Beauty Is Truth; Truth Beauty: Revelations From John Keats
From the Greek urns that John Keats once saw in the British Museum emerged one of the most important English poems of the 19th century.
A man standing in silence in a museum observes a Greek urn. From the urn comes the silent voice of the past. But it is not just any man that observes, and neither is it just any urn. It is the English poet John Keats, standing in a room of the British Museum in London, and the urn is a product of his imagination. According to Julio Cortázar, the urn that Keats writes about is an invention that sprang from the fusion of various Greek urns in the British Museum and others that the poet had seen in etchings by Piranesi.
We have written evidence of what the urn inspired in Keats as, in 1819, he wrote one of his famous odes, “On a Grecian Urn”. Keats was a keen visitor to the museum and knew it well, to the extent that he could recognize new pieces when they were added to the museum’s collection. His love for classical art and his spectacular imagination made the creation of this great poetic work possible.
The ode to a Grecian urn is an ekphrasis (a detailed description of an object) The ekphrasis tradition has existed since Ancient Greece: one of the most famous is perhaps that referring to Achilles’s shield in The Iliad. The poem begins by giving human characteristics to the urn, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness”, “Thou foster-child of Silence and Slow time, Sylvan historian” (sylva, in Greek, means “forest”). The urn narrates, through the poet’s voice, the history of a people, portrayed in its marmoreal surface.
Keats assures us that the urn, in all its silence, can better tell history than any human verse. The object contains legends of mortals and gods. The artistic piece, the funerary urn (although the poet takes care to never mention the final use of the recipient), is a mirror of Greek history, of its myths, its peoples, but it is also a mirror of the poet’s mind.
The treatment of time and memory in the poem are singular: the scene is frozen in time, like a photograph. The poet read in the urn what we read in his poem; time does not pass, at least not for those who are immortalized in art. The silent form, immune to old age, relates stories and melodies that are ‘ever new’ that invite the poet to be reflected in the urn – a silent witness to history – and to speak of themselves
To create an ekphrasis is to try to stop time, portray a second and make of an object something that will always last. In this way, the artist and the object of their art transcend. But, paradoxically, the figures of the urn will not achieve eternity without being inhuman.
Keats closes the poem with the chiasmus: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. It is not clear if this phrase is said by the urn or by the poet. But in any case, facing the object itself, the poet is not talking about its visual value – of its form or its colors – but the fact that it transcends time and is capable of seeing, through language, what an object does not show at first sight and what only a poet can see in a funerary urn. The Greek urn talks, finally of the beauty of time and of the finite, as the lovers painted on it will never embrace; they are paused, about to touch each other, forever.
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