Sunday, July 1, 2018

Beauty

When all is said and done, Keats is exactly right:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

A great deal of critical ink has been spilled over those two lines.  At the outset, there is a textual question as to whether the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks, or only the first clause: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  This question is related to the issue of whether the lines (or the first clause, depending upon where the quotation marks are placed) are spoken by the urn or by the poet. The predominant view is that the lines are spoken by the urn, and that the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks.

The remainder of the spilt ink relates to the meaning of the two lines, both on their own, and within the context of the entire poem.  In her edition of Keats's poems, Miriam Allott summarizes the conflicting views as follows:

"Opinions about the meaning of the beauty-truth equivalent and its relevance to the rest of the poem can be roughly divided as follows: (1) philosophically defensible but of doubtful relevance ([John Middleton] Murry); (2) a 'pseudo-statement,' but emotionally relevant (I. A. Richards); (3) expressing the paradoxes in the poem and therefore dramatically appropriate ([Cleanth] Brooks); (4) meaningless and therefore a blemish (T. S. Eliot); (5) an over-simplification, but attempting a positive synthesis of the oppositions expressed in the poem (F. W. Bateson); (6) emotionally and intellectually relevant when properly understood, but 'the effort to see the thing as Keats did is too great to be undertaken with pleasure' ([William] Empson)."

Miriam Allott (editor), The Poems of John Keats (Longman 1970), page 538.

Well, yes, of course T. S. Eliot would say that the statement "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem."  In partial defense of Eliot (only partial) he follows up with a qualification of sorts:  "and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."  (T. S. Eliot, "Dante," in Selected Essays (Harcourt, Brace and Company 1950), page 231.)  As one who is fond of Eliot's poetry and his critical writings, I would respectfully suggest another possibility:  (1) Eliot fails to understand the statement and (2) the statement is true.

But I am not here to unwind all of this . . . humbug.  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my fundamental poetical precepts:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Moreover, I am simple-minded and credulous: hence, I take what Keats says at face value.  And what he says accords with my experience of the World and of life.  Nothing more needs to be said.

William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "Bodinnick, Fowey"

Enough of that digression.  Keats's lines appear in this post because they came to mind when I read a poem by Walter de la Mare a few days ago.  The monstrous and passionless existence (I shall not call it "life") that the lines have taken on in the hands of literary critics is nothing but a frolic and a detour (a combination of words I first heard in law school about 35 or so years ago, but which is apt when it comes to the tomfoolery of critics).

Here, then, is the poem that led me to think of "Beauty is truth, truth beauty":

     The Song of the Secret

Where is beauty?
          Gone, gone:
The cold winds have taken it
     With their faint moan;
The white stars have shaken it,
     Trembling down,
Into the pathless deeps of the sea:
          Gone, gone
     Is beauty from me.

The clear naked flower
     Is faded and dead;
The green-leafed willow,
     Drooping her head,
Whispers low to the shade
     Of her boughs in the stream,
          Sighing a beauty --
          Secret as dream.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

One of the many things I like about Walter de la Mare is that, unlike most 20th century poets, he was not afraid to use the word "beauty" in an unironic sense.  It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when "beauty" was a philosophical or a metaphysical concept, not merely an empty word from the worlds of advertising, movies, television, and music.  For example, early in his life, before he began his political career, Edmund Burke wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  ("Sublime": another word that has lost all meaning in our time.)

Granted, "beauty" seems an ethereal, will-o'-the wisp thing in "The Song of the Secret," but that does not make it any less real.  Consider this:

"A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Another poet who has no qualms about using the word "beauty" is de la Mare's friend Edward Thomas.

                              Beauty

What does it mean?  Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now.  And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.'  Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied.  But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me.  Beauty is there.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

In "Beauty," Thomas is unsparing in disclosing the despair and misery (melancholy is not a strong enough word) that dogged him throughout his life.  But he makes clear that the despair and misery are not the whole story.  We know this from the beautiful particulars of the World that appear in his poems.

Yet, although the beautiful particulars are pervasive in his poetry, there is a wraith-like figure beyond them that is ever out of Thomas's reach.  It is, for instance, the song of "The Unknown Bird":  "Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,/Nor could I ever make another hear. . . . As if the bird or I were in a dream./Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes/Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still/He sounded."  There is also the ambiguous female figure in "The Unknown":  "The simple lack/Of her is more to me/Than others' presence,/Whether life splendid be/Or utter black. . . . She is to be kissed/Only perhaps by me;/She may be seeking/Me and no other: she/May not exist."

This is the beauty "secret as dream" of which de la Mare speaks in "The Song of the Secret."  It is Jaccottet's elusive beauty:  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

William Ratcliffe, "Regent's Canal at Hammersmith"

It is appropriate to give the last word to Keats:

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not -- for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love[:] they are all[,] in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 36-37.

William Ratcliffe, "Old Cottage at Worth, Sussex" (1920)

6 comments:

Maggie Emm said...

One of the questions I return to again and again is 'why do we find certain things beautiful, and what makes them beautiful, and what does beauty mean?' It is up there with 'how did our universe begin and where did it come from?' I know the scientific answer is the Big Bang, but how can that have come from nowhere?
I never even approach an answer, and I don't need to, but I love to turn it over in my mind - the magic of life.
There is so much beauty in the world, and lucky are those who can see it.

Anonymous said...

BEAUTY crowds me till I die,
Beauty, mercy have on me!
But if I expire today,
Let it be in sight of thee
--Emily Dickinson, poem # 1654, Johnson edition

Let us all hope that beauty have mercy on us, so overpowering it is, but, too, let us, if we must leave this earth (and we must one day), leave with our last sight that of beauty. Dickinson, like Stevens, can teach us, if we listen, to find the mysterious and infinite and supernal beauty in the quotidian. We look heavenward and hunt for signs; we should, instead, look from our windows and see summer slowly moving toward its foreordained ripeness. Is this not miracle enough?

Wurmbrand said...

I warmly recommend the poetry of Ruth Pitter, now available in what should be a definitive edition. Her preface, "'There Is a Spirit,'" originally the preface to an edition of her collected poems, will resonate with you, and her poems again and again prove themselves worthy of the ideals she expresses there.

http://www.kentstateuniversitypress.com/2017/sudden-heaven/

Here's one of her poems, "Sudden Heaven":

All was as it had ever been--
The worn familiar book,
The oak beyond the hawthorn seen,
The misty woodland's look:

The starling perched upon the tree
With his long tress of straw--
When suddenly heaven blazed on me,
And suddenly I saw:

Saw all as it would ever be,
In bliss too great to tell;
For ever safe, for ever free,
All bright with miracle:

Saw as in heaven the thorn arrayed,
The tree beside the door;
And I must die—but O my shade
Shall dwell there evermore.

Ruth Pitter's work combines masterful craftsmanship with authentic perception of beauty and truth. She really is the real deal. We're all busy, but really her work is worth looking up. There are various editions of her collected poems, one or other of which one might find at a library now if one is shy of spending the money for the book mentioned above. The dust jacket for an early collection, called Urania, is about as beautiful a book cover as I have ever seen.

Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Thank you for sharing those thoughts. I'm less ambitious and inquisitive than you when it comes to provocative and puzzling questions of that sort: I lean more towards Wittgenstein's view (which you have seen me quote numerous times): "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." The older I get, the more inclined I am to simply take it all in, being more and more aware of how quickly it all passes. I think your fine final thought is the starting point and the ending point: "There is so much beauty in the world, and lucky are those who can see it." Our task is to keep open and attentive, which is (speaking for myself) a daily struggle.

It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the apt poem by Dickinson, and for your own observations on the presence of beauty in our lives. "Beauty crowds me till I die,/Beauty, mercy have on me!" Those lines resonate with me: on my daily walks, I pass the same trees, fields, waters, sky, and clouds that I passed the day before -- by now "quotidian," to borrow your word -- but the beauty of it all never fails to move me. You are exactly right: everything that we need is right outside the window.

Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for bringing Ruth Pitter to my attention. "Sudden Heaven" (which is new to me) is a wonderful poem. Thank you for sharing it.

I've come across her poems in anthologies over the years (I think the first time was long ago in Philip Larkin's Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse), and I've always enjoyed it. I invariably make a resolution to explore her work, but I have never done so. You have now motivated me to act: earlier today I ordered a copy of Sudden Heaven, and I am looking forward to finally becoming more acquainted with her poems. (As an aside, I am delighted that Kent State University Press made a commitment to publish her work. In addition, Mr. King deserves our thanks for his dedication in bringing her life and work to our attention in the three books he has devoted to her.) I certainly have the sense that she is, as you say, "the real deal."

Thank you again for the recommendation, and for visiting.