Beauty - English Literature

William Butler Denby, Whitgift School

Aestheticism is an artistic movement most closely associated with 19th century Europe, but the concept of beauty has pervaded literature’s entire existence less formally from antiquity to the present day. Literature’s persistent focus on it is testimony to writers’ fundamental artistic sensibility. Yet aesthetics has largely escaped any rigorous philosophical analysis. (To put it trivially: there is ontology (being), epistemology (knowledge), and phenomenology (experience) – but no ‘aesthetology’ per se.) Although the Aesthetic movement in Europe prioritised and captured the sentiment of beauty in literature, it gave an artistic treatment instead of a rigidly philosophical one. But even prior to the Aesthetics there had already been a tacit relationship between beauty and literature.

It is clear that reader-response theory correlates with the idea of beauty in literature: a work may be beautiful for one and for another insipid or worse ugly. This implies that beauty is of an intrinsic nature, since it is not reducible to an element in a way that designating a work as ‘dystopian’ (totalitarian agents) or ‘pastoral’ (idealised shepherding) would be; if it was, then there would be no disagreement because the element could be deduced or demonstrated empirically. For this very reason, philosophical treatments of aesthetics in a scientific fashion have been infertile. Thus beauty appears to transcend the work rather than comprise an element of it. This resonates with the Decadent and Aesthetics’ slogan of ‘l’art pour l’art’, in which true works of art have an intrinsic beauty to them. But when examined critically such a definition is not valid because it is not consistent: if reader-responses vary as to whether a work is beautiful or not, the supposed intrinsic nature of beauty in literature is thrown into jeopardy (since surely intrinsicality would equal universality?). It would seem either that there is obfuscation of intrinsic beauty by some element of the work which is judged to be unattractive by the reader, or that beauty is purely a result of external perception. Developing both leads to the same conclusion: perception of beauty is neither an element of reading nor of text, but a relationship between the two. This is where the intrinsicality lies. On some scale, a positive relationship creates a judgement of beauty, and vice versa.

Eagleton’s ‘value-judgement’ theory of literature provides a useful model for this. His theory originally was from a Marxist socio-cultural and political perspective. (To paraphrase Eagleton considerably: the literary canon – i.e. what is judged as ‘good’ literature – is defined by prevailing social mores and attitudes that are extensions of the influential among society, in particular the intelligentsia. In our case, the literati component of this intelligentsia is most pertinent. And to give a crude example: the apotheosis of liberty in contemporary Western culture makes John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty part of the Western canon.) But aesthetic tastes – which are unique to every individual due to innate, fundamental, and random psychological variation – can be substituted for social mores to give an aesthetic theory which allows for variation in the perception of beauty in literature, thus resolving the paradox.

Admittedly, aesthetic tastes may be influenced heavily by socio-cultural factors, but this is not a given. Furthermore, some literature appears to be devoid of political sentiment per se, while still being oft-regarded as ‘beautiful’; this is indicative that reader appreciation of beauty resonates with something more profound and universal than a transient zeitgeist. For example, this extract from Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress: ‘And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.’ There is no socio-cultural concern, only a beautiful poetic image.

A division between didactic and autotelic literature can be made; but this is not to say that the two categories are mutually exclusive. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an example of a work which both has a utilitarian function and is a self-contained personal expression of Bunyan’s views on religion. (The work is partially ‘l’art pour l’art’ since Bunyan chose an artistic form – fictional narrative – as opposed to essay form to convey a didactic message; furthermore, the narrative can stand alone devoid of context: it is intrinsic.) However, ‘beauty’ apropos literature is not only an emotional reader-response; it is also a motif within texts inserted by authors.

Physical beauty is the simplest type of beauty which can be found in literature. Consider Byron’s ‘she walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies’; although the image which the words evoke is figurative due to the presence of the simile, it is the words themselves which evoke this (i.e. the literal meanings of the words are used to create the image). But despite the relative simplicity of this type, it is also possibly the most powerful: in the Iliad, Helen’s physical beauty is such that it ‘launch’d a thousand ships’ (Marlowe) and fomented the cataclysmic Trojan War.

Intellectual beauty comes in two forms: the ingenuity of agents within a work of literature themselves (to give another Homeric example, the Trojan horse) to overcome difficulty; and the manipulation of the text in some way by the author to achieve an effect. The scale of this manipulation ranges from innovation with poetic form to the intricate plotting of in a detective novel, in which a complex but abstruse pattern is created. The key is unveiled in a climactic moment so that everything that has come before seems obvious and ‘makes sense’. Both exhibit the defamiliarisation effect: the text possesses aspect(s) unlike those of familiar life, thereby enhancing perception, and this device creates the sense of intellectual beauty.

On the other hand, moral beauty requires more subtext. The literal actions of characters must be interpreted using a moral framework by the reader or by other agents within the work itself. Deixis facilitates this: contextual knowledge of events within the work is needed to provide either justification for a prior assertion of moral goodness or stimulus for its recognition. For instance, Ida in Greene’s Brighton Rock carries ‘her air of compassion … like a rank cheap perfume’. The modifying simile creates an ambiguity: it is not an attractive image, and a sense of excess is suggested, thus diminishing the putative worth of such compassion. But when her actions to protect Rose from Pinkie are considered – the deixis – her ‘compassion’ acquires a moral beauty, albeit a gritty, unattractive one. In this way, moral beauty is more about sublimity than about attractiveness – even if this somewhat dirties its appeal. The literal meaning of ‘beauty’ is perverted but also paradoxically sanctified; for this reason, moral beauty is the most complicated of the three discussed types and occupies a liminal position.

Burke separated the beautiful (as what is aesthetically pleasing) from the sublime (as what can ‘excite the ideas of pain and danger’). His definition, with its dichotomy and mutual exclusivity, dismisses the existence of the beautiful in the destructive. But in literature there are myriad examples where this is not the case. The Circe-like figure, for instance, is a common paragon: in the Odyssey, she is both aesthetically pleasing and a ‘κηλητειρα’ (enchantress) who bewitches men to enact their imprisonment on her island. Thus in her Burke’s sublime and beauty are one and the same: the two elements are inseparable. In English literature, the figure occurs famously in Keat’s La Belle Dame sans Merci: she ‘hath in thrall’, among others, ‘pale kings and princes’, who are all ‘death-pale’. The tubercular imagery certainly comes under Burke’s concept of the sublime, but in this image there is another form of perverted beauty: an aesthetic horror, in essence.

To amplify such an aesthetic horror is to look at depictions of death. In particular, blood and wounding can be portrayed in a vivid manner. Nisus, from an epyllion of the Aeneid, dies like a wilting flower that is ‘purpureus’: a word literally meaning purple, and used to describe blood’s colour; but the word in the Latin has a parallel figurative sense of beauty and brilliancy, which the English translation loses; Owen’s Disabled avoids this loss, however, as the blood is described as a ‘leap of purple’ to create an image beautiful in a poetic sense, which functions along the same principle.

Perhaps the author’s insertion of various motifs and types of beauty within texts contributes to its appreciation by readers in both sensual and intellectual fashions. The nature of this response is nevertheless complex: an ‘aesthetic horror’ is not beautiful in a straightforward sense. If literature is taken to be a representation of some part of reality, then perhaps the potency of an image’s expression is more relevant than the expression in itself vis-à-vis beauty . But the impact of readers themselves on this appreciation of beauty in literature must not be ignored: they often have inherent aesthetic or socio-cultural prejudices, whilst the text can have a reputation which precedes it. Nevertheless, the evasiveness of beauty from empirical analysis is indicative of a relationship between author, reader, and text of great profundity, through which it pervades.