Essay on Beauty by John Greenleaf Whittier

Essay on Beauty of John Greenleaf Whittier

Beneath these beautiful skies of June, and here, amid old and pleasant memories, and the familiar echoes of pilgrim feet, it may be well, perchance, for a single hour, that we make bright, even with gathered flowers, the pathway of our brotherhood journeying. Here let us brush the dust from our sandals, and betake ourselves to the bright, green earth, sparkling with light and beauty, and possibly the passing angels may pause and give us their approving blessing. It were better for us often to linger in the green pastures and by the still waters, and drink in the beauty and sweetness of Nature, instead of feeding the fires of " life's fitful fever " with the intenser longings for wealth, or honors, or luxurious pomp. It were better for us to foster and feed our appetites and passions less; and cultivate a taste for the poetical and the beautiful more—to read the poetry that lies everywhere at our feet, and shines everywhere over our heads— the poetry that lives and is seen in every act of goodness, and in every deed that exalts and ennobles man.

"And let us trace, in all things beautiful,
A natural harmony that soothes, upraises,
So it may wake a soul, .too mute and dull,
To everlasting praises."

And nowhere, nor in more fitting words, has the universal prevalence of poetry been better described than by Percival:

"The world is full of poetry—the air
Is living with its spirit; and the waves
Dance to the music of its melodies,
And sparkle in its brightness. Earth is veiled
And mantled with its beauty ; and the walls
That close the universe with crystal in,
Are eloquent with voices that proclaim
The unseen glories of immensity,
In harmonies too perfect, and too high, i
For aught but beings of celestial mould,
And speak to men in one eternal hymn,
Unfading beauty and unyielding power."

But the busy, feverish world may care little for poetry or for flowers. It will care little for mine. And yet, as I lay my hand upon the hearts of this beautiful audience, I can here and there catch the pulsations of that inner life that responds to the voice of beauty—I had almost said the voice of divinity—that sleeps in the buds and blossoms that bless the earth with their light and their fragrance. And from these same hearts, too, may come the thanksgiving—

" Blessed be God for flowers—
For the light, gentle, holy thoughts that breathe
From out their odorous beauty, like a wreath
Of sunshine on life's hours."

And thus would I gather and interweave them into this discourse, and let them run, like shining threads, through its humbler and grosser texture. For, beautifully, as the poet says,—

"they are, themselves,
But bright thoughts syllabled to shape and hue."

I would baptize my every word in their morning fragrance. And, if it were possible, I would record their silent language, and make my own cold page a page of living beauty; for

" The language that they breathe is Nature's prayer."

And, as in these vernal and summer hours, the abounding flowers beautify the earth and fill the air with their fragrance, so poetry beautifies the common and lowlier pathways of life, and infuses into our social atmosphere those kindlier inspirations which our sterner nature demands. In their sweet and silent ministry, the flowers, themselves, are performing a part of the great mission of poetry. Wherever the earth is radiant with their beautiful presence—wherever their ministry is poured into the heart of man, as it were a vocal and intelligible hymn, they all unite in the anthem of the evening stars—the echo of earth to heaven—

" Forever singing, as they shine,
' The Hand that made us is Divine !'"

And yet, for these the common world cares little; or for the poetry that breathes up to us from all the silent lips of earth. In its fiery haste, it has no throbbing heart to read, with rejoicing, the bright record which the loving Father has written everywhere in this garniture of wonderful beauty. And as little, too, it gives its love to those other flowers of heart and intellect that twine in so many graceful and blessed influences around the rougher elements of our nature^ or as gracefully crown the more rugged pillars of our social fabric. Few, like poor Burns, will pause in the furrow of life, and give their hearts and their tears to the crushed daisies.

No, we will do nothing of this. We are intent upon something else. We forget, perhaps all too willingly, the gentle and the beautiful, for the stormier inarch where we hear the resounding tread of the millions. Our gods are sitting in gloomy and grand solemnity in the market places. Their commanding and imperious voices are heard in the din of machinery; in the tramp of the fire-steed; in the cry of the burthened waters, and in the confused noise of the battle-field, amid garments rolled in blood. On the wings of the whirlwind, the very dust of our strife goes up as incense to the gods we worship. Why should we love anything tender and beautiful ? We should, perhaps, love that tenderness and that beauty, if that tenderness and that beauty could be crystalized into gold !

The world is busy, planning Sodoms, and planting Tyres, and founding Gomorrahs. It is building Jerusalems, it may be, begirt with golden mountains. It may, possibly, be proffering adorations at the shrines of the Solomons, sitting in purple majesty in the midst of their temple glory. And this may be well, perhaps. This homage may have its reward. But that meek and loving Eye, that read as never man read, lingered more tenderly among " the lilies of the field ;" and that sweet Voice that spake as never man spake, still breathes its tribute into the human heart, reminding us that all the Solomons, in all their glory, were never arrayed like one of these sister lilies of the field!

'So does the tiniest gem of earth wear the impress of the highest perfection, wherever the Creator has wreathed the vales, or starred the forests, or crowned the mountain tops. Everywhere, and amid all this beauty and magnificence,—

" We feel His glory who could make a world,
Yet, in the lost depths of the wilderness,
Leave not a flower unfinished."

During the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, a poor victim, charged with some political or criminal offence, lay chained in one of the French prison cells. A little flower, as if sent on an angel mission, stole in through some crevice in the wall and bloomed in that cheerless prison home. To the sad and lonely prisoner, that simple flower became a beloved pet—a beautiful and speaking presence in the voiceless silence of his weary hours. With no other living or breathing thing to love, he gave his affection to the little flower. To him it seemed like a wandering messenger, from the outer world of beauty, sent by the kind Father to remind him that he was not forgotten. And day by day he watched over and worshiped it, as though it had been a child of his love. Shut in from the dews and rains without, he nourished and watered it with moisture from his own lips. And thus' he lived on with his little silent companion, realizing, more than ever, in that uncheered solitude, the delicate and truthful sentiment of Keats—

" A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

By accident, the situation of this man became known to Napoleon. He visited his cell, and found the poor prisoner worshiping the beauty of that flower, even while the galling chain was eating into his living flesh. The scene touched the heart of the Emperor, and with that quick instinct and impulse for which he was remarkable, he commanded that the prisoner be instantly released, adding, in his confident tone,—" A man who can so love a flower, cannot have a bad heart. I would trust my life in his hands !"

And what an unwritten poem lies concealed in the touching affection that nurtured and loved that solitary prison flower!

Nor, in passing, may we fail to remark how this love for the beautiful in flowers sometimes brightens and cheers the dusty pathway of toil; or twines in delicate exhibitions of taste around homes of otherwise cheerless, darksome drudgery. It is a beautiful and suggestive sight, when these pleasant little visitors steal within the sepulchral walls of our manufactories, and the windows bloom with flowers, trained and. guarded by the weary hand of the operative. It seems like the apparent struggle of a pent-up heart to seek something of sunshine amid its darksome toil, as the flower itself, which it trains, when doomed to a sunless cell, turns and climbs instinctively, to greet some wandering sunbeam. The entombed spirit, like the flower, seeks the light of heaven. And what the blessed sun-rays are to the struggling flower, this spirit of light is to the seeking heart. *And thus, poetry has its pleasant, though humble mission, among the inwalled toilers in our mills, where the patient operative, as She wearily tends and guides her loom, weaves into her own heart, also, these silver threads of light and beauty, which shall long outlive the poor fabric she toils over, and which, perhaps may again be reproduced in the tasteful arrangement of some blessed home.

And here, by a brief word on trees, let me link what I have already said with what I may yet say. The love of trees—the taste which seeks and cultivates them—-marks the ppetic in,the man and in communities. So the blank premises and the isolate wayside indicate a lack of poetic taste and feeling. •^low many houses of worship, how many homes of learning, are uncheered by a solitary tree. Such was not the taste of William Penn. He encouraged the cultivation, and honored the presence of trees, always. Trees that he himself brought to this country are still standing in their noble strength. The streets of the city which he founded still bear the forest names which he gave them. And " Pennsylvania " will forever testify to the graceful taste and " forest" love with which he chose to have his own name associated.

And how cheery — how like an inspiring vision of Eden beauty, is that rural home, or village, or city, which seems clasped in the loving arms of dear old trees. And yet, in the sight of the plodding, money-loving earth-worm, a tree has no value save its market price. No poetry lingers in its shadow or breathes in its foliage. No endearing recollections are linked with it, sacred, almost, as the pleasant memories of personal friendship. And many an old elm or maple—the pride and beauty of some rural home—has been sacrificed to sordid, unpoetic impulses. Into the cold heart of the groveling these noble old sentinels of the Past breathe no inspiration. Their robes of summer green, and their garniture of autumn gold, command no reverence and inspire no love. And though their silent " tongues " have often a deeper tone and a sweeter influence than the words of the living, the unspiritual man has no ear to hear. But, though he may raise his vandal axe to smite some lingering old sentinel by the wayside, or at the homestead door, from the Poet's heart leaps the instant rebuke—

" Woodman, spare that tree !"

An anecdote is related by Henry Russell, the vocalist, which not only shows the touching power of this beautiful ballad, from which I have quoted, but the universal love and reverence for trees, also, in the cultivated and poetic heart. After singing this ballad to a crowded auditory in one of the European cities, an old gentleman, who had been greatly moved by its simple and touching pathos, rose and said—" I beg your pardon, Mr. Russell; but was the tree really spared?" He was answered that it was. " I am glad to hear it," said the old man. And as he took his seat, the house rang with cheer after cheer. Says the vocalist—" I never before saw such excitement in a concert room."

The tribute which the Saviour pays to the humble flowers of the field, so tender and touching, while it contains the very spirit of poetry, bespeaks also, his reverence for the Beautiful.