Of all the concepts I’ve set out to define in these prompts, beauty is by far the most elusive. Every artist, actress and philosopher who’s ever lived seems to have had something to say about beauty, and a great many scientists have also worked it over as well. Beauty, at one end of the concept, is something that potentially brings us closer to a sense of the divine. At the other, curiously enough, it can often be described in terms of mathematics.
To paraphrase a great deal of writing on the subject, beauty is largely defined in two ways. Firstly as some physical quality (maybe in a person or a work of art) that represents the sometimes very complicated ideals of a culture and a time, a tribe, a fashion, a single generation. We see certain “types” associated with beauty and beautiful things from one decade to the next. What is appealing to us in one lifetime may be of little value in the next.
The second definition of beauty is broader and deeper – that of some inner or innate quality that transcends physical appearance. It’s usually described as something that resonates with us, moves us emotionally or otherwise. Often, it is defined in terms of harmony with nature, its power to elevate us, or faithfulness to some greater ideal.
Both definitions are at work every day – we should not dismiss the effect of either on our lives. The moments where we discover, reveal, or are ambushed by the beautiful are moments that define us, that become part of our personal mythology. Some aspect of beauty may also be key to one or more of our personae, to our sense of self. As poets, we may be inspired for a day or forever by something beautiful that intersects and ravishes us.
I’ve purposely limited the quotes I chose for today’s prompt partly because there were so many to choose from and partly to make a larger point. Because we all define for ourselves what is beautiful, I’ve avoided any definitive statements from artists, thinkers and scientists who have striven to nail down what, exactly, beauty is. I do find it fascinating, though, that most of the definitions I found were fairly unique, mixed and frequently contradictory.
Ask a toad what is beauty… – Voltaire
Finding this particular quote by Voltaire gave me a flash of insight about beauty. I once had a pet toad, Sadie, who lived for many years. She was a squat brownish thing who mostly liked to burrow under her peat and breathe and hide during the day. She had a round little body and gangly legs, uneven skin and a stumbly-bumbly way of getting around the bottom of her terrarium. But when I dropped crickets in for her to eat, her eyes sparked like Baltic amber, her posture lengthened, her movements of pursuit became spare and dangerous and fascinating. She was no less a hunter than a leopard or a hawk. Sadie was utterly, wildly beautiful to me in those moments.
And it goes without saying that we have all known pretty people who, through some ugliness of heart, have completely repulsed us.
Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time. – Albert Camus
There is also pain and difficulty associated with beauty, by any definition. There are songs (and singers) I can’t listen to very often because of their intense beauty and their power to move me – what does this mean, what does it say about me that I purposely turn away from something that has the power to transport me?
Heat cannot be separated from fire, or beauty from the Eternal. – Dante Alighieri
Some have said that the more we develop spiritually, the more we widen the circling embrace of our compassion, the more we begin to see beauty in all things. Others put it that something which gives us a feeling of beauty is really the presence of the divine – that the incarnation of the divine is somehow indicated or presaged by the beautiful.
Scientists and philosophers have occasionally agreed that beauty is a kind of manifestation of natural laws that we instinctively respond to – a perfection of proportion, angle or degree – whether or not we understand those laws or even know they exist. Albert Einstein said that the most beautiful thing we can experience is mystery, because it is the source of all true art and science. On the other hand, Edgar Allen Poe thought there was no such thing as beauty without some strangeness in proportion, something that elicited a weird fascination – a philosophy that clearly shows in his strange, beautiful writing.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. – Ray Bradbury
* Write about something that embodies the idea of beauty for you. Extra credit for not using the word beauty or any synonym – what is its effect on you?
* Emily Dickinson once said “Beauty is not caused. It is.” Explore this. Try using her statement as the first line of your poem.
* When have people told you that you were beautiful, handsome, pretty, striking? What do you believe, and why?
* Explore what it is you respond to when you see something beautiful. What about the other senses? Where do you feel beauty physically in your body when you behold it? In your mind? In your gut?
* Try writing a poem in two parts, defining the beauty of a day, a person, a painting, a flower first by its sensuality or physicality, and then by some hidden other quality that moves you.
* Write about something in your life that has drawn you to it, that you called beautiful without understanding why.
* Research the idea of “wabi sabi” and write about something beautiful you’ve known that was transient, imperfect or incomplete.
* When have you avoided the beautiful?