Writing the above words in 1819, Keats (Anstey 1995:193-5) was making an important statement about humanity and creation. He seemed to encapsulate an idea of the insignificance of human life set against the power of manmade creativity in the arts.
The words came as part of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, in which figures depicted on the urn enjoy artificial longevity, captured for eternity by a skilful artist. The urn is personified as a ‘friend to man’, leading Keats to consider the imaginary lives of the ‘marble men and maidens’:
Who are these coming to the sacrifice? . . .
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk?
Earlier in the poem he had imagined a vivid love affair happening between the figures:
More happy love! More happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever panting, and for ever young; . . .
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Through the artistic integrity of the urn, acting microcosmically, Keats has the reader experience the sensuous height and the brevity of the figures’ lives. His position as omniscient narrator authenticates and empowers his vision. His metaphor suggests that beauty is both the truth of human life and the key to it.
For Keats, ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not’, an amazing statement made in his letter to Benjamin Bailey eighteen months before he wrote Ode to a Grecian Urn (Anstey 1995:26-7). His emphasis on imaginative authenticity suggests the capabilities of the romantic mind, firstly to alight on phenomena of beauty, and then to render these truthfully into artistic creation. Wordsworth also paid testament to the power of the poetic imagination;
An auxiliar light
Came from my mind, which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendour . . .
as did Coleridge:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
However, it seems unlikely that these poets had not observed the setting sun and the fountains of the real world prior to allowing the ‘third eye’ of their own imaginations to delight over them.
Most commentators agree that although artists need to possess qualities such as integral (McLuhan) or perceptual (Irwin) awareness, artistic creations depend upon the actual experiences of the artist. So the romantic notion of truth and beauty is justly employed to consider the success of any artistic genre and its truth to the circumstances of inspiration. Art is defined variously as: ‘a continuous expansion of our awareness of the world around us’ (Irwin); ‘the expression of the life of the community’ (Dewey); ‘to evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced . . . [and] so to transmit this feeling that others experience the same feeling’ (Tolstoy); and the ‘comprehension of our worlds’ (Goodman). By copying and developing the lived experience, art is about mimesis (Plato) and ‘rightness of rendering’ (Goodman). (Freeland 2001).
Returning to Keats’ writing, there is further support for this idea. His statement in the Ode that ‘heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’ appears to suggest that only on the pure Wings of Imagination can the most beautiful and therefore truest creations be produced. However, a linked phrase in his letter of November 1817 discusses the uplifting quality of a beautiful melody – replayed by the mind to an extent that the listener is taken back to the very first time when the ‘old Melody’ was actually heard (Anstey 1995:193,25-7). Art, then, is an imitation, a rendering, an expression of life; it is ‘the transfiguration of the common place’ (Bowden 2008:17).
What is there for the artist to imitate and transform? What exists in purest form for the mind to seize and work upon? One key text has classified the world’s natural surroundings as two contrasting forms of inspiration for artists. Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful of 1756 describes how the human senses respond to nature, arousing feelings of self-propagation when experiencing objects of softness or harmony (beautiful), and eliciting a sense of self-preservation when faced with objects of pain, power, terror, or infinity (sublime). (Byatt 1970:242-3) Burke’s distinction can be found within Keats’ nature poetry. This is discussed at length elsewhere within the site, but for example one can contrast Keats’ (Anstey 1996:1,59) beautiful description of some tiny fish where they ‘taste the luxury of sunny beams’ with his elemental ‘Blood-red the Sun may set behind black mountain peaks;/Blue tides may sluice and drench their time in caves and weedy creeks’.
Underlining the contrasting inspirations of sublime and beautiful nature, many eighteenth-century landowners replaced formal continental-style gardens with the quasi-natural landscapes designed by Brown (Clifford 2001:7-10). Burke himself was aware of a taste for the expressive possibilities with imitations of sublime nature, where audiences could enjoy the ‘sense of a real power of danger faced without damage’ (Byatt 1970:243). To this end, many artists from Jane Austen to Mozart turned their hands to the production of ‘artificial terror’ (Porter 1996:165), although for Mozart (letter to his father, 26th September 1781) 'music, even in the most terrible situations, must always give pleasure and never offend the ear’. Just such a compromise between the sublime and the beautiful could be found within a third type of visual inspiration known as the picturesque (Byatt 1970:245-9), uniting both types of nature within a beauty aesthetic.
With inspiration emanating from man-made scenes, art is clearly not just an act of imitation but also of self-imitation. Eighteenth-century artists mocked the artificial alterations of landscapes for picturesque ends but still indulged in them. Wordsworth described how ‘Nature doth embrace her offspring in Man’s art’, and he still considered new inventions to be ‘proper objects of the Poet’s Art’. (Byatt 1970:84, 245-9). Today we must consider the extent of man-made alongside natural influences. Hughes (1991:324-5) describes how things have changed towards the contemporary viewpoint as we evaluate the beauty of our modern art and its truth to our surroundings:
Unlike our grandparents, we live in a world that we ourselves made. Until about fifty years ago, images of Nature were the keys to feeling in art. Nature – its cycles of growth and decay, its responses to wind, weather, light, and the passage of the seasons, its ceaseless renewal, its infinite complexity of form and behaviour on every level, from the molecule to the galaxy – provided the governing metaphors within which every relationship of the Self to the Other could be described and examined. The sense of a natural order, always in some way correcting the pretensions of the Self, gave mode and measure to pre-modern art. If this sense has now become dimmed, it is partly because for most people Nature has been replaced by the culture of congestion: of cities and mass media. We are crammed like battery hens with stimuli . . . . Overload has changed our art. Especially in the last thirty years, capitalism plus electronics have given us a new habitat, our forest of media . . .
Everything in the new century’s culture of mass media conspired against the ways in which art had been experienced before. The present has more distraction than the past. Works of art once had less competition from their surroundings. . . . In an ill-articulated world, a place not yet crammed with signs, images and designed objects, the impact of a choir heard in the vast petrified forest of a Gothic cathedral might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles of building from primitive nuraghi to the World Trade Center, the ads in the street outside it, the desanctification of the building, its conversion into one more museum-to-itself, the secular essence of our culture, the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World, and so on and so forth; while similar transpositions have happened to the matrix in which we hear the music. The choir competes, in our unconscious, with jack-hammers, car brakes, and passing 747s, not merely with the rattle of a cart or the lowing of cattle. Nor does the chant necessarily seem unique, for one can go home and listen to something very like it on the stereo. Because nothing could be retrieved or reproduced, the pre-technological ear listened to – as the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize – one thing at a time. Objects and images could not, except at the cost of great labour, be reproduced or multiplied. There was no print, no film, no cathode-ray tube. Each object, singular; each act of seeing; transitive.
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