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The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
4/14 poem rec, buttons
Today's rec is from John Keats, the famous Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Last stanza:
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
    Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
    When old age shall this generation waste,
      Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

It's an interesting observation, those last two lines--is it Keats saying it? Is it the urn? And what does it mean?

A part of me flashes on the Lazarus poem from Wednesday, "Gifts," and its comment about the Greek fascination with beauty ending badly, as compared to the Hebrew search for truth--Keats here conflates the two concepts of truth and beauty (which, by free-association, leads me to the poetic image I saw somewhere long forgotten that spirtually, the western world is the child of Athens and Jerusalem; I don't know if it has any bearing on this poem, but posting the two in such close proximity made me think of it).

But what does it mean?

There are three ways I think I could go, and my preference is for the last one.

The first is that either Keats or the vase is saying that beauty by itself is true, and there is no other truth to the universe that we can understand as humans. This isn't quite as surface as it sounds--in a world where we hear a lot about the subjectivity of taste, and have a non-transcendent view of the world more often than not, we've still all been struck by that moment of seeing something truly beautiful, and knowing that no amount of reduction, no amount of interpretation, can explain or change the fact of its beauty. Eg, there is nothing that would make this view not beautiful--the beauty can be marred, but only insofar as you can see that it was there, independently, before interference. You could imagine putting a bunch of big turbines in front of the falls to generate power, blocking the view and crossing the gorge, but the mind recoils from the idea, no matter how practical. It's a Mystery, in the classic, mystical sense of the word, this aesthetic sense that we have. I think that's a very valid response, but it doesn't have the universality of "all ye know on earth."

The second idea is that that truth is beautiful. When the nightly news operates on the principle of "If it bleeds, it leads," it's hard to argue that the truth of the world is universally beautiful, let alone that it's "all ye know." But it could be argued that our ability to see and understand the truth is itself beautiful, our rational minds, our human inclination to search.

The third idea, the one I like, is that the ideas of truth and beauty, entwined in the vase, aren't surface truth and beauty at all, but a more cosmic idea of both. Modern people are enamored of the idea of looking for the seedy underbelly of everything--take away a man's carefully crafted public image, and he's really just got feet of clay, and he probably uses them to kick puppies. This belief is almost what defines "sophistication" in current parlance--only the terminally naive and stupid believe that people presenting themselves as good could be good... all you have to do is look for that Achilles' heel, and you'll find it. He'll go seedy-underbelly-up, because we all have a seedy underbelly somewhere. And when people behave badly, it's only to be expected.

But the poem suggests something else, the notion that the seedy-underbelly theory of life is barely less of a surface notion than total credulity, and it, too, can be stripped away, and what's beyond it is beauty. Kind of a scary beauty, sometimes, though that's my thought more than Keats's. Kind of a Hugo idea--"The ideal is terrifying to behold, lost as it is in the depths, small, isolated, a pin-point, brilliant but threatened on all sides by the dark forces that surround it; nevertheless, no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds."

And those are my thoughts on truth and beauty.

On a different subject, I'm doing trivia for buttons (those slogan buttons you can put on your jacket or purse or whatever). People pick their favorite, and I ask a trivia question, and if they answer it, they win the button. I'm happy to report that, after the iconic "Bored now..." the button that was of most interest--to teens, mind you--was "Practice random intelligence and senseless acts of self-control."


9 comments or Leave a comment
gloryforever From: gloryforever Date: April 14th, 2006 02:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Can I have a button, too? :P

I loved the poem and your interpretation. Will you jump in and write another one soon?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 14th, 2006 02:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh, I think once I give something to the library, it has to be given away on library terms. :) But you can check out all the slogans at Nancy Buttons!

Will you jump in and write another one soon?
It's distinctly possible, though I don't have anything kicking around in my head just now.
From: nancylebov Date: April 14th, 2006 07:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for the plug.

You'd probably like the introduction to Delany's ABOUT WRITING--it's got somewhat about the Keat's poem, in particular that you won't learn the truth about anything unless something about it catches your attention, and that something (unless it's an immediate survival issue) is likely to be beauty. He also discusses the pleasures of art which is an example of itself, and says that "beauty is truth, and truth beauty" is such a passage.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 14th, 2006 07:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for the plug.

Much enjoyment deserves a plug. ;)

I'll check out the Delany!
harriet_wimsey From: harriet_wimsey Date: April 14th, 2006 02:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Athens and Jerusalem"! That was the whole idea of my undergrad, Valparaiso--especially the honors college. It's even in our school song or alma mater or whatever you call it, and it's why the school was such a perfect fit for me. Anyway, I like your thoughts on truth and beauty, that is indeed a beautiful picture, and that's great about the buttons.
matril From: matril Date: April 14th, 2006 05:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
spirtually, the western world is the child of Athens and Jerusalem

That's a very apt description; it pretty much sums up the bulk of our cultural heritage.

And I like the third interpretation best.
valerie_valerah From: valerie_valerah Date: April 14th, 2006 06:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love that poem. I wrote a paper on it earlier on in the semester. Not that I can remember what it is I wrote...:P But it is a beautiful poem, and I love Keats in general.
dramaturgy From: dramaturgy Date: April 14th, 2006 09:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
In the words of Daniel Cleaver, "Fuck me, I love Keats."
vytresna From: vytresna Date: April 15th, 2006 12:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm totally getting a button that says "I didn't care. I knew better." Preemptive, mind you, to avoid spoiling the guy who prints it, and also because I'm just that sure Snape is some variety of evil.
9 comments or Leave a comment