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Before Beauty
by [?]


Before genius is manliness, and before beauty is power. The Russian novelist and poet, Turgenieff, scattered all through whose works you will find unmistakable traits of greatness, makes one of his characters say, speaking of beauty, “The old masters,–they never hunted after it; it comes of itself into their compositions, God knows whence, from heaven or elsewhere. The whole world belonged to them, but we are unable to clasp its broad spaces; our arms are too short.”

>From the same depth of insight come these lines from “Leaves of Grass,” apropos of true poems:–

“They do not seek beauty–they are sought; Forever touching them, or close upon them, follows beauty, longing, fain, love-sick.”

The Roman was perhaps the first to separate beauty from use, and to pursue it as ornament merely. He built his grand edifice,–its piers, its vaults, its walls of brick and concrete,–and then gave it a marble envelope copied from the Greek architecture. The latter could be stripped away, as in many cases it was by the hand of time, and leave the essentials of the structure nearly complete. Not so with the Greek: he did not seek the beautiful, he was beauty; his building had no ornament, it was all structure; in its beauty was the flower of necessity, the charm of inborn fitness and proportion. In other words, “his art was structure refined into beautiful forms, not beautiful forms superimposed upon structure,” as with the Roman. And it is in Greek mythology, is it not, that Beauty is represented as riding upon the back of a lion? as she assuredly always does in their poetry and art,–rides upon power, or terror, or savage fate; not only rides upon, but is wedded and incorporated with it; hence the athletic desire and refreshment her coming imparts.

This is the invariable order of nature. Beauty without a rank material basis enfeebles. The world is not thus made; man is not thus begotten and nourished.

It comes to me there is something implied or understood when we look upon a beautiful object, that has quite as much to do with the impression made upon the mind as anything in the object itself; perhaps more. There is somehow an immense and undefined background of vast and unconscionable energy, as of earthquakes, and ocean storms, and cleft mountains, across which things of beauty play, and to which they constantly defer; and when this background is wanting, as it is in much current poetry, beauty sickens and dies, or at most has only a feeble existence.

Nature does nothing merely for beauty; beauty follows as the inevitable result; and the final impression of health and finish which her works make upon the mind is owing as much to those things which are not technically called beautiful as to those which are. The former give identity to the latter. The one is to the other what substance is to form, or bone to flesh. The beauty of nature includes all that is called beautiful, as its flower; and all that is not called beautiful, as its stalk and roots.

Indeed, when I go to the woods or the fields, or ascend to the hilltop, I do not seem to be gazing upon beauty at all, but to be breathing it like the air. I am not dazzled or astonished; I am in no hurry to look lest it be gone. I would not have the litter and debris removed, or the banks trimmed, or the ground painted. What I enjoy is commensurate with the earth and sky itself. It clings to the rocks and trees; it is kindred to the roughness and savagery; it rises from every tangle and chasm; it perches on the dry oak- stubs with the hawks and buzzards; the crows shed it from their wings and weave it into their nests of coarse sticks; the fox barks it, the cattle low it, and every mountain path leads to its haunts. I am not a spectator of, but a participator in it. It is not an adornment; its roots strike to the centre of the earth.