“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:–