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Sensation vs. Thought

I am the more zealous in this affair [imagination], because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning--and yet it must be so...O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! (Keats qtd. in Austin 52).

In his essay, "Toward Resolving Keat's Grecian Urn Ode," Allen C. Austin references these words of Keats in his argument several times. Austin uses Keat's words to support his interpretation of the last few lines of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Austin links Keats's fascination with the imagination to his theory that Keats was referring to a state of eternity when he wrote "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." According to Austin, Keats is convinced "of the truth of imagination because it has occurred in conjunction with another speculation, that eternity is a refinement of eternal happiness" (52). While I don't entirely disagree with Austin's interpretation, I would like to add a few of my own thoughts.

I would like to draw attention to the fact that Keats does not argue that we cannot know anything through consequitive reasononing; he simply argues that he can't perceive how such a thing is done. I feel this argument can be applied to our human condition as literary critics. We cannot argue that something is or is not; we can only argue that we cannot perceive something as an individual. Furthermore, Keats's preference for imagination over reality, for sensation over thought hints at the ever present role our imagination plays within our perception of reality; a preference for sensation hints at the inescapable intertwining of our feelings with our thoughts.

Thus, I return to Keats's doubts of consequitive reasoning and I argue that his doubts are valid and understandable. Yet, the fact remains that humans still continually strive to utilize consequitive reasoning despite the validity of such doubts. Perhaps Keats was doing something more than simply referencing the beauty and truth that lies within eternity in his last few lines of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Perhaps, he was addressing our human condition--our inability to capture both truth and eternity, no matter how hard we try. Perhaps this is why he prefers imagination and sensations over reality and thoughts. While, as a human he cannot grasp truth or eternity firmly, by trusting in his imagination he can at least catch a glimpse of what it would be like. By imagining the different sensations captured within the scene on the urn, by listening to the sweeter "unheard" melodies in his mind, he can at least, however momentarily, capture a sense of what eternity would be like: a world where "beauty is truth, truth beauty." On earth, this is "all ye need to know" in order to continually seek such a state; such small references to the eternal existence of beautiful truths is all we need to fuel our search for them.

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Comments (1)

Bethany Bouchard:

Wow, I never thought of looking at the last two lines in quite that way. Though Austin's argument for eternity in his essay had me in slight agreement, I just wasn't buying it. I could only appreciate it as another way of looking at the poem. For me, I think the poem is about the appreciation of art.

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