Fair Women

Part I

"Tennyson has no prescriptive right to A Dream of Fair Women. Every man dreams this dream. With some it happens early in the teens. It fades, with some, during the twenties. With others it endures, vivid and beautiful under gray hairs, till it glorifies the grave."                                             -H. P. SIWÄARMILL.

I

THE beauty of women: could there be any theme more inspiring? There is fire in the phrase even. But, as with "Love," "Life," "Sunshine," "The Sea," "Death," the subject at once allures and evades one. It would be easier to write concerning it a bulky tome than a small volume, and that, again, would be less difficult than a sketch of this kind. Who can say much about love without vain repetitions? Only the poet--whether he use pigments or clay, words or music--can flash upon us some new light, or thrill us with some new note, or delight us with some new vision. There is nothing between this quintessential revelation and that unaccomplished and for ever to be unaccomplished History of Love which Charles Nodier said would be the history of humanity and the most beautiful book to write.

What mortal can say enough about the beauty of women to satisfy himself? How much less can he say enough to satisfy others?

"For several virtues have I liked several women." And we may adapt Shakespeare's line, and say that for several kinds of beauty have men admired women as different from each other as a contadina of the Campagna and an Eskimo squaw.

I realize my inadequacy. I would have my readers understand that if I were to write as I feel, I would speak not wisely but too well! Fortunately, I cannot rhapsodize: but for this, I might win honour in the eyes of ladies, and concurrently a very natural outpouring of envy and all uncharitableness on the part of my fellow-men. Personally, I would have no hard-and-fast dogmas. Fair Women, be they tall or short, dark or fair, vivacious or languorous, active or indolent, plump or fragile, if all are beautiful, all are welcome. You, camerado, may incline towards a blonde, with hair touched with gold and eyes haunted by a living memory of the sky, small of stature, and with hands seductively white and delicate; I, on the other hand, may prefer a brunette, with hair lovely with the dusk and fragrance of twilight, with eyes filled with strange lights and depths of shadow, tall, lissom, and with the nut-brown kisses of the sun just visible on cheek and neck, and bonnie deft hands. Or, it may be, I find Ideala in a sweet comeliness: a face and figure and mien and manner which together allure a male mind searching for the quietudes rather than for the exultations of passionate life. You, however, may worship at another shrine, and seek your joy in austere beauty, or in that which seems wedded to a tragic significance, or that whose very remoteness lays upon you an irresistible spell. There be those who prefer Diana to Venus, who would live with Minerva rather than Juno; who would rather espouse Syrinx than Semele, and prefer the shy Arethusa to the somewhat heedless Leda. Who shall blame a man if he would rather take to wife Lucy Desborough than Helen of Troy? and has any one among us right to take up a stone against him who would bestow the "Mrs." at his disposal upon Dolly Varden rather than upon Cleopatra?

After all, are the poets and painters the right people to go to for instruction as to beauty? Most of them are disappointed married men. Every male loves three females: woman (that is, his particular woman) as he imagines her to be, woman as he finds her, and woman carefully revised for an improbable new edition.

II

In the beginning, said a Persian poet, Allah took a rose, a lily, a dove, a serpent, a little honey, a Dead Sea apple, and a handful of clay. When He looked at the amalgam it was Woman. Then He thought He would resolve these constituents. But it was too late. Adam had taken her to wife, and humanity had begun. Woman, moreover, had learned her first lesson, conveyed in the parable, of the rib. Thus early did the male imagination begin to weave a delightful web for its own delectation and advantage. When, after a time, the daughter of Eve convinced the sons of Adam that a system of Dual Control would have to be put into effect, there was much questioning and heartburning. Satan availed himself of the opportunity. He took man aside, and explained to him that woman had been reasonless and precipitate, that she had tempted him before she was ripe, and that he was a genial innocent and very much to be pitied. Further, he demonstrated that if she had only waited a little, all would have been well. But, as it was, the rose had a thorn, the lily had a tendency to be fragile, the dove had not lost its timidity, the serpent had retained its guile, its fangs, and its poison, the honey was apt to clog, the Dead Sea apple was almost entirely filled with dust, and the clay was of the tough, primeval kind, difficult to blend with advantage, and impossible to eliminate.

From that day, says the Persian poet, whose name I have forgotten, man has been haunted by the idea that he was wheedled into a copartnery. In a word, having taken woman to wife, he now regrets that he committed himself quite so early to a formal union. From his vague regrets and unsatisfied longings, and a profound egotism which got into his system during his bachelor days in Eden, he evolved the idea of Beauty. This idea would have remained a dream if Satan had not interfered with the suggestion that it was too good to be wasted as an abstraction. So the idea came to be realized. There was much hearty laughter in consequence in "a another place." Seeing what a perilous state man had brought himself into, Allah had pity. He took man's conception of Beauty--which to His surprise was in several respects much superior to Eve--and, having dissipated it with a breath, rewove it into a hundred lovely ideals. Then, making of the residue a many-coloured span in the heavens, He sent these back to Earth, each to gleam thenceforth with the glory of that first rainbow.

It is a fantasy. But let us thank that Eastern poet. Perhaps, poor dreamer! he went home to learn that unpunctual spouses must expect reproaches in lieu of dinner, or even, it may be, to find that his soul's Sultana had eloped with a more worldlv admirer of Eve. Zuleika, if he found her, perhaps he convinced. For us he has put into words, with some prolixity and awkwardness no doubt, what in a vague way we all feel about the beauty of women.

For in truth there is no such abstraction as Womanly Beauty. Instead, there is the beauty of women.

Every man can pick and choose. There are as many kinds of women as there are of flowers, and all are beautiful for some quality or by association. It is well to admire every type. Companionship with the individual will thus be rendered more pleasing! As the late Maxime du Camp said somewhere: "In the matter of admiration, it is not bad to have several maladies." There are men who, in this way, are chronic invalids. Women are very patient with them.

I do not agree with an acquaintance of mine who avers that his predilections are climatic in their nature. If he is in Italy, he loves the Roman contadina or the Sicilian with the lissom Greek figure; if in Spain, he thinks flashing black eyes and coarse hair finer than the flax and sky-blue he admired so much in Germany; if in Japan, he vows with Pierre Loti that Madame ChrysauthEme is more winsome than the daintiest Parisienne; if in Barbary, he forgets the wild-rose bloom and hill-wind freshness of his English girl, to whom when he roams through Britain he makes the Helen to his Paris--forgets for the sake of shadowy gazelle-eyes and languorous beauty like that of the lotus on warm moonlight nights. I wonder where he is now. He has been in many lands. I know he has loved a Lithuanian and passioned for a Swede; and when I last saw him, less than a year ago, he said his ideal was the Celtic maighdeann. Perhaps he is far distant, in that very Cathay which I remember his saying was a country to be taken on trust, as one accepts the actuality of the North Pole; if so, I am convinced he is bumming blithely:

"She whom I love at present is in China:
  She dwells, with her aged parents,
  In a tower of fine porcelain,
  By the yellow stream where the cormorants are."¹

This is too generously eclectic for me, who am a lover of moderation and a monogamist by instinct. Nevertheless, I can appreciate this climatic variability. I am no stickler for the supremacy of any one type, of the civilized over the barbaric, of the deftly arrayed over the austerely ungarbed! With one of the authors of The Croix de Berny I can say: "Dress has very little weight with me. I once admired a Granada gipsy whose sole costume consisted of blue slippers and a necklace of amber beads."

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¹ "Celle que jaime et présent est en Chine
     Elle demeure, avec ses vieux parents,
     Dans une tour de porcelains fine,
    Au fleuve jaune où sont les cormorans."
                                                THÉOPHILE GAUTIER

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Nowadays we have to admire the nude only in sculpture, and that antique. M. Bérenger in Paris, Mr. Horsley, R.A., and a Glasgow bailie have said so.

Well, well, it may be so. But there are unregenerate men among us. Perhaps this new madness of blindness will supersede the old intoxication. Truly, I am

             "Oft in doubt whether at all
               I shall again see Phoebus in the morning,
               Or a white Naiad in a rippling stream,"

but I have no doubt whatever that others will. Meanwhile we can dream of youth--the youth of the past, the eternal youth, and the hour-long youth we have known ourselves. It is one of the sunbright words. These five letters have an alchemy that can transmute dust and ashes into blossoms and fruit. For those who know this, the beauty of the past is linked to the present tense: the most ancient things live again, and the more keenly.
                        --Antiquitas sæculi juventus mundi.

Well, sufficient unto this present is the question of the nude! Let those who will ignore it. Whatever these may say, there is always this conviction for loyal pagans to fall back upon--in the words of George Meredith--"the visible fair form of a woman is hereditary queen of us."

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