‘Crusoe in England’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, then later collected in ‘Geography III,’ perhaps Bishop’s finest single volume of poems. (Only recently I discovered the title of which was suggested to her by John Ashbery. He had found a little geography textbook of the eponymous name, and sent it to her, thinking she’d rather enjoy it. Turns out, she did.)
I can’t help thinking ‘Crusoe in England’ is Bishop’s greatest poem, though Bishop is the type of figure who inspires worshippers, and therefore, nearly all of her poems are considered The Greatest, The Most Favorite, The Defining Classic: ‘The Fish,’ ‘At the Fishhouses,’ ‘One Art’ (which wears on me), ‘The Man-Moth,’ etc. Ashbery’s favorite is characteristically ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.’ After reading it, he wrote Bishop his first and only fan letter and attached the poem he wrote in tribute ‘Soonest Mended.’ Ashbery also adores ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ for the charm of a strict form like the sestina depicting a daily meal (one thinks of a Fairfield Porter interior in the Bonnard style, teacups and silverware placed around a family dinner table next to a copy of Wallace Stevens’ poems). Helen Vendler’s favorite is ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’—or maybe it’s simply the poem of Bishop’s she has written most beautifully about. Harold Bloom’s favorite is a small gem from her first book, ‘The Unbeliever,’ which he finds to be a pure Romantic lyric in the Shelleyian vein. Christopher Ricks once told me how much he cherished ‘The Filling Station,’ though he has reservations about EB, and prefers her prose. Scott Cairns—like Mark Strand—thinks ‘The Monument’ a perfect poem because it is enacts what it describes, full of those tromp l’oeil effects where poems step off the page: “Look!” (Similar grand examples of this: Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ Ashbery’s ‘The Instruction Manual.’) And while I know Merrill considered her the greatest poet of his time (like many others: Randal Jarrell, Robert Lowell), I’m not sure which was his favorite poem. ‘Pink Dog’ is surely the most Merrillesque—for its astute powers of observation mixed with the reticence of its sophistication. It’s a mellow poem that reminds me how much both poets really learned from Auden.
Clearly, she was and is a well-loved poet. I’ve been using ‘the greatest’ and ‘favorite’ almost interchangeably, which is not quite right. ‘Crusoe in England’ might be both for me, though I admit to always having had a soft spot for ‘North Haven.’ Was a more intimate and moving elegy ever written by one poet for another? As Bishop said to Lowell in a letter: “I want to be heartbreaking.” ‘North Haven’ is compactest proof.
So what’s so amazing and appealing about ‘Crusoe in England’? For starters, it’s one of Bishop’s longest poems, if not the longest; it was written towards the end of her life, and in it, one finds an entire life—Crusoe’s (i.e. Bishop’s)—compressed soberly, hauntingly. Bishop was a wordsmith but in her poetry she is no less a painter: the array of detail is uncannily fresh, mostly for its accuracy, but no less for its originality. Steam rises in the distance from the volcanoed island like flies; the volcanoes themselves stand like mountains with their heads blown off. Every sense has been answered to, from the smell of guano to the touch and texture of the hissing lava, the rolling gulls and quaking turtles, the horrifying baby goats.
Still, previous poems of hers have shown the same brilliance and grace of description. In ‘Crusoe,’ that painterly hand is matched with a cadence of melancholy and surrender that comes from staring back at the unexpected—or was it expected?—course of a single life. “None of the books has ever got it right.” “Beautiful, yes, but not much company.” “I often gave way to self-pity.” These asides, seemingly dropped down in the poem carelessly, are the signs of her mastery. The voice of this poem, like its tone, betrays her inimitable dramatic understatement. It reminds me of the quietness of Auden’s love lyrics, or the intimacy of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems. And speaking of Coleridge, of whom Bishop was a lifelong devotee, ‘Crusoe’ is also a poem suffused with allusions to Romanticism—there’s the title character, of course, written in the vein of 19th century adventure travelogues; there’s also the Wordsworth quote from ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’ I also hear in her hallucinated sunsets that mysterious ballad ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And then in her play of Mont d’Espoir for Mount Despair—a telling trickery, that is so reserved, and sad—you also see a wink at Shelley and Wordsworth who found in the Alps something like a confrontation with existential reality—a sublime affirmation for one, a sublime negation for the other.
Bishop spent most of her adult life in Brazil, away from academia and the limelight she had received ever since Marianne Moore brought her to the attention of the general reading public. An orphan, an exile, a lesbian—all of these personal histories are entwined in ‘Crusoe in England’ that underscores how her life ended. Bishop would return to America, die in Cambridge, having survived the love of her life’s suicide. Her last days were as a professor at Harvard. As the title belies, the adventures have ended. Crusoe is back in England, Bishop in the States. Just as Crusoe’s imaginative paraphernalia have been incased in museum glass, so have Bishop’s manuscripts and poems been handed over to other people. What ultimately remains of any artist’s life but an attempt to make some lasting object? That’s the Ovidian monument against time, yes, but it’s also another momentum mori. Art may go on, we certainly don’t. Like Don Quixote waking from his reveries to find himself the published character in his mad odyssey, we—like Crusoe, like even the great poet Elizabeth Bishop—are defeated by reality.
You can read and hear her reciting “Crusoe in England” at Poetryarchive.org. Below, a recording of Bishop reading “In the Waiting Room.”
“Growing up in the environment where any notion of gay sex was immediately associated with danger, I learned from the early age how to make the best of it and even enjoy it. I’m not a vanilla person and I’m not into vanilla sex, so naturally role-play and various fetishes are a big part of my aesthetics.”
“GET YOUR VILE TENTACLES AWAY FROM ME! – I whispered, surrounded by cretins and fuckheads. — I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!!! I AM TREASON!!! INFIDELITY IS MINE!!!!”
“They say that in order to become a real artist you have to kill your parents. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my family in general and my Dad in particular. I did a lot of things in order to overcome the complexes that my parents planted into my mind. I haven’t talked to my father in years, but recently he was interviewed for a documentary about me that was just broadcast on the Russian TV, and he was talking about me as a total failure, the biggest failure of his life… Luckily, I don’t need or expect his praise or approval anymore!”
“I never made a secret that porn is one of my major inspirations, especially internet porn. So, in a way, it’s only fair that my photos are now posted all over various fetish and porn sites. It means that my work has gone a full cycle and is now back in a public domain, for everyone to enjoy. It’s also a great compliment for me because I feel like in my photography I’ve managed to achieve a certain level of intimacy and honesty that can only be seen on some amateur porn sites. Even if some of my photos were staged, the final result looks totally natural and spontaneous.”
I replace the breathing ones with stuffed ones and suffer an applause of wings. Reach between the roost to feel compressed as they look. And O hovering ellipses: our hands cannot suppress the unbelievable synchronization of bee wing and lawn mower. We enter a playing field: molecules of water vs. molecules of water. We construct viable diagrams of living: a reversible motor heart. We test drive baby palates and consider them unsuitable for the farm. Inside each of us, three small red cells break in half until we cocoon in jars and wait to be watched. We prepare for peoplery: fall into pitch with darkness. Photograph after photograph we freeze images of a bullion cube dissolving. Skip death by lining the trees with ornaments of plastic bags. I assemble the deli counter into a whelping box and we all breed unanimously in a convenience store.
There was a diary I used to tell bad things to but one day it blew
Off half of my face and I had to tell everyone how I was feeling
So as not to risk writing anything down that could become explosive
And take my hand or an eye. I kept this diary for proof. Its skeleton
Sits in a glass vase tinted red for the effort of my face. I kept this diary
So generations upon generations of Clara’s will know how to let their
Emotions out like the pale laundry flapping erratically on the line.
I want a souvenir for all the bitches I’ve been.
I want everyone to imagine each sliver of sound coming from my mouth
To be an ancient iron ball tousled with daggers.
I flushed the necklace down the toilet Andres.
I was not sorry. A bent silver heart zirconia
And I wore it on the inside of my shirt so it hung out when bent
Over you & so to pull it before you came.
A field glazes orange.
Everglades recede to prairie.
Hung like a bell clapper on my clavicle I screamed
Ring me, me. Horses don’t stop running
Even when foam flowers on their hides.
We were making tea and people.
Told you Andres, I’d crossed you to observe the shape
Of eyebrows when angry.
In the snow, it was the snow
That kept me driving for hours to your body.
Out of you Andres,
I built the dry and crackling Andes.
Dear Jack, your heart will break—
They’ve injected the cows again.
They’re growing up so beautiful & spotless
Sickless, fat. We could float one all the way to Florida.
A van on a cow’s back or a mother on a van
On a cow’s back. I’m sure you’d approve
Of my hair, the style I’m wearing & wish I could hold
Your hand to my forehead. Why?
I am your child. Your elegant disciple of crickets
That storm when flushed from their lairs.
Jack I match the hissing & black snake you pulled from your mouth.
I’ve been coiled like a tiny fetus & inside of my fetus
Is a long vowel and a pine tree.
I have one corpse to show you Jack.
It is yours.
When you said dear Lorca, I knew
You were addressing the father you never had.
The father you never had.
Jack your name is spelled with four letters.
Two of them make the same sound.
Two of them make the same sound.
Only a tarantula knows for sure.
That kind of fear.
I wanted to be a woman but ended up a woman. That kind of fear
Was circumstantial. With certainty I pulled rabbits
From my throat like a magic trick.
I pulled and pulled until the lowest pit
Put forth a diamond and was dirty
From waiting. That kind of fear,
Of glowing. The man that grabbed me
On the subway. For days shame I carried like a lung.
For days and shame.
He did not breathe.
Inside of herself Clara built this gorgeous time bomb.
Each one had a father and a father’s father. It was the most popular
Time bomb in its high school. All the other time bombs
Were jealous and parked their bombs outside of her house
And scared away her friends. They blew up her family.
Their fires melted the car. They killed the family dog. All of the time bombs in the world
Soon made pilgrimages and blew up on their great great great great great
Grandfather’s blow up spot. They returned each year to their family X
And more and more blew away or imploded. Every time a bomb came
It was louder and bigger than the last. The smaller ones combined with smaller ones
To become medium sized or large. They too blew themselves up.
No one could keep it together. No one knew what would happen if they didn’t blow up,
They had been doing it so long—
It was so simple one of them said one day. Don’t blow up. Cold turkey don’t blow up.
And thus a small fire of doubt was built but the time bombs found they could
Remain in one place longer and longer without losing
Any part of themselves.
I was in that well too. We didn’t want the light to show our skin
What wasn’t human. And we wanted velvet, more velvet
Which could be darkness disguised as velvet. I wanted a way
To show you I could build a globe of spit and sticks
And it would sustain life, a life like ours if we had been born
So many years before. Enter, the chickens disguised
As men and the men disguised as dugongs and the dugongs
Disguised as dead dugongs to throw the hunters from their trail.
The well would open from time to time and someone threw particles
Of dust into the light and we would grab at them like they were crumbs
Of food and we would push them to our lips.
Christie Ann’s chapbook, idiot heart, was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for The New School Chapbook Competition in 2008. She is the coauthor of a chapbook that is forthcoming with The Corresponding Society Press and her work can be found or is forthcoming in Sink Review, La Petite Zine, Blaze Vox, Pax Americana and others. Christie Ann has an MFA from The New School and teaches at Hofstra University.
We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)
MORE RESPONSES FROM POETS AND CRITICS
That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.
If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.
That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.
And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.
Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.
All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.
Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.
I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.
—Robert Kelly, February 2010
The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway. For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:
They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.). No one was going to out-sophisticate them! Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency. Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.
Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.
Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense. The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn. This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all. What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”
Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed. But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.
The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time. It’s the execution that makes the poem special.
The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato. Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds. Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art: the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.
It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras). Yeats couldn’t have said it better
“Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending. Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson. The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold. So much for sentimentality. And so:
The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.” This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.
One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:
If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.” In other words: real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.
Richard A. Barney (ed.), “David Lynch: Interviews”
KM: If your paintings had sound what would it be like?
DL: Different paintings would have different sounds. So This is Love would have a muffled sound like talking through a glove. A Bug Dreams would be a really shrill 15,000-cycle piercing sound. She Wasn’t Fooling Anyone, She Was Hurt Bad would be an extremely slow motion, muffled breaking glass sound.
KM: What kind of things function as seeds for paintings?
DL: Inspiration is like a piece of fuzz—it kind of comes up and makes a desire and an image that causes me to want to paint it. Or I can be going along and see an old Band-Aid in the street, and you know how an old Band-Aid is. It’s got some dirt around the edges and the rubber part has formed some black little balls, and you see the stain of a little ointment and maybe some yellow dirt on it. It’s in the gutter next to some dirt and a rock, and maybe a little twig. If you were to see a photograph of that not knowing what it was, it would be unbelievably beautiful.
Italo Calvino, “The Uses of Literature”
Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and, judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmological family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.
Clement Greenberg, “Art and Culture”
One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know—or are supposed to know—that results are all that counts in art.
Nineteen out of twenty—nay, ninety-nine out of a hundred—works of abstract art are failures. Perhaps the ratio of success to failure was the same in Renaissance art, but we shall never know, since bad art, even in ages considered to have had bad taste, tends to disappear faster than good art. But even if the proportion of bad to good were higher nowadays, and higher in the field of abstract art in particular, it would still remain that some works of abstract art are better than others. The critic of abstract art is under the obligation to be able to tell the difference. The inability to do so, or even try to do so, is what more immediately makes denunciations like Lewis’ suspect. And the suspicion is not allayed in this case by the statement that Moore, Sutherland, Bacon, Colquhoun, Minton, Craxton, Pasmore, Trevelyan, Richards and Ayrton form “actually the finest group of painters and sculptors which England has ever known.”
Christopher Ricks, “True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound”
Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hectht, and Robert Lowell under the sign of Eliot and Pound: the figure of speech comes from T.S. Eliot, who used it in a letter of 18 October 1939 to the scholar Edward J.H. Greene. Of the poems in Prufrock and Other Observations, only four (Eliot said) place themselves “sous le signe de Laforgue,” under the sign of Laforgue.
Here are five poets who mean a great deal to the world, to me, and—this being the claim of True Friendship—to one another. (Though not quite, I grant at once, to every single one of the others.) That Eliot and Pound were as fecundating for each other as had been Wordsworth and Coleridge—this is not news, although in this setting there may be a few new things to notice about it. Eliot and Pound cared diversely about Lowell and his art. Lowell’s poems and criticism engage in turn, albeit very differently, with Pound and Eliot. Hill’s poems as well as his criticism wrestle angelically with Eliot, with Pound, and with Lowell. Finally, Hecht’s criticism and poems undertake their fervent discriminations in apprehending Eliot and Pound, calling Eliot to account and calling Pound’s bluff. There is nothing by Pound, so far as I know, that touches upon Hecht or Hill, but there remains only the one two-sided vacancy that is of any moment: that Hill and Hecht, despite the shaded respects in which they comprehend their art and its common but far from commonplacec concerns, never really met. Which may provide the ground against which the other related figures can be seen.
Let’s begin with a recording of Ode on a Grecian Urn recited by Richard Howard, which was taken on 2/12/2010 through my iPhone.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Thou still unravished 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-fringed 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 loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
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.
One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.
A very helpful article over at Wikipedia includes the following information about the mass of critical scrutiny, controversy and defense the Great Poem has caused:
The thought as enounced in the first stanza is the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfect; and this is true and beautiful; but its amplification in the poem is unprogressive, monotonous, and scattered … which gives an effect of poverty in spite of the beauty. The last stanza enters stumbling upon a pun, but its concluding lines are very fine, and make a sort of recovery with their forcible directness.
Bridges believed that the final lines redeemed an otherwise bad poem. Arthur Quiller-Couch responded with a contrary view and claimed that the lines were “a vague observation – to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit most pardonable in one so young and ardent.” The debate expanded when I. A. Richards, an English literary critic who analysed Keats’s poems in 1929, relied on the final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to discuss “pseudo-statements” in poetry:
On the one hand there are very many people who, if they read any poetry at all, try to take all its statements seriously – and find them silly … This may seem an absurd mistake but, alas! it is none the less common. On the other hand there are those who succeed too well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …,’ as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings, and proceed into a complete stalemate of muddle-mindedness as a result of their linguistic naivety.
Poet and critic T. S. Eliot, in his 1929 “Dante” essay, responded to Richards:
I am at first included to agree … 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.
In 1930, John Middleton Murry gave a history of these responses “to show the astonishing variety of opinion which exists at this day concerning the culmination of a poem whose beauty has been acknowledged for many years. Whether such another cause, and such another example, of critical diversity exists, I cannot say; if it does, it is unknown to me. My own opinion concerning the value of those two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. Eliot’s.”
We shall not feel that the generalization, unqualified and to be taken literally, is meant to march out of its context to compete with the scientific and philosophical generalizations which dominate our world. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare’s ‘Ripeness is all.’ It is a speech ‘in character’ and supported by a dramatic context. To conclude thus may seem to weight the principle of dramatic propriety with more than it can bear. This would not be fair to the complexity of the problem of truth in art nor fair to Keats’s little parable. Granted; and yet the principle of dramatic propriety may take us further than would first appear. Respect for it may at least insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature.
I entirely agree, then, with Professor Brooks in his explication of the Ode, that ‘Beauty is truth’ … is to be considered as a speech ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate’ to the Urn. I am uneasy, however, about his final reference to ‘the world-view …’ For the poem as a whole is equally an utterance by a dramatically presented speaker, and none of its statements is proffered for our endorsement as a philosophical generalization of unlimited scope. They are all, therefore, to be apprehended as histrionic elements which are ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate,’ for their inherent interest as stages in the evolution of an artistically ordered … experience of a credible human being.
Wishing to update the debate, last week I sent the following email out to poets and critics to weigh in on the matter:
Arguably the most controversial poem of 20th century literary critical debate has been Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Since Robert Bridges, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot engaged the poem critically, poets and critics have taken all possible sides: defending its ending, dismissing it, even ignoring the rhetorical closing all together as an unimportant point. What I wanted to know, simply: What is your take on the ending of Keats’ famous ode? Do you find it successful or unsuccessful?
Below are their responses of how this Whole Business of Truth and Beauty struck them. I encourage you, reader, to leave your own comment—and let the conversation continue. Next week, I hope to bring in some other quotes, from Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, share some other reactions from contemporary poets and critics, and attempt to formulate my own opinion on the matter.
For now, we seem to have enough riches before us to ponder. My utmost thanks to Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Frances Whistler, Dara Wier and Richard Zenith for their thoughts.
POETS, CRITICS AND READERS RESPONSES
I’ve certainly heard—and many times—critical statements to the effect that a given work of art failed because it had presented a scene or object or person as too beautiful (perfect, shapely, harmonious), thereby violating our consensus about the actual nature of experience, which we should acknowledge as being flawed, unshapely and dissonant. And that a proper understanding of beauty should insist on the inclusion of aspects of reality not traditionally considered pleasing or attractive. In short, it’s the aesthetic of “Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty.” Given that, I wouldn’t be inclined to dismiss the Urn’s statement as silly, so absurd as to ruin a great poem. To me the puzzling thing is that, in the poem, such a statement should be attributed to the Grecian Urn. Puzzling because it doesn’t strike me that what we are told about this marble vessel of great beauty (in the traditional sense) accounts for the statement it makes. So for me an important critical project around this poem should be to explain why an aesthetic stance at odds with the “character” of this object should be pronounced in its voice. The tone of the conclusion suggests that the poem’s observer and speaker does not, himself, share the view expressed by the Urn. The speaker condescends, perhaps with a certain amused tolerance, to the statement being made. So perhaps an aesthetics of imperfection and dissonance isn’t at all what the Urn is urging. Yes, perhaps that’s it: we’re meant to understand that the Urn is so far out of contact with reality it doesn’t even guess that the world is ever less than perfect, shapely, and harmonious. It thinks the Beautiful representation of reality is unfailingly True. An object made of marble, its only “task” is to continue to exist as it is and display the relief sculptures on its surface. A non-functional artwork exempted from the painful struggle of fleshly existence might indeed believe the world was lovely throughout, as lovely as the scenes represented on its surface. That’s all it knows; and all it needs to know. We, the human observers, will need to know more. We aren’t going to be allowed to remain in the unflawed cosmos of the Urn. Sad, but there is a consolation. We are not frozen in immobility. We can live and move and breathe, and even kiss our beloveds; though of course we know that to love inscribes us in the order of time, and therefore consigns us, eventually, to the order of mortality—the extinction of ourselves as perceiving, thinking subjects. The Urn will still be there, unchanged, immobile, beautiful, impervious to time and to love. I assume Keats wants us to admire the Urn, but he also shows us why we don’t want to be it.
To borrow a lovely phrase from Ian Stewart, who was writing on physics (in WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY, Basic Books, 2007), “beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.”
Yet not all truth is beautiful; some is obviously quite ugly.
A poem should not hate itself for wanting to be beautiful.
Jessica Palmer suggests that disorder is the new beauty – but allows that it could be also dereliction.
As for Eliot, we may counterpose the spirit of Kenneth Koch: One beauty conceals another. One truth may conceal another, too.
I have no anxiety whatsoever about the poem’s closing lines or whether they have, or ought to have, any truth-value.
As for beauty, as many have said, it’s in the language of the beholder.
Plainly a lot hinges on who speaks the last two lines, and whether one or two speakers. I feel most comfortable with the idea that Keats knew exactly what he was about when he created “beauty is truth, truth beauty” as something both true and beautiful, and yet circular and inadequate. (This reading suggests, though it does not absolutely depend on, the idea that the urn says just these five words, leaving “that is all … need to know” being addressed by the speaker to the urn. The absolute circularity of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” so aptly mirrors that of the urn, whose depicted story has neither a start nor an end, that I incline to this reading. However, the last line and a half also expresses and continues a strong sense of circularity, so I wouldn’t be dismayed if MS evidence showed incontrovertibly that the urn speaks both final lines). Either way, the inadequacy and yet loveliness of the idea that truth and beauty are one and the same – which creates a triteness that is presumably what Eliot disliked – seems to me to be what Keats is talking about all through the poem. The paradox is that the human mind is incapable of absorbing the idea of eternity, but also unable not to be “teased” by it: the urn is a friend to man through the comfort of its unchangingness, and yet the old age of this generation and woe of the next are not to be cured by its message, although assuaged.
Beauty is Truth
An epitaph in tone
One can see it inscribed on a deathmark
A funereal inscription
On a tombstone
On an urn filled with ashes
Ashes to ashes, and all that good stuff that never ends
Another circular instance
Keats was always dying
Keats never was not
Like Stein’s a rose is a rose
As a hope, as a denial
Would be that all were circular always
Like all poetry is
Or makes it up as if it were
A = B, and in case we didn’t get the point, B = A? I prefer to give Keats more credit. I don’t read “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as a transcendental, let alone philosophical or mathematical, equation. The statement is addressed to someone, namely those of us who admire the urn but don’t entirely understand it. To me it’s about negative capability. Nothing wrong with knowledge, but we don’t need to know everything, and if we’re not able to entertain half-knowledge, we’ll miss out. Beauty is a kind of truth, and can be appreciated as such, without understanding. The converse proposition is that truth, even when not visually or feelingly beautiful, still has the beauty of being true. This isn’t immediately obvious from the second half of the verse in question, maybe I’m reading too much in two words, but I would argue that Keats’s beholders of unheard melodies and his Lovers who cannot kiss enjoy the beauty of those melodies and that love not because of Platonic ideals but because the melodies and love exist, they’re true. Ergo, truth is a kind of beauty.