[First published in The Leader for December 25, 1852.]
We do not ascribe gracefulness to cart-horses, tortoises, and hippopotami, in all of which the powers of movement are relatively inferior; but we ascribe it to greyhounds, antelopes, race-horses, all of which have highly efficient locomotive organs. What, then, is this distinctive peculiarity of structure and action which we call Grace?
One night while watching a dancer, and inwardly condemning her tours de force as barbarisms which would be hissed, were not people such cowards as always to applaud what they think it the fashion to applaud, I remarked that the truly graceful motions occasionally introduced, were those performed with comparatively little effort. After calling to mind sundry confirmatory facts, I presently concluded that grace, as applied to motion, describes motion that is effected with economy of force; grace, as applied to animal forms, describes forms capable of this economy; grace, as applied to postures, describes postures which may be maintained with this economy; and grace, as applied to inanimate objects, describes such as exhibit certain analogies to these attitudes and forms.
That this generalization, if not the whole truth, contains at least a large part of it, will, I think, become obvious, on considering how habitually we couple the words easy and graceful; and still more, on calling to mind some of the facts on which this association is based. The attitude of a soldier, drawing himself bolt upright when his serjeant shouts “attention,” is more remote from gracefulness than when he relaxes at the words “stand at ease.” The gauche visitor sitting stiffly on the edge of his chair, and his self-possessed host, whose limbs and body dispose themselves as convenience dictates, are contrasts as much in effort as in elegance. When standing, we commonly economise power by throwing the weight chiefly on one leg, which we straighten to make it serve as a column, while we relax the other; and to the same end, we allow the head to lean somewhat on one side. Both these attitudes are imitated in sculpture as elements of grace.
Turning from attitudes to movements, current remarks will be found to imply the same relationship. No one praises as graceful, a walk that is irregular or jerking, and so displays waste of power; no one sees any beauty in the waddle of a fat man, or the trembling steps of an invalid, in both of which effort is visible. But the style of walking we admire is moderate in velocity, perfectly rhythmical, unaccompanied by violent swinging of the arms, and giving us the impression that there is no conscious exertion, while there is no force thrown away. In dancing, again, the prevailing difficulty—the proper disposal of the arms—well illustrates the same truth. Those who fail in overcoming this difficulty give the spectator the impression that their arms are a trouble to them; they are held stiffly in some meaningless attitude, at an obvious expense of power; they are checked from swinging in the directions in which they would naturally swing; or they are so moved that, instead of helping to maintain the equilibrium, they endanger it. A good dancer, on the contrary, makes us feel that, so far from the arms being in the way, they are of great use. Each motion of them, while it seems naturally to result from a previous motion of the body, is turned to some advantage. We perceive that it has facilitated instead of hindered the general action; or, in other words—that an economy of effort has been achieved. Any one wishing to distinctly realize this fact, may readily do so by studying the action of the arms in walking. Let him place his arms close to his sides, and there keep them, while walking with some rapidity. He will unavoidably fall into a backward and forward motion of the shoulders, of a wriggling, ungraceful character. After persevering in this for a space, until he finds that the action is not only ungraceful but fatiguing, let him allow his arms to swing as usual. The wriggling of the shoulders will cease; the body will move equably forward; and comparative ease will be felt. On analyzing this fact, he may perceive that the backward motion of each arm is simultaneous with the forward motion of the corresponding leg. If he will attend to his muscular sensations, he will find that this backward swing of the arm is a counterbalance to the forward swing of the leg; and that it is easier to produce this counterbalance by moving the arm than by contorting the body, as he otherwise must do. 55
55. A parallel fact, further elucidating this, is supplied by a locomotive engine. On looking at the driving wheel, there will be found, besides the boss to which the connecting rod is attached, a corresponding mass of metal on the opposite side of the wheel, and equidistant from the centre; or, if the engine be one having inside cylinders, then, on looking between the spokes of the driving-wheel, it will be seen that against each crank is a block of iron, similar to it in size, but projecting from the axle in the reverse direction. Evidently, being placed on opposite sides of the centre of motion, each crank and its counterbalance move in opposite directions relatively to the axle; and by so doing, neutralize each other’s perturbing effects, and permit a smooth rotation. This relationship which exists between the motions of the counterbalance and the crank, is analogous to that which exists between the motions of the arms and legs in walking; and in the early days of railway-locomotion, before these counterbalance weights were used, locomotive driving-wheels were subject to violent oscillations, analogous to those jerkings of the shoulders which arise when we walk fast without moving our arms.
The action of the arms in walking being thus understood, it will be manifest that the graceful employment of them in dancing is simply a complication of the same thing; and that a good dancer is one having so acute a muscular perception as at once to feel in what direction the arms should be moved to counterbalance any motion of the body or legs.
This connexion between gracefulness and economy of force, will be most clearly recognized by those who skate. They will remember that all early attempts, and especially the first timid experiments in figure-skating, are alike awkward and fatiguing; and that the acquirement of skill is also the acquirement of ease. The requisite confidence, and a due command of the feet having been obtained, those twistings of the trunk and gyrations of the arms, previously used to maintain the balance, are found needless. The body is allowed to follow without control the impulse given to it; the arms to swing where they will; and it is clearly felt that the graceful way of performing any evolution is the way that costs least effort. Spectators can scarcely fail to see the same fact, if they look for it.
The reference to skating suggests that graceful motion might be defined as motion in curved lines. Certainly, straight and zig-zag movements are excluded from the conception. The sudden stoppages which angular movements imply, are its antithesis; for a leading trait of grace is continuity, flowingness. It will be found, however, that this is merely another aspect of the same truth; and that motion in curved lines is economical motion. Given certain successive positions to be assumed by a limb, then if it be moved in a straight line to the first of these positions, suddenly arrested, and then moved in another direction straight to the second position, and so on, it is clear that at each arrest, the momentum previously given to the limb must be destroyed at a certain cost of force, and a new momentum given to it at a further cost of force; whereas, if, instead of arresting the limb at its first position, its motion be allowed to continue, and a lateral force be impressed to make it diverge towards the second position, a curvilinear motion is the necessary result; and by making use of the original momentum, force is economized.
If the truth of these conclusions respecting graceful movements be admitted, it cannot, I think, be doubted, that graceful form is that kind of form which implies relatively small effort required for self-support, and relatively small effort required for movement. Were it otherwise, there would arise the incongruity that graceful form would either not be associated at all with graceful movement, or that the one would habitually occur in the absence of the other; both which alternatives being at variance with our experience, we must conclude that there exists the relationship indicated. Any one hesitating to admit this, will, I think, do so no longer on remembering that the animals which we consider graceful, are those so slight in build as not to be burdened by their own weight, and those noted for fleetness and agility; while those we class as ungraceful, are those which are alike cumbrous and have the faculty of locomotion but little developed. In the case of the greyhound, especially, we see that the particular modification of the canine type in which economy of weight is the most conspicuous, and in which the facility of muscular motion has been brought to the greatest perfection, is the one which we call most graceful.
How trees and inanimate objects should come to have this epithet applied to them, seems less obvious. But remembrance of the fact that we commonly, and perhaps unavoidably, regard all objects under a certain anthropomorphic aspect, will help us to understand it. The stiff branch of an oak tree standing out at right angles to the trunk, gives us a vague notion of great force expended to keep it in that position; and we call it ungraceful, under the same feeling that we call the holding out an arm at right angles to the body ungraceful. Conversely, the lax drooping boughs of a weeping-willow are vaguely associated with limbs in attitudes requiring little effort to maintain them; and the term graceful, by which we describe these, we apply by metaphor to the boughs of the willow.
I may as well here venture the hypothesis, that the idea of Grace as displayed by other beings, has its subjective basis in Sympathy. The same faculty which makes us shudder on seeing another in danger—which sometimes causes motions of our own limbs on seeing another struggle or fall, gives us a vague participation in all the muscular sensations which those around us are experiencing. When their motions are violent or awkward, we feel in a slight degree the disagreeable sensations which we should have were they our own. When they are easy, we sympathize with the pleasant sensations they imply in those exhibiting them.