BEAUTY AND TRUTH
Yesterday, we touched on the category of the sublime. Today I would like to take a look at how the Romantics understood the category of beauty. Beauty for them wasn’t something that was just pretty and ornamental; it was a central principle that they equated with truth. They therefore thought of beauty as a way of understanding the world. It is just as much of a philosophical category as it is aesthetic. Keep in mind that the turn to beauty was also a political move—it was a radical gesture that contrasted with the horrors and ugliness of the guillotine and of the atrocities committed in the name of other lofty ideals.
There is a short anonymous text called “The Oldest System Programme of German Idealism” dated in 1797 that I uploaded to Blackboard for you to read. With enough scholarship, we were eventually able to discern that this was a collaborative text co-written by Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin while they were all rooming together in the same dormitory at college, back before any of them were famous for their later philosophical and literary innovations. Although this text is short, it’s dense, and it demands a slow and close reading. They begin from the point of ethics and end with a conclusion about aesthetics. They take Kant as the starting-point of ethics, to think about the self in relation to the question of freedom, especially since the word “freedom” at this time (like ours) was used to justify so many different and contradictory political positions.
Out of freedom comes the concept of beauty, “the idea which unites all.” They write that, “the highest act of reason, which, in that it comprises all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are united like sisters only in beauty—The philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet.”
What is aesthetics? It is the domain of philosophy that questions the role of art in our lives. An aesthetic act is the act of creation. The word “poetry” comes from the Greek poiesis, which means to create. All poetry, then, is an act of world-making, of creating, of giving meaning to the world (as we have seen yesterday, especially with Blake’s “The Tyger”). What these philosophers learned from Kant is that truth inheres in the mind—which, again, remember is not a simple subjective act. There are objective truths that correlate to the categories of the mind, and reason is what negotiates truth from untruth. But these philosophers state the highest expression of reason is beauty; the highest philosophical act is actually an artistic one. And the aesthetic concept of beauty is one that unites metaphysics (truth) with ethics (goodness). The freedom pronounced by the French Revolution was a failure; freedom now is something that resides in the work of art.
This concept spread like wildfire throughout the Romantic era. Compare this text to Dickinson’s poem, “I died for beauty.” What is the relationship between beauty and truth here? Compare this also with the ending of Keats’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Is that really all we need to know on earth, and all we need to know? How is this sufficient? Or is this wisdom just sufficient enough for an urn?
Beauty can be quite disturbing, as well. Pay attention to how morbidly it is characterized in Dickinson. And look at how Keats begins his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.”
It is absolutely crucial that, if you don’t understand any word you are reading, you MUST look it up. You cannot do a close reading without understanding every single word you read. So what happens when we take into account exactly what image these words paint for us? The word “still” is ambiguous because it could mean still as in motionless, but it could also mean still as in not yet. Both meanings work, since he is describing the image he sees on this vast Grecian urn, carved out with different scenes. This is a bride he is seeing, a “bride of quietness,” still and motionless because she is carved in a permanent gesture into the stone of the urn. But there is another alarming word here: “unravish’d.” She is not yet raped, but about to be. The speaker ends this stanza by asking, “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?” And in the second stanza, he addresses the man chasing her: “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” So the image we are seeing is a frozen image of a man chasing a woman before the moment of seizing her.
The poem becomes more disturbing because the word “happy” is repeated throughout the rest of the next stanza:
“Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!”
Is this a “happy” love? What happens when you repeat a word over and over again? It loses its meaning. And that’s what happens here. Just as much as the word “happy” is repeated, pay attention to the repetition of “for ever”:
“For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”
Just as much as the word “happy” is deprived of its meaning through repetition, so too is the term “for ever.” Looking at the immortal scene depicted on the urn, in which the figures are frozen for eternity, gives the speaker a sense of anxiety over the fact of his own mortality. The contrast is what leads to the “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” The speaker knows that he will die, but the images on the urn will remain there forever. He walks around to the other side of the urn and sees an image of a procession for a sacrifice, but he can’t make sense of it. In the final stanza, he notes that “the silent form” of the urn “dost tease us out of thought.” If this urn, this work of art, teases us out of thought, then what does it tease us into? Perhaps the answer is sensation. Thought brings pain and anxiety; looking at this urn gives the speaker a respite from that, for a moment.
Keats is a master of putting a language to silence, to nothingness, to emptiness. Just look again at the beginning of the second stanza:
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.”
Keats here is tapping into a music that can only be sensed beyond the range of hearing, a music that is “unheard,” that appeals “Not to the sensual ear” but to the core of our being, of our spirit, “more endear’d,” as we paradoxically “listen to the ditties of no tone.” He is soliciting us to use our imagination to listen to the music that these frozen figures on the urn seem to be playing with their pipes. This is the music that he articulates. And this is what eventually leads him to the final lines, of associating beauty with truth as a kind of absolute knowledge, a knowledge of the spirit. It is this music that is immortalized in the silent urn, which he also ends up immortalizing in this poem.
Keats, who ended up dying of tuberculosis at age 25, wrote a number of poems articulating his anxiety about dying, and used the contrast between his own short-lived mortality with the immortality of Greek sculpture, which we see not only in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but in “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” as well. The Elgin Marbles were Greek statues that had been stolen from Greece and recently exhibited in The British Museum at the time that Keats wrote this poem. Seeing these immortal statues made him feel like he would never produce any work of art that would outlive him, or test the time like these sculptures he was looking at. Of course, he was wrong.
He begins the poem by writing:
“My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.”
This simile of a “sick eagle looking at the sky” is particularly striking because an eagle, out of all birds, is the ruler of the sky. To be a “sick eagle looking at the sky” from below is to feel that you are fundamentally removed from your nature, from what you feel you were meant to do. This sick eagle cannot live up to its own ambition, its own identity.
Pay attention to the use of dashes—an example of caesura. It is almost like this dashes break apart the poem in a way that mirrors the Greek statues that are also partially broken.
Now let’s turn to look at his poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad.” The title can be translated as “The Beautiful Lady without Mercy” (yes, merci in French means “thanks,” but he is drawing on an antiquated meaning of it that is closer to the English “mercy”). As we begin the poem, I want you to ask who is speaking here:
“O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”
Who is this “I” that is speaking? It cannot be the knight-at-arms, because the speaker is addressing this knight. It cannot be the beautiful lady, since this speaker refers to her as a separate being, as well. As we continue this poem, this question becomes more eerie. Are there multiple speakers here? Is this some kind of disembodied voice? Is it someone who once was in the knight’s position?
There is something eerie also going on about the absence of sound. Remember just how sensitive Keats is to articulating silence. Imagine coming across a landscape only to come to the realization that “no birds sing.” There seems to be an ominous silence here, setting the stage for something horrific.
The beautiful lady is supernatural; she is a “faery’s child.” Forget what you know about fairies from Disney. Disney did a lot to sanitize our concept of fairies, but in folklore, they were figures of mischief, and even evil. Part of this has to do with the spread of Christianity across Europe in the early Middle Ages, when tribes still worshipped pagan gods. The pagan gods were deemed evil because they were incompatible with the Christian god, so folklore emerged to preserve the stories of these pagan gods, maintaining that they fled into the woods to preserve themselves, and emerge in the form of fairies and elves. There is something sinister but seductive about her “wild” eyes that entrances this speaker.
According to medieval literary convention, you describe someone from top to toe, so in one line we get, “Her hair was long, her foot was light” in that order. Follow this same order in the next stanza:
“I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.”
He makes a garland for her head out of flowers, then moves down her body to decorate her wrists with “bracelets,” then moves down further to the center of her body, “her fragrant zone” before they have sex. D.H. Lawrence takes this image in his post-World War I novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) in a scene when the two lovers go out into the woods and decorate each other’s pubic hair with flowers before having sex. This struck some of the original readers as pornographic; these readers were just too stupid to recognize that he was alluding to Keats, and invoking Romanticism as both an aesthetic and political project to return to after the emphasis on science, technology, and industrialization led to the catastrophic devastation of the First World War. Instead of the stupidity of slaughtering each other for a war that didn’t even make any sense, Lawrence was saying, the more ethical decision is to go into the woods and have sex and celebrate the joys of the body. There is a reason why the Romantics (and D.H. Lawrence) experienced another surge in popularity during the 1960s. The anti-war movement, protesting U.S. intervention in Vietnam, coincided with the Sexual Revolution, guided by slogans like, “Make Love, Not War.” The celebration of sex and sexuality was a direct challenge to the conservative politics of the older generation, and of patriarchal institutions that governed by war.
To return to the poem, it gets more disturbing:
“I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.”
Imagine riding by horseback across a landscape seeing absolutely “nothing… all day long.” They are in a wasteland, in a barren landscape. There is something disquieting and supernatural and even apocalyptic about this landscape. Now we move on to the next stanza:
“She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true.’”
“Roots of relish” refers to drugs and intoxication—again, remember that the Romantics explored as many sensations of the body as they could, and taking hallucinatory drugs for them was a way of accessing certain kinds of experience that were not available to them with the limited capacity of reason. “Manna-dew” is the food of the gods, which suggests that there is something divine about this lady. But here is where things fall apart: how could he understand her when she says, “I love thee true” if she is speaking “in language strange”? There seems to be some kind of telepathic communication here that overcomes the barriers of language itself. Now look at where she leads him:
“She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.”
Notice how the description of her eyes doubled from “wild” in an earlier stanza to “wild wild” here. She has seduced him into her lair, but we also see her misery and sadness here with her weeping and “sore” sighing, which the speaker wants to overcome by kissing her four times on her shut eyes. There is a hypnotic effect that she has on him, as “she lullèd” him “asleep,” and in this sleep he has a nightmare:
“I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’”
The word “thrall” can be found in two words: “enthrall” and “thralldom.” The word “enthrall” is often used as a response to a work of art. If something is particularly beautiful or has an overwhelming impact, it can be said to be “enthralling”; you are “enthralled” to it. But the origin of this word comes from the feudal “thralldom,” which was a form of slavery. To be “in thrall” to someone or something is to be enslaved. La Belle Dame sans Merci is an example of the misogynistic trope of the femme fatale: a beautiful woman who seduces men in order to take advantage of them. And this particular lady was one who managed to enthrall kings and princes. Now observe the transition from his nightmare to waking up from it:
“I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.”
The poem ends with a variation of the first stanza, as though we are trapped in an infinite loop, so that this lady continues claiming victims, perhaps for all eternity. So the speaker here, the “I,” could be a new victim each time, reporting his experience to the next victim.
We see this dynamic in The Shining, for anyone who has seen that horror film. Not to ruin everything in this movie (but spoilers ahead in this paragraph), this is about a man who keeps on coming back to the same isolated hotel to carry out horrific atrocities. In one chilling scene, when the family is supposedly alone in this vast hotel, Jack Nicholson’s character walks into one of the hotel rooms only to find a beautiful woman bathing in the bathtub. She gets out of it, completely nude, and starts kissing him. But from the camera angle, we see in the mirror that her body begins to decompose as she’s kissing him, revealing her to be a witch-like old woman with the body of a corpse who ends up chasing Jack Nicholson out of the room. She is just an iteration of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and the hotel itself claims victim after victim of the same crime, committed by the same person, across an impossible and supernatural stretch of time.
Beauty is something quite disturbing in Keats. Byron treats beauty differently. Byron was the original rock star; he was the bad boy heartthrob of the Romantics, seeking adventure at every turn of his life. He lived fast and died young, breaking hearts of women and men everywhere he went. In 1816, when Europe experienced a particularly cold, dark, and rainy summer (because of a volcano explosion in Indonesia that sent so much ash into the atmosphere that for an entire year the whole world hardly saw any sunlight), it was Byron’s idea to spend the time with his friends making up ghost stories. Among his friends was the 18-year old Mary Shelley, who came up with the story of Frankenstein on the spot, which is the first work of science fiction that we have. Byron was always the center of attention, and was present any time something momentous in the world of literature was happening.
I want to look closely at how he articulates his understanding of beauty in his poem, “She Walks in Beauty”:
“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies.”
Pay attention to the extraordinary balance here in sounds; there is a balance of alliteration in “cloudless climes” and “starry skies.”
Look at the meter too:
“She WALKS in BEAUty, LIKE the NIGHT
Of CLOUDless CLIMES, and STARry SKIES.”
She WALKS = 1 iamb
in BEAU = 1 iamb
ty LIKE = 1 iamb
the NIGHT = 1 iamb
There are four iambs in this line, four iambs in the next line, and four iambs in the line after that. So he’s establishing a pattern of iambic tetrameter. But notice when he breaks it:
“And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”
Here is what’s happening to the meter:
“And ALL that’s BEST of DARK and BRIGHT
MEET in her ASpect AND her EYES.”
The line beginning with “Meet” is irregular because the first syllable of this line is stressed. The line stands out on an auditory level because it stands out on the level of meaning, as well. Everything—“All that’s best of dark and bright”—converges here, it “meets” on her face, her “aspect and her eyes,” which he is drawing special attention to. The meter returns to its iambic flow right after this line, with the exception of an extra unaccented syllable:
“Thus MELlowed TO that TENder LIGHT
Which HEAven to GAUdy DAY deNIES.”
In the next stanza, he writes:
“One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace.”
He is describing physical perfection here, “Which waves in every raven tress,” in every lock of her black hair, “Or softly lightens o’er her face.” Look at how he’s maintaining this balance between light and dark imagery. And through this physical description we can access the metaphysical:
“Where thoughts serenely sweet express” (do you hear that alliteration in the s sound?), followed by the last line of the stanza:
“How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.”
This entire poem is constructed on the principle of balance, of moving between light and dark in equal measure, of equating the physical beauty of this woman’s face with the metaphysical beauty of her “thoughts” that “serenely sweet express.” Listen also to the perfect balance of sounds in this line:
“How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.”
It’s as though there were a mirror in the center of the line reflecting the sounds of “p” and “d” in the first half of the line with “d” and “p” in the second half. This is what is called a chiasmus, which some of you may know from biology as the term for overlapping (as in, with chromosomes).
Now look at how Byron performs so many different layers of balance in the last stanza:
“And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!”
Notice how he moves from the exterior (“cheek”/“brow”) to the interior (“mind”/“heart”). And the word “glow” in the third line here balances out the dark imagery of the “night” in the first line of this poem. Her outward appearance indicates her inner qualities; she is perfect in both. And this perfection is mirrored in the perfect architecture of this poem, in the balanced syntactical structure (“A mind at peace with all below, / A heart whose love is innocent!”).
He’s not writing this just to write something pretty. He’s exploring the concept of beauty itself as a principle of balance, and his triangulation of beauty with truth and “goodness spent” also echoes the treatment of beauty, truth, and goodness that we’ve seen in the other works assigned for today.
Please leave your additional comments, building on this conversation (again, without repeating or rehashing it), down below.