The Garden of Survival, by Algernon Blackwood

11

ALL this I have told to you because we have known together the closest intimacy possible to human beings — we have shared beauty.

They said, these many days ago, that you had gone away, that you were dead. The wind on the Downs, your favourite Downs, your favourite southwest wind, received your dust, scattering it like pollen into space. No sign has come to me, no other sign than this I tell you now in my long letter. It is enough. I know.

There were thus two loves, one unrecognized till afterwards, the other realized at the time. . . . In the body there was promise. There is now accomplishment.

It is very strange, and yet so simple. Beauty, I suppose, opens the heart, extends the consciousness. It is a platitude, of course. You will laugh when I tell you that afterwards I tried to reason it all out. I am not apparently intellectual. The books I read would fill your empty room — on aesthetics, art, and what not. I got no result from any of them, but rather a state of muddle that was, no doubt, congestion. None of the theories and explanations touched the root of the matter. I am evidently not “an artist”— that at any rate I gathered, and yet these learned people seemed to write about something they had never “lived.” I could almost believe that the writers of these subtle analyses have never themselves felt beauty — the burn, the rapture, the regenerating fire. They have known, perhaps, a reaction of the physical nerves, but never this light within the soul that lifts the horizons of the consciousness and makes one know that God exists, that death is not even separation, and that eternity is now.

Metaphysics I studied too. I fooled myself, thirty years after the proper time for doing so, over the old problem whether beauty lies in the object seen or in the mind that sees the object. And in the end I came back hungrily to my simple starting-point — that beauty moved me. It opened my heart to one of its many aspects — truth, wisdom, joy, and love — and what else, in the name of heaven, mattered!

I sold the books at miserable prices that made Mother question my judgment: coloured plates, costly bindings, rare editions, and all. Aesthetics, Art, rules and principles might go hang for all I cared or any good they did me. It was intellect that had devised all these. The truth was simpler far. I cared nothing for these scholarly explanations of beauty’s genesis and laws of working, because I felt it. Hunger needs no analysis, does it? Nor does Love. Could anything be more stultifying? Give to the first craving a lump of bread, and to the second a tangible man or woman — and let those who have the time analyse both cravings at their leisure.

For the thrill I mean is never physical, and has nothing in common with that acute sensation experienced when the acrobat is seen to miss the rope in mid-air as he swings from bar to bar. There is no shock in it, for shock is of the nerves, arresting life; the thrill I speak of intensifies and sets it rising in a wave that flows. It is of the spirit. It wounds, yet marvellously. It is unearthly. Therein, I think, lies its essential quality; by chance, as it were, in writing this intimate confession, I have hit upon the very word: it is unearthly, it contains surprise. Yes, Beauty wounds marvellously, then follows the new birth, regeneration. There is a ravishment of the entire being into light and knowledge.

The element of surprise is certainly characteristic. The thrill comes unheralded — a sudden uprush of convincing joy loosed from some store that is inexhaustible. Unlike the effect of a nervous shock which can be lived over and reconstituted, it knows no repetition; its climax is instantaneous, there is neither increase nor declension; it is unrecoverable; it strikes and is gone. Breaking across the phantasmagoria of appearances, it comes as a flash of reality, a lightning recognition of something that cannot be travestied. It is not in time. It is eternity.

I suspect you know it now with me; in fact I am certain that you do. . . .

I remember how, many years ago — in that delightful period between boyhood and manhood when we felt our wings and argued about the universe — we discovered this unearthly quality in three different things: the song of a bird, the eyes of a child, and a wild-flower come upon unexpectedly in a scene of desolation. For in all three, we agreed, shines that wonder which holds adoration, that joy which is spontaneous and uncalculated, and that surprise which pertains to Eternity looking out triumphantly upon ephemeral things.

So, at least, in our youthful eagerness, we agreed; and to this day one in particular of the three — a bird’s song — always makes me think of God. That divine, ecstatic, simple sound is to me ever both surprising and unearthly. Each time it takes me by surprise — that people do not hush their talk to kneel and listen. . . . And of the eyes of little children — if there is any clearer revelation granted to us of what is unearthly in the sense of divinity brought close, I do not know it. Each time my spirit is arrested by surprise, then filled with wondering joy as I meet that strange open look, so stainless, accepting the universe as its rightful toy, and, as with the bird and flower, saying Yes to life as though there could not possibly exist a No.

The wildflower too: you recall once — it was above Igls when the Tyrolean snows were melting — how we found a sudden gentian on the dead, pale grass? The sliding snows had left the coarse tufts stroked all one way, white and ugly, thickly streaked with mud, no single blade with any sign of life or greenness yet, when we came upon that star of concentrated beauty, more blue than the blue sky overhead, the whole passion of the earth in each pointed petal. A distant avalanche, as though the hills were settling, the bustle of the torrent, the wind in the pines and larches, only marked by contrast the incredible stillness of the heights — then, suddenly, this star of blue blazing among the desolation. I recall your cry and my own — wonder, joy, as of something unearthly — that took us by surprise.

In these three, certainly, lay the authentic thrill I speak of; while it lasts, the actual moment seems but a pedestal from which the eyes of the heart look into Heaven, a pedestal from which the soul leaps out into the surrounding garden of limitless possibilities which are its birthright, and immediately accessible. And that, indeed, is the essential meaning of the thrill — that Heaven is here and now. The gates of ivory are very tiny; Beauty sounds the elfin horns that opens them; smaller than the eye of a needle is that opening — upon the diamond point of the thrill you flash within, and the Garden of Eternity is yours for ever — now.

I am writing this to you, because I know you listen with your heart, not with your nerves; and the garden that I write about you know now better than I do myself. I have but tasted it, you dwell therein, unaged, unageing. And so we share the flowers; we know the light, the fragrance and the birds we know together. . . . They tell me — even our mother says it sometimes with a sigh — that you are far away, not understanding that we have but recovered the garden of our early childhood, you permanently, I whenever the thrill opens the happy gates. You are as near to me as that. Our love was forged inside those ivory gates that guard that childhood state, facing four ways, and if I wandered outside a-while, puzzled and lonely, the thrill of beauty has led me back again, and I, have found your love unchanged, unaged, still growing in the garden of our earliest memories. I did but lose my way for a time. . . .

That childhood state must be amazingly close to God, I suppose, for though no child is consciously aware of beauty, its whole being cries Yes to the universe and life as naturally and instinctively as a flower turns to the sun. The universe lies in its overall pocket of alpaca, and beauty only becomes a thing apart when the growing consciousness, hearing the world cry No, steps through the gates to enquire and cannot find the entrance any more. Beauty then becomes a signpost showing the way home again. Baudelaire, of course, meant God and Heaven, instead of “genius” when he said, “Le genie n’est que l’enfance retrouvee a volonte. . . . ”

And so when I write to you, I find myself again within the garden of our childhood, that English garden where our love shared all the light and fragrance and flowers of the world together. “Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass,” and since my thought is with you, you are with me now . . . and now means always or it means nothing.

So these relationships are real still among a thousand shadows. Your beauty was truth, hers was unselfish love. The important thing is to know you still live, not with regret and selfish grief, but with that joy and sure conviction which makes the so-called separation a temporary test, perhaps, but never a final blow. What are the few years of separation compared to this certainty of cooperation in eternity? We live but a few years together in the flesh, yet if those few are lived with beauty and beautifully, the tie is unalterably forged which fastens us lovingly together for ever. Where, how, under what precise conditions it were idle to enquire and unnecessary — the wrong way too. Our only knowledge (in the scientific sense) comes to us through our earthly senses. To forecast our future life, constructing it of necessity upon this earthly sensory experience, is an occupation for those who have neither faith nor imagination. All such “heavens” are but clumsy idealizations of the present —“Happy Hunting Grounds” in various forms: whereas we know that if we lived beauty together, we shall live it always —“afterwards,” as our poor time-ridden language phrases it. For Beauty, once known, cannot exclude us. We cooperated with the Power that makes the universe alive.

And, knowing this, I do not ask for your “return,” or for any so-called evidence that you survive. In beauty you both live now with less hampered hands, less troubled breath, and I am glad.

Why should you come, indeed, through the gutter of my worn, familiar, personal desires, when the open channel of beauty lies ever at the flood for you to use? Coming in this way, you come, besides, for many, not for me alone, since behind every thrill of beauty stand the countless brave souls who lived it in their lives. They have entered the mighty rhythm that floats the spiral nebulae in space, as it turns the little aspiring Nautilus in the depths of the sea. Having once felt this impersonal worship which is love of beauty, they are linked to the power that drives the universe towards perfection, the power that knocks in a million unadvertised forms at every human heart: and that is God.

With that beneficent power you cooperate. I ask no other test. I crave no evidence that you selfishly remember me. In the body we did not know so closely. To see into your physical eyes, and touch your hand, and hear your voice — these were but intermediary methods, symbols, at the best. For you I never saw nor touched nor heard. I felt you — in my heart. The closest intimacy we knew was when together we shared one moment of the same beauty; no other intimacy approaches the reality of that; it is now strengthened to a degree unrealized before. For me that is enough. I have that faith, that certainty, that knowledge. Should you come to me otherwise I must disown you. Should you stammer through another’s earthly lips that you now enjoy a mere idealized repetition of your physical limitations, I should know my love, my memory, my hope degraded, nay, my very faith destroyed.

To summon you in that way makes me shudder. It would be to limit your larger uses, your wider mission, merely to numb a selfish grief born of a faithless misunderstanding.

Come to me instead — or, rather, stay, since you have never left — be with me still in the wonder of dawn and twilight, in the yearning desire of inarticulate black night, in the wind, the sunshine, and the rain. It is then that I am nearest to you and to your beneficent activity, for the same elemental rhythm of Beauty includes us both. The best and highest of you are there; I want no lesser assurance, no broken personal revelation. Eternal beauty brings you with an intimacy unknown, impossible, indeed, to partial disclosure. I should abhor a halting masquerade, a stammering message less intelligible even than our intercourse of the body.

Come, then! Be with me, your truth and Marion’s tenderness linked together with what is noblest in myself. Be with me in the simple loveliness of an English garden where you and I, as boys together, first heard that voice of wonder, and knew the Presence walking with us among the growing leaves.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31