If I Had a Sense of Beauty



H. W. Fowler and his dog.


“He is merely shallow and—oh! so banal and trite.” —Pall Mall Gazette)

“This group of self-conscious, verbose essays.” —Yorkshire Observer

“A true autobiography of a second-rate soul.” —Morning Post

These are some of the “Extracts from Press Notices” at the beginning of If Wishes Were Horses (1929). They refer to the 1907 edition, published under another title. They are the very first thing we find in the book, before even the author’s name. Only Henry Watson Fowler—who by this time had authored two of Oxford’s all-time classics, The King’s English and A Dictionary of Modern Usage (see my other post on this subject)—could have had the humility and the sense of humor to begin a book by citing the most acerbic sneers he could find on it.

If voluntarily quoting those scalding blurbs were not enough, Fowler further proved his humility by publishing many of his books anonymously or under pseudonyms, one of which was Quillet, as in “little quill”—literally, a diminutive pen name. In addition to his work as a linguist, he wrote several books that defy classification. One of them, for instance, is a collection of “lay sermons” for boys (Fowler’s atheism cost him his teaching position), signed as Quilibet (Latin for “anyone” or “no matter who.”) Another was an attack on popular fallacies (“Childhood Is the Happiest Time,” “Time Is Money,” et cetera), much in the vein of Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues or Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, only with essay-length entries.

Even within Fowler’s strange corpus, If Wishes Were Horses is a rather strange book. He first published it in 1907, when he was “a sensitive young thing under fifty,” under the pseudonym Egomet (“myself”), and reprinted it twenty-two years later, as a “married senior over seventy.” His tendency to smallness, a form of meek evanescence, is reminiscent of Robert Walser; his wit and economy, of Max Beerbohm; his comical hyperawareness of his declining years, of Italo Svevo. But the style and formal eccentricity are Fowler’s own.

The book, “mostly a catalogue raisonné of the things I wish the gods had given me,” is made up of eleven essays, each one beginning with “If I”: “If I Had Imagination,” “If I Had Manners,” “If I Had a Philosophy,” “If I Had a Cat.” In a way, then, this is a counterfactual autobiography—what his life would have been like, had he had any of these qualities or things. Which brings us back to his self-effacement. “How should a person who has no imagination imagine what would happen if he had one?” Fowler asks, referring to himself. “It is in the nature of things that he should be able to sigh, but not to formulate what he sighs for, to write down the protasis of his conditional, but be at a loss for its apodosis.” If you are wondering what protasis and apodosis mean, think of the title of this collection: “If wishes were horses” is the proverb’s protasis. The apodosis (“beggars would ride”) is missing. This absence is Fowler’s whole point. And this is why his is a subjunctive memoir—not even a potential one.

Memoirs rely on the double fiction of immediacy and intimacy: “this, here, is me, with you, now” (which may be why memoirs proliferate in the age of social media). Even autofictional narratives that aim to denounce the conventions of memoir only strengthen the illusion of intimate immediacy through their critique of it. The denunciation becomes a frame that is “more real” than the artifices it exposes and contains. Fowler, too, overtly challenges the expectations of the memory genres: confession, memoir, autobiography, journal. His account of a conjectural life is a paradoxical attempt to erase himself with every word. We should be grateful for his failure: by telling us who he might have been he gives us a glimpse of who he was.

As a sample of If Wishes Were Horses, long out of print, here is “If I Had a Sense of Beauty.” Fowler’s exquisite sense of style, his penchant for paradoxes, and his self-effacement all come together in the two opening paragraphs, where he offers a beautiful description of beauty only to deflate his own Romantic swelling by declaring himself incapable of experiencing the beauty he just so beautifully described—except, he confesses toward the end of the essay, when it comes to literature.  —Hernan Diaz


On this 11th of December the wind here is in the north-east, but there is very little of it, & the sun is shining. My cottage faces south-west, & in the open porch of it I sit & have sat for some hours, with ’no clothes whatever beyond a cotton shirt & a pair of thin flannels, nor any need of more.  The sky is blue, rather pale, but limpid; the country, spread out advantageously on the other side of a slight valley in front, is mostly of a green that is rather too full & heavy, & lacks freshness; but the brown purple of many leafless copses, helped out by the greyish-brown spots into which our native building-materials of granite & red tiles melt at a distance, gives variety enough to compensate. One remembers now & then, to the disadvantage of the present, that in March or so the whole of this expanse will be picked out with tangled lines of blazing gold, the lodges, now little-seen low banks of duller green, being all of gorse; but except when one is foolish enough to subject December to odious comparisons, the background is quite satisfactory. And then immediately in front of my feet is a strip several yards wide of chrysanthemums, yellow, white, & brown. From my point of view the sun is shining not on, but through the blossoms, so that each is a little mass of coloured light rather than of lit-up colour; & to add to this living effect nearly every stem is at this moment tenanted by a bird, which keeps it dancing with what at least looks very like pleasurable emotion; ‘This is a spray the bird clung to, making it blossom with pleasure’ each of them seems to be saying in dumb show; a flock on its migration, as I suppose, has decided to make its last encampment amid this blaze of colour, reminding it of the high midsummer pomps & promising to send it on its way with pleasant memories. For they are not ‘faint as a climate-changing bird’; by no means, but lively enough to do a vast amount of bustling about, with some of the quarrelling that, on so tiny a scale, enlivens the scene without seriously detracting from its serenity; from which alone I deduce that they are at the beginning & not the end of their journey; for I neither know what birds winter with us, nor can guess what birds these may be.

Well, from this scene I confess to deriving a modicum of gratification, though I am personally acquainted with a great many people who would derive much more, if they had, as they have not, the opportunity of contemplating it. Nor is the consciousness of proprietorship an element in my pleasure; my territory ends before the chrysanthemums begin, & they are my neighbour’s. But if this fact proves me to be not absolutely without a sense of beauty, a reflection connected with it shows as plainly how uninfluential that sense is. I know as certainly as I know anything merely hypothetical that, if this ground were mine, I should neither trouble to cultivate chrysanthemums on it myself, nor pay anyone else to do it for me. As I am not wanting in energy when I see my way to anything that I really do care about, the conclusion is obvious.

We have ‘other gauds here too, pearls that Providence does not abstain from throwing this way just because there is at least one (if I may be allowed to spare my own feelings by a periphrasis)—at least one creature here lacking in sensibility. These pearls are sunsets. I will not (an ass playing the lyre)[1] attempt to call up their varieties, nor do any splashing on paper with wordy pigments; I will content myself with saying that north-west of me, in the quarter of summer setting, is the sea, with, well away from land, a line of rocks & a few stray pinnacles ready, to play a part in any celestial conjuring that may be on hand, & help confound the distinction between islets of gold or amethyst & mere clouds. And south-west for the winter setting there is a long neighbouring ridge crowned with woods, & a windmill or two, & a toy church; this last is the very image of those that adorned the Christmas cards of forty years ago; there is a bald shaven spick-and-span Completeness about it that is very distressing in broad daylight; but at 5.0 p.m. in December it does well. Connoisseurs in sunsets, then, will see that both quarters have their capabilities; & I admit that I do not grudge to these displays a little time & attention; nay, I am sometimes wrought by them to quite the proper solemnity of regret over the transitoriness of things, which is, if I am not mistaken, the most constant effect of the more exquisite natural beauties. This sentiment, however, whether painful or pleasurable (& I have no hesitation whatever myself in classing it as the latter; it is a piece of activity on the part of ‘this intellectual being’ of ours), must be reckoned rather among the moral than among the aesthetic pains & pleasures. And similarly with the chrysanthemum scene, I do not think it is so much its beauty that affects me as a general impression of satisfactory completeness about it, of every detail’s fitting in just as it should with every other. ‘God’s in His heaven’? I cannot say; he may be, or he may not; but at any rate ‘all’s right with the world’, as far as I can discern from my today’s survey of these few square miles of it.

I was not always in this humble frame of mind—if my reader credits me with humility—about the aesthetic faculties. I used to fancy myself endowed with an average share of them, & took a possibly innocent juvenile pride in their cultivation. I had weekly relays of flowers for many years to add to my bachelor room a grace that not every bachelor troubles himself about; that, it is true, was in my wealthy days; but if wealth were to return there would be no more flower boxes; I should have something better to do with it; never mind what; I know. And I made yearly expeditions to the Alps, in the honest conviction that I pined to look upon salmon-hued Dolomite sunrises, or grey cloud oceans underfoot, or fantastic towering séracs or virgin slopes of wind-carved snow. No such thing; it was the climbing-pole I wanted, as I now know very well; these others were the trimmings, & very good trimmings too, if such things were needed ; but my three-mile run before breakfast to the sea & back, with the briefest of plunges in the middle of it, serves my purpose, I find, to admiration. My love of scenery was a fraud, one of those innocent youthful frauds that are only known for such by their authors in later days, & call for no very severe censure when they are detected; my real desire was not to see beautiful things as an end in itself, but to qualify for using sincerely about them the sort of language that was used by people who knew & admired them, & whom I knew & admired. There was the original motive, & then came in the attractions of the climbing-pole to divert my attention from the discovery that I was as little a genuine devotee of landscape beauty as they tell us the ancient classics were; since then I have reached analytic years, & must pronounce myself, however indulgently, a past impostor.

Such too is the history of my (or -of what was to have been my) connoisseurship in pictures. Any man who had spent as many hours as I have spent in the galleries of London & Paris, Rome & Florence, Berlin & Dresden, Munich & Frankfort, Antwerp & Venice, & had not done it like me (if I had only known it) against the grain, would be something of a critic. I well remember in the earlier days of this pursuit how I was caught by an, athletic friend, who had no sympathy with it whatever, sitting over a book on Giotto & worshipping certain coloured reproductions there contained. His expressions, articulate & inarticulate, I will not try to reproduce; they amounted in effect to the pressing demand, What could I pretend to see in such daubs? It is the kind of question that even if you can answer to yourself you can hardly answer to the person who is likely to ask it; nor did I answer it. Being at the time, however, in the full tide of an enthusiasm that 1 had not yet realized to be factitious, I was not seriously embarrassed; the only difficulty was to give to my evasion (which at that age naturally took took form of ‘There are more things in heaven & earth … ’) the precisely right intonation—playful enough for him to take it as a mere subterfuge & not be offended, earnest enough for me to feel that I was keeping my status of superior person as against the Philistines. This little diplomatic stroke I accomplished, & my cult was proof against any such rude assaults for many years; that it has now been abandoned is due to my Having detected its nature for myself. I never attained to knowing, nor even to having any confident opinion on the question, whether a given picture was beautiful or not; but I did attain to being able, as I walked through an unknown gallery, to guess at all the painters’ names & be more often right than wrong, without stealing glances at the catalogue or the quis pinxit on canvas or frame. This is not an aesthetic, but an intellectual pleasure; it may also be practically valuable, if you happen to be an art dealer; I do not; nor indeed did I ever bring this faculty within measurable distance of the infallible; but it served the same purpose as the Alpine climbing-pole, & prevented me for long from finding out that I had quite lost sight of my original object. I found it out at last by visits to the Academy & the Salon, which I had before been by way of despising; these were to me meaningless blanks; there might be beautiful pictures in them, or there might not; what was that to me? I was drifting to & fro without my compass. I still love to go through an honest gallery or old-masters collection where one knows what to expect; to see  how much of the attributive judgement has perished with disuse is interesting, &, when one is clearly convinced that it was a paltry power masquerading as something higher, not in the least mortifying. On my walls still hangs a relic or two—a delicate etching of a Van Eyck, a copy of a Botticelli Madonna, a cast of an ethereal little bas-relief; I never look at them except by chance; but when I do, it is with affection for their associations.

Architecture is another grazing-ground on which I fed my passion for classification. I could do a little dating by masonry & moulding, vaulting & tracery: ogee & flying buttress, dogtooth & ballflower, had their significance; I could patter—mostly, I am now glad to think, to myself—strings of queer words from Rickman & Fergusson & Parker. But whether the Parthenon would have moved me as it should have I gravely doubt; & it was probably an unsuspected suspicion of my own dullness in presence of mere beauty, where there was not much measuring, comparing, & ‘placing’ to be done, that prevented my going to Greece in due course.

About music I have never been able even to delude myself. It is true that I often indulge, when absolutely alone & out of all hearing, in snatches of what I take for melody; old ballads, Gilbert & Sullivan songs, & the like, give me an unaffected pleasure as performed by myself. But as early as my schooldays I had learnt that the word harmony was as mysterious & incomprehensible to live as the word yellow to a blind man. At an Oxford bumpsupper, as someone sat down after singing John Peel, my neighbour observed to me that he had done it in (if I remember) four different keys. I had been quite satisfied, & was, much distressed by this criticism, not because I was concerned for the singer’s credit, but because of this horrible reinforcement to my conscious deficiencies. Ever since, I have recognized that music is a sealed book, & have taken the greatest care to ascertain that no-one is within earshot when I allow my high or my low spirits to express themselves vocally; they very likely do so in a dozen keys at once.

Then again there is of course human beauty, which I suppose has had more effect on people’s behaviour & happiness than all the other, kinds of beauty put together. Well, I will not go quite so far as to say, Man delights not me, nor woman neither. I have a mild gratification in gazing at a fine specimen of either sex, a gratification just strong enough to balance the dislike I feel (a much stronger sentiment, but fortunately not so often excited) for the people who are conscious of their claims to admiration, I was reading an author a day or two ago as horribly self-conscious & introspective as myself—more horribly so to my taste, but much less horribly so to other ‘people’s—; & he lamented over the fact that he had always been too much occupied to fall in love. I have never fallen in love cither, though I have not always been too much occupied; but I am not tempted to lament over it. I have indeed a much more definite impression than with pictures that this woman is beautiful & that is not; I like to contemplate the former; I like even in my more sociable moments, to talk to her. But to decide the momentous question which of them, if any, is the one that I should like to contemplate & talk to through life; to plunge into the social vortex by way of qualifying for deciding it rightly ; to stay there until the decision could be converted into action; & afterwards to revolutionize my whole life in consequence of it—I stand aghast at the bare thought. I have some energy, I said. For instance, I like my letters on the earliest possible day; our post town is six miles away, & there is no Sunday delivery except at the head office; to gain those twenty-four hours I do not shrink from getting up at five on Sunday morning (which now in December is much the same as getting up at midnight) & walking my twelve miles. But my sense of ladies’ beauty is not the sort of power that can set the wheels of my energy to work. Even in women, beauty is the one of good gifts that concerns me least of all. When Fate overtakes me—& it will have to be quick now if it is to tap me on the shoulder before I am safe in the sanctuary of old age—I can make a shrewd guess at what will be my wife’s mental & moral equipment ; at least I should say so if I did not know that Cupid was blind ; but of her looks I have no shadow of prevision.

Perhaps I ought to be said at having to confess, still more at myself discovering, all the illusions I have recited above. Am I sinking in the scale, becoming a mere materialist, therefore willing to resign old aspirations & shamelessly renounce the sense of beauty? or is it perhaps a real advance to find out & acquiesce in one’s limitations? I cannot pretend to answer; I can only say that I have no consciousness of being a degraded & disappointed creature. I am much happier than when my illusions were with me; whether because they are no longer with me is another question. It only seems to me, incurable optimist that I am, that every new piece of self-knowledge, whatever its character, whether it would be regarded a priori with horror or with delight, is gratifying when it comes. Such are the consolations of foolish meditative recluses who feed upon their own vitals.

Meanwhile there is one department of beauty in which I do not find my sense so much astray as in the rest. That is literature; I have never the smallest doubt whether a book is good or bad or both or neither. There I do my judging intuitively, without needing to take account of critics & schools; & I will pronounce judgement (exclusively for my own benefit, though) as readily on a new writer about whom all the critics think differently as on a classic about whom they all say the same. It is a great satisfaction to find myself, without an effort at self-improvement, agreeing here in the main with the orthodox verdict, though with some particular differences such as encourage me to think the general agreement is not merely artificial. Reading only what I feel inclined to read, I choose the old & approved in the proportion of perhaps a hundred to one of the modern (newspapers, indeed, excluded) ; which is about as it should be. One of my peculiarities is that the exquisite & Virgilian repels me; I resent Stevensonian elaboration of style as I resent being tactfully handled by a master or mistress of the social arts; these things are insults to all  who have intelligence enough to detect them. Another peculiarity, more general, is really regrettable, but  much too obstinate for me to resist. My reader has no doubt gathered from all these papers that I am a colourless neutral sort of person. So in literature I tend to the negative view, & the negative virtues outweigh the positive; lucidity & faultlessness appeal to me more than they should; for the first instance that comes to hand, there is, I believe, a great deal of human nature & refreshing prejudice & rude vigour in Borrow; but I cannot read with patience a man who so murders the grammar. With a few such exceptions, however, I am in literature, what it is so delightful to be, spontaneously orthodox. There is no knowing what the future has in store for one; but I shall be seriously astonished if my notions of literary beauty either change or fade away; for I feel as if they were intuitive & unconventional.

With all the other forms of beauty it is far otherwise. Goethe devotes some pages to defending the truth of a  German proverb: Was man in der Jugend wünscht, hat man im Alter die Fühle: What youth yearned for, age has enough of. I protest that my youth yearned for the sense of beauty; has my age enough of it? Only, it would seem after the preceding confessions, in the interpretation that it does not want any more of it; which is not what the proverb meant, though I have purposely introduced a little ambiguity into the translation. But perhaps one cannot speak quite authoritatively about old age on the strength of a mere Pisgah survey taken from the hither side of fifty. I hope no-one will be unkind enough to suspect that in the earlier part of this essay there was an attempt to give an impression contrary to the words, & insinuate that the sense of beauty was not in such a bad way as it was said to be; far from me be such trickery! Still, there is time, at fifty; die Fülle may be my lot yet, though progress seems now to be quite the other way. So be it, if it likes!


[1] Fowler cites this in Greek and offers translation in FN —H. D.


Hernan Diaz is the managing editor of RHM (Columbia University). His first novel, In the Distance, was published last October.