Tag Archives: John Keats

Beauty

A problem with language is, words can be defined in so many ways. A table can be a tiny and fragile thing upon which we can barely fit a tea setting, or a massive wooden slab surrounded by a dozen of Arthur’s knights.

Abstract words–such as honor, love, courage, truth, dignity, or beauty–each of us may understand differently. And those of us intrigued or perplexed by a certain word might spend a lifetime considering the options and still not feel quite convinced by our definition.

Perhaps more than any other English word, we wrestle with the meaning of “love,” as did poet William Blake when he expressed two perfectly opposite views in “The Clod and the Pebble”.

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

“Beauty” is another word to which we give a host of different meanings. Some dresses are beautiful, as are some of the people who wear them. Sometimes my daughter throws a beautiful change up. A day can be beautiful just because the sun is shining, even if we wish it would rain.

So when we read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and find John Keats contending that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” we might applaud in agreement, recoil with skepticism, or choose to shelve the premise for later contemplation.

I find those lines not only valid and profound; I believe they are words to live by; largely because they require us to reconsider our definition or definitions of “truth” and “beauty.” They demand that if we hope to understand, we need to act, to go deeper than surface impressions and consider what moves us to a resonant and heartfelt appreciation, to feel we have somehow transcended our common condition. They demand that I see my daughter’s changeup as an expression of who she is, the time and effort she has devoted and all she has learned in order to master the pitch, what that says about her and–going deeper still–about the miracle of life. If I choose and am able to go even deeper, I might glimpse a clue about eternity or the meaning of life.  On the way I will discover that true beauty includes a downbeat, an element of sorrow or pain as well as a joyful upbeat. Because evil is true and weakness is true, because truth contains pain and sorrow, beauty must contain them also.

Not every experience of something truly beautiful will send us on a deep inward and transcendent journey. But everything beautiful in the sense Keats uses the word holds the  potential to lead us all the way, were we brave, dedicated and wise enough to take the journey.

Now I’ll quit trying to explain in prose a truth better expressed in poetry. Here’s a link to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

Getting It

The common belief about knowledge, at least in our culture, is that to claim knowledge about something we should be able to backup the claim with logic, sensory observation, personal experience, or a solid reason to trust the provider of the knowledge.

But sometimes we encounter ideas we simply know are true even though they don’t come through any of the accepted methods.  Occasionally an idea rings so true that it sets off a whole new vision and calls us to view ourselves, or an element of our lives, or the whole world, in a remarkably different way. Light breaks into the cave.  Suddenly we “get it.”

My earliest recollection of “getting it” is of my reaction to Feodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.  The best I can express the experience in words is, I realized that compared to love, nothing else matters.

Later, the final lines of John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn” knocked me out cold.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” When I came to, the world was a far richer place.

And William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” floored me, and convinced me that the “rough beast … slouching toward Bethlehem to be born,” was real and something I had better reckon with.

Then came Sören Kierkegaard.  I wish I could recall the passage, because its theme has haunted me ever since, with the knowledge that Christian churches can be the enemies of Christ.

While most evangelists labor to bring people to church or lead them to professions of faith, Kierkegaard challenged us to undertake a passionate, vigilant, and persistent search for truth.  I suspect he believed that if Christ, as he claimed, is the truth, to Christ is where honest truth seekers are bound, whether or not they set off in that direction.

Churches, like schools or mentors, can be valuable resources, or distractions, or worse.

During graduate school, I had the privilege of hanging out with novelist Kurt Vonnegut. At a party, a few of us gathered in the kitchen, which is often the setting for the most engaging conversations.  Mr. Vonnegut used the platform to argue that if one of us worked in a gas station and the price of a gallon was outrageous, we should realize our responsibility for charging that price, and not blame the station owner or anyone else. Because we had chosen to work there.

B. Traven, author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, maintained that oppressed people should realize that they don’t need to remain oppressed. They could choose to die resisting.

What these bright fellows were getting at with their extreme examples is that each of us, not our nation, employer, family, or pastor holds the ultimately responsibility for our thoughts or actions.

As Kierkegaard would have us recognize, neither God nor our conscience, if we attend to it, condones the neglect of our capacity to discover the truth and act accordingly.

Which is good advice to remember especially now that a cadre of pastors have declared they mean to preach on politics.

Ken Kuhlken, www.kenkuhlken.net