Sophia Kirk: Prismatics

The Atlantic monthly  384, 1889

Between shower and sunshine, and especially towards the close of a day which has been evenly contested by both, when the victory of which the sun is sure is not yet wholly yielded to him, there is often a wide penumbra, which may rather be called a nimbus, since it is no gray result of the blending of light and shade, but a streaming of glory into cloud. The sober verdure imitates the mobility of the sea, and gleams in dancing facets. The bow spans the valley, resting its sheer column at either end firmly and lightly against the hillside; darkening its tones a little where the green of grove or mountain is visible behind it, but preserving there, as on netural cloud, luminous mist, or ether, the perfect flower of its color; holding like fine, narrow ribbons against the cheek of earth and of sky the separate, delicate elements of which the varied beauty of sky and earth is composed. Often a second bow is more faintly marked upon the hills, and disappears somewhere in the mist, not reaching the perfect are; but with the same tints it may be finer and more subtle in the promise which it makes for them. Under the arch lies a shining region of fields refreshed by the rain, and steeped in that yellow-green light which is said to be most favorable to the growth of plants, - a joyous foreground to the retiring shower, which still holds part of the landscape in its shadow.

At such moments the glory of earth is heightened till it almost seems to shine from within, but the sky keeps its supremacy in value by discarding color for light. The sun burns white his passage through the ether; rolls of white cloud bursting wiuth light leave unexplained, tender shadows on the clear yet softened mountains, or hover above them like crests of radiance; the blue in which they float hardly exists as color, but is the very spirit, unclothed and immaculate, of azure.

Nor need we turn the bow to find the prism. Every raindrop has one, if we rightly catch its gleam; the pond and the cobweb reflect the thought. The other day, a small silvery-white pine established such a relation between my eye and the sun that it was like a revelation, a magic tree sown and quickened in fairy-land. It shivered in tiny drops which shone pure light, like innumerable diamonds, while here and there under the little wet boughs hung larger pendants, which caught but one at a time of the prismatic rays, and gave out their pure orange fire-tint or cool blue according to the angle of vision. The prism seemed to have divided its store and garlanded its tree with separate greetings, as for the Christmas feast.

Enchanting as such visions are, they seem hardly real to us. We walk amid these shifting lights under the misty shower of the summer afternoon, and exclaim at each new message from the half-veiled sunlight, as we look with surprise and delight, on certain bright winter mornings, at the dazzling night-wrought armor of ice on branch and twig. These are joys that come rarely and that cannot last; the sun that created them is destroying at every moment. We fear lest the glory should vanish before the impression is fairly stamped upon us; or, if it chance to linger, there is a sense of something unlooked for and almost solemn through all its brilliancy, as if the shadow on the dial were stayed.  One such occasion, when, after the clearing of an afternon thunder-storm, a strange golden-green light tilled all the still air and landscape for two or three hours, remains in my memory like the record of a long day. I had a feeling of something about to happen, of some inevitable change at hand; the moments hung suspended; yet the air still held its drowsy sulphurous warmth; the color seemed to enter at every pore of the foliage, and the trees, accepting tranquilly the new conditions, stood mellowed and luminous, as if fastened in a spell of rich, silent beauty. It was delicious, but hardly canny, and lacked the freshness and sparkle and prismatic loveliness of a rapid clearing-up.

The history of raindrop is a circle, like its form. Heat gathered the moisture to sow in the bosom of the cloud, cold determined its shape, and in ripe time it appeared, to be harvested again by the reaper Sun. What a thrill of gladness runs through the fields when the golden rays cu through the falling shower! Songs break forth on every side, as if each throat had lost a voice and suddenly found it again. The moistened faces of the flowers are glad; the green is a finer emeral; Nature has drunk silently and thirstily of the rain and finds articulate and visible thanks in the sunshine. It is a moment of withdrawing veils which show us veils beyond, a moment of revelation and of mystery. It is the contact of near and far; the sun strikes fire from every grass-blade, and its touch upon leaf or pool is immediate and awakens response. Everything shines as in a new radiance; yet what is it, after all, save a simpler and more direct statement of the light which fills all our days, - a numbering of the rays which go to make up the yellow sunshine slumbering in the orchad between deep shadows through summer afternoons?
"Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun!"

For the prism, revealed to us only by the sunlight, is often hidden in its gold like the star. We have light, but must wait for the vision.

It does not always break silumtaneously within and without. We get comfort of some sort, thank Heaven, in dark days, and it is, alas! an undeniable fact that we often walk sodden and dull through the most radiant and life-giving atmosphere. It is the joy and priviledge of youth that the outer light and the inner are in closer harmony; that if there is a lack of power to rise above the depression of surroundings, there is also a keener and quicker response to what-ever is uplifting or inspiring in them. "There exists in the greater number of men," says Sainte-Beuve, "a poet who dies young, and is survived by the man."  Many of us have caugth at some period that gleam which, dancing on lake and bushes, struck the mind at the same angle, and made of it for the instant a prism, like the raindrop or the dragonfly. At such moments the mind slides along the thread which connects sun with eye, light with retina, spirit with matter. We feel the slenderness, the intangible mystery, the diaphanous nature, of hte link which would separate what it joins. Idealism seems not proven, but actually possible, and possibility is so much more than proof. The thought which has perplexed and fascinated for ages so many minds, that the flashing and wondrous vision without may be one with the eye which sees it, and the origin and base of both be the one unsubstantial yet absolute spirit, appears no longer absurd, but simple and reducible almost to every-day language and uses. It breaks down barriers and bridhes space; it is a thought which seems necessary to hold the tints to the bubble, - to explain, nay to create, the delight given to every sense by all this freshness and shimmer and song.

Nor has science any fact wherewith to disprove it. Eliminate the argument of beauty; start from the firmest vintage-ground of experince; choose the path of investigation, of biology, rather than poetry: the scalpel itself brings us to that unfathomable mystery of the anatomy of the eye. The answer is not to be read from the retina; the nerve, with all its marvelous delicacy and accord with brain, only poses the question. The lens is perfect, but where is the eye which makes use of it? We study the laws of refraction and the ransmission of light, and in a measure comprehend them. We turn to the other end, examine the impression received, and formulate our science of æsthetics and our laws of art. But the dewdrop in which these rays converge, the eye, accessible from either side, remains unexplained and incomprehensible. The process of fusion always eludes us.

A like mystery shrouds the transformation, which is hourly taking place all about us, of light into color. We perceive that the plant deprived of light grows pale, and the fact is made the basis of many experiments and conclusions, but we cannot yet trace the passage of the sunshine into the leaf. There is something occult and strange in that whole relation of light and color. Puzzle over it a little, and you begin to suspect that life is a translation, if not a treachery. Idealism is offered us as an explanation by a poet of the sturdy and exultant Elizabethan age, one whose unusual insight, groping through strange difficulties of speech, comes at rare moments to an accord of thought and word which emits a flash like one of those prismatic gleams in nature upon a dark surface. Chapman often strays from the human and social interest in his day, so full and so marvelously handled that it might well usurp the whole powers of artist and poet, to glance into philosophic problems or muse on generalizations. To him color is the condition through which we receive light.
"But as weak color always is allowed
The proper object of a human eye,
Though light be with a far more force endowed
In stirring up the visual faculty,
This color being but of virtuous light
A feeble image; and the cause doth lie
In the imperfection of a human sight;
So this for love and beauty, love's cold fire,
May serve for my praise, though it merit higher."

The virtue of light, its analogy to spiritual truth, runs through tall the mythologies. Light is visible spirit. "Had no star appeared in the heavens," says Jean Paul, "to man there had been no heaven." Light is gladness, life, and law. Its code is the prism, the point at which it meets and embraces color.

Thus, apart from the instinctive hunger of the mind to draw everything to itself and to globe experience, there seems to be a tendency in the material world, perhaps also in the spiritual, toward a definite centre of convergence. Disintegration is only half the story. The cloud illuminated by thge sun separates to prismatic bands the rays which in the sun itself meet as pure light; the phenomena perceived by the eye are drawn into its mirror. The strongest testimony of authoricity as to the existence of a God is the focusing of myriad glances at that point.

This edge of glory which celebrates the touch of sun and cloud, and conceals from us the passing of vision into thought, this borderland of radiance and mystery is the region of poetry and of religion. Both draw their substance from the darkness as well as from the gleam. Among the many efforts to define the nature and function of poetry, there are three which present a certain well-marked difference, though the ultimate divergence between them may not be very great. One is that oft-quoted definition which promises to attach the name of Matthew Arnold almost as firmly to a phrase as that of Buffon is linked to the oft-misquoted sentence on style, the dictum that "poetry is the criticism of life." Some time after it appeared there was an article in one of the English reviews, in which Mr. Alfred Austin, apparently anxious to defend the cause of inspiration against a claim which he conceived to be made too exlusively on the side of culture and the moral sentiment, defined poetry as "a transfiguration of life;" and a French critic has somewhere spoken of it as the expression of the aspiring element in life, - l'expression de l'aspiration de la vie. Mr. Arnold's definition had the ring of novelty coming after the many pæans to "art for art's sake," and perhaps was generally assumed to have in it more originality than truth, yet we find the same idea struggling to light in Chapman's quaint figures. This passage, from the dedication of the Androbeda Liberata, while it shows both his clumsiness and his grace, is an excellent specimen of the modernité of the Elizabethan poet, his nineteenth-century attitude of mind. It will be noted that the idea of poetry as a test or criticism is wedded, in the closing lines, to that of its aspiring quality, so that it takes in at least two of our definitions.
"For as the body's pulse in physic is
A little thing, yet therein th' arteries
Betray their motion, and disclose to art
The strength or weakness of each vital part,
Perpetually moving like a watch
Put in our bodies; so this three men's catch
This little soul's pulse, Poesy, panting still,
Like to a dancing pease upon a quill
Made with a child's breath up and down to fly,
Is no more manly though. And yet thereby
Even in the corps of all the world we can
Discover all the good and bad of man,
Anatomize his nakedness, and be
To his chief attribute a majesty;
Erect him past his human period,
And heighten his transition unto God."

Here, in the language of very Harveian science, is the finest retort upon the scientific or the mundane contempt of poetry. Its daintiness, its uncertainty,
"Fugitif comme l'eau qu'un rien fait dévier,"

its insignificance even, are all granted, but the "little soul's pulse" reports of the whole body; the airy Poesy, "like to a dancing pease," becomes king and prophet to boot. Emerson can hardly do more for the poet when he says, "He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre," though the radius of the Emersonian centre is a vast one, and his kingdom not of this world. Deliberate definitions were not in Emerson's line, for to define we must separate, and  he was the synthesist, not the analyzer; but if he did not put poetry into an epigram, the whole texture of his writings is filled with the sense and possession of its greatness. It is poetry not dissected by itself, but one with religion and philosophy. His idea is that of a transfiguration, but the thought itself is transfigured and become a poem.

That is probably the centre of the know, if we could undo it. But is not the union a final one, like that of eye and vision? Are we not trying to discover what Nature has shown and at the same instant concealed, it may be not in darkness, but in "a privacy of glorious light" no less unsearchable? The very conversion of words into poetry is unexplained. A poem is a mosaic in which we fear to see the pieces fall apart again, a treasure which we cherish as with the constant dread of losing it. The most devout lover of poetry is teased by a foreboding lest it should suddenly become naught to him. Any one who seeks the share his delight in it with a friend does so in a tentative way, doubtring whether the page will glow to another eye as it did to his. The most enthusiastic of us is paralyzed, and with good cause, at the thought of teaching a science which came to him without study. It chills him to think how coldly those glorious words will fall upon earts shut to their meaning. He is afraid that the beauty itself will vanish, leaving no trace to bear witness to his statement of it; that, discoursing of the flower in his hand, he may wake to find that  he is holding only the stem. But there lie the magic words, compound of printer's ink and of pure light, as firm and enduring in their sheer beauty as the mountain in its strength. We may be alienated from them again and again, and return to find the old charm as potent as ever, or we may lose the power of finding it, and yet feel its presence as we look at the loneliness of the distance, knowing that it is only to ourselves
"That there hath passed away a glory from the earth."

It would seem as if poetry, born of the transmutation of life into language in the mind of its creator, required for its completion a second process of fusion in the mind of its reader. Let that process once begin, and the teacher has succeeded; it is a ferment, and will work on like the creative power. It would be futile indeed for poet or for critic to report of what makes his joy, if the same leaven of seeing and rejoicing were not still going on. Poetry would have a poor chance in a world ruled by the superior force of money-making, if it were not one of the indestructible elements of life. As such it can afford to wait for its turn.

It is denied on all sides. The rainbow is a show to us, the sparkle and tossing of the foliage are an accident, the poem is half an illusion as we look back to it. There are two forces working against it, one of decay, the other of growth: on the one hand, the tendency of habit and conventionality to stereotype impressions, and to turn spirit into matter; on the other, the stress put upon contemplation by the demands of action. "In our youth," said Lady Ashburton, "we doubt whther we have a body, and later whether we have a soul: but the body asserts itself the more strongly of the two." the youth read his poem and constructed his philosophy in very gladness, anticipating experience, and in his eagerness to use it as material dividing its bitter and its sweet. Everything fitted the idea and was thrown into the crucible: the experiment has succeeded, and next comes a mass of new and heterogeneous material to confuse and contradict it. Ariel and Prospero are not the sprits with whom we are called upon to commune in city boarding-houses, and the shadow of the myth begins to envelop them. The poet, the idealist, dies young in us, as Sainte-Beuve says: it is the law of nature and of existence. But the demand for fusion as the result of thought is in the heart of things; the breaking up of the old alchemy is the beginnig of a new one. The glory has faded "into the light of common day," but that very light holds in it somewhat that was only hinted in the dawn, and was taken apart in the rainbow. The idea of duty strengthens and grows larger, till it seems to make puny and unnecessary the beauty which was so all-sufficient. We have scorned details and despised the common and unclean, and now in the herbage under our feet are miracles working themselves out in every inch; the common earth grows rich under the sunlight; the man or woman whom we would not admit to our thought has shared our sorrow and come nearer to us. And nearness gains significance as we begin to feel that we were not tossed into this valley of earth to hit at random. The fact that things are as they are stamps them at last with the seal of sacredness; and not in a moment, with a thrill of joy, but slowly, through the working of many forms of experience, and the moulding of thoughts which turn themselves round and round in the mind, the idealist takes up tenderly and with a sort of passion the once-despised details, and becomes the realist.

This necessity which the mid is under of welding together its impressions and its force, of living and acting as a whole, constitutes the need of being born again, the hunger and thirst after righteousness. The accomplishment of this law is religion. There is such a desire for this consummation that all manner of machinery is employed to bring it about; systems are polished off, and essays written, with Finish in large letters at their close, but the material worked upon protests by its very variety agains a hasty amalgamation. Experience claims to be lived. Life is the soil in which tings must be planted to grow, the plane on which we walk. If no fusion of life into words or action has taken place, the poem is only rhyme and the biography a collection of fragments. All our Welt-schmerz and doubt and restlessness are the craving after such fusion; all decay is the lack of it. There are often, not always, the cloud and the struggle; the result may come in the vision of a moment or be made up of the partial results of years, but there are always the radiance and sense of light, and there is always the element of mystery. We trace every stage of the thought through doubts and perplexities and hopes, but just where the passage of struggles into victory takes place there is a gab in the narration; something happened that was hidden in light, and left the sense of a new power.

The ultimate process which life demands of us is the fusion of the revelation with our daily life, the living in fullness of its meaning. We must pay back to life what it gave us. Poetry, voicing the astpiration within us, incites and quickens to this; and showing in prismatic loveliness the tints whereof life is composed, giving hints of the white radiance of truth, it is a test or criticism of the unity or lack of unity of our impressions and our faiths, of our nearness to the life of the spirit. Poetry takes account of the gleam, of the transient beauty, and brings it into relation with common sights, with duty, and with pain. The sunrise this morning was a corroboration of the prism. First a faint violet stole into the low eastern clouds; then a suggestion of rose appeared, growing deeper and clearer, till at some indefinable point the rose had mounted up to the clouds in mid-sky, and thence passed on to the west, leaving a flame in the east, becoming more and more yellow, while between the glowing cloud-bands were lakes of green sky such as we see at sunset. Light travels by law, and cannot stand still; it is not the god, but the messenger. Poetry is a dawn-rose which is merged in daylight, and recognized or unobserved shines on. It has its part in the truest realism which remembers the glory and the vision, and carries it on as a luminous thread in the woven tissue of experience. It is the result which counts; but after all, the result was brought about, in part at least by our own force; the vision came to us. Live criticises poetry, and says that it has not told the whole; that in the country over which it has skimmed lie many marvels and many large, heavy-eyed facts of which it has taken no account. The criticism is a just one. It has given us only hints, rays which the eye must transmute into thought. We cannot really define poetry any more than we can weigh or measure it. The bulk of Keats's poems would bear a ridiculous proportion to the greatness that was Keats, were it not such measurement is out of the question. The poet has given us only the sum and essence of what he saw, and we crave the whole. He has said so little, and yet he has said so much; for what we have of this essence has become part of the history and very tissue of mind, and circulates in the blue of the sky. We must take it into our synthesis, slight as it is and compressed into a few still volumes, as we take in the living forms about us and the bounding spheres. We can nno more leave it aside than we can paint the landscape without noticing the light. The prism sets our palette. The dimpling of the sea under the dazzling sunlight, the "innumeroable laughter," as the Greek poet called it, is not a local or casual phenomenon, but gives delight all over the earth. The "little soul'd pulse, Poesy," "made with a child's breath up and down to fly," can criticise, uplift, and transfigure the life of man.
"For sacred beauty is the fruit of sight,
The courtesy that speaks before the tongue,
The fest of souls, the glory of the light,
Envy of age, and everlasting young."

- Sophia Kirk

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