– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Inspired by my daughter studying English, I revisited Keats. In the beginning i couldn’t remember which of his poems i’d loved, nor why, but soon i remembered. Inspired by ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, i had purchased my very own urn on my first visit to Athens, Greece, many years ago now.
And there it is, still sitting on the mantlepiece, beside my certificate for completing the Wicklow Way.
In the poem, Keats muses on art, in this case the figures on a Grecian urn, and compares art with life – art is immortal, never decays, never suffers. Over two hundred years after Keats wrote the poem, the jury is still out as to what he meant in the last two lines,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”,
who was the speaker, whether the quote only included the first five words, and indeed, even where Keats intended the punctuation to be placed. Perhaps it is better this way, uncertainty teaches us its own lesson, even if we do desire certainty.
The other Keat’s poem i recall is Ode to a Nightingale which i reread yesterday, and again; time is a barrier which can only be overcome slowly when i’m trying to remember long forgotten lessons. In this Ode, Keats is discussing, such a poor word to describe his poem, mortality, again, and also creativity and art – again. Keats knows that creativity can be immortal, can confer immortality on those who best handle its reins.
That reminded me of a conversation i had while hiking Slieve League over the Bank Holiday weekend. We were talking about Cuchulain, and how he died, and Eithne, a fellow hiker, told me that Irish folklore says that you die three times;
– firstly, when your physical body dies,
– secondly, when your spirit moves on from this earth; that resonated with me as it helps explain why you can feel a loved one’s continued presence for some time after they depart, it might be days, weeks or months but eventually, you can’t feel them anymore
– thirdly, and finally, when your name is no longer mentioned. For most of us that means we probably don’t die for the third time until our grandchildren have passed away, assuming that they knew us, or, at least, of us. For people like Keats, their art can ensure their immortality.
The speaker in the Ode to a Nightingale, hears the song and longs to flee the human world and join the bird. His first thought is to reach the bird’s state through alcohol— which so many of us use to ‘escape’. He says, “O, for a draught of vintage!” In the fourth verse though, Keats rejects this idea, after meditating on the transcience of life which always awakens wisdom in Keats poems, and he declares,
“Away! away! for i will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,”
for he recognises that there may be temporary escape in the fumes of alcohol but there is no lasting truth. We have seen, from Ode on a Grecian Urn, that Keats believes, beauty is truth, truth beauty and both are represented by art. So he vows,
“But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards”
Bird painting by Sri Chinmoy
I am currently studying meditation with the Sri Chinmoy centre in Dublin with the modest intention of becoming enlightened and at one with the ‘Supreme’ as Sri Chinmoy preferred to refer to the Divine. Early days yet but advice we received to aid us on our way and optimise our meditations was to eschew alcohol and drugs – Keats would approve – as well as meat and to dress in light coloured clothes to encourage the development of our spirituality. I will let you know how i progress. I am looking forward to our lesson and meditation tonight when we will discuss, amongst other things, reincarnation.
Back to Keats.
My daughter introduced me to another of his poems, ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be‘, that i do not remember at all – whether that be the fault of the veils of time or the failures of a curriculum, i am not sure. Keats talks about the fears that awareness of his mortality raise in him, fears that he may not get a chance to produce all the creative works which lie within him, fears that he may not get the opportunity to live, and love, fully. But then he reflects on the universe, akin to meditating perhaps, and concludes,
“ – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink”
Sri Chinmoy would be proud of him, perhaps those few lines are all we need to understand the difference between existing and living, the inevitable disappointments in the process of ‘pursuing happiness’ unless that pursuit involves discarding material objects and turning inside, within ourselves
Think on my friends
for your greatest journey does await