I was in bed, having trouble getting to sleep, and so making mental lists instead of counting sheep. I made a list of the CDs I would keep, if allowed only one per composer, then if allowed 1 boxed set for each of the dozen major composers, then… well, it went on and I still couldn’t fall asleep. I had made probably half a dozen lists when I began a list of the most beautiful human-made things, one visual, one musical, one verbal, etc.
Filling in the list was surprisingly easy, considering how many nominees should be considered, but I had no trouble finding single primary answers, which surprised me.
I’ve written numerous times that the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen, visually, is the north rose window at Chartres Cathedral. I’ve been there four times (five if you count multiple visits to the cathedral over a two-day visit to the town), and I never fail to fall spellbound by that tumbling wheel of light. Its beauty is not found in how pretty the colors are, but in something transcendent — the intent of the Gothic idea of architecture, that if God is light, then a building that celebrates light celebrates God. Even as a non-believer, I can appreciate that glimpse of eternity. The north window is singular in its design, with its set of 12 diamonds turning over and over as they circle the center, giving an illusion of motion — as of angels dancing around divinity.
I love all the rose windows I’ve seen, but the north rose of Chartres is the dance of the cosmos.
And if I had only one piece of music to listen to, it would be Der Abschied, the final half-hour song that finishes Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Every time I listen to it, I dissolve into a puddle of helpless emotion, filled to the brim with the sense of eternity and the world. I have heard countless versions of Der Abschied — I own more than a dozen recordings — and I have my favorites, but even the least of them leaves me wrung dry.
Das Lied von der Erde is a set of six songs, supposedly translated from Chinese into German and published, among other poems, in 1907 in a book titled Die chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”), by Hans Bethge. Mahler set his selection of six to orchestral music so rich as to be fattening. The final song, as long as the first five together, tells of the departure of a friend. The poet confronts the beauty of nature around him as he waits for the friend so they may make their farewells. Each stanza is alternated with long orchestral interludes of refined delicacy.
The music ends — if it can be said to end at all — with lines Mahler wrote himself, perhaps sensing his own imminent death: “Die liebe Erde allüberall/ Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu!/ Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!” And then, repeated and repeated, ever more quietly and hesitantly, “Ewig … Ewig … … Ewig” — “Forever … Forever … … Forever” — until at last you can barely hear the word, and the music dies.
“The dear earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew!/ Everywhere and forever blue lightens the horizon!” and “Ewig … Ewig…”
These choices came to me almost instantly, without having to think. There are other obvious choices that could be made. Other works of art that are profoundly beautiful, other music nearly as affecting. I have stood rapt in front of the Mary Queen of Heaven at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and been knocked silent by the pears and apples of Cezanne. And nearly as gut-slamming as Der Abschied is Richard Strauss’ Im Abendrot, the final of his Four Last Songs. Or a dozen other paintings and musics.
As I lay there in the dark, unable to sleep, I rifled through my brain trying to remember a poem that moves me the same way, or any piece of literature: words that leave me drained each time. I went through all the major English poets — and there is plenty of poetry that moves me deeply — and even poems in translation. But the one poem that came back and slapped me upside the head isn’t by Yeats or Wordsworth, but by Carole Steele, my late wife. It is the first poem in her book, 42 Poems.
Carole was the genuine article. And that poem brings me to tears every time. Certainly part of my response comes from the 35 years we spent together, and the overwhelming sense of loss at her death five years ago. But I had the same response when she was alive: This is a poem that makes the connection between the inner and outer worlds; it responds to the physicality of the world in words that startle in their aptness, and combines the directness of childhood with a slant acknowledgement of death, and the awareness that others share in the knowledge of beauty. It isn’t the particular example that counts, but the shared awareness of its existence.
We may all have different ideas of beauty, and you can each make your own list, but what must be common in all of them is the engagement. Beauty does not work as some passive prettiness outside the psyche. Pretty is not Beauty. Pretty is what is conventional. Beauty is the result of engagement and the creation of meaning. It is an awareness between you and the cosmos, each of the other. It is the recognition, sometimes startling in its suddenness, of the wholeness of it all, of its permanence and its evanescence.
I have thought for more than 70 years about this. The world is many things, and it offers a share of misery, pain and loss, there is war and death, but it also affords moments of epiphany, the breakthrough of beauty, like the red glow in the black ashy cracks of a dying fire.
This can easily devolve into “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” but I mean something more difficult. Yes, I resonate to warm spring rain and the crisp, dry, cold and sunny October afternoon. These things are beautiful and they can fill up our emotions to bursting, but only if we actually pay attention. Just a plain rainy day spent polishing the silverware, or spending a fall Sunday watching football on TV don’t elicit the response. Paying attention does.
And when the beauty hits, it is not something external or “out there,” and neither is it something merely subjective or “internal,” but rather it is the identification of them together as a single entity. My awareness of the spring rain brings the rain into my psyche, and my awareness also give the rain its actuality. It makes it real. Yes, the tree falling in the forest makes a sound, but it doesn’t have meaning unless it is heard. The spring rain may fall whether or not anyone notices, but its existence has meaning only when my awareness and its existence become a single thing.
It has been said that human consciousness is the universe’s means of self-awareness, that our senses are the mirror for the cosmos. It is what Andrew Marvell meant in his poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…”
Beauty is the amour de soi of the cosmos. Our sense of beauty, in the physical world or in art, its mask and mimic, is our sense of identity with the cosmos. “I am he as you are he as you are me/ And we are all together.” This sense is lost when we act like crabs in a bucket, each out for himself and not recognizing our shared humanity, but also when we fail to recognize ourselves as the conscious portion of the universe. Beauty is the breakthrough.
What we consider pretty is merely a matter of taste, but beauty is a breaking up of our singularity and an identification, however brief, with totality.