Book XII of William Blake’s 1808 Paradise Lost. Book XII of William Blake’s 1808 Paradise Lost.

This week I’ve been thinking about the moment in Book XI of Paradise Lost when Milton’s Eve laments to Adam, when the angel Michael has arrived to dispossess them of Paradise:

How shall I part and wither wander down

Into a lower world, to this obscure

And wild? How shall we breathe in other air

Less pure, accustomed to immortal fruits?

This week I want to believe Elaine Scarry, who argues that Beauty is a compact, or contract, between the beautiful being and its perceiver: “As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.” This week in which a marathon was bombed, senators refused to pass a commonsensical gun law, a plant exploded on a small town, a week in which beauty feels irrelevant and the gift of life feels utterly vulnerable.

Summer Flowers in a Vase. Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). Summer Flowers in a Vase. Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750).

Irony, Beauty’s smug, staring cousin, and Ugliness, a bullying twin brother, seem far more truthful, real, worthy of a poet’s attention. And, perhaps things never were in their pure forms. Shakespeare’s sonnets admonished us a long time ago, beauty is often suspect: “The canker blossoms have full as deep a dye / As the perfumed tincture of the roses…” (#54).

But this obscure and wild is what we have, we unbelievers. And, we still have the Dutch masters; we have beloved shared and personal landscapes and their creatures worth protecting; we can revel in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”; we can look into our children’s candid, radiant faces.

Kathleen Ossip has such excellent questions and answers in this excerpt from her poem, “On Beauty”:

Beauty is quietly
born from boredom

into fabulousness or plainness.
Don’t ask whether it exists.

It’s a redundancy to say real.
Beauty is truth? Don’t ask.

Ask for inner resources unlimited.
Ask for a goldfinch feather

in a balsawood box.
Look not at what is loved

but what stimulates and soothes.
Brothers and sisters,

are words beautiful or ugly
because we mean them

so very deeply?

Any poet today has to investigate and interrogate the beautiful if one is going to include it meaningfully. This week I want to agree that beauty leads us to the desire to protect, to empathize, to be just in this lower world.

Originally Published: April 19th, 2013

Born in Seattle and raised in Pittsburgh, poet Camille Guthrie earned a BA at Vassar College and an MFA at Brown University. She is the author of the poetry collections The Master Thief (2000), In Captivity (2006), and Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois (2013). Her experimental long poems and inter-textual poetic sequences often engage...