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  • By John H. B. Martin

De Gustibus (Et Pulchristudinis)

I remember once leafing through a volume of Allen Ginsberg's poems and coming across one poem with the word “butterfly” in it and thinking at long last here was quite a good poem. And then on another occasion leafing through a volume of Kathleen Raine's poems and coming across the word “pollution” and thinking at long last here was quite a good poem. And then it slowly became clear that it was the presence of contrast that made the poems seem good. All the rest were either far too monotonously ugly-ugly or too monotonously pretty-pretty. Neither had achieved beauty.

The conclusion: for beauty one needs a continual contrast of opposites. This is something that Shakespeare knew, and was a complete master of. Take the line “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.” Here the rough winds make the darling buds more darling. And the darling buds make the rough winds more rough. Keats once said he needed a brighter word than “bright.” But he didn't. What he needed were some darker words around it. Apparently a thing is most itself in the presence of its opposite. And it is this that we call beauty. It was thoughts like these that led to the following conclusions...

They say beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. But then perhaps it tells the truth in itself. Certainly beauty has both objective and subjective aspects. And though “de gustibus non est disputandum” taste can be trained and educated. Just as perceptions can be coarsened and brutalised in the first place, so they can be refined and rendered less coarse and less brutal. And it is an important part of the poet's role to do precisely this—as it is the critic's. And as Eliot said every poet should also be a critic. Of his own work first and foremost, but inevitably thereby of others' as well. Judgement is inescapable. We will all be judged; we will all be judges. Even our judgements will be judged.

“Judge not that thee be not judged” does not mean that we should completely suspend our critical faculties. This simply cannot be done in any case. It means that if we are going to judge others—and we must—then we must expect to be judged ourselves. So we must first of all—like Caesar's wife—make sure that we are above suspicion. We must endeavour to be faultless in every way: in our lives; in ourselves; and in our work. The last is the easiest—and yet already almost impossible. The second is the most important—and again, almost impossible. The first is absolutely impossible because we have so little control over our own lives. Especially in the early stages, which are the most important. Perfection and beauty belong together.

If Socrates emphasised the importance of justice and Aristotle the importance of balance, then Plato stressed the importance of truth, beauty and goodness as aspects of the absolute. And all can be related to harmony, and be symbolised by the equals sign and its accompanying equation. “Moderation” would also be an important word here. Nothing in excess. (Pace Diogenes.)

Western Philosophy is fundamentally Platonic. Its branches are Epistemology, Ethics, Aesthetics, Metaphysics and Logic. All other aspects can be fitted into these five. Epistemology is concerned with truth. Ethics with goodness. Aesthetics with beauty. Metaphysics with the absolute. All of these come from Plato. Only Logic is derived from Aristotle, providing a sort of entrance hall into the palace of Philosophy. However, these branches are not independent in any way. Indeed it is their very interdependence that makes them so vitally important. It is a test of their value.

Beauty without goodness and truth is mere cosmesis. Goodness without truth and beauty is mere hypocrisy. And truth without beauty and goodness is merely a desire to shock. This provides some sort of rational approach to the meaning of that insight recorded by Keats at the end of his “Ode On A Grecian Urn” and which so puzzled Eliot.

The opposites of truth, beauty and goodness are lies, ugliness and evil. A concept is often best examined by looking at its opposite. These days people deny the reality of goodness, truth and beauty but can they really say there are no such things as lies, ugliness and evil? We see them all around us. And increasingly so as civilisation progresses. And if they exist then their opposites must necessarily exist. Only a liar would deny the reality of truth. Only the evil have a vested interest in denying the reality of evil. Only the perpetrators of ugliness can have a vested interest in denying the possibility of beauty. And the only people who would wish to perpetrate ugliness would be those idolaters of power as an end in itself who would usually favour all three. For power is a lie. And its pursuit as an end in itself is evil. And it is always hideous. Only the power of truth is beautiful and good. And only when power is subordinated to truth and beauty does it become a good thing. Even then it is only a means to an end, and never as an end in itself. How often prophets are apparently the weakest people. Yet they shame us by their complete reliance on truth, goodness and beauty. Who today is more beautiful than Greta? Who more truthful? Who more good? (In a world dominated by conglomerations of powerful men it is the little girls who are finally showing us the way: Alma, Greta, Malala.)

If a lie without ugliness and evil is a white lie then what is ugliness without lies and evil? And what is evil without lies and ugliness? Can one even begin to imagine ugliness without lies and evil? Ugliness that is true and good? Can one even begin to imagine evil without lies and ugliness? Evil that is true and beautiful? I can imagine someone who is hideously crippled being true and good. But isn't their outward appearance then more than redeemed by their character? But can I imagine an evil person being true or beautiful? Their beauty has to be cosmetic, their truth profoundly shocking. (However an evil person can be redeemed by a full confession, providing it is sincere and accompanied by genuine repentance and remorse. Is it here that beauty begins to raise its ugly head?) Beauty, truth and goodness are corrupted by the absence of the other two. But can ugliness, lies and evil be redeemed by the absence of their confederates? In the former case the corruption is absolute, in the latter the redemption at best only partial.

Roman Catholic theologians say that evil is the privation of good just as darkness is the privation of light. Evil does not exist in itself. And hence presumably we are meant to infer that lies are a privation of truth, and ugliness is a privation of beauty. We have already conflated the Platonic trinity with balance and justice and ultimately with harmony. Truth is an equation between what we say and what we see. Goodness consists in justice. In treating others fairly. And beauty and harmony are closely related.

On Opposites

I would define beauty as contrast of opposites, balance and variety at its crudest level. And at its most refined level the synergy of opposites, the coincidentia oppositorum. It is that synergy which gives the beautiful object its essential unity.

At its crudest level beauty is best demonstrated in the work of Rembrandt, Beethoven and Shakespeare. Here we have intense light and intense dark. And all the other possible opposites are taken to their absolute extremes as well. Where Rembrandt doesn't paint exquisitely fine details with a single hair of a very fine brush he paints the background with a broom. Beethoven goes from the almost silent murmurings of a single instrument to the deafening tutti of the whole orchestra at the drop of a baton. From profound bass to tinkling treble. From long notes to short notes. Shakespeare too works the changes. From laughter to despair. From crowd scenes to soliloquies. Is it any accident that he wrote both Tragedies and Comedies, both Histories and Romances? And that his Tragedies contain scenes of comic relief? And vice versa?

Of course, contrast of opposites must include everything. Monotony must be contrasted with its opposite; sameness with diversity; lack of balance with balance; ugliness with beauty; perfection with imperfection (There is a Paradox of Perfection which states that to be perfect a thing must contain a certain amount of imperfection, presumably to act as a foil); Unity with disunity; Chaos with order; the new with the old. (Pound's motto was: “Make it new.” But he was too canny a maker not to realise that at the same time you also need to “make it old” as well.) The contrast of opposites isn't as easy as all that, nor is it some anodyne saccharine-flavoured drug. If anything it is the opposite—as Keats eventually found out. Beauty is everything. It includes everything—including ugliness—though not to the exclusion of all else, but in a just proportion. We all know that symmetry can be very boring unless it includes asymmetry. The human face is both symmetrical and asymmetrical. It is at its most beautiful when the balance between the two is nicely judged. There are no rules, which is why we need artists and men of genius to discover beauty for us. It can never be mechanically worked out.

There are other important opposites. One is between objectivity and subjectivity. Eliot talked of the “objective correlative” which will exactly register the subjective emotion. Here image and symbol become important. And the pathetic becomes a fallacy. (“It rains in my heart as it rains on the town,” sang Verlaine. Here subjective weather and objective weather seem to mirror each other—at least within the confines of the poem.) Another contrast is between simplicity and complexity. Poets yearn for simplicity, yet must render complexity if they are to do justice to the actual situation they are celebrating. Usually it is best to start off complex and then gradually simplify on the basis of the foundations already laid down. Simplicity without any underlying implicit complexity is as boring as any other extreme position. That final simplicity which only the greatest artists achieve can only come as a result of years of exploring all possible complexities.

Another is the contrast between emotion and tranquillity. Overall, poetry should have a tranquillising effect. Good poets shouldn't need to take tranquillisers. And when they do so the effects on their poetry are usually deleterious because their work is relieved of most of its burden of responsibility. It is the duty of poets, more than anybody else, to confront their emotions rather than ignore them or suppress them—and to do so in public. Difficult emotions must be faced up to and handled as skillfully as possible in the poem.

However, this can only be done after a sufficient distance has been achieved, which is presumably why Wordsworth described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Alas, these days many poets seem to think that poetry is tranquillity recollected in emotion. And the more hysterical and histrionic they can be the more they are applauded—not least by themselves. Especially if that subserves some ideologically-motivated political program. Wordsworth was most likely the one who got it right.

One of the supreme challenges in writing purely formal poetry is to make it seem as natural and effortless as conversation. There is no feeling of tiresome formal constraints in Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale” for instance. Far from it the form seems to liberate the poem and make it seem even more natural and effortless. By “sentence feel” Frost meant precisely this. Auden too was adept at this sort of thing. For Browning it perhaps became a bit too mechanical. Shakespeare of course remains the supreme exemplar.

On Style

This is where style comes in. “Style is the man himself,” said somebody or other. But by this did he mean the identity, the character, the personality, the individuality or something more universal than that? Many seem to think it's the personality. Certainly Frost and Auden did. But personality may be too artificial a construct. If identity is the lie that society forces on us then personality is the lie we counter that with. But alas, two wrongs do not make a right. Behind these skulks the actual individual waits to be let out.

(Character is what in us is tested by crisis. It is the moral essence of the man.)

It should go without saying that style should never be artificial or self-consciously adopted. It should be a more or less innocent by-product of the pursuit of truth. But even so there is a style that goes beyond style. In painting it is found in Cézanne. And in music in Bach. (Is it also found in Vermeer?) What about Rilke? We talk of an artist finding their own style. But in the case of Cézanne and Bach this just hasn't happened. They've gone far beyond that. They've gone beyond personality and even individuality and found something universal. So we can no longer talk about style. We have to talk of truth. A style beyond style.

The Oxymoron

In just the same way beyond the mere contrast of opposites lies the union of opposites. Here we enter the realm of the oxymoron. Arguably, if anything is the essence of the poetic craft it is the oxymoron: the mastery of the art of contrast such that any chosen word becomes both apt and surprising. And poems where at least one word isn't both surprising and apt can seem very dull. Indeed, ideally every word should be both surprising and apt. We should both be shocked by the word and then realise that any other word would be entirely out of place. It is precisely this that makes poetry so miraculous. Of course if every word were surprising then we would begin to expect surprise. And so no longer be surprised. So every so often it is the unsurprising word that is the surprising word.

On Harmony

We have talked much of the contrast of opposites. With the oxymoron we enter the realm of the unity of opposites. For unity is important. And contrasts should never be so great that unity is destroyed. Unity can be achieved in at least three ways: through content; through form; and through effect. It is difficult to destroy the unity of a sonnet. So formal unity is important. It is this very formal unity of the sonnet that allows one to be so very diverse within its borders. Elsewhere unity of content predominates—though disunity here can be made up for by unity of emotional effect. Another unifying factor can be style. But usually more than anything the poet or artist is striving to unify some sort of more or less deep division in himself. Even in “The Waste Land” Eliot was striving for unity. Treat “The Waste Land” as a proem to “The Four Quartets” and one gets that unity. After all they all have the same form and are therefore unified in that way. Eliot himself said that his work should be considered as a unified whole. It in many ways constitutes a sort of modern Divine Comedy.

(If self-contradiction is allied to the ridiculous, and paradox surely to the sublime, and beauty the oxymoronic, then is logic allied to the picturesque?)

Another important contrast is between passion and discipline. Passion is allied to content and discipline to form. In all the arts passion must be so closely allied to discipline that the two become one. In the same way that in the greatest art content and form become one. With Beethoven we are aware of a tremendous battle between the two. With Mozart and Bach that dichotomy is finally transcended. And we begin to enter realms of infinite peace. With the decadence of modern art we find pure passion unattended by discipline on the one hand and discipline without passion on the other. The latter seems arid and arrogant. The former chaotic and confused. And no civilising purpose is subserved. Athwart goes all decorum. And arid law emptily pontificates on the one hand and outrage and anarchy disastrously reign on the other. (In precisely the same way energy needs direction and enthusiasm discrimination.)

Passion needs discipline and in the end they become one. Energy needs direction and in the end they become one. Enthusiasm needs discrimination and in the end they become one. Content needs form and in the end they become one.

Discrimination, direction and discipline without passion, energy and enthusiasm are just as deadly as passion, energy and enthusiasm are without discrimination, direction and discipline. When they are completely united they become synonymous with love. Without each other they are dangerous. Though discrimination on its own can sometimes lead to everything else. Providing it is correct.

So if we are to get anywhere as artists our nature must be “subdued to what it works in like the dyer's hand.” In that direction lies the necessary humility. Not unaccompanied by the pride of the craftsman who has mastered his mystery. And ego is no longer a part of the equation. And the Muse reigns supreme.

Beyond that we can follow Freud in saying that a weak ego, a strong Id and a strong Superego are the prerequisites for high artistic achievement. According to him this necessarily results in an unendurable conflict between Id and Superego which can only be resolved through artistic creation. And at the same time it also provides the only possibility for defending the ego from these two vast and menacing armies on either side—so aptly symbolised by those armies of devils and angels the medievals went in for.

These days, following a failure to properly understand Freud, we have got rid of the Superego. At the same time we do everything we can to strengthen everybody's ego. As a result, art has lost its rationale—except as an exercise in mass vanity and self-indulgence. The greatest artists like the greatest saints transcend this conflict. The Id and Superego and ego become one. (Or rather the ego disappears completely.) We have made the mistake of thinking that by getting rid of the Superego we will achieve the same transcendent result. But this simply doesn't work. And all we are left with is “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Indulgence is not the same as discipline and can never give us the same results.

Nor is creativity the same as mere mechanical inventiveness. The merely mechanical can be inventive. And their name is legion. But only the creative can be creative. To be genuinely creative is to be inspired to produce something that is inspiring to all those who are capable of being inspired—not merely mildly interesting or diverting to those who need to be mildly interested or diverted.

Since beauty, truth and goodness are so intimately related then a society without beauty will be a society without goodness and truth. And a society without goodness and truth is a society that is doomed. Hence the supreme importance of the arts.

The pretense of beauty is worse than honest ugliness just as the pretence of goodness is worse than honest evil. Without lies at least ugliness and evil can be redeemed. That is why truth is so vitally important. The pretense of truth is the perfection of lying.

On Modern and Contemporary Art

These days young artists (especially in America) turn out trademarks without any actual goods to back them up. This is ridiculous! The trademarks have become the goods. Warhol and Koons mass-produced the most abominable kitsch. And everybody loved it. How the mob hates anything that smacks of goodness, truth or beauty.

Rothko concentrated on colour to the exclusion of all else, and yet even as a colourist isn't a patch on Picasso or Matisse or Klee. Pollock concentrates on paint-handling. De Kooning is Picasso without everything that makes Picasso Picasso. And behind it all we find the machinations of the CIA. Yuck! No wonder people are beginning to think there is no such thing as beauty. And even no such thing as goodness or truth.

There is all the difference in the world between naturally emergent order and artificially imposed order. If order is artificially imposed on the materials, one usually ends up with rubbish. Or rather something worse than rubbish. (At least rubbish can be tidied up.) If one looks for the order inherent in the materials and follows its cues right through to the end, then they can begin to get somewhere. We are looking for the mandala that underlies the informing emotion. Once we have located that then tranquillity of mind is achieved and the emotion is finally satisfied in the only way it ever can be and the heart is at peace. Faith lies in the belief that the work will have the same effect on the reader.

The same may be said to be true of science. It may be true of everything—not least of politics.

On Architecture

But its most physically obvious example lies in architecture. Up till the twentieth century, for the most part architecture unfolded naturally out of the landscape in the same way that a tree grows. It completed the landscape and so adorned it. But in the twentieth century it became increasingly possible to drop extremely large eyesores onto the landscape in any old way totally unrelated to the environment or to those poor souls who would have to endure these intrusive and egotistical self-advertisements. They were designed on a drawing board and then dumped from some supercilious orifice as if from outer space. These are the real extraterrestrial aliens. The invaders from other galaxies. And they are utterly hideous and the opposite of inspiring. Only three architects bucked this trend: Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Gaudi, and Le Corbusier. As for Gropius and Mies Van Der Rohe, they were the leaders of the artificially imposed order school. They have been pre-eminent in the destruction of our human and natural environment—now become our inhuman and unnatural environment. Their work is fundamentally fascist.

On Painting

There are six aspects to any painting: colour; drawing; paint-handling; storytelling; design and composition. Design may refer to how the surface of the painting is divided and arranged as a whole. Composition deals with how the other five aspects of a painting are related. From what we have seen above regarding our definition of beauty, a masterpiece should excel in all six aspects. Therefore, we are forced to conclude that the great masters of the twentieth century were Picasso and Matisse and Klee because only they achieved such completeness. Mondrian is nothing except design. He is interesting. But that is all. We have already dismissed Pollock and Rothko. Many artists are almost purely literary. Here Dali stands out as a case in hand. Balthus is less purely literary. My friend Maggi Hambling is perhaps purely graphic. Though her paint-handling is good. Certainly she's no colourist. Painting like so many things these days is divided into various warring armies: the abstract versus the figurative; the literary versus the plastic. But the greatest artists transcend these ridiculous dichotomies. It is only the lesser artists who insist on going to extremes. Picasso, Klee and Matisse are both abstract and figurative at one and the same time, literary and plastic at one and the same time. And each extreme enhances the other. Through “contrast of opposites, balance and variety” they reach out to that “synergy of opposites” which in literature we call the oxymoron.

The Medium

With any art the first thing an artist must ask himself is what can he do in this art that he can do in no other. What are the elements that he can play with in achieving “contrast of opposites, balance and variety?” For poetry memorable wisdom is of the essence. You won't find wisdom in music or painting or sculpture or architecture in any direct way. To be absolutely clear it has to be delineated in words. And if it is to be memorable, rhyme and rhythm are the chief aids. And if the artist is wise about that he will be wise about other things as well. As regards the elements, we have to play with: regularity and irregularity; concrete and abstract; assonance and dissonance; alliteration and obliteration; figurative and prosaic; rough versus smooth (cf. Dante's “combed and shaggy”); monosyllabic and polysyllabic; archaic and ultramodern; synonymous and antonymous; symmetrical and asymmetrical, etc. If a piece of verse doesn't seem to be going well it is often a good idea to check to see if it is not out of balance in one of these aspects, or in some other way. Perhaps there are too many concrete words, too many monosyllabic words, or it is too monotonously regular. (This author prefers to achieve irregularity through punctuation and enjambment.) Concrete words help to bring abstractions home. Abstractions help to render concrete words more relevant. (This is surely what Shakespeare means when he talked of “The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.”) “Showing” is more immediate. But it's also nice to sit back occasionally and take the long view and “tell”. Homer begins “in media res” but every so often retires to Mount Olympus. Short sentences can be interspersed with long sentences. Long paragraphs with short. Terseness with loquacity. Loquacity with terseness.

On Wisdom

Certes without abstractions you cannot have wisdom. So the current fad for doing without abstractions is doomed to failure. In any case all words are more or less abstract. And the important thing with any word is to use it precisely. And the same is true of the most abstract words. In fact the more abstract the word the more important it is that you use it precisely. Insight is the essence of poetry. The sudden flash of insight is what the poem should register i.e. “of course, why have I never realised that before?” The world is seen in a completely new way—it is bathed in a completely new light, as when the sun comes out after a thunderstorm and the birds begin to sing.

Idolatry gets in the way of insight. And insight and taste are intimately related. This is because beauty is intimately related to truth and goodness. And hence can inspire truth as well as goodness. And what else is insight but the sudden realisation of a truth? (Or even the realisation of a more beautiful way of being good?) Wisdom is a trained propensity for insight, and hence is related to truth and goodness, and thereby to beauty. In old age what makes one beautiful is wisdom. The priceless reward for a life devoted to goodness, truth and beauty. Idolatry is at the root of all evil, all ugliness, all lies. It is taking the part for the whole and thereby losing sight of the whole. It is worshipping something that is less than the whole. It is failing to see the wood for the trees. Therefore idolatry destroys taste. Admittedly aesthetes can become idolators as well. And so become snobbish and elitist. But this sets a very bad example and merely puts people off. Proust started off as an aficionado of Ruskin. But later on repudiated Ruskin's influence because he detected in him a trace of idolatry. Though Ruskin was never a snob, nor for that matter was Proust. Therefore genuine aesthetes should be among the least idolatrous. And hence the least snobbish.

Art’s Purpose

The purpose of art is to refine our perceptions and deepen and broaden our sympathies. These two can only too easily subvert each other. But on the other hand each acts as a corrective to the other. Increased refinement of one's perceptions carries the risk of making one snobbish and elitist. But on the other hand, the deepening and broadening of one's sympathies must have precisely the opposite effect. “Aesthetes” who are snobbish have missed half the meaning of art. And therefore are not altogether genuine in their aesthetics.

We go to art to refine our perceptions and deepen and broaden our sympathies. These two aspects of art necessarily pull in opposite directions. Because as our perceptions become more and more refined so we become more and more distressed by what is coarse and crude. It is a contradiction we simply have to learn to live with, in this author’s opinion. It is no good turning our backs on beauty just in order to avoid snobbery. We have to feel compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. And if this seems patronising then tant pis. At least it is better than any imagined alternative. It is better to level up than level down. And to teach refinement to the unrefined, rather than become coarse and crude ourselves out of some perverse desire to express solidarity with those less fortunate than ourselves, which in any case would be even more patronising, but in addition be a downright lie. The fact of the matter is that the more refined our perceptions and the deeper and broader our sympathies, the more value we extract from every second of our lives. And hence the more value we have to give to others—including those who are closest to us. Indeed, especially to those who are closest to us. (And to the Saint nobody is not the closest.)

Poetry is the most difficult of all the arts. Because we are using a debased medium. We are using a medium that the most powerful people in the land use to tell their lies, but with the express purpose of telling the truth. No wonder we get so badly treated. No wonder so many people make such frantic attempts to buy off our consciences. With prizes and competitions and presidential inaugurations and speech days and commissions and God knows what else. A true poet will have nothing to do with any of this. Does a cow moo to order? Or a robin sing? Or a blackbird warble? Or a dog bark? Or a cat miaow? Or a wave splash? Or the rain fall? Or the lightning strike? Or the thunder roar? Or the wind blow? Or the sun come out at last? Or a tree spring into leaf? A good poet is even more natural than that.

On Taste

Beauty may not be in the eye of the beholder, but taste is. And taste can be educated—and should be. That should be the aim of any civilised human being: to educate and improve and refine their taste for what is beautiful according to objectively defined canons of beauty. We need arbitri elegantiae. And we need some objective way of determining whose taste is the most reliable and most refined. Usually such people have to be high-level practitioners themselves. The taste of an Eliot or a Picasso or a Shostakovich has got to be more reliable than that of some pop song lyricist or some book-jacket designer or some busker. (Or even worse some mere academic.) And that's that. One of the ways of determining that somebody's tastes are reliable is that they can usually back up their recommendations by good and sound reasoning. And they have an extensive knowledge not only of the art they're proficient in but of many other arts. And have solid criteria and well-established canons. And they regard those canons and criteria as important. They will for instance spend a lot of time and effort in puzzling out which is better—Beethoven, Bach or Mozart—and why. Which is better: Yeats or Eliot. And why. Which is better: Picasso, Matisse or Klee. And why. And so on. Rilke begged to be allowed to spend a month or so living in the presence of Picasso's “Les Saltimbanques.” From this we see that direct experience of works of art was important to Rilke—and that he had very well-developed tastes. Therefore, his opinion can be relied upon. He chose to be Rodin's secretary. He enthused over Cézanne. And was associated with a group of German expressionist painters through whom he met his wife. He had extremely well-developed musical tastes as well. Proust too was another highly refined aesthete. His extensive meditations on music and painting are beyond compare, showing us just how important such things should be—and once were. But who can get worked up now about a “petite phrase” or a patch of colour in a single painting?

Few do so in a completely unpretentious and genuine way. So often such people are rightly condemned as “pseuds.” But there are genuine lovers of beauty. Amongst whom this author counts himself one. But look at how I have fared in a “civilisation” which puts such a high value on the pursuit of lies, ugliness and evil. And doubts that beauty, truth and goodness even exist. And where rugby is the be-all and end-all of everything

On the Sublime

In the eighteenth century aestheticians like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke talked of a relationship between beauty and two other things: the picturesque and the sublime, where beauty occupied the hinterland between the two. The picturesque we would now dismiss as the pretty-pretty, the sublime enthuse over as the awesome. So beauty is neither pretty-prettiness nor awesomeness but somewhere between. What they are is best illustrated by the work of Rilke and Wordsworth. The following is from a famous passage near the beginning of Wordsworth's “Prelude”.

One summer evening (led by her) I found

A little boat tied to a willow tree

Within a rocky cove, its usual home.

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in

Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice

Of mountain echoes did my boat move on;

Leaving behind her still, on either side,

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,

Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point

With an unswerving line, I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon's utmost boundary; far above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan,

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,

As if with voluntary power instinct

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow tree,

There in her mooring-place I left my bark.

The first three lines are quintessentially picturesque. Towards the end the words “usual” and “home” are used. For the picturesque is homely and comforting and reassuring. It offers the opposite of adventure. With lines 9, 10 and 11 we enter the domain of the beautiful. We have left the picturesque behind us and are beginning to enter the realms of the transcendent, where words hardly begin to suffice. With line 21 we approach the sublime. Sheer terror begins to take over. The adventure has gone too far. In the end we are glad to return to the merely picturesque. The words “covert” and “mooring-place” emphasise the feeling of safety and security. In between fragments of the picturesque and the beautiful reassert themselves—like old friends—with veiled references to swans and elfins. The “trembling oars” on the return journey reminds us of the “glittering” moonlight on the outward journey. Only in the antepenultimate line is Wordsworth's theft tacitly admitted. For it is a theft. Both objectively and subjectively. Both materially and spiritually.

The following quotation is from the beginning of the first Duino Elegy (the translation is by Stephen Spender):

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic

Orders? And even if one of them suddenly

Pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his

Stronger existence. For Beauty's nothing

But beginning of terror we're still able to bear,

And why we adore it so is because it serenely

Disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.

In both cases it seems the poet relates beauty more closely to the sublime than to the picturesque. The picturesque is cosy, homely and reassuring. It has its place. But lacks the sense of the miraculous that the sublime gives us.

Beauty is ultimately related to a sense of wonder. Philosophy begins with a sense of wonder, said Aristotle. And ends with it, added Whitehead. “I wonder why” leads to the endless curiosity of science. “How wonderful” leads to art. In between we have religion. So beauty is wonder. It is adventure. Or the invitation to adventure. It evokes in us a sense of awe. Of the otherworldly. Of the miraculous. As well as a sense of curiosity. And allies us to the religious. But it can also be reassuring and cosy and homely. For every adventure requires a homecoming as well as its opposite. Ullysses was returning home to the familiar. A familiar he was loath to leave when he first started out. The picturesque is home. The sublime is abroad. In between comes beauty. The sense of adventure. The feeling of hope. The outward journey and the inward journey.

Beyond the sublime of course there lies the ridiculous, which is something we modern poets often have to deal with. Hence the predominance of irony and satire.

For instance, these days some poets make a lot of noise. But, poetry isn't noise. It's the opposite of noise. It's signal.


We started off by saying a thing is most itself in the presence of its opposite. This surely means a signal is most like a signal in the presence of noise. Beauty is at its most beautiful in the presence of ugliness. A poem is at its most poetic in the presence of prose. A flower is most itself in the presence of thorns. Men and women are most themselves when they are in each other's company. (But am I most myself in the presence of you? Indeed are you my opposite? Or is it something else? This medium through which we communicate, perhaps? Words, say, and language? Or the all encompassing silence that lies behind them?)

(Or even sometimes tells the ultimate truth.)


1. Pound said that poetry should be close to music, music close to dance. And then proceeded to write free verse. Presumably simply because it was fashionable. (And also I suspect because many poets felt jealous of the success of the novel.)

2. The greatest poets go in for opulent austerity. Thus is the ultimate oxymoron or coincidentia oppositorum or paradox or expression of unity. They pare back everything to the bare bone and thereby reveal beauty. (As well as truth and goodness.) This requires an act of faith that it is there in the first place. They do not merely add “beauty” as an external decoration, like some cosmetic, where it quickly degrades to mere pretty-prettiness. If you remove the decoration from Sylvia Plath for instance you do not find beauty or goodness or truth. You find naked, ruthless ambition for power at any cost. (Her husband was much the same. But at least more honest. Though his honesty was in fact probably merely a desire to shock. She at least paid lip-(stick?)-service to beauty. Though I personally find lipstick worse than hideous.) Such naked ambition for what is essentially evil must be ugly. And she does well to hide it. But the result is not beauty. It is a hypocritical lie. Her best poems are when she begins to express her distress at this. Then she becomes more human. And even idealistic. But this quickly degenerates into hysteria. Very rarely does she achieve wisdom. Wise people do not commit suicide. Except under extraordinary conditions. This may seem uncompassionate. But nevertheless remains true. Nobody forced her to marry a monster. Nobody forced her to be ruthlessly ambitious.

3. These days people think that the right place for avant-garde experiments is poetry. And that serious novels should be as Victorian as possible. But actually since “novel” means “new thing” and “poem” means “made thing” then surely it should be the novel that is the place for avant-garde experiments and the poem that should remain as Victorian as possible.

John H.B. Martin is a poet who lives in London, England. He is a graduate of London University and Australia National University and has been writing for many decades. He has written four novels and is working on a fifth. His magnum opus is a six-volume epic poem. Most of his work is yet to be published.


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