The Urn's "Silent Form": Keats's Critique of Poetic Judgment

Article excerpt

In John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the most enigmatic phrase is "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (49). The equation of beauty and truth in this phrase has generated numerous interpretive responses to the nature of aesthetic experience represented in the poem, leading many critics to ponder the relationship between the sensory experience of beauty and the intellectual understanding of truth. Helen Vendler, for example, reads the ode as Keats's attempt to affirm two different responses to the urn as an aesthetic object: "sensory participation in the represented scene and intellectual awareness of the medium" (127). According to Vendler, both of these responses to the urn are authentic and aesthetic, but they cannot happen simultaneously and thus alternate, "one always canceling the other" (127-28). (1) Although he does not directly address the issue of sensory experience versus intellectual comprehension, Arnd Bohm posits a similar oppositional relationship between beauty and truth, arguing that, in the ode, Keats offers the beautiful as an alternative to the sublime, which cannot serve as an avenue of truth because it instigates intense feelings of pain and terror without any healing influence. Bohm maintains that beauty is made "into truth, truth into beauty, beauty into truth, and so on endlessly" without one being sacrificed for the other, and this dialectic interaction between beauty and truth creates the meaning of the urn, or, in Bohm's words, "the unlimited energy of cosmic flux" (21).

This dualistic understanding of beauty and truth, however, seems to underestimate the seriousness of Keats's endeavor to illustrate through his poem how sensory experience can provide access to that which transcends sensory grasp. As shown in his contradictory remarks on sensations and thoughts in his letters, Keats intensely struggled between the poetry of sensation and the poetry of philosophy. On 22 November 1817, in his famous letter on the imagination he wrote to Benjamin Bailey, Keats declares, "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts" (Letters 1: 185), intimating his predilection for aesthetic sensations rather than intellectual thoughts. In his letter to his publisher John Taylor dated 27 April 1818, however, Keats resolves to "turn all [his] soul to" the pursuit of philosophy and knowledge after admitting that he has "been hovering some time between an exquisite sense of the luxurious and a love for Philosophy" (Letters 1: 271). (2) Keats's conflict between the sensuous real and the metaphenomenal ideal is intricately connected to the problem that has long been a crux in the interpretation of "Ode on a Grecian Urn": the thematic opposition between transient yet immediate life and transcendent art. (3) In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats seems to have found a way to resolve the conflict between the poetry of sensation and the poetry of philosophy. Immanuel Kant's aesthetics, particularly his concepts of the productive and reproductive imagination, can illuminate how Keats seeks to resolve this conflict by blending the sensory, empirical realm of life and the timeless, abstract, intellectual sphere of art in the ode.

There have been attempts to confirm Keats's knowledge of philosophy, especially Platonic idealism. (4) There is little substantial evidence, however, to verify the exact contents of Keats's philosophical education, and there is no consensus regarding Keats's philosophical affiliation with Plato. (5) While Keats's "affiliation with Plato is too controversial" (White 13), it is equally controversial to establish the influence of any one philosopher on Keats, and it is beyond the scope of this argument to establish some influential relationship between Keats and Kant. As Rene Wellek observes in his seminal book Immanuel Kant in England, 1793-1838, except for Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, British Romantic poets and thinkers only had indirect and superficial knowledge of Kant's philosophical doctrines, and even "thinkers who had found a positive relation to Kant somehow managed to put him back into the framework of English tradition and English orthodoxy. …