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The Silent Isle - Chapter 25 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :3749

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV

It is such a perennial mystery to me what beauty is; it baffles me entirely. No one has ever helped me to discover in what region of the spirit it abides. The philosopher begins by telling you that the simplest and most elementary form of beauty which appeals to every one, the beauty of human beings, has its root originally only in desire; but I cannot follow that, because that would only account for one's admiring a certain kind of fresh and youthful beauty, and in admiring human beauty less and less as it declines from that. But this is not the case at all; because there is a beauty of age which is often, in its way, a more impressive and noble thing than the beauty of youth. And there is, too, the beauty of expression, a far more subtle and moving thing than mere beauty of feature: we must have often seen, for instance, a face which by all the canons of beauty might be pronounced admirable, yet the effect of which is wholly unattractive; while, on the other hand, we have known faces that, from some ruggedness or want of proportion, seemed at first sight even repellent, which have yet come to hold for one an extraordinary quality of attractiveness, from the beauty of the soul being somehow revealed in them, and are yet as remote from any sense of desire as the beauty of a tree or a crag.

And then, again, in dealing with the beauty of nature, I have heard philosophers say that the appeal which it makes is traceable to a sense of prosperity or well-being; and that the love of landscape has grown up out of the sense of satisfaction with which our primaeval ancestors saw a forest full of useful timber and crowded with edible game. But that again is entirely contradicted by my experience.

I went to-day on a vague walk in the country, taking attractive by-ways and field-paths, and came in the course of the afternoon to a lonely village among wide pastures which I had never visited before. The bell-like sound of smitten metal, ringing cheerfully from a smithy, outlined against the roar of a blown fire, seemed to set my mind in tune. I turned into the tiny street. The village lies on no high-road; it is remote and difficult of access, but at one time it enjoyed a period of prosperity because of a reputation for dairy produce; and there were half-a-dozen big farm-houses on the street, of different dates, which testified to this. There was an old timbered Grange, deserted, falling into ruin. There was a house with charming high brick gables at either end, with little battlemented crow-steps, and with graceful chimney-stacks at the top. There was another solid Georgian house, with thick white casements and moss-grown tiling--all of them showing signs of neglect and fallen fortunes.

But the ruined Grange, with a moat round it full of willows and big water-plants, approached by a pretty bridge with ruinous parapets, had the perfect quality of beauty. Yet all the associations that it aroused were sad ones. It spoke of an old and prosperous family life, full of simple happiness, brought to an end of desertion and desolation. It seemed to say, like the Psalmist, "I see that all things come to an end." Just opposite was a new and comfortable farm-house, the only prosperous house in the village, with a trim lawn, and big barns covered with corrugated iron roofing. Everything about it spoke of comfort and security. Yet the only appeal that it made to the spirit was that one wished it out of sight, while the ruined Grange touched the heart with yearning and pathos, and even with a far-off and beautiful hope. The transfiguring hand of time was laid gently upon it, and there was not a single detail of the scene which was not filled with a haunting sense of delight and sweetness.

It was just at sunset that I saw it; and as the sun went down and the colour began to ebb out of bush and wall, the sense of its beauty and grace became every instant more and more acute. A long train of rooks, flying quietly homeward, drifted across the rose-flushed clouds. Everything alike spoke of peace, of a quiet ending, of closed eyes and weary hearts at rest. And yet the sense was not a joyful one, for it was all overshadowed by a consciousness of the unattainable. What increased the mystery was that the very thought that it could not be attained, the yearning for the impossible, was what seemed to lend the deepest sense of beauty to the scene. Who can interpret these things? Who can show why it is that the sense of beauty, that deep hunger of the heart, is built up on the fact that the dream cannot be realised? Yet so it is. The sense of beauty, whatever it may be, seems to depend upon the fact that the soul there catches a glimpse of something that waits to bless it--and upon which it cannot lay its hand; or is aware that if it does for a moment apprehend it, yet that a moment later it will be dragged rudely back into a different region. The sense of beauty is then of its nature accompanied by sadness; it is essentially evanescent. A beautiful thing with which we grow familiar stands often before us dumb and inarticulate, with no appeal to the spirit. Then perhaps in a sudden movement, the door of the spirit is unlatched, and the soul for a moment discerns the sweet essence, to which an instant before it had been wholly unresponsive, and which an instant later will lose its power. It seems to point to a possible satisfaction; and yet it owes its poignancy to the fact that the heart is still unsatisfied.

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