In Defence of John Keats

Tim Love's interesting piece on poetic meaning (Envoi 128) was somewhat marred by his slipshod reference to Ode to a Grecian Urn. "Truth is beauty, beauty truth; that is all ye know in life, and all ye need to know" is as rhythmically banal as it is philosophically inadequate, but Keats isn't guilty of it. What he wrote was:

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.

It is important to distinguish what is being said to the urn and what is being said by it. As the title suggests, Keats was addressing a piece of pottery. Urns, unlike human beings, don't have ambitions, urges, regrets, relations, sensations. He wouldn't have been stupid enough to tell you or me that the equivalence of beauty and truth was all we needed to know - although that is exactly what many of his disciples and detractors, some of whom should know better, have claimed.

The scene on the urn is perfect because it stops at the edge of the picture:
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead and a parching tongue.

The balancing of simple aesthetic perfection against complex human desire and the circumstances that destroy it is at the heart both of this poem and of its companion, Ode to a Nightingale, where a human being, individual and aware of death, is compared to a bird, immortal as a species but lacking individual self-awareness:

Keats was not only a fine poet but a better thinker than many of those who have patronised and dismissed him on the basis of lines half-remembered or never read.

© Brian Fewster,
Envoi 2001

Return to main prose on poetry index
Return to home page