A problem with language is, words can be defined in so many ways. A table can be a tiny and fragile thing upon which we can barely fit a tea setting, or a massive wooden slab surrounded by a dozen of Arthur’s knights.
Abstract words–such as honor, love, courage, truth, dignity, or beauty–each of us may understand differently. And those of us intrigued or perplexed by a certain word might spend a lifetime considering the options and still not feel quite convinced by our definition.
Perhaps more than any other English word, we wrestle with the meaning of “love,” as did poet William Blake when he expressed two perfectly opposite views in “The Clod and the Pebble”.
“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”
So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:
“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”
“Beauty” is another word to which we give a host of different meanings. Some dresses are beautiful, as are some of the people who wear them. My daughter often pitches a beautiful slider. A day can be beautiful just because the sun is shining, even if we wish it would rain.
So when we read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and find John Keats contending that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” we might applaud in agreement, recoil with skepticism, or choose to shelve the premise for later contemplation.
I find those lines not only valid and profound. I believe they are words to live by, largely because they require us to reconsider our definition or definitions of “truth” and “beauty.” They demand that if we hope to understand, we need to act, to go deeper than surface impressions and consider what moves us to a resonant and heartfelt appreciation, to feel we have somehow transcended our common condition. They demand that I see my daughter’s slider as an expression of who she is, the time and effort she has devoted and all she has learned in order to master the pitch, what that says about her and–going deeper still–about the miracle of life. If I choose and am able to go even deeper, I might glimpse a clue about eternity or the meaning of our existence. On the way I will discover that true beauty includes a downbeat, an element of sorrow or pain as well as a joyful upbeat. Because evil is true and weakness is true, because truth contains pain and sorrow, beauty must contain them also.
Not every experience of something truly beautiful will send us on a deep inward and transcendent journey. But everything beautiful in the sense Keats uses the word holds the potential to lead us all the way, were we brave, dedicated and wise enough to take the journey.
Now I’ll quit trying to explain in prose a truth better expressed in poetry. Here’s a link to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
This reflection is part of a longer essay.