Reprise: Towards a Definition of Beauty

The trajectory of aesthetic evolution in English Literature over the past several hundred years gives a truly fascinating insight into cultural shifts in Europe and latterly America during this time. The canon of post-medieval English poetry develops and accepts different standards of beauty and revers fundamentally opposing ideologies as centuries progress. These changes are, for the purposes of this quest, most easily defined in the context of Foucault’s épistèmes, changes that ‘[define] the conditions of possibility of all knowledge […] in any given culture and at any given moment’.[1] An episteme is an attitude that defines an epoch, a governing theory of a societal and cultural norm that we acknowledge as consistent across all fields of human endeavor in the given age – from science to literature. Throughout the major literary and artistic movements – Renaissance, Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Modernism – I have sought to define these epistemic shifts in an effort to better understand how and why perceptions of beauty change with the passing of time, and if there are any transcendent, unchanging qualities of beautiful poetry that can be used to compile an objective definition of what poetic beauty might be.

To call a poem ‘beautiful’ is to acknowledge its power over our emotions. However, what is beautiful in poetry seems to go hand in hand with what is literary. Somewhat skeptically, Lamarque concludes that ‘readers of literary works will have a conventional expectation that humanly interesting themes will be explored and developed through the subject presented, be it narrative content or poetic image’.[2] However, in many ways the experience of modernism is ongoing: poets continue to be mistrustful of the waning notion of the aesthetic as being their aim.

I remain torn between two apprehensions of the same platonic notion of beauty. One of these apprehensions is confusing, skeptical, postmodernist, effectively defining beauty as the trending notion of fashionable poetry. The other is more enduring, perceiving beauty as a transcendent quality of great poetry, uncovered in different styles of poetry as ages change, irrespective of form, style, and historical context. One root of this confusion is the availability, and indeed, abundance of material to which the modern reader has immediate unimpeded access, which creates a chaotic storm of noise within which the ancient principles of beauty struggle to operate, with their properties of calm serenity. There is now a thriving multiplicity of voices in the interminable discourse of literary and poetic debate. As opposed to our ancestors, who would have experienced poetry as the product of the age, motivated by the living and the present, only the result of the most recent aesthetic revolution, we can now perceive multiple shifts in aesthetic theory through the ages, in many ways affording us a freedom of choice that our ancestors simply did not have. The modern reader can instantaneously grasp and navigate all of these epistemic shifts, across Holderlin’s Empedocles, Hume’s Letter to a Physician, and Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Beauty, throughout all of history, however, seems chiefly concerned with romance, dreams, stars, the most essential of human passions. In many ways, it is an introverted phenomenon.

Crucially, the dilemma that remains is this: Two people may call two different poems, one from the neoclassical period and one from the Romantic era, ‘beautiful’, but what they mean when using this word may be two completely different things, or the same thing. Both poems are finely crafted verse, they may employ sibilance, regular rhyme or blank verse, but are they both enacting the Aquinian ideals of beauty? Or are they superficially called ‘beautiful’ because of the reader’s own time-bound taste, an arbitrary penchant for the heroic couplet or blank verse?

Philosophers and theorists, continue to be torn on the subject, much like myself. ‘To respond to […] beauty is part and parcel of literary sensitivity’,[3] yet ‘the question of feeling embarrasses most contemporary critics’.[4] Fundamentally, I find myself asking why the academic institution of the study of English Literature is so widespread and engrained in society. The exploration of words and language – their idiosyncrasies and elusive mysteries – has a direct connection with the human soul. It affords us some form of positive emotion, and that emotion, I can only conclude, is beauty.

 – T. Colebrooke, 2016.




[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1971), p. 168.

[2] Peter Lamarque, The Philosophy of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), p. 63.

[3] Derek Attridge, ‘The Singularity of Literature’ in The Work of Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 76.

[4] Morris Dickstein, “Wordsworth and Solitude”, The Sewanee Review, 95 (1987), 253-75, (253).


Copyright (C) The Composite Review, 2016.

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