Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Keep back beauty

'Why, when so many artists refrain from ascribing the word 'beautiful' to their own paintings, or 'beauty' to art in general, does McCahon glory in its use?' asks Gordon H. Brown in one of the early chapters of Towards a Promised Land. 'It is an essential word in his vocabulary; there are ten occurrences of 'beauty' and 'beautiful' in his commentary on his paintings in the Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition catalogue, a relatively short text from a predominantly Modern painter. McCahon appears to have accepted, without reservation, Eric Gill's advice: "Beauty - the word is a stumbling block. Do not let us stumble over it."'

Later in the same chapter Brown mentions a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that McCahon liked to quote from - the chapter actually takes its title ' 'To keep back beauty from vanishing away'. I can't believe I've never seen it before. It's exquisite, a rushing rilling torrent of the terrible and the beautiful:

The leaden echo and the golden echo


How to keep—is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
O is there no frowning of these wrinkles, ranked wrinkles deep,
Down? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there’s none, there ’s none, O no there’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there’s none; no no no there’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.


There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
One. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matched face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets more, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring sighs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why
When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

Source: Gordon H Brown, Towards a Promised Land: One the life and art of Colin McCahon, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010, p. 31.

(Also, this is my 1100th post. I'm quite proud of me.)

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