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Wormhoudt, A. (1951). Cold Pastoral. Am. Imago, 8(3):275-285.

(1951). American Imago, 8(3):275-285

Cold Pastoral

Arthur Wormhoudt, Ph.D.

Two of the most perceptive of contemporary critics, Mr. Cleanth Brooks1 and Mr. Kenneth Burke2, have devoted essays to the explication of Keats' “Ode on a Grecian Urn” attempting to defend it from Mr. T. S. Eliot's charge (echoed by many other critics) that the last two lines are either meaningless, untrue or so esoteric that they cannot be easily understood. The oracle of which the urn finally delivers itself: Beauty is truth, truth beauty, it must be admitted, it paradoxical. Truth is a relation of correspondence between symbols and the facts which they represent. Beauty, on the other hand, is a quality attaching either to facts or symbols without involving any relation of correspondence. Truth and beauty are thus distinct categories. They cannot be used interchangeably nor be said to be identical. Mr. Eliot's criticism seems justified.

This at least is true if we look at truth and beauty as they are perceived by the conscious mind. But there is another possibility. Suppose that the truth Keats is talking about refers to symbols which represent not a consciously perceived state of affairs but rather an unconscious situation. That is, suppose that truth is expressed or presented rather than represented. If this were the case it would be plain why Keats overlooks the distinguishing character of truth as opposed to beauty. He would not be aware of the facts which the truth he feels represents. He would simply feel his ideas to be true, in much the same way he feels them to be beautiful. He would intuit truth, like beauty, as a quality—not as a relation of correspondence. It is in this sense, I believe, that what the urn says, both directly and in the scenes depicted on it, is true. Its symbols, that is, refer to unconscious states of affairs and thus the entire poem is subjectively true as well as beautiful.

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