Beauty Is Truth

What's this bit about "beauty is truth"? Is it true--or is is just poetry?

Keats portrait It's from a poem, "Ode On A Grecian Urn," written by John Keats in May, 1819, when he was about 24. The urn is apparently decorated with a picture of a youth playing a flute in a pastoral setting and a young man chasing a young woman around the urn. She may well wish him to catch her--but the important thing is that on the urn, the music is silent and the chase, perpetual.

And of course, it's worth remembering here that the function of an urn is to hold for eternity the ashes of the dead.

Keats' tracing of an urnThe poem begins with some questions about the figures pictured on the urn, then moves to this statement: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter. . . . / Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss. . . . / Forever wilt thou love and she be fair!"

The poem ends with these lines, apparently addressed to the urn itself:

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.
The words in question--"beauty is truth"--appear to be uttered by the urn, as if it were some sort of oracle--or maybe in the way a shell speaks for the sea when you hold it to your ear.

Unfortunately, the quotation marks appeared in the first published edition, in 1820, but not in any of five other reproductions of the poem made in that year. So no one seems to know now whether the quoted words are spoken by the urn and the rest by Keats or a persona, or whether the persona speaks all of the words. Nor is there much agreement as to whether the lines express a universal truth--or are just poetic blather.

Keats himself apparently never explained his intentions. He died of tuberculosis in 1821, only about eight years after beginning his career as a poet. The portrait below was made shortly before he died.

Keats portrait--near his death


Oh, one more thing:  The predecessor to this web page is a sheet of paper on my college office door bearing a picture of a Grecian urn and the last two lines of Keats' poem--"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  There's also my own question, "Is this so--or is it just poetry?"

I taped the paper to my door around 1990, after learning that several of my English department colleagues had lied to destroy another teacher's reputation and had falsified official college records and perjured themselves in a lawsuit.  Over the years the paper has been on my door, a number of persons have added their own comments, some ugly, some lovely.  My favorite of all is one where the contributor crossed out my word "poetry" and wrote in "pottery."  Terrific!

(You know, beauty is skin deep, but lovely comes from the heart.  How could it be other than true?)
 





Several other notable personages have made pronouncements about truth and beauty. Here are a few I've found interesting or amusing.

First, let's have a few equations that may be axiomatic:
 

Beauty = Truth

Knowledge = Power

Less = More

God = Love

The shortest distance between two points = a straight line

And by commutation:           Truth = Beauty           (yes??? if so, what about the others?)

Next, a conundrum of sorts:

"The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound statement."
--Niels Bohr (Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations, New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1977, 500.)
Compare that with this, which I heard in an episode of the PBS biography of Robert Oppenheimer. (I'm not positive I've got it verbatim, but pretty sure of the terms"shallow" and "deep." )
SHALLOW TRUTH--has as its contrary that the opposite is false.
DEEP TRUTH--when true has an opposite which may also at least in part be true.
Bohr and Oppenheimer were physicists. Their work was important in developing the atomic bomb. :
 
 

Now for a few others' ideas:

"The truth is more important than the facts."
--Frank Lloyd Wright (Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations, New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1977, 500.)
"Facts are the enemy of truth."
--Spoken by Don Quixote, in the Broadway musical A Man of La Mancha, by Dale Wasserman.
"I never give them hell. I just give them the facts and they think it's hell."
--Harry S Truman (Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations, New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1977, 500.)
"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
--Buckminster Fuller (Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations, New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1977, 37.)
"Truth exists, only falsehood has to be invented."
--Georges Braque, Penses sur l'Art.
"The truth is a matter of perception."
--William Ginsburg (Monica Lewinsky's lawyer), TV interview, May or June 1998.

--Joseph Light
(This Image is linked to a series of photos belonging to Blues World Music.  The "I" in them is the owner.  Click on the white square in one to get the next.  If a link doesn't work, change the page number manually in the browser's Location dialog.  There are 8 pages in the series.)



I think Walt Whitman, who probably had the grandest vision of all poets writing in English, should get the last word on this subject.

             All truths wait in all things,
             They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,
             They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon.
             The insignificant is as big to me as any,
             What is less or more than a touch?
             Logic and sermons never convince,
             The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.
             Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,
             Only what nobody denies is so.

                 --"Song of Myself," lines 647-655.


Ah, but wait.  Emily Dickinson had a caution about how to advise others of your truth:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --




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