Keats and the Central Question of Beauty

Keat’s thoughts on beauty and truth allow the artist to have a transformative effect through their work and allow the artist himself to participate more fully in the drama of the human condition.

One cannot even begin to pursue ones work as an artist unless one has spent time considering what Beauty is. Would there be any such thing as art unless the pursuit of what is beautiful and at the same time true wasn’t a question that is central to man? Keats often quoted, “Ode to a Grecian Urn” ends with this thought,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Can something be beautiful that does not also contain something true inherently residing in it? And can something which is true not also have a certain beauty within it? Are they not inherently linked? When we see beauty are we not compelled inwardly to find out all there is to know about it? For me, there is an undeniable beauty contained in the human form and I am compelled to pursue any knowledge that will increase my understanding, on many levels, of this form, ie- anatomy, human psychology, art history. This pursuit has increased my ability to love and appreciate this beauty of form. It has also increased my desire to capture such form and to recognize the unfathomable aspect of beauty.

“All we know on earth, says Keats, is that beauty is the source according to which Knowers incline in there love of truth; the source to which their inner compass is aligned.” (Paul Davies, Romanticism and Esoteric Tradition, p.149) Knowledge confirms and enhances what one at first recognized as beautiful and that knowledge turns back again on the seeker and brings with it an awe of that beauty. The knower becomes the intermediary between beauty and truth and engages in a dynamic dialogue with them. The knower can look to truth and find beauty and the knower can look to beauty and find truth. Beauty and truth forming a recipricol relationship independent of my knowing but one which I can readily partake in. Paul Davies expresses it well,

” If we know the beautiful when we see it, we can say we realize what Keats means by ‘all we know on earth’. If then we wish to become beautiful ourselves, if we wish to become magnetized by the beauty we acknowledge, then we not only know but also need to know… To respond to beauty is one stage, to be magnetized by it is another. (Ibid,p.150)

This need to know or make it conscious, in addition to an appreciation of beauty, allows a dynamic and procreative relationship to develop. It leads to one’s own transformation as well as allowing the knower the ability to carry that transformation to others. The artist/ poet through the expression of his work carries that transformative force to others and in the process creates an attraction to the beautiful. It is why we are so drawn to artists and their lives. We desire to be like them. Davies points out that “this different, gnostic, direct knowledge is knowledge of the human situation, and particularly a taste of its meaning and quality.” ( Ibid., p.151) Beauty informs who we are to our very depths and allows one a true participation in the human condition.

Negative Capability- Keats and the Mystery of Creativity

Keats allows the Image to stand as a mystery and accepts that unknowing part of himself in perfect freedom. The force of the imagination finds fertile ground to reveal its depth when an aspect of the image remains unfathomable.

River Foliage, a landscape painting by Judith Reeve

So much of our being resides in the rational and linear development of ideas rather than an associative logic or a “logic of metaphor” as expressed by Hart Crane. The imagination itself does not follow such reasoning. It cannot be compartmentalized or ordered as such. It is an independent force that goes beyond our reasoning faculty. Keats states in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in 1817, “I am the more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning.” Keats favored a “drifting imaginative logic” in his poems that relied on a fluid consciousness not entirely understood through rational means. (Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel, p.6) Our desire to explain everything from the origin of the universe to the state of our health or why something was created in such a way, leads one down a path that is not open to an alternate experience of being.

I find, when I begin a piece, I attempt to seek out all the variables to allow the image to unfold. But Keats comes at it with a pure freedom of spirit as expressed in his statement on Negative Capability- “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats allows an image to stand as it is-a mystery and accepts it as such without fully understanding it. He refuses to allow that rational part of himself to destroy the inherent depth and mystery of an image. He remains satisfied in his unknowing state allowing the emotional tenor of a piece to guide him.

One inherently desires to eliminate mystery, instead of nurturing the independent force that mystery is- a reflection of one’s ignorance and consequently, the vastness of being and existence. Allowing a mystery to stand opens up opportunities to receive something from the other side. This openness creates a place for that inner voice to speak not as one hopes but as it desires. The will or ego part of oneself needs to step aside.

In ancient Greece, there was a Cult to Asklepios. This cult resided at shrines of healing like Epidauros. The priests of Asklepios performed a rite over the worshiper who then slept in the temple until they received a dream. The priests of Asklepios would then interpret the dream in order to bring the healing message to the ill person. These priests acted as conduits to a greater mystery, being open to a healing that they did not necessarily understand. They allowed the dream to shape the action necessary for a cure to take place.

Alternately, Ahab is another figure that faces the great mystery- the mystery of the white whale. The white whale emerges from the depths of the sea, powerful, allusive. Ahab, instead of honoring the mystery in all its magnitude, seeks the whale out only to find that it is he himself that he has destroyed. His desire to conquer, to rationalize and impose his will upon the beast, leads to his demise. The whale remains free and aloof- independent, eloquent and charged with a force without limit. The depth emerging forth and at the same time remaining an unfathomable mystery.