Understanding Critical Beauty

Beauty: a feeling, a sentiment, an emotion, a quality, something that is all at once clearly defined and yet elusive. It can lift the spirits, create a sense of wonder, or move us to tears. It is a mysterious concept that seems to be forever searching for a higher meaning – as though reaching forlornly for a greater expression of itself. Everyone feels beauty, but they cannot describe what it is. However, to describe beauty is not to describe one feeling, but a potential host of feelings. Within one tradition, broadly speaking platonic and Christian, beauty is a transcendent phenomenon, which points beyond itself, to God or the Good. Yet despite this, it is also fickle and changeable by nature, which in essence provides the backbone for the thesis of this work: Do the shifting styles of ‘beauty’ in post-medieval poetry represent simply changes of fashion, as it were, or is some transcendent idea of beauty present within these very different styles?

Even a cursory reading of Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, a standard survey text, reveals that beauty, as a concept, is almost pointedly ignored and excluded from most aspects of contemporary critical theory. Perhaps this is because the aim of critical theory is to attempt to distil the subjective nature of all literature it encounters into a digestible analysis with at least some sentiments of objectivity. The pursuit of beauty, then, must be seen as un-academic. Politics seems pervasive, as Barry himself puts it, literature and critical theory seems to be locked in a state of ‘championing the underdog, standing up for self-determination and equality, or calling for tolerance and understanding’.[1]

At what point did the consensus of academic critics begin to disregard a work’s merit as art, in favour of finding within it a vindication of their own purposes? The answer of course is in the post-aestheticist movements of the mid- to late-twentieth century, when the world wars caused a rift in civilization so great that we would be irreparably destined to be cynical, calculating, and emotionally celibate for ever after. In a sense, beauty as a critical concern was simply another casualty of those two great conflicts. Terry Eagleton has even come to see the aesthetic, or rather discourses concerning beauty, as essentially ideological, removing the independence and autonomy of beauty as a part of our analytical or ontological vocabulary concerning literature.[2]  But of course this conclusion depends entirely on accepting a definition of beauty as it was perceived by the Romantics, which in essence leads to the question of how one defines beauty.

According to Aquinas, anything that is to be considered beautiful must possess three characteristics: ‘integritas, consonantia, claritas’ (wholeness, harmony, and radiance). Joyce picks up on these values in The Portrait of the Artist, where he interprets ‘integritas’ as ‘the esthetic image’ whole and of itself ‘first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it’.[3] In other fields, Aquinas’s first quality of beauty has been defined more straightforwardly as being simply wholeness in a literal sense: ‘nothing essential is lacking, nothing extraneous is present’. [4] To be beautiful, and to avoid being ‘extraneous’ then, a work must be somehow efficient, economic with its words. This adheres to the ethos of such writers as Robert Southey, who said ‘it is with words as with sunbeams – the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn’, and Ezra Pound, who believed that ‘good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear’.[5] A Romantic and a Modernist writer, then, despite all other ideological contentions, both value and respect ‘efficiency’ in language.

Aquinas’s second attribute, ‘consonantia’, or ‘harmony’, Joyce contends, is ‘the synthesis of immediate perception […] followed by the analysis of apprehension’, or rather the process by which one begins to appreciate the thing of beauty as ‘complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts’. The sum of these parts, says Joyce, is ‘consonantia’. Once again, more efficiently, the field of architecture defines it as ‘the quality of proportionality in relation to an end’. A beautiful poem, then, must be ‘complex, multiple, divisible’ to Joyce, yet simply proportional to others. Can there be beauty in simplicity? And if so, from where does this simplicity arise?

Aquinas’s third and final attribute of beauty is perhaps the most difficult to define for the purposes of poetic analysis, because of its ambiguous nature. To Joyce, this final quality is the ‘supreme quality […] felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination’.[6] He defines this as ‘the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing’,[7] which in essence corresponds with the broader definition of ‘the power of an object to reveal its ontological reality’. The nature of the very thing being called beautiful must be thus considered as integral to its quality as a beautiful thing. Paradoxical as this assessment may be, we are nonetheless left with the following conclusion as a result of these interpretations: ‘Something that is truly beautiful has all of its constituent elements (integrates), is proportional to its ultimate purpose (consonantia), and manifests its essential reality (clarets)’.[8] For poetry, this must therefore mean that beauty is found in verse that is accurate and ‘efficiently’ expressed, while the very thing being expressed is complex, harmonious with the human spirit, universal – traits derived from Joyce’s vision of a thing as being ‘divisible’ – and, finally, in verse that is inherently aware of its place within an ontologically contemplative reality.

On a more technical level, beauty is perhaps easier to define. Beauty, in poetry, is constructed and delicately crafted. While each age of literature possesses its own standards of aesthetic beauty, as will be established in the following sections, there are nonetheless a number of transcendent constants. Modernist works aside, poetry is rhythmic in some way, and is made up of lines that follow a metre, or a pattern of stressed syllables that separate its characteristics when spoken or read from prose. In addition, rhyme is often used, though not always, to create sonorous effects that further separate poetry as its own literary form. In music, beauty is generally thought to originate from repetition and patterns, characterized as motifs and melodies, inset with different chord relations that produce polyphony, or harmony. In literature of course, and in particular poetry, repetition is a mechanism sometimes used to achieved beauty, as for example in refrains, but it is far from being a prerequisite for exquisite verse. Attridge would seem to suggest that the search for objective criteria for beauty is doomed when he observes that ‘the institution of literature […] seems to be defined by its capacity to outstrip any precise specifications or predictions of what constitutes a “good” literary work’.[9] Nonetheless, there must be certain properties of verse that remain present in canonical works irrespective of their subject or age. Poetry is ‘often admired, not in spite of, but because of the semantic complexity it exhibits’,[10] which on the surface would seem to act against Aquinas’s first attribute, and certainly against Pound’s credo, unless one concedes that poetry can be complex yet clear. Expression and the conveyance of meaning, as long as it remains unimpeded by form or technical structure, must then be seen as the first communicative aim of poetry, yet we still define poetry by the latter, choosing to see the rhythmic patterns of verse as its defining difference from prose.

To truly understand beauty, we must first grasp the notion of catharsis, which, generally speaking, is the most prominent effect of beauty as a phenomenon. Catharsis is an inner purge, something that serves to renew and revive the spirits through a trial of deep emotion. This deeply personal reaction is the one thing that beauty, as an attribute of poetry, possesses regardless of its era, style, or subject; it transcends these labels, and in many ways is the one constant companion of beautiful poetry throughout the ages. The definition of catharsis originates with Aristotle, who first characterised the term as a type of renewal. However, it has since become a broader term to encompass most instances of deeply emotional response.

Paraphrasing A. E. Housman’s 1933 lecture, ‘The name and nature of poetry’, Isobel Armstrong lists ‘poetry’s “symptoms” as gooseflesh, “precipitation of water to the eyes” and “a constriction of the throat”’.[11] Catharsis is most closely related to Aquinas’s third attribute: ‘claritas’, or radiance, as it is closely linked with one’s own awareness of self – a sort of ontological hallmark. Wilfred Bion most aptly draws this link, by claiming that opposing attitudes to creative acts, which one must assume are striving to achieve some form of beauty, are characterised by ‘a hatred of emotion, and therefore, by a short extension, of life itself’.[12] Indeed, as Roger Scruton observes: ‘if there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it’.[13]

Perception aside, however, there are still those who perceive beauty but choose to omit it from their analytic discussions of literature because of the very thing that gives it so much power – its universality. Attridge argues that ‘the experience of beauty’,[14] which he acknowledges is ‘crucial to the aesthetic tradition and clearly an important aspect of our response to many works of art’, still ‘cannot be taken as a defining property’, his primary contention being that beauty ‘is equally an aspect of our response to many natural objects’, also citing beauty’s ‘problematic’ subjectivity and ambiguous nature. This argument, insofar as it involves the natural world and our discourses with it as a reason to lessen the impact of beauty as a critical term, is weak. Surely, this instance speaks of humankind’s desire to emulate natural beauty, this phenomenon that we struggle to define, in our own art. This profound, most deeply-driven of desires simply cannot be discarded as ‘problematic’, it should be characterised as the search for a more refined discourse between humans and their ontological search. The work of Theodor Adorno would seem to support this argument, as he writes: ‘art does not imitate nature, not even individual instances of natural beauty, but natural beauty as such’,[15] suggesting that art is simply the experience of deriving a sense of natural beauty from artistic (arguably defined as manufactured) beauty.

To begin the search for some kind of common, shared property of beautiful poetry, one must start the journey in the age of boundless human ambition, the century in which art and artistry across Europe were redefined as fundamentally invaluable, rewarding and virtuous pursuits. This age was of course the Renaissance. Please see ‘Renaissance Beauty’ for the continuation of this discussion.

 – T. Colebrooke, 2016.



[1] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, 3rd edn (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 300.

[2] See Terry Eagleton, “The Ideology of the Aesthetic”, Poetics Today, 9 (1988), 327-38.

[3] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ed. by Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 178.

[4] Randy Stice, “Living Stone: The Beauty of the Liturgical Altar”, Sacred Architecture Journal, 21 (2012), 25-27, (25).

[5] Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading (London: Faber, 1991), p. 32.

[6] Joyce, p.178.

[7] Ibid. Italics in original.

[8] Stice, p. 25.

[9] Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 12.

[10] Peter Lamarque, ‘Semantic Finegrainedness and Poetic Value’ in John Gibson ed., The Philosophy of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 19.

[11] Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 109.

[12] Wilfred Bion, Second Thoughts (London: Heinemann Medical Books, 1967), p. 100.

[13] Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. ix.

[14] Attridge, The Singularity of Literature, p. 14.

[15] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Continuum, 1997), p. 72.


Copyright (C) The Composite Review 2016.

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