Keats once said "beauty is truth, truth beauty."  How can that be interpreted?

Expert Answers
lindseywarren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This line comes from Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and it is part of a larger sentence that reads, "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty--That is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (29-30).  These lines are very highly disputed, mostly because of the loss of the original manuscript in Keats's hand and the existence of two equally reputable early editions that vary the location of the quotation marks; as a result, it's unclear whether the urn is speaking only "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," and the following line is directed at the urn, or whether the urn is also telling humanity that this message is "all [we] need to know."  A more simple explanation of this might be:

Urn: "Beauty is Truth." Speaker: "Maybe for you, but not for the rest of us."

OR: Urn: "Beauty is truth, and that's all we need to know." (Speaker is silent and thus agrees)

The standard, most widely accepted interpretation of these lines is that the urn, as an aesthetic art object, believes that beauty is all that matters (being beautiful is, after all, its main responsibility).  The speaker then responds to the urn, wistfully commenting that, while this might be true for the urn, mankind often has more complex issues to deal with than mere beauty.

The notion that the speaker most likely disagrees with the naive understanding of life offered by the urn complicates the rest of the poem in an interesting way: if Keats believes that "beauty" (in this case, the aesthetic beauty of art) is not "truth," why does he enclose this message in a poem, itself an inherently beautiful artifact similar to the urn?  An interesting question to think about!