Face to Face with Beauty

A bit of a disclaimer is needed for this entry, and I unashamedly draw it from the preface to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
I began this on the vernal equinox, Year of the Monkee, but it suffered numerous hiccups in its first draft and so was shelved until the mist could rise. While certainly some life experiences have led to its creation, what follows is in no wise to be construed biography or autobiography. It's merely a chance to wind down a biennium with a bit of reflection. This will be my last entry on the subject.

You can blame Othello for it appearing at all:
I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe. Of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this.
 
 
In a purely academic sense, I've wondered if in the long run love is really worth it or not, for it commands a fierce fee. Two unrelated dichotomies arise. First, there's that business tackled by Aleister Crowley's Book of the Law:
Nor let the fools mistake love; for there are love and love. There is the dove, and there is the serpent. Choose ye well!
Ignoring the unorthodox conjugation here, Crowley hints that the alternatives are mutually exclusive. Perhaps. In any event, it seems to me I've covered this particular dichotomy amply throughout the many entries here. It should be pretty clear which choice I've made, for better or worse. But I'd rather divorce my own particulars from the discussion, so let's pass on to the second dichotomy.

I'm not sure what to think of Alfred Lord Tennyson. From a craft point of view, a weaver of words, he seems quite able. And yet the spark of Keats, Shelley and Byron is absent, to my ears. In some ways, he has always struck me as a propagandist for Victorianism. You probably know what's coming:

'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
I suspect most people just accept this without really stopping to consider why it might actually be false.

Incidentally, the line appears in Tennyson's poem, In Memoriam A. H. H.

The alternative which instantly occurred to me is contained within the title of a song popular during World War I (by Donaldson, Young and Lewis):

"How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)"
This theme arises in any number of novels, all which end rather painfully. Perhaps the most obvious is D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is another example. Madame Bovary is yet one more, this time from the woman's perspective. And it's implicit in the heart-wrenching words of Othello cited earlier:
Of one who loved not wisely, but too well.
The dichotomy should be clear; in fact as I see it, it's a dilemma.
  1. One can briefly sample passionate love, then when it's lost wonder for the rest of his or her life whether it'll ever be experienced again. The consolation is having at least done so once, the loss is having set an unrealistic standard and yearning thereafter.
  2. Or one can dwell in "the lethargy of custom," ignorant of passionate love one's entire life. The consolation is at least never knowing what one missed, the loss is wasting the only life given us.
Yes, it really is a dilemma, neither option being very appealing.

Intuitively (and theoretically) I find Tennyson's claim, Option 1, unconvincing. Oscar Wilde zeros in on the nub in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian reveals that he jilted an innocent and pure country girl as a supposed act of decency:
"All during this wonderful May that we have been having, I used to run down and see her two or three times a week. Yesterday she met me in a little orchard. The apple-blossoms kept tumbling down on her hair, and she was laughing. We were to have gone away together this morning at dawn. Suddenly I determined to leave her as flower-like as I had found her."
Lord Henry rebuts:
"Do you think this girl will ever be really contented now with any one of her own rank? I suppose she will be married some day to a rough carter or a grinning ploughman. Well, having met you, and loved you, will teach her to despise her husband, and she will be wretched. From a moral point of view I really don’t think much of your great renunciation."
And then, just as the spring equinox struck this year, I stumbled upon Wilde's magnificent poem, Apologia.

Lo! Here is Tennyson's hypothesis once again, but argued far more convincingly. More specifically, where Tennyson merely arrogates, Wilde provides reasons for why it might actually be a theorem and not an axiom.

Let's see the poem, in toto, then permit me a bit of exegesis:
Is it thy will that I should wax and wane,
Barter my cloth of gold for hodden grey,
And at thy pleasure weave that web of pain
Whose brightest threads are each a wasted day?

Is it thy will–Love that I love so well–
That my Soul’s House should be a tortured spot
Wherein, like evil paramours, must dwell
The quenchless flame, the worm that dieth not?

Nay, if it be thy will I shall endure,
And sell ambition at the common mart,
And let dull failure be my vestiture,
And sorrow dig its grave within my heart.

Perchance it may be better so–at least
I have not made my heart a heart of stone,
Nor starved my boyhood of its goodly feast,
Nor walked where Beauty is a thing unknown.

Many a man hath done so; sought to fence
In straitened bonds the soul that should be free,
Trodden the dusty road of common sense,
While all the forest sang of liberty,

Not marking how the spotted hawk in flight
Passed on wide pinion through the lofty air,
To where the steep untrodden mountain height
Caught the last tresses of the Sun God’s hair.

Or how the little flower he trod upon,
The daisy, that white-feathered shield of gold,
Followed with wistful eyes the wandering sun
Content if once its leaves were aureoled.

But surely it is something to have been
The best beloved for a little while,
To have walked hand in hand with Love, and seen
His purple wings flit once across thy smile.
Ay! though the gorged asp of passion feed
On my boy’s heart, yet have I burst the bars,
Stood face to face with Beauty, known indeed
The Love which moves the Sun and all the stars!
I will confess that when I first read the poem, I found just a couple of its phrases cogent and dismissed the rest as fluffery. Big mistake! Nothing Wilde writes is without significance. I mean, if he belabors a comma over the course of an entire day, who am I to render judgment and skim? Very clearly he had experienced great disappointment.

It was when I committed the piece to memory and recited it aloud daily that the tumblers fell into place and the hasp sprung open. It's a song and meant to be sung, though it brings tears to the ears.

Here are several things which caught my attention when I finally heard it. In the first stanza, that word "hodden" stands out. Do you know it? If threads black and white are woven alternately, the result is gray fabric. For emphasis, look closely and you see black and white, but stand back and blur your eyes, they blend. Interesting metaphor for life and love, no?

The third stanza troubled me quite a bit. Upon initial reading, I detested that phrase "sell ambition at the common mart" and was prepared to accuse Wilde of squeezing words just to fit. But reciting, aloud, from memory gradually transformed it and now I think it's a brilliant observation. Incidentally, that entire stanza can be translated as: how you gonna keep 'em down on the farm...

And then in the next verse, we hear: "Nor starved my boyhood of its goodly feast." Whoa! I once wrote an essay entitled The Principle of Shifting Principles to commemorate my breaking with tradition and putting all my chips on red; this Irish poet suggests it was the right move after all.

We can forgive the Romans for believing the heart is the seat of the emotions. For every time I recite the following stanza, I feel a very real hollowness in the chest cavity. Truly.
But surely it is something to have been
The best beloved for a little while,
To have walked hand in hand with Love, and seen
His purple wings flit once across thy smile.
And of course, multiple images come to mind. I did see those purple wings flit across that smile once. Again, Wilde was no base theorist. See On Reflection.
 
But his most powerful argument concludes the poem:

Ay! though the gorged asp of passion feed
On my boy’s heart, yet have I burst the bars,
Stood face to face with Beauty, known indeed
The Love which moves the Sun and all the stars!
 

 
For, you see, in this stunning climax the Prince of Bohemia supplies the single most powerful reason why love might be worth all the risk after all: being permitted to stand face to face with beauty even if all else fails.

Call me the ultimate sociopath, but could it be that love is simply the path but beauty the destination?

I don't know. But I do know that Wilde has come closer than anyone in convincing me that gambling one's heart might just be worth it.

What I find interesting is how in popular culture Option #1 from above finds it way into song. Which is perhaps why I'm not completely convinced yet. For example, the following beautiful tune, which makes me cry unabashedly whenever I hear it, suggests meeting that certain someone can be truly dangerous.


Now And at the risk of having you think I'm a real simpleton, there's even this one. Truly.


Yes, the jury's still out. I can't predict whether I'll vote for Option 1 or Option 2. All I know for sure is I don't want it said that I've starved my boyhood of its goodly feast.

And with that, I'll drop the subject evermore and return to the more wholesome business of lavatory pranks, the one thing I'm skilled at. But thanks for listening.

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