Some Shape of Beauty

“Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils”
John Keats

What is the shape of beauty that moves away the pall? What is the thing that lifts our chin to the spectral infinite? That pauses our hearts?

It paints the world pink. It cups the ears and shatters mental obstinance. It arrives like Phaethon in fiery orbit.

It is a beautiful thing, but is it rightly called beauty?

A few examples for contemplation.

Jan Morris and the unexpected kindness

Here’s a lovely thing that has happened to me. When they made my first collection of these diary pieces into a book, I added a dedication, thus:

For One and All Kindlily (and yes, there is such a word!)

Well, last night I went into town in a misty, rainy dusk to collect a load of firewood, and as I began to load it up a vague, burly figure emerged unexpectedly out of the half-light to carry it all to the car for me. I don’t know who he was. I didn’t recognize him – could hardly see him really – and when he finished the job he just melted into the mist again without a word. I called after him through the darkness to thank him for his great kindness, and after a pause his voice came back to me there. ‘I try to behave kindlily,’ it said, and then after another pause, more faintly still: ‘And yes, there is such a word.’ Never in half a century of the writing life have I been so delightfully quoted.

From Jan Morris’ Thinking Again

Unexpected emptiness. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Emma Mitchell and the village wood

When I walk the half-mile or so from our front door to the entrance of the village wood, follow the mown paths that trail between the trees and begin to notice the plants going to seed or coming into flower, seek out the yellow-striped grove snail shells part-hidden in the chalky soil and catch sight of a muntjac deer as it scampers away, the mental relief I felt at seeing that lime tree opposite our cottage is multiplied many-fold. I become engrossed in every leafy, creeping or flying inhabitant of the wood, and with each detail that draws my attention, with each metre I walk, the incessant clamour of daily concerns seems to become more muffled and the foggy pall of depression begins to disperse.

From Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us

Unbearable complexity from a point. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Billie Holiday and the song

I didn’t even know the word ‘audition’ existed, but that was what I wanted.

So Jerry sent me over to the piano players and told me to dance. I started and it was pitiful. They were going to throw me out on my ear, but I kept begging for the job. Finally the piano player took pity on me. He squashed out his cigarette, looked up at me, and said, ‘Girl, can you sing?

‘I said, ‘Sure I can sing, what good is that?’ I had been singing all my life, but I enjoyed it too much to think I could make money at it. Besides, those were the days of the Cotton Club and all those glamour pusses who didn’t do nothing but look pretty, shake a little, and take money off tables.

I thought that was the only way to make money, and I needed forty-five bucks by morning to keep Mom from getting set out in the street. Singers were never heard of then, unless it was Paul Robeson, Julian Bledsoe, or someone legit like that.

So I asked him to play ‘Trav’lin’ All Alone.’ That came closer than anything to the way I felt. And some part of it must have come across. The whole joint quieted down. If someone had dropped a pin, it would have sounded like a bomb. When I finished, everybody in the joint was crying in their beer, and I picked thirty-eight bucks up off the floor. When I left the joint that night I split with the piano player and still took home fifty-seven dollars.

From Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues

Clouds fumble over themselves like waves. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Andy Warhol and odd objects of comfort

Sometimes something can look beautiful just because it’s different in some way from the other things around it. One red petunia in a window box will look very beautiful if all the rest of them are white, and vice-versa. When you’re in Sweden and you see beautiful person after beautiful person after beautiful person and you finally don’t even turn around to look because you know the next person you see will be just as beautiful as the one you didn’t bother to turn around to look at-in a place like that you can get so bored that when you see a person who’s not beautiful, they look very beautiful to you because they break the beautiful monotony.

There are three things that always look very beautiful to me: my same good pair of old shoes that don’t hurt, my own bedroom, and U.S. Customs on the way back home.

From Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Stephen Fry and love’s whimsy

The moment I lifted my head from the pavement and glanced across the road I saw, amongst the Redwood’s boys crossing, one of their number was looking the other way, as if to check that there was no traffic coming. And at that moment, before his face came into view, it happened. The world changed.

If he had turned out to be ugly, I think my heart would have sunk, but still the world would have been different, because that thing that stirred and roared in me would have been awakened anyway and nothing could ever have put it back to sleep.

As it was, he was not ugly.

He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.

I stopped dead so suddenly that a boy behind walked straight into me.

From Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot

They square their breasts to the sun. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Ernest Hemingway and the oyster

Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St James. I was tired of rum St James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she’s gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.

I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

From Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

Hello there! Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Wislawa Szymborska and constant art


So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

From Wislawa Szymborska’s Here

To be erased and made again. And again… Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Sudden or slow. Conscious-expanding or cosmic blip. A moment of peace. Or energy.

We surrender as the shape of beauty aligns our fibers to true north.

It is a wonder, wrote Annie Dillard in her contemplation of these exact moments, it is a wonder that there is any beauty at all.

What shape of beauty moves away your pall?