To Beauty: A Constant Sacrament of Praise

Guido Reni, “Susanna”

Spiritual Sunday

For a long time I’ve wanted to write a Spiritual Sunday post on the story of Susanna and the Elders because I love the gorgeous Wallace Stevens poem about the subject. I have been waiting for it to be included in the Episcopal Church’s Sunday readings, but I’ve just discovered that Protestants have relegated the story to the Apocrypha (dubious Biblical stories, which also include the wonderful “Tobias and the Angel) so that I’ll never hear it. Therefore, you’re getting it today.

Susanna is a beautiful and virtuous wife who is spied upon by two lecherous judges in her private garden. Surprising her when she is bathing, they blackmail her, threatening to accuse her of adultery with a young man, if she doesn’t give in to their advances. She resists and they follow through with their threat.

Fortunately the prophet Daniel (with God’s help) figures out what has happened and exposes the judges, thereby saving Susanna from execution. The judges are executed in her place.

The Stevens poem is called “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” with the poet imagining himself as one of the “rude mechanicals” in Midsummer Night’s Dream. At other times in the poem, he imagines himself as the lecherous elders. In other words, Stevens sees himself, as artist, as inadequate to the challenge of satisfactorily capturing beauty. He can only sit hungrily outside.

Stevens contradicts Plato and says that beauty is not in the mind but in the body. (He also contradicts Theseus in Shakespeare’s play, who says that love is “not in the eyes but in the mind/And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”) Using rich metaphors drawn from art and music, Stevens describes Susanna’s beauty as so powerful as to be transcendent, heaven intermingling with the earthly realm. We poor fools, like Peter Quince trying to stage Pyramus and Thisby, fumble about trying to do it justice. “The best of this kind are but shadows,” Theseus says of Peter Quince’s play, acknowledging that no poet, not even the best (and Shakespeare is the best) get it right.

For me, Steven mingles the erotic and the spiritual in the poem the way Rumi does, and John Donne as well. Beauty makes music upon the clavier keys within us, giving us a sense of immortality. True, beauty fades and our response is never enough. Beauty escapes our lecherous eyes and “bawdy strings,” leaving only “Death’s ironic scrapings.” I imagine a bow inexpertly sawing on violin strings here.

But the quality of our response picks up when memory steps in, allowing Susanna’s music to function within us as a “clear viol” that makes “a constant sacrament of praise.” So although Stevens says that beauty is immortal in the flesh, not in the mind, ultimately it is transposed to the mind after all. It all starts with the beauty in world–which God made and saw that it was good–and then our spirits are inspired to “make a music,” transmuting it to something higher.

Peter Quince at the Clavier

By Wallace Stevens

I

JUST as my fingers on these keys 

Make music, so the self-same sounds

On my spirit make a music, too. 
  

Music is feeling, then, not sound; 

And thus it is that what I feel, 

Here in this room, desiring you,
  


Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, 

Is music. It is like the strain 

Waked in the elders by Susanna: 
  


Of a green evening, clear and warm, 

She bathed in her still garden, while 

The red-eyed elders, watching, felt 
  


The basses of their beings throb 

In witching chords, and their thin blood 

Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna. 
  


II

 


In the green water, clear and warm, Susanna lay. 

She searched 

The torch of Springs, 

And found 

Concealed imaginings. 

She sighed, 

For so much melody. 
  


Upon the bank, she stood 

In the cool 

Of spent emotions. 

She felt, among the leaves, 

The dew 

Of old devotions. 
  


She walked upon the grass, 

Still quavering. 

The winds were like her maids, 

On timid feet, 

Fetching her woven scarves, 

Yet wavering. 
  


A breath upon her hand 

Muted the night. 

She turned– 

A cymbal crashed, 

And roaring horns. 
 

III

 


Soon, with a noise like tambourines, 

Came her attendant Byzantines.
 
  

They wondered why Susanna cried 

Against the elders by her side; 
  


And as they whispered, the refrain 

Was like a willow swept by rain. 
  


Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame 

Revealed Susanna and her shame. 
  


And then, the simpering Byzantines, 

Fled, with a noise like tambourines. 
  


IV

  

Beauty is momentary in the mind — 

The fitful tracing of a portal; 

But in the flesh it is immortal. 
  


The body dies; the body’s beauty lives, 

So evenings die, in their green going, 

A wave, interminably flowing. 

So gardens die, their meek breath scenting 

The cowl of Winter, done repenting. 


So maidens die, to the auroral 

Celebration of a maiden’s choral. 
  

Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings 

Of those white elders; but, escaping, 

Left only Death’s ironic scrapings. 
  


Now, in its immortality, it plays 

On the clear viol of her memory, 

And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

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  • Carl Rosin

    Enjoyed that poem very much — I had never seen it before. Part IV confused me, though. If “Beauty is momentary in the mind…But in the flesh it is immortal,” how does that putative immortality jive with “The body dies; the body’s beauty lives”? I’m trying to read it as a paradox but it’s not sorting itself out into even the paradoxical kind of multidirectional truth. Thoughts?

  • Robin Bates

    It is indeed a paradox, Carl. I stumbled over this in the same way that you did. Some, in wrestling with it, quote Yeats’s “how can you tell the dancer from the dance” (“Among School Children”). I find it useful to look at the practical effects of conceptualizing beauty in this way. The problem with Plato, and for that matter Platonic Christianity, is that they can devalue the earthly realm.For Plato, this world is an imperfect manifestation of perfect archetypes, and there is a strain in Christianity which has contempt for the world of the senses. What Stevens (and Rumi and Donne) do is see a spiritual dimension to this world, even though this world is transitory.


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