Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, March 20, 2011

But will beauty save the world?

Reading this poem put me, for obvious reasons, in mind of Gary, at The Ontological Boy.
A Boy

Out of the noise of tired people working,
Harried with thoughts of war and lists of dead,
His beauty met me like a fresh wind blowing,
Clean boyish beauty and high-held head.

Eyes that told secrets, lips that would not tell them,
Fearless and shy the young unwearied eyes—
Men die by millions now, because God blunders,
Yet to have made this boy he must be wise.

--Sara Teasdale

The poem slips the context past the reader so quickly one almost misses it. Subordinate descriptive phrases obscure and postpone the main clause until the third line. When it arrives, it is a simple declarative at the center of the first stanza: His beauty met me. This directness orients us, and "like a fresh wind blowing," it disperses what we had read impatiently, unsure of where the sentence was going until it arrived at the grammatical subject. On the first reading, we do not even go back to retrace our steps. Now we are swept up in the admiration of that Apollonian epiphany of Western art, the beautiful boy, which the first two lines of the second stanza frame with a reference to the eyes. These eyes are articulate, they "told secrets," though these secrets are unheard because the lips will "not tell them;" this curious oxymoron is echoed in the next line by "fearless and shy, the young unwearied eyes." Nature loves to hide, said Heraclitus.

But this portrait, which exactly corresponds, structurally, to the description in the first half of the first stanza, breaks off. Only now do we remember where we were. We were tired, we were distracted. What were the first lines? Out of the noise of tired people working, / Harried with thoughts of war and lists of dead. This was where we had been when we were interrupted, when we had been startled by this bolt from the blue. Men die is the center of this stanza, as His beauty met me was of the first; and like that earlier clause, it is too the grammatical center of the sentence, its first simple declarative. There is a war somewhere; there are, somewhere, people dying, dying by millions. What can possibly be commensurate between these upheavals, these ruinous events that visit calamity on those we love and those we do not know alike, and this unanswerable beauty here in front of us in this face? Men die by millions now, because God blunders, / Yet to have made this boy he must be wise.

The near(?)-blasphemy of the penultimate line is only retroactively noticed, highlighted by the doxology of the final one. It is as though the enormity of one's despair can only be articulated in praise, and vice-versa. But the poem does not say this outright; no more than the boy himself will it unequiviocally tell its secret. Only, shy and fearless, it declares the fact of beauty. It stops short of declaring beauty an unanswerable theodicy.

The poem was published in Flame and Shadow in 1920 and was probably written against the background of the First World War. Boys like this one were being mangled across Europe, in barb-wire and mustard gas. (They still are, your tax dollars and stock options at work.) The contrast between the millions dead and the luminous single one alive is almost too much to bear. Is one mocking the millions to love the one? The poem does not resolve anything. It gives us frankly the blunder of God and God's wisdom in the closing two lines, the "blunder" balanced by the apparent proof--"he must be wise"--the evidence for which is simply the boy himself. There is no other evidence possible or needed. The poem itself gives and withholds, like the "secrets" told silently by the boy's eyes and kept by his lips. The boy is the poem and the poem is the boy.


  1. "The boy is the poem and the poem is the boy." This is a marvelous piece of critical analysis. It is just the kind of writing I love to read and the kind of writing I wish I could do.

  2. That's a fine bit of writing.

    My bias is to toward aestheticism so I wouldn't say beauty can save the world. For me beauty is the meaning of the world. I don't think the world needs saving. To save and be saved is a human preoccupation. As I guess beauty is. My cynicism leads me to think there is ultimately nothing deeper than beauty. You can read that sentence both ways--beauty is the deepest thing and the most superficial.

  3. dy0genes,

    wanted to acknowledge this provocative bon mot. There's a part of me that does indeed think the most superficial and the most profound are the same. The most trivial, the thing philosophy strives against, is opinion, doxa; but this word is also rendered as "glory" over and over (and of course gives us "doxology". I've cited Goethe before: "Search nothing beyond the phenomena; they themselves are the theory." Does the world need saving? Depends on what we mean by need, and save. No doubt the question is in one sense a human preoccupation, though St Paul says that "all creation groans," as if in labor, for the manifestation of the children of God; and when I recall St Irenaeus' oft-quoted remark, "the glory of God is man fully alive," this puts a different light on both "glory" and what the "sons of God" (=man fully alive) might be. A lot of anthropomorphizing and projection going on here? Sure. Maybe. I dunno. Manifestation itself is of course the surface, what shows. Philosophy is never done with the question of appearance and reality. Anyway, I'm smothering your comment with too much response. I just wanted to deflect, a little, the reading of your words as cynical. Unless of course you are speaking in character, O tub-dweller.