On Noses

PEOPLE are constantly remarking that they observe this or that feature of the human face more than the others. Most generally it is the eyes that thus command attention; frequently the mouth. Occasionally some one will be found who declares that he notices hands first and chiefly; and I know at least one man (not in the shoe business) who vows that the foot is the most characteristic and significant portion of the human frame. I may add that he married on this theory. He is not happy.

For myself I must confess to a divided love. The eyebrow is a fascinating feature, which, by having its direction turned a hair’s breadth, or its distance from the eyes altered by a fraction of an inch, can change the expression of the whole countenance. The ear has a humor of its own, and can delight or amuse by its angle, its size, and its texture; or by its position on the head can add distinction to the profile, or remove every vestige of it. But of all the neglected and unsung features the nose has the fewest lovers. It occupies the central position, it covers the largest territory, it shows the most amazing variety. Yet it shares the fate of all obvious and unchanging things, however necessary and important. It is ignored, or passed over with a reference to its size and its general direction.

I have read that no poem was ever written to a nose. Can you, offhand, recall a single rapturous or even admiring description of one? I search my memory in vain, but produce instead one instance that has always interested me by its neglect. You recall that little poem of Browning’s, ‘A Face,’ the brief and charming description of a girl’s profile against a background of gold. The ‘matchless mould’ of softly parted lips, the neck ‘three fingers might surround,’ and the ‘fruit-shaped, perfect chin’ all receive their due of praise; the nose, a seeming necessity in any profile, is not even mentioned. It may be as well; each reader supplies in the lovely face the line that suits him best. The poet may have feared that by its mere mention he would produce the effect too often given by the nose in real life — a heaviness that mars an otherwise charming face.

Two reasons occur to me why the nose is thus treated as mere background. In the first place, it is always the same. It may show character or give a certain permanent expression to the face, but that expression cannot change. A few gifted noses may be able to show contempt or anger, a very few fortunate individuals can wrinkle their noses in amusement or disgust, but with most of us it is a wooden and unresponsive feature. It gives our faces in youth a certain character, — of hauteur, perhaps, or cheerful insouciance, — and that expression we carry to our graves. The falling away of the cheek may bring the nose into prominence, the sinking of the mouth may bring it nearer to the chin; still its character remains the same. We look at the eyes and mouth for response to our thought. They reveal the emotions of the present and record those of the past; but the nose, like the steady hero, is too unchanging to be interesting. After a passing look we ignore its existence, and forget that it has gone far to determine the meaning of the face.

There is a sadder reason for our neglect,— that beautiful noses are so rare. Lovely eyes you will find aplenty, and though finely cut mouths are scarcer, it will be a strange day when you do not see several. But the discovery of a really beautiful nose is an event of a lifetime. I myself have found exactly seven. And yet I consider myself catholic in my taste for noses: I can enjoy a nose for its mere expressiveness, whether it is aggressive, or aristocratic, or humorous. But it is amazing how seldom this feature really satisfies the eye. The bridge may be too thick or too high; the line from the forehead too abrupt or too severely straight. More often a nose that is really promising in its beginning fails in the end. It keeps on too long or not long enough, while the tip finds a dozen ways to err, and a fine nostril is rarely seen. In our typical American faces, overcrowded with features as our houses are with furniture, the nose is commonly disproportionately large.

But your really beautiful nose is a delight in every way. It is as far from sharpness as from coarseness. It shows strength without obtrusiveness, delicacy without fastidiousness, breeding without arrogance. It suggests humor, spirit, and daring. But I tell you candidly that there are not more than a hundred such in the four million noses of New York. You are lucky when one happens to come your way.

I should be ungrateful if I did not tell what first set me off on my observation of noses. It was a statement of Hazlitt’s in his well-known description of Coleridge. Hazlitt, himself a painter and a wonderfully keen observer, speaks thus: ‘His nose, the rudder of the face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing.’ Is it true that the nose is the index of the will? I immediately set to work to observe for myself. But after a good many years of observation, I must confess to no definite conclusion. If I have occasionally almost decided that it was true, I have at once received a knock-down blow from a nose the size of a button. On the whole I incline to the view that Hazlitt, being himself the possessor of a large nose, had delusions on the subject. But I welcome fresh evidence as time goes on.