The Frail Strength of Beauty
Louise Cowan, Ph.D.
The word beauty is coming back into style, after having been under something of a cloud all during the twentieth century. When I entered the literary profession in the 40s and 50s we wouldn’t have dared speak of such a thing-we were too sophisticated. The dominant art forms of that epoch that began about 1913 and ended in the 60s seemed to confirm T. E. Hulme’s prophecy about the direction the arts would take in his time–the age beginning just before World War I. They would avoid the dampness and stickiness of Romanticism, he predicted, and devote themselves to “hard, dry things.” This studious avoidance of beauty in the arts was one of the marks of high modernism: Pound, Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein-all put detachment and incisiveness and irony above what Keats and the other Romantics had called beautiful. But at the beginning of this new century into which we have stepped with so little fanfare, people are finding the term useful once more. There are studies of Kant’s theories of the beautiful, Hegel’s, Kierkegaard’s, books on hidden beauty, wild beauty, beauty and the beast, terrible beauty, the beauty of science, multiple volumes of poetry on aspects of beauty. But in even beginning to think of the topic analytically, so many issues present themselves that one is left with a wild surmise. One confronts such questions as:
- Is beauty really only, as Thomas Aquinas says, that which pleases? Or as Kant says, the morally edifiable? The suitable?
- Where is beauty located? Is it in the ideal realm, in God only? Or is it in nature? In things that exist all around us? Or in art?
- Do human beings construct it? Or is it a given?
- What relation does it have to actual human experience?
- Is it a purely private experience, with everyone’s idea of beauty being different from everyone else’s?
- And finally-when we lose the traditional crafts associated with the production of beauty and move into an age of technology, where designs and forms can be mass-produced, do we lose the key to authentic beauty in our society? What is the future of beauty?
These questions seem to me fairly unanswerable. And with the indiscriminateness with which the word is used in daily life (“a beautiful serve” in tennis; a beautiful steak; a beautiful equation, a beautiful machine. . . .”) the complexity increases.
Two recent films that attracted the attention of critics took as their ultimate concern the theme of beauty: Begnini’s Life is Beautiful, and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Both films attempted a fairly profound examination of beauty; but only one of them, it seems to me, was successful in its attempt. The American film pandered to our cynicism at the same time that it aroused our sentimentality: it meant to affirm both the artist’s and the lover’s visions of beauty-the one locating beauty in swirling leaves and ordinary things in the current scene, the other in a Lolita kind of young woman after whom this middle aged man thinks he lusts. The Italian film had a legitimate understanding of its material, recognizing that high comedy can protect the spirit even in a realm of diabolical evil.
But for the most part, in the century just past, beauty has been scorned by the high artists and thus relegated in popular taste to the pleasures of the senses; and an emphasis on sensory beauty has led to our living in a society that panders to our sentimentality and thus produces a great deal of kitsch. When we reduce beauty to personal preference or even to the purely aesthetic we are dangerously debasing one of the great powers of being.
The term aesthetic was coined in 1735 by Alexander Baumgarten. He took it from the Greek wordaisthetikos, meaning “concerned with perception.” By 1750, however, Baumgarten had limited the word to a concern for the beautiful: the refinement of sense perception. After Kant the word was established; aesthetics had come to mean the philosophic reflection on art and the beautiful. (The 19th century is permeated with theories of the beautiful; our greatest lyric poet Keats would have hardly written without his passionate realization of the metaphysical status of beauty as truth. Later developments, however, reduced aesthetics to a concern for heightened feeling, for sensibility, for an elegant cultivation of refinement of style and technique. The term seems inevitably connected with subjectivity and descends ultimately into relativism. What is beautiful to me may not be beautiful to you. The entire endeavor seems somehow wrongheaded. Perhaps we have gone astray in locating the science of beauty in the pleasures of the sense.
And yet we cannot give up our hunger for beauty. As Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss theologian, has written, “We can be sure that whoever sneers at [beauty’s] name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past . . . can no longer pray and soon will be able no longer to love.” Balthasar regrets the loss over the last few centuries of any attention to beauty in the work of Christian theologians. He has constructed an entire theology centered on the compelling power of beauty, focusing on the works of Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Soloviev, Hopkins, and Peguy.
So perhaps we too should look to the poets for illumination concerning this difficult concept. And they seem to tell us contradictory things: Keats declares that beauty is truth-and that it is all we know on earth and all we need to know. Wallace Stevens writes that “beauty is momentary in the mind/ the fitful tracing of a portal. But in the flesh it is immortal”-whereas Shelley quite otherwise had located it in the spiritual realm entirely: “sudden thy shadow fell on me/ I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy,” he reports solemnly of his experience of intellectual beauty. Hopkins asks the question: “to what serves mortal beauty? dangerous,” he replies; and in the Leaden Echo he wonders what can keep beauty from vanishing away, a questions that he answers in the Golden Echo, where he advises giving it back to its source, relinquishing it to God. Yeats sees a “terrible beauty” being born out of the heroism of ordinary men. Donne doesn’t use the word at all. But it is to Shakespeare, the lord of our language, that I would turn in this instance for at least some beginning guidance in thinking about this most complex of philosophical questions: I have decided to call my ruminations on this topic “The Frail Strength of Beauty” and I would have us take a look at the Shakespearean sonnet that first gave rise to my line of thought on this issue:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’ersways their power
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days
When rocks impregnable are not so stout
Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
Oh none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
The speaker in Shakespeare’s sonnet (whether the lyric “I” of Shakespeare himself or a fictional narrator we cannot say with any certainty) is writing of the fearful vulnerability of beauty in the face of so sweeping a power as time. He laments the fragility of the beautiful object: how can something so immaterial that even a frail flower can become a vessel for it hold out against a power as massive and impersonal as time? In its rage, chronos, pure linear clock time, can destroy rocks and stones and gates of steel. Natural elements and even impermeable manmade objects are subject to its decay and to the disasters that occur over time. Seemingly indestructible things can be wiped out as though by a cataclysm; so how can beauty, “whose action is no stronger than a flower,” hold a plea against so brutal a force? (Beauty’s plea would, of course, be something like “Make an exception of me as something rare and valuable,” a piteous and impotent request that Shakespeare indicates would count for nothing.) Hence, by consenting to dwell in something so weak and fragile as an odor-the perfume of summer–Beauty, with all its timeless spiritual strength, makes itself susceptible to Time. And even a single flower, almost the veritable image of vulnerability, can carry the burden of beauty’s ontological weight.
But this metaphysically heavy quality has little quantitative strength. It is dubious, the poem implies, that even an entire summer’s “honey breath,” the aura surrounding the beautiful things of nature massed together in abundance, can hold out “against the wreckful siege of battering days.” And not only is time strong, a powerful conqueror, but he is swift: a runner whom no one can hold back. How, then, given so formidable an opponent, can anyone hide from Time’s chest “time’s best jewel,” his “spoil” of beauty, the young man to whom Shakespeare addresses his sonnets? The metaphors for time are revealing: grim reaper, powerful warrior, swift runner-and now a gatherer-a collector: he selects his jewels as spoils, like the conqueror of a battle-to put inside a treasure chest. There, one must surmise, they will be kept, possessed by time, hidden away from those who come after, their beauty lost to the world. To his own questions the poet gives an answer at once doleful and hopeful: “O none, unless this miracle have might/ that in black ink my love may still shine bright.”
The spatial form of rocks and boundless sea, and even minerals and massive constructions such as gates of steel-when they submit to the frail temporal form of language-may be protected from immediate decay. But that language itself must be preserved; and Shakespeare names the medium in which he thinks such a miracle may be accomplished: black ink. For perhaps, he hopes, the beauty of things can be caught in language and printed on a page, not the things themselves-not the things in their dinglichkeit, their selfhood, not their size, or weight, or composition, but only the poet’s vision of them, only what he makes of them, kept and transmitted to the coming ages in what is essentially a non-beautiful medium. And this in itself he would term a miracle. (This is essentially what the 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke says in his Ninth Duino elegy: the poet’s task is to make the visible invisible.
“Earth, your will, is it not this: to rise up
in us invisible? Is it not your dream
one day to be invisible? Earth! Invisible!
What, if not transfiguration, is your pressing mission?”)
But, as we have pointed out, Shakespeare’s sonnet would have it that it is not the thing itself that is to be transfigured; actually, it is apparently not really even its beauty-but the love of beauty on the part of the poet and what he makes of that love-“that in black ink my love may still shine bright.” In loving beauty and transmuting that eros into a work of art-a poem printed on inert paper, making use of printer’s ink, Shakespeare is saying, he hopes to have saved it from time’s wreck. And this preservation of something beautiful in something essentially unbeautiful-in a fairly new technology in Shakespeare’s day, the mass-produced book-is nothing short of a miracle. But we have to notice carefully: as we have said, it is not the beauty of natural objects that is preserved in a poem: it is the love of that beauty made into something quite different and conveyed in a neutral technology. (This is an imitation about four times removed from the thing itself, as Plato would figure it-the young man, the poet’s love of him; the poet’s making of an image, its translation into language-and finally, its transmission into the medium of print.) But, Shakespeare hopes, the motive power, the love of beauty, will run through the whole process, so that the last stage of it need not debase. It is the divine eros, the desire, the aspiration of the human that governs the entire chain of action and makes something permanent out of something ephemeral. And thus the young man’s beauty could enter into the lifestream and not be lost.
But the finished product would not be at all a picture of the object. Rather, it would represent a response to the beauty the young man embodies, transmuted into pure desire, pure aspiration, expressed in language that in itself captures a transformed beauty and makes its own design. And that design is preserved in a highly abstract and highly transportable form for others to decode. And, we must note, preserved by a new technology. “We are the bees of the invisible,” Rilke wrote to a friend in November, 1925: ” . . . our task is to impress this preliminary; transient earth upon ourselves with so much suffering and so passionately that its nature rises up again ‘invisibly’ within us. . . . We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible, to store it up in the great golden beehive of the Invisible.”) Shakespeare tells us something similar, though slightly different: honey is a product that will itself succumb to time; black ink is a neutral carrier attracting no attention to itself and hence outlasting something for which there is another use other than carrying a message. This, I think we could say, is what distinguishes a technology: it is information-centered; it has no other value, no other utility. (Perhaps, to be fair, we should contrast the black ink with the jar that contains the honey.)
In general 20th century artists and writers have considered technology the arch-enemy, thinking that of itself it standardizes and destroys indiscriminately. It cheapens, they have thought, by appealing to the lower instincts of its consumers, who want their desires fulfilled as quickly as possible with little complication. Walter Benjamin raised the question whether the mere duplication of works of art does not destroy their sanctity; and the School of Frankfurt, with Theodor Adorno primarily as spokesman, saw the proliferation of kitsch as the inevitable result of the technologizing of art. But, we must question: is this the role technology must necessarily play in relation to the qualities of life that we would fain preserve- that poetry has always had the task of carrying forward? We have seen our predictions prove false concerning the movies and their debasement of the literary arts (for film has proved to be a serious art form in itself); we are seeing the same phenomenon working itself out in television. Now, will the internet, the world wide web, the e-books offer opportunity for enhancement or will they standardize us so completely that no love of authentic beauty is left among us? Now that Shakespeare’s sonnet may be readwithout the black ink, viewed online across the globe-read, possibly in remote places that have little access to libraries-have we gained or lost? Would the poet/lover be satisfied with the result? Or would he prefer that what he loves be forgotten and done with? Sidney reminds us of the poet’s curse: . . .that if you do not give poetry its due, “may your memory vanish from the earth for want of an epitaph.” Poetry has always had an intimate connection with the well-wrought urns of memory. Do those urns that preserve value have to be made of clay or marble? Cannot they be the ethereal energies of the internet-smaller, but no less material?.
But something more fundamental is at stake. Shakespeare would not be satisfied, presumably, with a time capsule. Why does Shakespeare’s lover want the effect of that beauty preserved? What qualities would we like to see endure out of our own culture? Shakespeare’s sonnet is deceptively simple, tackling as it does the whole question of the artist’s role in society and the issue of cultural survival. Let’s go back to the poem for a bit. If the miracle of which Shakespeare speaks does occur, what exactly has been accomplished? In a preceding sonnet, Shakespeare speaks of the young man as the “flower of an age,” one that embodies the beauties of a past time which is already being lost in the present. But was the beauty in the object? In the young man? This, it seems, is the perennial question. According to the Platonic ladder of love, the lover sees the beloved, holds his/her image in his mind, learns to separate himself more and more from the senses, and moves on finally to that heavenly vision of love that has animated the beautiful person (who apparently in the joy of the discovery is quite cast aside). But according to Duns Scotus and other thinkers, the beauty is in the thing itself. As von Balthasar has said: “The beautiful is above all a form, and the light does not fall on this form from above and from outside, rather it breaks forth from the form’s interior . . . The content (Gehalt) does not lie outside the form (Gestalt) but within it .
. . . In the luminous form of the beautiful the being of the existent becomes perceivable as nowhere else, and this is why an . . . element [of beauty] must be associated with all spiritual perception as with all spiritual striving.” As Gerard Manley Hopkins has written in “God’s Grandeur”: “The world is charged with the glory of God/ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil . . . It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed . . . “
If we follow this incarnational line of thought, the beauty for which Shakespeare is apprehensive is in the young man himself, not simply in what he reminds us of in a supraterrestrial realm. Shakespeare seems to think that he embodies an inherited cultural beauty, whether innate in human nature and in creation at large or created over long periods of time-at any rate, a cultural beauty in danger of being lost. Look at sonnet 68, where he compares the young man’s genuine beauty with that of imitators in his time who borrow from the past without discerning its spirit:
Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow:
and . . . . . . . . .
In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, it self and true,
Making no summer of another’s green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new,
And him as for a map doth Nature store,
To show false Art what beauty was of yore.
The poet emphasizes that the young man is the “map”-the very pattern of what those living in happier, more virtuous times sought to embody in their art. He is the “map of days outworn,” possessing a wholeness lacking to the present age. He has been raised up as an embodiment of the old verities that are now lost. It is important for his moral and spiritual beauty to be preserved as a map to guide the human race. But his is a beauty that the young man does not possess outright; it has been given to him from past ages; hence his great task is the preservation of that beauty in a world subject to Time and decay. His duty is to “keep the gift moving,” not to hoard it. The theme of the sonnet cycle, as one astute critic has put it, is “the economy of the closed heart,” which Shakespeare warns against in many of his comedies as well as in these sonnets. The kind of beauty that the young man possesses, then, does not belong to himself alone-and it is for this reason that Shakespeare’s speaker is troubled about the destruction wrought by time. He first would have his young man marry and “breed” his kind, as he indicates in another sonnet:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night,
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o’er with white:
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard:
Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow,
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.
Here the only antidote to time is the biological reproduction of oneself: breed. But during the progress of the sonnets, the speaker comes to the realization that art is the truer path. The kind of beauty embodied in the young man is apparently a great power that has chosen him as vessel. Dante saw it in Beatrice; Homer in Helen. It is not likely to be biologically reproduced.
Critics have belabored the problems of Shakespeare’s sonnet cycle so much that one author speaks of the record of three hundred years of scholars’ “folly, futility, and fanaticism” in trying to explain the cycle. And another: “The time wasted in dealing with problems connected with Shakespeare’s sonnets has become a weary scandal.” Even more: Stephen Booth: “Shakespeare’s sonnets are hard to think about; they are hard to think about individually and hard to think about collectively.”
The facts are few: the sonnets were published in 1609 by a printer Thomas Thorpe, who probably arranged them in the order that we have them. Francis Meres mentions something about Shakespeare’s sugared sonnets being circulated among his private friends in 1599. When were they composed? Probably during the 1590s at the height of the sonnet craze, when Daniel, Sidney, Spenser and Drayton wrote their sonnet cycles. In their printed version, they were prefaced by a title sheet reading “To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Mr. W. H. all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever living poet wisheth the well wishing adventurer in setting forth. T. T.” Who is Mr. W. H.? The general opinion is that he is Wm Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke (though Henry Wriothesly the Earl of Southampton is a favored candidate, as are Wm Hughes, Wm Farmer, Wm Hathaway, Wm Harvey, Wm Hall, and many others, including Wm Himself).
There are 154 sonnets, the first 126 of which are in praise of a young man, the next 26 to or about a “dark lady,” the last two apparent renditions of a Greek poem of the 5th century AD. Within the sonnets, one can trace a kind of plot, though it is not at all consistent. The large pattern of action is the following: a poet celebrates the beauty and virtue of a younger man, calls him “the world’s fresh ornament,” urges him, since the present age is barren and Time will destroy him, to reproduce himself (to write?)-not to engage in mere self-love. But the young man wastes himself in an affair with a “dark lady” of whom apparently then the poet himself becomes enamored for a time (like Dante). But she, it appears, represents the kind of lust that wastes a man’s substance; and the repentant poet seems at the end of the cycle to recognize the higher good of a spiritual eros. (It’s a familiar plot, adopted by many poets before him.) It would seem fairly ridiculous not to recognize the conventionality of the plot- not to see that it is a pattern on which Shakespeare hangs his extraordinary sonnets, exploring the reaches of love and beauty.
But if the scholarly debates over Shakespeare’s sonnets are dismaying, the sonnets themselves have been quite otherwise. They have spoken to the hearts of generations of readers who find these fourteen line poems expressive of their feelings in language that has about it a peculiarly comforting and inspiring beauty. The strong beat of the iambic pentameter impels the lines along, with the real metric emphasis many times playing above the even beat: “Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws.” And the language: primarily Anglo Saxon in origin, monosyllabic: “When I do count the clock that tells the time”; and yet the rich complexity of the Latinic heritage: “Nor marble nor the gilded monuments of time . . . .” “What is your substance, whereof are you made.” “Ah wherefore with infection should he live . . . “
Shakespeare has provided our language all during the past three centuries, drawing it from ordinary usage and distilling it by means of craft and thought so that it is recognizably our language. So why are these sonnets then “hard to think about”? Perhaps because of the tendency of scholars to try to solve them, like a puzzle-to find in them some secret references to the poet’s own life, or to historical events in his time. But the sonnets give every evidence of having larger concerns. What Shakespeare seems to be expressing in them is the love of the artist for the beauty that is the soul of the world.
Plato writes of a primordial beauty (in the Phaedrus): “beauty was once ours to see in all its brightness . . . beauty shone bright in the world above, and here too it still gleams clearest” –whereas “the earthly likenesses of justice and self-discipline and all the other forms . . .keep no lustre, and . . .few by the use of their feeble faculties and with great difficulty can recognize. . . the family likeness of the originals.” Beauty shone bright in the world above, he tells us, and still shines in this world more brightly than do other values. And, Shakespeare seems to be implying, finds its embodiment in a young person who seems careless of his own great import.
An important point to note in this passage is Plato’s phrase “the world above”; for, as he implies, the source of beauty is in another realm, which he would call the Plane of Truth. Wherever we locate it, it is not to be seen by the physical eye–whether in Plato’s realm, or in the mind of God, in the transcendental imagination, the depths of the human psyche–or the inner, invisible being of things themselves. The essential meaning of Plato’s declaration is that beauty in our everyday life takes its meaning from something invisible that must be perceived by the human spirit. Sense impressions are transient; only when objects and events are taken into the imagination and there seen again by the interior senses do they take on their real identity.
Might we consider saying that Beauty (never spoken of as such in the Old Testament) could be the great originary form of Wisdom (Sophia)-referred to in Proverbs and the book of Wisdom as the pattern by which the cosmos was created. “When he established the heavens I was there. . ./ when he set for the sea its limit. . ./ Then was I beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day,/ Playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth, and I found delight in the sons of men.” As the intricate design of all things, this Wisdom/Beauty permeates the universe with a complex and unpredictable harmony. But this primordial beauty does not manifest herself lightly; she is veiled to our sight, and hence is not to be encountered in surfaces, which reveal only hints and fragments of her glory. She is represented variously in literature as figures of Sophia: Dante’s Beatrice, Shakespeare’s Cordelia, Dostoevsky’s Sonya-and, I am suggesting, in Shakespeare’s young man of the sonnets.
This metaphysical beauty then is not to be found in the transient gratification of the senses; the surfaces of so-called beautiful things do not satisfy our spiritual hunger. We have to find their inner reality. St. Augustine tells us in his Confessions that after he had vainly sought God in material objects, flowers and other pleasurable objects, he found the source of beauty: “Late have I loved you,” he writes, “beauty so old and so new: Late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things that you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you: I tasted you and I feel that hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”
Could we not maintain, then, that our experience of beauty is the intuition of an invisible realm, a spiritual order that lies behind our experience of the natural world? And can we go on further to say that that spiritual order may be discerned both within things–as their deep immanent core-and as shining on them from a transcendent source?
But whatever we consider the source of beauty to be, we have to see that Shakespeare at least is using the figure of his young man to tell us that what is preserved in art is not the direct image of the object, but the form made of the love of its beauty. In his sonnet, he makes clear that “my love” will shine bright; my love will create the permanent thing. Beauty awakens an eros in the poet; that eros gives rise to the desire for permanence, to “save” beauty; and the poem that celebrates that beauty (in black ink) will secure then the permanence of an immaterial, vulnerable, spiritual quality that can rest itself temporarily in a flower, in a fragrance of many flowers, in a person-who would otherwise become Time’s most desirable trophy, time’s best jewel–to be placed, ordinarily, without poetry, into time’s chest of collections. That process has been supplanted, one might say, by a technology-movable type-which will create a new world from the one in which Shakespeare stands. The four centuries following his work will be dominated by the very technology of which he writes in his poem-black ink. Modernity will emphasize print: it will turn Christianity primarily into a sacred Book, will sever the unity of Christendom, will recast education primarily as literacy, will map the rise of science as a dominating intellectual power, de-emphasize all the feminine aspects of the mind, cross oceans, discover and subjugate other peoples, expand a universe., turn a rich, colorful, sensuous world into, as Alfred North Whitehead has said, “a whirling collocation of atoms.” We have made enormous technical progress, largely through a technology that marks the age of printing. Yet the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing still stands. And his young man lives. In fact, we might say, the artdepended on the black ink. The complicated interaction of the art process, in its full scope, includes the technology of dissemination. The beauty of the young man-the beauty that a culture needs for survival-cannot be limited to the few. It comes into the world, as the speaker in Shakespeare’s sonnet intuited, for the salvation of the world. For the artist and for the culture, the vision is not enough. There must be the black ink
Art then is a kind of miracle, as Shakespeare has indicated in his sonnet, made out of recalcitrant material (black ink or cold marble or pigment in oil) shaped by desire and perhaps even pain, in combination with the truth of the heart. The artist is the medium through which all this takes place: he is a catalyst; the shred of platinum (as T. S. Eliot once said). And in the finished product, nothing of him remains. He saw and he loved; and he allowed his love to become a medium for transmuting and preserving that beauty that, we would have to speculate, is either the original unfallen condition of the human, made in the image of God; or the final outcome, the intention of the divine concerning the human race, at the end of time, when all will be spatial form, like Keats’s and Rilke’s urn and like the black ink, containing all time and all human passion.
But all this agonizing, all this insight is not performed only for an elite. The whole of the human race is pulled forward by these slender sonnets. At the end of time those works that have given the human image form-in whatever medium-will stand as the truth about the heart and about the love of beauty that has both perceived the form in life and re-created it in a recalcitrant medium. On the part of humanity at large, this beauty has been sufficiently recognized to be preserved. And the artistic media, the technologies, are an essential part of this redemptive process. But in an age like ours (and Shakespeare’s was such an age) when all the forms of life are changing, when new media put all in doubt, and new scientific advances tempt us to that hubris of believing ourselves omnipotent, it is perhaps a matter of cultural life or death to remember and cherish the beauty already achieved by past ages. And we cherish it only by giving it new form. In Shakespeare’s day, this greatest of artists trusted as his vehicle the new medium of print; other poets, some more famous than he in their time, did not. But it is important to remember that the black ink itself could not supply the beautiful; it was given content by a loved ideal, which the artist saw fast disappearing before him.
We might call this formed and vulnerable beauty the tradition- Shakespeare speaks of it as “those holy antique hours”-and worked hard in his sonnets and later in his plays to give it a form that would preserve it. For us, then, rather than surrendering that past beauty to time and trusting to our technologies to supply all our needs, it is imperative to make sure that somewhere in our society there exists-like the young man of Shakespeare’s sonnets-that body of achieved beauty that must be preserved and shared. This is the unspoken goal of all the arts-and of that process that we call education. And education-our large-scale transmitting process–thus far has housed itself in printed books-in libraries and classrooms. It will find other ways and means. But wherever it locates itself and whatever it uses as its medium, universal education represents the great invention of modernity, something not attempted in the past. If it does its work and seeks to carry forward that figure that Shakespeare found so urgent to preserve, it will be performing over and over again the miracle that he celebrates in Sonnet 65: recreating the beauty of the human image by expressing the love of it in a highly transportable neutral medium-a web of electronic symbols that, like black ink, still shines bright.
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