Do you ever come across a line of text that is as ripe and full as a fig and if you don’t stop and eat it there and then you’ll forget what it is saying to you? I’m talking about words that you must read again, re-view, go back over slowly so that the feeling it has triggered in you can rise and expand to an understanding. Words that make you think and examine, reflect upon and remember, watch for the detail and walk more slowly. P. sent me some such words this week, she sent me an essay on beauty that contained the words: ‘Beauty is the product of honest attention to the particular.’ I think it is a less clichéd way of saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that eye must linger, notice, question and be honest to itself in order to behold. What one finds beautiful might change over time, it may be dependant on mood, it might link to our values, or to people and places we hold important and dear. We are taught – some might say indoctrinated – to put boundaries on what is beautiful, that there is a right and a wrong answer to beauty – some things are and some aren’t. Correct answers: a well tended and landscaped garden; a canvas in watercolours true to the landscape; a diamond and emerald necklace draped upon slender youthfulness on the catwalk. Not only are the ‘correct’ expressions of beauty all predictable and restrictive but they are a tier above what most of us can manage. This is the opposite of the unbounded access we have to beauty when we bring honest attention to the particular. Beauty is limitless when we don’t veto ourselves, when we work on the basis of Keats’ description: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Leaning into honest attention and the ‘beauty is truth’ definition takes a certain un-learning. But once you begin, it’s easy to flout convention and appreciate the particular beauty of an industrial wasteland, de-seeded and re-weeded; to love the inner-city forecourt jostling with aged, rusting Volkswagen Westfalia Campers whose engines haven’t turned over in years; to walk in awe through stumbled and crumbled wartime corrugated iron sheds huddled on a Donegal hill staring out to sea towards ghosts of warships from 75 years ago. What we find beautiful and where that beauty shows up will depend on one’s frame of mind, so says Khalil Gibran in his poem On Beauty. He is squarely behind beauty being tailored to the individual, suggesting we identify it as a specific balm to whatever we are feeling in the moment. He goes a step further and suggests we close our eyes and shut our ears and tap into beauty from within, from ‘a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.’ Ah, P., thank you for sending me that letter.
On Beauty, Khalil Gibran (excerpt)
And a poet said, Speak to us of Beauty.
And he answered:
Where shall you seek beauty, and how
shall you find her unless she herself be your
way and your guide?
And how shall you speak of her except
she be the weaver of your speech?
The aggrieved and the injured say,
“Beauty is kind and gentle.
Like a young mother half-shy of her
own glory she walks among us.”
And the passionate say, “Nay, beauty is
a thing of might and dread.
Like the tempest she shakes the earth
beneath us and the sky above us.”
The tired and the weary say, “Beauty is
of soft whisperings. She speaks in our spirit.
Her voice yields to our silences like a faint
light that quivers in fear of the shadow.”
But the restless say, “We have heard her
shouting among the mountains,
And with her cries came the sound of
hoofs, and the beating of wings and
the roaring of lions.”
At night the watchmen of the city say,
“Beauty shall rise with the dawn from the
And at noontide the toilers and the way-
farers say, “We have seen her leaning over
the earth from the windows of the sunset.”
In winter say the snow-bound, “She shall
come with the spring leaping upon the hills.”
And in the summer heat the reapers say,
“We have seen her dancing with the autumn
leaves, and we saw a drift of snow in her
All these things have you said of beauty,
Yet in truth you spoke not of her but of
And beauty is not a need but an ecstasy.
It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty
hand stretched forth,
But rather a heart enflamed and a soul en-
It is not the image you would see nor the
song you would hear,
But rather an image you see though you
close your eyes and a song you hear though
you shut your ears.
It is not the sap within the furrowed bark,
nor a wing attached to a claw,
But rather a garden for ever in bloom and
a flock of angels for ever in flight.