Beauty as messenger. I’ve taught literature for many years now. I remain convinced that great literature reflects man’s best, noblest, most exalted efforts to express truth beautifully. For some, that may sound sentimental and saccharine. For others, however, Browning’s line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” expresses what great literature aims for, namely, truth beautifully written. Might truth beautifully expressed be a messenger? And why do most avoid contemplating it?
The things in life that mean most to us are oftentimes the things about which most people avoid talking. It is more convenient to tweet or post. Headlines, not history. News is just that—new. We’re a “… and now this” culture, as Neil Postman wrote about. It’s what’s “happening now.” There is no room for the great enduring truths of literature when we can get updates sent to our phones and have news scrolled across the gadgets of our choice. We’re connected electronically but exiled in our souls. Where’s room for truth and beauty? Any room for a messenger?
The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;–/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” still speaks, does it not? Might these words, penned hundreds of years ago, serve as a messenger of that which endures?
This morning driving to work I had the radio on in my truck. The radio DJ was telling of how Tom Petty died this week, and of how his albums are now selling at many times the rate they were when he was still living. I was not a big fan of Petty’s music but I do respect how he labored in his craft. For Petty, it was music. His songs are played constantly because he spoke to the human experience and he tailored his talents to fit the genre of rock and roll. And music lovers continue to respond by buying up his albums and turning up the volume. There’s a message through all this and it’s not just the tunes. It speaks to a longing in the human heart for beauty and for truth. I do not wish to stretch the analogy too far. I would not choose to argue that Petty’s lyrics are great literature. However, Petty’s music has endured because it speaks to people in ways music mysteriously has the power to do. It touches people’s souls. It stirs them. It reminds them of what they value, of what brings joy. And those things endure.
I’ve read the following lines hundreds of times: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). It’s a reminder that we don’t know our end. I doubt that Tom Petty knew last week that he had less than a week to live.
James wrote in similar fashion: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14).
Why do I still love teaching Shakespeare and Faulkner? Why do I try to open the Psalms to students who malnourish themselves on intellectual Twinkies? It’s because I remain more convinced than ever that the human soul atrophies if starved of truth and beauty.
I plan to drive home late today. When I do, I will drive north and the sun will be descending over the trees over my left shoulder. When I enter the community where my family and I live, I will wind over hills and cross a lake. On that lake, the sun will place its golden fingers across the water’s surface. Loons and geese will likely be flying overhead. Drakes and ducks are likely to be paddling around and dipping their heads beneath the surface, then reemerging with drops of water on their glossy crowns. And again I will be speechless before beauty. I will be suddenly filled with a message. It’s a message worth telling.