Yesterday I stood in my kitchen and an archetypal piece of pop culture, a t-shirt print, called forth a voice from the past. In another time and another place, another man stood and mused far more lyrically on a classical piece of culture. Rendering into language the perfect moment.
My memory called forth what Edmund Burke termed the sublime: a sense of awe mingled with pain. The imagination of John Keats bodied forth beauty mixed with hope.
Yet for all the glory of his poetry, Keats’ central message is one of silence. The urn of his imagining can retell a more vivid history than any line of verse. Much like my memory of the Hindenburg film, Keats treats time in a way which is both frozen and animated by our thinking. This is because for those immortalized in art, time does not pass; the figures are immune from old age and in this way are ever new, inviting each generation to imagine their lives and bear witness to their history.
What Is Not Visible
Keats closes his poem with a chiasmus:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Though it is not clear if this is the poet or the urn speaking, what is clear is that the passage seeks to transcend any notion of visual value to show what is not available at first sight. That the lovers on the urn will never embrace. They remain forever locked in that pause before the kiss.
This goes to the heart of truth, beauty and ultimately hope. The notion of transcending the temporal and freezing forever the perfect moment.