"I did but see her passing by, And yet I love her--till I die."
These haunting words could have been addressed to the beloved Beatrice by the love-stricken poet Dante, so prophetic, so fitting did they become in his lifetime. Since the beginning of time there seemed to have been women like Beatrice. Women whose charm and grace make them live forever in the heart of those who knew them.
An inclination to place beauty foremost, above all other attributes, is not easily overcome. For it is part of the romanticism of men to expect all women to be beautiful. Beauty as the preeminent choice, however, is misleading. Even as an ideal, it changes readily from country to country, from period to period and from decade to decade. When unattended by other qualities, it is a vastly overrated commodity. For beauty is a fragile chameleon flower; of itself, and over time, weathers poorly.
No doubt, harmony of features is essential to beauty. But it is only the starting point. I recall one urbane instructor commenting that potential models frequently walked into his office who, by every standard of measurement, should have been gorgeous but were a total disaster. They walked without grace. They spoke neither musically nor naturally but with a shrill tone. Their minds were shallow.
Beauty, if unattended by other qualities, sustains no interest. When beauty has only regularity of feature to recommend it, when it expresses neither delight nor compassion, when it has the chill of marble without the warmth of flesh, when it expresses neither joy nor animation, beauty becomes not only a disappointment but a bore.
What makes a woman haunt the minds of men, what makes a woman live in the hearts of men, is something more substantial. And, fundamentally, that something is character heightened with personality, enhanced with charm.
Charm is the best of beauticians. Dramatist Sir James Barrie defined charm as a sort of bloom on a woman, adding, "If you have it, you don't need to have anything else--and if you don't have it, it doesn't much matter whatever else you have." Charm, however, will not be turned on and off like a faucet. For charm is neither a sudden gush of sweetness nor the flowery, unctuous rhetoric of the imposter. An enduring charm has both a magical and delightful quality that uplifts and fascinates. Charm is woven into the fabric of the personality like some exquisite golden thread: it glows brightly; it wears well.
Indeed, a charm that endures puts people at ease by putting their interests first and expresses, without self-consciousness, a hospitable mind, a warm heart. For charm has an endearing quality which conquers by its selflessness, its graciousness, its spirituality.
With advancing years, we perceive that charm, fundamentally character itself, is the ultimate bestower of attraction. Seneca, the Roman philosopher and productive writer, wrote that the property of a generous and noble mind is to aid and do good to others. "No one," advised Jacquin Miller, "but yourself can make your life beautiful, no one can be pure, honorable and loving for you." We should strive to deepen life. A girl may have lovely features before she is twenty-six, but she usually hasn't lived enough to have much depth of feeling in her face. A mellowing maturity comes with advancing years. For "time is the chrysalis of eternity." The incomparable German poet, dramatist and philosopher Johann Goethe professed that character, though developed in the give and take of the public arena, is mellowed in solitude. When left alone the superior woman is endlessly able to amuse and interest herself out of her personal stock of meditations, ideas, memories and philosophy.
A deepening of thought is the special virtue of solitude. With practice, the capacity to think increases over time. We should daydream. We should meditate. We should pray often. Reach for those elusive but luminous places in your life where, for the most part, you sojourn as an alien. Even if one has to settle for less, strive through repeated effort to strengthen character. And persist in prayer for thus is insight deepened and vision expanded. "Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind, for the soul is dyed by the thought," wrote the discerning Roman emperor and the world-renowned writer of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.
All too often, however, thought atrophies. Men and women are prone to snuggle down into the arms of comfortable security. And ideas stultify, aspiring dreams fade. We want a quick reward without winning the creativity that justified award. "True progress," advised Iran Panin, "consists not so much in increasing our needs as in diminishing our wants."
It has been said that a beautiful girl is an accident, but a beautiful woman is an work of art. Whatever your age, you can acquire charm, loveliness and personality, the basic ingredients of character, just as you acquire the ability to play the piano or to operate a typewriter. You need only a proper understanding of what is fundamental, and the application of this to your particular needs. Intelligent choices are a prerequisite. For intelligence is an indispensable adjunct to the subtler understanding of the heart.
The perceptive writer Francis Mauriac observed that "We are moulded and remoulded by those who have loved us, and though the love may pass, we are, nevertheless, their work, for good or bad."
In a biography of Lincoln I read a few unforgettable lines. Lincoln averred that after forty every man is responsible for his own face. Women may rely on beauticians to help them look as they desire to look, but in the final sense--after forty--they, too, are responsible for their faces. Written on them, beyond assistance from makeup, is not only what life has brought to them but what they have brought to life. Each decade can bring its own special appeal to a woman. She grows in interest as her interests deepen, as the first tentative effort evolves. Ultimately, then, as time advances, written indelibly upon our faces--for good or ill--is character.
Youth is not necessarily the foolish time. That time comes when women, faced with age, make themselves foolish by battling desperately to hold onto youth. For winged time glides too swiftly onward and deceives us. The discerning Jewish writer Samuel Ullaan observed: "Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years; people grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul." Age should be a matter of pride, not shame. The Chinese rather than the Americans attest to this truth. Once when the writer Booth Tarkington was seventy-five, a reporter asked him whether old people felt old in spirit. He replied, "I don't know. Why don't you ask some of them?"
Within the pages of Oscar Wilde's fascinating novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, strikingly depicted and contrasted, is the good and evil inscribed upon two faces, each belonging to the same person. The live protagonist's face, through artful magic, remains deceptively young, innocent and very beautiful. But the hanging portrait of this same man--hidden in the closet--reflects the impact of this man's cumulative vices spanning his mature years. In awe, one studies an evolved face repulsively grotesque, the mirror of a character permeated with vice, saturated with evil.
When I was in my late twenties, I met two young and unforgettable women whose personalities and lifestyle had an overwhelming impact upon my life. Even today--nearly five decades later--I cannot recall them without a quickening of the heart, without a deep well of thought which has no bottom. The more I draw from it, the more clear, tender and fruitful it becomes.
For they were vivacious women--one Jewish and the other Viennese--who seem to have been born with a grace, insight and charm that made them live on in my fondest memories.
Often I have asked myself what made them so captivating, so fascinating and so unforgettable. Often, too, have I asked myself why two women should have had this magic while others, though they were sweet, attractive and kind, pass and are gone. A precise answer eludes me. And yet--when speaking the language of the soul--I do know the answer. They were very good. Victorian though it may sound, they were memorable because they practiced goodness in countless and impressive ways. "In nothing do men more nearly approach the gods," observed the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero, "than in doing good to their fellow men." Yes, these women were vibrant. Yes, they were warm. And, yes, above all, they were responsive. There are people, stated the perspicacious French essayist Raoul de Roussey de Sales, who transmit to others their particular emotional atmosphere, who show you how to love, to suffer, to be happy.
Indeed, my memorable women were like that. You know that they are aware of you. You know their radiant minds are hospitable to your ideas, their hearts to your joy and sorrow. Such delightful women are not onlookers in your life. They do not tarry on the sidelines of your life. They are in the tempestuous whirl of your life. They care.
The responsive woman comes quietly on some hidden bloom, rejoicing in it, exposing it to a brighter light. For with discernment, she discovers what is worthwhile in another person; what was dormant awakens to new life. If you are a somewhat shy and withdrawn personality--as am I--she delicately probes and revitalizes your soul. Amazingly, you become more articulate; you become more alive.
The responsive woman--the memorable woman--is feminine. It is not sexual attraction. It is not a fawning helplessness nor the ability to wear clothes smartly that really make a woman truly feminine. That pristine femininity is a generosity of spirit, a tenderness, a gentleness, a concern and a willingness to sacrifice for others. In her selflessness, she is Christlike. In her angelic presence the door of Heaven is ajar. One probing writer observed "that the most commanding of all delights is the delight in goodness. The beauty of holiness is but one beauty but it is the highest." To an astonishing degree, the women who have lived in history as memorable have been good women. As one example, one might cite the peasant girl Saint Joan of Arc because of her faith, courage, dedication and incomparable goodness. For goodness is more imperishably beautiful than anything else. Vanity and greed, pettiness and conceit do not imprint their unlovely design upon a good woman's face.
The memorable woman--with consummate skill--makes other people feel larger than life. She reaches outward. She projects upward. She lifts you out of your hiding place. To be doing good is woman's most glorious task, affirmed Sophocles, one of the three great Greek writers of tragedy.
It was a woman's dedication, a woman's goodness, a woman's sacrificial love that ultimately brought into reality the most beautiful building in the world, India's glorious Taj Mahal, temple of peerless beauty. For the true love story behind the gleaming white marble facade of the Taj Mahal is the living testimonial of a good man's hallowed love for a beautiful woman, for a very good woman, for a memorial in memoir of his wife.
The more a woman seeks to live modestly by the best of her knowledge, the more she loves her God, the more she loves others, the more gentle her assessments of life, the richer her inward life, the deeper her spiritual life, the warmer her responsiveness, the more she will become the woman desired, the woman needed, the woman loved and, therefore, the memorable woman.
To read other articles by Malana Mercurio, visit The World & I Online e-Library archives:
--"Anna Pavlova: Ballerina Absoluta," November 2006 (Article #25259)
--"When Is a Woman Beautiful?" October 2006 (Article #25218)
--"Divine Comedy: A Canvas of Eternity," October 006 (Article #25207)
Malana Mercurio is a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. In her long and prolific writing career, she has produced articles for many publications, including Spiritual Life Quarterly, Highlights for Children, Animal Cavalcade, Stories, The National Humane Review, Young World, Quest, and the Church School Literature Department of Springfield, Illinois.…