Tuesday, 27 April 2010

That Quote From Keats

Scientists like to use suitably antiquated literature quotes in their work, because it makes them seem intelligent, and fully rounded people rather than just sad little scientists who spend all their time wrapped up in one organism or pathway. Speaking as a sad little scientist myself (whose knowledge of anything other than Streptomyces is currently a little hazy) I approve. The more literature quotes there are in the world the better and who knows, some people might be encourage to go and read the original poem or text, and experience the true awesome beauty of it.

The problem is, of course, when quotes get used out of context, or with twisted meanings. The one quote that gets pushed into service very frequently with science-writing, and is almost always hideously misued, is That Keats Quote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

The usual meaning the writer is trying to convey with this quote is, "Look at this thing. This thing is beautiful. It must be true!" or occasionally, "Look at how this true thing is beautiful. Poets and scientists both have the same view of how the world is!" Occasionally it's just shortened down to just the first line, or the first few words "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"

Which takes the quote completely out of context and, what's even worse, completely destroys the beautiful subtlety of it. In fact it completely destroys the entire point of the quote in the first place, which is to question the connections between truth, beauty, reality and desire.

The poem the quote is taken from is "Ode on a Grecian urn" which is slightly too long to be reproduced in full, but can be found here and is highly recommended, along with most of Keats. As the title suggests, it's a poem about a Greek pot, more specifically the patterns and pictures around the pot. Examining the frozen scenes (which show a man playing the pipes under a tree, two lovers about to kiss, and a procession of villagers with a calf for sacrifice) allows Keats to return to one of his favourite themes; which is more preferable, a passion that is everlasting but will never reach fulfillment? Or the experience of true and complete fulfillness which must then pass away into decay and death. Basically the Keatsien version of "is it better to have loved and lost or never loved at all?"

The urn represents agelessness, the unchanging and fixed scenes. The lover's cannot kiss and the piper cannot go home, but will be "for ever piping songs, for ever new". In the second and third stanza (paragraph) Keats seems rather wistfully jealous of this state of affairs. The lover's might not be able to reach fulfilment, but they've been locked in their embrace for several hundred times his lifetime. In the forth stanza however, he briefly touches on the downside of changelessness, namely that everything remains unchanged. The villagers will be in continuous procession, but likewise their village will always be empty, for the rest of eternity.

The final stanza, brings it all together, but it ends it with a big question, not an answer. Keats has no more answers than we do as to whether the timeless yet unfulfilled nature of the Grecian urn is preferable or not. All this of course, leads up to the final quote:

Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 45
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 final quote! Which isn't even said by Keats. It isn't even what the poet thinks, it's a final summery of the point of view of life from the Grecian urn. Keats is still teased out of thought, but he takes some comfort in the fact that the urn will always be there. No matter how crazy or insane life gets, the world of the Grecian urn will always be beautiful, and always be truthful. Not the real world, the real world is changeable, ugly and false, that is why the urn remains a source of comfort. Preferable or not, the "Cold pastoral" of the Grecian urn will by its very nature embody the truth, beauty and permanence that the rest of the world does not.

If those last two lines are a comment about anything, it's the nature of art, rather than the nature of reality. Art, or at the very least things that are pleasant to look at because they make you forget the uglyness of reality (Keats = proto-emo), should be things for which beauty and truth are equal. A piece of work which is both true and beautiful. The definition of truth at this point is another matter entirely, in the case of the Grecian urn my view is that 'true' means 'revealing some deep truth about the world' in this case the struggle between permanence and fulfilment.

Either way, it's certainly not "Keats on the nature of reality". Which is how it's so often used.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Iambic Pentameter

Starting off in style with Iambic Pentameter, the meter used by Shakespeare, Keats, and apparently various ancient Greeks. The Iambic foot is a pattern of stresses: an unstressed sylabble followed by a stressed one:

da-DUM - as in "but look!" or "You see"

Iambic pentameter therefore means five iambs in a row:

da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
If MU-sic BE the FOOD of LOVE play ON.
Now IS the WIN-ter OF our DIS-con-TENT
But SOFT what LIGHT through YON-der WIN-dow BREAKS

It's a lovely meter to use, as it creates a lilting flowing style, longer than conventional poetry but shorter than free-flow prose. The iambic flow helps to carry the speech along (especially helpful during somewhat long-ish speeches), and five beats per line gives it shape and form.

In Shakespeare's work the strict iambic form is occasionally deviated from, for example the famous "to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUES-tion" ends in a weak stress known as a feminine ending (and even then the stresses don't quite work, the mind naturally wants to say "to BE or NOT to be THAT is the QUES-tion). However the meter still flows, and during the speeches, or suitably poetic discussions between high-class characters, the flow is all. Free prose (with no stresses, so just said as people normally speak) is reserved exclusively for lower-class characters during humorous interludes, such as the drunken porter in MacBeth. The sudden lack of poetic meter signals to the audience that this part is not relevant to the plot so much as an excuse for bawdy or topical jokes and probably a fair bit of slapstick.

A question often asked is how much the meter should be stressed during performances, obviously you don't want an actor who overstresses every second syllable, but performances where the meter is ignored completely and the whole thing spoken as prose always seem to me to be lacking something. The best performances are usually by those actors who can speak using the iambic stresses but make it sound like that's how they normally speak. The wonderful soaring flow of the meter makes grand speeches grander, desire more beautiful, pledges of love more real and meaningful, and pretentious idiots who think their in love sound even more deluded and pompously grandiose than normal "If music be the food of love!"

Sunday, 25 April 2010

New Blog!

At school I had two main subjects I loved doing (and ended up doing at A-level); Biology, and English Literature. A bit of an odd mix maybe, but I loved both of them far too much to drop one and commit to just-science, or just-english. When it came to university, I spent several agonising months trying to decide which one to go for, eventually deciding that a career in science would be more interesting, more fulfilling, and more likely to actually get me a job.

But I miss literature, I've missed it for the last four years. I've missed studying it, discussing it, interpreting it. I've missed poetry and Shakespeare and those weird edgy short stories that are dotted around in 'modern' literature. I've missed following a thread of symbolism right through a story, drawing out character arcs, teasing apart themes, enjoying the sounds of words and what those sounds can represent.

I've missed reading. Reading things that I didn't have to pretend were true.

So I decided to start another blog, for the Book Worm side of the Lab Rat. Here I will write about Shakespeare and Keats and probably even Terry Pratchett occasionally. There won't be any of my own stories, but there will be lots of other peoples. I may occasionally take a look at a film, if it's symbolic enough. I'm not sure who will read this blog, but I am certainly looking forward to writing it!