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Before Beauty
by [?]

All true beauty in nature or in art is like the iridescent hue of mother-of-pearl, which is intrinsic and necessary, being the result of the arrangement of the particles,–the flowering of the mechanism of the shell; or like the beauty of health which comes out of and reaches back again to the bones and the digestion. There is no grace like the grace of strength. What sheer muscular gripe and power lie back of the firm, delicate notes of the great violinist! “Wit,” says Heine,–and the same thing is true of beauty,–“isolated, is worthless. It is only endurable when it rests on a solid basis.”

In fact, beauty as a separate and distinct thing does not exist. Neither can it be reached by any sorting or sifting or clarifying process. It is an experience of the mind, and must be preceded by certain conditions, just as light is an experience of the eye, and sound of the ear.

To attempt to manufacture beauty is as vain as to attempt to manufacture truth; and to give it to us in poems or any form of art, without a lion of some sort, a lion of truth or fitness or power, is to emasculate it and destroy its volition.

But current poetry is, for the most part, an attempt to do this very thing, to give us beauty without beauty’s antecedents and foil. The poets want to spare us the annoyance of the beast. Since beauty is the chief attraction, why not have this part alone, pure and unadulterated,–why not pluck the plumage from the bird, the flower from its stalk, the moss from the rock, the shell from the shore, the honey-bag from the bee, and thus have in brief what pleases us? Hence, with rare exceptions, one feels, on opening the latest book of poems, like exclaiming, Well, here is the beautiful at last divested of everything else,–of truth, of power, of utility,– and one may add of beauty, too. It charms as color, or flowers, or jewels, or perfume charms–and that is the end of it.

It is ever present to the true artist, in his attempt to report nature, that every object as it stands in the circuit of cause and effect has a history which involves its surroundings, and that the depth of the interest which it awakens in us is in proportion as its integrity in this respect is preserved. In nature we are prepared for any opulence of color or of vegetation, or freak of form, or display of any kind, because of the preponderance of the common, ever-present feature of the earth. The foil is always at hand. In like manner in the master poems we are never surfeited with mere beauty.

Woe to any artist who disengages Beauty from the wide background of rudeness, darkness, and strength,–and disengages her from absolute nature! The mild and beneficent aspects of nature,– what gulfs and abysses of power underlie them! The great shaggy, barbaric earth,– yet the summing-up, the plenum, of all we know or can know of beauty! So the orbic poems of the world have a foundation as of the earth itself, and are beautiful because they are something else first. Homer chose for his groundwork War, clinching, tearing, tugging war; in Dante, it is Hell; in Milton, Satan and the Fall; in Shakespeare, it is the fierce Feudal world, with its towering and kingly personalities; in Byron, it is Revolt and diabolic passion. When we get to Tennyson, the lion is a good deal tamed, but he is still there in the shape of the proud, haughty, and manly Norman, and in many forms yet stimulates the mind.

The perception of cosmical beauty comes by a vital original process. It is in some measure a creative act, and those works that rest upon it make demands–perhaps extraordinary ones–upon the reader or the beholder. We regard mere surface glitter, or mere verbal sweetness, in a mood entirely passive, and with a pleasure entirely profitless. The beauty of excellent stage scenery seems much more obvious and easy of apprehension than the beauty of trees and hills themselves, inasmuch as the act of association in the mind is much easier and cheaper than the act of original perception.