Baleful eyes. A baleful look. A baleful stare, a baleful glare, a baleful glance. The baleful ocular blast of the basilisk.
This word may sound as though it bays like a wolf or mourns dolefully, but more than anything else, the eyes have it. Many things can be baleful, but the eyes are the windows of the soul. A baleful glare is something not merely baffling but beyond belief, the fanged eye that pulls the bottom from under you to betray you into the pit. When there is a knock on the door of your soul and the robe-and-bones bailiff comes to evict you, it will be his fixed red gaze that conveys what is befalling you.
It is not that baleful directly relates to the eyes. No, it is a derived form of the word bale, which is an old word from the dark dusty crypts of Germanic, a word for evil: not evil as a principle but evil as acting on you, either now or very soon. Damage, destruction, death: present or portended. Visual Thesaurus gives a set of close synonyms: forbidding, menacing, minacious, minatory, ominous, sinister, threatening – but none is closer in form and sense than baneful.
The form of baleful belies its viciousness, its mortality; it has little resemblance to most other words for harmful things, and more of an echo of hay and excess water and a ballistic actor. But it still has the bilabial and liquid pairing we see also in evil, and I can hear in it Baal, Belial, Beelzebub: demons, baleful forces.
We do not encounter this word every day, most of us, and most of us do not encounter what it names so often either. It is a low-frequency word, a costly word, a high word. Even in Old English it – I mean its form at the time, bealu – was used as a poetic form, combining with other words, as in bealuðonc ‘evil thought’. And it dropped largely out of sight for some centuries. But romantic poets in the 1800s brought it back.
So it is a poetic word. But can baleful be beautiful? Poetry does not speak only of beautiful things, of course. But I ask you: Is there anything that prevents the baleful from being beautiful? In your mind’s eye, paint a being of utter, ineffable beauty, beauty so bright and hot it burns your mind at the thought. The beauty of a destroying angel. A delicious, fragrant form, of soft and soul-rending colours, perfect touches, trenchant harmonies, bringing the most perfect death. But death nonetheless. And a pain as pure as spirits. This is what so much art strives for, when you gaze at it and it gazes back at you.