Wednesday, July 17, 2019

"Beauty Is Truth"

Today is all about "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. Ha, ha, you know what kind of mood I'm in when I'm bringing out John Keats, the one who whispers intoxicatingly beautiful poetry in the ears of writers and lit students.

I didn't get this poem the first time I read it because I didn't know the context. I didn't know anything about Keats or the Romantics. So it was just a guy reflecting on the imagery on a Grecian urn. And that infamous line at the end ("Beauty is truth, truth beauty") I thought was a comment about aesthetics. But the Romantics were not the Aesthetes and John Keats was not Oscar Wilde. Yet even after I learned about context and Keats's commentary and theories on art, this poem remained less interesting to me than pieces like "Ode on Melancholy" or "Ode to a Nightingale" or "Bright Star." I used to keep "Bright Star" written out above my desk . . . maybe I'll do that again.

Now, though, I have finally felt "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In a single poem, Keats contains the pain of life and also its opposite. Would you call that opposite pleasure? No, not quite right. Beauty, yes, truth, yes, those words work.

It can seem as though the narrator is describing aesthetic beauty because he is describing the visuals that are on the urn. In fact, though, he describes things felt, most notably of course the love between the lovers. So when he speaks of beauty, he isn't just describing the aesthetics that are portrayed by the urn: he is describing the sentiments that the visuals express. That is the beauty.

And when the heart cries and the soul feels like it is dying, there is that beauty still to remember. The beauty that was, every moment or feeling that was enjoyed, is there in memory and in truth. It once was and still is. It was beautiful, that is true. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. All we can see in this life is what is here and that is enough. Any glimpse we have is enough.

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