Keats' Ode on a
by Kellie Martin
Graduate Dean's Three Year Honors Program
Numerous lovers of poetry as well as critics and students have speculated about what Keats intended when he ended Ode on a Grecian Urn with these lines: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'---that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Keats leaves little evidence behind on the subject of his Ode in which one can look for guidance when discussing exactly what his effect is intended to be with these final two lines. Many have complained that these lines are vague, elusive, or that they simply do not fit with the rest of the poem. This paper argues that earlier interpretation of these two lines are indefensible. To interpret the final lines the reader must understand Plato's theory of the forms and the Myth of the Sun. The teachings of Plato are instrumental in understanding this text. His theory of the forms and the Myth of the Sun, provide important clues as one strives for a deeper understanding of the connection in Keats' Ode.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty form a triad by which all things can be judged. For Plato, then, Beauty and Truth are virtues, which descend from the Good, and thus belong within the realm of the forms. In Keats' Ode the argument is of the intelligible, which is the perfectly rational form of thought, and as such must necessarily be worked out and grasped by the mind, void of the senses. The issue of definition is apparent when Keats relates that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'". For this reason Plato is useful in understanding why Keats uses these two lines to complete The Ode.
The person with Knowledge is the person who thinks things through where others remain unreflective, and who realizes that there are objects of Knowledge that are not to be found in experience. The forms are objects of Knowledge where Beauty and Truth are contained. As virtues Beauty and Truth are derived from the Good. The Good transcends all being and is that which begets the forms.
The best way to approach the complex and often confusing theory of the forms is through Plato's Myth of the Sun. The Myth of the Sun is Plato's attempt to describe the relationship between the various entities which exist. Plato uses an allegorical approach to describe the Myth. He tells the story of a cave where there are shadows, placards and a fire which acts as a source of light within the cave. Outside the cave there are reflections, the things which cause the reflection and the sun.
The sun through illumination, is the most important of the three figures because it is the cause of the reflection. Within the allegory the sun represents the Good. The Good begets the forms just as the sun is the cause of all life. Therefore Beauty and Truth are born of the Good. Light is provided by the sun, which thus makes sight possible since it is only possible to see things clearly when they are illuminated for us by the sun. The Good enables Beauty and Truth to be known by the mind, as the sun allows the objects to be seen by the eye within the Myth. The inside of the cave is considered the visible world where man resides. The visible world is a reflection of what the intelligible world is, except that this reflection is not an instance of true reality. Because the visible is inside of the cave it cannot be a direct participant of the Good because its light source is artificial. In order to have Knowledge the reader or the speaker must journey to the outside of the cave, to the intelligible, and then return back inside the cave, to the visible, as an enlightened being.
Just as the sun causes things not only to be seen but also to come into being, so the Good gives the objects of Knowledge, Beauty and Truth, their Knowability and their existence. The Good makes things more than knowable; it makes them what they are. Therefore, the forms are the only objects of Knowledge which are attainable through an intelligible process.
This is what Keats means when he states that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'-- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Keats realizes the Platonic notion of the forms as being the object of Knowledge which is attainable by man. This is why Keats chooses to change the narrator in the last two lines. Instead of having the speaker complete the poem, the urn itself becomes the object which relates the meaning. This is apparent through the use of quotation marks when the voice of the speaker changes.
Keats relates in the last two lines of The Ode that through a realization that Beauty and Truth, while differentiated, are caused by the Good and therefore converge in their source. Through their physical manifestation, they are seemingly distinct. But this is a superficial relation. The reader must look beyond their physical manifestation into their true reality, which is found in the intelligible. The forms themselves seem to be separate, but they are in fact different manifestations of one thing which is the Good. Through differentiation they define one another in their derivation of the Good.
The urn acts as an enlightened individual to serve Keats' purpose. The Ode's narrator cannot conclude the poem because to do so he would have to act as the enlightened individual because he exists in the realm of the visible. Within the realm of the visible, human reason is tainted by sensory experiences. Therefore, humans are not capable of grasping perfect Knowledge without first ridding themselves of all sensory experiences which are inherent to the body. The urn acts as an enlightened individual who transcends the visible but relates to the reader who is in the visible at the same time. Therefore, Keats creates the urn to act as a messenger of Knowledge from the intelligible to the reader who exists in the visible. The urn acts as an enlightened individual who has been outside the cave and therefore knows that true reality is unified just as Keats describes that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'". Beauty and Truth, while not each other, allow each person to grasp something of their existence within the intelligible through their derivation from the Good.
Keats' critics first go astray when they misread the final two lines of The Ode and do not recognize that Keats is using the urn to as a messenger because of the shift in voice and the quotation marks. These critics do not comprehend that the urn is speaking these lines as the intelligible would if it were given a voice to do so. A better understanding of the transition from the speaker, who is Keats, to the urn, who is acting as an enlightened and rational being, can be seen by examining the construction of The Ode.
The last two lines of stanza five are an abrupt transition from the speaker to the urn, so abrupt that many critics do not even realize that it is the urn which speaks those lines. The urn, in its classical descent, contains something which the speaker cannot place but knows is important. Keats is very aware of what he has done in this poem. He has challenged his reader to accept a definition without any explanation. The last two lines are simply put forth for the reader to digest and comprehend through the use of the theory of the forms.
Because Keats' critics have clearly not made this journey, they do not know how to address his final stanza. Therefore, the last lines are deemed inconsistent and meaningless. One such example is Allen Tate's critique of the final two lines. He states that
This critic has decided that the final stanza does not belong in the poem because Keats has said more than he should, and that contextually it does not fit. Tate does not acknowledge that the last two lines are meant to stand on their own. They are not supposed to fit because they are not supposed to be spoken by Keats. These two lines are a separate entity within the poem. They are spoken by a second voice, a voice which is that of the intelligible.
For this reason the statement that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'" represents the disunion between the object, which is the urn, and the speaker's ability to reason. For the speaker can never grasp the Knowledge the last two lines bestow unless he uses pure reason. This disunion between the object and speaker follows from the Platonic notion that the object transcends that which is visible as an enlightened being would.
The reason that Keats never attempts to relate exactly what this statement means to his audience is that he, as the speaker, is dealing only with the sensory experience of the urn. He has intentionally left the rational of this statement for the reader. He cannot see through the experience he has when looking upon the urn to reason what "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'" actually means in the rational so he leaves this to the reader.
Helen Vendler is a critic who misunderstands the Platonic notions which Keats has inscribed in the final two lines. This is exemplified when she states that
This critic attempts to describe the problem of the origins of the statement made by the urn. Moreover, she dissects the statements and projects unsubstantiated proofs upon them. For, Beauty and Truth are distinguishable in the Platonic realm of an enlightened individual who exists in the visible. This individual is able to comprehend that each possesses its own virtue, separate from one another except in that they are both derived from the Good. This allows them to be distinguishable from one another. The statement that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'" is not a set of equivalencies within the intelligible; it is instead a definition of the forms as those things which are unified because they are begotten from the Good while being differentiated because they are different qualities of the same whole, which is the Good. William Michael Rossetti also misinterprets the philosophical implications of Keats' Ode. He too believes that Beauty and Truth are indistinguishable. Rossetti states that
...In the Ode, the axiom is put forward as the message of the sculptured Grecian Urn to "man", and is thus propounded as being of universal application. It amounts to saying--any beauty which is not truthful (if any such there be), and any truth which is not beautiful (if any such there be), are of no practical importance to mankind in their condition: but in fact there are none such, for to the human mind, beauty and truth are one and the same thing.
Rossetti misinterprets what the last two lines are attempting to do. He allows them to attain the status of a moral statement and therefore blinds himself even further. For a moral judgment is steeped deep inside of the human experience where reason may be employed but experience rules the decisions. He believes that Keats has laid out a "message to man" and as Rossetti describes it this "message" lacks pure rationality.
Rossetti does not allow for the philosophical implications of the final two lines. Instead, he deals with Beauty and Truth "as the same thing." But, Keats never meant for the reader to see Beauty and Truth as the same thing. Instead, the enlightened individual would see them as manifestations of different virtues of the Good. By abstracting the qualities of the forms and seeing how they are similar, then one would have an understanding of the Good. These similarities are what unify Beauty and Truth. Rossetti fails to see this and instead simply and falsely calls them "the same thing". Cristopher Caudwell has a different reaction to the final lines of The Ode. He states that
...Because truth can only apply to reality...and because real concrete life is neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective but a dialectic active relation between the two (man's struggle with nature), it is only these "impure" products of the struggle to which we can apply the criterion "true". Truth always has a social human reference¾it means "true" in relation to man...In the same way the criterion of music is "beauty."
Caudwell fails to identify the rational aspect of what the urn is speaking. He prefers to give Beauty and Truth an existence only in the realm of the visible. This meaning gives them characteristics of sensory experience which cause them to be the sole qualifiers of what they are. For Caudwell, the intelligible does not apply to Beauty or Truth. It is impossible for the two to exist only in the visible as virtues, for they would be without that which causes them to exist in the absolute. He fails to recognize that the particulars of beauty and truth, which is the manifestation of the two forms in the visible realm, cannot come into being without the existence of Beauty and Truth within the absolute, which is the manifestation of these two forms within the intelligible.
Other critics, such as Walter Jackson Bate, call the last two lines an "elusive message." But this is not so. The message is clear, concise and carefully crafted to lead the reader to enlightenment. This is evident when the reader notes that through Keats' direction, the poem itself leads the reader out of the cave. First, the readers are submerged in the experiences of the speaker as he gazes upon the urn. But the readers are forced out, into the light of the sun, when there is a declaration that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'--that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know". If the urn could truly speak, it would be attempting to enlighten the rational readers of The Ode. Keats uses a pattern of development which is similar to that of Plato's Myth of the Sun to achieve this.
The philosophical implications of Keats' Ode on A Grecian Urn have been misconstrued by countless critics. The key to understanding the poem is through the use of Platonic notions such as the forms and their relation to the visible and the intelligible. Readers of Keats must deny their bodies in order to understand the Knowledge bestowed upon them because it is for the soul to comprehend the meaning of the final two lines, not the senses.
This may be a difficult aspect for the reader because the soul must be enlightened and therefore the reasoning capabilities of that individual, while it exists in the visible, must be rooted in the intelligible. The soul is able to comprehend the forms because it does not exist in the realm of becoming, or the visible. The soul is of the intelligible, while the body is of the visible. This is why the body taints the soul's rational capabilities. Once readers realize that their bodies taint their abilities to reason, then they must void themselves of all sensory experiences. By denying the senses, the reader must use pure reason to comprehend that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'". Once the reader uses reason to escape the world of becoming, he or she is an enlightened individual who has perfect Knowledge of what Keats intends in the final two lines of The Ode.
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ODE ON A GRECIAN URN
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve;
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
All breathing human passion far above,
Who are these coming to sacrifice?
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
What little town by river or sea shore,
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,