The Beauty of a Sunset Essay
The Beauty of a Sunset
The liquid kindling of the twilight, the western glow of clear- burning fires, bringing no weariness of heat but the exquisite coolness of darkling airs, is of all the ceremonial of the day the most solemn and sacred moment. The dawn has its own splendours, but it brightens out of secret mists and folded clouds into the common light of day, when the burden must be resumed and the common business of the world renewed again. But the sunset wanes from glory and majesty into the stillness of the star-hung night, when tired eyes may close in sleep, and rehearse the mystery of death; and so the dying down of light, with the suspension of daily activities, is of the nature of a benediction. Dawn brings the consecration of beauty to a new episode of life, bidding the soul to remember throughout the toil and eagerness of the day that the beginning was made in the innocent onrush of dewy light; but when the evening comes, the deeds and words of the daylight are irrevocable facts, and the mood is not one of forward-looking hope and adventure, but of unalterable memory, and of things dealt with so and not otherwise, which nothing can henceforward change or modify.
If in the morning we feel that we have power over life, in the evening we know that, whether we have done ill or well, life’s power over ourselves has been asserted, and that thus and thus the record must stand. And so the mood of evening is the larger and the wiser mood, because we must think less of ourselves and more of God. In the dawn it seems to us that we have our part to play, and that nothing, not even God, can prevent us from exercising our will upon the life about us; but in the evening we begin to wonder how much, after all, we have the strength to effect; we see that even our desires and impulses have their roots far back in a past which no restlessness of design or energy can touch; till we end by thankfulness that we have been allowed to feel and to experience the current of life at all. However much one may enjoy the onrush and vividness of life–I for one find that, though vitality runs now in more definite and habitual channels, though one has done with making vague impulsive experiments, though one wastes less time in undertaking doubtful enterprises, yet there is a great gain in the concentration of energy, and in the certain knowledge of what one’s definite work really is.
Far from finding the spring and motion of life diminished, I feel that the current of it runs with a sharper and clearer intensity, because I have learned my limitations, and expend no energy in useless enterprises. I have learned what the achievements are which come joyfully bearing their sheaves with them, and what are the trivial and fruitless aims. When I was younger I desired to be known and recognised and deferred to. I wanted to push my way discreetly into many companies, to produce an impression, to create a sense of admiration. Now as the sunset draws nearer, and the enriched light, withdrawn from the farther horizon, begins to pulsate more intensely in the quarter whence it must soon altogether fade, I begin to see that vague and widely ranging effects have a thinness and shallowness about them. It is a poor thing just to see oneself transiently reflected in a hundred little mirrors. There is no touch of reality about that.
Little greetings, casual flashes of courteous talk, pretty compliments–these are things that fade as soon as they are born. The only thing worth doing is a little bit of faithful and solid work, something given away which costs one real pain, a few ideas and thoughts worked patiently out, a few hearts really enlivened and inspirited. And then, too, comes the consciousness that much of one’s cherished labour is of no use at all except to oneself; that work is not a magnificent gift presented to others, but a wholesome privilege conceded to oneself, that the love which brought with it but a momentary flash of self-regarding pleasure is not love at all, and that only love which means suffering–not delicate regrets and luxurious reveries, but hard and hopeless pain–is worth the name of love at all. Those are some of the lights of sunset, the enfolding gleams that are on their way to death, and which yet testify that the light which wanes and lapses here, drawn reluctantly away from dark valley and sombre woodland, is yet striding ahead over dewy uplands and breaking seas, past the upheaving shoulder of the world.
But best of all the gifts of sunset to the spirit is the knowledge that behind all the whirling web of daylight, beyond all the noise and laughter and appetite and drudgery of life, lies the spirit of beauty that cannot be always revealed or traced in the louder and more urgent pageantry of the day. The sunset has the power of weaving a subtle and remote mystery over a scene that by day has nothing to show but a homely and obvious animation. I was travelling the other day and passed, just as the day began to decline, through the outskirts of a bustling, seaport town. It had all the interest and curiosity of life. Crowded warehouses, swinging up straw-packed crates into projecting penthouses; steamers with red-stained funnels, open-mouthed tubes, gangways, staircase heads, dangling boats, were moored by bustling wharves.
One could not divine the use of half the strangely shaped objects with which the scene was furnished, or what the business could be of all the swarming and hurrying figures. Deep sea-horns blew and whistles shrilled, orders were given, hands waved. It was life at its fullest and busiest, but it was life demanding and enforcing its claim and concealing its further purposes. It was just a glimpse of something full of urgent haste, but pleasanter to watch than to mix with; then we passed through a wilderness of little houses, street after street, yard after yard. Presently we were rushing away from it all past a lonely sea-creek that ran far up into the low-lying land. That had a more silent life of its own; old dusky hulks lay at anchor in the channel; the tide ebbed away from mudflats and oozy inlets, the skeletons of worn-out boats stood up out of the weltering clay. Gradually, as the sun went down among orange stains and twisted cloud-wreaths, the creek narrowed and beyond lay a mysterious promontory with shadowy woods and low bare pasture-lands, with here and there a tower standing up or a solitary sea-mark, or a hamlet of clustered houses by the water’s edge, while the water between grew paler and stiller, reflecting the wan green of the sky.
It is not easy to describe the effect of this scene, thus magically transfigured, upon the mind; but it is a very real and distinct emotion, though its charm depends upon the fact that it shifts the reality of the world to a further point, away from the definite shapes and colours, the tangible and visible relations of things, which become for an instant like a translucent curtain through which one catches a glimpse of a larger and more beautiful reality. The specific hopes, fears, schemes, designs, purposes of life, suddenly become an interlude and not an end. They do not become phantasmal and unreal, but they are known for a brief moment as only temporary conditions, which by their hardness and sharpness obscure a further and larger life, existing before they existed, and extending itself beyond their momentary pact and influence. All that one is engaged in busily saying and doing and enacting is seen in that instant to be only as a ripple on a deep pool. It does not make the activities of life either futile or avoidable; it only gives the mystical sense, that however urgent and important they may seem, there is something further, larger, greater, beyond them, of which they are a real part, but only a part.
Moreover, in my own experience, the further secret, whatever it is, is by no means wholly joyful and not at all light-hearted. It seems to me at such times that it is rather solemn, profound, serious, difficult, and sad. But it is not a heavy or depressing sadness– indeed, the thought is at once hopeful and above everything beautiful. It has nothing that is called sentimental about it. It is not full of rest and content and peace; it is rather strong and stern, though it is gentle too; but it is the kind of gentle strength which faces labour and hardness, not troubled by them, and indeed knowing that only thus can the secret be attained. There is no hint of easy, childlike happiness about the mood; there is a happiness in it, but it is an old and a wise happiness that has learned how to wait and is fully prepared for endurance.
There is no fretfulness in it, no chafing over dreams unrealised, no impatience or disappointment. But it does not speak of an untroubled bliss–rather of a deep, sad and loving patience, which expects no fulfilment, no easy satisfaction of desire. It always seems to me that the quality which most differentiates men is the power of recognising the Unknown. Some natures acquiesce buoyantly or wretchedly in present conditions, and cannot in any circumstances look beyond them; some again have a deep distaste for present conditions whatever they are; and again there are some who throw themselves eagerly and freely into present conditions, use experience, taste life, enjoy, grieve, dislike, but yet preserve a consciousness of something above and beyond. The idealist is one who has a need in his soul to worship, to admire, to love. The mistake made too often by religious idealists is to believe that this sense of worship can only be satisfied by religious and, even more narrowly, by ecclesiastical observance. For there are many idealists to whom religion with its scientific creeds and definite dogmas seems only a dreary sort of metaphysic, an attempt to define what is beyond definition.
But there are some idealists who find the sense of worship and the consciousness of an immortal power in the high passions and affections of life. To these the human form, the spirit that looks out from human eyes, are the symbols of their mystery. Others find it in art and music, others again in the endless loveliness of nature, her seas and streams, her hills and woods. Others again find it in visions of helping and raising mankind out of base conditions, or in scientific investigation of the miraculous constitution of nature. It has a hundred forms and energies; but the one feature of it is the sense of some vast and mysterious Power, which holds the world in its grasp–a Power which can be dimly apprehended and even communicated with. Prayer is one manifestation of this sense, though prayer is but a formulation of one’s desires for oneself and for the world. But the essential and vital part of the mystery is not what the soul asks of it, but the signals which it makes to the soul.
And here I am but recording my own experience when I say that the lights and gleams of sunset, its golden inlets and cloud-ripples, the dusky veil it weaves about the world, is for my own spirit the solemnity which effects for me what I believe that the mass effects for a devoted Catholic–the unfolding in hints and symbols of the mysteries of God. An unbeliever may look on at a mass and see nothing but the vesture and the rite, a drama of woven paces and waving hands, when a believer may become aware of the very presence of the divine. And the sunset has for me that same unveiling of the beauty of God; it illumines and transfigures life; it shows me visibly and sacredly that beauty pure and stainless runs from end to end of the universe, and calls upon me to adore it, to prostrate myself before its divine essence.
The fact that another may see it carelessly and indifferently makes no difference. It only means that not thus does he perceive God. But, for myself, I know no experience more wholly and deeply religious than when I pass in solitude among deep stream-fed valleys, or over the wide fenland, or through the familiar hamlet, and see the dying day flame and smoulder far down in the west among cloudy pavilions or in tranquil spaces of clear sky. Then the well-known land whose homely, day- long energies I know seems to gather itself together into a far and silent adoration, to commit itself trustfully and quietly to God, to receive His endless benediction, and in that moment to become itself eternal in a soft harmony of voiceless praise and passionate desire.