1. Optics

On October 18th, 2017, an article appeared in The Guardian that aimed to shed doubt on the authorship of Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci with a subheading that reads as follows: “Crystal sphere in Salvator Mundi artwork lacks optical exactitude, prompting experts to speculate over motive and authenticity”

It only took a few minutes after the publication of the article for Mr. Isaacson to respond:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Issacson’s Facebook post shows limited interactions (34 reactions; nine shares; two comments) while The Guardian’s article was shared thousands of times. 

Consider what the Guardian is implying here: 

“Crystal sphere in Salvator Mundi artwork lacks optical exactitude, prompting experts to speculate over motive and authenticity

Since I do not need to validate Leonardo Da Vinci’s excellence as an artist, let’s move straight to the motive of creation (as opposed to destruction). In The New Yorker, the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are well-represented. This is epitomized in the interactions between Ms. Thompson and the detainees (through their lawyers): “I didn’t want to manipulate their work, so I kept asking them through their lawyers, ‘What do you want from displaying your art?’  she told me.” 

It goes on: 

“And they all kept telling me, ‘We want people to look at our art and recognize that we’re human beings.’ ” It is confounding to try to fathom the lives that these detainees have had, the conditions that they have endured in our name while hidden from our view. Is that fathoming more or less difficult while looking at the pictures that they have made of the ocean, of buildings, of trees and flowers and the moon, ordinary subjects rendered extraordinary by the circumstance of their creation that have, against the odds, washed up on the shore of our city like messages in a bottle? I don’t know, but the sense that I had, at “Ode to the Sea,” was of real contact being made. Art is created for every reason under the sun, but surely the most basic, the most elemental reason of all, is to mark the fact of one’s own existence in the world, to send a sign of it out like a flare so that others might see.”

If we are to reasonably expect Leonardo Da Vinci’s motives to be questioned (as well as his claim over his own work), we should surely not be seen as unreasonable if we extend our skepticism to the suspected terrorists that Ms. Thomspon and the major players in the largest media circuit that humanity has ever seen have elected to elevate to the level of practicing artists. 

“Art is created for every reason under the sun,” says Thomspson. Motives aside, let us back up to the fundamental fact: art is created. By undertaking the task of artistic creation, the artist is engaging in creative intent and method. As an example, let’s look back at what Stravinsky told the students who attended his Norton Lectures in 1939: 

“I shall not forget that I occupy a chair of poetics. And it is no secret to any of you that the exact meaning of poetics is the study of work to be done. The verb poiem from which the word is derived means nothing else but to do or make. The poetics of the classical philosophers did not consist of lyrical dissertations about natural talent and about the essence of beauty. For them the single word techne embraced both the fine arts and the useful arts and was applied to the knowledge and study of the certain and inevitable rules of the craft. That is why Aristotle’s Poetics constantly suggest ideas regarding personal work, arrangement of materials, and structure. The poetics of music is exactly what I am going to talk to you about; that is to say, I shall talk about making in the field of music.”

Mere ego is well-represented in the press: 

“Thompson notes that although Alwi has constructed many seafaring vessels, he was very proud of this particular ship; when it did not appear in initial images she took of the exhibition (the special plexiglass cover for it was still being completed), he communicated his ire openly with his legal counsel. “Where is my ship?” he purportedly asked.

To Thompson, that Alwi was throwing a bit of a tantrum – that he was “acting like an artist” – was a positive development. For a man whose person has been systematically and brutally subjected, for over a decade, to a powerful empire’s exercises of power, for a person who has “disappeared” in a torture camp, this ire – a display of ego – is a sign that no amount of machinations by the US has managed to fully to erase his subjectivity. 

Here is another primal mistake of mistaking the arrogance of destruction with the patience of human continuity (construction is part of a spectrum because it can be built upon). Miro, one of the artists assaulted on September 11th, 2001, answers with the following: 

“Anonymity allows me to renounce myself, but in renouncing myself I come to affirm myself even more. In the same way that silence is a denial of noise, but as a result, the slightest noise in silence becomes enormous.” 

T.S. Eliott teaches us that: 

“What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.”

“Poetry: Eliott adds, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

One of the most Astonishing acts of creative devotion occurred during a period of less than one month between April and May 1819. A twenty-three-year-old poet living in Hampstead composed “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “Ode on Indolence.” John Keats then completed the sequence on September 19 with one of the most perfect poems in any language: “To Autumn.”

T.S. Eliot contended: 

Keats [is] a singular figure in a varied and remarkable period.

Keats seems to me also a great poet… The Odes—especially perhaps the Ode to Psyche—are enough for his reputation. But I am not so much concerned with the degree of his greatness as with its kind; and its kind is manifested more clearly in his Letters than in his poems; and in contrast with the kinds we have been reviewing, it seems to me to be much more the kind of Shakespeare. The Letters are certainly the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet. His letters are what letters ought to be: the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle. His observations suggested by Wordsworth’s Gypsey, in a letter to Bailey of 1817, are of the finest quality of criticism, and the deepest penetration:

“It seems to me that if Wordsworth had thought a little deeper at that moment, he would not have written the poem at all. I should judge it to have been written in one of the most comfortable moods of his life—it is a kind of sketchy intellectual landscape, not a search for truth.

I am lucky to have grown up with Keats, who taught me about such fundamentally valuable things as artistic truth, power, among other things. Consider this letter:

In passing, however, I must say one thing that has pressed upon me lately, and increased my Humility and capability of submission—and that is this truth—Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect—but they have not any individuality, any determined character—I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power.

Nor should a superficial reading of the word “beauty” interfere with the fundamental creative truth expressed in the poem. When it comes to “beauty”, Keats teaches those of us who are paying attention that “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth—Examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness—”

It should be said that it is not simply the case that the related proximity of beauty and truth in a work of art does not negate the terrible in the world or it’s representation. The beauty-truth relationship is, in fact, the only way by which artists are able to allow us to perceive and contemplate the most extraordinary ugliness and most brutal terror and darkness while still allowing us the opportunity to understand these forces by maintaining our curiosity with regards to the objects or events at hand. It is the only way that the plutonian void and nothingness of The Raven could possibly be rendered; not through a vacuum but through the construction of a constructively attained poetic object; one which Poe took great pains to explain to us. It is the way that James Cameron allows us to experience the maiden voyage of the Titanic and not simply “live to tell the tale” but to understand the story of the ship in a way that is sharply contrasted with “fine forensic analysis” or the work of “Sylvan historians.” 

As for where the character and personality of the poet, composer, director, author, actor or any other  practitioner of an art form (or combination of several), Keats summed it up elegantly in this way in a letter to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818):

“As to the poetical Character itself … it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet…. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, The Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity….”

Keats’ particular way with words—his strategic deployments—serve as the very means by which the  seemingly transcendent becomes immanent and immanently clear. It becomes ours. His shimmering word art was the only method by which he could achieve the status—the carved solidity—of the Elgin Marbles. He had schooled his fluencies (his work is filled with metrical knowledge and melodic intent— a profound technique; all of which he uses to the benefit of the reader). A sterling poetic dedication and craftsmanship stood behind his axiom of Romantic spontaneity and, indeed, allowed it to stand: “That which is creative must create itself.”

 

2. Ode on a Grecian Urn

The Ode on a Grecian Urn is clearly about a poetic object (the urn) that is made by the hand of human beings. It has survived those human beings and everything they knew. That the urn exists as an object that Keat’s regards with wonder and, finally, as a beautiful object, is clear from the poem. The urn has survived into a world that is as foreign in it’s legend and narrative to Keats as an observer looking back to the ancient greek setting that was home to the creator of the urn just as the 19th Century that Keats inhabited would have been foreign to the Greek artisan were he able to look forward through the millennia. 

Keats is engaging in all of this and more. But a deeper artistic inquiry into the nature of Keats’ Ode—and it’s object(s)— is worth considering especially because of the assumptions made about what is deemed to be “romantic art” and about Keats in particular. For a poet and poem that has been accused of flawed sentimentality and the extortion of a false piety to art, the reality is that Keats is writing about something quite pitiless and unequivocal. Let us start by looking at the entire ode. Keats renders each stanza into strict meter with the following repetition: ABABCDE. But, ingeniously, he also develops the final three lines (CDE) in a way that resembles the technique of motivic development of our most austere, commanding and beautifully logical symphonists. Keats evokes simultaneous unity and variety throughout the poem: 

1

               Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

                        Thou foster child of silence and slow time,

               Sylvan Historian, who can’st thus express

                         A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme, –

               What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape,

                         Of Deities, or mortals, or of both

                                  In Tempe, or the Dales of Arcady?

                         What men or Gods are these? what maidens ^ loth?

              What love? what dance? what struggle to escape?

                         What pipes and timbrels? what wild extacy?

                                 _______________________

                                               2

             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;

             Fair Youth, beneath the trees thou can’st not leave

                       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare, –

                                 Bold lover, never, never can’st thou Kiss.

             Tho’ winning near the goal, 0, do not grieve!

                       She cannot fade, tho’ thou hast not thy bliss

                       For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

                                         3

           Ah! happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

                    Your leaves, no ever bid the spring adieu;

           And happy melodist! unwearied

                    For ever piping songs for ever new;

           More happy love! more happy, happy love!

                    For ever warm, and still to be enjoyed,

                                 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.

                                        4

          Who are these coming to the Sacrifice?

                   To what green Altar, O mysterious Priest!

          Lead’st thou that Heifer lowing at the skies,

                   And all her silken sides with garlands drest?

          What little town by river or sea shore,

                   Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,

                             is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

          And, little Town, thy streets, for evermore,

                   Will silent be, and not a soul, to tell

                            Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

                                          5

           O Attic shape! fair attitude! with bride

                    Of marble men and maidens, overwrought

           With forest-branches and ^ the trodden weed, –

                    Thou silent form dost tease us out of thought

           As doth Eternity! cold Pastoral,

                    When old-age shall this generation waste,

                               Thou wilt remain in midst of other woe

                    Than our’s, as friend to man, to whom thou say’st

           Beauty is truth, – Truth Beauty, – that is all

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

Keats poses many questions before he finally arrives at the poetic truth that closes the Ode. Moreover, he provides us with no resolution to the curiosities raised by his querying after the stories that appear to be depicted on the urn that he is admiring. All the human tales aside, one truth is clear: that the poet is in the presence of a poetic object which he finds to be beautiful. This object, the Urn, would seem to Keats to be the subject of study for “Sylvan historians.” It has, of course, survived all the people and legends that it was made to depict. It has survived the disappearance of the village or town in which it was made; it has survived the erosion of the streets where it was conceived. The hands that made it are long dead. The entire worthy society and civilization of Greece in which the Urn was made has long since passed away and yet the urn survives as a “foster-child of silence and slow time.” 

Keats’s final observation results from every element of the urn’s poetic construction (as articulated by Keats).  As the composer of the ode, Keats, far from exercising an indulgence in some romantic frill, is compelled to equate truth to the presence of the evidently beautiful object. 

Why does Keats find the urn beautiful? Keats allows us the witness the plot unfold as he allows us to be audience to his questions. At first, the questioning is intuitive; guided by observation but also by the curiosity  of the poet and his feelings about the depictions on the urn: 

“What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?”

We read the piling of question upon unresolved question excite Keats’ mind as he accelerates his inquisition. He accomplishes this by increasing the number of questions and also through the intensification of the subjectively deployed language of fancy. The stanza, by way of the words that question the depiction of a “mad pursuit” lead us on a mad pursuit of our own which delivers us to the end of the stanza as it cadences on the words “what wild ecstasy?”:

“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

Keats’ next lines offer us a glimpse into the territory of meaning which can never be fully deciphered: the metaphysical world of a representation which Keats interprets as the sacrifice at the alter in the presence of a “mysterious priest”:

“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green alter, O mysterious priest,

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies?”

The final line of this stanza invokes the implication of violence in the sacrifice in the silent representation, through the depictions on urn itself as well as the imaginative interpretation in mind of Keats as poet-admirer,  of a “heifer lowing at the skies.” 

Keats then reminds us that the urn is silent despite the evocative glimpse that he has given us into his mind’s interpretation of the poetic object: 

“…Emptied of this folk, this pious morn

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.”

The urn’s silence comes as no surprise, of course. It is not here to allow the dead to speak or sing let alone to “bring them back to life.”  At the opening of his Ode, Keats reminded us that the Sylvan Historian could “express/ A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” and confirmed, already, that it is not the duty of his poem to unearth the historical truths of narrative and circumstance that lies in the domain of accurate scholarship. The urn, is a “silent form” that Keats praises as conveying qualities that are akin to eternity and seemingly related to those natural forces of the “Cold Pastoral.”

“Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

As he does throughout his Ode, Keats discusses the urn as a poetic embodiment of artistic technique and form. The urn is a physical manifestation of the abstract geometry, symmetry and a diverse array of elements that comprise mere form. The affinity that Keats evokes when discussing the trueness of the urn as a poetically created artistic form that makes sense even though the stories it portrays are foreign to the observer.  The urn itself, however, does not strike us as foreign in it’s form. We understand it even though we accept that there are mysteries that accurate scholarship could be assigned to explain (“What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape”) as well as those that Keats doesn’t even attempt to encourage explaining (the metaphysics of a “mysterious priest” at the green alter depicting certain sacrificial rites that have been consigned to their moment in history). As each legend and rite is dismissed in favor of the next queries, Keats reminds us of the true form that we are admiring; a form that makes sense and is in no way foreign to human perception. In words that extol pure form (“O Attic shape! fair attitude!”) and plays on the idea that the depictions are both overwrought figures in that they are built up and elaborated past the elemental forms of art that Keats is celebrating as universal in the urn as well as affected by the corrosion caused by nature and the deterioration of specific human memory that comes with the passage of time. This is the mystification of legends and rendering of rituals into incomprehensibility and the rendering of human forms into forms that are eventually unrecognizable to any living person. 

Of marble men and maidens, overwrought

With forest-branches and ^ the trodden weed, –

In chapter three, I demonstrated the elemental meaning and self-evident poetic truth of three water vessels that spanned centuries and cultures. While demonstrating the formal incoherence that resulted from the careless meshing of artistic techniques most often employed by writers of fictionwith the illusion of journalistic reporting, I used these objects as an example of how form and content could cohere and were, in fact, reliant on one another: 

“I am leaving aside all deeper meaning of ritual, rarity of contents to be stored, symbology or an infinite number of other considerations that inform these vessels’ meaning as artistic objects. All I’m talking about is the surface meaning; the meaning that reaches for these objects’ universality and their relationship to the universal human circuitry. That meaning should not be hard to abide by.”

There are many true interpretations of artistic works. But allowing for a diversity of critical interpretations does not negate or even challenge the presence of fundamental artistic truths on which the artist is reliant if he/she is to bring poetic works into existence. The constructive principle is not simply that the object exists (that is a part of it). It lies in the artistic object’s relationship to universal human circuitry that is rooted in every human being’s perception of reality.  

“There are not a million ways to store liquid in a vessel and pour liquid from that vessel. That is the essential principle of being for these objects. They were created in such a way that their technique and form are self-evident to one another; the intent is clear and the method of execution works in elegant consort with the craft.”

This is what Keats ultimately conceives of as the subject of his ode. The inherent function of the eternal forms that make the urn comprehensible despite everything foreign and everything ugly and everything incomprehensible and everything else it may attempt to depict. It is the work of a human hand affirming form as existence. It celebrates the creative act which, limited by our human capacities as it may be, is still and always the only avenue human beings  have to chart their journey from what seemed to be chaos, formlessness and void and emerge into light and sound and all the things that we can understand and see to be ordered and “good.”

Any destruction caused by individuals who obscure form in favor of confusion is incidental and not necessarily intentional. Far from making the situation better, this fact only serves to make it harder to identify obfuscation and confusion since there are no “lies” to detect. It is impossible to perceive that someone is lying when they are unaware of the fact themselves. Confusion can only survive in a state of of ambiguity. This if because form, by definition, requires definition. An increased tendency to confound series to prey upon the insecurity of others as well as expand attitudes of self-doubt and distrust among well-meaning/normal people. By expanding the realm of confusion, they are in effect, expanding their reach of influence. Whether Intentional or unintentional, the exercise of spreading chaos may consistently by seen to be a goal because it expands an atmosphere in which even the simplest person has second thoughts about their own common sense. This allows people who prefer to pretend that they are engaging in creative acts rather than admit their own inability to comprehend a given situation (on the one hand) and/or their unwillingness to simply enjoy the fruits of creative labor to generate a “make believe” reality based on their perceptions and deeply personal impressions of the world and desires of their place within it. This is not a nefarious plot nor is it a conspiracy. They are simply unable to understand how their own perception would not be the perception of everybody else. (note:  Maya Angelou, black girls)

In their self-assuredness, they assault everything which is not perfect. This constitutes everything that human beings know and experience. The defensive nature of their certainty is ironically borne of their own insecurity which leads them to develop an inability to learn. One of the most self-evidently simple poems ever written, the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” describes frozen images of a cold and lost pastoral. It may seem strange therefore, that this poem inspires such fiery, zealous, and personal responses from its detractors. The reactions are so strident that the reader may commit the mistake of thinking their own perceptions of reality mistaken, rather than debunk arguments that are overwrought. Beauty and truth require no education in literature or erudtion in the arts. Those things can be perceived clearly by everybody and they belong to everybody.

They might (and I have shown some who do) posit the notion that the very presence of any “subjectivity” on the part of the reader immediately serves to make the perception of reality impossible. Since human beings are engaged in what will be an endless process of learning and discovery, this “all or nothing” attitude is not simply detestable for being drenched in false logic. It would, if adopted as a human credo, entail the end of all learning, growth and understanding. The presence of “subjective perception” and innate human imperfection would disqualify our efforts before we begin. In the unlikely event that humanity developed the capability (attaining a flawless knowledge and understanding of “everything”) that our critics require from us in order for exploration to commence, the divine feat would be perfectly useless since we would have already attained absolute understanding of “everything” by that point. 

This places an impossible “entrance fee” to the arts and learning; those are human rights thats should involve no petty trader’s fee (let alone an impossible one). More egregiously, it places an impossible precondition to anyone wanting to perceive reality itself. Absolutes and binaries are the thought-processes of adolescents and extremists. The reader needs no permission to be human nor does anyone require the blessings of others in order to see the world for themselves. A total understanding of everything is beyond human means. That “total understanding” would also mean the end of the Newtons of this world “finding a prettier shell” and an end to the Longfellows of this world leaving “footprints in the sands of time.” Every human being should be free to perceive reality and also to perceive shared realities with their fellow human beings. This should be attainable (and pleasurable). Being curious human beings who enjoy learning about true and beautiful things should not come at any price that is set by others, When that price involves the abortion of the cumulative lessons and understanding that humanity can count as one of its hard-fought assets, we should all agree that those assets must be defended. They define the anthology of human memory and experience.

The poet, in fact, describes a process and makes the message of the poem evident through that process and through our awareness of the poet’s awareness of that process. The admirer of the urn, presumably Keats himself, makes the mistake of projecting his own personal world onto the urn by concentrating on minutia that should be the domain of the sylvan historian’s flowery tales, rather than the self-evident forms of poetry and art. The question of whether the attitudes of the poems represent the personal convictions of the poet are irrelevant and unprovable one way or the other in any case. The “beauty” referred to in the poem is much larger than Keats himself and much larger than humanity. These attic shapes apply throughout the known universe.

Just as Keats modulates the Urn’s admirer into the thick of subjective inquisition, the urn turns to address Keats. Since urns do not “speak”, this language, as well as the perception of the abstract forms that make the urn recognizably universal to the poet, exist in the mind of the poet. The reader of the poem is also engaged (if reading silently to oneself) in witnessing the act of creation. It must be made clear that the reader is not engaged in any part of the creative process. They are engaged in perceiving and appreciating the creative process through Keats’s eyes. The silent form is given shape by the poet just as the poet’s perception of the silent form takes shape to the reader.

Subjective detractors focus their efforts on the final lines of this ode with a devotion and zeal that raises questions. Their efforts to “prove” these lines “false” are various and inventive; overwrought and complex. Above all the tone of inquiry registers as personally invested at least and oftentimes transgresses into the realm of desperately abusive. 

In a 1997 essay titled On Ode On a Grecian Urn, Andrea Tamar captures the manufacture of “controversy” and “mystery” that overreaching commentators have struggled to maintain despite the poem’s persistent assertion of it’s profoundly simple truth: 

 

“Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ has been subject to several interpretations since it first appeared. The endless swirl of polemics, stemming chiefly from the “mystery” of the last lines (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”) began with T. S. Eliot’s infamous statement (‘this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem”) and proceeded with the consecutive commentaries of several critics devoted to the New Criticism or the French “explication de texte.’ In 1983, Helen Vendler published a collection of essays on the Odes which was the first to consider the poem as being itself a possible interpretation of an aesthetic experience.”

Ms. Tamar captures the passion and persistence of Keat’s detractors well. But the polemics surrounding the last lines can hardly be said to have begun with T.S. Eliot’s assessment (a concern which he characterizes as “grammatical”) of 1932-33. Hardly a year had passed since Keat’s Ode entered into the world before we got pronouncements such as this one by Josiah Conder, writing in the Eclectic Review in 1820: 

“Mr Keats, seemingly, can think or write of scarcely any thing else than the ‘happy pieties’ of Paganism. A Grecian Urn throws him into an ecstasy: its ‘silent form,’ he says, ‘doth tease us out of thought as doth Eternity,’—a very happy description of the bewildering effect which such subjects have at least had upon his own mind; and his fancy having thus got the better of his reason, we are the less surprised at the oracle which the Urn is made to utter:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all

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

That is, all that Mr Keats knows or cares to know.—But till he knows much more than this, he will never write verses fit to live.”

The fact that my own reader is currently engaging with the very same lines that Mr. Conder cited as “proof” of his view (articulated two centuries ago) that Mr. Keats will “never write verses fit to live” should demonstrate all that needs to be demonstrated about the lines in question. 

A down to earth reading of the poem would be easier than the effort and tangential research required in order to produce these endless polemics and keep them up for over two centuries. Even the work required in developing a truly critical mode of inquiry and thought would be a simpler task than the enigmatic variations spun out of needlessly complex strands of ill-suited counterpoint. 

Leo Spitzer’s 1955 essay on the Ode reveals as much about the habits and tactics of the obfuscating critic as it sheds light on the simple truths contained within Keats’ ode:

“Moreover, Wasserman assumes that in the last line and a half the poet is preaching a lesson to his fellowmen, whereas in reality Keats himself, who had ‘sinned’ before against the work of art (by his historical curiosity), has only now learned the lesson (about its purely aesthetic message that endures whether the urn depicts “for ever” warm human love or a civilization from which “not a soul . . . can e’er return”). It must be the urn which formulates for Keats the lesson which he as well as mankind needs, and which both will be grateful to hear.”

Keats is not preaching false pieties. The lesson is as much for Keats as it is for the reader. This is clear from the variations of the line that appeared in various drafts of the poem such as this one transcribed by Keats’ friends: 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all . . .

In the first publication of the poem (Annals of the Fine Arts,1820) the line appears as :

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.—That is all . . . 

And the 1820 volume of Keats’s poems reads, 

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all . . . 

The intention in all the iterations above is to render the lines spoken by the Urn in a fashion that  distinguishes them from Keat’s “personal” and “interpretive” voice and yet they can only result as a consequence to Keat’s falling for the trap of rendering a “flowery tale”; something he earlier ascribed as the duty of the Sylvian Historian. 

Despite this clarity, the detractors persist in their attempts to arbitrarily separate the final lines of the poem from the remainder of the very same poem which progresses so flawlessly. It is a curious strategy on the part of antagonistic critics that has them rendering their polemic in a fashion that can be disproven through a reading of the very work that they are purporting to analyze. 

Citing the third version of this verse quoted above (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all . . .) some critics have gone so far as to argue that the Urn is “speaking” only the first line (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”) only to have Keats finish the thought “That is all ye know…” Spitzer addresses this charge elegantly: 

“And how can one imagine that, having at the end endowed the urn of stone with speech, Keats should then undo the miracle he has wrought, interrupt (after five words!) the direct, suprapersonal flow of communication between work of art and mankind which he had helped create (through the delicate passage from “thou” to “us” of line 44 to “ours” and “man” of line 48), and take the limelight for himself just before the curtain falls, dismissing his audience with the complacent statement: “I the poet am telling you that what I have just said is all you need to know” ? All of this would represent, in my opinion, an inadmissible lack of taste on Keats’s part. In order to understand the final development of our poem the critic must have experienced religiously, even as Keats did, the numinous quality of the work of art.” 

At this point, it is worthwhile to state the reasonable and obvious: Keats was not trying to jeopardize his own work neither did he display “inadmissible lack of taste” in this poem or any other that I have read (here I include works that were written earlier than the present Ode). So what’s going on? Spitzer hints at an answer: 

“The urn, which has in the last stanza grown in power of presence and has come to speak, must have the last word and this last word must be one of friendship and consolation for the community of man. Keats’s own “numinous” experience with the urn had been a suprapersonal one and its exemplary value can be communicated to mankind only by the friendly numen itself to which he owes his experience and which, in a kind of reversed Ovidian metamorphosis, finds a human voice to speak warm human words from the marble of art and the silence of history. If the urn spoke only the short intellectual aphorism “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” without the personal address to humanity, as Mr. Wasserman suggests, it would not be humane.”

But Keats did not write a “short intellectual aphorism.” He wrote a poem. This serene Ode on a Grecian Urn functions as a perfect storm of provocation to any practitioner of metaphysical or mystical interpretation who relies on ambiguity and personal opinion to conceal a lack of ability to understand in the cloak of a contribution. This contribution, it must be remembered, may be pointless or even dangerous but cannot be regarded as insincere because it is sincere on the part of the contributor. It is easily demonstrated that several of these “contributors” rely on their “contribution” as a source of their personal and social relevance. In that context, their defensiveness is understandable. Any creature that has it’s relevance threatened will reflexively act in passionate defense of it. Their survival may not be at stake but the meaning of their survival certainly is. 

 

3. Truth is Beauty (at Least)

Let us consider two of Stravinsky’s most fundamental and important questions. He raises these in the Poetics of Music. I would like to consider the questions through the lens of the Ode on a Grecian Urn: 

“The old original sin was chiefly a sin of knowledge; the new original sin, if I may speak in these terms, is first and foremost a sin of non-acknowledgment—a refusal to acknowledge the truth and the laws that proceed therefrom, laws that we have called fundamental. What then is this truth in the domain of music? And what are its repercussions on creative activity?”

More generally, the questions I would like to consider are as follows: 

  1. What then is truth in the domain of art? 
  1. What are the repercussions of a non-acknowledgement of the truth and the laws which proceed therefrom upon creativity and human beings in general?”

To attempt an understanding, let’s cut to the heart of what lies at the closing lines of Keat’s ode. What makes these particular lines so “controversial”? Why are they the subject of such heated debate? 

“It seems then,” says Spitzer, “that the final philosophical statement does not stand for an illumination rising from the aesthetic experience, but is a knowledge(!), that one can have on earth without being able to make the final leap to transcendence.”

Without that final leap, we are left with the simple option of addressing the content of the artwork before us. That’s an option that provides very little place to hide and even less space to make wild claims in the name of infinite subjectivity to say noting of unproven (and unprovable) personality-cultural specifics. 

The fact that Keats’ admirer must abandon subjective personality and personal interpretation before the Urn reveals its fullest and truest form to him must be enough to frighten those who rely on that security blanket to reinforce their sense of self-worth. The insecure need to make themselves feel creative and smart (ie worthy). 

The fact that the Ode on a Grecian Urn begins to resemble an interpretive commentary on the artwork in question only to fail as a work of interpretation must be doubly frightening to those same people who fashion themselves judges, juries and executioners upon whose blessings (and perceived “creative contribution” art (they imagine) relies if it is to survive. 

The fact that the creative work of art is finally and best understood through the act of creation and not through interpretation makes matters even worse for those who can neither create nor understand those works of art (sometimes explaining their lack of comprehension or feeling as based in a loss of ability to believe in human or worldly spirits and sporting a dismissal of the soul itself). Keats makes no case (and admits no need) for abusers who parade as (self-proclaimed) judges, tutors or proxy creators. His art is our understanding of the art in question. 

Finally, we have the eternal lines: 

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all

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

The fact that the Urn clearly “speaks” those lines must be devastating to the commerce and purpose of those who work so hard to repel humanity and cast them away from art in order for the aforementioned traders to indulge in their greed and in their fantasy of categorizing and arbitrarily dividing art into genres that serve no purpose other than to falsely paint the business executive as a driving force behind an artist’s intent and success. How devastating to the trade of publishers and auctioneers who believe that beauty, truth and even fun can be contained by their quotas or made to go “out of style.” For their commerce and efforts, these executives and traders have had their practices immortalized by Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde observed this type of person in a poem titled On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters:

These are the letters which Endymion wrote

To one he loved in secret, and apart.

And now the brawlers of the auction mart

Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,

Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote

The merchant’s price. I think they love not art

Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart

That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

Is it not said that many years ago,

In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran

With torches through the midnight, and began

To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw

Dice for the garments of a wretched man,

Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?”

They glare and gloat. The very existence of their trade speaks of a lack of soul. The fact that they have to wrangle over the soul of a wretched man is a poor but telling substitute. It speaks of their desperation to buy what they lack but what can never be bought or sold. This unseemly trade also places a self-appointed social club that fashions itself an “artworld” into the position of imagining themselves creative spirits without having to do the work or develop the respect for honesty and creation that would make their efforts worth something to begin with. These and many more conspire to trade in the human soul. They do so under the aegis of a pretend reality which has them selling the loves and labors of humanity for cash, self-interest and self-validation.

Keats accomplishes multiple things in the final lines of his Ode on a Grecian Urn. These may shed light on the final lines of the urn which I would like to do in the final part of this book.

1) The lines communicated by the Urn are communicated in a way that distinguishes them from Keat’s “personal” and “interpretive” voice. The Urn is “communicating” these lines  silently. It communicates through it’s very presence and not through any “flowery tale.” Narrative and “story” are rejected in favor of “what is simply there” (objective truth).

2) The lines come as a consequence of the narrator’s getting carried away. He falls for the trap of making up a “flowery tale.” This is not the job of art but the job of the “Sylvian Historian” as the poem’s narrator himself says earlier. The observer of the urn gets carried away. He creates speculative stories which are based on his feelings about the Urn rather than appreciating the work of art for what it is. The subjective and personal stories being created are invented as a reaction to the artwork being observed (the urn) and not as the narrator’s “own” stories. 

3) The narrator is inspired by the urn but does not produce his own work. Keats, of course, has composed a poem out of this scenario. But it remains that the narrator of the poem has not yet produced his own work. He has simply been inspired by the work of someone else (the urn).

4) Despite multiple attempts, the narrator cannot weave a verifiably true tale by examining the friezes on the Urn’s surface and making a story out of those images. That is all speculative. Any truth in this regard will be the work of a “historian” as the poem notes. Artistic truth will only be found in the things that the narrator can perceive in the urn artistically. This is, namely, the form of the urn. The narrator fails to project a narrative onto the urn.

5) Keat’s narrator fails to understand the urn because he does not appreciate the urn on it’s own terms. This is why the final lines are communicated by the urn. A water jug, urn, carpet or coffin must function as intended. Keats’s narrator is able to see the beauty and truth of the urn through it’s “attic shape” and “fair attitude.” This is why the urn communicates. The narrator is forced to experience the truth of the artwork through it’s own function and on it’s own terms.

6) The way in which this entire situation is demonstrated (and demonstrated to be true) is through Keats’ composition of a poem. Keats allows us to understand through the poem. We imagine the urn appreciate it’s “fair attitude” and “attic shape” through the poem. We experience the failure of the narrator’s speculative and subjective storytelling through the poem. The urn communicates to us (as silent readers or in our imagination if we recite it) through the poem. The urn presents itself as a “friend to man” through the poem. Though the settlement and people who lived in the age when urn was created are long-gone, the urn affirms itself as the work of human hands and evidence of humanity. The settlement and people in question may be dead but the urn shows us that the settlement and human beings in question once existed. It is able to “do” all this because Keats wrote a poem. It is through a work of art (the poem) that we are able to understand another work of art (the urn).

7) Following the narrator’s failure to experience the urn through “the self”, we are finally allowed to experience it through the urn speaking for the urn itself. The work of art communicates for itself without any need for justification.

These are seven key things which bother the abusers of this poem. The function of the urn justifies itself to the narrator in the poem. The function of the poem justifies itself (and all that is contained within it) to the reader. 

“It is through the unhampered play of its functions, then, that a work is revealed and justified,” says Stravinsky in the Poetics of Music. The urn and the poem reveal themselves and justify themselves through their very existence. The urn reveals itself as an object of Keats’ imagination and the poem reveals itself as a whole poem of Keats’ creation. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is a kind of double-whammy (at least) to those who sport the anti-poetic attitudes we have seen throughout this book.

“We are free to accept or reject this play,” says Stravinsky, “but no one has the right to question the fact of its existence. To judge, dispute, and criticize the principle of speculative volition which is at the origin of all creation is thus manifestly useless.”

 “Beauty is truth, – Truth Beauty, – that is all/ Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know” confirms Stravinsky’s observation in the most direct terms. The speculative volition is the origin of all creation. Keats demonstrates this through the narrators speculative inspiration throughout the poem and leading up to those final lines. 

It must be a confounding observation to those who cannot ask that question and everything within it when Keats, in his humility, allowed the artwork to “speak for itself.”

The Ode on a Grecian Urn is a poem about the experience of art and the experience of what is true and beautiful. It is, by extension, also a poem about artistic truth. 

“By its fruit we judge the tree. Judge the tree by its fruit then, and do not meddle with the roots. Function justifies an organ, no matter strange the organ may appear in the eyes of those who are not accustomed to see its functioning. Snobbish circles are cluttered with person who, like one of Montesquieu’s characters, wonder how one can possibly be a Persian. They make me think unfailingly of the story of the peasant who, on seeing a dromedary in zoo for the first time, examines it at length, shakes his head and, turning to leave, says, to the great delight of those present:  ‘It isn’t true.’”

For those who do not wish to interact with the “unhampered play of its functions” and for those who cannot play and wish to deprive others of the enjoyment that comes when they interact with art, the arts must seem a terrible mockery rather than a friend to man. For those whose involvement in creative work is to “judge, dispute, and criticize the principle of speculative volition,” Keats’ observation touches on a sensitive spot. It is undeniable that, for the artist, speculation and inspiration are “at the origin of all creation,” as Stravinsky says. To deny that is “manifestly useless.” 

To deny inspiration at the source of creation is useless. Those deny the truth of objects that are made manifest before their very eyes are engaged in delusion. We can, and must, now add that second point to Stravinsky’s initial observation.

With the words, “Beauty is truth, – Truth Beauty, – that is all/ Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know,” Keats completes a poem. Keats also shows his reader the act of speculative volition with the narrator’s stories in the very same poem. The subjective and objective elements exist because of his creation. Otherwise we would not be discussing the urn, the narrator or his ideas and inner opinions. Without the Ode on a Grecian urn, we would not have knowledge of any of these things.

Keats demonstrates the act of speculative volition which should by all accounts, fail on it’s own terms. But the readers knows about the speculative musings of the narrator. We know about the inspiration of the narrator. We know about the subjective tales of the narrator as well as about an object called the “Grecian Urn.” How do we know? How have we learned? Because Keats, himself, did not stop at the speculative. Keats’ poem makes the “subjective stories” as well as the objects (the narrator and the urn) into factual things.

By the time that anyone can deny their existence, it is too late. People might try to deny the existence of an object in the poem. People might try to deny the poem itself. People might try to deny that which is communicated by the Urn or try to deny the personal stories invented by the narrator. They can, have and will continue to say “it isn’t true.” But they are already too late. The poem has been made. We already have the knowledge that Keats has given us. He has already made that knowledge concrete. How can we unknow it retrospectively? How can we say, having experienced the poem made manifest, that “it isn’t true”? 

By the time that those words could ever materialize, it is too late for the negators anyhow. We already know what they wish to negate. We have already seen and experienced that which they wish to deny as false. 

Short of abandoning our own senses, we cannot abide this negation whether it applies to Keats’ Urn, the wildest fancies of his narrator, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Darth Vader. They have already been made and they mean something to someone other than their creator. They are true.

Keats did not stop at the cognitive or speculative. He made something. He composed a poem called “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He created a work of art. It is in this work of art that Keats is able to write the following words and, at the same time, attest to their truth as fact: 

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all

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

Hi The “urn” of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is not an object. Keats himself goes to great trouble in ensuring that the “urn” which appears in the poem is not an actual urn. He does this by combining features of several existing urns including the two urns which follow:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keats then proceeds to put it all together. The initial stage of his design process culminated in the following urn (which does not exist as a real historical artifact). Here is Keat’s design for the fictional urn which appears in Ode on a Grecian Urn: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It must be emphasized that Keats is not content to simply leave the urn which he represents in his poem unidentified. He actively makes sure that the urn which is represented in the poem is fictional. The urn is a subject. Keats ensures that this subject can and will never be studied by a “Sylvian Historian” or any other type of historian. He intentionally renders the urn in question as a subjective entity and also forces it to remain subjective. The many narrative questions which the admirer of the urn projects upon the urn are not simply left unanswered in the poem. Keats goes out of his way to ensure that they shall never be answered because they cannot (by design of the poet). 

1) What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape,

Of Deities, or mortals, or of both

In Tempe, or the Dales of Arcady?

2)  What men or Gods are these? what maidens ^ loth?

 

3)   What love? what dance? what struggle to escape?

 

4) What pipes and timbrels? what wild ecstasy?

5) Who are these coming to the Sacrifice?
6) To what green Altar, O mysterious Priest!
7) Lead’st thou that Heifer lowing at the skies,

                   And all her silken sides with garlands drest?

The questions, speculations and conflations in the eight parts (of my own labeling) cannot be quantified. They are joined together with assumptions and also with contradictions (warm/cold pastoral). The labels above illustrate the tempo of questioning and increasing euphoria on the part of the viewer of the urn as he gets more and more carried away. The reader will note that he does, indeed, get carried away even after declaring the urn to be a “foster child of silence and slow time” (something which he does at the very opening of the poem. 

The observer’s questions continue as we are introduced to his geographical speculations as well as his impressions of the environment (peaceful citadel) surrounding the characters on the frieze for whom he has concocted stories. It will be noted that the observed invents these flowery tales after telling us that such a thing would be best left to a “Sylvian Historian” (another contradiction which results from the observer’s excitement over something which he finds to be irresistibly beautiful about the urn before him). 

As his desire to learn about the source of his sensory pleasure grows stronger, the observer begins to make assumptions about peoples (“this folk”) and time (“this pious morn”). The word “this” refers to something specific. Since the observer does not (and cannot) know of any specific people or dates, he is clearly making assumptions. Keats designs the second of these assumptions to be twice as bad as the first. Of the three words (“this pious morn”) Keats can only be referring to time in two instances: “this” and “morn”. The observer does not know of a specific date for this morning which renders the word “this” purely speculative. Neither can the observer know that the scene occurs in the morning which renders the word “morn” also speculative. 

That leaves us with the word “pious.” That word cannot be understood to qualify as an assumption (he’s not saying it is morning or that it happens on this date). Pious is an adjective which means that it is appropriate for use as a word which describes the feelings of the the observer about the object he is observing. The observer has every right to describe something which strikes one as pious in those terms. By doing so, he is communicating his feelings. When the observer speaks about unknown dates in certain terms (“this date”) he is projecting his speculative assumptions onto an object which the reader is to understand as an historical object. The observer is similarly projecting his assumptions onto the scene by assuming that it takes place in the morning. It is clear that the observer does not possess certain knowledge of the situation (not least because of the amount of speculation that he is engaged in and also because he renders the historical aspects of the narrative to a historian). If one cannot attest to an historical fact as a fact, it may be fully accepted that the observer of the urn in question is starting to weave a story of his own and project it onto the urn. Here are the lines in question. We can now add an eighth section to the first seven articles of inquiry which we have already dissected:

8)  What little town by river or sea shore,

                   Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,

                             is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

Keats then reiterates the unwillingness of the urn (which is, in reality, the inability of the observer to define it’s exterior details in narrative terms) to be imposed upon with futile speculation. Even as he does this, Keats skillfully reiterates yet another speculative function which he adds to the attempts at temporal, geographic, demographic, qualitative, contextual and atmospheric speculation which we have observed thus-far. As if all those were not enough, the observer reiterates a spacial speculation when he utters the words “little town” for the second time without, of course, having any recourse to knowledge about the size of the town in question:

     And, little Town, thy streets, for evermore,

                   Will silent be, and not a soul, to tell

                            Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

 

Urns are objects. and is rendered subjectively through Keats’ creation of the urn within the context of the poem. The ode as a poetic form is just as much of a form as the “box” is a form before such a box is actually made. In other words, it is not a form at all. One can study the “ode as a form” by studying odes which have been written and identifying similarities, conventions and dogma in the study of odes. This is all done in hindsight. Everything which is considered to be a “form” by theorists is, in fact, applied backwards (ie after the form has already been created). Forms simply do not exist in theory as they are not conceptual things. Forms are, quite simply, forms. A form needs to first be made into a factual object. This is done by an artist and  then it is made visible to others. Any form must be made visible before it is even perceived, let alone studied or appreciated, by “theorists”. One may not accurately suppose the following: 

“The ode as a poetic form is made objective by the fact that Keats composed an ode; an actual, tangible poem which is on the page.”

The object which is on the page before us is a specific ode (namely Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn). We are able to study this object (the poem) because we are studying a specific poem (and not “the ode as a form.” 

In the Muqaddamah, Ibn Khaldun defined the science of literature (ie studying literature rather than making literary works) as follows: “This science has no object the accidents of which may be studied and thus be affirmed or denied. Philologists consider its purpose identical with its fruit, which is (the acquisition of) a good ability to handle prose and poetry according to the methods and ways of the Arabs.”

The science in question (literature) has “no object” until an object of study is identified. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is an object which may be studied. “The ode as a form” is not an object of study. In order for the latter to become a subject which we may study in literature courses, odes must first be made. 

“There is another art which imitates by means of language alone, and that either in prose or verse— which verse, again, may either combine different metres or consist of but one kind — but this has hitherto been without a name. For there is no common term we could apply to the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues on the one hand; and, on the other, to poetic imitations in iambic, elegiac, or any similar metre. 

In his Poetics, Aristotle informs us that people do, indeed, apply the word “maker” (or “poet”)  to the names of the meters in which poems are written (rather than apply that word to the poem itself). This would imply that the maker of a poem is not to be given credit for the work which he has made but rather for the meter which he has used in writing his work. 

This should register as a strange practice to any sensible person. Let us visualize a situation in which we selected a random group of people on an equally random street corner and asked them the following two questions: 

 “Does the poet make a poem? Does a poet make the meter which he used as a design feature of the poem?” 

Most people, including children above a certain age, will answer simply and correctly: “a poet writes a poem.” It’s a clear fact for all to see. Why would people attach the names of makes to forms and stylistic attributes rather than to the poems which result when a poet writes a poem? In Poetics, Aristotle posits a more acute description of these situations which I will now quote: 

“People do, indeed, add the word ‘maker’ or ‘poet’ to the name of the metre, and speak of elegiac poets, or epic (that is, hexameter) poets, as if it were not the imitation (the work itself) that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all indiscriminately to the name.”

This passage should allow the reader to understand the intent at hand and to adjust my initial assessment of the behavior: 

“This would imply that the maker of a poem is not to be given credit for the work which he has made but rather for the meter which he has used in writing his work.”

The intention is not to simply credit the poet who makes a poem with the making of a meter which he used in the poem or attach his name to the form which his poem takes. The intention is to identify a form (after it is made) and label it. Following this, a theorist will appear and deduce a form and meter through the observation of a work which the poet has made. The form and meter (such as a sonnet or ode) is visible because the poet has made something (a true fact). Once the theorist has identified a great poet’s use of a certain form, he will give the poets name to that form. This is why we have “Horatian Odes” and “Ciceronian Orations” and, now, “Keatsian Odes” and “Dikensian novels.” 

The theorist may also identify a “common practice” whereby a number of poets are observed to use the same (or similar) forms and meters in their work. From this, a theorist will deduce a successful “model of operation.” He can then imitate the form or meter and, by mere imitation of the meter which the poet had simply “used in writing his work,” the theorist can be given credit by association for the work “as if it were not the work itself that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all indiscriminately to the name.” 

By following through with this process, theorists have imagined that they are now entitled to be called “makers” by simply imitating attributes which artists used in order to make a work of art (attributes like form and meter). Thus we have the birth of a “surefire formula for success.”  

Aristotle goes on to elucidate a further problem; the distinction between science and poetic (making). Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out using language,” he says, “the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather than poet.”

Empedocles is a physicist studying something which already exists. Homer is a poet who has made something. The distinction is vital but there is something special about theorists who make it their business to study the creations which are made by other human beings. 

Scientists study things which already exist in order to glean knowledge about those things. Knowledge of what is made by a human being is, naturally, found to be something that is most present in the mind of the human being who made the thing in question to begin with. 

The question of intent comes to mind. Why would anyone make a science out of the study of what their fellow man has made? 

One motive is to be found in the work of great critics such as Auerbach, Saïd and Spitzer who study works of art with the best intentions of the tradition of philology, Ijtihad and democratic criticism: to learn more about works which are cherished and to teach others about those works. 

Another motive is to be found in those persons who perform, conduct or sing music which is notated by composers and songwriters. Those persons who make a career out of performing music (that is, those who do not do it for the mere love of performing) are engaged in criticism. The performer who plays a piano sonata by Beethoven is not creating or making anything new. He is performing a work which was made by Beethoven in such a way that demands attention of an attendant audience in person and on recording. Performers illuminate new things about a work by paying attention to many factors ranging from the study of a composer’s body of work as a whole and the historical context of the creation of a specific work (or body of work) to the individual notes, dynamics, phrases, tempi, voice leading and other considerations. The performer also prepares an evening in the concert hall (or a recording) by selecting several works (thee could be works from several composers or a number of works by the same composer) and, typically, do this in order to unveil something new and thoughtfully illuminating about the assembled constellation of works by placing them in proximity (and in a certain order with relation to) one another. The great performer relates to the score which is made by the composer in the same way that a great critic relates to a poem which is made by a poet.

Good teachers, philologists and critics are especially rare. More often than not, the practice involves the approach of a person who observes the work which is made by their fellow human being and studies it in order to associate with it and, even, emulate it. It is not understood that design is part and parcel of an artist’s process and must be arrived at as only a means to an end (the end is the creation of the work in question). The intention of an artist dictates his chosen methods. If the practice at hand is for the theorist to discover what Shakespeare has done in his sonnets and then to simply compose a poem using the same number of syllables that Shakespeare used (iambic pentameter) they will not accomplish the function of becoming Shakespeare. The fruit is all that matters in relation to the tree. The poem which is made is the only thing which entitles a poet to be called a poet. The quality of the poet’s work (in terms which include ingenuity of design, sensitivity, current of feeling, acuity of observation, perceptive capability, application of style etc). 

All of those things involve work and sensory sensitivity. Those who try to parasitically assess the work of their fellow man (in such a way one would study animals when on safari) is engaged in an activity that is distasteful enough as it is. Those who then proceed to “feel an association” with the works of great men by judging those works in terms of commercial or (what they regard to be) “public appeal” are engaged in a greater indecency. 

Then there are those who engage in the worst of all processes. This process begins with the  officious judgement which this sort of person renders upon the works which artists have succeeding in making. Then, owing to the very same lack of sensitivity and humanity which rendered them unable to create works of their own in the first place, they fail to understand the works they are attempting to “study.” They declare those works mysterious and portray the artist as a monster who is separate from his fellow man thus delaying the meeting of artist and audience. And in this way, they delay the very communion which is an activity that can safely be counted as one of the greatest and most lovingly devotional joys of living. The persons who deprive others of this have never known this joy and often turn to a career “administering” the arts with a conscious or unconscious hate for the true artist and a resentfulness towards the makers of the world. This is an unmistakable resentfulness which I have witnessed on too may occasions. It is born out of the failure to make and develops into a hate for those who do make. 

Aristotle, therefore, advises against the categorization of works in this inaccurate and misleading way. His wisdom was seconded by the greatest minds in the field of history (men like Ibn Khaldun and Vico). And, not least of all, his wisdom was seconded by our greatest artists across the centuries and as diversely selected as Rand and Stravinsky. Despite all this, here is the definition of “ode” from The Poetry Archive, one of the most “active” organizations founded in order to share the gifts which were made by generations of poets and preserved for all to enjoy:

“An ode is a lyric poem, usually addressing a particular person or thing. It originated in Ancient Greece, and the Pindaric ode (so-called because it was written by the Theban poet Pindar, 518 ? 442 BC) was based on a pattern of three stanzas called the strophe, antistrophe and epode. It was performed by a chorus, which walked along one side of the orchestra chanting the strophe and down the other side chanting the antistrophe, then came to a standstill before the audience and chanted the epode. This performance was repeated with each set of three stanzas.

The Horatian ode (invented by the Latin poet Horace in about 65 BC) was adopted in the early 19th century by John Keats for one of his most famous poems, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Many modern odes, however, are irregular in form, such as ‘Intimations of Immortality’ from ‘Recollections of Early Childhood’ by William Wordsworth.”

There is a real possibility that these men and women are sincere in their confusion and, in any case, they do not hesitate to state it time and again and with a loudness that, despite the fact that they have not managed to leave an echo of their position in centuries of trying, persists. With each successive generation, the anti-poets respawn to present the same exact protests which had failed to achieve anything in the previous attempts which were made by their predecessors. And so a new generation is treated to the same pre-ordained and abusive calls and responses as they are issued anew from men whose only difference to the men who preceded them is their bodily shape. 

That one cannot study “the ode as a form” may be Keats most wonderful (if unintended) affront to those who remain so bothered by it and declare the “mysterious,” “controversial,” or “ambiguous” operations at work in the final lines of the poem; one of the clearest couplets in all poetry.

One may only study a form when that form is once again made into an object that is worth studying. Keats’ composition of this actual, tangible poem which we sense on the page before us,  a poem called Ode On a Grecian Urn, is the object in question. 

The reader will not be able to visualize and imagine a subject which is called “the ode” or “the ode as a form.” One has to see the very object in question in order to visualize it, read it or recite it. And I mean the specific object in question: not “an ode” but this ode. The reader will be able to visualize and imagine an urn. The shape of that object is clear to the reader from the poem. It is clear despite the fact that one must read Keats’ descriptions which are designed to be enunciated convincingly by an distractible and excitable narrator. 

And yet the urn is not an object at all. It is actively forbidden from being an object. It is the subject in Keats’ poem. The shape which we are able to visualize with ease exists subjectively. In order to “see” it, we must sense and perceive an ode. Not any ode but the ode at hand: the specific ode which Keats has composed. He made it into the object that you are reading. And in doing this, he forced the poem to be experienced objectively just as he forced the urn to be experienced subjectively. What a stroke of genius on the part of the poet it was and what an inspired moment when he told us exactly which ode we had to find in order to perceive the urn in question. We are, after all, reading an ode on a subject and not simply an ode to something in which we extol that thing (this is what abstract thoughts of “the ode as a form” would suggest to us as a primary “characteristic” of an ode). 

Keats could have done this. Indeed he did do this in his Ode to a Nightingale and also in his Ode to Psyche; two great works written to objects (Psyche and the Nightingale). Other odes, one which concern themselves with subjects are written on those subjects. The Ode on Melancholy addresses an emotion which cannot be visualized while the Ode on Indolence concerns itself with an equally invisible and abstract subject: an attitude. 

It is the exception among these brilliant works that has been my personal favorite ever since I picked up the work and read it as a child. I still remember the Wednesday in 1992 when, at 2 o’clock in the morning, I found the poem and began reading it starting with the title. This poem, one in which the most visualizable of “objects” is rendered into it’s most silent form kept me company through the night and has kept me company ever since. Keats carved it and carved it eternally into an attic shape; one which has been a friend to man since it’s making. 

It is called Ode on a Grecian Urn.