"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?
The cold winds have taken it
With their faint moan;
The white stars have shaken it,
Into the pathless deeps of the sea:
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.
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)