Secret was the garden;
Set i’ the pathless awe
Where no star its breath can draw.
Life, that is its warden,
Sits behind the fosse of death.  Mine eyes saw not,
and I saw.

Francis Thompson, “Mistress of Vision,” excerpt

Oh, beauty. That which bewitches us. (And we are everywhere bewitched.) Beauty, which leaves us breathless – as if by force. Every experience of beauty is a condensed ecstasy. We are enamored of it before we know it, and, in knowing it, our adoration becomes only more mysterious. So why, Beauty – if I may think of you as if you could answer, if I were not so unable to discern your face – why have you wedded sorrow? Why can you not extricate yourself from death?

I understand the match on a certain level. The interest. You share such likenesses with death: we are helpless in the face of you both. We only ever have imaginary power over beauty or death, and we are fated to experience each. Every encounter with either is felt as an end, an abrupt halt that appears to rend the fabric of time – in death, the thread is cut (though perhaps not as we imagine); in beauty, time is for a moment transcended. All this while both, both beauty and death, in fact only occur in time. Within time. Grasp and pull at time, teaching us its iron plasticity.

Death can be beautiful. There is little more beautiful than a life shattered for the sake of something greater than death. The careful, the terrible, the wonderful resolution that some things are worth dying for. It would be better to be broken than to break one’s word. Death is an oath, the final oath. This makes it beautiful.

And perhaps horrible.

So, too: beauty can die. Beauty often dies. The first, fervent moment of real beauty – the one where we, breathless, begin to feel that we have never felt before – vanishes with the next moment. Beauty, promising eternity, is the captive of time. That first moment, once it has dawned, never returns. It is never the same again.

And this is how beauty dies.

Why, Beauty, are you this way? Why do you smile at me and fade away? You, Beauty, with the unending richness that is yours, and is never mine. You with your enticing almost-embrace. It would be better if you left me alone, in an earth as cold as your absence. Still I would long for you, shivering with dreams as soft and lonely as the silence before music begins.

Sorrow is your most intimate companion. Who has known love and not felt the pleasurable pain? The strange and delightful agony of absolute change, the yearning so deep it must wound? I have known this. All have known this. And we know worse, as we can all think of things both terrible and beautiful. The shivering and naked winter trees have their beauty, too.

We smile. The bitter is sweet.

There is nowhere you are not, Beauty. How else is it that you are known in death and loss? How else do we die bravely, and suffer innocently, and weep with ecstasy? You are everywhere, and nowhere, and I wonder at how you walk among us in the perfection of your living wounds.

Must we bear them with you?

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