On Possessing Beauty

On Possessing Beauty

On the second-to-the-last day of September, in the year of our Lord 2011, I came into possession of a hill in the English countryside.

I marked the event that evening with all due solemnity and appropriate honors. My husband and I had ostensibly walked out in the late afternoon to watch the sunset from a neighboring slope, but with a few quick modifications, and all the young joy of a first-time hill-owner, I adapted it into a celebration. I cut a few swinging strands of ivy that hung over the rutted path we took from our cottage, and as soon as we had spread our blanket on the grassy prospect, I sat down and began weaving them into a coronet. Philip grinned a little ruefully as I studded it with tiny thistles—the bane of any pasture-keeper’s existence; the amethysts and jasper of the woodland lapidary. But when I opened our tea caddy and produced, not the expected and well-traveled thermos and tin cups, but a bottle of champagne, his smile registered genuine surprise.

“This is a momentous occasion,” I said gravely, attempting to loosen the cork and then passing it to him in a sudden fear of flying consequences. “It’s not every day you come into property.”

I had wanted it the moment I had seen it: that green, sweeping hill, mounting in an undulation of gentle swales to a point dark among the hedges. The longing had leapt up in me with a thrill of pain and joy and I knew it had to be mine, right down to the least blade of grass. And not the hillside only, but the lane by which I had reached it, overarched by chestnuts and wizened holly trees, and the cottage it led from, buried in a steep fold of the Dorset hills. I wanted the orchard I came through and all its ripe burden of sun-warmed fruit. I wanted the sunlight itself, falling dapple-dazzling in pools of wealth upon the landscape and I wanted the blue bowl of sky arching cloud-swept above. I was inexorable in my demands: I even required the very lambs and ewes with which it was populated, grazing in ceaseless content upon its verdant slope.

The transaction had gone through without a hitch—and completely unbeknown to the thoroughly lovely and gracious couple that occupied the land. The husband, a gentleman farmer of the old school, even witnessed the proceedings from afar, hailing me from his tractor as he chugged off down into the hollow, and hadn’t the least suspicion what I was up to.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced such an overmastering and irresistible passion for ownership. In like manner, I had snatched up every last Canova in the Louvre, and the Alpen-crowned sapphire of Italy’s Lake Como. I had collected a red sandshore on Prince Edward Island and a time-forgotten homestead in the Shenandoah Valley and an entire jewel of an island off the coast of Georgia. I had even managed to purchase, in a happy circumstance of exceedingly good fortune, a certain majestic cedar tree, gleaming out from a dawn-lit mist and hung with diamonds of rarest dew. This last was a steal, and genuinely rare, for I found it in my own backyard.

The cork flew off the bottle with a festive pop and we watched it soar straight over our heads like a springing lark. I retrieved it from the grass at my side and dropped it into the tea caddy as a souvenir.

“I’m landed gentry,” I told Philip, lifting my glass to a level with the departing sun and watching the rose-tinted light flit and sparkle among the bubbles. “In good standing and by all the inviolable laws of fairyland.”

In his elegant collection of essays, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton observes that this insatiable yearning for acquisition in the face of overwhelming beauty is common to the human condition. “A dominant impulse on encountering beauty,” he writes, “is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this, and it mattered to me.’”

I had never heard it expressed that way, but de Botton’s words were a wind upon the Aeolian harp of my deepest sensibilities, and I knew by the hints of that far-off song that he was on to something. Perhaps something bigger and truer than even he imagined.

He went on to recount how John Ruskin had considered this phenomenon and had concluded that there was an effective and thoroughly respectable means of satisfying such an insatiable craving: to look deeply enough into the beauty to gain an awareness of its specific elements and impressions, and to make the attempt to express it artistically.

In other words, to see, and to describe what you have seen.

This was Ruskin’s motivation, both in his teaching and his drawing manuals: to help others to see. To open their eyes and to loosen their fingers. To “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.” He espoused two particular mediums for this endeavor, sketching and “word-painting.” (Photography was initially advocated, as well, until it became apparent to him that the general enthusiasm was leaning all-too-precariously towards the temptation to let the camera do all the seeing.) And in both cases, he was adamant on one point: natural aptitude and talent were secondary—even inferior—to open eyes. To teach a person to draw, with strokes of a pencil or with words, was to place a golden key in their hands—they would never look at the world around them the same way again. The old indifference which is the curse of familiarity would give way before the staggering particularity of nature and design. And in the effort to produce a creative response, howsoever imperfect, the beauty could be owned in a way that even physical possession could not guarantee.

My contract on the hill was drawn up in the form of a poem. Candidly, I don’t know the first thing about writing poetry; it would be generous to call all previous attempts awkward. But when I saw that hill, when I knew I must have it, I knew with equal conviction that the payment had to be made in verse. It was so far beyond my powers that the added humility of ineptitude seemed appropriate. For three hours I sat there in the sun, a blue English sky above and the beloved, satiny English grass beneath, and waited upon that work. I was aware of every flick of a bird’s wing in the hedges behind me, and the deep, concentrated indigo of the bloom-frosted sloes tangled thick within the branches. A cockerel saluted the world from some unseen farmyard far below and the uniquely pastoral, slightly ovine scent of the countryside rose up to greet me like a friend. I watched the shadow of a tree travel over the velvet surface of a mounded hill to the south and saw the wood doves fling themselves skyward with a bustle of feathers and matronly complaint. And when, at length, I collected my things and started back down towards our cottage and my tea, I could almost hear my own heart pounding in my chest, I felt so alive.

I had come to inquire and I was leaving in possession.

But ownership is not all, of course, even in this imaginative sense—there is a much deeper magic at play for the child of God. For the true apprehension of beauty, like faith itself, is an exercise in laying claim to what is already ours. There is a low door in the garden wall, and it opens on an inheritance: this is my Father’s world, and He has given it to me. All of the beauty in this astonishing universe of ours has already been lavished by a self-giving Creator. Wakefulness and effort give forth upon our birthright; seeing becomes receiving. Of this sublimity the Restoration-era minister Thomas Traherne waxes exuberant in his masterpiece of meditation, Centuries: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right,” he says, “till you so esteem it, that everything in it is more your treasure than a King’s exchequer full of Gold and Silver…till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

In short, if we find ourselves wandering through this beautiful world of ours with ink-stained fingers and dreamy eyes and a slightly lopsided ivy crown, gazing about like we own the place, it’s because we do.