≡ Menu


I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.

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

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