symmetry and disorder

The sun shone when I walked to the market this morning and again when I walked to the supermarket this afternoon, which gave me the opportunity to take photographs of spring flowers, swelling leaf buds, and even a small tortoiseshell butterfly.

The traditional yellow daffodils with proper trumpets – the ones I think of as King Alfreds – are mostly past their best, but there are all sorts of other varieties in bloom still, including some utterly gorgeous pheasant’s-eye narcissus. The tiny black bugs in the eye of this one make its colours even more like the butterfly in the top photo.

pheasant's eye narcissusIt wasn’t until I looked at the pictures in order to select one for the blog that I realised just what an unsymmetrical specimen I had chosen to photograph.

The fact that I don’t think that makes it any less beautiful reminded me of reading my brother’s philosophy text books many years ago and set me off on an afternoon’s skim reading of around two and a half millennia of writings on beauty and symmetry, trying to track down one particular half-remembered essay that said that beauty was not a result of exact symmetry, but of variations from perfection.

I’m fairly sure that I must have been thinking of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime, written in 1757.

I don’t remember reading Kant, but one quotation I found – from The Critique of Judgment (1790) – also seems to be connected to the same idea: “all stiff regularity (such as approximates to mathematical regularity) has something in it repugnant to taste.”

Neither of those works is the easiest of reads, and this blog is meant to be more about poetry than philosophy, so it seems only right to point out that Robert Herrick, who died over 50 years before Burke was born, had already realised the attraction of “sweet disorder”:

Delight in Disorder

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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