Friday, October 21, 2011

In Praise of Beauty

"Miss Josephine Dunbar

Lake District

12th June 2002

Dear Mr Elland,

Thank you very much for your recent letter. It is always a pleasure to know that someone has enjoyed my work, especially a young man like you who might easily find the writings of an old woman twee and tiresome.

It is an interesting question you ask, one that I have never asked myself as such, but I shall now do so and try to find an answer. You ask it of me, perhaps because as a poetess, or simply poet as the younger ones refer to themselves (I think they are right to do so, but for myself I prefer the older form) you imagine I am used to finding beauty. You might even think I know what it is. Let me see if I can help you here.

I have spent my life seeking beauty anywhere it might be found. I have been fortunate in having the means to do this but I can say that I have made it the purpose of my life to find beauty. Or rather I discovered that the only purpose I could conceive of my life having was to experience beauty.

The expression of beauty in my poems is secondary. They are almost a diversion, a pastime, enjoyable (and frustrating) to write, and which serve to set down what I have experienced, and perhaps allow others to feel it too. They may be beautiful in themselves; they are intended to be. But really what I have wanted to do all my life is to contemplate beauty. It is why I live here, and is behind most of what I have done in my life.

It is not at all easy to explain what beauty is. Dictionaries tend to speak of that which inspires pleasure in the senses, or cause spiritual delight. I think it is very hard to define in a way that makes sense to someone who does not understand it. It is more a feeling we all have in our hearts which is revealed by certain things at certain times. We can and I believe we should learn to await and expect those moments, to give our heart the opportunity to see the beauty in something which might otherwise pass us by unenjoyed. Many people fail to notice the beauty around them, much less seek it out deliberately, because they have no time, no freedom of action, of will or of spirit to allow them to do it. It is a great shame that so many people spend their whole lives oblivious to almost everything that would make them meaningful. Perhaps they do not miss it, perhaps they find other things as important to them as beauty is to me. Perhaps they do not think to find a reason, but simply live out of habit. I could not say, and I know that it is very hard to increase the sense of beauty in grown men and women. In children it is easier and highly rewarding. I have frequently had the satisfaction of doing this in schools or with small groups who visit. They are marvellously receptive to beauty and delight in finding it in places they had never previously thought to look.

Fortunately there are people who feel the value of beauty and want to appreciate it more. I could repeat my belief that beauty is the main purpose, at least of my own life, and I cannot imagine another. Most of the people I talk to or correspond with regularly share this view of life, or this passion, in slightly more realist terms. Were you to become one of them I should be very happy to keep receiving and replying to your letters.

You know what beauty is, then. That much is obvious. Trust your instinct in this, because it really cannot be wrong. John Keats said that what the mind seizes as beautiful must be true, a remark I must say I have never been quite certain of understanding. Presumably he referred to artistic truth, which is different from scientific or rational or historical truth, but equally real in its sphere of application. In any case it is certainly true that what the mind seizes as beautiful must be beautiful. So you may have confidence in your own reactions. I repeat, trust your instinct.

Beauty can be found almost anywhere. I don’t, I imagine, need to tell you that beauty can be found in nature, in music, in pictures, in everything we call art, but there is much more to be found. Found, I say, and I insist on this. You discover beauty, perhaps where you or others have not noticed it before, but you cannot interpret or define it into existence.

It is one of the great things that makes us human, together with reason, speech, sense of humour, and very little else I think, but the ability to appreciate beauty is uniquely human because no other creature has anything remotely like it. There are animals that learn from experience, all of them to a certain extent, some of them by trial and error and memory of past failures. Most seem to communicate in some way, all social or sexual animals need to be able to do it. Most mammals, at least, appear to enjoy play and to have fun, especially when they are young. We can see the origin of these things in other animals, but the love and imitation of beauty has no counterpart in the animal world. Courtship displays are an entirely instinctive phenomenon, both in the male creator and the female observer, and are absolutely not precedents or origins. (Cave paintings were not done to impress women, and women did not watch the sunset as they watched the biceps of the menfolk. I think you would agree on this.) Beauty is real and exists in the world, but to see it one must be human, and that gift evolved directly from the human spirit, not from our primitive instincts. That is why I think we are at our most gloriously human when we contemplate and understand beauty. I might also add, as you will have realised anyhow, that it is in my nature to love it above all things.

Where to look for beauty, other than in the places you know of already? Think about these things:

Consider the shape of a blade of tall grass, or an ear of corn, or a branch of a willow tree. Don’t imagine them, go and look at them. Find them when their shape is exactly as it should be, when they are at their finest and proudest, when the weather has been kind to them, and look for the best among them. Observe how the colours respond to the light, how the edges form lines that are sublimely smooth but never straight, how they bend and sway in the wind, however still the air may seem, how they form groups that move not quite as one, but exactly as they should. Enjoy the shape and the movement and the sound it all makes. Do not attempt at first to turn it into anything more than what it is. Do not seek words to describe it or parallels with other beautiful things, less still with works of human creation.

(The idea that man can compete with God is a conceit of those who make art. It is not true, I fear. Human art in any form- when it is anything at all, and it is not always- is an expression of something conceived by the human mind. The beauty of nature, the art of God, if you like, exists for reasons quite different from those we have for creating things, and which are probably beyond our comprehension. They should not be compared, even when one represents the other.)

Do not, as I say, attempt to interpret the sensations which arrive at the senses; just allow them to exist as they are. There is a time later for asking why we love to experience these things, and the answers can help us enjoy them more, but at first you must learn to recognise the inherent beauty. Only we can understand beauty, but it is not a human creation, we did not invent it and we cannot impose it on anything. It is there if we know how to find it.

Look at the human body. There is beauty- do not confuse this with human attractiveness, beauty is far more than that- in many parts of many bodies, in many movements or expressions, habitual or fleeting. Hair can be beautiful, eyes, feet, a gesture. The whole body can acquire beauty because of what it does, and it can do something beautiful while itself being ugly. (Ugliness is quite as real, and at least as common, as beauty. I think it is obvious that one could not exist without the other.) It is curious for example, I thought it most curious when I first observed it, that classical ballet cannot be performed beautifully by ugly dancers, whereas Flamenco can. I have in Southern Spain seen shrivelled old women with twisted limbs make beauty with their bodies to the sound of a Gypsy guitar. Forgive me the rhetorical flourish. It is a distinction I have never been able to explain, something to do with the distance of the performer from the original conception of what is being expressed, I should think, but it is undoubtedly true, I assure you.

There can be, there is, beauty in the shape, the form, the texture, the colour, the pattern of light, the grace of motion, of forgotten parts of the body. Even of parts that a young man like you may not have the habit of looking at. The angle of a heel, the closing of an eye, the way a smile takes shape, the colour of a cheek, the way a sleeve folds around a wrist.

There is in the museum at the Acropolis a series of scenes from the frieze which depicts the Panathenaic procession. One particular moment captured is of a young woman, an unimportant part of that procession, bending to adjust or tie her sandal, which has come loose or is bothering her in some way as she walks. The gesture is not especially graceful, it is rather clumsy, in fact. Yet there is a remarkable beauty in the carving. That beauty is the work of the sculptor, of course, but his skill was inspired by his eye for detail. He undoubtedly noticed what most would not even have thought to look for, a fragment of beauty hidden in the most insignificant part of the spectacle. That is what you must learn to do. You may or may not be a gifted artist, the skill of Pheidias is given to very few indeed, but you can learn to look. You may not have his hand, but you can have his eye.

That last sentence sounds more like a silly old woman trying to be clever than a poetess. I shall leave it in, though, so you know who it is that is giving you this advice. I hope you have written to others as well.

There is a rather absurd notion of found poetry, another conceit of artists, I fear. I object to the name because poetry is created, and can no more be found than can art (unless salvaged from an ancient shipwreck like the Venus de Milo, but that is not what I mean of course.) The expression is used to mean the chance placing of beautiful phrases in technical or other mundane settings. They are no more poetry than Coniston is sculpture, but they may be beautiful. It takes a practised eye, or at least a willing one, to see them and perhaps that is why they are confused with art by some. Do not imagine, then, that there is no beauty in the dictionary, in descriptions of rock sediment, in signs hastily written and pinned onto boards, in the telephone directory.

(As another little aside, I think what these and many other possible sources of surprisingly agreeable language have in common is that they are produced unselfconsciously. The writer is not hoping to be awarded a prize, only to be clearly understood.)

The way the sense respond to the sound of a cricket bat striking a ball must mean that it has some intrinsic beauty, besides being almost unbearably evocative to the true lover of the game..."


James Higham said...

Consider the shape of a blade of tall grass

... and don't forget the lily.

CIngram said...

I can walk in the garden and contemplate the beauty of roses for hours (well, let's say extended periods), and that's before I've opened the whisky bottle.