What is the meaning of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”?
As I have mentioned before, through my entire life, to my great frustration, I have not understood what Keats means when he says, in the last stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I’ve seen various explanations, but they seemed abstract to me and none of them satisfactorily answered my question. Then, about 20 years ago, the answer came to me in an intuitive flash. Unfortunately I didn’t write my idea down and I subsequently forgot it. So I’m more frustrated than ever. And I’m even more frustrated by my failure to understand the poem’s climactic line, because “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is to me one of the two most beautiful poems in the English language, the other being Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
What follows is not an intuitive leap, but an attempt to work out intellectually what that line may mean. Obviously what I’m about to say is not a complete explanation. It is an attempt to get at one side of the line’s possible significance.
First, what is “truth”? One definition of truth is that it is the inner order of a thing, its structure. Christians, for example, speak of “Christian truth.” Now the first and most obvious meaning of the term “Christian truth” is that that the affirmations of the Christian religion correspond with objective reality. But that is not the definition of truth that I am getting at here. In my usage, “Christian truth” is the inner structure of Christian experience, namely the relationship of the individual believer with God through Jesus Christ, the relationship of the individual believer with Christ through the eucharist, and many other very particular things involved in Christian experience.
Similarly, the truth of, say, amphibians—“Amphibian truth,” if you will—is the structure, the order, of amphibians. It is the parts of the amphibian, and the relation of those parts to the whole. It is that which makes all amphibians, regardless of their mutual distinctions from each other, amphibians and not something else.
Now what is “beauty”? Beauty is also a mutual interrelation of parts that forms a whole, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s take an example from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” itself, starting at the fifth line of the first stanza:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shapeMy focus here is on the line, “What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape,” which has always enchanted me. What does its beauty consist of? First, there is the image of a leaf-fringed legend, the idea of such a thing, which is so beautiful. Then, inseparable from the image, is the exquisite sound of the words that convey the image, with the alliteration of the “l’s” (“leaf” and “legend”) and the soft “g’s” (“fringed” and “legend”) that is hauntingly beautiful (and you will realize this even more if you recite the poem aloud and hear the sounds in your ears and feel the texture of the sounds in your mouth). The sounds of the words, and the thing they describe, combine into a perfect whole that elicits feelings of great pleasure. To me, I can’t think offhand of anything in Shakespeare that is as beautiful as that line. (I’m not seeking to compare mountaintops here, just stating my personal feeling.)
Beauty, then, is an order, a structure, a relation of parts that form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. And this also was our definition of truth. Truth and beauty are, in this essential respect, the same. Of course they are not entirely the same. Truth speaks to the intellect, beauty to the emotions. But they are the same in that they are both revelations of the order of existence which is larger than ourselves. They both bring us into a relationship with, and a participation in, the order of being.
Thomas Bertonneau writes:
Regarding Keats’ “Urn,” which I have taught every semester for twenty years, I assume, given the many references to death and sacrifice in the poem, that the “Attic shape” is a funerary urn, as if to say that even our mortality, because it belongs to truth, is beautiful.Gintas writes:
I have difficulty with poetry, I blame it on my shabby government schooling. There are things I do to try to make up for it … But even the most benighted of your readers should appreciate the beauty of “Ode to the End of Liberalism”. I don’t even need the poem to exist for it to strike an inner chord that is perfectly beautiful.LA replies:
You may not know much about poetry, but you are a funny guy.Buck O. writes:
(I apologize for this comment. I often butt into a conversation where I don’t belong. I didn’t read the entry. I have never studied or even read poetry though I have written some to women. I’ve lived an essentially physical existence—athletics and labor—up until about five years ago, when I hit the wall, and flat ran out of gas. That is the truth, and it ain’t so beautiful.)Rick Darby writes:
The first part of Keats’s poetic equation is easier to grasp than the second. In writing that beauty is truth, Keats surely means truth in a more elevated sense than as used in daily life (he’s telling the truth, the truth of the matter, etc.). He means a higher kind of truth. Higher how? It’s hard to express in words, because of a different order than what we ordinarily perceive. But it’s safe to say that most people at one time or another, seeing or hearing something of exquisite beauty, sense that for moment they are transported to—or at least get a hint—of a level of being more refined, richer in meaning, more spiritual. More real. Truer.Gintas writes:
Buck O. said, “I have long been convinced that all human action is motivated purely by self-interest.”Laura Wood writes:
This is great.LA replies:
Yes, the next step in the discussion is moral truth, as in Matthew Arnold’s trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful.Laura replies:
Virtue is equivalent to the supreme knowledge (Antonin Sertillanges).January 7
Malcolm Pollack writes:
I’ve wondered about Keats’s meaning too, ever since I first read the “Ode To a Grecian Urn” in a poetry seminar as a young man. After a while, I found a metaphor that helped clarify it for me.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 06, 2011 11:01 AM | Send