"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Poems (1820).
One comes across those lines in one's youth, and one is likely to be enraptured. I know I was. Yet (at least in my hopeless case) it takes a lifetime to feel them. Having at last reached that point, I will not brook any of the usual modern cavils: "What is 'truth'? What is 'beauty'? Everything is relative. How can we 'know' anything?" I will have none of that, thank you. Life is too short.
Thus, I will turn to flowers in a field. And stars.
Where innocent bright-eyed daisies are,
With blades of grass between,
Each daisy stands up like a star
Out of a sky of green.
Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872). The poem is untitled.
One need not limit this lovely image to daisies. The subject of the following passage is daucus carota (commonly known as wild carrot or Queen Anne's lace).
"In the shade of tall oak trees in stately array, an airy nave in which you become calmer as soon as you have stepped across the threshold -- as in a big house.
"You then see white spots slightly wavering, seemingly floating, like flecks of foam scattered here and there, and higher than the dark, vague mass of grass. At the same time, equally vaguely, because things thus seen are vague, you think of ghosts hovering in this shadowy light so favorable to uncertain, unlikely forms of life . . .
"Sparse umbels in the shadows, constellations of sorts that are more familiar, less bright, less cold and especially less fixed than those that could seemingly respond to them from above the trees once the day's beautiful veil has been drawn.
"So I have arrived on the threshold of a kind of grass sky on which seemingly hover within arm's reach -- instead of sharp single stars -- fragile little galaxies that are floating, nearly weightless, and white just like milk or like sheep's wool when it stays snagged on gorse in the Breton islands."
Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Daucus, or Wild Carrot," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 209.
Hans Wilt, "Spring in Wienerwald" (1909)
Rossetti's stars in a sky of green and Jaccottet's galaxies hovering above the dark floor of a grove of oaks are "all ye need to know." No further comment is necessary. It would be the height of folly to say: "Rossetti's poem is lovely because . . ." Nothing can be added by saying: "Jaccottet's passage is wonderful because . . ." One of the besetting illnesses of the modern world is the compulsion to "explain" and "explicate" everything. We don't know when to leave well enough alone.
My acquaintance with the image of flowers as stars began with the following poem.
I do not see the hills around,
Nor mark the tints the copses wear;
I do not note the grassy ground
And constellated daisies there.
I hear not the contralto note
Of cuckoos hid on either hand,
The whirr that shakes the nighthawk's throat
When eve's brown awning hoods the land.
Some say each songster, tree, and mead --
All eloquent of love divine --
Receives their constant careful heed:
Such keen appraisement is not mine.
The tone around me that I hear,
The aspects, meanings, shapes I see,
Are those far back ones missed when near,
And now perceived too late by me!
Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).
I cannot recall when I first read the poem. But the phrase "constellated daisies" has always stayed with me. In one sense it is merely a passing image that is used in service of the overall theme of the poem. But, if you spend enough time with Hardy's poems, you come to realize that small images such as these account for a great deal of the wondrousness of his poetry. Over the years, scores of them accumulate within your mind. Unexpectedly and unaccountably, they float up long after you first read them, for who knows what reason. Well, Beauty and Truth, I suppose.
Carl Stolz, "Meadow with Flowers" (1939)
A good poem (or any good work of art) brings us back to the world. It prompts us to take a fresh look at things. This fresh look encompasses both human and natural particulars. These particulars are not always lovely and cheerful -- poetry is not mere escapism -- but, in the hands of a good poet, they bring us into the presence of Beauty and Truth.
"Beauty: scattered like a seed, at the mercy of the winds, the storms, not making a sound, often lost, always destroyed; but still it blossoms haphazardly, here, there, fed by shadows, by the funereal earth, welcomed by profundity. Weightless, fragile, almost invisible, apparently without force, exposed, abandoned, surrendered, obedient -- it binds itself to what is heavy, immobile; and a flower blooms on the mountainside. It is. It persists against noise, against folly, unwavering amidst blood and malediction, in life that cannot be assumed, cannot be lived. Thus the spirit moves in spite of everything, inevitably ridiculous, unrewarded, unconvincing. . . .
"I've said it a hundred times: I am left with almost nothing; but it's like a very narrow gate through which we must pass and nothing indicates that the space beyond it is not as vast as we have imagined. It is only a matter of passing through the gate and of it not swinging shut for ever."
Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for March, 1962, in Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), pages 57-59.
This prose passage is followed by an untitled poem:
Let silent grief
At least brood on this last chance
Let this utmost misery
Harbour the chance of flowers.
Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Ibid, page 59.
Mind you, the purpose of poetry (and of art in general) is not to edify or to instruct. This is why, for instance, "political poetry" is not poetry. I return to a Buddhist piece of wisdom which has appeared here in the past: we mustn't forget that a good poem (or any good work of art) is merely a finger pointing at the moon.
Tina Blau (1845-1916), "On the Schleissheimerstrasse"
But all this talk of Beauty and Truth, Truth and Beauty, means nothing outside of the larger context: "How to Live. What to Do." (To borrow the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens.) Once again, Keats is our guide.
"Call the world if you please 'The vale of Soul-making.' Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it)."
John Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats (February 14 - May 3, 1819), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 249-250. A side-note: Keats wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in May of 1819, the same month in which the letter was posted. This particular passage was written sometime between April 21 and April 30, 1819.
The phrase "the vale of Soul-making" receives a great deal of attention, and rightfully so. It is a marvelous thing. But the passage that immediately follows the two sentences quoted above deserves our attention as well.
"I say 'Soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence -- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions -- but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception -- they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God -- how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them -- so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this?"
John Keats, Ibid, page 250.
"How, but by the medium of a world like this?" Wonderful. Yet I harbor no illusions: this world contains evil, ugliness, falsity, pain, and sorrow. We experience them every day. But withal it is a world of Beauty and Truth.
A world of flowers and of stars.
The stars are everywhere to-night,
Above, beneath me and around;
They fill the sky with powdery light
And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;
For where the folded daisies are
In every one I see a star.
And so I know that when I pass
Where no sun's shadow counts the hours
And where the sky was there is grass
And where the stars were there are flowers,
Through the long night in which I lie
Stars will be shining in my sky.
Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).
Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)