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August 4: The Birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Nothing is more human than for man to desire naturally things impossible to his nature. It is, indeed, the property of a nature which is not closed up in matter like the nature of physical things, but which is intellectual or infinitized by the spirit. It is the property of a metaphysical nature. Such desires reach for the infinite, because the intellect thirsts for being and being is infinite.
JACQUES MARITAIN, Approaches to God

Years ago, a friend took a writing sabbatical in England and sent me an image of Percy Shelley‘s Memorial on a postcard. I thought then that it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The sculpture is a fitting memorial to a man who searched for truth by exploring Beauty through poetry. The memorial always reminds me of Shelley’s own poem “Adonais,” which he wrote as an elegy to John Keats, whose untimely death at the age of 26 from tuberculosis greatly saddened Shelley. But Shelley himself died young, drowning in a storm while sailing before he turned 30, the event so poignantly called to mind in the composition of the memorial. One might even find “Adonais” to be hauntingly prophetic of Shelley’s own early demise.

 
I
I weep for Adonais – he is dead!
Oh weep for Adonais! Tho’ our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow! Say: “With me
Died Adonais; till the future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!”
 
**********
 
LIV
That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which thro’ the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality. 
 
LV
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trebling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am bourne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning thro’ the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
 

It might be argued that Shelley’s atheism precludes reading his work as a testament to the existence of God.  I disagree. There are many paths and tributaries that feed in to the one Way to God and the artist can come close to God, can know God, through his art. Without doubt, Shelley sought truth and he sought it through Beauty. It would not be wrong to suggest that Beauty, in all its forms, was Shelley’s god. But God himself is the author of Beauty. He IS Beauty. As Keats so aptly wrote, “Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty.” Shelley’s quest for the infinite placed him squarely in the presence of all Truth, however unconscious of it he might have been.  To paraphrase (badly) Flannery O’Connor, whether or not we understand it, know it, or believe it, it’s true just the same.

Shelley’s poetry certainly raises the heart, mind, and soul to God. It is infused with a beautiful sense of the spiritual, the eternal, and a grasping sense of truth that necessarily points from inside to somewhere outside of man and — as “Adonais” makes clear — an awareness that man is himself made for eternal life. Man is not all there is, Beauty is not an “accident,” and the gift of the ability to create beauty, harmony, and order is one proof that God exists. Art itself can prove the lie of atheism.

One can imagine Shelley being literally awakened by the kiss of Beauty, even at the moment of death.   Remembering today with gratitude the gift of a beautiful poet, whose work points to God’s work in what surely must be a beautiful soul.

The Awakening of Adonis, by John William Waterhouse

 

Beauty Break: A Poetic Interlude

 

"The Shrine," by John William Waterhouse

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever;
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but will still keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing,
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
 Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
 
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round the temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy,
glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast,
They alway must be with us, or we die.
 
From “Endymion,” by John Keats 

Beauty Break: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I am fascinated by the process of art: how a fragment of a dream in the mind of an artist is conceived and brought to eventual fruition. So often, I think, we encounter great masterworks, whether they be paintings, musical pieces, or novels, and perhaps fail to take into account everything that had to happen for this work to come into being. It is a rare privilege to peek into the inner workings of the mind or eye of the artist, to see his hand at work in the process of creating beauty.

The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is offering just such a rare peek into the work of creating waking dreams of beauty. The exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings From the Huntington’s Collection” is on view through September 26 and is worth a beauty break if you are in the area. Incidentally, if you are unfamiliar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their distinctive contribution to 19th century arts and letters, Stephanie Pina provides a brief but excellent overview, along with some helpful links, on her lovely website dedicated to all things Pre-Raphaelite.

One of the primary goals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which included the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, was to renew British art and literature, in particular through the faithful observance of nature. Many people think their influence was limited to the United Kingdom; this exhbit dispels that idea, showing clearly how the theories, techniques, and philosophy of the PRB moved across the pond and found great sympathy among a group of American artists, architects, and geologists who formed their own group — The Society for the Advancement of Truth (SAT) — modeled after the PRB. 

Though tiny — only 37 drawings — the exhibit was a revelation. There were careful studies of larger, more well-known works by the British artists which revealed the detailed and painstaking processes involved in making the dreams in their minds come to life. Most of the American artists represented focused on landscape painting, everything from the domes of Yosemite in the Sierras, to the Hudson River Valley, and beyond to Florence. There were  also two small detailed landscape studies by Walter Crane. Several American Pre-Raphaelites in fact had a very close relationship with the British critic John Ruskin, an artist in his own right, who was credited with spreading the philosophy of Pre-Raphaelitism through his many writings and patronage. Two of these American Pre-Raphaelites, Henry Roderick Newman and Esther Frances (Francesca) Alexander, were represented in the exhbit. Ruskin’s own drawing of the crumbling castle walls of Kenilworth was on view as well.

Highlights included “Andromeda,” by Edward Burne-Jones as part of a study for his larger The Rock of Doom in his Perseus Cycle.  A head study of a woman by Rossetti and another series of studies by Frederick Sandys were significant. There were four gorgeous miniature studies for The Lady of Shallot, by William Holman Hunt. These in particular give a sense of how the artist tries to conceive of the image from different viewpoints. And many times, as in this case, the end result looks nothing like the original conceptualization. Finally, in juxtaposition, one of the few original existing copes of the first volume of the PRB’s journal The Germ: Thoughts Toward Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art displayed next to its American sister SAT publication The New Path: A Monthly Art Journal.

It was hard to choose any one piece as a favorite, but I suppose there were three that absolutely stood out for me. Charles Allston Collins “Beati Mundo Corde” was almost photographic in its precision of the young nun’s facial features.

“Isabella Boccaccio,” by John Riley Wilmer alludes to the 14th century Italian poet Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. The piece might also be a reference to John Keats’ poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” which is itself derived from The Decameron.  Incidentally, Holman Hunt painted his own Isabella. I tend to like the layered quality of the narrative paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites — every picture tells a thousand stories and there are so many details to linger over.

Finally, this “Head of a Girl,” a study in gold tip on prepared paper by John Southall is simply breathtaking. She is truly a glimpse of the ideal of Pre-Raphaelite beauty in every way.

On reflection, this small but important exhibit does what it set out to do and reflects the fulfillment of the Pre-Raphaelite vision in creative communities on both sides of the Atlantic in their effort to “see everything, small and large, with almost the same clearness.”

 

“Know once and for all, that a poet on canvas is exactly the same species as a poet in song….”  John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851

Beauty Break Bonus: One gallery in the Huntington’s British Art Museum holds original furnishings, textiles, and ceramic tile pieces by William Morris and Co. Be sure to sneak a peek down the staircase at the end of the gallery for a floor to ceiling Morris stained glass, with art work by Edward Burne-Jones. I was unable to photograph this, but here is a link to a lovely photo taken by someone else. Gorgeous……..