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 shape
Of deities, or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

My 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.

- end of initial entry -

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.

The “gooseflesh” lines are, for me, these –

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone …

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.)

This is probably unrelated, and is more of a question, but, it is what immediately came to mind. I’m certain that many have said this, though I’ve not read it. A thought occurred to me years ago, and it just popped out of my mouth. I immediately understood it and a full argument took form. I hope this doesn’t sound foolish.

I have long been convinced that all human action is motivated purely by self-interest. I don’t know why, and it has always bothered me because it seems to be a profound contradiction to what else I believe. On the surface it sounds as if I think like a pure materialist—that we are lumps of bio-mechanical and chemical processors and reactors. I know that we are more than that—that we transcend the material. I won’t waste your time with my thinking.

One point is that we are motivated to act by personal “incentives” which themselves serve our different interests, i.e., love, honor, duty, or greed, avarice, hate,etc. And, that no human action is effected by indifference. For instance, the concept of altruism, which I could spend time on, is a contradiction by definition—a selfless act. How can a “self” act without being involved? The term is useful, but it’s not accurate.

I went to the end of this entry and read only your last paragraph. It was all that I needed to hear. “Beauty and truth, emotions and intellect—the order of our existence.” This seems to satisfy, sort of, the contradiction in my thinking—that, though I’m convinced that we are purely self-interested actors, which is how we are able to function, we are ordered that way just as God has ordered everything in our universe and all of the mechanics or physics by which it operates.

Though I am always self-interested and cannot act otherwise, I am designed that way and given the free will to choose which interests are mine. I love my son more than anyone else, and I want him to know it. But, even if he did not know it, my soul or spirit would be empty if I didn’t. My love for him fills a need. Like any materialist who refuses to accept creation and any transcendent truth, what can “beauty” or “truth” mean to them?

This is incomplete and probably half-baked, and it still feels too mechanized. It just seems that your description of an order of existence for all of our moving parts, adding up to a whole which is greater, makes me feel better about what I’ve been thinking. (I hope that I made some sense.)

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.

So we can say that beauty (which I won’t try to define, but if anyone doesn’t know what it is, I’m sorry for them) is a kind of lens or window that gives us a glimpse of a greater dimension of reality, closer to God or the source of being or Meaning.

But what can we say about “truth [being] beauty”? Even many things we firmly believe to be true aren’t beautiful; often quite the reverse. Nor, I think, is this a simple comparative statement: truth is more beautiful than falsehood.

Again, the only way to make sense of it is to assume that this refers to a higher truth. When Plato talked of the good, the true, and the beautiful as being Ideas rather than just qualities, he also must have meant something greater by truth than just correct premises and a correct logical syllogism. Both Keats and Plato are talking about Truth, not truths: a reality with the power to inspire, albeit one that can’t be adequately expressed in words because it’s transcendent.

If you accept that beauty is truth in some sense, then the obverse (or do I mean converse?) must also be true. By sheer logic, if a equals b, than b equals a.

As an illustration rather than an explanation of what Keats means, I nominate the Portland Vase in the British Museum. It’s Roman rather than Greek, but the effect on me is similar to what Keats must have felt in the presence of his Grecian urn.

Gintas writes:

Buck O. said, “I have long been convinced that all human action is motivated purely by self-interest.”

He then proceeds to convince me he is not at all convinced.

Much of we do does indeed have an element of self-interest, because the world is made with cause-and-effect, and we cannot get away from it. But purely by self-interest? On one hand Randian “self-interest” is way overblown to describe such things as breathing and eating and sleeping and not jumping off a bridge; but on the other hand, it falls far short of characterizing the more noble and beautiful things in life, which often have some mystery to them. But I do believe Buck O. thinks higher than that, I think he may be discovering something downright poetic in his own heart.

Laura Wood writes:

This is great.

You are speaking of intellectual truth, but the same can be said of moral truth and its relation to beauty. The true and the good are intimately related.

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.

Truth and Beauty, distinct words with distinct meanings, surely are not one and the same at the level of ordinary understanding, but of course Keats yearned to see further. What helped me in my struggle to grasp his meaning was to imagine Keats standing between the parallel lines of Truth and Beauty, gazing along them in wonder as they recede into mystery in the direction of the ultimate Good—to which, he knew in his heart, both must surely lead. And just as parallel lines converge only at infinity, Truth and Beauty achieve Keats’s ultimate unity in a numinous place infinitely beyond rational apprehension: the transcendent mind of God.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 06, 2011 11:01 AM | Send

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