Beauty, truth and the sublime
In December 1817 John Keats wrote to his brothers, George and Tom, after dining with the English artist William Hayden: ‘The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth.’ Two years later, Hayden’s articles on Classical and medieval art, published in the Examiner in May 1819, inspired Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in which the poet famously gives the ‘Attic shape’ words to comfort man: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ The Modernist poet T. S. Eliot dismissed Keats’s equation of truth and beauty as ‘meaningless’, but scholarship in science and mathematics holds fast to the accuracy of Keats’s assertion. The simplicity of the equation, which was so objectionable to Eliot, reflects the Classical search for purity of form, which produced the beautifully clear mathematics of Pythagoras and Euclid that Frank Wilczek and Bob May celebrate here in their chapters, ‘Quantum beauty’ and ‘Beauty and truth’.
If ‘beauty is truth’ then beauty cannot be purely pleasurable. Yet if the intensity of a work of art is sufficient, Keats argues, it enables the subject to transcend its ‘disagreeable’ elements and provide access to truth through the observer’s experience of the sublime. As W. P. Albrecht explains in ‘The Tragic Sublime of Hazlitt and Keats’, the sublime for these writers was not the delightful horror of Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth, to which Evgeny Dobrenko refers in his chapter, ‘Terror by beauty’. Keats defined the sublime as a moment in which the ‘imagination excited by passion . . . selects and combines sensory details to catch the “verisimilitude” which an object or experience has for him at that moment’. For the artist José Hernández, beauty is something that can be manifested in the external world once the imagination has done its work, both in the process of creation and perception: a process that he explores in his chapter on the relationship between ‘Beauty and the grotesque’.