Right Living as a Fine Art

RIGHT LIVING AS A FINE ART

A Study of Channing’s Symphony as an Outline of the Ideal Life and Character

by

Newell Dwight Hillis

Right Living as a Fine Art

And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

Psalm xc: 17.

MY SYMPHONY.

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common–this is my symphony.

WILLIAM HENRY CHANNING.

A STUDY OF CHANNING’S “SYMPHONY” AS AN OUTLINE OF THE IDEAL LIFE AND CHARACTER.

To the revival of learning in the fourteenth century, to the revival of religion in the sixteenth, and the revival of liberty in the eighteenth century must now be added the revival of the beautiful in this new era for art. In former ages man was content if his house was dry, his coat was warm, his tool strong. But now has come an era when man’s house must have beautiful walls, when woman’s dress must have harmonious hues, when the speaker’s truth must be clothed in words of beauty; while in religion if the worshiper once was content with a harsh hymn, now man best loves the song that has a beautiful sentiment and a sweet tune. Always the useful had a cash value. Now beauty has become a commodity. To-day, to hold his place, the artisan must become an artist. The era of ugliness, with its clumsy tools and ungainly garments, has gone forever. No longer content with lending strength to coat or chair or car, manufacturers now vie with one another in a struggle to make the garment take on lines of grace, and colors soft and beautiful. Society seems to be standing upon the threshold of the greatest art movement in history. Best of all this, revival of the beautiful promises to be a permanent social possession.

Very brief and fitful that first art epoch when Phidias polished statues, the very fragments of which are the despair of modern sculptors. All too short also that era when Raphael and Botticelli brought the canvas into what seemed the zenith of its perfection. It was as if the vestal virgin of beauty had drawn near to fan the flickering light into a fierce flame only to allow it quickly to die out again. But if other art epochs have been soon followed by eras of ugliness and tyranny, it was because formerly the patrician class alone was interested in the beautiful. In that far-off time, Pericles had his palace and Athens her temple, but the common people dwelt in mud huts, wore coats of sheepskin, and slept on beds of straw. The beauty that was manifest in pictures, marbles, rich textures, bronzes, belonged exclusively to the cathedral or the palace.

Now has come an era when art is diffused. Beauty is sprinkled all over the instruments of dining-room, parlor and library. It is organized into textures of cotton, wool and silk. Even in the poor man’s cottage blossoms break forth upon floor and walls, while vines festoon the humblest door. Once, at great expense, a baron in France or Germany would send an artist into Italy to copy some masterpiece of Titian or Tintoretto. Now modern photography makes it possible for the poorest laborer to look upon the semblance of great pictures, statues, cathedrals, landscapes–treasures these once beyond the wealth of princes. Having made tools, books, travel, home, religion to be life-teachers, God has now ordained the beautiful as an apostle of the higher Christian life.

Recognizing the hand of God in every upward movement of society, we explain this new enthusiasm for art upon the principle that beauty is the outer sign of an inner perfection. Oft with lying skill men veneer the plaster pillar with slabs of marble, and hide soft wood with strips of mahogany. But beauty is no outer veneer. When ripeness enters the fruit within a soft bloom steals over the peach without. When every drop of blood in the veins is pure a beauteous flush overcasts the young girl’s cheek. When summer hath lent ripeness to the harvests God casts a golden hue over the sheaf and lends a crimson flush to the autumn leaves. For beauty is ripeness, maturity and strength. Therefore when the seer says, “God maketh everything beautiful in its time,” he indicates that God’s handiwork is perfect work. When some Wordsworth or Emerson leaves behind men’s clumsy creations and enters the fields where God’s workmanship abounds, the poet finds the ground “spotted with fire and gold in tints of flowers”; he finds the trees hung with festooned vines; finds the forests uniting their branches in cathedral arches; finds the winds making music down the long, leafy aisles; finds the birds pouring forth notes in choiring anthems, while the very clouds rise like golden incense toward an unseen throne. Though the traveler journey far, he shall find no bud, no bough, no landscape or mountain or ocean, that is not overcast with bloom and beauty.