Keats and the Supermodels: The Truth About Beauty

Is Truth Beauty? Is Beauty Truth? Sometimes it’s useful to be reminded that what passes for eternal wisdom may not have the unshakable foundation that mere rote repetition has endowed it with.

Consider the equation of Truth and Beauty that appears in John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for instance. A thought-provoking essay by Harvard University professor Marjorie Garber in the summer 1999 issue of Critical Inquiry argues for a re-examination of the casual equation of Beauty and Truth–at least of the way it’s employed in the popular media and vernacular culture (as, for instance, in the insanely overrated American Beauty , a film whose shallow satire of suburban values proclaims in a self-congratulatory way that Beauty is the highest Truth in life.)

At the very least Professor Garber reopens a long-simmering debate in literary studies over whether Keats himself, the author of the phrase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” meant it as a summation of Wisdom, or in some way ironically .

You probably recall at least vaguely Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It’s about an icon of art, an urn that depicts on its surface scenes of erotic pursuit, frozen longing, unconsummated seduction, unheard music and unexecuted ritual sacrifice.

But it’s become an icon of art itself, not just the urn but the poem about the urn. For Cleanth Brooks, author of The Well-Wrought Urn , an attempt to define poetry that was extremely influential for a half-century after its publication in the 30’s, the image of the urn embodies what a poem is, “a verbal icon,” as Brooks’ colleague William Wimsatt called it. It’s an image Herman Melville responded to in his poem about a shattered urn, “The Ravaged Villa” (for Melville, truth is shattered beauty, shards of God). That image of a shattered urn, Vladimir Nabokov discloses in a penciled marginal note, preoccupied him during the composition of Ada . (See my Nabokov essay “In the Nabokov Archives,” Nov. 24, 1997.)

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is an attempt to reconcile the often oppositional character of the truth and beauty pairing in Western thought, the tendency to see beauty as a seductive distraction from truth, to see beauty as a lovely lie, a temptation to sin.

The controversy over Keats’ “Urn” focuses on the famous final stanza. When, after several stanzas describing and inquiring about the scenes depicted on the urn, marveling on the way the frozen delicacy of the scenes keeps the figures therein “Forever panting, and forever young/ All breathing human passion far above,” the poet then addresses the urn itself:

… Cold Pastoral!

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.

Take a look at those quotation marks–the ones around “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” They are the focus of the controversy Professor Garber reopens in Critical Inquiry . It’s part of a thoughtful piece entitled–this should be fun for copy editors–” ” ” (Quotation Marks).” It’s an essay that ranges from Representative Henry Hyde’s quotation-saturated Clinton impeachment address to the typographical origins of quotation marks in 17th-century English as “inverted commas,” through the questions raised by the contemporary phrase “quote unquote” and the rise of the finger-wagging “air quotes” and the ways in which we use quote marks in the attempt to signal both irony and authenticity.

In the midst of this, Ms. Garber revisits perhaps the most notorious and difficult debate over quotation marks in English literature, the one over “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Who says that? Keats? The urn? Should the quotation marks end after “beauty”–in which case, is the rest of the last two lines–”That is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”–a comment, perhaps ironic, on the urn’s equation of truth and beauty? By placing “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” inside quotes, is Keats distancing himself at least somewhat from the sentiment–examining it critically or ironically? Could Keats even be denying the certainty, the “truth,” that beauty is truth?

Or is this potential irony just an artifact of mistaken punctuation , a late and erroneous imposition of quotation marks that Keats never intended? Which would mean that the entire last two lines are “spoken” (note the need to use ironic quotes) by the urn (which, of course, is necessarily silent and therefore ventriloquized by Keats). In which case, was the urn itself being ironic about the equation of truth and beauty? Was the urn implying that “Beauty is truth,” is not necessarily the ultimate truth but all you need to know, all you can tolerate on earth? Is Keats or Keats’ urn saying it’s all you need to know because it knows more? Because, as Jack Nicholson put it, You can’t handle the truth?

The question about the placement of the quotation marks, and thus about the value the poet wishes to endow the “beauty is truth” equation with, was raised by the unsettled history of Keats manuscripts of the poem.

In the first three transcripts of the poem, there are no quotation marks at all. The urn “sayst,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all ye know …” without setting off those first five words in quotes. The question arises from the fact that in the final, published edition of the poems, quotes have been added around “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and Keats himself is said to have seen that final edition through publication. The problem is complicated by the fact that we don’t know for sure if the addition of the quotation marks was something Keats did, an addition by an editor which he accepted, or, if he did add them himself, whether he was making a slight but important revision of how he wanted “Beauty is truth …” to be taken, distancing himself from the beauty-truth aphorism. Or was he making more explicit something he already thought?

I love this kind of literary controversy, in which momentous questions of meaning in literature and art depend upon unresolvable or undecidable textual and historical ambiguities. Jack Stillinger, the most widely respected recent editor of Keats’ complete poems, offers no less than four “most frequently mentioned possibilities” when it comes to deciding just who is saying “Beauty is truth” to whom in the last two lines of Keats’ “Urn”: “(1) poet to reader, (2) poet to urn, (3) poet to figures on the urn, (4) urn to reader.” To which I would add: (5) urn to “man” as opposed to reader–the reader is listening to the urn say it to “man,” but is not necessarily the addressee.

But, Mr. Stillinger added, “serious objections have been raised to all four” of the possibilities he mentions, and those four don’t even begin to conjure up the complications which arise when one has to consider what part of the last two lines–the “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” part, or the entire last two lines–are spoken by the urn or by the poet, and to whom.

So where lies the truth about Truth and Beauty? Is Beauty the truth about Truth, or a lie about Truth? “The ornament of beauty is suspect,” Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 70. Beauty is suspect, transient, sickens like a cankered rose. Shouldn’t we suspect anyone–person, poet or urn–who worships it as truth? If, in fact, what’s going on in the poem, and the linkage between truth and beauty, isn’t intended to be ironized at some level.

Marjorie Garber begins by quoting what she characterizes as the consensus wisdom on the question, from Helen Vendler, author of The Odes of John Keats , a brilliant study I’ve celebrated previously in these pages. Ms. Vendler argues that “The last two lines are spoken by the urn, which places special emphasis on the motto-like epigram ["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] before going on to comment on its unique worth. But the whole last sentence of the poem [beginning with "When old age …"] is the sentence of the speaker who, in his prophecy, recounts what the urn will say to succeeding generations.”

Professor Garber takes issue with both Professors Vendler and Stillinger over whether the crux is settled and it must be the urn speaking the entire last two lines. She questions what it might mean if the quotation marks were removed or expanded, and whether the speaker might be commenting on the motto of the urn after quoting it.

It should be noted, however, that the passage quoted from Professor Vendler doesn’t do justice to her usual superb exegesis of the ode and her argument that what Keats–and the urn–are doing is not defining truth as beauty, but redefining beauty as that which is truthful. Not “propositional truth,” Professor Vendler emphasizes, not logic, but the truth of representation, beauty as a kind of Higher Accuracy, I’d say.

But speaking of accuracy, Professor Garber makes her most telling point when she summons up, presumably from a Truth-and-Beauty key-worded Lexis-Nexis search, the way the aphorism is misrepresented and misused in the common parlance of our culture, the way all the potential ambiguities are collapsed into a simple-minded singularity.

Here are some of the examples she came up with:

From a scientific report about the waist-to-hip ration in the human species:

“Beauty is truth and truth beauty,” to quote John Keats. But what is the truth about beauty? A scientific investigation of what men find beautiful in a woman’s shape suggests that concepts of beauty have more to do with Western influences than what comes as an inbuilt, or innate, desire.

From an article about fall foliage in New England:

“Beauty is truth–truth beauty–that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

–John Keats

By now anyone who has passed more than a few autumns in New Hampshire knows why the state’s fall foliage is colored so flagrantly.

Lead sentence in a New York Times Arts and Leisure article about the merits of live-performance recording:

According to John Keats, beauty is truth, and vice versa. Some recording artists disagree.

Headline in The New York Times, drawing attention to “a new Israeli esthetic along the Mediterranean”:

The Secular Jew: Beauty Is Truth: That Is All the Stylish Need to Know

Headline of an editorial about the National Endowment for the Arts:

Beauty Is Truth: Government Has a Role in Nurturing the Arts

Headline for a Los Angeles Times column:

If Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty, That’s Not All We Need to Know Today: What’s “Telegenic”?

And, somewhat ironically in view of subsequent developments, this opening paragraph from a 1983 piece in The New York Times :

John Keats wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” But is that all we need to know about Vanessa Williams, the new Miss America?

It’s kind of destabilizing, isn’t it, trying to track just what is being said about beauty and truth in all those truth-and-beauty allusions and the copy that follows.

But if one could generalize, one might say that they all seem to have adopted what might be called the Supermodel Interpretation of Keats: Beauty defines truth, rather than truth defines beauty. And beauty is defined as prettiness or attractiveness.

Setting aside the fact that in none of these quotations is it acknowledged that John Keats himself never “says” beauty is truth–the question of who says how much is shrouded in ambiguity–the general (and mistaken) tenor of all these quotes is that whatever is beautiful must be truthful. Or, as Fernando used to say on Saturday Night Live : “Better to look good than to feel good, baby.”

Yes, you could argue that the aphorism is about the beauty of Art rather than the beauty of Vogue . That the poem or the urn is arguing for what Percy Bysshe Shelley called “Intellectual Beauty.” Not prettiness, but fidelity to the Reality of Being. But then you’re forced into the position of calling, say, Shoah , Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust documentary, “beautiful.” Beauty is truth only if, in some ultimately Pollyanna-ish way, you believe creation, history and human nature are beautiful. What if they’re ugly in an artless way?

Still, the Supermodel Theory of Beauty is not without distinguished defenders. In his “Hymne of Heavenly Beautie,” the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser argued that the contemplation of world beauty–supermodel beauty, we might say for shorthand–is not to be utterly dismissed because it can ultimately stir the hearts of men to:

… lift themselves up hyer,

And learne to love with zealous humble dewty

Th’eternall fountaine of that heavenly beauty.

Spenser, of course, is echoing the Platonic vision of the ennobling role of worldly beauty, which was also used to rationalize Socrates’ pursuit of the young boys who were, in effect, the supermodels of ancient Athens.

But it seems to me that Keats’ final lines in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are less an echo of Plato than an argument with Hamlet. That the “Beauty is truth” aphorism is an explicit response to a passage in which Hamlet and Ophelia argue about the relationship between honesty and beauty.

It’s an exchange that takes place shortly after the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in what is generally known as “the nunnery scene.” “If you be honest and fair,” Hamlet says to Ophelia, “your honesty would admit no discourse to your beauty.”

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?” she asks, taking what will later be the Keatsian position.

“Ay truly,” Hamlet replies, it could do better, it’s better to separate truth and beauty, “for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness; this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.”

Two centuries pass, and John Keats attempts to give that paradox a disproof, to displace it with a superseding paradox. Beauty doesn’t transform honesty to a bawd; beauty is honesty. Truth makes beauty truthful, and beauty makes truth beautiful.

I don’t know, but lately I find myself leaning towards Hamlet’s side of the argument rather than Keat’s. (Although I think Keats himself was a bit of a Hamlet on the question.) I tend to feel that in telling us–the urn, mankind, whoever speaks it–that “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” he is suggesting there is something more to know, something you might be better off not knowing, but something that goes beyond the simple equation “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I just hope the supermodels won’t be upset at me for saying so.