Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, So what?

By understanding the Romantic poets, John Keats among them, can we find meaning to understand and thrive with the modern world?

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Through the arts is how humans understand beauty. Science also gives us beauty, when it is pure, elegant, symmetrical and even confounding. Being entranced by a complex mathematical theory, is after all, one path toward truth. Puzzles, capturing the human mind which is itself a complex and confounding miracle of nature, are attractive to our species.

Comprehending this, John Keats wrote in An Ode On A Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” But, in giving voice to the urn, Keats also realizes that the ephemeral aspect of actual nature is frozen in art. The urn displays a young couple, who sculpted in this living depiction of an ancient pagan festival, will remain forever young, forever in love, forever represented. The quiet and stillness of the figures, captured in the vital season of a flourishing spring, do not experience death. The urn represents both the poetry and the vase that are beautiful. Yet, it is only a human heart which can feel this truth. The truth spoken by the urn conveys the meaning of such beauty. It will last until such time as nature takes back the very material — the urn and its story — in which they dwell. The poem itself outlives Keats, he understands that humanity has the option to convey and converse across time with art that shares one form of immortality.

Can we understand the beauty of nature? Can we capture it? Today, we seldom make the time to contemplate even a tree outside our home. We do make representations of natural beauty, but too often, we do not participate in a deeply, meaningful way to preserve nature.

Deep inside the modern human psyche is a fear that we may have destroyed our own belonging to nature. Perhaps even Keats was disturbed by this. He knew he would probably die young of tuberculosis, but he also knew that art was crucial for humans to embrace the truth of their humanity. Comprehending life and death ascribes a kind of ‘ownership’ that is uniquely human to the very concept of beauty. But beauty teaches a moral lesson as well: If we do not share all the intelligence and elegance of nature, we lose.

Keats used the medium of poetry to capture and hold beauty. Famously, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Coleridge viewed nature as full of seasons, trees, flowers, oceans and life, but tragically separated from the human experience as we are trapped into a kind of contest to conquer nature. No poem captures this thought better than the Coleridge poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The mariner, by sin of shooting an albatross with a crossbow, is cursed to tell his tale to every third person he meets. What he comes away from his harrowing experience of shipwreck and death, is that “He prayeth best, who loveth best all things both great and small, for the dear God that loveth us, has made and loveth all.” In this line it is easy enough to comprehend the creator as the creation itself, immersed in awesome power, and the terrible beauty of that power.

To the modern reader, it is the truth of our destruction of coral reefs, plastic garbage ingested by marine life, pollution and over-population, and the over-fishing and extinction of so many species, that reminds us that the truth of our living with nature is not always beautiful. But it is true. And our relationship to nature must face truth, because only therein can we learn the lessons of truth — life and death — with which we can face one another, and the world as we change it.

Beauty is however, just one aspect of nature. Of course, in our survival we also know that nature works and cooperates in systems of networking food webs, hydrology cycles, temperature, gravity, and so much more. The sciences, and our human capacity for engineering and technology take full advantage of this type of beauty. We see nature’s loveliness and we are pulled by nature’s allure, but in our limited humanity, we don’t always face the truth that we belong to nature. It is our continuing quest to understand and work with nature that is exquisite.

My understanding of the Romantic poets, and the many admirers of science and research today is that we must look daily at nature. We must see the captivating reality of how systems are intertwined. We must humble ourselves before that which we would conquer. We have to learn to be in awe, but also find time for quiet contemplation. We must study, and unlock the true wisdom of nature. We must learn that beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that we too, are among the ‘things both great and small’ that cast our shadows upon a blue dot in space that is our only, very beautiful home.

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