All I Survey/Essay XL

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Essay XXXIX All I Survey
Essay XL
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XLI



Essay XL: On Eyebrows

I DO not follow the fashions; I know little of that new wild world, where women can be wholly natural by constructing masks of grease-paint, or prove their freedom by strictly following the mode. I become conscious, or half-conscious, of some change in dress or deportment when it has already become general. In this manner, for instance, it was lately borne in upon me that another change has taken place in the human countenance.

It is already a commonplace, I suppose, that the ideal and immortal Lover, as conceived by Shakspere, "sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress' eyebrow," must now go away and sigh about something else. His mistress has no eyebrows; and it might be inferred that he would produce no ballads. Anyhow, it suggests a sort of metaphysical duel between the Lover and the Poet, rather attractive to the metaphysical poets of that period. Would the balladist still cling to his ballad, pursuing the abstract and archetypal image of an Eyebrow, even when it was entirely detached from a face? Would he prefer the lady's eyebrow to the lady, leaving the rest of the lady behind like so much lumber, and pursuing only that peculiar vision of vanished hair? Or would he make the supreme sacrifice of tearing up the ballad and taking up with the lady, however strangely disfigured, resolving henceforward to write ballads only about her nose, her ears, or some portion of her which it seemed improbable that she would be in any immediate hurry to cut off? Even about those, of course, he could never be quite safe, if amputation were really the fashion.

In fact, touching that famous phrase, I have often wondered why modern poets do not more often amuse themselves by reproducing the imaginary Ballad to an Eyebrow. Shakspere is full of hints that could be used as the basis of all sorts of games and experiments; Browning accepted such a challenge in expanding the suggestive line of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came"; and my own father, who was a man of many crafts and hobbies he had no ambition to exploit, made a table ornament modelled in every detail on the Three Caskets of Portia. Surely some of us might have a shot at a really Elizabethan address to the supercilious feature. Surely any modern writer, after sighing like a furnace for a few minutes, might be able to attempt something appropriate in the sixteenth-century manner:

As seven-dyed Iris doth o'erarch the spheres, Love made that bridge that doth o'erarch thine eyne Bright as that bonded bow enskied; a sign Against the crystal Deluge of thy tears As line on line, so brow to brow appears ...

At this point the poet looks up at the lady's eyebrow and finds that it disappears. The pen drops from his fingers, and this immortal fragment (if I may so modestly describe it) remains for ever fragmentary. Shakspere, especially the Shakspere of the Sonnets, knew more than most people about the law of change and dissolution spread over all earthly things, even those that seem the most natural:

 Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, 
 But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
 How with this rage shall Beauty hold a plea,
 Whose action is no stronger than a flower.

I quote from memory. Anyhow, even this argument does not force us to a premature plucking of the flower or plucking out of the eyebrow. But, in spite of Shakspere's somewhat excessive preoccupation, at one period, with the images of mutability and mortality, I very gravely doubt whether he ever did expect that sonnets or ballads to eyes, eyebrows, ears, noses, and the rest would ever become impossible by a general obliteration of these features. But what is stranger still, and what would have struck Shakspere as very strange indeed, is the fact that this negative and destructive operation should take place in a society devoted to pleasure, and in an age commonly supposed to be even more pagan than his own.

For the real moral is rather interesting. I challenge anybody to deny that this custom, if it had not been adopted as hedonism, would have been denounced as hideous asceticism. Suppose people had been told twenty years ago, say in the great Suffrage period, that in some ancient societies women were made to shave off their eyebrows after marriage. Would it not have been instantly classed with the cruel disfigurements imposed by masculine jealousy, as in the Oriental wives who are made to black their teeth after marriage? Suppose that some Puritan fanatic had indignantly declared that nuns were made to shave their eyebrows. Should we ever have heard the last of the unnatural defacement of the human face at the command of superstition? Would not everybody have quite instinctively connected it with Fasts and Flagellants? Would it ever have occurred to anybody to connect it with fashion and pleasure? If anybody had told the Suffragette that the women in the harem liked having their hair pulled out an inch above their eyeballs, how the Suffragette would have yelled with derision of the cowardly masculine excuse! If anybody had told the late Mr. Kensit that a fashion of going bald above the eyes was started merely for fun among the nuns and novices themselves, how he would have snorted with incredulity! Yet the fashion has, to all appearance, been started merely for fun among the ladies themselves; and it may be presumed that they like it. I do not particularly care whether they have no eyebrows or three eyebrows, or green or triangular eyebrows, in those select circles where such things presumably start. But there is a certain intellectual interest in the way in which they seem nowadays, in so many cases, to start in the opposite direction from what one would normally call the pursuit of pleasure and beauty.

In short, the only real interest of such a trifle is that which connects it with some of the serious arts and decorative schools of our day. It is, I suppose, an unconscious expression, parallel to many other such expressions, of an artistic movement towards something that is more or less severe and harsh and even dehumanized. It is part of a tendency to turn people into patterns rather than into pictures. As a reaction against the deliquescent sentimentalism that was the end of the old humanitarian sentiment, it is comprehensible enough: but it is comprehensible rather than commendable.

Anyhow, one thing is certain; that, though many periods in the past have a certain grim and grandiose solemnity, through the hardness of externals or the mathematical severity of lines, these periods always appear to us to be oppressive and inhuman. So that the age of the Bright Young Things may yet have to look forward to its own appearance in history, as a type of tyranny and slavery and stiff as the mummies of the dead.