The Expanse Of Heaven--colour
"The broad open eye of the solitary sky."
Charles Lamb, with his native sensitiveness, considered this line
to be too terrible for art. Its suggestion of "the irresponsive
blankness of the universe" was for him too naked and poignant.
And yet, in certain of his aspects, nature is undoubtedly
irresponsive to man--aloof from his affairs--more especially in
her pageantry of the heavens, the sun, the moon and
But this feeling of aloofness is not constant, nor even normal, as
witness the exquisite lines in Peter Bell:
"At noon, when by the forest's edge
He lay beneath the branches high,
The soft blue sky did never melt
Into his heart--he never felt
The witchery of the soft blue sky!"
Whether in its friendly or its alien aspects, the widespread,
all-embracing arch of the heavens has, in all times and climes,
profoundly influenced human thought, more particularly so in
lands where the sky is clear and bright and the horizons
extended. Its effect, in flat and desert regions, on the
development of monotheistic beliefs was noted in an early
chapter. In India it has played the chiefest part in fostering
abstract universalism and the conception of a pantheistic
Absolute, and has tempted men to views which leave no room
for human initiative nor for belief in objective reality. And
when we recognise the wide and deep influence exerted by
Buddhism upon ethics and metaphysics ancient and modern, we
realise that the dome of heaven has proved itself a mystic force
of the first rank.
We must be on our guard, however, lest we exaggerate this
pantheistic or universalistic influence. We have a sufficient
corrective in the development of Dyaus, an ancient god of the
sky, who became, in one of his later forms, the Greek Zeus--that
is to say, a king of gods as well as of men--the ruler of
Olympus--the supreme member of a polytheistic community.
And this development is but representative of a large class
which have proceeded on similar lines--the class which come to
their own in the concept of a Heaven-Father. For example,
Tylor shows that, in the religion of the North American Indians,
"the Heaven-god displays perfectly the gradual blending of the
material sky itself with its personal deity"; and that the Chinese
Tien, Heaven, the highest deity of the state religion, underwent
a like theologic development. The mystic influence remains in
Christianity, as witness Keble:
"The glorious sky embracing all
Is like the Maker's love."
It may be affirmed, then, without fear of contradiction, that the
elemental phenomena of the sky, overarching all with its unlimited
span, has provided men with the idea of an all-embracing
deity--this idea, among others, is immanent there and awaits
still further development.
Awaits further development--for the mystic influences persist
and suggest deeper interpretations. Browning, though not an
avowed nature-mystic, felt the thrill and the emotion of the sky.
"The morn has enterprise, deep quiet droops
With evening, triumph takes the sunset hour."
As for the emotional value of the universal span of the sky, its
power to tranquillise by a sense of vast harmony and unity,
Christina Rossetti knew it:
"Heaven o'erarches you and me,
And all earth's gardens and her graves.
Look up with me, until we see
The day break and the shadows flee.
What though to-night wrecks you and me
If so to-morrow saves?"
Here, as is almost inevitable, the thought of the expanse is
associated with the alternate coming on of darkness and the
breaking of the dawn; but the change and alternation gains its
unity and ultimate significance from the all-inclusiveness of the
sky as the abiding element.
Walt Whitman brings out another aspect of this subtle but
powerful influence. He addresses the sky: "Hast Thou, pellucid,
in Thy azure depths, medicine for case like mine? (Ah, the
physical shatter and troubled spirit of me the last three years.)
And dost Thou subtly, mystically now drip it through the air
invisibly upon me?"
In similar mood Jefferies writes: "I turned to the blue heaven
over, gazing into its depth, inhaling its exquisite colour and
sweetness. The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky
drew my soul towards it, and there it rested, for pure colour is
rest of heart."
And thus "the witchery of the soft blue sky" launches us
naturally into the subject of the sky as colour; and not of blue
only, but of that vast range of hues and gradations which
display their beauty and their glory in the four quarters of
heaven during each move onwards of the earth from sunrise to
sunrise. Tennyson's description is vivid and splendid. The
shipwrecked Enoch Arden is waiting for a sail, and sees
The sunrise broken into scarlet shafts
Among the palms and ferns and precipices;
The blaze upon the waters to the east;
The blaze upon his island overhead;
The blaze upon the waters to the west;
Then the great stars that globed themselves in Heaven,
The hollower-bellowing ocean, and again
The scarlet shafts of sunrise."
But of special interest here is the fact that the blue of the vault
is never mentioned--only the scarlet shafts of sunrise and the
blaze. Whether this omission was intentional or not, may be
But it brings to mind the strange fact that the perception and
naming of this blue are comparatively recent acquirements. In
the old hymns of the Rigveda the chariot of the sun is described
as glowing with varied colour, and its horses as gold-like or
beaming with sevenfold hues; but although there was a word for
the blue of the sea and for indigo dye, this word is never applied
to the brightness of the sunlit vault. So, still more strangely, we
find that notwithstanding the laughing blue of the Greek sky,
old Homer never calls it blue! He has his rosy-fingered dawn,
the parallel of Tennyson's scarlet shafts; but the daylight sky
seems to have been for him as for Enoch Arden, a "blaze." Nor
is the omission supplied in the later classical literature; and the
older Greek writers on science use such epithets as "air-coloured,"
as substitutes for more specific terms. A German scholar
who has examined the ancient writings of the Chinese claims
for them priority in the recognition of the blue of the sky,
and points out that in the Schi-king, a collection of songs from
about 1709 to 618 B.C., the sky is called the vaulted blue, as in
the more modern language it is called the reigning blue.
Delitzsch, from whom much of what is just stated has been
derived (as also from Gladstone's paper on Homer's colour-sense)
does not find the blue of the sky recognised in Europe earlier
than the oldest Latin poets of the third century B.C., who
use _caerulus_ of the sky, and henceforth this epithet takes its
place in literature, Pagan and Christian. And the appreciation of
the heaven-colour develops apace until we have Wordsworth's
"Witchery of the soft blue sky."
The explanation of this late development is a problem of much
interest from the point of view of the physiologist and the
psychologist, in its bearing on the history of the special senses.
It would not be safe to say that the colour was not perceived, in
a somewhat loose sense of that term, but rather that it was not
consciously distinguished. As with the child, so with primitive
man, the strong sensations are the first to be definitely
apprehended--the glow of flame, the scarlet and crimson of
dawn and sunset, the gold of the sun and moon and stars. Red
and yellow were the first to assert themselves; and the two are
significantly combined in Homer's descriptions of the dawn--the
yellow of the crocus as a garment, and the flush of the rose for
the fingered rays.
We must not imagine, however, that the failure to distinguish
the hues and grades of blue argued any lack of appreciation of
the quality of pure, translucent depth which characterises the
clear sunlit sky. A striking proof to the contrary is found in a
description in the book of Exodus, where a vision of God is
described, and where we read that under His feet was as it were
a work of transparent sapphire, and as it were the body of
heaven in its clearness." We recall also the exquisite expression,
"the clear shining after rain."
The nature-mystic, therefore, need not eliminate the blue of the
vault, the brightness of the sky, as an influence in moulding
man's spiritual nature in the early days. It remains true,
however, that the delicate discrimination of colour is a
comparatively recent acquirement, and that thus the modern
world has gained a new wealth of phenomena in the sphere of
direct sensation. And this recently acquired subtlety of
colour-sense is bound to bring with it a corresponding wealth of
mystical intuition. The older attempts at colour symbolism point
the way--the red of blood, the crimson of flame, the white of the
lily, the blush of the rose, the gleam of steel or silver, the glow
of gold, the green of the mantle worn by mother-earth, all these,
and numberless others have played their part as subtle mystic
influences. But there is more and better yet to come. Milton
"O welcome pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope,
Thou hovering angel, girt with golden wings!"
As tints, so significances, more delicate shall be won by man's
soul in contact with nature. For colour is as varied as love.
"Colour" (says Ruskin) "is the type of love. Hence it is
especially connected with the blossoming of the earth, and with
its fruits; also with the spring and fall of the leaf, and with the
morning and evening of the day, in order to show the waiting of
love about the birth and death of man."