First impressions, are they important?

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By 2017-08-13

By Shireen Senadhira

Many years ago someone gave me a book with a very dull cover. I received it with thanks but my mind was made up and I was not going to read it as I skimmed over the book in a flash. Several years later, a rainy day happened and I came across this particular book and started reading. It turned out to be an interesting, witty, a beautiful memoir of growing up in a large, loving eccentric family in Cambridge area in England before WW1. It was very well written and made one so nostalgic for a childhood filled with the freedom to run here and there and use your imagination to amuse yourself. This memoir does not read in chronological order, but instead it was divided into subjects, such as uncles, aunts, clothing, religion, amusements and such. Sometimes one could laugh out loud but most often there was a delicious underpinning of humor in it giving fascinating insights into what life was like in later Victorian upper-class households.

This book was written in 1952 when the author was 62 years. The book, 'Period Piece' was by Gwen Raverat from a distinguished family of Cambridge scholars. Very interesting it was, to discover that she was the grand-daughter of Charles Darwin who she writes about only tangentially but with great affection. My copy of the book was printed in 1953 and was illustrated with her charming line drawings that sent me to the internet for more information. I discovered then, that Raverat grew up to be one of the first women in England to go to art school. She married a French painter and the two of them belonged to Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury Group. She was very well known for her gorgeous wood engravings which she created to be used as book illustrations. Some of them can be seen on the internet and they really are every bit as charming as her memoir.

The above shows that one should not judge a book by its cover. In the same way, judging people too should happen with time and getting to know a person rather than form impressions in the first meeting. It is said, that it takes only three to five seconds when you ..... ......

About people

Long ago at a rugby match in Colombo, we met a friend who looked scruffy and in addition, he spoke scornfully of the players. Then we found out that his conversation was of epithets and full of sarcasm. At once many of us in the group cancelled him. A little later, a friend's husband told us not to judge Nim wrongly and that he was really a wonderful being and friend. Also, that one has to get used to his sarcasm and to ignore that. We raised our eyebrows at this tall order and didn't comply. Very much later, we found our friend's husband was correct as Nim indeed became one of our group and a reliable friend. In this case, first impressions were not important.

There is another story of Mag, a single woman who turned up in a small town and she had an alliance with a married man which was short lived. Many looked on her with suspicion. She made matters worse at festivities when she became very lively and vibrant. But, she stayed on, worked and helped out when she could. She brought people to town from where she lived and took them back home again especially if their vehicles were out of order. She integrated into the town families little by little. Her unconventional entrance and first impression were forgotten. When tragedy struck a couple in her group of friends, the mother dying and the father laid in hospital, there were three young children to be looked after, it was Maggie who stepped forward and looked after the them in her house till the father regained his health. During the many months, the three children thrived under the guiding hand of this surrogate mum. Maggie had the highest admiration and respect from the others in the town. It goes to show that when you meet someone, take a little time before you judge the person's character. It also shows that friendship can overcome any adversity.

Pride and Prejudice or First Impressions

It is said that it takes a fifteen seconds to make your first impression of a person. Some argue that it takes even less to do so. The first impressions you get of a person may not always be who they turn out to be. People need a chance to display their qualities and who they really are. The renowned English author, Jane Austen's (1775-1817) famous book, 'Pride and Prejudice' (1813) aptly shows this. The first title given to this book was First Impressions which was changed later. It is a very well read book and used as a text in the higher grades in schools. In this book the characters make the plot and the novel itself. How this happens is that the novel is based upon the first impressions one character makes of another and the story revolves around such. First Impressions embody the themes in the novel. Mr. Darcy is the most popular character about whom people make many first impressions and not only that, but they also try to form him into the character they think he is. Elizabeth Bennet makes an impression of him very quickly. Generally Elizabeth's judgments are correct with many characters she meets but her impressions of Mr. Darcy were totally incorrect.

The story begins with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy, proud man who snubs Elizabeth Bennet after their introduction at a public dance. Her first impression of Darcy leads Elizabeth to form a negative opinion of him. This dislike is reinforced when she meets Mr. Wickham, a lieutenant in the nearby militia. Wickham spins his own stories and Elizabeth and the neighborhood believes that Wickham has been unfairly treated by Darcy. Upon the available evidence, Elizabeth considers her superior judgment of human character is well founded. The story rolls along with many twists and turns. Primarily it focuses on Elizabeth and the progression of her relationship with Mr. Darcy. Later Elizabeth finds out that her impressions were incorrect.

Poetry & Impressionism

Now that we have seen the need to be cautious with our first impressions one cannot always do so. William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the well known poet, how did he write his poem on daffodils? It was while walking with his sister on picturesque paths in the Lake District in Britain where he lived, that he came upon these fields of daffodils. The picture of the abundance of these flowers dancing in the wind impressed him so much that he wrote his famous poem on them. Not only that he was impressed with what he saw so as to write the poem but that he impressed generations after him who read his poem so that they never forgot this picture too. If Wordsworth was an artist, he would have painted in impressionistic style a picture of the daffodils.

Nevertheless he managed to do the same or much more with his words that it left an indelible mark on each one who read the poem. He, in fact, painted his picture with words. As indicated in the poem he took pleasure in recapturing the scene which gave him much solace many a time. This is where the first impressions did really work.

Next, what about William Blake? Blake was a poet and a painter and his genre of poetry was visionary. Blake was also a non conformist who associated with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day. His defiance over the neoclassical conventions at the time was shown by his imagination over creation in his poetry and images. His beginning quatrain in his long poem 'Auguries of Innocence,' is written in ballad form as follows: "To see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. To hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour." This shows how even such a small thing can be a gateway to an experience of the extraordinary and gets any reader to think longer and deeper and evaluate from there onwards. Also, Blake's poem, The Tiger, reads the first four lines, "Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?" showing power vitality and immensity. Even though Blake was a radical thinker and wrote much about the political stance of the time, he and Wordsworth belonged to the Romantic poets of their time. The above two poems, especially the beginnings of them, show how beautifully crafted the words are and the vision over the real. Also how impressed they were with their respective subjects.

Changing to another scene, where the trout swim in slow gurgling waters amidst blooming golden gorse and moss wreathed, lace like, tall trees, with hide and seek played by the shade in an air of mystery in Horton Plains, a rider on a horse gallops by. Could you ever forget such a scene? No you wouldn't. This is how it was for Christine Spittel Wilson living in the hilly plantations in the 1930s in Sri Lanka. When she described the scene to us, aspiring writers, quite some time ago, we savoured the scene too. Christine was a writer and a painter and such scenes would have inspired her.

Impressionism is a 19th century art movement that originated with a group of Paris based artists. Their paintings characteristics have thin visible brush strokes, open composition and emphasis on accurate depiction of light on the object or objects. The name's origin is from Claude Monet's title of his painting of the port of Le Havre in France, 'Impression, Sunrise'. Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the regeneration was exemplified in the thriving port of Le Havre. The painting, it is said, is a poem of light and atmosphere and it is also seen as an ode to the power and beauty of revitalized France. The style represented in the hazy scene of the painting, Impression, Sunrise, is not the traditional landscape painting and classical idealized beauty. It has the colour of the sky and water blending into each other making it a foggy blankness, a somber opalescent oneness with the sun as its brightest spot on the canvas and a glimmer of orange to burn its way through the fog finding its reflective path onto the water. It's only Monet who could have seen it thus and painted it. This certainly is impressionism.

Impressions of Ceylon/Sri Lanka by foreigners

A long time ago the island Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon or even earlier by other names Lankadveepa, Tambapani, Taprobane and many more. What do you think was the impression when foreigners in ancient times spotted the island while in their boats and ships? Especially, when they were assailed with the aroma of the cinnamon and other spices like cloves, cardamoms and nutmeg, what would have been their thoughts? Also, the thoughts of the foreigners on coming ashore, stepping on the golden sand of the island's beaches with the palms waving a languorous salute of welcome? Did they think they had found the Garden of Eden? It is said that even in King Solomon's time pearls, spices and elephants were shipped from this the island to far places. Foreigners would have stepped onto these shores way back when and what would their thoughts have been?

Marco Polo, at the age of 17 years, set out from his home town, Venice, with his father and uncle to explore the world in 1271. They followed the trade routes to Asia. In China, Kublai Khan, the Emperor of China was so impressed with young Marco that he was appointed to the Emperor's Imperial Court. It was during this time Marco joined an expedition from China and that is how he first visited the magical island of Sri Lanka. The aim of the expedition was to seize the tooth of the Buddha, a holy relic dating back to BC 543. The expedition didn't succeed, but Marco Polo was so impressed with the island's palm fringed beaches and its stunning landscapes that he said that Sri Lanka was the finest island of its size in the world. Marco was enthralled by its shape of a jewel and called the island 'the jade pendent in the Indian Ocean.' He spoke of the island's many riches from precious stones, landscapes and wildlife as well as its spices in gorgeous abundance, ginger, pepper, cinnamon and coconuts too. He also spoke of the island's textiles.

Many foreigners have written about the island Sri Lanka. Accounts of the island have been written by Robert Knox, Robert Percival, Henry Parker, Elliot and very many others. However, it was Sir James Emerson Tennent who wrote extensively about the island in, 'Ceylon, An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical and Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions', which is a two-volume book in 1859. He begins thus: "There is no island in the world, Great Britain itself not excepted, that has attracted the attention of authors in so many distant ages and so many different countries as Ceylon. There is no nation in ancient or modern times possessed of a language and a literature, the writers of which have not at some time made it their theme. Its aspect, its religion, its antiquities, and productions, have been described as well by the classic Greeks, as by those of the Lower Empire; by the Romans; by the writers of China, Burma, India, and Kashmir; by the geographers of Arabia and Persia; by the medieval voyagers of Italy and France; by the annalists of Portugal and Spain; by the merchant adventurers of Holland, and by the travelers and topographers of Great Britain." This shows, Tennent's impressions of the little island. Tennent was recruited and appointed to the prestigious post of Colonial Secretary in government in Ceylon in 1845.


Why do you think that first impressions are so important? It is because we are adhered to assess a person within a few seconds of meeting the person. It is said that it could be an evolutionary throwback to the days when you couldn't be sure if the person who approached you was a friends or a foe. At that time your first impression was very important because it could mean life or death. With time and evolution the conclusions we have drawn have changed because our situations have for the most changed too. Now meeting a new person begins with a handshake. Perhaps, this became a custom as a way for men to show that they were not armed. Anyhow we retain the skill or intuition about people. Today we tend to use the first meeting impressions to make other types of judgments, like whether a person is stylish or not, or is wealthy or educated. But we do make our first impressions because it is how our brain works.

Even if we know all this, we still worry about what kind of an impression we make. Simply because, an unfavorable impression leads to nothing and no one will get to know more of the person. That is why the warning 'judging a book by its cover' is good to remember. It means to get to know a person a little better rather than write him off. At the same time when we assess people, they in return assess us too. The challenge in this instance is to curb your first impression and give a person a second chance to show how they really are. However, as is seen, for writers and painters, first impressions do count. It takes only a moment to inspire the artists and this leads to the thoughts and feelings which are waiting to pour out in a poem, prose, painting, sculpture and such like. The inspiration will not be stilled until it finds an outlet.



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