When we think of “beauty” in connection with modern literature the two names that spring to mind are those of Yeats and Rilke. As the poet Sidney Keyes (1921-1943) remarked, these great figures, straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, retrieved arcane lore from a sort of ultima Thule of Romanticism . But they did so in order to present it anew to the world under the problematic conditions of modernity. They saw themselves as the inheritors of European aesthetic and religious tradition, but they knew that that tradition, in its orthodox forms, had died. Both were steeped in Nietzsche, with whom Rilke had a personal connection through Lou Andreas-Salome, and all that Nietzsche writes about beauty and religion has immediate pertinence to the understanding of their work.
Both left an oeuvre that follows a trajectory from a lush late Romanticism, nourished by local roots – Prague, Sligo – through an increasing problematization of that initial position, toward a plateau in which the heritage of Romanticism emerges with new authority and grandeur at the very heart of twentieth-century thought and experience: the “Duino Elegies” and their inspired pendant the “Sonnets to Orpheus” (1923) in Rilke’s case, and in Yeats’s “The Tower” (1928) and “The Winding Stair” (1933). In contrast to this quest to retrieve the European heritage of beauty, modernist and postmodernist literature sidelines or decenters the value of beauty, which has become as suspect as melody has become in music, representation in painting, or plot in fiction. Here the name that springs to mind is James Joyce, who along with Pound and Eliot gave literary standing to the cacophony of the modern city and of demotic and polyglot speech.
Because of the modernist incision in the fabric of English literature, the great break of 1922, Yeats, writing in 1931, seems to be speaking from a distant past, a remote planet:
We were the last romantics – chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever's written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
(“Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”)
He would not count Eliot and Pound, much as he respected them, among “the last romantics” (as I saw claimed in an American course description), but would see them, presumably, as typical of a time of decline, poets unable to ride Pegasus, leaving “that high horse riderless”. “The book of the people” has nothing to do with the demotic speech of Joyce’s Dublin or Eliot’s London, but contains only relics of “traditional sanctity and loveliness”.
The same is true of Rilke’s reception of Russian folk wisdom. Rilke, during his sojourn in Paris, registered the new conditions of urban existence in terms of human alienation; but there is nothing demotic about his vision or his language. His Paris is a curiously silent one, like the streets about the Hotel Biron (now the Musée Rodin) where he lived. His is a Paris of images, observed with the compassionate gaze of the Baudelairian flâneur, having none of the raucous noises of Eliot’s London or Joyce’s Dublin. Reading The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge alongside Ulysses (in contrast to the quieter Dubliners) one would think that Paris was the sleepy provincial capital and Dublin the bustling cosmopolis. The beauty Joyce gleaned on the streets of Dublin, whose architectural heritage he ignored, lay more in the realm of words and music than in that of visual images. Later, half-blind, he retired into the soundworld of Finnegans Wake. Rilke, like Joyce and Eliot but unlike Yeats, had a gift for languages, but he does not mix them in a polyglot brew; purity prevails.
Both Yeats and Rilke knew that they had no successors, that they were the end of the line. If Rimbaud, with his iconoclastic assault on traditional loveliness, was the founder of a new line, flourishing among avant-garde modernist, surrealist or futurist writers, this held little fascination for either Rilke or Yeats, who never abandoned the most traditional modes of poetic address and the resources of stanza, metre and rhyme. One suspects that Yeats’s close collaboration with Ezra Pound rested on very selective communication, in which Pound surrendered to Yeats’s sway, which he would later resist, while what Yeats learned from the younger man was chiefly technical: how to renew and sharpen his own style and how to appropriate tradition, notably occult and Japanese tradition, in such wise as to “make it new” (see James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism, OUP, 1988). Much of Pound may have seemed to him “mere anarchy”. Imagism and Vorticism, which owed something to Yeats’s influence, may have contributed something in return to the later Yeats’s mastery of arresting image and impetuous rhythm .
Beauty spells trouble. Maud Gonne’s face is linked with Helen’s, that “burnt the topless towers of Ilium” (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus V i).
A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;
Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry. (“The Sorrow of Love”)
The cool moon is a polyvalent Shelleyan symbol regnant in Yeats’s imaginative world. It can signal the presence of beauty as a maddening ideal. All the pain that beauty causes is traced back by Yeats to something absolute that “troubles the living stream”.
Beauty troubles the existence of “a man young and old” and “a woman young and old”. The daughter dismisses the father’s anger at her choice of lover with the reply:
his hair is beautiful,
Cold as the March wind his eyes (“Father and Child”)
Her attention to making herself beautiful has a transcendent reach:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made. (“Before the World was Made”)
She represents the tormenting absolute to the man, being
nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty’s murderous brood. (“First Love”)
Rilke shares this sense of beauty as fascinans et tremendum:
Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht
Uns zu zerstören. (Rilke, Duino Elegies 1)
(For beauty is naught but the commencement of the dreadful, that we are yet just able to bear, and we admire it so much because serenely it disdains to destroy us.)
Beauty demonstrates its power by calling up about it the dark realities of death, decay, impermanence, tragedy. Otherwise it is mere prettiness. Beauty is a tear in the fabric of conventional reality, a trauma.
This is a Platonic theme that echoes down the ages, from the Phaedrus:
"When he sees a godlike face or form of some body which is a good image of beauty, he shudders (ephrixen) at first… And as he looks upon him, a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unwonted heat… The whole soul throbs and palpitates... it is feverish and uncomfortable... Then when it gazes upon the beauty of the boy... it is moistened and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy... It is filled with longing and hastens wherever it hopes to see the beautiful one." (Phaedrus 251, trans. H. N. Fowler)
Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form – where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
(“Hymn to Intelligible Beauty”)
and Thomas Mann, who inserts a summary of the Phaedrus into Death in Venice (1912), following it with what could serve as a Platonic elucidation of Rilke’s lines (penned at Duino in January 1912):
"Beauty is the only form of the spiritual that we receive with the senses, bear with the senses (sinnlich ertragen). Or what would become of us, if the divine were to appear otherwise, if reason and virtue and truth wished to appear sensibly? Would we not perish and be burnt up for love, as Semele was by Zeus?"
down to Benedict XVI:
"Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer. In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent."
The link of beauty, Eros and death, cultivated in the hothouse of Western Romanticism from the Troubadours to Wagner and flamboyantly discussed in Denis de Rougement, lives on even today in a film like Achim von Borries’ “Was nützt die Liebe in Gedanken?” (based on the Steglitz Student Tragedy of 1927) or in the Irish-American novelist Mary Gordon’s story, “The Rest of Life” (Penguin, 1993; based on a similar Italian incident of the late 1920’s). A Japanese equivalent might be found in the cult of the love-suicide from Chikamatsu in the seventeenth century to Dazai Osamu in the twentieth and in the cult of the warrior dying in the flower of youth, like the cherry-blossom, beautiful because impermanent. Beyond the Platonic tradition, the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes of the 1890’s, one finds Yeats reaching out to the Japanese cult of beauty , and one wonders how much he knew about this dimension of it.
(Yeats to Oshima, 19 August 1927: “Every year I find more beauty and wisdom in the art and literature of your country. I am at present reading with excitement [S]uzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism. I have also read Toyohiko Kagawa’s Novel… translated into English under the title ‘Before the Dawn’, and find it about the most moving account of a modern saint that I have met... and of course I have been reading Arthur Waley’s translation of ‘The Tale of Genji’, but that is one of the great classics of the world, and I have too much to say about it to say anything” [http://themargins.net/bib/B/BL/bl052.html]. See Oshima, Shôtarô, W. B. Yeats and Japan, Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1965).
Yeats was the last Platonist, who could use the vacuous word “beauty” without its being vacuous at all, not only because he revived the Platonist resonances of the word, but because he conceived beauty as the product of a labour of civilization, in the spirit of Castiglione:
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry…
A dreamy, sentimental beginning, one might think; but no, for “poetry” is hard labour:
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been nought."
"Beauty is so difficult”, Beardsley had confessed to Yeats. “The fascination of what’s difficult” was not only the trouble of play-writing referred to in the poem of that title, but above all the tormenting ideal of beauty.
Even the beauty of “that beautiful mild woman” is not something sweetly bestowed by nature:
"To be born woman is to know –
Although they do not talk of it at school –
That we must labour to be beautiful...”
Love itself falls under “Adam’s Curse” (the title of the poem), for it can be sustained only by vigilant effort, following “precedents out of beautiful old books”. When the poet thinks of the beloved’s beauty at this point in the poem, it brings to mind the striving that this beauty commands:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love.
This striving is the condition of achieving beauty under the conditions of the fleshly, samsaric world, particularly arduous in a period of decline. And the end of all the striving is, more often than not, a sense of vanity:
and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
There are plenty of modernist dissonances in Yeats’s verse, but they do not arise from a generous embrace of the sordid dimensions of modern life. Rather they represent the tensions inherent in his ideal of beauty. The fragility of beauty, threatened by physical decrepitude and the assault of a degraded modern culture, sometimes prompts escape to a world of pure spirit, or dreams of the realized ideal that integrates body and soul:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair.
(“Among School Children”)
But the nearest approximation to the latter utopia possible under real life conditions is renewed dedication to the labour of art.
The creation of beauty, as the tide of modernity rises, becomes an arcane impersonal act. All the faith of the Romantics and the aesthetes of the nineties flows into Yeats’s fierce final aristocratic vision of the artist’s role as unacknowledged legislator. The Irish, cast as Pythagoreans, are given a special role in the reclaiming of ancient beauty:
We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless, spawning, fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace
The lineaments of a plummet-measured face. (“The Statues”)
Today Ireland is one of the rare places where the thought of Pythagoras as relayed in Platonism is a live issue. Yeats’s friend Stephen McKenna wrote a beautiful translation of Plotinus, re-edited by our foremost scholar of Platonism, John Dillon. Scotus Eriugena’s head had a place on our banknotes and his work is a heritage we reclaim. If we are “the indomitable Irishry” it is not in virtue of patriotic noise, but because of this sense of the ultimate values of beauty:
Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought. (“Under Ben Bulben”)
The lineage continues in the Renaissance with Michelangelo and Castiglione. Yeats would make Ireland the site of a new Renaissance, and what else was the Irish Literary Revival? Its achievement was not a fustian old beauty of historical pageants, but a new creation:
“This is not” I say
“The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.”
(“The Municipal Gallery Re-visited”
The beauty built with great labour is destined to ruin. “No work can stand” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, I). To recognize this, “nor sink unmanned”, is to recover the “ghostly solitude” of Soul, beyond the changing beauty that sustains Self. A woman, too, when the beauty sustained with her labour at last falls to ruin, may turn from Self to Soul:
On Florence Emery I call the next,
Who finding the first wrinkles on her face
Admired and beautiful,
And by foreknowledge of the future vexed;
Diminished beauty, multiplied commonplace;
Preferred to teach a school
Away from neighbour or friend,
Among dark skins, and there
Permit foul years to wear
Hidden from eyesight to an unnoticed end. (“All Souls’ Night”)
One catches an echo of Shelley here “Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceased to burn/With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn” (Adonais, 40). Soul may be a place of ultimate refuge for the artist, too, after his long struggle with the delusions of beauty: “At stroke of midnight God shall win” (“The Four Ages of Man”). The potent voice of Soul in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” may be shouted down by Self in that psychomachia, but it no doubt remains a constant pole in Yeats’s universe.
Perhaps Soul is Maud Gonne’s last refuge too. Her beauty, he boasted in 1902, can never become commonplace:
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.
(“The Folly of being Comforted”)
But the beauty that remains is perhaps purely spiritual, “the soul’s unchanging look” (“My Table”). His account of her face in 1926 seems a feat of courtly diplomacy:
Her present image floats into the mind –
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
(“Among School Children”)
Beauty, the product of centuries of civilized living, is doomed to revert to the violence whence it was originally born. Both Rilke and Yeats have a streak of naturalism in their aesthetics. For Rilke beauty is the ripening of a fruit, a product of long evolution, and his nurturing of his own poetic talent, providing it with the ideal environments, has the methodical quality of a scientific procedure. For Yeats beauty emerges amid the violence of history and is constantly threatened by it. Doing a Nietzschean genealogy on “the inherited glory of the rich”, he discerns that:
Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent me, might rear in stone
The sweetness that all longed for…
If the products of art won with great pains from the violence of history are consigned to decay, the tormenting ideal of beauty (sweetness) that prompted their creation can itself lose its spendour, becoming jaded:
Things thought too long can be no longer thought
For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth,
And ancient lineaments are blotted out. (“The Gyres”)
Beauty is a dream – “Mere dreams, mere dreams!” (“Ancestral Houses”) – at least when it stretches beyond “what vanishes” to a Byzantine eternity and perfection. Its realization is “chained to Time, and cannot thence depart” (Shelley, Adonais, 26).
Yeats excels Rilke in his capacity to integrate the horrors of contemporary history into his vision. For Rilke World War I merely confirmed the process of cultural decline he had longed positioned himself against. Transformations in Rilke’s style came entirely from with, whereas Yeats’s self-transformations respond to a changing nation and world. For Rilke the redemptive work of the poet consists in the naming and interiorization of common things:
Sind wir veilleicht hier, um zu sagen: Haus,
Brücke, Brunnen, Tor, Krug, Obstbaum, Fenster, -
Höchstens: Säule, Turm. (Duino Elegies IX)
(Are we perhaps here in order to say: house, bridge, well, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window – at most: column, tower.)
Yeats does not seek to protect threatened beauty in an interior castle, but speaks his utterance out into history and the life of his nation:
In mockery I have set
A powerful emblem up,
And sing it rhyme upon rhyme
In mockery of a time
Half dead at the top. (“Blood and the Moon”)
He connected beauty with violent origins and ends, and could find beauty where Rilke would never dream of seeking it, in the foul ditch of history.
One might say that Joyce, too, labours to create beauty in full recognition of modern conditions. But Joyce celebrates these conditions, renouncing the Romantic perception of decline that makes Rilke an elegist and Yeats an apocalypticist. The Platonic nostalgia for the intelligible world, the kosmos noetos where all the forms interpenetrate in harmony – the origin of Yeats’s Byzantium and Rilke’s Weltinnenraum – plays no part in Joyce’s imagination. He is an Aristotelian, not a Platonist.
Joyce marks his distance from Yeats early on. Stephen Dedalus’s diary no doubt reflects the young Joyce’s reaction to “The Wind Among the Reeds”, published in 1899: “Michael Robartes remembers forgotten beauty and, when his arms wrap her round, he presses in his arms the loveliness which has long faded from the world. Not this. Not at all. I desire to press in my arms the loveliness which has not yet come into the world” . Yeats was later to reinvent the notion of beauty, so that the archaic Celtic or Hellenic ideals of beauty he projected increasingly took on the allure of modern inventions. His riff on Platonism is riddled with modernist dislocations as is his cult of courtly Japan. The “high lonely mysteries” of the poem Stephen Dedalus is referring to haunt Yeats to the end, but their location constantly alters.
In Ulysses, even Stephen’s post-Yeatsian ideal of beauty is implicitly mocked. Brooding on his squalid family homes, Stephen says to himself : “Come out of them, Stephen. Beauty is not there” (3.107), indicating a fixation on an ideal of beauty of the kind that is dislodged in the aesthetic of the novel – an aesthetic that may be changing in the course of its composition. Stephen is criticized by the elder literati as one seeking beauty in the sordid: “You remind me of Antisthenes, the professor said, a disciple of Gorgias, the sophist... he wrote a book in which he took away the palm of beauty from Argive Helen and handed it to poor Penelope” (7.1035-9). Stephen recycles Professor McHugh’s words in the library scene: “Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios’ Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in which a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope” (9.621-3). Yeats’s Maud/Cathleen/Helen would be upstaged by Joyce’s Nora/Molly/Penelope. Joyce puts in a silent claim to Homer’s riderless horse as Malachi Mulligan mimics Yeats: “The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer” (9.1164-5). Yet despite the mockery of fin de siècle aestheticism, Stephen has an affinity with it, clutching at “the palm of beauty” in face of materialist dismissal:
The sense of beauty leads us astray, said beautifulinsadness Best to ugling Eglinton.
Steadfast John replied severe:
– The doctor can tell us what those words mean. You cannot eat your cake and have it.
Sayest thou so? Will they wrest from us, from me, the palm of beauty? (9.735-40)
Bloom’s canons of beauty are more earthy: “Beauty: it curves: curves are beauty. Shapely goddesses” (8.920). But this is wrapped in tawdry romantic literary convention, as the following echoes indicate: “Your classic curves, beautiful immortal, I was glad to look on you, to praise you, a thing of beauty, almost to pray” (15.3267-8); “his mad crazy letters my Precious one everything connected with your glorious Body everything underlined that comes from it is a thing of beauty and of joy forever something he got out of some nonsensical book” (18.1176-8). A second continual presence of beauty in Bloom’s mind is that of music: “Beauty of music you must hear twice” (11.1060-1). “– A beautiful language, I mean for singing purposes. Why do you not write your poetry in that language? Bella Poetria! It is so melodious and full. Belladonna. Voglio” (16.345-7). Bloom, the man in the street, sets a baseline for Joyce’s aesthetic, in his spontaneity of perception. Its lofty architectonic, with its slow emergences of form from within the dense palimpsest of the writing, far transcends anything Bloom could imagine, yet Bloom provides its anchorage in the real, in epiphanies of the everyday . Molly has a still warmer approach to the beautiful that makes Bloom’s seems bookish: “that lovely little statue he bought I could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres true beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over” (18.1349-52).
Beauty, for Joyce’s characters, is enframed in popular songs (“those lovely seaside girls”), advertisements and entertainment (“professional beauty”, 17.1780). Joyce, novelist of the modern city, has a more benign view of smudged and shopworn street beauty than Yeats or Rilke. Needless to say, his writing permanently lampoons the meretricious, but in doing so uses it to comic and even pathetic effect, as in the bovarysme of Little Chandler (“A Little Cloud”) or Gerty MacDowell: “ofttimes the beauty of poetry, so sad in its transient loveliness, had misted her eyes with silent tears” (13.647-9). The aesthetics of sentimental nationalism are exhaustively ridiculed in the interpolations in “Cyclops”, but with a buoyant good humour not to be found in similar exercises of Flaubert.
Where has beauty been since then? It has had an oddly brittle, self-conscious career in the novels of Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima and Jean Genet. Genet’s lyricism that transforms the world of prisons into an epic of beauty is a redemptive achievement – helped, in "Miracle de la rose," by the fact that the prison is the Abbey of Fontevrault, used for that purpose from 1804 to 1963. (He never set foot in it in reality.) This transformation of sordid circumstances by the perception of beauty combines something like Yeats’s heroic dramatization with something like Joyce’s revalorization of the everyday. Like Yukio Mishima, Genet tunes into fin-de-siècle aestheticism to beautify death: “The love I have for beauty has so much desired for my life the coronation of a violent death, bloody preferably” (Gallimard, 1977, p. 10) . There is a touch of mocking perversity in the way these authors associate beauty and crime, both badges of metaphysical revolt against a drab world. But has their Byzantium become a hollow bauble, a nihilistic pose?
In a poem of B. H. Fairchild a Kansas tourist, starved for beauty, remembers a broadcast discussion between Robert Penn Warren and Paul Weill:
We are at the Bargello in Florence, and she says,
what are you thinking? and I say, beauty, thinking
of how very far we are now from the machine shop
and the dry fields of Kansas...
Here were two grown men discussing “beauty”
seriously and with dignity as if they and the topic
were as normal as normal topics of discussion
between men such as soybean prices or why
the commodities market was a sucker's game... (http://www.poetryflash.org/archive.286.Sward.html)
Beauty can perhaps be revolutionary if proudly confessed in some drab province, or it can fester into meretricious kitsch as in the film "American Beauty."
Mary Gordon catches gleams of beauty in unexpected contexts, where it cohabits with crime and disease. The narrator of “Immaculate Man” is propositioned by a weirdo on a bus, but comes to have sympathy with him when the other passengers gang up on him:
"The boy was sobbing as he walked down the aisle and out of the bus. I saw how handsome he was. He had a high color – from emotion, perhaps, or sun. Maybe he was part Indian. His thighs were strong and he had James Dean hair that fell into his eyes. I wondered what it would have been like to go to bed with him after all. Sometimes women like me do go to bed with men like that. Someone I used to work with married one of her clients who was a prisoner. Of course it turned out badly. But so many things do." (The Rest of Life, p. 9)
Poignant beauty appears in the rest of the story in the form of Fr Clement, loved as a thirteen-year old altar boy by another priest (in Platonic restraint) and as a forty-three year old virgin by the narrator. Topics conventionally linked with shame here glow by the presence of beauty.
Beauty survives in our world sporadically, incidentally, most often commodified, or treated as a threat to political correctness about gender relations or ecological wholeness. It is stored up in the past, behind us, in the great painters, the “lighthouses”, as Baudelaire called them, or in writers and musicians such as Brahms and Proust whose popularity is in direct proportion to their remoteness from any conceivable postmodern aesthetic, or in the comforting charms of opera, ballet and impressionist painting. Rilke and Yeats have joined the ranks of the Old Masters whose significance is deepened and sealed, made inviolable to criticism or decay, by our awareness that their vision of beauty is impossible to retrieve. No one can wrest from them the palm of beauty. But life goes on, elsewhere, in a different labour of beauty, something more in the spirit of Joyce.
Joseph S. O'Leary (Journal of Irish Studies 21, 2006)