Sometime between 1503 and 1506, a little known Italian painter by the name of Leonardo da Vinci created a portrait of an Italian duchess. The exact figure represented in the painting, though disputed, is thought to be one Lisa del Giocondo. To Europe, it is La Joconde. To America, the Mona Lisa. Almost immediately after the painters death, the figure and her mysterious smile became a world-wide fixation, and arguably the globe’s most famous painting-perhaps even, as some would argue, the most beautiful. But let’s mention the facts, here. What can one actually know about the painting and the figure in it? To be honest, shockingly little is certain about the Mona Lisa. For example, the woman in the painting is completely bereft of eyebrows and eyelashes, and no one has yet come up with a satisfactory reason why. The leading theory is that they were washed off during the early years of the painting’s life. The woman wears no wedding ring, has no facial expression save for an ineffable smirk, no exact evidence to declare who she is-conjectures range from the aforementioned Lady Giocondo to Leonardo himself expressing his inner poofter through a gender-bending portrait-and absolutely no connection to the things happening behind her. In fact, no one has yet explained whatany of the background is. Perhaps her smirk suggests the place is a secret, and that she’s done something particularly naughty there you’d just love to hear about. On that note, certain historians have declared her dress signifies her as with child, while others say she simply has high cholesterol. Regardless of all these things, the point I’m trying to make is there’s almost no truth whatsoever in the beauty of the Mona Lisa. Her gorgeousness is on its own, completely detached from reality.
Much the same thing can be said of Keats’ poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” From the very beginning of the work, Keats abandons all factual basis, telling the urn, “thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!” and thusly silencing it for the rest of poem so that he can say whatever he ruddy well likes about it without needing to check facts. Keats laboriously describes and elaborates on the art of the object, creating whole worlds from things we cannot see or know for certain. In his mind the urn itself is an old historian, weaving a tale of a tree that won’t ever lose it’s leaves, a sacrifice never to happen as the peasants are forever away from home, and ultimately two lovers to never embrace, though they strain hard. Each scene is absolutely soaked in Keats’ self-pity. Each image on the urn reminds him that these scenes are held for eternity, never to be tainted, always to be golden, exactly like his own virgin life that he knows will end so soon. He swoons for the images and says, “My God! This is exactly how I feel!”
To which the urn might reply, “Well, actually, I didn’t mean any of that at all-!”
You see, by the time Keats gets to the famous epigram of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”-that’s ‘beauty is truth, truth is beauty’-he’s already soiled his own argument. If truth is beauty, Keats hasn’t enough truth to even stand on! The scenes are from his imagination-historians aren’t even certain to which urn Keats is referring. He has so polluted the piece with his own vision of life that if there’s any beauty there, it’s basis is certainly not set in reality. There is no truth in this art, and therefore the truth cannot be beautiful.
But is there beauty at all, and if so, is it, by nature of being beautiful, at least partly true?
To answer this question and possible redeem Keats, one must look back at the Mona Lisa. Like the poem, the painting has no factual basis, or very little at least. Each began as a representation of life, but slowly grew to say much more beyond that-in essence, both became beautiful in their extravagance. Both are undeniably triumphant and successful as art. Da Vinci’s brush strokes are unfathomably detailed, Keats’ prose expertly chosen and flowing sweeter than honey. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on. . .” Such lines are some of the most beautiful in the English language. And beyond their aesthetics, they speak truth.
“Ode to a Grecian Urn” grabs the reader, yanks him by the heart and tells him his life is passing, is so fleeting yet so sweet. It says pure is the life held in the moment, awe-inspiring is the passion never to die, untouched by time. And how sad is it, dear reader, that these things shall never be, that time claws on at everything we hold dear? This is what Keats says, just as the Mona Lisa begs the looker-on to divine the portrait’s life, to try to understand her wants, her fears, her every desire and reflect those truths onto themselves. Both are not true, neither is valid-but yet both speak truth in volumes and speak with a tone that no human can resist.
Various critics, including such greats as T.S. Elliot, have railed Keats’ for the epigram snuck into the last lines of “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” And they aren’t to be faulted-beyond a doubt, Keats phrase is simple, naive folly. Truth is not beauty, far from it. Such horrible things as war, famine, and disease are true, but cannot by their very nature be beautiful. But what the critics miss is that, like the poem itself, Keats phrase-though not true, though completely non-applicable to the universal life-speaks to us with the sickening sweet tongue of human emotion. He has performed a miracle, as all artists strive to do.
In essence, he has pulled truth from truth-less beauty.And he has made the heart weep for the wonder of it.
Jeanna Bryner, “25 Secrets of Mona Lisa Revealed.” LiveScience.