As my wife carefully tends patio pots filled with treasured annuals, I am reminded of the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819) by John Keats. In the course of a relatively long meditation about the decorations on an ancient vase, he provides the famous lines:
… Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
… ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Over the course of a long life, I have discovered that my idea of truth constantly changes. I resist the word “evolves” because that seems to imply the idea of progress or at least increased complexity. I find that sometimes I agree with philosophic or religious points of various types, and later I do not, and then I may change my mind again. Beauty is a fine concept, but exactly how would it ever relate to Truth? When truth is, for example, being swamped at sea in a hurricane or attacked by a grizzly bear, it would be had to appreciate the beauty of the situation. And I have heard many melodies much finer than any I could imagine on my own.
Part of the charm of this poem, of course, is its focus on a rare ancient product of Classical Greece, an admired culture. Youths, surrounded by flowery fields, chase each other without a care in the world playing flutes. Captured in artistically painted ceramic, they will never know pain nor grow old nor have to work for a living. Utopia in a nutshell.
Such esoteric fancies would probably not arise from plastic containers in the back yard. As it turns out, none of ours are painted with delicate thoughts, but even if they were, they would be disregarded as common, trashy products of mass production. No plastic urn will survive millennia. Besides, I suspect that Grecian urns were pretty common in Greece at the time. It is only the ravages of centuries that have made them rare and thus worthy of contemplation.
I do happen to agree (at the moment) that life is beautiful. At least for me, right now. But I also am aware that there is a lot of ugliness around, and a lot of “just so” that is hardly worthy of assigning some aesthetic judgement. Truth, on the other hand, turns out to be complicated, fractal, and contradictory. I can always manipulate my judgement to appreciate beauty, but no matter how carefully examined, truth remains elusive and almost never fully welcome.
Beauty is quite enough, sometimes. Flowers provoke reflections on nature and time and meaning, as well as being simply marvelous in themselves. Colors are magic, patterns are enchanting, bees hum harmonies of ecology. Blossoms constantly fade as others promise bloom. Once in a while perfume lingers in sultry wisps. Birds chirp anthropomorphic happiness, squirrels playfully dash everywhere.
Joan has provided the human touch, selecting and arranging perennials, pots, hanging baskets, and plastic urns to display what she considers the most perfect arrangement. She shapes high and low, red and blue and orange, small leaves and large, other infinitely complex internal judgements of aesthetics, until she considers it as right as can be. Or at least as right as it can be on our budget. I simply sit and marvel, and pretend the plastic is ceramic, the molded decorations done by some master craftsman, and even project a ghostly image of a goatherd and his sweetheart racing through verdant meadows.
No Keats, I, but revised:
… Heard melodies are sweet, all those unheard
Are nothing; whatever plays, I listen;
… ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is one
Of many lovely thoughts, each contradicts the last