“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” –John Keats
“Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
In preparation for a History of Modernity mid-term this week, my fifteen-year-old daughter is listening to a lecture on the Romantic Poets. As I’m sitting in the same room, I’m afforded the possibility of reclaiming a few bits of literary knowledge grown fuzzy in the couple of decades since my last British Lit class. The lecturer is describing how the works of the romantics in art, poetry and literature were expressive rather than imitative in nature, focusing on experience rather than objectivity. To experience turbulent heights and depths of sensation and emotion was their desired end both in life and art; emotion and sensation divorced from any objective construct wherein they might serve anything larger or more lasting.
Keats’ declaration that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” takes on a somewhat disturbing light in this context. Without ever critically examining the poem, I had long assumed Keats was speaking of the inherent beauty of objective truth. Alas, now I think not. It seems that he’s actually subverting the idea of an objective truth. His “beauty equals truth” statement is less than a degree removed from saying “If it produces pleasure, then it’s good,” or, to phrase it as a more contemporary mantra “If it feels good, do it.” The experience is regarded as its own moral proof text. I suppose if that’s the case, then he must also be inadvertently subverting the idea of beauty.
The earlier pre-enlightenment geniuses like Shakespeare—though masters of the use of emotion in their stories—operated from a different worldview, one that didn’t employ emotion as an end in itself. Instead, emotional responses served some larger reality that was informing the meaning of a story, poem, play, or painting.
Douglas Kaine McKelvey and I managed to live in the same city for more than a decade before we met. He was hired by my record label to write a new publicity bio and I met him at a coffee shop a few weeks ago to talk about my new album. We got [...]