As I walked into College this morning, the arches of the cloisters framed a tall tree, its richly reddening leaves glowing in autumnal sunshine, and it was beautiful, and it set my spirits soaring and at the same time made me strangely sad.
The capacity of beauty to exalt the spirits and to inspire joy or even virtue is often celebrated, but that beauty should also inspire sadness may be more puzzling. I don’t understand this response in myself, I know that others have similar reactions, and I have found two possible and connected reasons: firstly, that beauty is fleeting, and secondly, that beautiful things make us love them.
When I say beauty is fleeting I don’t mean simply, as countless poets have pointed out, that the fresh good looks of youth will fade. It is undoubtedly true that the richly-coloured hair and wrinkle-free skin which we readily admire are transient; but we know too that a person’s beauty does not necessarily disappear with these things. Many of us may have had the privilege of knowing a grandparent’s face, greying and lined by life and laughter, and of seeing that it really is beautiful. Those autumn leaves, too, show that beauty can grow with age. But this isn’t all I mean, because the beauty of a statue or a painting or even of a great cathedral too can be fleeting, and this is not because the things themselves are transient, but because our experiences of them are.
We experience beauty in time. I love welcoming new Visiting Students to Worcester. Often they arrive on a bright autumn day and, as they walk for the first time from the rather severe entrance of the College into the front quad, and the ground suddenly drops away at their feet into the lush green lawn and the elegant neo-classical stone soars above them, they actually gasp. It is beautiful and it is unexpected, and even though it may look just the same on future days, it will never again be such a surprise. It may be beautiful in other ways – familiar, homely even – but it will probably never again take their breath away.
A painting will suddenly strike us as at the moment that the light catches it in a certain way. A poem will seem suddenly profound because for a moment it matches our mood, and then on re-reading it may disappoint us. We do return, re-read, re-visit; we may buy a copy of the painting in an effort to hold on to its beauty – because, secondly, beautiful things make us love them, and when we love something we want to hold onto it. But we cannot, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we cannot be always beholding all the beautiful things around us in the necessary way, with the necessary attention, so our experience of their beauty is fleeting and fragmentary. We may play our favourite passage of music over and over but in the end we will have to stop, and we may well become disenchanted. ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
Things are different from people, of course. If we behold a person, see their beauty, and love them, then if we are open-minded we may continue to love them and see their beauty, because a living person is always full of surprises, and will always insist on being seen in new and amazing ways. But this sort of beauty can unsettle us and make us sad too, with a sadness that comes from our awareness of separation. The otherness of another person which makes us love them can also make us feel lonely. Romantic love can be intensely frustrating because we experience the beauty of another person so intensely that we long to be joined to or even absorbed into them – intense sexual experiences are often described in this way, and it is no accident that the Bible talks of a husband and wife being joined together as ‘one flesh’. But husbands and wives are not one flesh, and those we love can leave us, or pass away, or even simply misunderstand us and seem suddenly a million miles away from us.
There are a thousand and one literary connections between sex and death, and perhaps even more literary connections between beauty and death. I am struck by the beauty of the images the poet uses to describe the dead in the poem, ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’: ‘I am the gentle autumn rain… I am the soft stars that shine at night.’ Beautiful images. But why this assertion ‘I did not die’? To deny death seems rather futile. Clearly people do die. One popular reading at funerals includes the line ‘I have merely gone into the next room’ – but if I went into the next room I would not find the grandmother I miss so much or the friend who died so sadly shortly after the birth of his first child; I wouldn’t find Tsk, with his cheeky smile. I don’t think it offers much comfort to pretend otherwise – indeed, it might rather belittle my experience of longing and loss.
In Twelfth Night, Feste the jester addresses Olivia, who is mourning the loss of her brother. ‘I think his soul is in hell’. ‘I know his soul is in heaven, fool.’ ‘The more fool you, Madonna, to mourn for his soul, being in heaven.’ What Feste exposes is that grief is fundamentally not about those who have gone, but about those who are left behind. It is, in a non-critical sense of the word, self-centred. If we believe in heaven, then if we mourn those we believe are there we do so for our sake, because we have lost them, and not for their sakes, for they are in bliss. If we don’t believe in an afterlife, then we need not worry about those who have died, and our worries about death are really failures of imagination, as Rosencrantz puts it in Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead:
It’s silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead …. which should make a difference … shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air – you’d wake up dead, for a start, and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly.
We’d better admit that our mourning is for ourselves and for others who are, as it were, left behind. And maybe the sadness we feel when someone we love dies is a particularly acute form of the sadness we might feel when we encounter beauty, because the death of a loved one is the most definitive statement of the separateness of the beloved, forcing violently upon us the loneliness which that separateness, that otherness, has always potentially held.
The reading from Romans is a well known one: ‘I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, neither angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, no any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.’ Note that we are not assured that nothing shall separate us from God; clearly, we are, on earth at least, very much separate from God. Rather, we are assured that nothing shall separate us from God’s love. Love is a dynamic force which reaches across the gaps which separate us one from another, and each of us from God. And we know that, when someone we love dies, our love does not die at the same moment – rather it lives and reaches out after the beloved, longing for them, dwelling on what we have shared with them, inspiring us with the memories of everything they showed us and all the beauty we celebrated in them.
It is in this sense that ‘I did not die’. It may not seem an entirely satisfactory sense, because we want certainty about what comes after, and where our departed loved ones are, and whether we will ever be reunited with them. But it is a beautiful sense, with all the joy and sorrow which our experience of beauty brings, and we might fleetingly apprehend it. And, since beauty inspires love, it is a sense we should embrace if we wish the beauty of those we mourn to live on.
Dr. Elisabeth Dutton, Senior Research Fellow and Tutor for Women
2nd November 2007