The Concern for Beauty in the South
In the last essay, we spoke only briefly about the Southern commitment to beauty, which is in contradistinction to the general American culture of ugliness. This commitment was not one of the abstract and theoretical kind, however. It manifested itself in the objects that Southerners crafted for use in their everyday lives: homes, gardens, furniture, and so on, and also in manners, dancing, oratory, literature, etc. To give one example:
--Longwood Plantation, Natchez, Mississippi. Photo of Carol Highsmith, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/plantation-style-houses-architecture/all
One of the foremost promoters in Dixie of the need for beauty in society was William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina (d. 1870). Dr Clyde Wilson says of him,
Unlike the more famous Southern writer, the short-lived Edgar Allan Poe, Simms wrote voluminously and in every literary form: short story, novel, poetry, criticism, essay, history, and biography. Though his work has sometimes been considered uneven in quality, he often wrote superbly. Poe said that Simms was one of the best American writers of the time and that if he had had the self-promotion machinery of the New England literati his name would be a household word.
Does this great representative of high Southern culture still have anything valuable to say to his Southern kinsmen, or any other seekers after beauty and her handmaidens, today? He certainly does. One of the best places to begin is Lecture I of his three-part oration delivered in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1854, Poetry and the Practical (James Kibler, Jr., edr., U of Ark. Press, 1996). Very near the beginning he gives a stark warning against the domination of life by its material aspect alone:
The result of all this achievement, as well in our case as in that of England, is to exaggerate in the national estimate as it did with the Assyrian, the Roman and the Macedonian, the merit of mere material acquisition. . . . Indulging but a single great appetite, it swallows up the rest. Sworn only to the acquisition of material things, we ignore all the endowments of the soul. In just that degree in which the one passion prevails, will be the absorption of all other attributes. They perish from non user; and the nation living thus, dies out and must die out, so soon as the waters roll back upon them—from that moment when the Genius of the people falters in the one exercise, in which it is no longer possible to advance. Here was the simple secret of Roman and Assyrian overthrow. They had but a single aim—acquisition—the spread of their empire—the seizure of foreign realms. The same passion, which, in Society, whets cunning, sharpens avarice, prompts strife and fraud, and a gnawing hunger for a neighbour's gains, is, in the case of nations, the mother of war! To this, all the wars that have vexed the world are due. The arts, the liberal exercises that delight in peace, are the only corrections of this insane appetite, and for these the people had no sympathy. The fruits of evil grew from the deficiency, leaving the one wild passion wholly in the ascendant. With this passion the tyranny had birth which ground its own people with taxation—and savaged other nations with war (pgs. 8-9).
A little later, he rejoins this theme but begins to trace a bit of the path we should walk:
We are all quite too easily persuaded of the perfection of those possessions which meet the mere wants of appetite. Our efforts, if made, are simply to multiply our treasures. Having conquered many lands we would conquer more. Having gathered much gold, we only know increasing desires for more. The appetite grows from what it feeds on! We degrade the Genius of the race into a drudge, and subject the conqueror to the labours of the miner. This, in all ages, has been the fatal error. Is it not so with ours. Have we not set our hearts upon merely external conditions? Seeking show, rather than strength;—wealth, rather than the soul's elevation—demanding power for its own sake, rather than its uses, and suffering the brave Genius to whom we owe so much, to forego all the higher uses of his wing. Our pride is much more delighted with the extent than the beauty of our dominion. We ask of Genius only those agencies by which to extend our sway. We ask of art only farther facilities for gain. All our tests of merit are those which we mistakenly consider the only useful, and our applauses are accorded to him only who shall open to us new fields of material conquest. Such is the master passion of our race! (p. 15)
Then he states more clearly the aims mankind should have:
. . . so lift your hearts, and purge your eyes, as that you shall attain glimpses of the ineffable glories that gush in living music from the throne of the great God himself."—But we laugh at the visionary promise. What attraction is there for us, in spiritual beauties and golden harmonies, if they be celestial only. The voices of desire in our hearts do not echo to such a promise—and we answer querulously—"None of these things at present. Gold now, and Land. No matter how vast the territory, I have stomach for it all. It shall be spanned with railroads; it shall be scorched with steam. For the gold, I have measureless coffers, endless uses, and an appetite that never knows content." The benevolent Genius mournfully responds—"It is I that have given thee all these things. The time is come when thy desires should open upon better things! Wouldn't thou not have something for the soul?" "No! No! Not just yet. The soul can wait!" And the good Genius departs—flies the service which rejects his better uses, and denies him the exercise of that nobler wing, which might circle the empire with impassable barriers against which the foe would fling himself in vain. "The soul can wait!" (pgs. 15-6)
But how do we strengthen the soul? Mr Simms’s answer is to feed it with beauty:
If the only proper human purposes were limited to those which we vulgarly describe as the useful, we might well question God's wisdom in the creation of beings so very frail and valueless. But the objects of Divine Wisdom are not to be determined by the estimates of the grain and cotton market. Here the Poets interpose as our best teachers. Their faith assures them that
Enjoys the air it breathes."
and this should be our sufficient answer, since we are not to limit the blessings of existence to our own race merely. Their uses are moral. They were made for man, though they add nothing to his stock in trade, or his weight on 'Change. Their value is found in their ministry to his merest fancies—his dreams—his sense of the simply Beautiful. And the sense of the Beautiful is something. The Greeks accounted it a virtue. They deified it. They honored it with rapturous devotion; with the noblest offices of art; and, through it, they taught lessons of virtue to their young. Was this a mistake of the Greeks? Our practical men rarely show much sense of the Beautiful. They are Greeks only in the Market Place! The old Greeks were accordingly in error! And yet,—are we insensible to the fact that the element of Beauty enters, as a vital essential, into all the works of God's creation? We see it in the meanest of his insects, in the most inferior forms of vegetable life, as conspicuously present as in sun, and sky, and star and rainbow. There is a meaning in all this. Beauty implies the most exquisite symmetry, and the most perfect organization. It thus represents the highest law—the perfection of moral in the Being who creates,—and thus establishes an absolute Law for the nature of him who beholds. That we should duly esteem this law, it was made to appeal, through every possible variety of form and aspect, to our tastes and senses; and Beauty is thus decreed to be the visible representative of a principle and a virtue—involving models which govern our invention, refine our tastes, elevate our genius, and conciliate our affections. There is not a bud that blows—not a bird that flies, not an insect that chirrups beside us on the winter hearth, but fully displays its uses to the soul that can see—in the fancies which they inspire, the tastes which they awaken, and the moralities, which, unconsciously to our- selves, perhaps, they serve to teach (pgs. 34-5).
And at the end, foreshadowing one of Dostoevsky’s famous utterances in The Idiot a little more than a decade later (‘Beauty will save the world’), Mr Simms closes with these memorable lines:
What hope is there for the nations that thus trample on the Beautiful. The worship of the Beautiful had saved them—will save you,—when horse and rider are overthrown. But we must learn to love before we worship; and the idol of the vulgar superstition must be torn down from its high places in our hearts, before the true God can find his shrine! (p. 39)
The Southern tradition stoutly rejects the utilitarian ugliness of modern America, which itself is the triumph of the severe austerity of New England’s Puritan Calvinism that has been imposed on all the States in a secular form since the War between the States was concluded. But by neglecting the Southern tradition, no one benefits from it, whether in the South or outside her borders. The Southern tradition must be rediscovered by her people; it must become a lived tradition again - for their own good and perhaps for the good of others as well.
‘Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick’ (St Matthew’s Gospel 5:15).
Source of quotes from Poetry and the Practical: