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.


  1. Interesting analysis. Having never studied Keats in any detail I'd always taken the final two lines to be the urn saying how life is all about the wonderful moments.

    Thinking about it a bit more though, that requires a rather dodgy interpretation of 'truth' to be based on the adjective form of true meaning just rather than factually correct. Which seems slightly dubious now that I write it down.

  2. Thanks for the comment. We spent a good couple of lessons in my English class discussing what was meant by 'truth' in that last line. And indeed what is meant by 'beauty'. I think everyone came to different conclusions!