INWARD VISIONS: Helen Keller Defends her Sense of Beauty

[These thoughts on aesthetics, understanding, poetry, beauty and the senses come from Keller’s 1908 book The World I Live In. “Inward Visions” is Chapter 9. You can read Chapter 6 on Smell HERE. The text has been hyperlinked, gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized.]

Publicity still from the 1919 film Deliverance about Keller's childhood. The fictional Helen is at far left of the group and her three playmates are gathered behind her. They look on as Helen holds a kitten; several other kittens can be seen amid a pile of straw at left.

ACCORDING to all art, all nature, all coherent human thought, we know that order, proportion, form, are essential elements of beauty. Now order, proportion, and form, are palpable to the touch. But beauty and rhythm are deeper than sense. They are like love and faith. They spring out of a spiritual process only slightly dependent upon sensations. Order, proportion, form, cannot generate in the mind the abstract idea of beauty, unless there is already a soul intelligence to breathe life into the elements. Many persons, having perfect eyes, are blind in their perceptions. Many persons, having perfect ears, are emotionally deaf. Yet these are the very ones who dare to set limits to the vision of those who, lacking a sense or two, have will, soul, passion, imagination. Faith is a mockery if it teaches us not that we may construct a world unspeakably more complete and beautiful than the material world. And I, too, may construct my better world, for I am a child of God, an inheritor of a fragment of the Mind that created all worlds.

 

There is a consonance of all things, a blending of all that we know about the material world and the spiritual. It consists for me of all the impressions, vibrations, heat, cold, taste, smell, and the sensations which these convey to the mind, infinitely combined, interwoven with associated ideas and acquired knowledge. No thoughtful person will believe that what I said about the meaning of footsteps is strictly true of mere jolts and jars. It is an array of the spiritual in certain natural elements, tactual beats, and an acquired knowledge of physical habits and moral traits of highly organized human beings. What would odors signify if they were not associated with the time of the year, the place I live in, and the people I know?

 

The result of such a blending is sometimes a discordant trying of strings far removed from a melody, very far from a symphony. (For the benefit of those who must be reassured, I will say that I have felt a musician tuning his violin, that I have read about a symphony, and so have a fair intellectual perception of my metaphor.) But with training and experience the faculties gather up the stray notes and combine them into a full, harmonious whole. If the person who accomplishes this task is peculiarly gifted, we call him a poet. The blind and the deaf are not great poets, it is true. Yet now and again you find one deaf and blind who has attained to his royal kingdom of beauty.

 

I have a little volume of poems by a deaf-blind lady, Madame Bertha Galeron. Her poetry has versatility of thought. Now it is tender and sweet, now full of tragic passion and the sternness of destiny. Victor Hugo called her “La Grande Voyante.” She has written several plays, two of which have been acted in Paris. The French Academy has crowned her work. The infinite wonders of the universe are revealed to us in exact measure as we are capable of receiving them. The keenness of our vision depends not on how much we can see, but on how much we feel. Nor yet does mere knowledge create beauty. Nature sings her most exquisite songs to those who love her. She does not unfold her secrets to those who come only to gratify their desire of analysis, to gather facts, but to those who see in her manifold phenomena suggestions of lofty, delicate sentiments.

 

 

 

Am I to be denied the use of such adjectives as “freshness” and “sparkle,” “dark” and “gloomy”? I have walked in the fields at early morning. I have felt a rose-bush laden with dew and fragrance. I have felt the curves and graces of my kitten at play. I have known the sweet, shy ways of little children. I have known the sad opposites of all these, a ghastly touch picture. Remember, I have sometimes travelled over a dusty road as far as my feet could go. At a sudden turn I have stepped upon starved, ignoble weeds, and reaching out my hands, I have touched a fair tree out of which a parasite had taken the life like a vampire. I have touched a pretty bird whose soft wings hung limp, whose little heart beat no more. I have wept over the feebleness and deformity of a child, lame, or born blind, or, worse still, mindless. If I had the genius of Thomson, I, too, could depict a “City of Dreadful Night” from mere touch sensations. From contrasts so irreconcilable can we fail to form an idea of beauty and know surely when we meet with loveliness?

 

Here is a sonnet eloquent of a blind man’s power of vision:

 

 

THE MOUNTAIN TO THE PINE

 

Thou tall, majestic monarch of the wood,

That standest where no wild vines dare to creep,

Men call thee old, and say that thou hast stood

A century upon my rugged steep;

Yet unto me thy life is but a day,

When I recall the things that I have seen,–

The forest monarchs that have passed away

Upon the spot where first I saw thy green;

For I am older than the age of man,

Or all the living things that crawl or creep,

Or birds of air, or creatures of the deep;

I was the first dim outline of God’s plan:

Only the waters of the restless sea

And the infinite stars in heaven are old to me.

 

I am glad my friend Mr. Stedman knew that poem while he was making his Anthology, for knowing it, so fine a poet and critic could not fail to give it a place in his treasure-house of American poetry. The poet, Mr. Clarence Hawkes, has been blind since childhood; yet he finds in nature hints of combinations for his mental pictures. Out of the knowledge and impressions that come to him he constructs a masterpiece which hangs upon the walls of his thought. And into the poet’s house come all the true spirits of the world.

 

It was a rare poet who thought of the mountain as “the first dim outline of God’s plan.” That is the real wonder of the poem, and not that a blind man should speak so confidently of sky and sea. Our ideas of the sky are an accumulation of touch-glimpses, literary allusions, and the observations of others, with an emotional blending of all. My face feels only a tiny portion of the atmosphere; but I go through continuous space and feel the air at every point, every instant. I have been told about the distances from our earth to the sun, to the other planets, and to the fixed stars. I multiply a thousand times the utmost height and width that my touch compasses, and thus I gain a deep sense of the sky’s immensity.

 

Move me along constantly over water, water, nothing but water, and you give me the solitude, the vastness of ocean which fills the eye. I have been in a little sail-boat on the sea, when the rising tide swept it toward the shore. May I not understand the poet’s figure: “The green of spring overflows the earth like a tide”? I have felt the flame of a candle blow and flutter in the breeze. May I not, then, say: “Myriads of fireflies flit hither and thither in the dew-wet grass like little fluttering tapers”?

 

Combine the endless space of air, the sun’s warmth, the clouds that are described to my understanding spirit, the frequent breaking through the soil of a brook or the expanse of the wind-ruffled lake, the tactual undulation of the hills, which I recall when I am far away from them, the towering trees upon trees as I walk by them, the bearings that I try to keep while others tell me the directions of the various points of the scenery, and you will begin to feel surer of my mental landscape. The utmost bound to which my thought will go with clearness is the horizon of my mind. From this horizon I imagine the one which the eye marks.

 

Touch cannot bridge distance,–it is fit only for the contact of surfaces,–but thought leaps the chasm. For this reason I am able to use words descriptive of objects distant from my senses. I have felt the rondure of the infant’s tender form. I can apply this perception to the landscape and to the far-off hills.

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