The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Brightness—in the World & Our Thoughts

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of Poetry and Brightness, by Eli Siegel. In this remarkable, great lecture of 1949 one can see some of the richness and vital truth of the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

In the final section Mr. Siegel speaks about two people, one ever so famous, the other much less known today: the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and the writer on nature Richard Jefferies (1848-87). Mr. Siegel speaks about the love and difficulty both had in relation to the big opposites this lecture is so deeply about: light and dark. He has discussed each of these writers elsewhere too; he spoke on Shelley—his poems and other writings—many, many times over the years, mightily and definitively.

The way Mr. Siegel looks at both writers here, stands for something always present in his understanding of a person—whether that person was of literature or history, or was in the room that very moment. I have marveled at the fact that his seeing of each person was so particular: what Mr. Siegel said or asked was grandly fair to the nuances, the very individual way of meeting life, the just-me-ness of that man, woman, child. And yet, so true and deep and wide was his seeing of the person that it also became, in the truest sense of the word, a classic: the way he wrote or spoke about an individual had meaning, explanatory meaning, for the life of everyone.

I’m writing about this now because Eli Siegel’s own seeing and expression had what, in this lecture, he describes brightness as being: clarity that is particular, is like a point, yet also radiates, goes out, is wide.

Dark, Light, & Our Minds

Toward the end of the lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about a large form of light and dark present in everyone: the conscious and the unconscious. Knowledge, consciousness, awareness represent light; and the unknown, the unseeing, the unconscious represent dark. They have been thought of that way for thousands of years. (Meanwhile, as he notes here, there are deeply both light and dark in all of these.)

You will soon meet what he says about the war of the conscious and unconscious in Jefferies. And what he explains about it is one of the kindest explanations concerning the human self that I ever heard. I remember the first time I heard him discuss in a related way qualities that correspond to the conscious and unconscious: reason and instinct; also the similar opposites intellect and feeling. How much people—certainly “intellectual” people, but all people—are in agony because how we feel driven, propelled, compelled seems so different from, and at odds with, our careful thought. And people have felt painfully that their logic was cold and their emotions were messy and illogical.

It was an enormous, thrilling relief to me to hear Mr. Siegel explain that reason is not at odds with instinct. In fact, it comes from instinct. We have an instinct to reason. We have a drive to have conscious, careful thought. And this instinct to reason is as primal as our instinct to eat, or to go for warmth on a cold day.

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the purpose of both our feeling and our knowing is to be fair to the world outside us, to care justly for what is not ourselves. When we’re true to this purpose, we are truly ourselves, an integrity.

Brightness in Dark

I love the poem Eli Siegel reads just before the lecture ends: his own poem titled “Afternoon Cold.” He wrote it in 1928. There is much to say about its beauty. But for now I’ll say this:

In the poem’s lines—in its statements which have become form and music—one can feel that darkness and dreariness are not only dreary and dark: there is the brightness of meaning in them. And in this poem there is a true feeling of freedom: ease and exactitude as lovingly one.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Brightness Is There

By Eli Siegel

The matter of light and dark troubles many people, and it is one of the things that troubled Shelley. He was called by Browning “Sun-treader.” He wrote a great deal about light and brightness; and while going for light—terrifically, one may say—he was much attracted by darkness and depth. And he tried to resolve the two.

There is a chorus from his Prometheus Unbound that shows Shelley caring tremendously for light. The chorus begins “Life of Life!”—but it is really about light too. Life and light are very close to each other.¹

This is the second stanza:

Child of Light! thy limbs are burning

Through the vest which seems to hide them;

As the radiant lines of morning

Through the clouds ere they divide them;

And this atmosphere divinest

Shrouds thee whereso’er thou shinest.

And later: “Lamp of Earth! where’er thou movest / Its dim shapes are clad with brightness.”

I cannot discuss this chorus now, but it is brightness and speed, and brightness is seen as the very midst of life.

Shelley, as I said, had a lot of trouble on the subject. Sometimes in poems that aren’t very good he tries to put together dark and light, and cold and heat (these two pairs of opposites are correlatives). The poem I’ll read from next is an example. It is really about Shelley’s mind. He was attracted by both dark and light, and he tries to fight the dark, the sinking principle in him. The poem is called “Summer and Winter,” and has these lines:

It was a bright and cheerful afternoon

Towards the end of the sunny month of June.

All things rejoiced beneath the sun; the weeds,

The river, and the corn-fields, and the reeds....

That’s from the first part. Then:

It was a winter such as when birds die

In the deep forests; and the fishes lie

Stiffened in the translucent ice, which makes

Even the mud and slime of the warm lakes

A wrinkled clod as hard as brick; and when

Among their children comfortable men

Gather about great fires, and yet feel cold....

He just pours it on thick! The first part is all cheerful; but then winter has nothing cheerful about it, and even rich men, when they’re near fires, feel cold. Why get that in? If I discussed the lines closely you would see that the exaggeration didn’t come because Shelley was writing about summer and winter; it came because Shelley couldn’t take the idea easily that cold and heat, brightness and dark, could go together.

In various poems he does get them together. In “Ode to the West Wind” he has bright things occurring at the bottom of the sea, and he talks about the depths of the blue Mediterranean. I’m not reading that now. There is an example of this submarine brightness in another poem, called “To Jane: The Recollection.” This is an attempt to put together dark and light by having the light occur under the water:

We paused beside the pools that lie

Under the forest bough,—

Each seemed as ’t were a little sky

Gulfed in a world below;

A firmament of purple light,

Which in the dark earth lay,

More boundless than the depth of night,

And purer than the day.

There lay the glade and neighboring lawn,

And through the dark green wood

The white sun twinkling like the dawn

Out of a speckled cloud....

There is another poem that starts out very brightly. You think it is going to be a happy poem, but it doesn’t go that way. “Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples” begins:

The sun is warm, the sky is clear,

The waves are dancing fast and bright;

Blue isles and snowy mountains wear

The purple noon’s transparent might....

But in a while he says: “Alas! I have nor hope nor health / Nor peace within nor calm around.” And: “I could lie down like a tired child, / And weep away the life of care / Which I have borne and yet must bear.”

The point is that Shelley, when he saw brightness, had something in him combated. He was trying to look at brightness without any revulsion, go into brightness as a skylark into the sky. He had trouble about it. His getting light far under the water is about his wanting to meet brightness even when he had the tendency to feel that brightness was against himself.

Brightness, Color, Earth

Then, brightness can be dealt with in terms of color, because color is brightness becoming various. Color is a phase of brightness.

I’ll read from a prose writing of Richard Jefferies, who is very popular in England now. He is one of the most honest writers on nature. A popular essay of his is “July Grass,” which appeared in a posthumous volume, Field and Hedgerow, in 1889. He lived from 1848 to 1887, and his wife edited this volume. I’m reading passages from “July Grass,” because summer is a bright time:

A July fly went sideways over the long grass. His wings made a burr about him like a net, beating so fast they wrapped him round with a cloud.

Brightness-and-speed is something we feel in summer, the sight of an insect whirring away. Then, there are the green and the slowness; that is something. I must say, it is much present in “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana.” ²

Jefferies has been looking at insects, with their colors and speed, and he is writing about how he has seen them. He says the July fly didn’t care what the names of the kinds of grasses were:

Names were nothing to him; all he had to do was to whirl his scarlet spots about in the brilliant sun, rest when he liked, and go on again. I wonder whether it is a joy to have bright scarlet spots, and to be clad in the purple and gold of life; is the colour felt by the creature that wears it?

Conscious & Unconscious

Jefferies had the problem of conscious and unconscious. No one was more minute and encyclopedic about what summer could do, or any season, any month. He looked; he is an important writer. But at the same time, he could not put together this conscious thing and the unconscious. He has just described an insect, and he says: “Names were nothing to him. All he had to do was to whirl his scarlet spots...”; and a while later he’ll say that he, Jefferies, would like to be unconscious, like the insect. But if Jefferies had not been aware of this insect, it would not have been written about at all.

The fly whirls his scarlet-spotted wings about and splashes himself with sunlight....He thinks not of the grass and sun; he does not heed them at all—and that is why he is so happy....He is unconscious.

This attempt to praise the unconscious was, I think, a dangerous thing with Jefferies. He couldn’t put together his seeing of all these primitive, delicate, speedy things, with his seeing of his seeing. If you are going to see something, there is nothing wrong with your seeing your own seeing something, which is being conscious. Jefferies writes:

The scarlet-dotted fly knows nothing of the names of the grasses that grow here where the sward nears the sea, and thinking of him I have decided not to wilfully seek to learn any more of their names either. My big grass book I have left at home, and the dust is settling on the gold of the binding. I have picked a handful this morning of which I know nothing. I will sit here on the turf and the scarlet-dotted flies shall pass over me, as if I too were but a grass. I will not think, I will be unconscious, I will live.

This is dangerous. He does not see that the unconscious nature of light and matter can take all these forms and have all these constructions. He admires the mechanism of this whirring fly. Yet he doesn’t want to see that the form which it has is, after all, the form that the conscious mind tries to appreciate—after the unconscious mind, it is true, finds delight in it. You can be delighted at your delight, and that is the purpose of good criticism about a good thing.

Then Jefferies writes about the poppies. He compares the poppies to the grass, and the grass is much more populous. He calls the grass “the populace”:

The kingly poppies on the dry summit of the mound take no heed of these, the populace, their subjects so numerous they cannot be numbered. A barren race they are, the proud poppies, lords of the July field, taking no deep root, but raising up a brilliant blazon of scarlet heraldry out of nothing. They are useless, they are bitter, they are allied to sleep and poison and everlasting night; yet they are forgiven because they are not commonplace. Nothing, no abundance of them, can ever make the poppies commonplace. There is genius in them, the genius of colour, and they are saved....

I wish I could do something more than gaze at all this scarlet and gold and crimson and green, something more than see it, not exactly to drink it or inhale it, but in some way to make it part of me that I might live it.

All of this is intense, but it got Jefferies into trouble, because he wanted to be flowers and grass and the brightness of a summer field, and all the months, and at the same time he had to be himself, and he had to be conscious.

Jefferies, then, feels the brightness of natural existence and he is thorough about that. Out of matter and out of light, these two, come all the combinations of insects, grasses, flowers, all the summer sounds and the silences; and it is still big stuff. But at the same time, you want to feel that in looking at it you are not at war with it: that unconsciously you came to awareness.

If through the unconscious you came to consciousness, it is not for consciousness to say that the unconscious didn’t know what it was doing. If the conscious insults the unconscious, that is bad. But also, if it allows the unconscious, seemingly, to insult the conscious, that is bad too. The unconscious goes toward being conscious, but if the conscious then says, “I changed from the unconscious and I’m going to let the unconscious insult me”—I don’t think the unconscious likes it. It doesn’t. There has been a lot of stupidity on this subject. Jefferies, of course, is not as offensive as some persons who were always talking about “unconscious drives” could be. Unconscious drives can be right and they can be wrong, just as conscious things can be.

This war between the unconscious and conscious is a phase of the war between dark and bright (though, really, both can be dark and both can be bright).

“Afternoon Cold”

I shall read in conclusion a poem that I wrote on this subject of brightness and dark, of cheerfulness and somberness, called “Afternoon Cold”:

So in that autumn day

It is well to smile

Looking at dark branches,

And dark, long slits in the sky.

I don’t know, but smiling

Goes fittingly with autumn,

And afternoon cold,

And a busy, definite wind.

You could hover round big, level, dull steps,

Cold then,

And grin and be right.

And be right and grin

Within dreariness in early December.

Many, many grins are justified.

Brightness Is Always a Going Out

The principle of reality as contracting, being hidden, unconscious in the bad sense, and the principle of light going out, or reality going out, are of the beginning of things. We have to see that the notions of love, light, God, form, art, and knowledge itself, are a going out. Knowledge is that which happens when lack of knowledge goes out and takes shape, and becomes bright. The going out is a brightness. When we think of something bright, we have to think of it as going out, because brightness invites attention and anything which invites attention is that much out of itself. That which is dull, as I said earlier, doesn’t invite attention and therefore is badly within.

So brightness has to do with outness, and outness has to do with life. Poetry tries to find the brightness in reality—which it should find, because it is there.

¹The phrases “Life of Life,” “Child of Light,” “Lamp of Earth” stand for what Mr. Siegel—speaking about this chorus on another occasion—called “the force of the world.” Shelley, he said, is seeing “the deepest force as sweet.”

²In that magnificent poem by Eli Siegel there are, for example, “Quiet and green was the grass of the field” (the first line); and “That bird over this green, under that sun, God, how sweet and graceful it is!”; and “Hear that buzzing in the hot grass, coming from live things; and those crows’ cries from somewhere.”