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
the stars.

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

"Every day

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

could write:

"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."