Wednesday, August 9, 2017

John Keats & the Art of Beauty

Last month I wrote about the emotional quality of John Keats's poetry. I also mentioned that I had been moving slowly (quite slowly) through his complete poems. Actually mentioning this fact of my slow reading made me feel like I really had better just finish the volume instead of dragging it out any longer. Add to that the fact that I have a specific reason right now for wanting to get my voice used to speaking for a long period of time, and I decided to read Keats for an hour out loud every day. Here's to hoping my neighbors couldn't hear me reading out all of his love poems.

Reading in this daily way, like how you would read a novel, proved quite different from reading in order to provide literary analysis. I had no pressure to think of any particular topic or to think with any admiration toward any particular piece. So I easily settled in to enjoying a particular poem or passage--or disliking a particular poem or passage. I didn't care much, for instance, for his experiments (is it bad that I'm calling them experiments?) with plays; while Otho the Great did have its moments, these moments were the times when the lines reminded me most of the regular poems. And I can see why even Keats wrote in his preface for Endymion that certain sections were weaker or better than others; I tended to agree with him that there were some wonderful sections and also some that didn't quite keep my interest.

The greatest power that Keats had, as a writer, was his ability to put together beautiful language. This is why we love his descriptions of nature and of love--they're simple concepts that can fold out into an endless array of images and emotions. So even when he is writing his longer poems that have multiple characters and bigger plot lines, these moments of description are still the best. (I'm not even going to try and give examples because this is just a short blog post; I don't have space to go into more detail.)

But what I also found in this daily reading was the hollow quality of beauty for beauty's sake. Keats intentionally focused on beauty--and the results are indeed beautiful. But when you are focusing only on beauty in, shall we say, a more shallow sense of the word, then the impact can only go so far. You admire how a rose looks and you smell its aroma and then you're done; that's it--it can give you no more. That's how Keats can be. Don't get me wrong; I much prefer Keats to Oscar Wilde. Wilde was also about aesthetics above all else--but in a different way. I think Keats more respected the world around him--and he loved the natural world, which Wilde I think couldn't stand (that quote where he says that manmade chairs are so much better than anywhere you can sit in nature--that just describes every way in which Wilde and I disagree).

Back to Keats. His poetry is oftentimes, as we know, tragic. That's part of what makes it beautiful; we all love a good tragedy. But it's also part of what keeps his work from having deeper meaning. He remarks on beauty but he gives no hope--beauty in itself (this definition of beauty, that is) is not enough to give hope, especially for all of the tragedy that he describes.

I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, artistically speaking. A single poem (or any single piece of whatever kind of art) can only do so much. That's where the reader (or viewer) comes in. We absorb each piece individually for what it offers and then we put them together in our minds. This artist shows us this and that artist taught us that and so on--until we have our heads filled with art in all its contexts. We look at pretty things and we feel different emotions and we ponder different themes--and then we draw conclusions and live our lives, with all of this art sitting somewhere in the background.

"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn") That is what beautiful art tells us, but it is not what we know when we are done admiring said beautiful art.

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