I learned this poem decades ago. Now I truly understand it.
Keats writes about the scene on the urn, praises its eternal nature, then says, speaking to the urn,
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.
I have never understood this last stanza. Sure, the urn will be around when we are gone, and sure, people will look at it. But how is it that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”? To me they are more often separate. And how is it that “that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”? Surely there is more.
Okay, today I was on the porch with Nick and I looked over to the left. Sunlight was shining through the trees, and the leaves were silver with sunlight. It took my breath away. It was transcendent. And suddenly that poem came into my mind and I understood. Nothing joins us with the eternal, with those who have gone before and those who will come after, like the beautiful things that endure and that will be here long after we are gone. Some November day, some other woman may stand and look at those same trees or at their progeny, and the sunlight-silvered leaves will take her breath away, and in that moment, she will be me and she will be some future person who does not yet exist, and she will be, in that moment, as large as the universe. That beauty is all she can know on earth, and all she needs to know.