Beauty Beauteous and Age Aging


The idea of exactly what beauty is or what nature it has is a topic beloved by philosopher and poet alike. Is beauty an entity unto itself, or is it a part of a greater whole? This is the topic of an essay I recently wrote based on a two poems by Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats. Read more after the jump!

 

Sonnet 54 by William Shakespeare

O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye                           5
As the perfumèd tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their maskèd buds discloses;
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwooed and unrespected fade,                             10
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, by verse distills your truth.

 

 

The Folly of Being Comforted

By William Butler Yeats

 

One that is ever kind said yesterday:

‘Your well-beloved’s hair has threads of grey,

And little shadows come about her eyes;

Time can but make it easier to be wise

 

Though now it seems impossible, and so                              5

All that you need is patience.’ Heart cries, ‘No,

I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.

Time can but make her beauty over again:

 

Because of that great nobleness of hers,

The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,                          10

Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways

When all the wild Summer was in her gaze.’

 

Heart! O heart! If she’d but turn her head,

You’d know the folly of being comforted.

 

 

John Everett

Professor Erwin

ENG 298

September 22, 2014

Beauty Beauteous and Age Aging

            The idea of exactly what beauty is or what nature it has is a topic beloved by philosopher and poet alike. Is beauty an entity unto itself, or is it a part of a greater whole? Two such poets to write about the nature of beauty thus are William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats. Shakespeare claims that beauty is made meaningful and complete by the complement of another characteristic. Yeats says that true beauty indeed is also created, not just fulfilled, by virtue. In either case superficial beauty is subordinate or inferior to virtue.

In Sonnet 54 Shakespeare employs a simple metaphor for fulfilled beauty as truth, to state that although beauty is pleasant by itself, some other characteristic belonging to that which we call beautiful imparts to that thing a far deeper and meaningful beauty. The first stanza of this sonnet concerns a rose and its beauty:

O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.

It is essential to note that in the first line Shakespeare says that beauty seems more beauteous. Rather than beauty being more “wondrous” or “lovely,” to provide examples, Shakespeare instead says it seems more “beauteous.” “Beauteous” means being full of beauty; which makes it the essential quality of beauty. Beauty is given more beauty (i.e. made more so), he says, by another virtue, truth. In this case the “truth” is the pleasing scent given by a rose, for which reason we are eager to say that a rose is beautiful. As a brief aside, note that in another of Shakespeare’s works, Romeo & Juliet, the titular heroine remarks that “That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet” (Act II, scene ii, lns. 43-44). The smell of a rose is perhaps its most important truth, and if ‘twere to lack such a truth, its beauty would be meaningless.

Shakespeare sharply contrasts the rose’s beauty with that of the canker blooms, which “have full as deep a dye/ As the perfumèd tincture of the roses” (lns. 5-6), but “for their virtue only is their show,/ They live unwooed and unrespected fade…” (lns. 9-10). Because the canker blooms do not possess the truth that the roses do, their beauty does not seem very beauteous—in other words, their beauty is lacking. Since their only virtue is their show, canker blooms serve no meaningful purpose for mankind. When roses die, “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made” (line 12). In literature there is a pervading idea of dulce et utile, meaning “sweetness and utility.” In order for literature to have meaning, it must serve the purposes of both entertaining its audience (dulce) and providing moral truth for living a good life (utile). Because a rose pleases the eye (dulce) and serves as a source of perfumes (utile) its beauty is complete; thus we call it beautiful.

Yeats holds a similar view to Shakespeare in that beauty is made the more beautiful by virtue, but he differs in that he insists virtue brings about or intensifies beauty—virtue not only makes beauty full, but creates it from the outset. He shows this intensity with the metaphor of burning passion as a fire. In his sonnet, “The Folly of Being Comforted,” Yeats writes of an “ever kind” friend, symbolizing the author’s own intellect, extending unsolicited condolences at his wife’s aging. In the first stanza the kind one points out the woman’s graying hair and darkening eyes, but offers the comfort that as time goes on, the lover will learn to accept her fading beauty and love her anyway. He ends with the assurance that “All you need is patience” (line 6) and you can learn to accept your sad fate. The reaction to this is immediate and passionate. “Heart cries, ‘No,’” (line 6) immediately rejecting what the intellect calmly and matter-of-factly said, and rejecting his comfort. Notice the contrast between “One who is ever kind said,” and “Heart cries.” The author’s passion, which is aroused by his beloved, is much stronger than what the intellect, informed merely by the five senses, tells him. Although the beloved’s beauty may seem diminished by the account of the eyes, the heart cries “No,” for her beauty, it must be, is not determined by visual pleasure.

In opposition to the intellect’s comfort that time will make the author “wise,”—here meaning to look past fading beauty—the heart cries that “time can but make her beauty over again,” (line 8) and in the next stanza explains why. It is specifically because of her internal virtue of “nobleness” (line 9). This virtue ignites the author’s passion toward her and his heart cries that “The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,/ Burns but more clearly” (lns. 10-11) than in earlier days. Not only does the author still have passion for his beloved, but it burns even more intensely than when she was younger. As the author knows his beloved more and more as the years go by, and as she matures with age, he only comes to see her nobleness more clearly than in previous years. And she has indeed matured with age, as the heart says, “‘O she had not these ways/ When all the wild Summer was in her gaze’” (lns. 11-12). There is a reciprocal effect here, as the beloved’s (apparent) beauty decreased only as her nobleness increased. If it were simply that she retained the same level of beauty over the years, this would be well enough—but the heart cries that her beauty only becomes more kindled because of her virtue.

The heart’s response also grows like a fire, becoming more substantial with each line. The complete response is below:

Heart cries, ‘No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:

Because of that great nobleness of hers,
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,                          10
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild Summer was in her gaze.’

 

The first line of the heart’s response is simply “No,” a single word. The next two lines are short, complete sentences, but then in the next two lines the heart builds upon the initial idea of her nobleness, and its language is more passionate than what came before. “The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs” (line 10) indicates that the passion is very much centered on her as a person. The author does not burn with passion for the idea of his beloved, or the idea of love or beauty, but with the person herself—for when she stirs, the fire stirs with her. Finally the heart cannot contain its excitement and its final declaration spills over the line in an enjambment. And what the heart declares in its Summer metaphor makes the fire all the more powerful. If the beloved once had “all the wild Summer” (line 12) in her gaze then it is implied that she is now in her autumn or winter of old age. Even though she is in these metaphorical cold months she still kindles intense passion. Thus there is a clear contrast between the two temperatures—it would be easy to be hot in the summer or cold in the winter—but the beloved managing to grow hotter despite the cold of the winter months affirms that the passion must indeed be intense!

Yeats closes this sonnet with a couplet saying that if his beloved would but “turn her head,” his heart would “know the folly of being comforted.” This couplet is unusual in that the ending of the first line, “head,” is stressed, but the ending of the second line, “comforted,” is unstressed. This falling action makes the ending of the poem seem unresolved in a way, perhaps suggesting that the dialogue between intellect and heart will happen again. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet helps in this lack of resolution. Shakespearian sonnets follow the rhyming pattern of ‘ABAB CDCD EFEF GG’ and because both lines of the last couplet rhyme, the change in pattern signals the end of the sonnet. Yeats’ sonnet, however, rhymes with ‘AABB CCDD EEFF GG.’ Having the lines in the last couplet rhyme doesn’t signify anything different, as the entire poem has rhymes in groups of two. Ending on ‘GG’ offers no ending feeling to the poem, and it could quite easily carry on with ‘HH IIJJ KKLL’ and so on. This very effectively implies that the philosophy concerning beauty is never a done deal and as long as we have both hearts and intellects, we will never be fully satisfied.

Even without a final resolution, however, we at least know from both these authors that beauty is more than meets the eye. Whatever meaning we append to beauty we know that it will be ours to treasure.

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