"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Through A Glass Brightly

Stained Glass Design in Fireman's Hall Museum, Philadelphia


Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Experience" (written in 1844)
is full of great observations:

"The years teach much which the days never know."

"From the mountain you see the mountain."

"People forget that it is the eye which makes the horizon."

"Five minutes of today are worth as much to me,
as five minutes in the next millennium."

"Let us treat the men and women well:
treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are."

"The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway."


Stained Glass Windows in Wells Cathedral, England

"Experience" also contains many beautiful descriptions of color and light. For Emerson, uncertainty and brightness go hand in hand. We live our lives almost not knowing what is happening to us: "Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes . . . All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception" (141). It is not lack of light, however, that impairs our inner vision; it is not through a glass darkly that we try to see. Instead, our distorted vision causes all to "glitter." Distortion, but not gloom, not dullness. We are in the light not in the dark.

Emerson unites illusion, perception, and limitation: "Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus" (144). We hold beads of experience to the light, watching them become prisms, deciding which of the many colors we feel most moved by, which bead, which color we will choose. To choose but one hue is to choose a dream, an illusion, but such is our inability to perceive experience in more than one way at a time.

Writing in France a few years later (1857), Gustave Flaubert -- in a section sadly omitted from the final version of his novel -- would picture Madame Bovary standing before the colored windows at Vaubyessard. She looks out at the countryside through variously colored window panes in a passage strangely reminiscent of Emerson's colored beads and lenses. Moving as from dream to dream, Emma Bovary looks at the illusion offered by each pane. Through the blue pane, all seems sad; through the yellow pane everything grows smaller, lighter, and warmer; through the green pane everything she sees appears leaden and frozen. She remains longest in front of the red glass, looking at a landscape that frightens her, until she averts her eyes to the ordinary daylight of a transparent pane. [Continued below, in "Comments."]

Like Emerson's image of the many - colored beads, this picture of Madame Bovary offers both variation and restriction. In an expansive description of light and brightness, Emerson illustrates our limited ability to fully understand experience and offers Surprise as a method of perceiving life. He talks of both the uncertainty and the blessedness of Surprise. Our perception may be obscured, and we may be isolated from comprehension of a grand design, but it is, as Emerson portrays it, a panoramic isolation:

"Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping, if it were not. God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness God draws down an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. You will not remember, God seems to say, and you will not expect." (152)

The reader cannot help but see this "pure" sky as one of the clearest, brightest blue. Despite isolation and limitation, this is not a vision of darkness or despair. It is a climactic image of color and light that dispels the gloom of our imperfect understanding. Emerson offers hope and affirmation amidst uncertainty and fragmentation. A human being, says Emerson, "is a golden impossibility" (152). Through our sleep - filled eyes we can glimpse the truth of our experience, glittering through a colored lens, on the horizon where small but distinct we see something as beautiful as our own natures.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Prose and Poetry, 2nd Edition, Ed. Reginald L. Cook, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969) 141 - 161.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Norton Critical Edition), Ed. and Trans. Paul de Man, (New York: Norton, 1965), 269 - 70.

Next post will be on Saturday, November 28th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(more Bill Bryson, autumnal poetry, etc.)

1 comment:

  1. Similarly, in _Tom's Midnight Garden_ by Philippa Pearce, Tom and Hatty look through "the coloured panes that bordered the glass panellng of the upper half [of the doorway of the greenhouse]. Through each colour of pane, you could see a different garden outside. Through the green pane, Tom saw a garden with green flowers under a green sky; even the geraniums were green - black. Through the red pane lay a garden as he might have seen it through the redness of shut eyelids. The purple glass filled the garden with thunderous shadow and with oncoming night. The yellow glass seemed to drench it in lemonade . At each of the four corners of this bordering was a colourless square of glass, engraved with a star.

    " 'And if you look through this one -- ' said Hatty. They screwed up their eyes and looked through the engraved glass.

    'You can't really see anything, through the star,' said Tom, disappointed.

    'Sometimes I like that the best of all,' said Hatty. 'You look and see nothing, and you might think there wasn't a garden at all; but, all the time, of course, there is, waiting for you.' "