is in all beauty an essential unity of idea whose root is in God. The grandeur of great deeds, of great characters, appeals to the same faculty in us, and stirs the same emotions as the grandeur of the mountains or of the sea. If we could realise it as possible that a pure soul could take form, we feel instinctively that the form would be beautiful. How intimate the alliance is shown by the workings of character upon feature. The nobler spiritual instincts mould the flesh into curves of greatness, suffuse it with a glow of ethereal brightness. As if to put its final seal upon this view of things, the Bible gives us in the Apocalypse a series of magnificent conceptions, in which righteousness is clothed with, and set in the midst of, the utmost perfection of external splendour. Often separated and far removed from each other in the earthly struggle, the two elements are here exhibited in their true and everlasting union.
The topic as it thus opens is far more than a merely speculative one. If we admit what has here been advanced we must admit with it some important practical consequences. For instance, the inculcation of righteousness, the preaching of God's Kingdom, should ever link itself with the soul's innate sense of beauty. The ugly may everywhere be left to the devil as his monopoly. It is curious to note here how the inmost in man has claimed and gained its rights in even the most adverse circumstances. In the barest conventicle and in what has seemed the most ostentatious absence of form, wherever men have been attracted and impressed, it will be found that they have been reached and held by their sense of the beautiful. It was the music of the pleading voice, or the glowing splendour of the imagery, or the melodious rhythm of the words, or, deeper even than these, the feeling that a pure, beautiful soul was here revealing itself, which drew them. Other attachments may come later, but these first. The Divine words of Scripture double their power upon us when set to great music. " He shall feed His flock like a Shepherd," gets to the very roots as it sings through us in Handel's strains. How perverse, in view of all this, the avoidance of beauty in our worship as though it were a snare ! To offer a drab service to Him who, outside our conventicle, is filling heaven and earth with the splendour of His handiwork ! It were an appropriate question for Christian conferences how far the cultivated youth of our generation have been alienated by misconceptions of this sort, and what steps can be taken in the opposite direction to recover the lost ground. The business of the Christian persuader is, as a French moralist has said, " to make truth lovely."
But the subject has a wider bearing than its application to Sunday and to Church worship. Our municipal life is as yet only at its beginning. There are a hundred different sides along which it has to develop, but one of the greatest and most fruitful will be in its education and satisfaction of the public sense of the beautiful. The mass of English people are children here where the ancient Greeks were grown men. One wonders what a cultivated Athenian would have thought of our black country ! In coming generations our towns will be, not an outrage upon Nature, but a blend with her, a heightening through art of her primitive graces. And the beauty cultivated will be that which appeals not only to the eye, but to the ear also. Why can we not have in England what one has so often met on the Continent, where, wandering through some old-world city, the ear has suddenly been entranced by delicious choral music, rendered by a mass of trained citizen voices, while a crowd of their fellow townsmen, silent, absorbed, drink in the charmed notes ? We shall be making an approach to the municipal ideal when the whole civic atmosphere is so penetrated with high and ennobling influences, with such elements of art and refinement, that the meanest citizen, by the mere fact of mingling with it, will find his own life immeasurably enriched. In these nobler communities of the Future there will be no room for the antithesis which Plutarch draws between the different Athenian administrators : "Themistocles, Cimon and Pericles filled the city with magnificent buildings, . . but virtue was the only object that Aristides had in view." It will be better than this when virtue blossoms into beauty as the flower springs from and beautifies the tree.
To sum up. The belief in beauty is part of our belief in God. The Universe strives after it as the realisation of His idea. Ugliness is to be striven against as a frustration of Heaven's plan. Beauty of character and beauty of form are essentially allied, and should be striven for as elements in the wholeness of life. Our communal life should be an intimate, harmonious blend of the spiritual and the material, each recognised as a portion of God's holiness. Their true union will produce a social structure whose enduring splendour shall be a reflex of the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem which John saw descending out of heaven from God.
( Originally Published 1903 )
Ourselves And The Universe:
A Roomier Universe
The Divine Indifference
Truth's Spiritual Equivalents
The Inwardness Of Events
The Sins Of Saints
The World's Beauty
Of Face Architecture
Westward Of Fifty
The Art Of Happiness
The Mission Of Illusion
Read More Articles About: Ourselves And The Universe