This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
* Lord Jeffrey held that mankind liked blue and green simply because we tee them everywhere in nature, instead of pereiving the great truth, that it is because these colors are agreeable to man's nature that the Creator has clothed with them the earth and sky. Jeffrey's idea of cosmogony evidently was, that the earth is a haphazard creation, made without any particular regard to the tastes of its tenant, man, and to whose phenomena we get accustomed by sheer dint of habit; instead of perceiving (what would have knocked his fallacious theory of beauty to pieces) that earth and man are made expressly for each other, and that our benificent Maker has caused the general aspect of the world around us to give us pleasure by being in harmony with our physical and mental constitution.
A garden - or those graceful crystal pavilions which are now devoted to the culture and display of fine exotic plants and flowers - is the place where beauty of color may be seen in the greatest variety and perfection. There color is seen in peculiar gor-geousness, and combined with so much else that is attractive, as to constitute flowers but another name for the beautiful. The most distinguished of transatlantic writers,* in a burst of enthusiasm, styles them "earth's raptures and aspirations - her better moments - her lucid intervals." Certainly they are the lovely offspring of earth's brightest hours; and so ravishing are they, from the blended charms of brilliant color, graceful form, and exquisite odor, that no one need wonder that they should be chosen for so many sweet purposes of life, or to symbolise in the poetic regions of the South the language and emotions of mankind. "The greatest men have always thought much of flowers. Luther always kept a flower in a glass on his writing-table; and [when he was waging his great public controversy with Eckins, he kept a flower in his hand. Lord Bacon has a beautiful passage about flowers. As to Shakspeare, he is a perfect Alpine valley, - he is full of flowers; they spring, and blossom, and wave in every cleft of his mind.
Witness the Midsummer Night's Dream. Even Milton, cold, serene, and stately as he is, breaks forth into exquisite gushes of tenderness and fancy when he marshals the flowers, as in Lycidas and Comus.†
Whatever be the subsidiary sources of attraction in flowers, color unquestionably is the supreme one. Men often talk disparagingly of this kind of beauty, as if it were something far lower in its nature than the beauty of form and sound, and indeed hardly worthy of our regard at all. This is a great mistake, and is owing to the circumstance either that the vast majority of mankind are little sensitive to any kind of beauty, or because a certain fashion of speaking has led them insensibly to disregard this particular manifestation of it. "Such expressions," says Mr. RUSKIN, are used for the most part in thoughtlessness; and if such disparagers of color would only take the pains to imagine what the world and their own existence would become if the blue were taken from the sky, and the gold from the sunshine, and the verdure from the leaves, and the crimson from the blood which is the life of man, the flush from the cheek, the darkness from the eye, the radiance from the hair, - if they could but see for an instant white human creatures living in a white world, they would soon feel what they owe to color. The fact is, that of all God's gifts to the sight of man, color is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn.
We speak rashly of gay color and sad color, for color can not at once be good and gay. All good color is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy; and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most"
* Mrs. H. B. Stowe, † Mrs. H. B. Stows. Sunny Memories.
Mr. Ruskin is not a correct thinker. Eminently sensitive to the impressions of external nature and art, he is destitute of the analytic power to ascertain the real character of those impressions. He lacks the turn of mind by which a man is enabled to "know himself;" and hence, when he comes to expound his views founded upon those impressions, he not seldom arrives at most absurd conclusions. Right as to his feelings, he is far wrong as to the inferences he draws from them. Thus, instead of understanding the feeling of repose which symmetry tends to produce in the beholder, he roundly charges Greek architecture, which is of all others most symmetrical, with being "dead" and "atheistic" in its spirit; while Gothic architecture, which is eminently irregular and expressive in its style, he quite as absurdly discovers to be symbolic of all the Christian graces. In the sentences upon color which we have quoted, he falls into a similar error. In speaking of the "sacredness" and "holiness" of color, and in expressing his conviction that all artists who were fine colorists (i. e., dealing in pure and bright colors) were good religious men, he falls into another of his fantastic mistakes, although in this case his misinterpretation of his feelings does not lead him very wide of the mark Gifted with a fine sensibility, he feels, when pure, bright colors are harmoniously presented to his eye, a thrill of elevated pleasure, calm and pure, because free from all tincture of passion, and felt all the more divine because nameless, indefinite, and mysterious, - because baffling language to describe, or the mind to analyse it.
But this sensation is not occasioned by the "holiness" of color, - it is produced by its beauty. True, the emotion of the beautiful is in one sense sacred and holy; because it arises from our being brought face to face with perfection, - with objects which bear most deeply impressed upon them the signet-mark of their Maker, and which the soul, made in that Maker's image, yearns towards and welcomes with delight It is a noble and divine feeling, but not the one for which Ruskin here mistakes it It is physical beauty, not the "beauty of holiness" which charms us in color, just as it does in music or the chefs-d'oeuvre of form. And when Ruskin goes on to say that color " can not be at once good and gay," that " all good color is pensive, and the loveliest, melancholy," he is again treading upon ground which he does not fully understand. He enunciates only a half truth. In so far as his remark is true, it refers not to color only, but to every other embodiment of the beautiful. For we have ever felt ourselves, and believe that the feeling is common to all persons of ordinary sensibility, that the beholding of high beauty, whether in nature or art, excites a sentiment of joy which is ever mingled with pensiveness, if not with melancholy.
It is not a depression - on the contrary, it is an elation of spirits. It is not painful, but pleasing. The heart clings to it, and feels as if elevated and purified by its presence. It is a "divine sadness," occasioned by the presence of some object so beautiful, so divinely perfect, so native in character to the soul, yet so rarely met with, that the spirit yearns towards it as to a visitor from a higher sphere from which we are exiles, and for which in such moments, our heart is pining, it may be unconsciously, as does the wandered mountaineer for his native hills. It is this perfect harmony between beautiful objects and the soul, - it is this strange tender delight at the presence of anything supremely lovely, that made Plato account for earthly love by the romantic theory of reminiscence, - by the supposition that lovers, and especially lovers at first sight, are attracted to each other not, as is really the case, by a congeniality of nature, on the world-wide principle of "like draws to like," but because their souls existed together as twins in a prior and higher state of existence, and long to reunite and blend themselves together again when they happen to meet on earth.
A fancy so beautiful, that we willingly say with Cicero, "Malim cum Platone errare quam desipere aliis!"