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The line “A thing of beauty if a joy forever” from John Keats’s poem Endymion is usually read as a straightforward assertion that any beautiful thing gives unending pleasure. This idea can be interpreted in several different senses, including the following:
- A beautiful thing will give joy throughout one’s lifetime. One can return to the beautiful thing and never cease to find it a source of joy.
- Even after one dies, the thing of beauty will continue to exist and will give joy to people of the next generation. When they in turn pass, it will give joy to the generation after theirs, and so on. Thus a beautiful thing may in that sense be a “joy forever.”
- Even if the thing of beauty, experienced in the past, can’t (for whatever reasons) be experienced at the present moment, our memory of the past experience can still give present pleasure.
- Even when we are depressed or despondent, our experience of a beautiful thing can help us shake off our gloom and can bring us joy:
. . . yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. (11-13)
- Because human beings share the same basic natures and respond to the same stimuli in the same basic ways, a thing of beauty – even if lost for a time, perhaps even for centuries – will still have the ability to give joy to future generations if it is rediscovered later.
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