Truth Beauty

1 August 2014

‘…truth beauty…’ – this is the second half. The first is: ‘Beauty is truth.’ So again, or still – Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – and the rest: ‘that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’1 Thus a poem about truth and beauty, and beauty and truth, knowledge and need, mortality and friendship, the Greeks and us, urns and poetry – among other things.

Or is it? For could it be that we have missed something? Maybe even something staring us straight in the face? And for two hundred years or more? So, what have we been missing?

Beauty is truth, but truth is not beauty. Keats does not write: truth is beauty. Obviously he could have, but he need not – because being is implied: ‘truth beauty’ means ‘truth is beauty’. Or does it? And if he did not use the little word ‘is’ in the second sentence, why not?

Because if Keats wrote ‘truth is beauty’, being would not be implied. It would be present, there in front of us, in the text, stuck between truth and beauty. This is what we have missed: the ‘is’, that which is to be, i.e., being. We have been missing that being is not present, not there, the fact that ‘is’ is only implied, or only an implication; as well as how so, how being could be something that would not come to presence and present itself – or more precisely, if the ‘how’ is determinative for the ‘that’, then how being is implied is what allows it to be that which it is, an implication.

Here then is the poem, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’:

1.

THOU still unravish’d 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-fring’d 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 loth?
  What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
    What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
 

2.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
  Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
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,
    For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
 

3.

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
  Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
  For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
  For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
    For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
  That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
    A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


4.

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 drest?
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.
 

5.

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.

So this is what Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is on about: being. It is about the little word ‘is’ that is not there nor not-there, neither present nor absent. Indeed, the entire poem builds up to this line: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. We must wait for it. But when it comes, it is not there – where being is supposed to be, it is not. But nor is there simply nothing there – for being is also not absent from ‘truth beauty’; it is it not not-there, but just implied.

And the thesis of the poem – if we may speak of a thesis – is that being is implied. Or more precisely: being is not what has been thought in the Western tradition (a tradition dominated by the history of philosophy as metaphysics) as a thing or substance, matter or form, attribute or quality, particular or universal, God or totality, transcendent or transcendental ‘concept’, ego or mind; it is not just a word or idea, nor simply essence or existence, nor some kind of permutation or combination thereof; nor is it an illusion or nothing at all, nihil negativum; nor is it truth or beauty or anything else – it is an implication.

  1. John Keats Collection (1814-1891), Houghton Library, Harvard University; common place book of R. Woodhouse: transcripts of unpublished poems (MS Keats 3.2). On textual history, see J.D. Wigod, ‘Keats’s Ideal in the Ode on a Grecian Urn’, PMLA, 72 (March 1957), p. 118; and J. Stillinger, ‘Keats’s Grecian Urn and the Evidence of Transcripts’, PMLA, 73 (September 1958), pp. 447-448.
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