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Transcendent Beauty in Yeats and Keats

The works of W. B. Yeats and John Keats are interestingly similar in style and concept. Both rely heavily on imagery. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” is full of sensory imagery describing the journey to an ideal place, just as Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is beautifully portraying the significance of an ancient art on an urn. Both use metaphor to deal with the idea of aging, the concept of time, and the permanence of art compared to the fleeting nature of life. The examination of immortality is a common thread in both and is seen as an achievement. Yeats and Keats come to the conclusion that aesthetic permanence is transcendent beauty. Imagery and metaphor in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Sailing to Byzantium” are used to convey the poetic speakers’ beliefs that being an “artifice of eternity” is the ultimate achievement of transcendent beauty, while the tragic effect of time on beauty is a flaw of mankind and nature.

Yeats’ and Keats’ use of imagery and metaphors as literary tools to communicate the concepts of aging, time, beauty, permanence and transience. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” employs the imagery of people, their life and love, their activities, and destination. The metaphor compares a real journey to a physical place Byzantium to a spiritual journey into “God’s holy fire,” “eternity”. Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” uses such imageries as designs on an urn to describe relationships between humanity and art, lovers to describe the relationship of passion in people and beauty in art. This employs the metaphor of classical Greek art to present the ideas of silence, time, beauty, immortality and eternity.

Both W. B. Yeats and John Keats highlight the inevitability of aging and the mortality of humans. In Keats’ work “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, the speaker brings out the negative perspective of aging and immortality. He sees old age as something that wastes away generations: “when old age shall this generation waste” (line 46) .Yeats looks at the process of aging and consequently death in a slightly different light. Old age is an unavoidable, awful part of life. Due to this inevitability, the speaker wants to find a way to escape. Old age is portrayed as a disappointment: “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.” According to Lesser, “Yeats triumphantly confronts and liquidates his fears of aging and death…he discovers that engrossment in poetry is the only, but a sufficient, recompense for the privation of old age” (291). The statement by Lesser depicts the escape from the bondage of time that both Yeats and Keats yearned for.

There is an analogous understanding of the young being associated with being in love. Particularly, the word “sensual” is used in both works to refer to the lifestyle of the young, “the young sensual music”. This could be their interpretation that the young only see the physical, and lack knowledge and interest in the spiritual. So it correlates that, “old age frees a man from sensual passion, he may rejoice in the liberation of the soul” (Lesser 293). There is an element of being forever young that is captured in Keats’ Grecian Urn: “fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave”. The young that inhabit on the urn are frozen in a constant state of immaturity, but also in the wiles and excitements of youth. Youth is associated with carefree days of love. Yeats’ speaker regards the young, as a distant onlooker with a sense of regret and envy. There is an idyllic romanticism that is incorporated in both Yeats’ and Keats’ work, which portrays the young to be in love and associated with tree, animals or music, “the young/ in one another’s arms, birds in the trees”. The world that Yeats’ speaker is seeing is just for the young and this is similar to young lovers on the urn. In their small world everyone is young and in love. In another insight, “Keats humorously addresses the ever-pursuing lover, noting the paradox of eternal anticipation, but in the third stanza Keats shifts his tone and imagines a love of eternal ecstasy, unqualified by the static character of the marble figures” (Austin 434). Austin’s commentary is recognition of the depth to which the belief in youth’s preoccupation with love and permanence (“eternal ecstasy”), though illusive, is explored.

Keats and Yeats believe that the flaw of human nature is that time is in effect. This is conveyed in the tragic inevitability of aging and death. They seek escape in the aesthetic permanence of art’s transcendent beauty as well as in the optimism of existential importance. In aging there is the idea they both appreciate in which time can be slowed, yet still be happening. Keats refers to a character on the urn being a “foster-child of Silence and slow time”. In Yeats’ work the phrase “of what is past, or passing, or to come” is a representation of time. This sums up what they both hope to achieve. It is the magical balance of being able to exist forever, from the past till the future, yet to remain as in the present moment. Going further than the idea of just a physical or permanent object in which they strive for, is what it represents. Although the popular belief is that they both wanted to be objects of permanence, their goal is one of more existential importance (emphasis).

Immortality, the permanence of art compared to the fleeting nature of life, for each poetic speaker, is an achievement. In Yeats’ poem it is exemplified by, “my bodily form from any natural thing, /But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling”. It seems very superficial and odd for Yeats’ speaker to desire to be a golden creation rather than human, but looking further, it is not about the gold itself. It is about the speaker being able to be an expression of art for all ages. The use of the immortality is for the good of others “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake; or set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium”. In a sense, art is elevated to the supernatural. It is elevated to a place of the divine that can reach people of all eras and times. This is also seen on the urn: “the fair youth piping songs beneath the trees, since he is of unknown place and unknown time, may be regarded as the artist poet or musician – of any place and time” (Wigod 114). Keats’ speaker marvels at the power the Grecian urn holds. Although cold and silent the urn provokes thought and makes one wonder “thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” These powers that immortal artworks hold are what the poetic speakers want to achieve. They want the power to cause wonder and provoke thought for eternity as well as be of positive relevance for all time.

From the achievement of immortality comes transcendent beauty. In Keats’ poem the speaker lays the famous phrase “beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. This phrase ponders the relationship between the sensory experience of beauty and the intellectual understanding of truth (Han 245). It declares a universal truth that is transcendental. It can be seen that, “Keats dramatizes the idea that imaginative perception reveals the truth of eternity” (Austin 434). For the speakers it is as if the transcendent beauty is the realization that the works are not mere object, they are “effigies, or monuments, things which have souls” (Lesser 293). For Yeats, there is excitement for the beautiful future in an ethereal sense; this is represented by Byzantium. Yeats emphasizes the transition from mortality “dying animal” to “artifice of eternity”. The speaker hopes to rid himself of human limitation and become the surpassing beauty that is contained in an artifice.

In conclusion, there are remarkable similarities in style and ideas in W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”. Their style in using the literary elements imagery and metaphor as narrative tools, achieve their desire to provide effective communication between their speakers and audience. The ideas of aging, the concept of time, the permanence of time relative to the fleeting nature of life, convey immortality as an achievement. Furthermore, the celebration of aesthetic permanence as transcendent beauty and the mourning of the effect of time – mankind’s tragic flaw – are explored in both these poems by Yeats and Keats. Just as their last names are interestingly similar in their sound and rhyme, so also are their imageries, metaphors and concepts in these poems. “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” share a common message – the nature of humans to want one’s impact to survive through time.

Work Cited

Austin, Allen . “Keats’s Grecian Urn and the Truth of Eternity.”College English. (1964): 434-436. Web.

Han, Kyoung-Min. “The Urn’s “Silent Form”: Keats’s Critique of Poetic Judgment.” Papers on Language & Literature. Vol. 48.Issue 3 (2012): p245-268. Web.

Lesser, Simon O.. “Sailing to Byzantium”-Another Voyage, Another Reading.” College English. Vol. 28.No. 4 (1967): pp. 291-296+301-310. Web.

Wigod, Jacob D.. “Keats’s Ideal in the Ode on a Grecian Urn.”PMLA. Vol. 72.No. 1 (1957): pp. 113-121. Print.

1098210_10201543946777682_673889946_nFavour Onwuka has been writing for as long as she can remember. Her vivid imagination as a child, led her to easily dream up fanciful stories. Favour is currently 18 years old, and is a 2nd year Communications major and Psychology minor, at Trinity Western University.

If you read the Bible with no authority other than your love of story and your lack of “judgment” (meaning without the lust to prove yourself justified by an authority), it opens up to you like the long love between you and an old family member–like the way my heart opened up to my grandmother. In real peace, there is room for ferocity. In real feeling, there is room for contradiction. God instructs the heart not by certainties but by pains and contradictions. The Bible is full of pains and contradictions.

Because I read the Bible and knew the story of Ruth, I knew how wonderful and brilliant Keats had been to yoke himself to that long ago figure standing and hearing the nightingale “amid the alien corn.” I didn’t have to look the story up, and it had the force for me it had had for Keats: the nightingale’s song was the continuity between myself and an ancient woman who had been the direct ancestor of my lord, Jesus Christ. It was this ability to connect the vast to the intimate that made Keats such a great poet–and he made the connection in one brief, so brief stroke.

Because I knew how Abraham had traveled under a night sky so vast, so glutted with stars and had heard God’s promise, I wept when I first read Mark Twain’s description of Huck and Jim looking up at the night sky and wondering about the origin of the stars, and I was awed by Cervantes when he had Quixote and Sancha under the same sky. My dream was always to retrace the journey of Abraham/Yahweh, Huck/Jim and Quixote/Panza under those same night skies. How would the night speak to me in each journey, over the Spanish plains, in the desert, on the river? I remembered night fishing with my own father, the slow burn of his Chesterfield King and how he warned me about the sharp fin of the catfish. All of this was what Keats moved toward: the collapsing of brevity and eternity.

This afternoon I hung out with Clare as her mom went on some errands. It’s one thing to do constructive activities with your child and another just to hang. She has two teeth now and is very proud of them. We put on the television and hung out on a pillow and I stood her up from time to time to give her practice, and she grabbed my beard and/or chest hair to give it a yank. When her mom came home Clare was asleep with the bottle still in her mouth. What would it be like if we could just hang out someday in Spain and Israel and on the Mississippi and retrace the books–the Bible, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn? The river, the plains, the desert are one–they are where you encounter God and yourself. But the living room is also one, and the porch stoop is also one, and the hoods of parked cars late at night when you are 15 and hanging with friends is one: all of them the place that is sacred, ground set apart.

I want my students to know that this is the ultimate place of learning–this communion of “hang.” The kingdom of hang is like this: you are old or young, or somewhere in the middle and always claiming you are busy and then, some night, without planning, you sit down at the table where brevity and eternity are the same thing–and you hear the nightingale singing inside your own soul–in joy and grief at once, and you know that death hath no dominion– not over this Eucharist, this Eucharist of there–wherever there is, you’ll know, and if you don’t, a thousand years of life will not be enough to teach you.

Primalism: the testing for all aesthetic value wagered on the energies of the primal, the root, the raw, the atavistic, the unconscious, with a corresponding mistrust of the social conventions, the art of the decorative and contrived, and, above all, a dismissal of the thinking faculty save in its aspect as “process of ongoing revery.” A primalist will tend to play down the aphoristic and proverbial didactics of pre-romantic writers, and judge such pre-romantic works for their dynamism, their underlying sexual/political connotations, and their foreshadowing of romantic-modernist concerns. In effect, Shakespeare’s polyglot flights of decorative speech, rather than being loved in and of themselves as word play, will be seen as a slight impediment rather than the chief glory of his work, and the rather conventional, pro-monarchy, pro-triumphalist, mob despising politics of Shakespeare will be “rehabilitated” as it were to fit some process of liberation or revolution which the bard never intended. In effect, the primalist will quarry stones from the quarry of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have even considered picking up. The romantics, being, almost all primalists (exception Keats, and, certainly, John Clare) bequeathed to the decadents, the symbolists, and the first modernists certain tendencies still very much with us. I will note them as follows:

1. The tendency to prefer the abnormative as somehow morally superior to the normal.
2. The tendency to see the pretty at a far remove from the beautiful.
3.The tendency to see in the process of children and so-called “primitives” greater integrity of invention.
4. The tendency to loathe the authoritarian strains of aphorism, the dictum, the dispassionate thought and to replace these with conjecture/ambiguity, equivocation, the strains of transcendence and spiritual uplift especially in the realms of mystery peculiar to mind/body awareness and meditation
6. A bias that anything eastern is superior to the west and can not possibly be subject to the same corruption
7. A belief in the primal and a strong disposition to impose this “value” on women and children (the life force), and the “othered” (Blacks , indians), what I like to call “UGGING” (in reference to the ug language assigned to primitives in movies)..
8. A love/hate relationship to science and the rational
9. Wilderness as divine energy rather than as nemesis, and a belief along with Emerson that all things in nature thunder forth the true moral order. Nothing “natural” or “organic” can be evil since it is the ground zero of all mortal order.( The exact quote from Emerson is “All things in nature thunder forth the ten commandments”).
10. An obsession with both troped of hyper-reality and numbness (torpor, love/death, stupor, decay, languor, enui)

One final attribute I will submit is the most radical change between the late age of reason artists and romanticism/modernism/post-modernism, and for this, I need to borrow some terms from Jung’s personality types (An expansion and more in depth understanding of the four humors as well as the Dionysian/Apollonian binary:

11: A changing of primary and subsidiary functions. Whereas, thought and feeling ( were in the prime position throughout most of literary history, intuition and sensation began to dominate, to assume a larger emphasis in the 19th century and up to the present moment. Emotion belongs to sensation as much as feeling since feeling is, unlike emotion, a cognitive decision, a rationalizing of emotion. In the past, thoughts and feelings were “understood” and extroverted and the decorative devices and supporting functions were sensation (details) and intuition (those little breaches in form that proved the rule). Sensation and intuition at all times served as an agreed upon ground of thought and feeling (Carpe diem, attitudes toward mortality, etc). This gives all of literature before the romantics a far more didactic cast. Shakespeare’s wordplay was so amazing that sensation and intuition often seem to dominate in his plays (not really in his sonnets). Shakeseare’s decorative gifts were so overwhelming that they spilled over the boundaries of thought and feeling they were meant to express. Still, to understand shakespeare as he would have been understood, he was far more didactic, far more “agreed” upon,far more in step with his time than we might like to think. Shakeseare was not a primalist. Ok… so let’s refine number 11:

11. the reversal of the four functions (thought, feeling, intuition, sensation) in terms of priority. sensation and intuition rule and Thought and feeling serve as subsidiary functions. This leads to what I will call the genius of “stupidity.” I see several kinds of stupidity endemic to romatnic/modernist/post-modernist thought: the stupidity of the unknown, the stupidity of the atavistic,the stupidity of sheer process, the stupidity of object/subject confusion, the stupidity of the surreal, the stupidity of the irrational: In effect: the unknown, the atavistic, the process or looping of tropes in terms of self consciousness and collage, the surreal, the abnormative and the insane.

I define stupidity here as meaning :to be stunned, stupefied out of the expected patterns or thought and feeling to the point where there is little or no agreed upon context, and the subjective conscious (or unconscious) dominates.

The most dominant primalist among English poets is Worsdworth. His use of the meditative, confessional lyric as first developed by his friend Coleridge is still the most prevalent force in contemporary poetics. His influence on Emerson was immanence. The romantic who rebelled most successfully against him (Keats) did so only in terms of Wordsworth’s verbal clumsiness, his rather drab and stripped down style. Keats, refusing to divorce the pretty and decorative from the beautiful and integral set the tone for the Walter Pater influenced Aesthetes. They may seem utterly divorced from subsequent modernists, but the difference is merely one of emphasizing the decorative over the supposed substantive and ontological. Lets look at an excerpt from Wordsworth’s Preludes, and then consider how this passage was lifted to create the main guts of the famous poem “A Slumber did my spirit cease: Line 381, of the Preludes, first part:

…I have felt/
not seldom, even in that tempestuous time/
those hallowed and pure motions of the sense
which seem in their simplicity to own
an intellectual charm, that calm delight
which, if I err not, surely must belong
to those first born affinities that fit
our new existence to existing things
and, in our dawn of being, constitute
the bond of union betwixt life and joy.

This is sensibility which Wordsworth insists belongs to the time of “first born affinities”–the affective, irrational, unconscious brain rather than to the rational and cognitive brain. This delight is “calm” as are the strong emotions recollected in “tranquility.” This is the merge point of serenity and passion–and, of course, it must go back to the origins, to our beginnings–sensation and intimation plus mere motion or its utter lack are the prerequisites for the highest intellectual charms in Wordsworth: the atavistic, the infantile, the unformed, the uncontrived, the more or less pre-cognitive state is where all true poetry and art exist (according to Wordsworth). Note his use of pure motion. Pure motion is, in a manner of speaking is no motion at all, but rather unwilled, mere process:

No motion has she now, no force
she neither hears nor sees
rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
with rocks, and stones, and trees.

Sense and senselessness then must be untouched and uncorrupted by cognition or an over privileged thinking toward them–when purified and purged of the inorganic and overly rational, they are the true doors of perception and to the transcendent–to unknow, to go back to a world before thought, before time–to find the primal there that exists for both Wordsworth and even so disaffected seeming a poet as Stevens (whose Irish Cliffs I just gave a nod to).

LMB: You recently defended – for lack of a better word – the use of melodrama in poetics. Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with it?

CF: It’s funny, because I don’t think melodrama itself is the problem; think, for example, of the melodramatics in Keats, in Eliot, in Donne – the first stanza of The Good Morrow is as dramatic as any Lana Del Rey song or Minnis poem. I think the real issue is that people have a problem with feminine melodramatics; it’s why Plath became the poster child for some crass concept of Confessionalism (even though another melodramatic man, Robert Lowell, is really responsible for that whole mess) in spite of the fact that she was a master craftsman and genius of the literary costume.

So, I think it’s a gendered issue more than a simple one of dramatic/not-dramatic. The “problem” with girly melodrama in contemporary poetry has to do less with the gesture and more with the thing against which the dramatic girl or queer of female-identified poet is reacting against. Look back to Freud’s case study of Dora, the classic hysteric: her fits of melodrama made people uncomfortable because it forced them to acknowledge some previous hurt or wrongdoing. It’s easier for people to discount the dramatic female voice in literature as a substanceless performance rather than actually dealing with the issues that would cause someone, say, to want to put together something like Marie Calloway’s Google Docs, or Joyelle McSweeney’s very bratty and dramatic Percussion Grenade – which is all about acting out, being loud, wearing costumes, and throwing a tantrum.

LMB: MY LIFE IS A MOVIE – the title itself – is a good bit melodramatic. People seem to be afraid of too many details; I’ve been told myself that “sparse” is good. Less isn’t more, to me, though. In fact, I think melodrama goes a long way. You detail your work extravagantly; I feel like I am getting wasted and then having my heart ripped out. Did you write this book for you, or for the world?

CF: It is dramatic, and intentionally so. In a lot of ways, this was a way for me to work through the issues I have/had with the label of Confessionalism; A lot of the things in MLIAM actually happened, and that’s why I chose the title. The scene with the Austrian welder and getting lost at Ground Zero, and there’s a bit where a jogger gets hit by a car; I workshopped an early version of this and someone actually said that the getting hit by a car thing felt too contrived and overtly melodramatic, that it seemed as though I had put it there for shock value.

The other thing that’s important to note is that MLIAM came directly out of the co-morbid phenomena of reality TV and child actors. My mom and sister had just started filming Dance Moms: Miami, and I had shot two episodes with them and felt really conflicted about it. I was a professional actress for like the first eleven years of my life; I used to be really ashamed, and kept it secret. In graduate school I decided to “come out” as a former child actress when Johannes [Goransson] made us write these manifestoes in my first graduate workshop, and for the first time I allowed myself to acknowledge how intensely that experience (I mean, it was literally half of my life, at the time) affected my poetics.

Growing up in the film and television industry gave me a really different way of thinking about ideas of framing, narrative, truth, and performativity, I think, and in MLIAM I try to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to live within or in the aftermath of that experience.

LMB: You’ve created The Bratty Poets Series. Is there a certain brattiness in all poets that goes unidentified that you’d like to showcase?

CF: Absolutely, and that’s why I started the series – which is less a “Series” in the traditional sense and more a sort of watering hole around which people might gather when they’re feeling a particular variety of thirst. The thing about brattiness is that it’s sporadic, irrational, sometimes childish, and always right. It has an aesthetic but it also doesn’t exclude any particular aesthetic or camp, it’s cliquey but it’s a quality of every clique, by nature. The Bratty Poets Series, more than anything else, is a way to start breaking down the whole “these cool kids over here, those cool kids over there, these aging hipsters hanging out in Brooklyn, those pretentious hipsters in the Academy” quality of “the scene,” such as it is. It’s a nicely decorated padded room in which poets are totally allowed to have a fit.

LMB: Your book trailer is touchy. In it, I say that men don’t only love women for their breasts, but it’s sure a reason. Why did you choose to record your friends, and how does this relate to MY LIFE IS A MOVIE, aside from the obvious?

CF: MLIAM has two definable locations – the City and the Old West. It’s never really clear which is the real and which is the sur-real, because they’re generally interchangeable terms in this movie. When I moved back to New York this summer I was staying with different friends, all of them poets, I was out of school for the first time in almost ten years, I had one suitcase and a guitar, and I felt this really intense sense of being non-locatable. So the footage I shot during those first weeks when I was back in the City and I was really emotionally in shambles for various reasons were in some ways an effort to create for myself a sense of reality; this is my place, these are my people.

The first video I took was of a poet friend sitting on her couch, on which I was sleeping at the time, smoking a cigarette and crying and talking about how many times she had tried to quit smoking. It was very early in the morning, and all anyone had done so far that day in that apartment was write poems and smoke cigarettes, and the light was really perfect and her sadness was so real and beautiful and happening right then; it was like when you see your favorite painting for the first time and want to keep it with you forever. I had an iPhone and there was this gorgeous thing happening front of me and I thought, people should have access to this. Which is the same thought that’s really at the heart of MLIAM.

LMB: If your poetry were any pop-star, who would it be?

CF: Alanis Morisette. She’s such a brat, and very angsty and melodramatic. She’s also a brilliantly talented technical musician. People tend to not see the latter and just think of her as that heartbroken 90s girl who screams, but she’s way more than that. And my favorite Alanis Morisette song is Unsent, which is absolutely no one’s favorite Alanis Morisette song. I was eight when it came out, and it was and is very relevant to my life.

LMB: We both just received our MFAs in poetry. There is a lot of talk about uber-Masters and medieval practices and sheer wastes of money. What are your experiences with the system?

CF: I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this, because I believe fully in the ideas of Poetic Lineage, the tradition of an apprentice being shepherded along by a Master, and Feudalistic economies in general. I write about it in an essay on my blog called FEUDALISM IS RAD, and you performed the role of the Idol in my play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY at The Bowery Poetry Club last summer, which was essentially “about” the whole issue of the MFA economy. As far as the MFA itself goes, there are a two things I was told by the person who taught me as an undergrad, and these are some of my personal ultimate truths: don’t pay money to get an MFA, and don’t get an MFA for any other reason than the luxury of two (or three) years during which you have no obligation except to your work.

That being said, once I got to my MFA program (which was amazing, by the way, and certainly not for everyone but I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else) I got very angsty and resentful of the whole thing. I wrote this long allegorical poem called The Princess and The Ivory Tower, which was a very bratty treatise on what I perceived as the injustices of being a young female in a fundamentally broken Academia, during my first semester. That poem really idealizes the sort of Grand Pastoral experience of learning about poetry, which is an exaggeration of my experience as an undergrad, as antithetical to the sorts of masturbatory arguments that can happen in a hyper-theorized context. In retrospect, I’m really glad that such places exist so that arguments, in general, can happen. They need not be “productive,” they need only to continue.

LMB: You write, “I feel so sincere it makes for bad poems” in MY LIFE IS A MOVIE. How does any good poet balance sincerity with craft, and how do you translate the bigness of life into a poem?

CF: That’s the Big Question, isn’t it? Especially with all of the “New Sincerity” vomit all over the internet (to which I’ve admittedly contributed a few bucketfuls). During my aforementioned Grand Pastoral upbringing, my teacher brought two irises into his office when we met to discuss my poem one morning: one was a wild iris, and the other was a hothouse iris. They were both formally excellent examples of an iris, but one had certainly been bred/crafted to have a quality of showiness, whereas the other had more or less just grown. I think the lesson he meant to teach me that day was about the difference between a public and a private poem, but it seems to apply to the sincerity argument, too. Is the hothouse iris less of an iris; is the wild iris less beautiful?

LMB: Your life/poems is/are a Lynch film. Which one?

CF: Actually, I totally can’t watch David Lynch films. And I don’t like Twin Peaks. I’ve tried, and I just can’t – but I get why other people are into it. My life/poems are a Meg Ryan romantic comedy, or one of those movies in which Drew Barrymore fucks everything up and still gets the boy.

Carina Finn is a poet, playwright, and multimedia artist. She is the author of I HEART MARLON BRANDO, which was published in a limited screenprint edition in 2010 by Wheelchair Party Press. Her play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY, premiered at The Bowery Poetry Club, and THIRTEEN WAYS OF BREAKING was workshopped and premiered thanks to the generosity of the Film, Television, & Theatre department at The University of Notre Dame. She a graduate of Sweet Briar College, has an MFA in poetry from Notre Dame, lives in New York City, and blogs at www.ladyblogblah.wordpress.com

Birds of Lace is a feminist press founded & edited by Gina Abelkop. Born in 2005 and currently based in Berkeley, CA, Birds of Lace publishes the literary and arts journal Finery as well as chapbooks by emerging writers. Recent releases include Jason Helm’s Fetish, Carrie Murphy’s Meet the Lavenders, Leon Baham’s Ponyboy Sigh, and Anna Joy Springer’s debut novella The Birdwisher.


In the beginning of “Ode To A Nightingale,” Keats writes “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.” Some ninety years later, Eliot begins the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Eliot begins with the imperative: “Let us go.” Yet “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, is the antithesis of the imperative. Eliot’s mock epic tone is further compounded by the speaker’s knowledge of his inconsequence. He is so inconsequential that he can not even fully rise to the occasion of a clown. Keats, for all the passivity of the speaker (he lies in drowsy numbness, listening to the immortal bird) is about the mystical oxymoron of passivity as pure action—to die into eternal life, to sleep in the immortal song. A lot changed in those 90 years between these two wonderful poems.

Hemlock is a poison, the one Socrates drank. Ether, in 1909, was the anesthesia used to prepare patients for surgery. The romantics were fascinated with states of torpor, the irrationality of dream states, with trance, altered consciousness, the whole itinerary of being out of one’s rational mind–all reason suspended for the sake of the sublime. The modernists do not escape this fascination, but, for them, torpor is expressed in the anti-mystical tropes of keeping busy at inconsequence. Man is not asleep in order to receive divinity. Rather, divinity has become etherized, and man lives under the scenic terms of this enervation.

Keats is willing to die in order to enter into communion with the nightingale. In point of fact, he makes no secret that he must die in order to be born into the world of night–the poesis of the Nightingale’s voice. He must drink the dull o[iate “to the drains.” This nightingale is timeless, the same bird Ruth listened to over two thousand years before “amid the alien corn.”To journey into the underworld “lethe-wards,” to hold covenant with the immortal, one must “die.” Abraham, when he receives the covenant from Yahweh, is put into a trance state, and the power of Yahweh moves through the severed animal parts, and ignites the holocaust. Abraham takes no active part.

This is standard operating procedure in matters of the transcendent, and the sublime. Something happens—some aspect of the supernatural or immortal visits and is “received”
Passively–in a state of trance, of “drowsy numbness.” (think the limp hand of Adam receiving the divine spark of God the father in Michelangelo’s painting of the creation). One becomes inanimate, dead in the mortal sense, for the purpose of being reanimated as it were into the sublime. As Kenneth Burke pointed out, heaven and the eternal can be viewed as laudatory terms for death—a state of stasis, an end to history and movement. Using the Benthamite tri-partite registers we can express it as such:

Laudatory: Heaven, eternity, the immortal, the sublime, all breathing human passion far above
Neutral: death, stasis, suspension
Dislogistic: decadence, listlessness, decay, rot, uselessness, super fluidity, seediness

In the presence of the sublime, one mimics the death-like quality of the eternal. One becomes a fitting scene for the entrance of the gods. Prufrock, on the other hand, is anything if not busy. The roles are reversed. God (the pervasive presence of evening) is asleep, and Prufrock is loathe to wake him. After all, that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? The poem is full of frenetic activities that have almost a Marx Brothers mania to them: the women come and go, there are countless visions and revisions, possible seductions that do not take place, self conscious concerns with thinning hair, a sort of manic pettiness. Even when Prufrock receives the vision and song of the mermaids, it is the one time he is almost sure of something: “I do not think that they will sing to me”( he has heard them sing to each other–a sort of mythic upgrade of the women coming and going and chatting about Michelangelo, a mythic upgrade that fails to raise the stakes, and, rather, transforms the mermaids into a bunch of self-involved society women) He has eavesdropped on the mermaids and they are no more concerned with him than the women who come and go. When he lingers in the chambers of the sea, he is not awaked by the voice of gods, but by human voices: “Till human voices wake us and we drowned.”

In Prufrock’s universe then, meaningless social acts, the art of keeping busy has taken the place of a truly relational myth–a myth by which the eternal can fully infect the mortal with an aspect of consequence, and the terms of the mortal be raised to the level of eternity. The future is full of possibility which never comes to fruition: “In a minute there is time/for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Eliot alludes to Macbeth’s “There would have been time for words such as these.” He also implies: “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but, in this case, fury has become niggling complaint and fretting, in short, the bangless whimper of the superfluous man, a man who knows he is superfluous (I am no Hamlet) and yet is loathe to change.

To be nothing is no barrier to mystical experience. Keats’s speaker is brought to nothing so that eternity may enter. In point of fact, it is necessary in mystical terms to become “nothing.” To be “a little something, but not really that at all” is, in a sense, far worse a fate than nothing: to be the lukewarm, the tepid modern man. In 90 years, a reversal has transpired: one goes to sleep by ceaseless activity, none of which has consequence. For Keats, “sleep” is the true activity of human consciousness. Sleep is the laudatory and transcendent, the pure “act” of man, and in his poem, “Sleep and Poetry,” Keats, by going to sleep, eats his peach:

And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces–
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite.

Both Eliot and Keats play with the mystical oxymoron of sleep as wakefulness, and wakefulness as sleep, but Eliot’s Prufrock wakens only to drown. The speaker in “Ode To A Nightingale” asks: “Do I wake or sleep?” But whereas “Ode To A Nightingale” is a poem in which the mortal tastes of the immortal, and permanence/impermanence share true relation, Love Song” is a poem of very social non-relation. Stuff happens ( or is always on the verge of happening), but it is not even enough to amount to nothing. It is, rather, a little something, but not even exactly that: “That is not it at all.” One thing and then another happens, or almost happens, and none of it is of consequence. The evening which lies inert, enervated, put to sleep, can no more infect the speaker with cosmic import, then ‘talk of Michelangelo can raise the women above the level of social chit chat: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock is not only an attempt at anti-romanticism, but anti-mysticism as well. Prufrock can not sit still, but he can not move either—except through all the petty tropes of the social construct .Both poems begin with a simulation of death, of a state of numbness. To enter night is to enter a sort of living death, a state of unconsciousness, of altered consciousness. But the speaker in Prufrock remains fully awake to the trivial, and even his fear of being trivial becomes a fashionable fear of inconsequence. No mystical union of the mortal and the eternal takes place. There is no covenant except with distraction and inconsequence. Eliot projects this numbness then onto the cosmos itself. It is the scenic ground zero of all that occurs. If the evening is etherized, it invokes the sense of an impending surgical procedure. Although this procedure would seem to take place upon a living evening, it is, in reality a post mortem—an autopsy. The romanticism of night and death is muted, blasphemed against by turning away from the romantic tropes of night toward a sort of clinical image repertoire. This blaspheming against the romantic via the clinical is furthered during the whole of the poem by the sense that, whatever the operation is, it is most certainly botched.

Keats’s poem is relational: mortal poet and immortal bird, each infecting the other with their own qualities—the bird becoming poetry, and the poet becoming the sublime forlorn. Eliot’s poem, for all its insistence on a “you and I” is non-relational. It is all about the failure to enter into true relationship, to receive a covenant. Worse still, Prufrock clings to his inconsequence since it is the one thing he can be sure of. Forlorn in his case becomes always a dividend and mild sense of disappointment.

Eliot would seek many years later to remedy the impossibility of the modern sublime by returning to a sort of arch-conservative faith, yet, even in his late poems of faith, there is a contingent sense of alienation. One may be social, seedy, indulge in the questions of whether or not to eat a peach, but no true relation is possible. Eliot’s “love song” is all about emotional paralysis—the impossibility of “forcing the moment to its crisis.” Keats’s Nightingale is all about entering fully into the crisis of the mortal creature who can intuit immortality, but who must remain tied to the ephemeral. The mystical oxymoron of the immortal within the transient, and the transient within the immortal is still valid. Lament still has its significance. The great crisis in Eliot’s poem is that there is no crisis, only the awful, soul enervating experience of a trivial and seedy urbanity. The voice of the poem insists “there will be time” (an allusion to Macbeth’s: “There would have been time for words such as these: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace)” This is not a statement of hope, but of ennui.

What draws these poems together is simulation of death-states in relation to the afflatus of night and song—of rising or sinking to the occasion. In Keats’s universe, the sublime is still possible. In Eliot’s, the sublime has become a form of Bovarism. Keats’s speaker can enter the apostrophic absurd. The poet can address an immortal bird. Absurdity maintains its gravitas. By the time of Prufrock, the absurd has been reduced to a sort of radical and self-aware ineffectuality. Eliot’s mastery of pastiche, of irony, of the anti-romantic and anti-mystical left succeeding poets in a bind. Prufrock is a great poem, but Eliot’s great poem is based on the tropes of greatness being dead. Williams saw Eliot as retrograde, a mere rehash of late 19th century agnosticism, and the British stanzas. Hart Crane, a worshipper of Eliot’s technique, rebelled against the loss of the sublime, against the nihilism of Eliot by answering with his long poem, “The Bridge.” In Benthamite terms, Keats raises the absurd to sublimity. If the neutral term is the absurd, Eliot lowers the absurd to the level of the pedestrian and vapid. Lament becomes pathos. This may have been useful as a corrective to bad remakes of “Dover Beach,” but as a fashion, it had no staying power, and for a good thirty years it did become the fashion. Auden was saturated with it. Once you have torn down all the idols, being comfortably inane and sad over your tea and toast makes for a dangerous poetics. In the hands of lesser writers it led to a sort of witty and gimmicky sense of enervation and despair. The seediness of Eliot’s industrial landscape gives way to the hard boiled detective novel and, worse, the “my aren’t we empty? Tennis anyone?” Sort of drawing room comedy. Still A great poem can not be faulted for having a destructive effect. But if Samuel Johnson is right, Keats’s great poem is the greater for its moral force. To attack the tired tropes of transcendence is of great value. To affirm the core truths of existence is greater still. I admire both poems and count them among my favorites, but, if forced to choose, I choose Keats.

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.)


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:

  1. They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
  2. 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:

  1. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras).  Yeats couldn’t have said it better
  2. “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.

—Bill Wadsworth

I probably should state right off the bat that I am not a philosopher by trade. If I mess up philosophical terms and definitions, feel free to correct me. I tend to have a more intuitive approach to philosophy, rather than a systematic one. Thus, I tend to explain things by analogy. I recognize the limits of this, but I hope, nonetheless, to contribute to real discussion. Also, I am skipping ahead in Grossman significantly, past the discussions with Halliday, about halfway into Summa Lyrica. I am doing this because last week I read the passage “‘I’ in the Lyric” and was excited by Grossman articulating something I have been trying to articulate for a long time.

In this passage it seems that Grossman is attacking the idea of “otherness.” I recognize that many philosophers and critics have used the term “other” to mean many different things. Everyone from Hegel, to Husserl, to Pope Benedict have used the term to describe entities that are not the subjective self. I am mostly familiar with this term through the work of Edward Said, whose vision of post-colonialism was heavily pushed by several professors at Binghamton University, where I did my undergraduate. I initially recognized the term “other” to be a handy way to say “not me.” It also seemed to capture the sense of alienation that can exist between the self and some other object/subject.

By my senior year, however, I was quite uncomfortable with the binary of self and other because it seemed to carry the connotation of an uncrossable gulf between persons. Now, there is undeniably a gulf in many senses: you cannot make a choice for me, for example. But does that mean that another person is inaccessible to us in a meaningful way? I tend not to think so. So, you can imagine my happiness when I read the following passage from Grossman:

Consciousness of self is only possible if experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address….Here we see a principle whose consequences are spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me….It is a polarity [of persons], moreover, very peculiar in itself, as it offers a type of opposition whose equivalent is encountered nowhere else outside of language. This polarity does not mean either equality of symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible. If we seek a parallel to this, we will not find it. The condition of man in language is unique.

And so the old antinomies of “I” and “the other,” of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term…. It is in a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.

In the margins I scribbled, “*** Grossman demolishes “the other” yay!!!”

In short, Grossman is positing that any concept of subject is impossible without another subject. And not only this, but this relationship is defined by a reversible I-You, not the static self-other. Admittedly, many powerful people have tried to break this I-You. I believe it was Buber who talked about I-it dialogue (in which, I think, there can be no echo, no reversibility) as opposed to I-Thou dialogue.

I guess at the end of the day, my quibble is not with the word “other” but rather with the idea that persons are opposed in such a way that they are fundamentally alienated beings. I just don’t buy that. We are relational beings, with things that inter-est (literally, it is between) us both. This relationship could not exist unless there were some fundamental assumption about that “other” person (namely, they are a person, like us). This belief, whether we admit it or not, is a fundamental assumption with every form of discourse.

I believe acknowledging this is important; I believe it frees us in important ways. We are not gripped with the anxiety that we are the only self, among alien others that we hope are selves (but are not sure). No, we are in a relationship, and therefore, discourse is possible. The solipsistic idea of discourse with an alien other denies its own terms of possibility.

It also frees us from the desire to become one with the other, I think. When we are gripped with that anxiety, like a person drowning, we grasp desperately; we are in the pit of loneliness. This, of course, is impossible and futile (and the basis of co-dependency). However, if we recognize that we are persons who are able to engage in discourse because the relationship already exists, we are much more free to explore the capacities of that relationship.

OK…so, what’s the connection with poetry? Good question. This ended up more of a rant. I do think there is something to be said about the position we speak from as poets (and artists in general). For Grossman, the lyric, the speaking mode of the subject who is “overheard,” is based in a community of discourse (not to imply other communities could be “other”). There is no sovereign speaker. We all take on some mantle (Grossman connects this with the idea of inspiration).

Incidentally, the ideas in this post might have some interesting connection with Adam’s first post on Keat’s disputed Ode. How is address to the urn possible if the urn is not a person? Is address different than discourse?

Hopefully this all adds up to something…As always, feel free to tweak, commend, denounce in the comment section. I probably need it.

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:

Poet laureate Robert Bridges sparked the debate when he argued:

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.[47]

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.”[47] 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.[48]

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.[49]

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.”[50]

Cleanth Brooks defended the lines from critics in 1947 and argued:

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.[51]

M. H. Abrams responded to Brooks’s view in 1957:

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.[52]

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.


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.

Alfred Corn

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.

Don Share

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.

Frances Whistler

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

Dara Wier

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.

Richard Zenith

“Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore.”

—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory


Miss Romano’s fourth grade class was gathered on the rough green carpeting listening to a small blonde girl with a turned up nose recite from memory “I Hate Homework” by Shel Silverstein.

The year was 1993. The place was Floris Elementary in Northern Virginia. I was dressed entirely in black.

As the little cherub was finishing, “Homework oh homework you’re last on my list. / I simply don’t see why you even exist,” I stood up, indicating my readiness to Romano with the stoicism of a samurai readying for battle. The cherub finished. The class applauded mechanically and hushed.

“Yes, Sarah? You’re ready?”

“Yes,” I said to Romano, that pedagogical twerp, “I am ready.”

I made my way through the clustered crowd of quiet cross-legged tots. As I stood before them, I took an audibly deep breath, almost a pained hysterical sigh. Then, I began.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visiter,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’”

Was anyone ever so young?


Well, yes. I was nine years old and had memorized my first bit of poetry for Miss Romano’s recitation assignment. (I only did the first five stanzas—to do the entire thing would have been, well, freakish.)

Meanwhile, the context was this: My parents were in the middle of their divorce. They were in and out of the courtroom, it seemed, on a constant rotation for one thing or another, and I would miss, that year, 48 days of school due to severe anxiety that made me, literally, sick to my stomach. So, not only was I hardly ever present for Miss Romano’s class—when I was, I was reciting morose verse to my highly impressionable classmates. Miss Romano didn’t seem pleased.

Back then, everything and everyone around me was shifting. The room I lived in would change in a few months. People, a house, and belongings would be lost. But I could live a while in those first stanzas of “The Raven,” and Poe, unchanging, was with me and would—with “each silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”—always be.


Since then, I’ve memorized a number of other poems, from Wyatt to Hopkins to Berryman to Marie Howe. And just last week, I memorized another poem in which, like “The Raven,” a dark bird plays a large role: Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” an appropriate inauguration into my 25th year.

While I was working on memorizing the ode (The best approach for memorizing lengthy poems, I think, is doing one stanza in the morning and one stanza at night), I was also—probably like many others these days—rereading Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. In it, Franny is reading a book, which, at her twerpy boyfriend’s request, she struggles to describe:

“‘I don’t know. It’s peculiar. I mean it’s primarily a religious book. In a way, I suppose you could say it’s terribly fanatical, but in a way it isn’t. I mean it starts out with this peasant—the pilgrim—wanting to find out what it means in the Bible when it says you should pray incessantly. You know. Without stopping. In Thessalonians or someplace. So he starts out walking all over Russia, looking for somebody who can tell him how to pray incessantly. And what you should say if you do.’”

Franny, earlier in the novel, also talks about poetry, or rather, argues with her twerp of a boyfriend about what great poetry should do:

“‘I know this much, is all,’ Franny said. ‘If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings—excuse the expression.’”

I’m still ruminating over these ideas: how prayer relates to memory, and if poetry has taken over the role of prayer for those of us who grew up in religiously convoluted or agnostic households, and how memorizing and repeating language creates a feeling of transcendence.

I know this much, is all: While I was memorizing “Ode to a Nightingale,” its words and rhythms ran through my head all day, like a song, and there was a quality of incessant prayer to it. The mind-space that would normally be taken up by, most likely, quotidian chatter—what I needed to buy at the store, who I needed to email, what the point of doing anything whatsoever is, what would happen if I got hit by a car without health insurance—was replaced with:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Just as Keats fades, dissolves, and forgets the weariness, fever and fret of living while listening to the nightingale’s song, I found myself—on my walk to the bakery for a muffin and coffee, or brushing my teeth at night—dissolving in the music that Keats conjured, and taking such consolation in the sounds that I would feel transformed and would often forget where I was and what I was doing. (“Room for milk in your coffee?” “That I might drink and leave the world unseen!—er…yes, please.”)

But whether you are inclined to think of memorizing poems as a kind of religious act or an exercise in staving off Alzheimer’s, it is invariably a learning experience for anyone attempting to write poetry. By letting someone like Keats inside your head, you, in turn, enter the mind of Keats and, as you memorize each line, you come to a better understanding of the decisions he made while writing, therefore coming to a more complete appreciation of the beautiful things that the poet did. It is the difference between renting a hotel room for a few days in a strange city and owning a mansion in the city middle, from whose windows you can observe the city’s inner workings, into whose rooms (“stanza,” as we know, being the Italian word for “room”) you can wander and sit for hours:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.