Read my favorite essay: The Beauty of Life - E.M. Forster, 1911
The subject of this article—a magnificent subject— was suggested by the editor.* “Would it not be possible,” he wrote, “to illustrate the beauty and the wonder of life, to show that they are always manifest wheresoever and howsoever life and force are manifested?” But unfortunately it is a subject that could only be treated by a poet—by a poet who was at the same time a man of action; whose enthusiasm had stood the test of hard facts; whose vision of things as they ought to be had been confirmed and strengthened by his experience of things as they are—by such a poet as Walt Whitman.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work
of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand,
and the egg of the wren,
And the tree toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of
Whitman knew what life was. He was not praising its beauty from an arm-chair. He had been through all that makes it hideous to most men—poverty, the battlefield, the hospitals —and yet could believe that life, whether as a whole or in detail, was perfect, that beauty is manifest wherever life is manifested. He could glorify the absurd and the repulsive; he could catalogue the parts of a machine from sheer joy that a machine has so many parts; he could sing not only of farming and fishing, but also of “leather-dressing, coach-making, boiler-making, rope-twisting, distilling, sign-painting, lime-burning, cotton-picking, electro-plating, electrotyping, stereo-typing”; one of the lines in one of his poems runs thus! He went the “whole hog” in fact, and he ought to be writing this article.
But most of us have to be content with a less vigorous attitude. We may follow the whole-hogger at moments, and no doubt it is our fault and not his when we don’t follow him; but we cannot follow him always. We may agree that the egg of the wren is perfect, that the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven; but what about the pismire and the tree toad? Do they seem equally perfect? Farming is wonderful because it probes the mystery of the earth; fishing, because it probes the sea. But what about “electro-plating, electro-typing, stereo-typing”? To must of us life seems partly beautiful, partly ugly; partly wonderful, partly dull; there is sunshine in it, but there are also clouds, and we cannot always see that the clouds have silver linings. What are we to do? How is the average man to make the best of what hi does see? For it is no good him pretending to see what he doesn’t. One might define the average educated man as optimist by instinct, pessimist by conviction. Few of us are thorough optimists; we have seen too much misery to declare glibly, that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Nations arming to the teeth; the growing cleavage between rich and poor; these symptoms, after nineteen hundred years of Christianity, are not calculated to comfort an intelligent person. But we are not thorough pessimists either. We are absolutely certain, though we cannot prove it, that life is beautiful! Fine weather—to take what may seem a small example; fine weather during the whole of a day; the whole city cheered by blue sky and sunshine. What a marvellous blessing that is! The thorough pessimist may reply, that city weather is more often wet, and that a fine day is only a scrap in the midst of squalor. Possibly. But it is a scrap that glows like a jewel. If we hope for a great deal of beauty in life, we may be disappointed; nature has not cut her stuff thus; she cannot be bothered about us to this extent. But we may hope for intensity of beauty; that is absolutely certain, and never, since the beginning of time, has a man gone through life without moments of overwhelming joy. Perhaps, Mr. X., you will contradict this. But can you contradict it from your own experience? Can you sincerely say, “Never since I was born have I had one moment of overwhelming joy?” Don’t reply, “I’ve been happy, but think of poor Mr. Y.” It’s no answer; for if Mr. Y. is questioned, he too will assuredly reply, “I’ve been happy,” perhaps adding, “but think of poor Mr. X.”
Here then is what one may call the irreducible minimum, the inalienable dowry of humanity: Beauty in scraps. It may seem a little thing after the comprehensive ecstasies of Whitman, but it is certain; it is for all men in all times, and we couldn’t avoid it even if we wanted to. The beauty of the fine day amid dingy weather; the beauty of the unselfish action amid selfishness; the beauty of friendship amidst indifference: we cannot go through life without experiencing these things, they are as certain as the air in the lungs. Some people have luck, and get more happiness than others, but every one gets something. And therefore, however pessimistic we are in our convictions, however sure we are that civilization is going to the dogs on account of those abominable—(here insert the name of the political party that you most dislike)—; we yet remain optimists by instinct; we personally have had glorious times, and may have them again.
That is the position, as it appears to the average modern man. To him life is not all gold, as Whitman would have it; it is not even strung on a golden thread, as the great Victorian poets would have it, but it is pure gold in parts- it contains scraps of inexpressible beauty. And it is in his power to make a great deal of the scraps. He can, in the first place, practice cheerfulness. He can dwell on the wonderful moments of his existence, rather than on the dull hours that too often separate those moments. He can realize that quality is more precious that quantity. He can—to put it in plain English—stop grumbling. Grumbling is the very devil. It pretends that the whole of life is dull, and that the wonderful moments are not worth considering. Dante, a man of the soundest sense, puts grumblers deep into Hell. They lie at the bottom of a dirty pond, and their words bubble to the surface saying, “Once we were sullen in the sweet sunlit air. Now we are sullen in the mud.” Of course grumbling springs from a very real outside evil—from all the undoubted sorrow that there is in the world, and that no optimism can explain away. But it always flows far from its source. It pretends that the whole world is sorrow, a view that is as false as it is depressing; and it we sometimes resent the shallow optimist, who calls “peace” where there is no peace, we may equally resent the shallow grumbler, who complains of war before war is declared, and who is either regretting the disasters of the past or expecting disaster in the future. To such a man, life can have no beauty. He can never open his eyes and look at the present, which may be full of sweet air and sunlight. If it is night, he cannot remember that the sun yesterday and may rise tomorrow. He goes through existence pretending that he is at the bottom of a mud pond, as indeed he is, but it is a pond of his own digging. One must distinguish between such a man and the pessimist. The pessimist denies that life as a whole is beautiful, but he never denies the existence of beauty. Great men have been pessimists: Lucretius, Michelangelo, Cromwell, Thomas Hardy. But the grumbler denies everything, and no grumbler ever became a great man; he would not think it worthwhile.
If cheerfulness is one great help towards seeing the beauty in life, courage is certainly another. The average man needs to be just a little braver. He loses so much happiness through what might be termed “minor cowardices.” Why are we so afraid of doing the “wrong thing,” of wearing the “wrong clothes,” of knowing the “wrong people,” of pronouncing the names of artists or musicians wrongly? What in the name of Beauty does it matter? Why don’t we trust ourselves more and the convention less? If we first of all dress ourselves appropriately and fashionably, and then fill our minds with fashionable thoughts, and then go out in search of Romance with a fashionable and appropriate friend, is it likely that we shall find Romance? Is it likely that Life will give herself away to us, unless we also give ourselves away? There are occasions when one must be conventional—one’s bread and butter often depends upon it; but there are occasions when one need not be, and on those occasions life opens her wonder-house. That is why one’s happiest moments usually come on holidays. It is not that the surroundings are different. It is that we are different. We have not to pretend that we are valuable members of society—that if it wasn’t for us, electro-plating, electro-typing, stereo-typing, and the rest would come to an end. We have not to impress people by our ability or taste. We have merely to be ourselves, and like what we like. A little courage does the trick. The world is touched at once with a magical glow; the sea, the sky, the mountains, our fellow-creatures, are all transfigured, and we re-turn to work with unforgettable memories.
To sum up. A few great men—mostly poets—have found life absolutely beautiful, in all its aspects. Other great men have found it threaded, as it were, on a beautiful chain. But the average man finds that it is beautiful in parts only, and it is his attitude that is touched upon in this article. No definition of the Beauty of Life is offered, because it is “this to me and that to thee.” Some people find it reflected in pictures and poems, others, going to life direct, find it in human intercourse or in scenery; while a few have even found it in the higher truths of mathematics. But everyone, except the grumbler and perhaps the coward, finds it somewhere; and if the article contains any-thing, it contains a few tups which may make beauty easier to find. Be cheerful. Be courageous. Don’t bother too much about “developing the esthetic sense,” as books term it, for it the heart and the brain are kept clean, the esthetic sense will develop of itself. In your spare time, never study a subject that bores you, however important other people tell you it is; but choose out of the subjects that don’t bore you, the subject that seems to you most important, and study that. You may say, “Oh, yes, it’s jolly easy to preach like this.” But it’s also jolly easy to practice. The above precepts contain nothing heroical, nothing that need disturb our daily existence or diminish our salaries. They aren’t difficult, they are just a few tips that may help us to see the wonders, physical and spiritual, by which we are surrounded. Modern civilization does not lead us away from Romance, but it does try to lead us past it, and we have to keep awake. We must insist on going to look round the corner now and then, even if other people think us a little queer, for as likely as not something beautiful lies round the corner. And if we insist, we may have a reward that is even greater than we expected, and see for a moment with the eyes of a poet—may see the universe, not merely beautiful in scraps, but beautiful everywhere and for ever.
The sun and start that float in the open air.
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it surely the drift
of them is something grand.
I do not know what it is except that it is grand,
and that it is happiness.
One final tip; read Walt Whitman. He is the true optimist—not the professional optimist who shuts his eyes and shirks, and whose palliatives do more harm than good, but one who has seen and suffered much and yet rejoices. He is not a philosopher or a theologian; he cannot answer the ultimate question, and tell us what life is. But he is absolutely certain that it is grand, that it is happiness, and that “wherever life and force are manifested, beauty is manifested.”