This morning, while taking a much needed detox bath, I found myself watching the bubbles at my feet crack into air like cells releasing fear. How this brought my mind to Keats, I cannot honestly tell you, but that is where it decided to go. My daughter tells me she gets her greatest ideas while she showers and bathes. I tell her that’s because water is the keeper of memories and opens our awareness to what is stored inside.
Perhaps this is why the water surrounding my body opened my mind to Keats and his poem, “Ode on Grecian Urn.” I still have my copy from college, penciled with my notes. For a while, as I bathed, I thought about my obsession with the romantic poet, and how I had written my honor’s thesis about his love letters to Fanny Brawne. A few days ago I came across the thesis while going through old things.
While I soaked in the tub, feeling the tension held inside my muscles give way to the warm water, my mind explored the young poet’s deeper search for love and truth. I thought about how many of Keats’ poems play with ideas greater than the death of the body he knew would lead to his early demise. The last lines of his famous poem, and the words he held within quotes, “‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty,’ — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” played out of the cells of my memory.
My college hand wrote the words, “truths are individual & not set & unchanging. What is beautiful to an individual is truth for that individual.” Considered to be one one of the most quoted lines of poetry, there is also much debate over what Keats meant by this statement about beauty and truth. My own interpretation, written many years ago, addresses the subjective nature of beauty and truth, but fails to delve into the deeper Truth of what the dying poet seemed to be striving for. Whether he knew this or not is also probably up for debate.
Yet there are clues in his earlier lines implying he must have. Keats begins his famous poem with, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,” then follows it with, “Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.” The poet appears to be yearning for a state that goes beyond the mortal mind. A state of eternal truth that can be reached through “silence” and “slow time,” (or no-time). While Keats may have been referring to the immortality of death, he might also have been searching for it through life.
Is this not the truth he speaks of in the last lines? A greater truth that surpasses the subjective and goes straight to the inherent beauty of Life, which I have capitalized because it extends beyond the death of the body? A state of knowing and awareness that can be reached when the chattering of the mind releases to stillness and the silent melody of the universe is heard in the soul? “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats writes, “but those unheard/ Are sweeter.” “Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone,” he urges before he begins to lament the impermanence of life in all its earthly forms.
Is an urn not also a chalice of life, as well as a container of death? The very shape speaks of the womb. I’d like to think this is what Keats was trying to show us through his ode. That beneath the impermanence and subjectivity of truth and beauty, there always exists a greater, unchangeable Truth, which is inherently beautiful. I believe he, like many do, glimpsed it on the eve of his death. Yet, we need not be on the brink of death to reach this state, we need only to free the bound mind and listen to the Truth of the “unheard melodies” that sing through the heart. Then, perhaps, the impermanence of life will be easier for us to accept, as well as the subjective nature of truth.