Beauty – and Death

“The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice,” Dante Gabriel Rosetti

I remember the first time I really awakened to beauty. The first time I admitted an instinct for beauty, a vulnerability for it and to it and with it. I was older than I should have been, and younger than I looked. And I watched the Autumn colors brighten and burn, and I felt the delicate power of death sinewed with something wonderful.

A friend of mine was, at the time, luring me out of my high-towered walls against all things living and dying. Luring me with poetry, which I liked despite myself. He tossed poems at me like careful breadcrumbs, removing poets’ names from the pages so that I could offer no prejudice against their words. I am today, both professionally and personally, associated with things like beauty and poetry. I have made a career of it, small and new as that career is. But there was a time, not long ago, when I was small and new in that wild wilderness. And I resisted it at every turn.

Perhaps because I understood in some instinctive way the stark vulnerability of anything beautiful. Perhaps because I understood, with the ferocity and confusion of my own telling childhood, how death first robs us of beautiful things, and then it takes the rest. Wonder is the first to leave. Beauty is the first to shiver and decay.

And I could not stand it, because I had already seen it a thousand times. With every conviction of that fierce and confusing childhood of mine. With every testimony of my early hours. I had already seen beauty die, and I had watched as everything good and true dissolved in its wake.  I was a walking nihilist, though ostensibly religious. Everything was full of emptiness, and had already died. My own emptiness, like an echo-chamber, gave no voice to the nothing. The last thing I would ever speak, or admit to knowing, is what the world is like when it lives on as it dies.

It is irony that such a life has been given over to beauty.

Which I liked in spite of myself, and I remember the ache as the bronzes and reds seared the trees. I remember watching as beauty shivered and decayed.

“Why,” I asked my friend with his poet-crumbs, “why does beauty die?”

I could not bear mourning.

And still those first words of poetry I ever willingly memorized stick with me, dark and deep like blood:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at fore-pangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

An odd perfection rests in the words, more than suitable for a soul struggling with the end of beautiful things. Could there be any comfort? Or would the ache deepen and strangle, doubled like an echoing cry?

And I could not stand it, because I had seen it a thousand times. I cannot tell you why it was given to me as a child to know the violence of beauty’s end. Perhaps there is no reason why. I could narrate a few stories for you. Sad and lonely stories. Still there is no reason behind them. No reason for them at all. And still I knew this death, and my earliest memories are seared with loss.

O the mind, the mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

It is irony that I have written many beautiful words. I know they are beautiful. It makes little sense to me, still. That I know, of all the things I know, when I have written something beautiful. The instinct sharpens itself of its own accord. I know, of all the things I know, how to stand in defense of that most vulnerable ache and end. And I know, of all the things I know, that I have seen beauty burst into nothing like a cracked mask.

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing–

The first words of my dissertation begged the question, and noted the resplendent collapse of the beautiful. Why does beauty die? My  dissertation touched the edge of the knife in my own back. Echoed with what I found so hard to speak. The irony and the ignominy of my own experience.

The burnished and broken question of that Autumn day, when first I learned to really be brave.

To really reclaim the loss, and what I had lost with it.

Perhaps someday my strength will end, and I will no longer be able to be brave. But until that day, I seem unable to help giving compelling reasons to face that delicate countenance that dies sinewed with something wonderful.

The beautiful.


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