There is a beautiful poem by Robert Herrick entitled “Delight in Disorder” that has been much on my mind lately. It’s a sensual poem, directed to a lover, but its theme captures, I believe, a truth that goes far beyond romance and is relevant to many areas of life. The poem, for those unfamiliar with it, is as follows:
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
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands 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.
The last three lines, in particular, are striking, and articulate well a truth that I have been recognizing and pondering more and more over the last few years. What is true beauty? Where does one find it? In my experience, the truest, deepest kind of beauty is not found in the likeliest of places. Or, at least, not in the places that the world says it should be found.
Before I elaborate, I should explain that I am definitely an aesthetics connoisseur. I appreciate beauty in all its forms—in nature, animals, people, art, architecture, language, etc. So I am by no means insensible to “art that is precise in every part”—for such art is indeed often very beautiful. The grandeur of precision is seen in Creation itself, and such precision is awe-inducing and points us to a God Who also appreciates such beauty.
So what is this “wild civility” that Herrick is referring to? Is there a beauty that goes even deeper, that manifests itself in disorder and even, perhaps, in what we commonly think of as “ugly”? I believe so.
I first started noticing this kind of beauty when I traveled abroad, and my spoiled, sheltered American sensibilities were shocked and disturbed by the sight of real poverty and filth. I never knew real ugliness until I beheld the favelas and street children in Brazil, or the poor beggars on the streets of Morocco.
But once my initial revulsion to the outward ugliness of all that I beheld had lessened, and I had immersed myself in the culture, and become acquainted with the people, an awakening of sorts happened within me.
I was not the same person when I returned home. And I have never been quite the same since. Suddenly the neat, manicured lawns, the big, beautiful homes, the fancy cars, and all the outwardly attractive things that define and are glorified by our shallow, materialistic culture here in the US, were incredibly unappealing to me. I had been touched by a beauty that went far deeper, and made the “art precise in every part” seem so shallow, empty, and even “ugly” in comparison.
Over the last week, circumstances have only driven this truth of a deeper beauty further into my heart. God has blessed me with the privilege of house-sitting for a couple who live in one of the “ghetto” parts of my city. I feel like I have entered a different world. I have never truly been immersed in this separate culture, that exists almost literally in my own back yard. True, it is no favela, it is still relatively well-off compared to the poorest places in the world, and no homeless children are begging in the streets, but I immediately felt an affinity for this little section of my city.
The affinity was heightened too, as I pondered the contrast in this poor, mostly black community, and the wealthy, suburban neighborhoods I frequent in my baby-sitting jobs. I do a lot of sitting, especially, for my previous employer, for whom I was a nanny for over a year. Their family recently moved into a large house in a very well-to-do suburban community, that has a golf course, club house, beautiful homes, man-made lake, and perfectly-manicured lawns. The children of this family have everything, materially, they could ever desire.
But I never feel at home or at ease when I am in this family’s home or neighborhood. I actually feel repulsed by the shallow beauty all around me.
But put me amidst some “wild civility,” where there is beauty in an old house with chipping paint, a broken fence, and a rusting gate—-where there is beauty in little black children, in hand-me-down clothes, playing on hand-me-down toys, on the sidewalk—-where there is beauty in an elderly black woman sitting on her front porch watching the world go by and conversing genially with her neighbors—-amidst this, I feel very much at home. I understand fully Herrick’s delight in disorder when I am surrounded by such sights and sounds.
I gain a better understanding too, of God’s own delight in disorder, and His appreciation of this deeper kind of beauty. Jesus Himself is a perfect example. In Isaiah, He is described as having no stately form or majesty, or anything beautiful about Him outwardly that would attract us to Him. On the contrary, His beauty comes from what the world sees as ugly—-those nail-scarred hands and feet, that will be, for all eternity, a reminder of His deep, deep love for us. He is the supreme example of what true beauty consists of. And it is not “art precise in every part.”
Lastly, I find hope for myself, in this reflection on beauty. When I look at myself, all I see is “ashes.” I have nothing to offer God but my filthy, ugly sin and broken life. But God can turn even the ugliest ashes into something beautiful. He gave me a poignant illustration of this not too long ago. I was feeling low one day and dwelling on my shame and brokenness, when I caught sight of the huge pile of ashes, leftover from a bonfire, in a field near my house. I told God, “that pile of ashes is my life.” No sooner had I said this, than He drew my attention to a cluster of beautiful morning glories nearby. “And I will exchange those ashes for beauty,” He said to me.