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The Potency of Charm

The quality of charm is the most potent of any characteristic of humanity and the least definable. It is that which is most swiftly perceived and most impossible to describe. It is neither the direct result of learning or goodness or accomplishments, nor any specific gift or grace, and still it includes the essential element in all these. There are persons who may possess every cardinal virtue, so far as known, but whose lack of the one quality of charm renders all else without value to one susceptible to this finer art. Charm is temperamental. It is born, and not made. It is a gift, not an acquirement, and is developed by fine influences in early life. Associations in the impressionable period of childhood and early youth leave their ineffaceable stamp. In so far as the individual possesses the ideal and the artistic temperament, the poetic and imaginative as distinguished from that which is merely aesthetic and clever, so far he possesses this magic gift of charm. The practical and executive type of people may be, and often are, entitled to respect, consideration—what one will; but they are fatally lacking in the element that transcends all virtues or acquirements in its magic potency. The great defect in the education of the day is a predominant tendency to the utilitarian basis: as if doing were, in some mysterious way, higher than being. Nothing is more remote from the truth. A little margin for the stillness and leisure of growth—the time to think—is the only corrective for the rush and stress of practical life. The life of a certain type of individuals—who subsist on public meetings, committee consultations, cast-iron and well regulated work in the charities, and strongly defined theories of education—is the life of penal servitude. There is no room left in it for the grace and poetry and exaltation of living. Specific public duties have their place; but it is, after all, in the private life of the day, in the more personal influences and immediate relations, that the chief concern lies. To idealize this daily life and to make it worth idealizing is the secret of that mysterious attraction called charm. What is meant by culture, says Mr. Mallock, is seen in one 'on whom none of the finer flavors of life are lost; who can appreciate, sympathize with, criticize all the scenes, situations, sayings, or actions around him—a sad or happy love affair, a charm of manner and conversation, a beautiful sunset, or a social absurdity. I don't call a woman cultivated who bothers me at dinner, first with discussing this book and then that—whose one perpetual question is, "Have you read so-and-so?" But I call a woman cultivated who responds, and who knows what I mean, as we pass naturally from subject to subject; who by a flash or a softness in her eyes, by a slight gesture of the hand, by a sigh, by a flush in the cheek, makes me feel as I talk of some lovely scene that she too could love it—as I speak of love or sorrow, makes me feel that she herself has known them; as I speak of ambition, or ennui, or hope, or remorse, or loss of character, that all these are not mere names to her, but things. The aim of culture is to make the soul a musical instrument which may yield music either to itself or to others at any impulse from without; and the more elaborate the culture, the richer and more composite the music...The aim of culture is to make us better company as men and women of the world...A woman may have had all kinds of experience—society, sorrow, love, travel, remorse, distraction—and yet she may not be cultivated. She may never have recognized what her life has been. To turn this raw material into culture, we must come to art, to poetry. Poetry is the developing solution of life. It is that magic mirror in which we see our life surrounded with issues viewless to the common eye. The smell of autumn woods, the color of dying fern, may turn by a subtle transubstantiation into pleasures and forces that will never come again—a red sunset and a windy seashore into a last farewell, and the regret of a lifetime...This is using poetry in its widest sense, as inclusive of all imaginative literature and other art as well.' It is in just this sense of responsiveness that the gift of charm lies. It is mental and spiritual vitality. The individual with this magic of charm will kindle and stimulate all around, and inspire new and finer realizations of ideal life, while it can no more be defined than can the scent or the color of the rose, or the exhilaration of October sunshine.

I hold it of little matter
Whether your jewel be of pure water,
A rose diamond or a white,
But whether it dazzle me with light.
Whether you charm me,
Bid my bread feed, and my fire warm me.
—Emerson in "Fate"

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Lilian Whiting

  • Born on October 3rd, 1859 in Niagara Falls, New York and died in 1942
  • Author and journalist
  • Edited The Boston Traveler and The Boston Budget

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