I remember the daffodils, a beauty not astonishing. How they waved to me from a textbook page. How they bobbed in tetrametric dance. All week my thought rested on these daffodils as I tried to remember my first encounter with beauty. A beauty that I recognized as different; as referent to something other than what I was beholding.
It was in Wordsworth's poem, "I Wondered Lonely As A Cloud" I encountered an image I would not soon forget:
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
In Till We Have Faces Lewis describes Psyche's beauty by saying, "It was beauty that did not astonish you till afterwards when you had gone out of sight of her and reflected on it."
I find resonance with Lewis's description of beauty with how Wordsworth defines poetry: "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings arising from emotion recollected in tranquility."
Interesting how beauty and poetry find their origins in reflection. How the astonishment was not immediate, but expanded and grew as time tooled the image or thought into something transcendent.
A few weeks back I started The Faerie Queen, a classic poem of enormous proportions. This poem influenced Lewis's imaginative shaping, and I can see why.
Only a few pages in, I stumbled upon a description of trees that demanded I reread, over and over. Each tree—the oak, laurel, pine and poplar all—was given human paint as they drifted beneath the stormy sky, dancing like the daffodils.
The faerie scene of growing tension not only demands several readings, but invites the whimsy of thought. I fall asleep to these scenes of waving daffodils and the swaying kings of the forest (oaks). Beauty absconds with our hearts but also rifles our intellect, holding it at melodic gunpoint.
What Beauty Demands
Our encounters of beauty turn us to certain realities we cannot neglect. In thinking upon the daffodils I faced a knowledge of something else beyond my capacity to explain. It drew desire from me, it resonated with what I understood to be a kind of goodness upon the earth, though I could not and still cannot articulate it.
In all beauty, it seems, we face a healthy bit of morality. And, as a Christian, this makes sense to me since I believe God to be the originator of all things good and true. Beauty resonates in us all and demands not only our attention but also the soulish side of our beings.
Am I hoisting up beauty as a proof for God? Maybe, I wouldn't be the first. But at a more popular level I think what we can learn from beauty (and poetry) is an art form lost in this world of instant publishing, opinions and hoo-ha. And that art form is reflection.
Reflection encourages a morality of heart and mind. If we simmer on something long enough, we will find what we did not want to find: our opinions laid waste. For reflection can house the grandest of notions and the deepest of beauties.
But, if we do in fact surrender our hearts and minds to God, reflection will show us how prideful our pens and thoughts can be—how lazy our opinions are formed. Lewis touched on this idea in his essay "The Seeing Eye." He writes:
Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully, but you’d be safer to stick to the papers. You’ll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or snobbish appeal.
In today's world, it pays to be astonishing or provocative. But a holy beauty demands more from us. It demands the rights to our pride and our weak discernment; it demands we wait. It demands we sift through our reactions and realize our point of view can be selfish and wrong.
Let us, as Christians, strive to write pieces of beauty; pieces that demand reflection to produce and pieces that demand our readers to reflect as well. So much of what gets passed around in the blogsophere demands little from us.
Provocation and astonishment might garner large followings for a time, but in the long run they wither and are easily deleted.
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Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.