Lessons from a Grecian Urn Part I: Truth and Beauty in Art
An object is perfect, when everything manifold in it accords with the unity of its concept; it is beautiful, when its perfection appears as nature. The beauty increases, when the perfection becomes more complex and the nature suffers nothing thereby; for the task of freedom becomes more difficult with the increasing number of compounds and its fortunate resolution, therefore, even more astonishing.
– Friedrich Schiller’s Kallias, or on the Beautiful
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is one of the most celebrated and well-known poems of the English language, and rightly so. However, it is arguably also one of the least understood. Moreover, the advent of twentieth century Modernism cast a cloud of obscurity over many works in the classical tradition. The classical tradition is typified by Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the works of the ancient Greeks like Plato, Homer, Aeschylus and Sophocles, the works of Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats and Poe et al.
In the twentieth century many of the most compelling aspects and ironies of works like Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” were treated in a manner which Keats and those in the classical tradition would not find familiar. In the terms of twentieth century “Modernism,” thinking, criticism and appreciation for a timeless piece of art like Keats’ ode became relegated to Modernist interpretations, including such ideas as a “close reading.” Discussion of poetics became largely confined to an analysis of the ode’s “enigmatic” qualities, its novel word-choice, language and imagery—what we refer to as poetic “craft.”
Twentieth century “New Criticism” was outlined by writers such as John Crowe Ransom and his related circles around The Fugitive literary magazine, based out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. However, “New Criticism” was not “new” in that it was rooted in the works of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound (Eliot’s one time pro-Mussolini fascist mentor), W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats et al. “New Criticism” was the outgrowth of a Modernist outlook spread and championed by the leading Modernist poets of Europe and the Americas.
In the manual, “Twentieth Century Literary Theory”—authored by K.M. Newton—the advent of “New Criticism” was described in the following manner:
Though the New Criticism had its origins in Britain in the criticism of T. S. Eliot, the theory of I. A. Richards and the practice of William Empson, its most powerful impact has been in America. John Crowe Ransom, who published a book entitled The New Criticism in 1941, was the leading American influence and he acknowledged a debt to Eliot and Richards.
K.M. Newton continues:
The fundamental aim of American New Criticism was to create a critical alternative to impressionism and historical scholarship […] It advocated ‘intrinsic’ criticism – an impersonal concern for the literary work as an independent object- and opposed ‘extrinsic’ critical approaches, which concerned themselves with such matters as authorial intention, historical, moral or political considerations, and audience response.
From the lens of “New Criticism” and related “Modernist” schools of thought, compelling and thought provoking ironies were reduced to a discussion of novel poetic effects, tropes and literary devices. It was a discussion centered not on the nature or value of a poetic idea, and the language and imagery crafted by the poet in order to successfully convey this idea, instead, discussion was confined to a strict analysis of poetic craft—as if the relationship between artistic craft and a poem’s underlying philosophy or worldview could be ignored; as if one could separate the traces of ink left on the page by the poet’s pen from the poet’s thoughts themselves.
A great poem must be finely crafted, but it must also be much more: a poem is a reflection of the universe inhabited by the poet. To restrict discussion of a poem to the question of craft alone is to ignore—wittingly or unwittingly—the investigation of what universe the poet is actually putting before us, the universe he/she inhabits and what this universe means for us the readers—its merits and values. To ignore such questions is to abandon philosophy altogether—to attempt to separate Beauty from Truth, whose wedding is the ultimate purpose of great art. Indeed, artists are the great consecrators of the sacred relationship between Truth and Beauty.
Under the guise of “New Criticism,” the great bards of the past would now be paid lip service not on account of the beauty or truthfulness of their ideas in respect to “man and nature”— as Shelley once described it— they would be admired as skilled craftsmen, skilled in their ability to paint our imaginations with beautiful images of the senses. However, a skilled craftsman could just as easily paint the picture of a Jesus-loving Satanist, or a love-making sadist, and garner just as much praise and attention on account of their fine craft. In a word: it did not matter what poets said, all that mattered was how they said it.
This may seem like a harmless approach; however, with any fundamental discussion of ideas stripped from the concept of poetry, it is not hard to imagine how art lost its moral tiller and its sense of direction in regards to the question of human nature, and how we might situate such a question in relationship to the universe as whole. The idea of “New Criticism” defined a kind of amoral outlook that poisoned the spirit of generations and zapped the vitality out of many souls who would have otherwise been excited about the prospect of discovering something true and meaningful in the universe, and that they too could have a part to play in its great unfolding drama.
Rather than craft beautiful tragedies that could inspire one to greater ideas of humankind and its future, art itself became one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century—a tragedy whose essence was the condemnation of poetry and literature to an abyss of nihilism, wanton pedantry and frantic hostility to any idea of truth knowable beyond the five senses.
Society became saturated with a nihilism whose effect on our culture is bitter and palpable to this day. The view of human beings as endowed with a divine spark of creativity—a spark which every individual should be afforded a meaningful opportunity to develop—has become increasingly rare.
In the twentieth century, the idea of “meaning” and the importance of meaning became anathema to the fundamental outlook of Modernists. As a result a sense of meaning has been lost not only in literature, but in society as a whole.
From the world of cinema (which captured the imagination of entire generations) to the plastic arts displayed across museums and bustling urban city squares, all facets of the human condition have essentially been touched. And this is the great truth of art—its power—it is a fundamental expression of our culture, our view of the world and how we relate to and think about the universe as a whole.
From the salons of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to the Ku Klux Clan family-man John Crowe Ransom’s Fugitives magazine, The Paris Review, Eliot’s Criterion and many other outlets, the Modernist ideal proliferated across the West under various names including—but not exclusive to—Modernism, Cubism, Imagism, Post Modernism, Formalism, Post-Humanism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Feminism, Deconstructionism, and Contemporary thinking. While these different schools may have had varying and apparent degrees of separation, one might imagine the example of a recipe which has a definite set of ingredients, but for which an endless variation on the same essential recipe exists.
Chapter I: What is Modernism?
“The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.”
Like the scientist attempting to observe an electron directly, but refusing to acknowledge the fact that the act of observation has itself an effect on the particle being observed, so too are we of the opinion that only if philosophy and ideas are restored to their rightful place in a discussion of art and aesthetics can poems like Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” be seen for what they are. The same applies to any work of timeless Beauty.
As all progress in human history has been achieved as a result of humanity’s learning from and honoring its greatest traditions, as well as eschewing its worst; from recognizing mankind’s great failures to embracing its great triumphs and using such knowledge as the foundation for new bold and insightful acts of creation, so too should a clear understanding of the greatest traditions of our past inform the foundation upon which a new viable future for twenty-first century art is built. New bold and timeless twenty-first century poetry should and will be inspired and informed by the greatest poetic traditions of our past because—it always has been.
However, none other than T.S. Eliot—one of the leading literary critics of the twentieth century—remarked that he thought the closing lines of Keats’ ode, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,” were a “blemish” on the poem:
But on re-reading the whole ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me. – T.S. Eliot’s “Essay on Dante"
Eliot was a very educated and sophisticated intellectual, yet he was not the only twentieth century critic to have been befuddled by Keats’ famous lines. The opinion expressed by Eliot is symptomatic of the outlook associated with twentieth century thought and aesthetics—an outlook typified by “New Criticism.”
In reality, a poet’s view of the world he/she inhabits and the associated view of human nature cannot be separated. Artistic expression—by its very nature—is an expression and reflection of the artist’s view of human nature and the universe humans inhabit. It is impossible to divorce one from the other because it is impossible for the poet to divorce the inner world of his/her being from the external world that he/she believes to inhabit. Even the attempt at such a divorce will itself be revealed by virtue of the chosen form of expression. While critics may quibble and some may quarrel over such a conceit, it can be shown that twentieth century approaches i.e. Modernist approaches to classical works reveal the above observations to be true in very important instances like that of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—instances that cannot and should not be overlooked or ignored because their implications for art, past, present and future are simply much too great.
Anyone who has taken a creative writing course or studied literature in a Western university in recent decades will immediately find him/herself familiar with the twentieth century outlook we are identifying—it permeates the world of literature today. However, it is not simply a “literary” outlook; it permeates the literary world because it now permeates the culture generally.
Most Western denizens will likely not even be aware that they harbor such axioms because the view is already ubiquitous in society. Finding new ways to create and impress effects on an audience has become the main task of the artist; little thought or care goes into considering whether such an approach involves any intelligible idea or universal significance. It is simply believed that works have different significance for different people; words, ideas—everything has a unique and different significance for different individuals.
In and of itself, the view would be fine if there weren’t at the same time something universal about a great work, but something universal involves the idea of the True, which the twentieth century outlook expressly objects to. The critic may argue that the aesthetical views they propound should not be confounded with the larger questions of truth, but the reality is the critic is essentially attempting to enforce their own set of arbitrary axioms over the world of art, arguing that these views have no bearing on the greater debate over truth.
The reality is that the debate over truth is most emphatically settled in the realm of the arts. It could even be argued—though this goes beyond the scope of our essay—that the dominant view in the arts will be one of the primary influences on what scientific school tends to dominate society.
What Is Perfection?
The essence of all great art accomplishes the much more difficult task of succeeding in both the goal of having unique personal originality as well as universal significance. It is a task much more difficult than simply weaving a series of finely crafted free-associations, or highly stylized language that generate some rousing and compelling impressions for an audience.
In the words of Edgar Allan Poe:
He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, —or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods — we find ourselves melted into tears — we weep then — not as the Abbaté Gravina supposes — through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses. – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Poetic Principle”
Anyone who thinks Poe is simply waxing-poetic, or availing himself of artful rhetoric for purely artistic edification is mistaken. The aforementioned observations and distinctions in thinking among different artistic approaches is crucial to identify because one of the primary underlying assumptions of twentieth century Modernism is that artists gained new degrees in freedom of expression, liberation from pre-established forms, traditions and authorities, and that this freedom translated into greater levels of originality and a wider expanse of genuine artistic vision.
The reality is that the artist and audience became alien to each other: every individual became an isolated person with his/her own set of definitions, words and idiosyncrasies—the whole world of art became like two strangers in a one night stand, with neither knowing anything about the other and neither wishing to know anything about the other—knowledge of which would probably spoil the experience, so too was an impersonal and object-fixated relationship created in the world of art. It was a relationship in which substance and depth were considered two completely different things that could be disassociated at will—things that had to be disassociated in order for the “magic” of art to be unleashed.
Thus, Dante Gabriel Rosetti—an ardent gnostic and leading Pre-Raphaelite thinker—a great pre-cursor to literary Modernism—was a poet and painter who had expressed how much he abhorred the reading of Dante Alighieir’s La Vita Nuova (The New Life) because Dante accompanied his poems with prose explanations on how he crafted his poems and formed them into harmonious wholes—no such kind of discussion of method and underlying principles was permitted in “New Criticism.”
As we stated, from the Modernist viewpoint, one could be a Jesus-loving Satanist, or a love-making sadist psychopath—it did not matter whether the artist’s concepts shared any logical relation or rational connection—what mattered was the novel effect that the artists could achieve with their new novel combinations. What mattered was the “new” experience for the audience, an audience that would of course develop an ever more insatiate appetite for new forms of entertainment and stimulation, rather than a desire for ever new enriching glimpses from the eternal and infinite realm of the arts—a taste that never bitters and in which Truth only grows sweeter.
The insatiate lust for the “new” would inevitably drive one towards an ever expanding decadence. Ultimately, the Modernist never came to terms with the reality that some things do not change, some things are unchanging—they are eternal. The typical Modernist would have rejected this idea. Instead, art dealt with the stranger and stranger, the darker and darker, but never lighter and lighter nor higher and higher—never more whole or harmonious. A new infinite world of effects—unfettered by the demands of reason or the human mind—was now opened up—art was free. The Beautiful and True had filed for divorce.
By contrasting the outlook of Modernism with the outlook expressed by Keats’ famous ode, we are afforded a unique lens by which to examine the many meanings and paradoxes of Modernism, and in so doing, we will gain a clearer understanding of what an audience can discover and benefit from in a revived tradition of classical or timeless art—a tradition that is impossible to translate or discuss in Modernist terms without fundamentally distorting and perverting the essence of what we are investigating.
What is Timelessness?
Over the years, many names have been adopted to represent the Modernist outlook, names that carry different ideological flavors, but ultimately contain the same essential ingredients. As we mentioned before, variations on the Modernist recipe included—but were not exclusive to—Modernism, Post Modernism, Cubism, Formalism, Imagism, Post-Humanism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Feminism, Deconstructionism, and Contemporary thinking. It is not to say that any of the aforementioned outlooks were without commendable precepts or intentions, but only that they shared one common fatal axiomatic flaw, a flaw in which, “A touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
Investigating how the Modernist perspective and its contemporary evolutions apply to the reading of a poem in the classical tradition, such as Keats’ great “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (or any of the Great Odes) offers us the quintessential example of Modernism’s tragedy.
If one reads The Poetry Foundation’s “poem guide” for the Ode on a Grecian Urn, “How to read the most famous poem ‘for ever’” by Camille Guthrie, the author conspicuously fails to address the central irony of Keats’ ode. In fact, The Poetry Foundation’s critic fails to identify virtually all of the ode’s ironies. Instead, the author prefers to describe the various “enigmatic” qualities of Keats word-choice and imagery, but the reader is left in the dark as to the purposes for all said artistic decisions described.
In of one of the guide’s opening paragraphs, Guthrie makes the following remarks:
Keats would like to engage with this ancient object, but he can’t, so he must address it from many animated angles. Unravish’d, a fascinatingly ambiguous word, helps us understand this multiplicity—to ravish means passion and violence. Is the urn’s slenderness and round opening attractive? Is it intact throughout its history? Usually poets represent contraries in binaries, yet Keats’s eagerness demands a third option, an aesthetic tactic that enacts his idea of negative capability—to embrace contradictions and uncertainties “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Guthrie essentially offers us a gnostic modern/existentialist reading of Keats’ Ode: “the poem does not have one meaning” it is “overwrought” — there is no such thing as “reality,” there are many realities; “Keats is simply exploring the many realities that the work of art makes possible.” Guthrie essentially treats art as if it were some type of LSD-inspired experiment in therapeutics. She treats the metaphorical idea of Keats’ statement, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” in a literal fashion because a higher metaphorical discussion of its meaning would go against the underlying beliefs guiding the critic’s method; and more importantly, it would go against what the author in all likelihood believes.
As a result, the ode’s meaning is intentionally or unintentionally obscured. There is also the suggestion that a literal reading of the statement is somehow more precise than a metaphorical i.e. non-literal reading; irony is replaced by the idea of “enigmatic” images. Keats’ conception of “Negative Capability” is treated as if Keats had a gnostic and existential outlook on the world, an outlook in which there is no real meaning or in which various alternative meanings exist. To gain a deeper insight into the ode, Keats’ thinking should be situated within the Platonic Greek tradition and the Socratic tradition that deals with the question of incommensurables, with the questions of Truth, like the paradoxical relationship between the finite and the infinite or the “One” and the “Many.” From the standpoint of this Greek tradition, all the ironies of the “Grecian Urn” come into focus.
If the reader situates Keats within the tradition that he most identified with, namely that of the classical Greeks and Shakespeare, many of the “enigmatic” aspects of Keats’ ode become intelligible ironies. We discover Keats’ stalwart “Greekism,”—a Platonic tradition and the method of Socratic dialogue. We must only be willing to do exactly what “New Criticism” DOES NOT want us to do, namely to have “extrinsic’ critical approaches, which concerned themselves with such matters as authorial intention, historical, moral or political considerations, and audience response. All we need to do to investigate the ode’s greater significance. In a word: we must take the opposite of “New Criticism.”
When Socrates says, “All I know is I know nothing,” he is not literally saying he believes he knows nothing, he is making an epistemological point about the nature of knowledge in which truth is often better defined not by the right answers, but the right questions. Even if Plato wrote in prose form, he was a poet; his language was deeply metaphorical and nuanced i.e. poetic and was therefore able to convey a richer meaning than could be done with mere prose i.e. “consecutive reasoning” in Keats’ terms.
In his Dante essay, Eliot sates, “The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me,” but when Keats states, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,” he is not saying that Truth for him means every factual thing that has ever occurred in human history—in which case endless horrors and tragedies could be listed, and then from this literal understanding, the reader would be forced to logically conclude that all the tragedies and horrors of history are included in Keats’ definition of Truth, and thus that all Truth is not beautiful. However, that would be silly analysis of Keats’ lines. It would silly because all great poetry is by its nature metaphorical and non-literal. A richer and more nuanced approach is necessary.
The Operations of the Human Mind
In his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Percy Bysshe Shelley specifically took up the same question of language and worded the issue in the following way:
The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in the habitual use of this power; and it is the study of their works (since a higher merit would probably be denied me) to which I am willing that my readers should impute this singularity.
There is a precision of idea, defined by “the operations of the human mind” rather than a precision of language shaped by the precise and self-evident definition of words. The author of the Poetry Foundation’s poem guide seems to wish that Keats would use words in a strict literal fashion rather than write with more nuance and metaphorical richness. But deviation from a strictly literal idea of truth is necessary to communicate a higher nuanced and rich meaning. It is a meaning that cannot be captured with the literal use of language where in the case of Keats’ famous lines, Truth would include everything that has ever happened in history—in which case there would be many non-beautiful things.
Keats’ method was Platonic in nature, the opposite of how Modernists or Formalists approached the question of poetry and composition. For the Modernist and Formalist, language is very precise and distilled—even if ideas are not—or even if ideas are altogether absent, or simply self-referential and not meant to be disclosed—their usage serving a strictly stylistic purpose.
The meaning of Keats’ Platonic statement is derived from the unfolding process of the ode as a whole—just like Plato or Socrates derived the meaning of any idea by identifying the process through which any definite meaning was arrived at. The definite meaning ascribed to a word was understood through the process by which the given literal meaning of a word had come into being. In the same way, the meaning of Keats’ “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” is defined by the “route” Keats lays out across the five stanzas of his ode; the ironies he identifies serve as our poetic guides, guides that direct us to the final sense of his ode’s meaning—more precise and nuanced.
In the same way Socrates did not deny the existence or knowability of truth, so Keats was not some existentialist character who denied any intelligible reality, or some Aldous Huxley-ite disciple who had opened the Doors of Perception and then subscribed to alternate realities.
Instead, Keats outlined a view in which the question of truth was essentially defined by the way in which we chose to approach it—HOW we chose to approach the question revealed what we believed—rather than the literal words we use of the opinions we hold on a plethora of different single issues. Truth for Keats was not relative, but it had to be judged objectively by the route taken in order to arrive at a meaning; the route was essentially an emotional development: a series of questions, transformations and epiphanies which had to become the conscious objects of our attention.
On its own, literal language will always be ambiguous because language is by its very nature nuanced; there will always be more than one way to read a word, whether it be literally, logically, metaphorically, within historical context etc… what gives a word or phrase its precise meaning is the thought imprinted in a word by the mind.
The poet largely achieves his goal through metaphor, paradox and irony—nuance. Language becomes the footprint, or a trail of footprints, left by an idea. A new idea or discovery inspires a development of language; and poetry serves as an infinite fount of new ideas whose source is the creative imagination, which in turn develops and further engenders language.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Keats opens his poem by offering several poetic descriptions of the urn, followed by a series of questions.
Thou still unravish’d 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: What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape Of deities or mortals, or of both, In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
What kind of urn is Keats looking at? What kind of feelings does Keats experience as he analyzes the urn? What age is Keats looking at?
Keats—as interlocutor to the urn—initiates a dialogue in the same way that we can initiate a dialogue with all the great works and minds of the past—in the way Socrates initiates a dialogue with the many personages of Plato’s dialogues, personages who were real historical figures with their own sets of axioms and world views which Socrates sought to explore and challenge for the purposes of creating a better state.
Read part II here.
Grabo & Martin. J. Freeman. American Book Co., 1942. 473-512.
In Part 2, the author will continue his discussion as to what the true purpose of poetry is, the relevance of the paradox of the "One and the Many," and what Keats intended by his term "Negative Capability."