May 18, 2019
Senior Dinner Opening Address
Mr. Mike Mann, middle school English teacher, advisor to the Gregorian Chant
Dear class of 2019,
It is my pleasure to address a few words to you tonight on this special occasion. I want to try to frame this moment you are living through right now using a poem written exactly two hundred years ago by John Keats, a young Englishman who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, just two years after writing some of the greatest poems in the English language. One of those poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is a meditation on the meaning of two scenes painted on an ancient Greek funerary urn -- one a scene of Bacchic revelry and the other of ritual animal sacrifice -- which ends with these lines:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The urn utters these final words in the poem. Yes, a talking urn, and though ancient and Greek, it speaks English! Or maybe it’s telepathy.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
Is that really all we know and all we need to know? What does that even mean?
What puzzles the speaker in the poem about the scenes painted on the urn is that the images -- of lovers in amorous chase, of a heifer being led to slaughter on a religious altar as townspeople gather around -- are both still and animated, simultaneously frozen and in flux. The images on the urn represent both stasis (the images on the urn never change: “She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss”) and mutability (the figures on the urn move continuously: “happy melodist, unwearied,/Forever piping songs for ever new”).
Change & transformation are, of course, the subjects of all poetry, from Ovid to Keats to today. Art catches life in its fleeting moments of change. Artists find beauty in the truth of transformation and fix in art a truth about beauty that is crushing: it fades. How to keep from fading what is best about life’s beauty? Through art.
Ok, here’s the connection to you, here, tonight.
Keats’ ancient Greek urn may be thought of as a metaphor for your years here at The Gregory School, which, now over, will never change. There is a permanence now to your past, a sense that the years are fixed in time, like the scenes painted on the ancient urn. Inside the urn is the unrecoverable past, the lees and dregs of time. On the outside of the urn, in the painted scenes of memory, the wild and somber swings of your school years are now preserved and not subject to further alteration. They have been perfected by time. And they are yours forever. To quote from another Keats poem, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
The urn tells us that what is beautiful is true, and that what is true is beautiful. This knowledge, if it is a kind of knowledge, transcends time, is true in all times, and is the only thing worth knowing. This radical claim upends what we have been led to believe about the nature of knowledge as an accretion of facts and observations. The urn suggests that knowledge, by which perhaps it means wisdom, is a revelation, not the outcome of study and experience, but the result of a sudden enlightenment, from encounters with art.
When I first read this ode, I was your age, I was sure I didn’t understand it, and I wondered, how is it possible that this is all I know and all I need to know? What about math and chemistry and 18th century European history? Didn’t I need to know that, too?
Imagine a high school where the arch you walk under to enter campus each day has a banner that reads, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in large letters? A student’s report card might include the comment: “James grasps that beauty is truth but is struggling with the corollary that truth is beauty.”
The ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates pronounced slyly, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” Is Keats’ Greek urn uttering an amendment to a Socratic claim? That there is ONE thing we know, which is that beauty and truth are two words for one idea?
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
My fellow seekers of truth and beauty, are you really going to argue with an urn?
(I proceeded to read the poem)
Ode on a Grecian Urn
John Keats. 1795 - 1821