I decided when I retired that I wanted to do something. Not work. Not chasing the all mighty dollar. Nothing wrong with that, we all have to do it, but I have done that for nearly 40 years (really more when you include the 7 years of post-secondary school education I had to do in order to qualify for my profession). Of course, given current market tribulations I might have to return to work again.
This next phase of my life was inspired by the English poet John Keats. In particular it was inspired by his famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
He wrote about an old urn that has an image on it showing Dionysian revelries. It showed young lovers in flight and pursuit. That urn freezes a moment in time. It is a moment of time—an instant—forever frozen by the artist’s art, which in turn is celebrated by the art of the poet. It opens like this,
“Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or both”
That bride that Keats refers to is forever pursued; forever uncaught, and hence eternally virgin. The bride never loses her luster. Her beauty lasts forever. Only true beauty can do it. The beauty of artistic achievement is forever. Keats always longed for permanence, but of course in life could never find it. He actually died very young. I think he died at 29 if I remember correctly. Only in art could permanence be found.
Eternity is inexplicable. It mystifies us. Everything of this world is subject to change, decay, and disintegration. Keats wanted more than that, so he lamented this fact but acknowledged the only way out, was art. He found permanence in an image on a Grecian Urn :
“Thou, silent form, dost tease out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
That is what I mean. I think Keats meant beauty in a wide sense. He was not talking only about the beauty of a young woman—though that too. After all there is beauty in old women too. Even old men have a faint streak of it from time to time.
Keats wanted to include the beauty of artistic achievement. That is the beauty that lasts forever, or at least a long time. As close as we can get. A young woman’s beauty turns old. It is still beauty, but it is different it has changed. The beauty of the image on a Grecian Urn remains the same forever unchanged forever avoiding decay.
Now as I enter the time of my degeneration I notice the changes more deeply. Until recently I thought I would be healthy and powerful forever. I believed I would never decay, never diminish. Sadly, I now know clearly that this is not to be. I am not to be. I am draining away. But in my last years, I want to pursue truth and beauty, even though I know I will never catch up with them. Beauty and truth will be forever unravished by me at least. There will be no consummation. Keats urges the lover not to grieve for his lover will never “fade”, because even though the lover will never get to kiss her,
“She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever will thou love, and she be fair!’
Yet the pursuit, I hope, can be filled with grace, and wonder, just like the lover pursuing his bride of silence, forever uncaught, but forever beautiful. I will pursue truth and beauty because that is all I know and all I need to know. It will be part of what Keats called “a mad pursuit.” Yet he also says it is “wild ecstasy.” That’s what I want—wild ecstasy.
Of course the next question is how to do that? How does one pursue truth and beauty in the modern world? There are many roads to truth. Art is one source of both truth and beauty. Keats knew that. Philosophy is also one. Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom through thinking. Reason is the instrument of philosophy. When reason shows the truth, it is beautiful. Music is a source as well. An important one is nature. It is the unedited manuscript of god. Religion can be a source, though often it is a restrictive source of narrow thinking, that leads to falsehood not truth. Then it leads to exclusion, superiority, and hate. And then it ceases to be religion. An expansive religion—one, which connects us to the world, and to each other is a deep source of everything that is true and good and right.
Northrop Frye said that he had carefully arranged his life so that nothing ever happened to him. That gave him time to do what he really wanted; to read and think. What a great goal. To many it seems absurd. But it is not absurd; it is a delight. That is the way to pursue truth and beauty. That includes moral as well intellectual, artistic, musical, truth and beauty. And it’s all beautiful. And its all true.