On Keats’ Beauty and Truth


What follows are e-mails on the topic of Keats’ idea of the relationship between Beauty and Truth as described in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The first three e-mails are private exchanges between Mr Stirling and me. The following threads between Mr Kramer and Mr Stirling were the initial discussions which were posted on the Phil_Lit listserve. Mr Stirling and Mr Kramer regularly contribute some of the most thoughtful, and sharply worded, postings. If you are interested in listening in on, or contributing to, this discussion list, look for the instructions found elsewhere on this site.

The purpose of the following exchanges is mainly to let you (my students) see the kind of intellectual energy even brief phrases can engender, and to allow you to consider the lines in a variety of lights.



Re: Linguists' Pretensions Truth/Beauty


Sat, 17 Oct 1998 04:29:39 -0400


"Scott M. Stirling" <sstirling@earthlink.net>


"Mr. Bauld" <bbauld@geocities.com>


Dear Brian,


…I have thought about this Beauty/Truth thing every which way to try to see a

way through it. I can't. It seems to me that we are in danger of losing both

when we try to cling to them as a unity. God forbid beauty and truth should

ever be lost--but they never will, so it's not a worry. What is a worry is

that fewer people come to know what either of them are, where to find them,

and how to appreciate them all the better for knowing what distinguishes them.

Then we lose them even if they are out there staring us in the face. For, if

we think something is beautiful, does that make us justified in believing it

to be true as well? If we believe something is true, do we then know by

entailment that it is beautiful? Most important, if beauty and truth are

united, then what makes them different? Why have two words for the same

thing? If beauty is truth and truth is beauty, then they are like the morning

star and the evening star--to label them differently is a mere convenience

that says nothing about _them_, but only about our perspective.


My general definition for 'truth' is the classical one: a correspondence

between the mind and reality, apprehended by reason. My definition for

'beauty' is likewise classical: a _perceptually pleasing_ quality of certain

literary, aural, and visual objects that are ordered into a unified gestalt,

usually exhibiting harmony, contrast, repetition and variation in their parts.

i would be interested in how you keep these things separate. If you do not,

then what does either of them mean to you (since one is then equal to the other)?


I like Keats' poem on the aesthetic level. But I think the final statement is

typically Romantic, and is misplaced and vapid if it is supposed to be a true

statement. The object of art is the only thing that can and should be judged

by the aesthetician. What follows is recycled from a few months ago to an

aesthetician offlist. But I think it is germane to this discussion:


The moralist can judge Eliot [or Keats] on moral grounds, the logician on

logical, the scientist or classicist on other practical issues, where the art

critic cannot and should not _as an art critic_ or, in more subtle (and

realistic) situations, in the _mode_ of an art critic. The moralist and art

critic may even be the same person, but that makes it even more necessary that

the individual consider these things separately, since they really are

different and admit of different judgmental criteria. One does not judge

anti-Semitism by aesthetic or prosodic standards. One judges anti-Semitism by

moral standards (and scientific if there's racism involved). These things

must be kept as separate in our minds as they are in the world so that we may

think clearly about them. If the art critic is unable to separate these

things because of emotion or particular moral grounds, he should be honest

about it and not attempt to mislead himself or others about his lack of



The only thing that can stop one from using 'beauty' to mean anything one

likes is to define it and stick to the definition. Given my

definition, you will rarely find philosophic writing to be beautiful. The

ordering principles behind philosophical writing should be the purely

unembellished grammatical and logical. The poets order language into

beautiful poems (err, they used to anyway) according to aesthetic principles,

the rhetorician orders his speech according to the best means of persuasion

(unfortunately many philosophers today, such as Richard Rorty, are more

rhetorician than philosopher, despite their own avowals), and the scientist

and philosopher order their language to achieve the clearest expression

possible for the conveyance of their ideas and discoveries, which are

presented for debate, testing, and as results of inquiry. So literary texts

are judged by aesthetic and/or poetic criteria, whereas philosophic texts are

judged by the logic and truth of the philosopher's argument and the clarity of

his exposition. And though someone like Quine embellishes his philosophical

writing with clever and pleasing puns and metaphors, we must appreciate the

literary cleverness of that separately from the philosophical content. Just

as when reading Pope's _Essay on Criticism_, we must judge the didactic

principles by philosophical and scientific criteria independently of the

aesthetic criteria by which we judge the aesthetic structure of the lines and

couplets of the poem…



Scott S.





Re: Beauty and Truth--redux


Mon, 19 Oct 1998 23:36:23 -0300


"Mr. Bauld" <bbauld@geocities.com>




Dear Scott,


Warning: sporadic thoughts heading your way:

I can't see that Keats was urging us to a philosophical analysis of any part of his poem, so,

if not, what was he urging? What was his intention, however misguided? i.e to hell with

definitions; what experience (beyond thought) is he trying to communicate? Is it merely the

result of good digestion, or is it experience of the divine? The definitions must be in the poem,

and then decide if he's on or not. Has the poem suggested or demonstrated the way the two may

be thought of as one? Could he admit to Beauty and Truth as separates but still be able to

suggest a Beauty/Truth third option experience? I don't really hear many people speak of this

in Amherst, although I have heard the beholder line enough. Indeed, most students would have

trouble dealing with the line, partly because they may limit their sense of what can be

beautiful to a set of stock experiences, or because they have a limited, rational, sense of

what truth must be. Are there such things as "unheard melodies" or not? Is it common sense to

talk of having ears which are not sensual but hear better than sensual ones?(what are "ditties

of no tone"?) This sounds more like religious talk than philosophical. It is poetical language

and in as much as the idea interests me, it is in its poetic origins and impact. Did Plato

ever prove his Ideals? Or, do we embrace what "speaks to us", using Reason, as Donne says,

only as God's Viceroy, and not letting him usurp the whole town.


I think the experience of beauty in this Keatsian way is a lot more common "sense" than the

sense required to read, say, Heidegger. I have little hope of finally knowing whether Keats'

line can be contained within the circles of Urizen, and I guess that skilled philosophers have

not much more. I am drawn to the fairness of a Creation which allows the experience of the

divine to enter quite separate from the number of degrees one carries. On the level of "all

human breathing passion" there must certainly be a need for the watchdogs of reason to protect

us from confusion, but, yes, I hear Keats on another mystical, if you will, level, and suffer

occasional fits of melancholy for being a failure at it. Still, these days failure is some

success, since it posits an end.


The Beauty Keats speaks of is that which art/urns can inspire, but properly understood I take

the art object to be a guide to seeing all creation in this way. We might argue about what can

most easily inspire this transcendence (out of time like eternity he says), and so argue about

the relative beauties/efficiencies of the art object, but when I consider what they point us

to, I think of Vincent Scannel's four year old boy holding the beauty of a dead bloodied dog,

or Williams "seeing" his redwheelbarrow triad, or Hopkins buckling under the "brute beauty" of

the windhovering kestrel, and think that their experience of beauty is felt as truth.


What a marvellous reply you have offered. I'll not expect much more from you and don't feel

that we disagree much. I hear your concern for beauty and truth, and your desire to maintain

their integrity and I'm happy to see them get whatever support they can find in the midst of

such universal sneering (or is it just a local storm?) You have me spotted, so I'm sure what I

say above is no news. I am often worried about how closely I veer to the edge of that

postmodern cliff when I get to defending the nonrational. I'm a big fan of Blake but can see

how the pomo crowd would easily claim him for their own when he attacks Newton, or pleads for

the poor. Still, I think the poets offer, as Dylan says, shelter from the storm. At some

point(soon) I'd like to post your posts on this topic for my students to see how vigorously

the notion can be grasped. Is that OK?…


Again, though, what experience do you take Keats to be describing/imagining however much he

may be confused? Is it just the experience of beauty alone? Would he not have a highly

developed beauty sense and be trying to describe something further? Or is it just hyperbole? I

don't think its defenders would try to prove the statement, although they might offer

testimony. I've always been interested in the testimony more than the proof…







Re: Preface to the Lyrical Ballads


Tue, 10 Nov 1998 19:47:12 -0500


"Scott M. Stirling" <sstirling@earthlink.net>


"Mr. Bauld" <bbauld@geocities.com>




I still haven't properly replied to your previous email. But I have

been meaning to. You asked, more or less rhetorically, about unheard

melodies and "ditties of no tone." To which I think the most reasonable

reply is that of course there are not ditties of no tone or unheard

music. These things don't exist, and we both know it. But the

questions remain--what is Keats driving at? And how do we take such

things in poetry?


My answer to the second is that when such things are so consistently and

artfully arranged as Keats has them, we admire the poem for what it

is--a work of fine linguistic art--structured meanings and sounds--that

pleases us when we read it. The theme of paradox is one that runs

through the entire poem.


My answer to the first is that Keats was a spiritually minded person,

interested in a mysticism that transcended any particular religion. At

such a "level" or from such a vantage, I think Keats tapped into a


same idea or practice that the Zen Buddhists have. The _koan_, the

Japanese Zen "riddles" that have no "answer" unless that they achieve

the psychological (or spiritual, if you prefer) effect intended. The

koan is a kind of rationality-breaker, meant to lead one to break out of

categorizing thought and to leave the Zen student with a pure experience

of concrete reality. I see Keats as doing essentially the same thing,

though in an inimitably Western way, and mixing it up with literary

poetry and verse because of his Romantic beliefs in the purifying and

ethical powers of beauty and truth.


The lines about unheard melodies and ditties of no tone could just as

easily be rendered in prose, by themselves. Nothing is or can be made

less or more true by _how_ it is said or expressed. Our impression of

things, our attitude toward things, our remembrance of things can be

influenced by style and form of expression, but whether a

statement is true is a matter of logical value independent of aesthetic,

ethical, rhetorical, or other values.






Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty . . .


Sun, 4 Oct 1998 12:26:05 -0400


"Scott M. Stirling" <sstirling@EARTHLINK.NET>




Dear Friends and Colleagues,


Lawrence Kramer asserts that Keats was right about the identification of truth

with beauty, implying, I think, a reference to the final lines of Keats'

famous poem, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' The poem ends in two lines that are

often quoted as an aphorism:


'When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,

Beauty is Truth,--Truth Beauty,--that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'


Cleanth Brooks has a whole article on this poem in his book _The Well Wrought

Urn_. He certainly seems to take the phrase as a merely trite expression

initially, but then investigates further to see whether we should take the

last two lines as an assertion from Keats himself, or as something written on

the urn, or as something the fictional narrator of the poem is asserting. And

then, how are we to take the lines? Still as trite? True? Poetic?

Likewise, in Brooks and Warren's _Understanding Poetry_, they offer as

questions following the poem (pp. 320-1, fourth edition): '4. Is the famous

concluding passage (lines 49-50) insisted upon as a philosophic generalization

in its own right? Does it represent the theme of the poem? Is it to be

regarded as a dramatic utterance spoken by the urn? The poet has said that

the urn 'tease[s] us out of thought / As doth eternity.' Do the last two

lines develop the same idea? If so, how? Is the timeless ideal world of the

urn as enigmatic as eternity? It bewilders our time-ridden human minds: it

teases us. Are the last two lines a teasing utterance or not? What is their

truth? Do the preceding forty-eight lines serve to define it?'


Keats' lines express an idea as old, at least, as the neo-Platonist Plotinus,

whose rhetorico-poetic discourses wove Beauty and Truth and the Good together

into one mystifying, homogenous mass of the One. Not very helpful if you are

interested in the world, science, knowledge, etc. Plotinus' beliefs on truth

and beauty, and the idea expressed in Keat's lines, make no real distinctions

between two things that it is very important to keep distinct. Primarily

because real ethics must be based on true knowledge about the world and

concerns individual acts, we should be clear that beauty, which is an

attribute of objects that attain a certain harmony and unity, repetition and

contrast in the ordering of their parts, is distinct from knowledge and truth,

and really not helpful at all in learning anything. If we do not make such

distinctions, we can be led down beautiful, rosy paths of destruction (the

road to hell is paved with gold, some say).


Anyway, Lawrence Kramer says:


>> A true argument supports an esthetic exposition in

>> a way that a corrupt one cannot.


A true argument cannot support an aesthetic exposition in its status as an

aesthetic exposition (and the converse is also true). An exposition can be a

beautiful work of language regardless of its truth value. We tend to like

aesthetic expositions that echo things we already believe (whether those

things we believe are actually true or not). But the consideration of truth

value is usually of very low importance in works that aim to be primarily

aesthetic. We should always verify or double-check from an outside,

non-poetic source if we think we have learned something we didn't already know

from a work of _fine_ art. A false argument in no ways undermines beauty,

because beauty is perceived by the senses and concerns _form_ (something about

which Plotinus and Plato were both confused), whereas truth is apprehended by

reason and concerns a correspondence between the mind and reality. We may

like a poem that has a true proposition or argument in it better than one that

doesn't because of ethical reasons, but a fine art critic (or educated and

experienced reader) should be first concerned with the form of a work, not its

truth value. Of course, these days (as in days in the past), such

distinctions have been lost, but what may be new today is that the artists in

the fine art community have lost these distinctions more than anybody.


>> Charlatans may resort to grandiloquence, but the

>> righteous are nonetheless well served by their

>> poetics.


I won't argue with this assertion, except to say that when a charlatan is also

an expert rhetorician, those who are not qualified to be the best judge of the

topic of discussion may well be swayed by poetic rhetoric. That is, the

righteous are indeed well served by poetics (I agree), but I disagree that the

arts of rhetoric and poetry are things only an honest person can employ, which

is what is implied by the above statement. And if a dishonest person can be

poetic and rhetorical, then there are lots of people he can persuade because

only he who is educated in all things (as Aristotle would say) is the best

judge of all things. Perhaps Lawrence Kramer has in mind only the poor

rhetoricians of our present age, whose rhetoric is fairly obvious, such as

Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, and Jacques Derrida. But art should hide

itself--these guys are too obvious. Aristotle believed (as he says several

times in the _Art of Rhetoric_) that the true argument was naturally stronger

than the false one. I can think of several good reasons why that may be true,

but the main one is that Aristotle believed in self-evidence and may have

thought there was a natural inclination toward what was really true, given two

bare propositions to choose from. But there is nothing I have read in

Aristotle to suggest that beauty and truth were in any way identical, or that

a false argument would not benefit (in terms of its persuasiveness) from the

arts of rhetoric and poetry. After all, Aristotle thought one should be able

to argue the opposite of one's convictions as well as the truth, since that

would better enable the rhetor to dissect his opponent's rhetoric. Aristotle

is optimistic, but not naive. I would say it is somewhat naive to hold that

an utterly false argument could not be expressed beautifully.




Scott M. Stirling




Truth and Beauty


Sun, 4 Oct 1998 19:38:05 -0400




Lawrence J Kramer <Lkramer@spidertek.com>







I have the corporate lawyer's habit of saying

things only one way at a time for fear that

repetition will introduce ambiguity. As a

consequence, I must urge readers to take into

account every word of what might be considered the

central assertion of my posts.


To wit, I wrote that a true argument supports an

aesthetic exposition _in a way_ that a false one

does not. Scott Stirling responds as if I said

that you can't tart up a bad apple:


"A true argument cannot support an aesthetic

exposition in its status as an

aesthetic exposition (and the converse is also

true). An exposition can be a

beautiful work of language regardless of its truth

value. "


If Scott's first sentence is true - and I confess

that I do not understand the "in its status..."

phrase - it is irrelevant to my argument because

the second sentence, which certainly is true, does

not respond to my claim that the beauty permitted

by a true statement is _different in kind_ from

that permitted by a false one.


I find, for example, that John Stuart Mill's essay

On Liberty is a thing of beauty, in part because

virtually all of my marginal "what about x's"

jotted as I read are ultimately dealt with at the

aesthetically correct time and place for dealing

with them. False arguments simply do not support

the unembarrassed precision and attentiveness to

detail that Mill's position makes possible. Bad

arguments can be beautifully put _in another way_

, but they cannot be made beautiful _in the way_

that a true argument can, and a discerning

audience should be able literally to feel the

truth of the argument from the uniquely

truth-confirming beauty it allows.


What I have in mind here is more an architectural

aesthetic than a linguistic one. The _rhetorical_

shape of a verbal exposition is limited by its

truth value, not because one cannot put lies in a

truth-affirming shape, but because, when put in

such a shape, lies become obvious.

Disingenuousness must hide; truth can seek the

light. The Feng Hsue (sp?) of the exposition

inheres in its truth value. I am talking about

the rhetorical equivalent of what mathematicians

call "elegance". There are no elegant proofs of

invalid theorems.


In light of the foregoing, for completeness's

sake, I explicitly demur to Scott's claim that my

"Charlatans may resort to grandiloquence, but the

righteous are nonetheless well served by their

poetics" implies that "the arts of rhetoric and

poetry are things only an honest person can

employ." Not only does the first part of my

sentence say explicitly, to me anyway, that the

dishonest _can_ employ the arts of rhetoric and

poetry, but I intended _in that sentence_ only to

support the use of poetry by the good guys,

whether or not the bad guys can use it, too.


I share what I take to be Scott's prudential view

that we should be careful lest we be seduced by

the silver-tongued orator. I believe, however,

that a prudent reluctance to judge an argument by

its aesthetics is merely a strategy that protects

us from our own weaknesses; it is not evidence

that such reluctance has no cost or that

rhetoricians ought not to try to overcome it.


Lawrence Kramer

Newtown, PA







Re: Truth and Beauty


Tue, 6 Oct 1998 00:27:22 -0400


"Scott M. Stirling" <sstirling@EARTHLINK.NET>









Dear Friends and Colleagues,


In fairness to Lawrence Kramer I have tried to make a thorough analysis of his

most recent post on this matter, particularly since he expresses concern at

having been misunderstood. I perhaps took as too symptomatic his assertion

that Keats was right, and my understanding of what he implied by that in the

context of which it was said (the remarks on Keats' poem, "Ode on a Grecian

Urn," that some may find relevant or at least mildly interesting). For I

believe that for anyone to claim that Keats was right about Truth being

identical with Beauty (if Keats did indeed mean to assert that in his poem as

a belief he held), one must not have thought too clearly on it. Not only

because I think the Grecian Urn's aphorism is demonstrably false, but because

to refer to Keats as an authority on such matters is one of the commonest

things one will hear from the literate and educated who, through formal

"education," have merely reinforced and festooned their common, unrefined

opinions with no less false lines from literature.


For what it is worth, I would first like to clarify something very crucial to

this matter which Lawrence Kramer confessed not to understand. I said 'a true

argument cannot support an aesthetic exposition in its status as an aesthetic

exposition.' To say it again more simply, there is nothing about beauty that

can be "supported" by truth or undermined by lies, as beauty is a quality of

matter having pleasing form, whereas truth is a specific kind of relation

(i.e., a correspondence) between the mind and reality. The theme of my entire

post--I am sure I am not the only one who grasped it, nor Lawrence the only

one who did not--was that Truth and Beauty are distinct and are separate

considerations in literature, argumentative discourse, painting, and so on. I

trust I made that abundantly clear in my previous post, so rather than repeat

it here I will beg a re-reading from Lawrence, as I have so carefully read and

re-read his post in response to me.


Lawrence takes 'aesthetic' in a loose sense, very common indeed, meaning

nothing more than 'well organized' or 'highly structured.' We are arguing

from quite different ideas of beauty and aesthetics. The example of Mill's

essay "On Liberty" points out nothing more than the excellent style of Mill's

exposition, more his adherence to the principles of clarity and logic than

anything having to do with aesthetic form. Lawrence affirms this

interpretation later when he says he is 'talking about the rhetorical

equivalent of what mathematicians call elegance.' What the mathematician

means comes from a stretch of the word 'elegance,' which comes from Latin

meaning something like 'to choose out from.' It has, as my Webster's

dictionary says, everything to do with 'scientific precision,' 'simplicity,'

and 'neatness.' But these are not necessary qualities of great poetry or

other fine art, though they may be present in part or all at once in some.

Lawrence adds that 'there are no elegant proofs of invalid theorems.' That is

a tautology, and it is beside the point because we are concerned not with the

supposed beauty of validity but of truth (or the supposed beauty-enhancing

powers of truth).


Ironically, Lawrence offers the following tortuous sentence, which is as an

amazing, if unintentional, oxymoron due to its nasty syntax and its coiled,

serpentine structure (not to mention its semantic opacity) which so

contradicts its, ostensibly, intended meaning: 'The rhetorical _shape_ of a

verbal exposition is limited by its truth value, not because one cannot put

lies in a truth-affirming shape, but because, when put in such a shape, lies

become obvious.' I would agree, in as much as that sentence is an example of

what it describes, but I don't think the lies _are_ that obvious in that

sentence. I have tried to unwind the sentence thus: 'The rhetorical shape of

a verbal exposition is limited by its truth value because when one puts lies

in a truth-affirming shape, they become obvious.' What is "shape" that is

rhetorical? What "shape" affirms truth? I can see how making syntactic

sentences is necessary for true propositions to be uttered, but semantics is

also necessary. Note the several subordinate clauses and the double use of

negation, as well as the puzzling meaning of such unusual semantic

juxtapositions such as 'shape' and 'truth-affirming,' in Lawrence's sentence.

Did he intend this to be an example or a counter-example? Is it bait for me?

I won't bite. Even if it were the most beautiful line of English verse I ever

read, I would still consider its truth apart from its beauty. If they both

were there in equal parts, I might say 'what a very good sentence, because it

is both beautiful _and_ true--but it would have been just as beautiful were it

less so true, and no less true were it a hoarse cacophany.'


Yours truly,


Scott M. Stirling


email: sstirling@earthlink.net

www: http://home.earthlink.net/~sstirling/

mail: 2735 Windwood Dr., Apt. 93

Ann Arbor, MI 48105




Beauty and Truth


Tue, 6 Oct 1998 08:52:13 -0400




Lawrence J Kramer <Lkramer@spidertek.com>







We see a lot on this list of people committing the

sins of which they complain. Scott Stirling seems

to take great glee in my confessing that I did not

understand his opaque comment, and yet has no

problem challenging my sentence about the

"rhetorical shape" of an argument and then (then!)

asking "What is "shape" that is "rhetorical?"

Ready. Fire! Aim. As David Myers likes to say, Tu

quoque, Scott?


But more to the point, I think it is wrong to

decouple aesthetics from utility. What is the

material advantage of an aesthetic sense? Why do

we find things beautiful at all? Whether or not

beauty can be counterfeited, I believe that a

sense of beauty provides valuable neurological

confirmation of semantic belief; that animals feel

beauty before they know truth. If this is so,

then certain types of beauty - I seem unable to

get Scott to come to grips with this concept - are

available only to sound argument.


I should say, I suppose, that I have in mind

analytic truth as opposed to synthetic truth. The

kind of beauty of which I speak is "available" to

structurally sound arguments that include false

minor premises. "All dogs have four feet; a

spider is a dog; therefore, a spider has four

feet" is as beautiful as the same logic applied to

Spot or Fido. It is the syllogism itself that is

beautiful because it sits well not only with my

inference engine but with the supporting neural

net I sometimes call my bullshit detector. Where

the falsehood of the minor premise is patent or at

least very much at issue, most arguers simply

eschew the syllogism, leaving them with arguments

whose "rhetorical shape" is not beautiful in the

way that the aforementioned syllogism is



That Scott cannot see the beauty in a well-wrought

argument attests not to the looseness of my

aesthetic but the narrowness of his. If I design

a building with too much base for its

superstructure, it will stand, and the people

inside it will be safe, but it will not be

beautiful. Likewise, I can construct a

"well-ordered" and "highly structured" argument

that lays too much groundwork for the point to be

demonstrated, given the receptiveness of the

audience. Such an argument will be semantically

true, but ugly. If, however, I use just the right

amount of syllogism, and just the right amount of

analogy, and just the right amount of Gotcha!, I

may have something that is not only convincing,

but a work of art. Such an argument is more than

"well-ordered" and "highly structured" - it is

beautiful. And that's the truth.


Lawrence Kramer

Newtown, PA



(Working on how a sentence that says that the lies

in a bad argument are obvious can be an example of

itself if the lies therein are not obvious.)