Thursday, January 19, 2012


Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
-- John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

I haven’t often thought of the books we read in English class as “friends”, but rereading Keats’ poem this morning makes me see some sense in the thought. The poet presents the idea that, in the midst of all the reworkings and ups-and-downs of our lives, all the occasional “woe[s]” and disillusionments, something “shal[l] remain” to remind us of what’s truly essential in life – and for Keats, this something is the kind of flawless magnificence represented by the Grecian urn. There’s something stunning in all of our lives, Keats suggests, and it’s not just in museums, but directly in front of us in the most commonplace loveliness – in the shape of a pencil on a table, in a window with a wide view of a town’s lights, in orange peels in a flower-patterned bowl, and certainly in some lines from Shakespeare or Keats. When my students come to class with their usual cares and distresses, I can comfort them, perhaps, with a paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities. I can show them that the sense of well-being they so badly need is possibly waiting in just a few words working together to make something exquisite on a page in a book. A book is just a “silent form”, a “cold” collection of words, but it can carry a splendor inside it that can comfort even the most fretful teenager. Perhaps all my students “need to know” is that something lovely – a poem, a sentence well structured, or just a bird at the bird-feeder outside the classroom -- can always lead them out of worries into the simple truth that life is basically a beautiful thing.

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