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Truth, Beauty, and Keats

November, 2004
By Charles E. Gould, Jr.

In an address last May to the Kent School Chapter of the Cum Laude Society, I offered to a learned and scholarly group the perhaps shocking thesis that there is a great measure of hocus-pocus, legerdemain, and—to use the technical, scholarly term—bull-roar in all literary criticism, which after all is a game; and one test of the great literary artist is that he and his art can sustain it. What follows is meant as an example in support of that thesis, concerning specifically one of the best known and most marvelous poems in English, Keats’s “Ode on A Grecian Urn.”

With astonishing boldness, the poet begins by diminishing his own art by telling a marble Grecian urn that it is more expressive than his verse:

Thou still unravished bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,Sylvan historian, who canst thus express A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.

Alert readers we will wonder how a “still unravished bride” might feel, not to mention her husband; we may see ambivalence in the “foster-child,” on the one hand rejected somehow but on the other particularly chosen and loved; and we must see the double-meaning of the silence and motionlessness attributed to the urn that, of course, are antitheses to the poem about them, the poem that speaks and moves. In this plethora of oxymoron and ambivalence, Keats in his first stanza tells us how to read his poem, to look for ambivalence—contradictory values harmoniously co-existing, or simultaneous attraction toward and repulsion from an image or idea. In describing what’s actually engraved on the urn—eternal greenery and lovers eternally just about to kiss—he maintains the ambivalence. The lovers will never kiss, but they will never stop anticipating the kiss. It’s the great romantic paradox: anticipated joys are fulfilled at the sacrifice of the anticipation. These are paradoxical ideas, or at least ambivalent ones, but they’re pretty straightforward once you catch on to what Keats is doing, and he hints that in the very first line. No reader of your aptitude is puzzled by them, and many of us, especially the youthful, are pleased by them, for they are just what we want to hear.

But the concluding lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” have puzzled as many as they have pleased:

When Old Age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woeThan ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is allYe know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Here the poet does something truly amazing: he puts words into the mouth of the very inanimate object he is apostrophizing and questioning. A great deal of ink has been spilled and, I surmise, a lot of cyber-space filled, over these lines. They are puzzling indeed. For the sake of this exercise, I am now suggesting a reading of them that, as far as I know, is new; and, even more exciting than that, it is specifically a departure from Cleanth Brooks’s reading in Chapter 8 of The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) and Harold Bloom’s in Chapter 6 of The Visionary Company (1971). At first glance you may think that my scholarship is hopelessly out of date, or that I am; but in truth these are monumental works by towering monumental scholars (however controversial and even disliked in some quarters they may be), both Yale professors without whose corner-stone work no study of Keats, however fresh and new, would be conceivable. Disagreeing with them both, in the presence of this visionary company, is great fun.

Professor Brooks begins his essay saying that it is remarkable that the Ode

Differs from Keats’s other odes by culminating in a statement—a statement even of some sententiousness in which the urn is made to say that beauty is truth, and—more sententious still—that this bit of wisdom sums up the whole of mortal knowledge.

Well…in a word, No. You can check for yourselves: every Keats ode culminates in a statement. The Ode to A Nightingale ends with a rhetorical question—“Do I wake or sleep?”—but that itself is a statement to the effect that it doesn’t matter whether the speaker wakes or sleeps. The statement in question is no more the Urn’s than Keats’s, not what the Urn would say if it could speak but the idea the Urn represents to the poet by its very existence. Secondly, in context the lines are not sententious at all: they don’t express an easy, epigrammatic opinion: they express an irony, specific enough to disallow Professor Brooks’s claim of sententious generality. “The urn is beautiful,” he says, “and yet its beauty is based … on an imaginative perception of essentials.” It offers us, he claims, “insight into essential truth.” If, indeed it does, its message is sententious in the extreme, as any message so vast and vague must be. Keats is better than that. His Urn offers not a grand insight into essential truth, but a specific insight into a truth of which it is its own example.

Professor Bloom suggests an attitude similar to Professor Brooks’s, reaffirming the lines as sententious: “The urn’s beauty is truth because age cannot waste it; our woes cannot consume it.” Both of these critics work from the beginning of the poem to the end, emphasizing its paradoxes; and then, perhaps hotter for certainties than they should be, they oddly renounce paradox altogether and read the last lines straight, as an intelligible statement of a general truth, confessing themselves on the one hand a little concerned that the lines seem sententious or, on the other hand, satisfied, as Professor Bloom says, “that the sum of our knowledge is the identity of beauty and truth, when beauty is defined as what gives joy forever, and truth as what joy seizes upon as beauty.” This, to me, is palpable nonsense; and if your heads are spinning like mine, you’re right on track.

For Keats does not invariably define beauty that way. Professor Bloom presumably is remembering the first lines of Keats’s “Endymion”: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever:/ It’s loveliness increases; it will never/ Pass into nothingness,” and Keats’s oft-cited letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817) asserting, “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.” But it needs only a cursory rereading of the Ode on Melancholy—composed in the same month as the Ode on the Urn—to persuade us that “Endymion” is not Keats’s last word on truth and beauty. Melancholy, the poem tells us, “dwells with beauty, beauty that must die.” Professor Bloom himself, discussing the Ode on Melancholy, admits that “Only beauty that must die” is beauty at all. The context of the lines from “Endymion,” wholly devoid of the ironic ambivalences of the later odes, makes them far less suitable as a hint of Keats’s meaning in the Urn ode than is the Ode on Melancholy. The subject of both odes is the nature of truth and beauty and the relationship between them, and ultimately they say the same thing: the greatest truth is that everything beautiful is mutable: “the rainbow of the salt-sand wave,” “the wealth of globed peonies,” the “peerless eyes” of the richly angered mistress. Keats’s imagination is best equipped to see as beauty images of things that will fade. In both of these odes, beauty is mutable, and mutability is the source, ironically, of beauty; and that, as Keats says in the letter to Bailey, must be truth. All we need to know, Keats suggests repeatedly, is that everything cuts two ways. That the world and our perception of it are ambivalent is at once the most fundamental realization—“all ye know on earth”—and also the most lofty and comprehensive knowledge—“all ye need to know.”

Professor Brooks, however, sees the harmonious coexistence of beauty and truth as a paradox: “The urn is beautiful,” he says, “and yet its beauty is based on an imaginative perception of essentials. Such a vision is beautiful, but it is also true.” With these concessives (“and yet” and “but”) Professor Brooks makes a concession that in Keats’s language is not a concession at all. In his letter to George and Georgiana (16 December 1918) Keats says, “I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty.” Keats is much more practical—romantically realistic, a stupendous fore-runner of the stupendous romantic—realist John Updike of our time—than Professor Brooks would have him, when he implies a conflict between Beauty—imaginative vision—and truth—historical fact—a conflict that Keats would not have suffered gladly. Professor Brooks turns Keats’s ambivalence into a simple contradiction. Bad mistake!

Keats begins by apostrophizing the Urn, but he soon moves on to apostrophizing the figures on it:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;Not to the sensual ear, but more endeared, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

In lines of great lyric beauty, Keats here sets forth a truth he takes for granted: unheard is a synonym for imagined: our physical senses, if not altogether inadequate, are incapable of affording to us the heights of sweetness. “We see not with the eye,” as Blake said; and here Keats suggests that we do not do our best hearing with the ear. He urges the pipes, “soft” in the sense that literally we cannot hear them, to pipe their toneless ditties (songs) into the spirit, the imagination—the only place they can be heard, where they are sweeter than the actual sounds we hear on the Boardwalk … or even at Carnegie Hall or the Met. The pipes are engraved in marble: the only way they can be heard is through the spirit, the imagination. Hence, Keats says, they are sweeter than real ones. Then addressing the piper, Keats provides an image of sight to complement the image of sound: “Thou canst not leave/ Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.” The pastoral perfection is permanent; and the Lover, too, has no cause to grieve that his desire must remain unfulfilled, because “Though thou hast not thy bliss/ Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” The poet slyly implies that the state of intransience is blessed, that the state of permanent anticipation is blessed, sweeter than fulfillment; heard melodies are not so sweet as those we have not yet heard.

He doesn’t mean it for a heart-beat; for “In the very temple of delight/ Veiled Melancholy has her sovereign shrine,” he tells us in the Ode on Melancholy; and the marbled figures on the urn will never know that. Without any experience of that “burning human passion…That leaves a heart high—sorrowful and cloyed,/ A burning forehead and a parching tongue,” (what nowadays we call “sex”), even the most virginal reader would agree that the Bold Lover on the urn is not enviable at all.

To assert a paradox fundamental to our lives, the genius Keats (as Blake does in his Sunflower poem) establishes a false paradise to be gripped only tentatively—mutably—by the reader, a sylvan scene which we momentarily accept as ideal and then are taught to reject. It is only because his readers are breathing human beings that he can rely on them. Had we no real experience of the passing of Springs and the cloying of passion and the faithlessness of women and the relentlessness of men, the idyll of the urn would not interest us in the slightest. Its truth is palpably untrue: life as we live it is unlike the life on the Urn.

Keats hints at his conclusion (as here I hint at mine) by mentioning the sacrificial procession from a ghost-town, somewhere not on the Urn. The reality of the Urn itself suggests, in Tennyson’s phrase, “the touch of a vanished hand.” The “little town,” like the sculptor of the urn, is out of the picture, and “for evermore/ Will silent be.” The Urn, after all, is only a sculpture: as a “cold pastoral” it is not in itself the image of Beauty and Truth that Professors Brooks and Bloom want to make it. The Urn’s own beauty is no more Beauty than its figures’ lives are life. Keats emphasizes its power to survive—which itself is not true, since it must crumble eventually if it hasn’t already; and its truest beauty, as Keats tells us over and over, is its transience.

Hence the urn itself is a paradoxical figure. It will survive, Keats promises, to remind us of the truth more explicit in the Ode on Melancholy: only what does not survive in this world is truly beautiful, and what is beautiful does not survive. When it is gone, as I suppose it is, though I remember seeing one presumably like it in the British Library, the Urn’s message will be the same: transience is more beautiful than intransience, and there is no eternal beauty. Having begun the poem by addressing the urn as a bride and a child—images of life and of life to come—Keats ends the poem by addressing the urn thus: “O Attic shape! Fair attitude!” and we suddenly understand that the urn is no more than that, a shape, an attitude, a pose—static and lifeless, even though “with brede of men and maidens overwrought,” which—literally—is just embroidery. It is not the image of abstract truth and beauty that he entices readers (among them those two formidable Yale Professors!) to make it. It poses momentarily as an abstract; but, for all its being perhaps the best known image of the whole Romantic Period, its statement to the world is strangely realistic: immutability is a fraud, and its kind of beauty is cold, lifeless, inhuman, permanent—in short, not real beauty at all.

I don’t know that Keats’s stunning achievement here is unique, but surely to a higher degree than does any of his other great odes, the Ode on a Grecian Urn works by inverse example: it proves its truth by denying the truth it pretends to prove, and therein lies the essence of its romanticism. The statement, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is not—as professors Brooks and Bloom have it—a sententious synthesis of the meaning of the urn’s portrayals, but rather a statement of what they do not portray. Read as a commentary on the urn’s own nature, the statement is of course sententious; but it is not such a commentary at all: by example the urn shows us what truth and beauty are not; it stands—and here again is its quintessential romanticism—as an affirmation by negation. Its beauty, and its truth, must be that it depicts what is neither beautiful nor true, not beautiful because not true. The urn is truth because it shows how untrue its own scenery is; it is beauty because, despite Keats’s flattery, it is itself transient and mutable and impermanent.

To conclude with a corrective paraphrase of Professor Brooks [I fear, Mr. Grant, to the demolishment of your late learned friend’s treatment of this admittedly tricky poem]: the urn is beautiful, and yet its beauty to Keats is derived from the premise that such things as urns are not beautiful, really; its vision is true, but its truth is that its portraits are not. Hence Keats’s quite amazing vision of his urn is ironic, paradoxical, ambivalent, and quintessentially romantic: its truth is to expose itself as a falsehood; its beauty is that its beauty is not true.

If, as you go out into the evening in this green and lovely place, you think something of the same about what you have just heard, I have done my work well; but, in any case, you go with all my compliments and blessings. Tomorrow to fresh woods, fresh words, and pastures new. Thank you, very much.