You Pass

You pass

Digging deep into the transitions that society has traveled through has been my ponderous project for a while. There are convenient versions strewn all about, the Reader’s Digest version of history, which receives its stamp of approval in survey courses that seek to prepare people for life. You pass, move on to the next step of becoming a productive citizen. But things are never quite that simple.

The Romantic poets were not a “movement” of poets that sought to valorize the individual, celebrate nature, etc.— it was a bunch of people in a particular place and time that didn’t really agree on much at all. So why do we lump them? Because it’s convenient. Six weeks and you have your requisite dose of literature of that period, then it’s time to move on. You may confidently state ”Beauty is truth, truth beauty” without the slightest clue of what Keats was on about in the poem.

Lesson 1: any time you read anything it is important to keep track of who the implied speaker is. This is me, Jeff Ward, coming at you through the miracle of verbal and internet technologies. But these are but impressions of a moment, subject to change without notice. I’ll save you the “my blog isn’t me” speech. You’ve heard that before, and soon you’ll be hearing that declamation as often as you hear the “Beauty is truth” bit. I try to provide ample context for my remarks, but there are always things unstated, bits of my history you don’t know. Digesting a poem to its punch line leaves much of the conversation out.

The next time you hear those lines, read the poem: Ode on a Grecian Urn was written by a man obsessed with the difficulty of embracing joy. It fades, or is crushed like a grape against the palate. So he interrogates an object, and imagines what this beautiful object might reply. The urn, unlike joy, has remained:

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.”

I have adopted the same punctuation as the University of Toronto version of the poem, but there are variants. In the Modern Library version, the last two lines are punctuated:

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

Notice the difference? In the first version, the urn speaks the conclusion. In the second, the urn delivers the line, and the poet comments that it’s all we need. This issue is hotly debated, because there are three variant versions, all with some authority. What difference does this make? Well, what would you expect a beautiful work of art to say? The response seems logical in both versions, yet the poet has complained about the evanescence of satisfaction in the lines leading up to this. Why would he capitulate and leave with the final comment? It makes more sense to me that the urn would say the final line, rather than Keats who was never satisfied with closed, judgmental moralizing.

Reading carefully is a difficult thing for most people. They’d rather let someone else digest it for them. So they can take the test, give the right answer, and pass. But there aren’t any “right answers” regarding this poem, just questions about what Keats really intended. And we can’t ask him. You can however, ask me to clarify what I mean. I’m still alive.

And I choose not to pass, but to linger. I like thinking about the big questions raised by little distinctions.