When I saw this cactus in Green Valley Arizona, south of Tucson and near the Mexican border I thought it might be the most beautiful cactus I had ever seen. I was on a church yard, so I thought I could walk and photograph it without fear of being shot.
When I first retired I said I wanted to stop spending my time in order to make a living and feed my family, I wanted now to pursue “truth and beauty” as John Keats said. I have done that. And it has been great fun.
When I went to university, in my first English literature course, taught by Jack Woodbury, one of the best professors I ever had, the first poet we studied was John Keats. English poet. He published only 54 poems before he died at the age of 25. That is 54 more than I have published. And many of them were great poems.
John Keats was an English Romantic poet, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others. His poems had been in publication for less than four years when in 1821 he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. Talk about brief beauty!
One of the poems we read was “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” This might have been the 3rd or 4th poem I studied in university. The poem describes an urn with an image of a young shepherd pursuing a beautiful young woman who he wants to kiss. But of course, in the image he never catches her. She is forever, a “still unravished bride of quietness.” She never speaks. Their love is never consummated, but their love never turns stale either. It is a love that never withers. The shepherd is also a piper whose song is never heard. But this too is fine. As Keats says in the poem, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
The last two lines of that poem go as follows:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
There has been much critical debate about what those words mean. Many, including me, have puzzled over the meaning of those words. I think they make sense in the context of the whole poem. In a way it is a summation of the poet’s thinking expressed by the previous 48 lines.
By beauty I think he means beauty in a wide sense. Beauty basically is art. And art is true or it is not art. So beauty is truth and truth is beauty. Some cactuses bloom only for a day. What a dreadful pity.
So a beautiful cactus flower, caught in a silent moment by a camera, is a work of art (beauty) that never withers. It is an eternal thing of beauty. If is it good, it is good forever. It never changes. That is truth which also is truth forever.