The Testament of Beauty

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from Book I, Introduction

Man's Reason is in such deep insolvency to sense,that tho' she guide his highest flight heav'nward, and teach himdignity morals manners and human comfort,she can delicatly and dangerously bedizenthe rioting joys that fringe the sad pathways of Hell.Not without alliance of the animal senseshath she any miracle: Lov'st thou in the blithe hourof April dawns -- nay marvelest thou not -- to hearthe ravishing music that the small birdës makein garden or woodland, rapturously heraldingthe break of day; when the first lark on high hath warn'dthe vigilant robin already of the sun's approach,and he on slender pipe calleth the nesting tribesto awake and fill and thrill their myriad-warbling throatspraising life's God, untill the blisful revel growin wild profusion unfeign'd to such a hymn as manhath never in temple or grove pour'd to the Lord of heav'n? Hast thou then thought that all this ravishing music,that stirreth so thy heart, making thee dream of thingsillimitable unsearchable and of heavenly import,is but a light disturbance of the atoms of air,whose jostling ripples, gather'd within the ear, are tunedto resonant scale, and thence by the enthron'd mind receivedon the spiral stairway of her audience chamberas heralds of high spiritual significance?and that without thine ear, sound would hav no report.Nature hav no music; nor would ther be for theeany better melody in the April woods at dawnthan what an old stone-deaf labourer, lying awakeo'night in his comfortless attic, might perchancebe aware of, when the rats run amok in his thatch? Now since the thoughtless birds not only act and enjoythis music, but to their offspring teach it with care,handing on those small folk-songs from father to sonin such faithful tradition that they are familiarunchanging to the changeful generations of men --and year by year, listening to himself the nightingaleas amorous of his art as of his brooding matepractiseth every phrase of his espousal lay,and still provoketh envy of the lesser songsterswith the same notes that woke poetic eloquencealike in Sophocles and the sick heart of Keats --see then how deeply seated is the urgence wheretoBach and Mozart obey'd, or those other minstrelswho pioneer'd for us on the marches of heav'nand paid no heed to wars that swept the world around,nor in their homes wer more troubled by cannon-roarthan late the small birds wer, that nested and carol'dupon the devastated battlefields of France. Birds are of all animals the nearest to menfor that they take delight in both music and dance,and gracefully schooling leisure to enliven lifewer the earlier artists: moreover in their airy flight(which in its swiftness symboleth man's soaring thought)they hav no rival but man, and easily surpassin their free voyaging his most desperate daring,altho' he hath fed and sped his ocean-ships with fire;and now, disturbing me as I write, I hear on highhis roaring airplanes, and idly raising my headsee them there; like a migratory flock of birdsthat rustle southward from the cold fall of the yearin order'd phalanx -- so the thin-rankt squadrons ply,til sound and sight failing me they are lost in the clouds.


Time eateth away at many an old delusion,yet with civilization delusions make head;the thicket of the people wil take furtiv firefrom irresponsible catchwords of live ideas, sudden as a gorse-bush from the smouldering endof any loiterer's match-splint, which, unless trodden outafore it spredd, or quell'd with wieldy threshing-rodswil burn ten years of planting with all last year's ricksand blacken a countryside. 'Tis like enough that menignorant of fire and poison should be precondemn'dto sudden deaths and burnings, but 'tis mightilyto the reproach of Reason that she cannot savenor guide the herd; that minds who else wer fit to rulemust win to power by flattery and pretence, and soby spiritual dishonesty in their flurried reignconfirm the disrepute of all authority --but only in sackcloth can the Muse speak of such things.

from Book II. Selfhood

The Spartan General Brasidas, the strenuous man,who earn'd historic favour from his conquer'd foe,once caught a mouse foraging in his messbasketamong the figs, but when it bit him let it go,praising its show of fight in words that Plutarch judgedworth treasuring; and since I redd the story at schoolunto this hour I hav never thought of Brasidasand cannot hear his name, but that I straightway seea table and an arm'd man smiling with hand outstretch'dabove a little mouse that is scampering away. Why should this thing so hold me? and why do I welcome nowthe tiny beast, that hath come running up to meas if here in my cantos he had spied a crevice,and counting on my friendship would make it his home? 'Tis such a pictur as must by mere beauty of fitnessconvince natural feeling with added comfort.The soldier seeth the instinct of Selfhood in the mouseto be the same impulse that maketh virtue in him.For Brasidas held that courage ennobleth man,and from unworth redeemeth, and that folk who shrinkfrom ventur of battle in self-defence are thereby doom'dto slavery and extinction: and so this mouse, albeitits little teeth had done him a petty hurt, deservedliberty for its courage, and found grace in man.


What is Beauty? saith my sufferings then. -- I answerthe lover and poet in my loose alexandrines:Beauty is the highest of all these occult influences,the quality of appearances that thru' the sensewakeneth spiritual emotion in the mind of man:And Art, as it createth new forms of beauty,awakeneth new ideas that advance the spiritin the life of Reason to the wisdom of God.But highest Art must be as rare as nativ faculty isand her surprise of magic winneth favor of menmore than her inspiration: most are led awayby fairseeming pretences, which being wrought for gainpursue the ephemeral fashion that assureth it;and their thin influences are of the same low gradeas the unaccomplish'd forms; their poverty is exposedwhen they would stake their charm on ethic excellence;for then weak simulations of virtues appear,such as convention approveth, but not Virtue itself,tho' not void of all good: and (as I read) 'twas thisthat Benvenuto intended, saying that not onlyVirtue was memorable but things so truly donethat they wer like to Virtue; and thus prefaced his book,thinking to justify both himself and his works. The authority of Reason therefor relieth at lasthereon -- that her discernment of spiritual things,the ideas of Beauty, is her conscience of instinctupgrown in her (as she unto conscience of allupgrew from lower to higher) to conscience of Beautyjudging itself by its own beauteous judgment.

from Book III. Breed

How was November's melancholy endear'd to mein the effigy of plowteams following and recrossingpatiently the desolat landscape from dawn to dusk,as the slow-creeping ripple of their single furrowsubmerged the sodden litter of summer's festival!They are fled, those gracious teams; high on the headland nowsquatted, a roaring engin toweth to itselfa beam of bolted shares, that glideth to and frocombing the stubbled glebe: and agriculture here,blotting out with such daub so rich a pictur of grace,hath lost as much of beauty as it hath saved in toil. Again where reapers, bending to the ripen'd corn,were wont to scythe in rank and step with measured stroke,a shark-tooth'd chariot rampeth biting a broad way,and, jerking its high swindging arms around in the air,swoopeth the swath. Yet this queer Pterodactyl is well,that in the sinister torpor of the blazing dayclicketeth in heartless mockery of swoon and sweat,as 'twer the salamandrine voice of all parch'd things:and the dry grasshopper wondering knoweth his God.

from Book IV, Ethick

Beauty, the eternal Spouse of the Wisdom of Godand Angel of his Presence thru' all creation,fashioning her new love-realm in the mind of man,attempteth every mortal child with influencesof her divine supremacy ... ev'n as in a plantwhen the sap mounteth secretly and its wintry stalkbreaketh out in the prolific miracle of Spring,or as the red blood floodeth into a beating heartto build the animal body comely and strong; so shein her transcendant rivalry would flush his spiritwith pleasurable ichor of heaven: and where she hath foundresponsiv faculty in some richly favour'd soul --L'anima vaga delle cose belle, as saiththe Florentine, -- she wil inaugurate her feastof dedication, and even in thatt earliest onset,when yet infant Desire hath neither goal nor clueto fix the dream, ev'n then, altho' it graspeth noughtand passeth in its airy vision away, and diethout of remembrance, 'tis in its earnest of lifeand dawn of bliss purer and hath less of earthly tingethan any other after-attainment of the understanding:for all man's knowledge kenneth also of toil and flawand even his noblest works, tho' they illume the darkwith individual consummation, are cast uponby the irrelevant black shadows of time and fate.


Repudiation of pleasur is a reason'd follyof imperfection. Ther is no motiv can rebateor decompose the intrinsic joy of activ life,whereon all function whatsoever in man is based.Consider how this mortal sensibilityhath a wide jurisdiction of range in all degrees,from mountainous gravity to imperceptiblefaintest tenuities: -- The imponderable fragranceof my window-jasmin, that from her starry cupof red-stemm'd ivory invadeth my being,as she floateth it forth, and wantoning unabash'dasserteth her idea in the omnipotent blazeof the tormented sun-ball, checquering the grey wallwith shadow-tracery of her shapely fronds; this frailunique spice of perfumery, in which she holdethmonopoly by royal licence of Nature,is but one of a thousand angelic species,original beauties that win conscience in man:a like marvel hangeth o'er the rosebed, and wherethe honeysuckle escapeth in serpentine spraysfrom its dark-cloister'd clamber thru' the old holly-bush,spreading its joybunches to finger at the skyin revel above rivalry. Legion is their name;Lily-of-the-vale, Violet, Verbena, Mignonette,Hyacinth, Heliotrope, Sweet-briar, Pinks and Peas,Lilac and Wallflower, or such white and purple bloomsthat sleep i' the sun, and their heavy perfumes withholdto mingle their heart's incense with the wonder-dreams,love-laden prayers and reveries that steal forth from earth,under the dome of night: and tho' these blossomy breaths,that hav presumed the title of their gay genitors,enter but singly into our neighboring sense, that hathno panorama, yet the mind's eye is not blindunto their multitudinous presences: -- I knowthat if odour wer visible as color is, I'd seethe summer garden aureoled in rainbow clouds,with such warfare of hues as a painter might chooseto show his sunset sky or a forest aflame;while o'er the country-side the wide clover-pasturesand the beanfields of June would wear a mantle, thickas when in late October, at the drooping of daythe dark grey mist arising blotteth out the landwith ghostly shroud. Now these and such-like influencesof tender specialty must not -- so fine they be --fall in neglect and all their loveliness be lost,being to the soul deep springs of happiness, and fullof lovingkindness to the natural man, who is aptkindly to judge of good by comfortable effect.Thus all men ever hav judged the wholesomness of foodfrom the comfort of body ensuing thereupon,whereby all animals retrieve their proper diet;but if when in discomfort 'tis for pleasant hopeof health restored we swallow nauseous medicines,so mystics use asceticism, yea, and no manreadier than they to assert eventual happinessto justify their conduct. Whence it is not strange(for so scientific minds in search of truth digestassimilable hypotheses) they should extendtheir pragmatism, and from their happiness deducethe very existence and the natur of God, and takereligious consolation for the ground of faith:as if the pleasur of life wer the sign-manualof Nature when she set her hand to her covenant. But man, vain of his Reason and thinking more to assureits independence, wil disclaim complicitywith human emotion; and regarding his Motherdeemeth it dutiful and nobler in honestycoldly to criticize than purblindly to love;and in pride of this quarrel he hath been led in the endto make distinction of kind 'twixt Pleasur and Happiness;observing truly enough how one may hav pleasureand yet miss happiness; but this warpeth the senseand common use of speech, since all tongues in the worldcall children and silly folk happy and sometimes ev'n brutes. The name of happiness is but a wider termfor the unalloy'd conditions of the Pleasur of Life,attendant on all function, and not to be deny'dto th' soul, unless forsooth in our thought of naturespiritual is by definition unnatural.

© Robert Seymour Bridges