She is a woman, therefore to be won."
1st Henry VI. act v. sc. 3.
It is a very old notion, for instance, that beauty is unfortunate; and, according to an old Italian proverb, "Over the greatest beauty hangs the greatest ruin." Allusions to this piece of folk-lore are not only found in the poetry and romance of bygone centuries, but are of frequent occurrence in the literature of modern times. Thus Goethe makes Helena affirm that beauty and happiness remain not long united and Byron, in his "Childe Harold" (iv. 42), speaks of "the fatal gift of beauty." We may recall, too, Lord Tennyson's charming and pathetic language in "A Dream of Fair Women," where he relates how--
I saw, wherever light illumineth,
Beauty and anguish walking hand in hand
The downward slope to death.
Those far-renowned brides of ancient song
Peopled the hollow dark, like burning stars,
And I heard sounds of insult, shame, and wrong,
And trumpets blown for wars."
Wherefore I say, that alle men may se,
That giftes of fortune, or of nature,
Ben cause of deth of many a creature.
Her beaute was hir deth, I dar well sayn,
Allas! so piteously as she was slayn."
On hapless woman still to make her wretched?
Betrayed by thee, how many are undone!"
Lord Tennyson, in his "May Queen," has interwoven this idea, and it is found scattered here and there in the literature of most countries. Hence, another reason why beauty has been regarded as unfortunate is owing to its being thought prejudicial to health, a variation of which belief occurs in "Richard III." (act iii. sc. i), where the Duke of Gloucester says:--
A shining gloss that vadeth suddenly;
A flower that dies when first it 'gins to bud,
A brittle glass that's broken presently,
A doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower,
Lost, vaded, broken, dead within an hour."
Une fleur passagére, un éclat d'un moment,
Et qui n'est attache qu' a la simple epiderne."
A giddy brain,
A heart that's vain,
A face in beauty's fashion wrought;"
Although we cannot endorse the old German proverb which says that, "Every woman would be rather pretty than pious," yet most women are mightily proud of their beauty, for, as an early English maxim reminds us, "She that is born a beauty is born married;" another version of which we find in an old work entitled, "New Help to Discourse" (1721, P. 134), "Beauty draws more than five yoke of oxen;" with which we may
compare Pope's lines in "The Rape of the Lock" (Canto ii.):--
And beauty draws us with a single hair."
Mais argent fait tout;"
It is not surprising that in all ages women have striven to preserve their beauty, however transient it may be, for, as it has been remarked, "it is valueless to a woman to be young unless pretty, or to be pretty unless young;" and an amusing story is told of an old queen who, day after day, sighed with longing regret that her beauty had vanished, and that her young days were gone. In this sad dilemma she was advised to try some magic restorative to bring back the rosy blush of youth, and accordingly--
And grounde it well into a stownde,"
But, unfortunately, stories of this class belong to the domain of fairyland, or, otherwise, old age would have a bad time of it, for every woman would remain young if not beautiful. At any rate, there is no disguising the fact that the human brain has done its very best to accommodate the fair sex with the charm of juvenescence, judging from the rules laid down for this purpose; a popular folk-rhyme advising us thus:--
Must wash their faces with the disclout;
Those who wish to be wrinkled and grey,
Must keep the disclout far away."
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew from the hawthorn-tree,
Will ever after handsome be";
Various allusions to these old recipes occur in the literature of the past, and we find the Earl of Shrewsbury--who had charge of the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots--making an application for an increased allowance on account of her expensive habit of bathing in wine. Those who could not afford such an extravagant luxury contented themselves with milk-baths, which were all the fashion in the reign of Charles II.
Great importance, too, has long been attached to what is popularly nicknamed "Beauty Sleep," it being supposed that the two hours' sleep before midnight are worth all that comes after it, and are far more instrumental in keeping off wrinkles than all the cosmetics and expedients to which we have just referred, the faintest indication of which is a killing blow to womankind. Hence it is not surprising that, in the words of a Portuguese proverb, the marriageable young lady cries in despair, "marry me, mother, for my face is growing wrinkled." The explanation given by Ray of the value of the so-called beauty-sleep is amusing: "For the sun being the light of this sublunary world, whose heat causes the motion of all terrestrial animals, when he is farthest off, that is about midnight, the spirits of themselves are aptest to rest and compose, so that the middle of the night must needs be the most proper time to sleep in, especially if we consider the greater expense of spirits in the daytime, partly by the heat of the afternoon, and partly by labour, and the constant exercise of all the senses; whereof then to wake is put the spirits in motion, when there are fewest of them, and they naturally most sluggish and unfit for it."
But it is generally acknowledged that the attempt to cheat time of his wrinkles has nearly always proved fruitless, and only too frequently "the would-be fair ones have been driven in despair to conceal what they found it impossible to remove, and hence the feminine fashion of bedaubing the complexion with artificial tints, a custom which it may be remembered was almost universal among Grecian women."
On the other hand, however much fortune may be reputed to be hostile to beauty, good looks have been termed "a woman's glory," and Galen perhaps was not far wrong in maintaining that one reason why misfortune is so often connected with beauty is that "many who have been distinguished for their loveliness have neglected the education of their mind," for, as the German proverbs say, "Beauty and understanding go rarely together;" "Beauty is but dross if honesty be lost," and there is the Tamil adage, "Beauty in the unworthy is poison in a casket of gold." Some, like Ralph Nickleby, may disparage a woman's beauty, but, as it has been remarked, one reason why beauty has been coveted by most women is partly owing to the early belief that a lovely face was the outward indication that a person so adorned was gifted with an equally beautiful soul within. It was long and extensively believed that a lofty soul could not dwell in an ugly casket, and hence a beautiful woman was commonly credited with having a fine and noble character, a notion which in only too many instances history alone has refuted, for, as an old proverb says, "Beauty may have fair leaves, but little fruit." This once popular belief, however, was a favourite one with the poets, and is referred to in the "Tempest," (act i. sc. 2):--
If the ill Spirit have so fair a house,
Good things strive to dwell with't."
Through which the mind's all gentle graces shine?
They, like the sun, irradiate all between,
The body charms, because the soul is seen,
Hence men are often captives of a face
They know not why, of no peculiar grace.
Some forms, though bright, no mortal man can bear,
Some, none resist, though not exceeding fair."
Of shapely limbs and features--no!
These are but flowers
That have their dated hours
To breathe their momentary sweets, then go.
'Tis the stainless soul within,
That outshines the fairest skin."
But notions of beauty fortunately differ, and, according to a popular adage, "What is one man's meat is another man's poison;" and, whatever truth there may be in the proverb which reminds us that "Beauty is but skin deep," there is no denying that personal appearance has made all the difference in the estimation formed by one person of another. According to an old folk-rhyme we are told that:--
A fair face may be a foul bargain,
A fair face may hide a foul heart,
A fair field and no favour."
Fools with praises,
Women with gold."
Proverb-making cynics, again, have not always been very chivalrous and complimentary in their allusions to the charms of the fair sex. Thus, as beautiful women had the reputation of being less handy and serviceable than plain ones, the adage arose which says--"A fair woman and a slashed gown will always find some nail in the way;" in other words, as women value themselves on their personal attractions, they are in the same degree generally apt to be negligent in other things. According to another version of the same proverb, it is very commonly said that "the more women look in their glasses the less they look to their houses." Cynical savings, happily, of this kind, as far as beauty is concerned, are in the minority; for, in most legendary and historical lore, good features have been made characteristic of nearly all superior and exalted beings. Hence, at the present day, beauty is often said to be "fairylike," it having been a popular belief that beauty, united with power, was one of the most attractive forms of the fairy tribe. Such was that of Spenser's Fairy Queen, and of Shakespeare's Titania; and it may be remembered how, in "Antony and Cleopatra" (act iv. sc. 8), Antony, on seeing Cleopatra enter, says to Scarus:--
Make her thanks bless thee."
Here were a fairy,"
An earthly paragon! Behold divineness,
No elder than a boy."
The absence of beauty, on the other hand, was, in days of old, considered almost a disgrace, it having been a common idea that the ugliness of the wicked was in proportion to their evil nature. Hence, an unprepossessing appearance subjected the unfortunate woman to the most uncomplimentary stigma, and oftentimes even made her an object of contempt; for, according to an old proverb, "An ugly woman is a disease of the stomach, a handsome woman a disease of the head." And there is the Hebrew adage, "Ugliness is the guardian of women," for the chance is remote of those who are not gifted with beauty yielding to the snares of temptation. But even ugliness occasionally outweighs the advantages of beauty, for the German mother reminds her daughter that "a virtuous woman, though ugly, is the ornament of her house;" and there is the Spanish adage, which says, "the ugliest is the best housewife;" and our own proverb runs: "She's better than she's bonnie;" although a Tamil proverb, referring ironically to an ugly woman, speaks of her as "killed with beauty;" and a Welsh adage tells us that if an ugly woman fall, breaking her hip, the pity she gets is, "how clumsy to trip." It has, however, been generally acknowledged that there is no woman who is not, more or less, fond of flattery, and there is a common saying in Spain, "Tell a woman she is pretty and you will turn her head," a piece of proverbial lore which is found in France and Germany, and also in our own country. But, after all, there is one point to be remembered, for a popular German adage says that "handsome women generally fall to the lot of ugly men." There is truth, also, in the Sindhi adage which says, "Better a blind eye than a blind fate," which means, better be ugly than unfortunate, as many favoured with beauty are supposed to be; for, after all, as the proverb truly remarks, "a good fame is better than a good face." It is recorded that Madame de Bourignon was so ugly when born that the proposal was actually made of smothering her, so as to spare her a life of ridicule and humiliation; and, to quote a further illustration, a story is told of the Emperor Henry IV., of Germany, who, on entering a church, where an ugly priest happened to be officiating, wondered in his mind whether it was possible for God to accept services rendered by so ill-favoured a ministrant. But the imperial ministrations were interrupted by the priest's boy mumbling, almost unititelligibly the versicle: "It is He that hath made us, not we ourselves," whereupon the priest removed him for his indistinct enunciation, and he repeated the Psalmist's words, which the Emperor took as an undesigned rebuke to his own thoughts.
Queen Elizabeth, similarly, was careful to admit into her household none but those of "stature and birth;" and one day, it is recorded, she went so far as to refuse the services of a certain individual for no other reason than that one of his jaws was deficient of a tooth. But there was Tamerlane's wife, who, although she had no nose, was considered a belle by her contemporaries; and even hunchbacks have had their admirers on the ground that the "dorsal curvature is the true line of beauty."
It has, after all, however, been generally admitted that beauty is, more or less, deceptive, and especially where love is concerned, for, as the popular adage says: "If Jack is in love, he is no judge of Jill's beauty," which corresponds with the Italian saying, "Handsome is not what is handsome, but what pleases." Similarly, the French have a familiar proverb, "Never seemed a prison fair, nor a mistress foul," which has its counterpart in Germany, where it is said, "he whose fair one squints says she ogles;" and "Everybody thinks his own cuckoo sings better than another's nightingale;" with which we may compare what the African negro says, "The beetle is a beauty in the eyes of its mother"--love transforming all imperfections into beauty. But, as an Eastern piece of proverbial wisdom reminds us--
For her beauty we a concubine take,"
Long that the star of your husband may shine."
Indeed, that in a lover's eyes, plainness oftentimes becomes actual beauty, is exemplified over and over again in the literature of past and modern days, for, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (act v. sc. i)--
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt."
Nobody ever yet called her so.
Are not her lineaments faultless, say?
If I must answer you plainly--No.
Joy to believe that the maid I love
None but myself as she is can see;
Joy that she steals from her heaven above,
And is only revealed on this earth to me."
Some, again, have tried to disparage beauty by maintaining that it is only "skin-deep," a notion which has found its way into proverbial lore. The literature of the past contains sundry allusions to this idea, and in the Rev. Rob. Fleming's poems (1691) we are reminded that--
Short of those statues made of wood or stone."
Is but skin-deep."
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