“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
There is much controversy concerning this statement from John Keats’ famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Many critics find this ending assertion flawed and marring. For example, T. S. Eliot wrote in an essay, “…this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue.” Are truth and beauty interchangeable as Keats suggests? I am no philosopher, and having lived only three decades on this earth, I claim no special wisdom, yet I wonder if he was getting at something. Truth and beauty seem linked to me, and it is through writing that I have become more aware of their connection.
When I first started writing my fiction series, Children of the Glaring Dawn, I did so with a domineering attitude, subjugating my characters’ wills and even personalities to the plot and messages I determined. As a result, very little made sense in those first drafts in terms of character relationships and character development. Eventually, I realized what I was doing. It was a breakthrough moment when I saw my characters for who they are, and writing with that perspective, I was able to create something more honest and real—something more truthful. At the same time, the beauty of what I was writing shone through with great brilliance. I saw the merits of fiction-writing in a deeper way than I had imagined possible, and the messages that emerged from this transformation struck me in the core of my being with their breathtaking delight. In short, the closer I came to truth, the nearer I drew to beauty.
Years ago, Albert Einstein drew a connection between truth and beauty as well, saying, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” We can stand in awe of a many-hued sunrise or a poignant violin solo just as well as we can wonder at the love of a mother for her child or the way the basic forces of the universe hold our physical reality together. The line between truth and beauty blurs with these things. Are they beautiful because they are true, or do they seem most true because they are beautiful? Or are they both true and beautiful because of some deeper cause?
“Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the Infinite,” Francis Bacon said, and I think his words help answer the question we just posed. Beautiful things are such because they point to something greater, something deeper, something more. They reflect the Infinite, what by definition is beyond comprehension, and make it accessible to us. They take the invisible Truth and present it to us as perceptible, displaying the Unknown as something recognizable.
Beauty displays truth—that much is clear. But then does the truth display beauty? That is where writing comes in for me. I have found that beauty arises from the passages that ring most genuine and true. Writing of loss and suffering, of hope and love, the poignant reality of my words is what moves me. Reading is the same way. When I mark passages in books, it is because they compel me with their ability to describe the human experience. What results from the force of their truth is beauty.
In a way, I agree with Keats—beauty presents truth, and an accurate depiction of truth creates beauty, but I would argue that beauty and truth remain distinct. If beauty could contain all truth, then what of the experience of pain and anguish that plague so many in the world today? Starvation is not beautiful. War is not beautiful. Cancer is not beautiful. Dementia is not beautiful. Sex slavery is not beautiful. Suicide is not beautiful, and I could go on. There are true evils in the world today that I can in no way argue are beautiful, and I have no desire to try. Perhaps I can write and capture the experience of these things in a moving way such that my words are beautiful, but those words do not change the reality of agony and affliction for innumerable souls around the world. There is an overlap between truth and beauty, but our vile and ignoble acts mar the truth such that beauty cannot encompass it.
Yet as we look at the evils in the world, we know they are wrong. We have this unrelenting feeling that this is not how things should be—it is not how they could be. There is a deeper Truth than our messed-up reality, and it is when we touch on that Truth, we find beauty. Truly beautiful things give us a type of nostalgia for something we have never actually experienced. It is as though we are remembering some paradise we have never entered, but we know it is there, just beyond our reach. Our grasping at beauty and truth, our little attempts to capture them, fall short of transporting us to the place where they reside. C. S. Lewis writes of this in his book, The Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
In reality, truth and beauty are not the same, but they proceed from the same source—the Truth and Beauty and Goodness and Love that set all of this in motion and is constantly calling us back to Himself. He gave us writing and music and paintings, sunsets and oceans and graceful creatures abounding, to awaken that “longing” just mentioned. Wanting us not only to witness beauty and truth but to participate in them with Him, He invites us to become truly beautiful ourselves. As Rumi wrote, “That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty, He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful.” To write or draw or paint or read, to walk in nature, and especially to love a fellow human being and Truth Himself—these are ways we experience truth and beauty, and little by little, God whispers to us in them to make our hearts more graceful and delightful.