No 6 - 1976
Beauty and Truth
IN REVISING this TV presentation for print, I find that a number of reflections compete for precedence. Any very familiar poem — especially one much pushed to young readers at school — accumulates a thick deposit of misconceptions, the more so if its meanings are both intricate and deep. For the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ all these conditions are fulfilled in excelsis. Has it perhaps been buried for too many under too huge a tumulus of nonsensical commentary? Or to reverse the image, has what should have been a spell to invoke Quietude in meditation been turned into a football battle-ground? A TV presentation has to reckon with both these threats. It has to remember too that it is not young readers but their mentors, among which it must itself be counted, that can promote the most absurd misreadings. That it has been misunderstood is never of course necessarily the poem’s fault. In general, may we not think that the greater the poetry the greater the risks it must take?
As this poem and, most pointedly, its close is so eminent an instance of art treating of art, of poetry on poetry, a longer Introduction may here be in place.
I left this TV presentation very much as I gave it. To have loaded it with further aberrations of critics would have confused its audience. But the printed page can do much that a vocal performance cannot. So here I add, without comment, another representative oddity of opinion.
I would make two main points with it:
1. Though there is a danger that to some the whole activity of interpreting poems may come to seem just a guessing game in which no secure views are attainable, careful reflection can decisively show that a good poem defends itself from a foolish reader effectively. It does so through words and phrases, in the poem and outside it, of which the misreader has not taken due account.
My instance was in its day much discussed. Lest my reader now dismiss it with a gurgle or a guffaw, I must report that not a few most esteemed critics heartily accepted the reading proposed. I am not mentioning their names. They may have repented and several of them have been and are among my friends. The misreading became for a brief span fashionable: a way of being in the swim, one upholder, Editor of a widely used Critic’s Notebook calling it ‘the only critical reading’, thereby exhibiting a confidence which happily tells us where we are.
Here is the most eloquent of its proponents, the grand condescension of his regard for the poem and its author being especially instructive. So is the flip approach, the quoting of Shelley’s great line, ‘pinnacled dim . . . ‘ But ‘approach’ is here the wrong word. He is receding from the poem.
For generations critics were to be observed ‘pinnacled dim in the intense inane’, interpreting the close of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. I quote the last stanza from ‘Poems’ 1820:
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.
The critics have spun beautiful cobwebs ‘without substance or profit’ out of those last two lines. In 1938, however, Mr. G. St. Quintin robbed them of much of their imaginary weft. He interpreted the obscurity as follows: ‘Keats . . . says that the Urn will always remain “a friend to man” because it will always give the message, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty”: and the following words . . . are interpreted as being addressed to all who are capable of hearing and understanding it . . . Even allowing for the fact that Keats was not writing a philosophical treatise and may be vague in his use of terms, it is difficult to believe that he really meant this . . . as a significant message to humanity at large. An alternative suggestion is to assume that the ‘ye’ of the last line is addressed to the figures on the Urn. For them Beauty is Truth because their experience is limited to the beautiful as depicted on the Urn . . . This interpretation, of course, requires that only the words “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” be printed in inverted commas, as in Professor de Sélincourt’s edition.’ (1)
Now how does the poem defend itself from this assault? What in it precisely and finally, for readers who retain a balanced command of its language, precludes this proposed reading?
A. the three thous: with all three the poem is addressing the Urn, and it is the Urn (not the poem or the poet) which then utters the two final lines. And it utters them as
B. a friend to man, to whom thou say ‘st what follows
C. on earth: one might almost suppose that those who have applauded the St Quintin-Tillotson ‘discovery’ had never heard or read the words ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. With on earth the Urn is fulfilling its duty as custodian of ashes, reminding us of the traditional opposition of before death and after life. But Good Heavens! What on earth could these words mean if addressed to the figures instead of to mankind? What sort of dementia finds this ‘an admirable sense’? I conclude that the poem — through its sufficiently self-evident grammar — is perfectly able to take care of itself.
2. My other main point is that with a poem of this order, carrying so vast a charge of meaning, inviting its readers to reflect on the deepest of traditional themes, there will be no such thing as any single, one and only, right ‘solution’ as though it were a simple equation or puzzle. As with any living organic whole, there will be many states of relative stability, different positions as its components vary in precedence to one another. Many readers, I fear, find this doctrine hard to take. To them it seems tantamount to letting anything go. But in practice, I believe, admission that there may frequently be more than one valid view of what a good poem is doing makes a reader more rather than less scrupulous and more rather than less on guard against nonsense. In this it accords with other applications of Complementarity principles.
Since this is a TV presentation let us have the Ode itself before us and re-read it for ourselves as reflectively as we can. Consider again its title: it is on an Urn which has been used to preserve ashes and has been long in the tomb and is thus a strong reminder of death. The poem addressed to it speaks for and to each and every one who ‘Awaits alike th’ inevitable Hour’ (‘With all that Beauty, all that Wealth e’er gave’), and to quote from another line in Gray’s ‘Elegy’, this is a ‘storied Urn’ even more than those we may read of there. And when at the end, after the return of the questioning, a reply is given, we should not forget — should we? — that an Urn has no mouth and does not speak; it is not a preacher or a lecturer; it is ‘still’, it is a ‘silent form’. What it may say is what we say for it, say to ourselves, after contemplating what the poem has presented to us: LIFE seen from the angle of DEATH.
While the last stanza is still in our minds let me recall for you four lines from the Hymn to Pan in Endymion, Book I:
Be still the unimaginable lodge
For solitary thinkings; such as dodge
Conception to the very bourne of heaven,
Then leave the naked brain:
Compare with that, ‘Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity’. That this Ode uses the second person singular (and ye) is not unconnected with their use in the Prayer Book. In these lines it is telling us what it is doing; great poetry has often to do with the boundaries, the limits of ‘solitary thinkings’.
Let us look now at the opening lines: ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time’. (To be read, I suggest, very slowly — to allow slow time itself to take part in the presentation as well as to let the immense charge of meaning develop and come through.)
still: as in ‘still waters run deep’?
as in ‘a still small voice’, ‘a voice of gentle stillness’? (see 1 Kings 19:12).
as in ‘Peace, be still!’ (see Mark 4:39).
But this sea that is being stilled here is ‘the sea of Life and Time’ (‘the bitter waves of this blood-drenched . . . sickening whirl’, to quote Porphyry’s report of the Delphic Oracle on Plotinus) that becomes, in Yeats’s ‘Byzantium’, ‘that dolphin-torn, that gongtormented sea’.
Of course, of course, there is the other sense of still, ‘not yet’, contrasting with and heightening the adjectival senses: unmoving, soundless, unperturbed. And it is highly active here too, reawakening for us awe at the many centuries through which those ashes have been buried and have ‘in a yard under ground, and thin walls of clay, out-worn all the strong and specious buildings above it; and quietly rested under the drums and tramplings of three conquests’ (Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Buriall, Chapter V). That belongs, that awe does.
But there is something else which hovers around in many readers’ fancies though it does not belong since it would be but distractive.
unravished bride: a willing bride is not ravished, and this Urn is truly the devoted bride of quietness, devoted in the sense in which a Hindu Sati devotes herself.
But is there not a further charge of mystery behind this unravished — some great contrasting background? Is there behind the line something of the Rape of Proserpine? Here is Milton describing that Garden of Eden no other garden can rival
Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine, gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered — which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.
(Paradise Lost, IV, 268)
Unwillingly is Proserpine dragged away by the Ruler of Hades to be Queen of that Underworld in which this Urn has so long been.
foster-child of silence and slow time: Stillness and silence: the lines affirm them and reaffirm — in part to bring out the intense loveliness of the doings depicted on the Urn, echoing thus, as it were, Marvell’s lines from ‘The Garden’:
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that She might Laurel grow.
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not for a Nymph but for a Reed.
‘The Garden’, too, in its very different ways, is about the opposition with eternity of what we ‘know on earth’ and ‘until prepared for longer flight’.
As to the lively doings, it is noteworthy that Swinburne in the Spring Chorus of ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ parallels very closely what these Stanzas I and II and line 3 of V present, down to . . . ‘the trodden weed’ (‘And the hoofed heel of a satyr crushes I The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root’). His is a ‘leaf-fring’d legend’ too, ‘With lisp of leaves’ and ‘wild vine slipping down’. Here are his ‘men or gods’ and ‘maidens loth’:
And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.
It is noteworthy too that this Chorus ends with ‘The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies’, a note with accords to that of the close of Stanza III of the Ode. And the Chorus is broken in upon by Queen Althæa herself — in her own way a custodian of death — with ‘What do ye singing? what is this ye sing’ and with ever bitterer words to balance all the Chorus can say of sweetness ‘with all its honey in our lips’. The Urn too, having presented, almost indeed overstressed, sweetness has its balancing bitterness to add. And yet, do not lines 3 and 4 hint already of what the rest of the poem will do? Are they not well-charged with latent irony?
Let us listen again to Stanza II: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on’. Here is an extreme transvaluation. Poetry, like music, is an art of sounds. But now, along with the pipes and the song, it is to be silent, and the coming reiterations of ‘happy’ are to insist on and extend the renunciation. Renounced, they play on, ‘Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone’. If ever a line by its own tone and movement tells us how to take it, this does. Ditties, a word originally of grave import, is used so by Spenser, nothing light or trifling or merely diverting being suggested; on the contrary, in Wycliffe’s Exodus 15:1: ‘Thanne Moyses soong this ditee to the Lord’. There is an implication of musical setting here explicitly removed. Those pipes are ‘soft’ because unheard. The superiority of ‘the spirit’ to ‘the sensual ear’ is firmly asserted, the very renunciation announced by ‘more endear’d’ heightening its value. Non inutile est desiderio in oblatione. These Urn-borne silent ditties, which follow through the rest of the stanza and through III are of acquiescence. They acquiesce in frustration, deprivation, loss. Their movement is not in the least that of self-indulgent daydream (as some critics have condescendingly supposed) but of an alerted cost-counting consent. And yet what is figured on the Urn is to be envied. Why? Because neither for the singer, nor for the leaves, nor for the Lover is there any Fall. For the living there is. The anguish of mutability and mortality is pressed home until, as Keats had written earlier of his Cave of Quietude (Endymion, IV, 528) although ‘Woe-hurricanes beat ever at the gate I Yet all is still within and desolate.’
All is given up, offered up to become ‘All breathing human passion far above’. It is by this sacrifice that the other side of the Urn as we turn to it becomes so poignantly fulfilling. We need though to remind ourselves of how central to men’s hopes and fears his ritual sacrifice of his best has been. In this fourth stanza the silence the poem has been celebrating throughout spreads: ‘And little town, thy streets for ever more / Will silent be’. Everything human passes so (to quote from Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’) ‘into the artifice of eternity’. ‘Eternity’, Blake’s Proverb of Hell has it, ‘is in love with the productions of time.’ It is through this renunciation and detachment that this ‘silent form’, the Urn, can ‘tease us out of thought / As doth eternity’.
to tease: to comb the surface of cloth; with a teasel to separate the fibres; to draw all the hairs or fibres in one direction. No complexity, no to and fro, no pro and con of thought, no turbulence, no sickening whirl, no tossing waves of Time and Life that ‘In sequent toil all forward do contend.’ After this, the poem having done what it has done, the last five and a half lines, I suggest, are rather a gloss reflecting this than a way of saying something further. For what is further, though endless, is not to be said. ‘He who speaks does not know; / He who knows does not speak.’
Now for some critics, all rather busily speaking. I will omit to mention names. Who wrote which of the following comments does not matter. What matters is that they could write them. I do assure you that they were all highly qualified scholars, leading authorities indeed. They are talking about the two final lines: ‘“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” — that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’ I have capitalized and pointed as best may suit the view I am hoping to recommend.
Of these lines an authority writes: ‘But, of course, to put it solidly, that is a vague observation — to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit pardonable in one so young . . .’ The Urn isn’t exactly ‘so young’ — is it? But, of course, this critic carelessly supposes that these concluding lines are uttered by Keats, not by the Urn.
‘To face facts and define his terms’, John Middleton Murry, to whom I owe very much on this and in other ways, points out, moreover, that when he wrote the Ode Keats was facing: ‘more than a fair share of the miseries of the world . . . a brother dead, a brother exiled, the fear that his new-born love would be denied fulfilment, his money gone, his health and perhaps his life in question . . .’ (2) You will find the detail (and incidentally the quotations I am using) well set out in Murry.
However, I think I can guess how this charge that Beauty is truth, truth Beauty is ‘actually an uneducated conclusion’ happened. I am nearly sure that some at-his-wits’-end schoolmaster had set the lines for comment in a scholarship examination and that our unhappy critic wrote what he did fresh from reading through some scores, perhaps, of hasty scribblings upon them. If so it was the examinees, not Keats, that he was judging, not the Ode but their comments on it which drew ‘actually an uneducated conclusion’. As support for this guess may I offer a representative example of the protocols I have myself received on these last two lines: ‘He hears the soundless message and, placing upon it his own interpretation, passes it along to us. I find this somewhat presumptuous of the poet and I resent it. To each his own interpretation — if any.’
I will follow him with a more respectful, but still a frankly baffled comment:
this statement of equivalence (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’) means nothing to me. But on re-reading the whole Ode this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem . . . I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use.
How about that? What about this ‘ordinary use’? Could we agree perhaps that there will be many very different sorts of ‘ordinary use’ with such big words as these? Take ‘Beauty’. There is the use, for example, in T.S. Eliot’s pub scene near the end of the second part of ‘The Waste Land’: ‘Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon, / And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot —’ . And there is the kind of use we get in Byron’s ‘There be none of Beauty’s daughters / With a magic like thee.’
And there is the use of ‘Beauty’ in the titles of Spenser’s ‘An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie’ or Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, both poems probably well known to Keats. Spenser was a chief awakening influence on Keats and in view of all that Keats’s letters tell us of his peculiar preoccupation with Beauty and Truth, it is hard to believe that he had not read Spenser’s ‘Hymne’ with uncommonly close attention (3). Here are its first two stanzas:
Rapt with the rage of mine own ravisht thought,
Through contemplation of those goodly sights,
And glorious images in heaven wrought,
Whose wondrous beauty breathing sweet delights,
Do kindle love in high-conceipted sprights:
I fame to tell the things that I behold,
But feel my wits to faill, and tongue to fold.
Vouchsafe then, O thou most almightie Spright,
From whom all guifts of wit and knowledge flow,
To shed into my breast some sparkling light
Of thine eternall Truth that I may show
Some little beames to mortall eyes below
Of that immortal beautie, there with Thee,
Which in my weake distraughted mynd I see.
For this ‘Hymne’, as you see, Beauty and Truth are together: thine eternall, there with Thee. They come equally in the middles of the middle lines of the stanzas.
Shall we look in conclusion at the tradition behind these great abstract words so used? I want to suggest that the Ode is simply using them with their full traditional force: nothing remote or unfamiliar. Both stem from Plato.
For the account of Beauty we go to Plato’s Symposium:
He who has been instructed rightly in the things of love . . . when he comes towards the end will suddenly perceive a wondrous beauty (and this . . . is the final cause of all our former toils) . . . and the true order . . . is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards . . . from fair forms to fair practices . . . to fair notions until . . . he arrives — and at last knows what the essence of Beauty is.
This ascent — this ladder in ‘the things of Love’ — is, in momentous ways, parallel to the ascent — the ladder in modes of Knowledge — up which Book Six of Plato’s Republic leads us.
Here is its near-up view of the summit: ‘This, then, which gives truth to whatever is known and the power of knowing to the knower is the idea of good’ (Republic 508e).
Compare: ‘This every soul looks for and for this every soul does all that it does’ (Republic 506e); ‘this . . . is the final cause of all our former toils’ (Symposium, 211). With these in their conjunction we may compare another apex: ‘We see we saw not what did move.’ We may be reminded too, as Keats may have been, of another poem in which ‘Truth and Beautie buried be’ (Shakespeare, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’), in which repaire to an Ume is enjoined and where in
Property was thus appalled,
That the selfe was not the same:
Single Natures double name
Neither two nor one was named.
The wondrous beauty which the lover ‘suddenly’ perceives ‘when he arrives’, and the source of Truth and Knowledge are one and the same.
In brief, the way of Love and the way of Knowledge meet. Here is how John Middleton Murry puts it, and ‘solidly’: ‘The Soul, for Keats, is that condition of man in which his Mind and his Heart are reconciled . . . in the idiom of Christian spirituality, the condition of the Knowledge and Love of God.’ (4) There is nothing uneducated or unmeaning here or any occasion for sneers about ‘initiates’ or for the other disparaging remarks that have been fashionable among the hoity-toities. What is puzzling is that learned and well-meaning men have made such to do about a position so central, traditional and familiar. It may however be salutary to recognize that the highest qualification and reputation can on occasion combine with patent and resounding inability to read. How loth we are to be reminded!
(1) Geoffrey Tillotson, Essays in Criticism and Research, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1942, pp. xiv-xv. G. St Quintin’s letter is quoted from The Times Literary Supplement, 5 February 1938, 92. Tillotson continues:
Mr. St. Quintin’s ‘alternative suggestion’ must be given its place in any discussion of the text of the poem. This is not the occasion for any such discussion, but it is already clear that Mr. St. Quintin’s discovery helps to confirm the authority of the text of ‘Poems’ 1820. Unfortunately the latest edition prints the text as it appeared in ‘The Annals of the Fine Arts’, a text which does not employ any quotation marks. If Keats were responsible for the text in the ‘annals’, it seems that he deliberately revised the pointing for ‘Poems’ 1820 in the hope, unfulfilled for over a century, that quotation marks would make his meaning clear. Mr. St. Quintin’s understanding of the pointing, and therefore his choice of the better one — this chain of deduction has relieved Keats of a charge of pretentiousness which everything else he wrote renders him unlikely to have deserved. If the Ode cannot be allowed to end as well as it began and continued — the grammar of the close is not self-evident enough to be happy — Keats is at least found writing an admirable sense.
(2) John Middleton Murry, Keats, New York: Noonday Press, 1955, p. 217. First edition entitled Studies in Keats (1930).
(3) What matters here, surely, is not surmises as to whether Keats had been rereading Spenser, but that in two minds of their order the same identification of Truth and Beauty was obvious. [l.A.R.]
(4) Murry, op. cit., p. 225.
This essay is taken from Complementarities: The Uncollected Writings of l.A. Richards, edited by John Paul Russo, forthcoming from Carcanet Press in 1976.
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