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.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “Keats and the Central Question of Beauty”

  1. What a beautiful drawing Judith. What you wrote about pursing knowledge of the human form and this increasing your appreciation and desire to capture the form has been has been my experience also. There are so many kinds of beauty but the human form has captured me from the earliest life classes I took. Sometimes I wish it did’nt but seeing a drawing like the one on this blog inspires me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.