Sad Beauty

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   February 22, 2022

Why do we like watching the sun set? Is it the beauty of changing colors and shapes? Or is it rather the emotional impact of experiencing the passage of time, the ending of another day of our lives? These two closely interwoven themes, the sad and the beautiful, permeate our culture.

Three of my favorite pieces of music all happen to be overtures. All begin sadly, but end in gloriously rousing finales. One is Rossini’s overture to the opera William Tell, about that legendary Swiss hero, a work with which many of us first became familiar as the opening and background music of the Western epic, The Lone Ranger.

The second is Offenbach’s overture to the comic opera, Orpheus in the Underworld, which, after some very sad passages, climaxes surprisingly in the famous and notorious “Can-Can.” I was so enchanted by this coup de théâtre that I wanted to write my own words for it – but was puzzled bythe name “Can-Can.” What did it mean? What was it referring to? Not until my wife went away on an extended trip, leaving me to feed our three cats from those little CANS of cat-food, did I get my unique inspiration, resulting in my “Pussy-Cat Feeding Song,” (which I will still perform at the drop of a hat – or a cat) hoping thereby to share a little of Offenbach’s lasting fame.

My third favorite piece is perhaps a little less well known. It is called “The Light Cavalry Overture,” and was written for an opera which, but for the overture, has been completely forgotten. The author was an Austrian named Franz von Suppé and he himself has been immortalized only by this one piece. The opening part is extremely sad (and – you may not believe this – there is just one note in it which, every time I hear it, strikes some very sensitive region in me, and almost brings me to tears). But then, to finish up, we are suddenly transported into the exhilarating mood of a galloping cavalry romp.

But when it comes to the beauty of sadness or the sadness of beauty, Poetry is probably the ideal vehicle. And, of all the poets, here again I have three favorites.

The first, whom I have often quoted, is A. E. Housman, whose fame primarily rests on one slim volume called A Shropshire Lad, which was immensely popular in the early 20th century.

One poem in that book is called “To An Athlete Dying Young.” In a few brief stanzas, it celebrates the joys of earthly achievement and contrasts them with the harsh reality of death. I particularly like the closing lines, which imagine the newly dead athlete being admiringly received (in Heaven?), still bearing on his head the flowery symbols of his victories.

And round that early-laurelled head/ Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls/ The garland briefer than a girl’s.

What particularly moves me is that very last line, which evokes the sadness of all fading beauty. Often, when I see a beautiful young woman, I can’t help thinking of that “garland briefer than a girl’s.”

Another British poet, one whose short life ended on a battlefield in World War I, often contrasted the pleasures of love with the horrors of life and death in the trenches. His poem “Greater Love” begins with this stark contrast:

Red lips are not so red / As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.

And in another poem, comparing ordinary funerary practices at home with their total absence on the front lines, he can offer only that

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall.

My third favorite poet is myself – and I modestly suggest that you will indeed find among my published Thoughts many which convey the sadness of beauty, and vice versa. For example, there are these:

Aren’t we lucky to have such a beautiful world to suffer in.

Sometimes life is such a beautiful road, I almost stop wondering where it leads.

What’s built in the sand soon gets washed away – that’s why making it beautiful is so important.

But, since we began with the Sun, it might be fitting to end with another celestial object – the Moon. To countless generations, the Moon has symbolized unattainable beauty. Then it actually was attained – and found to be cold, bare, and lifeless – echoing that sad old precept: Be careful what you wish for – you might get it. 


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