art beauty

Wordsworth as a grace note

6:00:00 AMUnknown

“My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold”
William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
             A rainbow in the sky:
         So was it when my life began;
         So is it now I am a man;
         So be it when I shall grow old,
             Or let me die!
         The Child is father of the Man;
             I could wish my days to be
         Bound each to each by natural piety.

I read this short poem to a little old lady.  A little old lady who can hardly remember her own name let alone the name of the famous poet, William Wordsworth.  As each stanza passed from my lips to her ears, I saw a dim light in her eyes grow brighter and brighter as each phrase was said.  When I was done reading I looked up to find tears in my listener’s eyes.  Tears which I can only hope were brought about by the recollection of years gone by when she too, like Wordsworth, gazed upon a rainbow in the sky.  


It seems sort of funny and it a little bit strange that a being such as myself can become so mesmerized by a simple arch of prismatic colors created by a refraction of the sun’s rays by rain drops, that is, a rainbow.  It seems that I consider this natural display of colors to be quite beautiful and I respond accordingly by pausing to stare and appreciate earth’s natural splendor.  But if I were passing by this same rainbow while walking my dog I can be certain that only I would stop to admire the rainbow, while my dog would carry on with his business not even noticing the splendorous sight before him.  Of course this may be partially due to his color blindness but this example conveys a point which is much more substantial.  

My appreciation of the rainbow and of beauty in general is specific to my human experience.  However, it is not only beauty that I feel this sense of sentimentality for.  It is my lover’s glance, a nostalgic lullabye, or a peaceful silence which likewise shakes my being to the core and derives from me a response: flushed cheeks, a tear, and or a smile.  All these objects which beget in me a moving response, possess something in common.  They are all useless to my survival as a homo sapien.

Yet, this statement is a riddle which day in and day out has plagued my mind and will not escape from my thoughts.  The paradox is this: although a recitation of a poem, or the beauty of a rainbow is useless to man’s existence, it is also essential to man’s existence.  

It impossible for man to show only indifference to every object and experience which confronts him.  Beautiful paintings, a baby’s laughter, your favorite song, all add something essential and meaningful to your life which cannot be explained by even the greatest minds in the scientific field.  A teacher in high school once told me that no one can concoct an experiment which will explain why your favorite color is green.  At the end of a long day of thinking I must admit that these useless experiences are essential to my being, my humanity, my flourishing as a person.  This philosophy is shared by an Irish priest and philosopher, Dr. Brendan Purcell, who described this theory with the phrase, "grace notes in the human sonata,".  In music, grace notes are "nonessential ornamentations" added to a score.  However, Purcell believes that in the human experience “grace notes” are entirely essential.  Even though my recitation of Wordsworth did not cure my patient’s dementia, her appreciation of the poem for even that short moment added something beautiful to her life.  Through the human response, what is useless has become useful.  And this can be perfectly explained by the words of another great philosopher Roger Scruton, "it is the intrinsic value of beautiful things that renders them useful."  It is my response to the poem which breathes life into its verses.  

I greatly pity the man who considers this human experience to be a mere unexplainable fluke.  Yet, I believe that even my most cynical reader must admit that at one point in their lives they too have smiled, laughed and cried on account of a seemingly useless experience.  Dr. Purcell quoted one of his reviewers who beautifully described this concept as such:

”...the human soul is mysterious and hard to obliterate. Even the coldest heart can thaw. Even the most technocratic imagination can respond to a sudden whisper, an implicit grace note”. (3)                         

Image 1: source

Sources:  bob Gagdad, "There is nothing more useless than a human being," One Cosmos (blog), June 8, 2012,

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