The idea of reading “antique” poetry is as foreign to today’s general public as reading a work in Russian. That is not the fault of the poet or the poem…it is our fault as modern readers. We have neither the patience nor the interest in what antique poetry offers. First, we have no interest in “difficult” language…we are unaccustomed to careful, elegant, and artful words. Second, we don’t really value beauty as a talisman anymore…there was a day when the pursuit of beauty was its own reward…conceptual, emotional, spiritual, and actual.
Beauty of any kind used to be an end in itself…beauty was seen as an aspect of the divine, of God, of heaven, and of human redemption. Artists sought to discover and express beauty as a vision of the divine. Dante in his Divine Comedy writes that seeing God was even more beautiful and wondrous than he could describe…after 12 years and 14,000 lines, Dante just couldn’t describe it! Loosely translated, he wrote, “'But what I saw therein no words could tell, no human memory from God's citadel retire with plunder of its wondrous store.”
Sometime in the early twentieth century—many have guessed that the terror of the First World War finally ended the delusion—beauty was overpowered by terror and suffering and Man’s inhumanity to Man. Society—and art as its expression—turned to “self-expression” as a core value. Look at me, look at my struggles and my sufferings against the world! Today “self” has become the talisman, and we implicitly feel that “self” is beautiful. Even if the self is ugly, we proclaim it beautiful…although we don’t really think about it in those terms. Where once mankind looked to God and Nature for beauty, now we purse our lips, take a selfie, and call it beauty.
I’m inviting my readers to attempt antique poetry for a minute, to think about a divine sense of beauty…by considering a poet who called himself a “man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own works.” John Keats, in the early 1800s, sought the idea/ideal of beauty…seeking and finding beauty, even if only conceptually, was a reward to him. As one of the premier Romantic poets, he fills his poetry with the careful, elegant, and artful language, images, and concepts to which we’ve become unaccustomed. Two of my smartest friends claimed, when presented with the poems of John Keats, that he was too difficult! If he is difficult, I have found him very worth the struggle…
One of his most famous lines—“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”—clearly states his belief: beauty is an absolute value. In nearly all his poetry, he pursues this idea and ideal, seeking the beauty all around him. The Romantic in him longs to capture beauty in his mind and hold it there for its redemptive quality…it elevates his thoughts, it enriches his life, it satisfies his soul. Many of us know his poems only by title…too bad, because he seeks and finds a divine sense of ecstatic beauty: he hears the song of a nightingale and he creates “Ode to a Nightingale,” a tale of a bird “pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” He sees an ancient vase and he creates “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a tale of a captured moment of ecstasy…the image of lovers about to kiss: “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet.” He beholds the beauty of autumn on a riverside in England, and he creates the voluptuous and sensual “To Autumn,” a delicious tale of how the “warm days will never cease.”
Yes, Keats’s language is lush, his images are rich and ecstatic, his ideas are ideals…he is an antique poet to us today. But his passion and his ideas, for me, are the kind of ideals I want. The effort to understand and appreciate the beauty in the world around us—not just our self-indulgent selfies—is an effort that will elevate our thoughts, enrich our lives, and satisfy our souls. His famous line with which I opened this blog goes on to tell exactly that...how a thing of beauty can become a place of reverie for us: where thoughts create a “bower,” a “dream,” and a “health.” Maybe this is an antique ideal, but it sounds like a very modern need in our very modern world.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Excerpt from “Endymion” 1817