A remarkably gentle vision of the end of days, and what little might survive
The title of this week's poem, "The Line of Beauty" by Arthur O'Shaughnessy, will be familiar to many readers as the title of the fine novel by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker prize in 2004.
Both poem and novel's title share a common ancestor. The quotation comes from William Hogarth's 1753 treatise, The Analysis of Beauty, where, in chapter seven, Hogarth unveils his aesthetic Philosopher's Stone. Beauty, essentially, is S-shaped: its recognition depends on a distinguishing line "composed of contrasting curves on a plane". It's slightly fanciful but amusing to think that O'Shaughnessy's poem, first published in 1881, is situated more or less in the middle of an imaginary S curving between Hogarth's treatise and Hollinghust's novel.
Perhaps O'Shaughnessy chose the Petrarchan sonnet as his form because he found there an equivalent "line of beauty", blending variety and symmetry. Traditionally, the sonnet contrasts the mutability of the beautiful with the permanence of the principle of beauty, something that, in a different way, his own poem sets out to do.
The poem moves lightly on its metrical feet, and the millenarian vision is almost languorous. While lines two and four, by only seeming to come to a rest, challenge expectations, the tone remains gentle, and the enjambment is hardly disruptive, as "summer fails/ To come again" and "earth with lagging footsteps seems well-nigh/ Spent in her annual circuit through the sky …" There's a forlorn, echoey sound in the "b" rhyme (fails/pales/avails/wails) with its flicker of a second syllable, which suggests the world ends with a dying fall, if not a whimper, as "decrepit man", with a despairing gesture, it seems, "lies down lost in the great grave to die". The placing of this line after the idea of love as "a quenched flame" is erotically suggestive.
The sestet picks up a brisker pace and stronger rhetoric. There's a lively variety in the syntax: two big questions form line nine and are answered with the splendid dramatic flourish of 10, reaching all the way back to the title: "A certain faultless, matchless, deathless line." This seems a stronger claim than Hogarth himself makes. Once again, the poem's line is extended, with a further rich brushstroke of description: "Curving consummate."
Hollinghurst's title contains a pun: the "line" of beauty and the lines of cocaine enjoyed, sometimes self-destructively, by the book's young "movers and shakers". This is probably a nuance too far for O'Shaughnessy's poem. But perhaps it shares with Hollinghurst's novel the reference to a lover's bodily beauty. Even Hogarth links the idea of his line to the actions of human bodies; the dancer, the artist as he draws, can exemplify it in their movements. O'Shaughnessy's sonnet doesn't at first appear to be a love poem. But Dinah Roe (who paints O'Shaughnessy as something of a "mover and shaker" himself) provides an interesting note to the poem's last line in her Penguin anthology, The Pre-Raphaelites from Rossetti to Ruskin. This takes us to a passage in Swinburne's "Laus Veneris": "And lo my love, mine own soul's heart, more dear/ Than mine own soul, more beautiful than God."
If O'Shaughnessy's sonnet is saying that love makes man and God interchangeable, the poet has found an interesting new way of refreshing an old platitude. But perhaps something more interesting is going on. Perhaps the British-born Irish poet is bringing his scientific knowledge to a view of the universe as interconnected beyond conventional linear hierarchies and natural/supernatural boundaries.
The Line of Beauty
When mountains crumble and rivers all run dry,
When every flower has fallen and summer fails
To come again, when the sun's splendour pales,
And earth with lagging footsteps seems well-nigh
Spent in her annual circuit through the sky;
When love is a quenched flame, and nought avails
To save decrepit man, who feebly wails
And lies down lost in the great grave to die;
What is eternal? What escapes decay?
A certain faultless, matchless, deathless line
Curving consummate. Death, Eternity,
Add nought to it, from it take naught away;
'Twas all God's gift and all man's mastery,
God become human, and man grown divine.