The word beauty, rather like the word romantic, has faded over the past century or so, growing less complex and more one-dimensional. When we hear the word romantic, our instant association is a relationship between lovers, despite it once meaning so much more. Beauty also far too often conjures the image of cosmetics or an industry built around making people feel aesthetically insufficient. But John Keats called himself a worshipper of beauty, and by that he meant so much more than the word’s faded meaning today. Keats understood what it was to let Beauty, with a capital B, enrich his life to the point that the pursuit of this feeling was a fervor. When I read his words, I feel the ache of them as you would a kindred spirit, whispering through the ages between us.
To capitalize the word Beauty begs the comparison to other spiritual concepts, such as God. For Keats, the pursuit of Beauty didn’t have to include any higher meaning or spiritual symbolism. He didn’t need to create a moral parable from the sight of a shepherd in the fields on a misty morning, the sun glinting through autumn leaves on a tree. The experience itself was the sacred. Beauty itself was the sacred.
When I am occasionally asked to define my own faith, one of the few words I use is aesthete. I find it easier to use this term than to say “beauty is my religion,” since that may be misinterpreted to mean vanity. Although I am no philosopher, I have discovered through the enjoyment of everyday moments that to experience beauty brings a feeling similar to spiritual rapture. This can be felt in response to any number of things: driving to work and seeing mist obscuring the meadows; the sight of my house dressed for the holidays, bursting at the seams with bright twinkling lights and jewel-toned delights; or an exquisite image created by a skilled photographer, every corner of the image thick with magic and meaning.
It can be hard to explain exactly what I mean by this. After all, who doesn’t enjoy the sight of something beautiful? But for me, it is an obsession. I will sit in a moment of beauty or gaze at an image that makes me feel its bliss and truthfulness for as long as I possibly can. And that experience, that image, the thought of it, will sustain me. It feeds my soul for days, sometimes even longer. Keats clearly felt the same way, only instead of gazing at a beautiful painting on his phone screen, he saw a Grecian urn and was so moved by the moment of human experience captured in time and displayed that he wrote a poem about it. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Beauty is not just to be found in sights that are aesthetically pleasing. It can also be found in moments of bittersweet sadness, in exquisite synchronicities, in anything that makes us feel so strongly that our emotions swell like water surging in the ocean. It can be seen in the eyes of an old woman whose skin is traced with the wrinkles of age like the rings of a tree, one for each memory. It can also be seen in the smile of a lady in the meads, “full beautiful—a faery’s child,” whose “hair was long … foot light … eyes wild.” Such a moment of Beauty would be worth dying for, as the wretched wight in the sedge from Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” would discover.
Keats’s life had its share of trials and difficulties. Despite his love for Fanny Brawne, he was unable to marry her because of his financial prospects. And he died of tuberculosis at just twenty-five after two years of illness. But he, like a butterfly who “liv’d but three summer days,” filled his all-too-short life with delight. And for him, delight was Beauty. It sustained him through the darkness. “Yes, in spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits.” It seems again our world today is filled with dark spirits. As we venture into the season of long nights in a year that has been heavy with tragedy and thick with tension and hate, we have to find ways to refill our wells, to rebuild our strength when we feel we are fighting every day. Keats knew, and his words remind me, that there is never so much ugliness in the world that beauty disappears. There is always beauty. And there is always hope. That is all we need to know.
Tips for Decorating with Words
If our homes are a reflection of who we are as individuals, shouldn’t they appeal to all the senses? We light candles and burn incense for smell, we play beautiful music we love to hear, and we drape our furniture with blankets and pillows in colors that appeal to our sight and touch. But what about those of us who are nourished by the written word? Shouldn’t we also celebrate that in our homes?
The Victorians of the Arts and Crafts Movement certainly thought so. Quotes and mottos can be found on the walls of such esteemed buildings as Wightwick Manor and William Morris’s Red House. I’ve incorporated my favorite lines from Keats in my own home as you can see in the photos below. Here are some tips on adding the poetry of the written word to your home too.
• This should be obvious, but make sure that the words you put on your walls really speak to you on a soul level. This is for you: Whether your quote comes from a song by Ariana Grande or a play from Shakespeare, as long as it inspires you, it is perfect.
• Use resources for font inspiration. I use dafont.com for “free for public use” options. I’ll type in the first few words of my quote and search through pages and pages of choices before choosing one. But having said that …
• Consider choosing a signature font for your home if you plan on putting quotes in several places or on several walls. This creates a cohesive feeling throughout your abode, just like selecting a repeating color scheme. (My signature font for my house is Cardinal.)
• Print out your quote using the font. Feel free to print it to actual size using the banner option in editing programs. Tape the printout to your wall and make sure you are happy with the spacing and size, then use carbon paper and a pencil to transfer the outline of the letters to your wall. Or if you’re especially courageous, use a ruler and pencil to put temporary lines on your wall and try going freehand, using the font as a basis. (This is what I usually do now.)
• Some ideas for where quotes work beautifully in the home: on the wall under or around artworks related to the narrative of the words, bordering the top of a wall or all four walls, on the front of a fireplace, above doorways, on stair risers, on such furniture as tables or dressers (one line per drawer can be gorgeous).
• Feel free to go absolutely rogue. Words may rise and fall in importance to you, or perhaps you have so many you love, you cannot narrow it down. Artist, editor, and mythic fiction author Terri Windling has quotes written all over the walls of her Devon studio, some hidden or half hidden under artworks. She sometimes even writes quotes or draws magical beings on the walls before they are going to be painted, to infuse the spirit of the words and creatures into the space. Words are magic. Don’t be afraid to use them.