‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness’, is the opening line of John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. The title I have used is another quote taken from Keats, from his poem called ‘Endymion’.
His idea of an unconsummated (unravished) still (‘remaining present’ and also ‘without movement’) virgin object wedded to peace and silence (‘bride of quietness’) is astounding to me because he discovered such insight so young.
Keats was 26 when he died, and it is supposed he was 23 or 24 when he wrote the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
My subject is beauty and holiness – If you like, the Beauty of God.
I’m going to begin with art, and our experience of art. Not just painting and drawing, but, depending who you are, and your background and tastes, aesthetic experiences of most kinds.
But for me it’s particularly certain drawings and pictures, certain forms of drawing particularly; and very much so the written word.
I am hoping you can get at what I mean to say yourself by way of you relating it to the types of beauty that ‘do it for you’.
Let’s start with the written word; it’s easiest from me to write about and by lucky coincidence it is the medium in which God has spoken to us in revelation.
I don’t want to put off non-believing readers, so I hope my previous sentence didn’t sound too exclusive or certain for you to handle.
A saying from the Bible that is one of the most quoted, maybe over-exposed a little, but still astounding as a thought, is Jesus’,
‘Consider the lilies of the field, neither do they toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these’
It is clear to me from this little snippet alone, taken from the small sum of words we have from Jesus’s mouth, that he was, I guess, susceptible in a high degree to the beauty of nature. Once again I am lucky because wild flowers are part of my own portfolio of aesthetic greats.
But it’s not just the subject of flowers, a lily of the field, but the wonderful way the thought is expressed, albeit as a translation from Greek into English. The Greek itself may be yet more fresh than the English I am quite willing to believe.
So it’s a happy combination of the subject (the lily) the thought (the comparison with the glory of Solomon) and the style (the beautiful King James Version prose) that unite to produce a portrait of Jesus speaking so real, so definite, so personal, so exact, that this saying had it alone come down to us would have indicated someone very, very special having thought and expressed it.
The whole combination is beautiful; and as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we can adduce from the truism that Jesus himself was a very beautiful mind, soul, spirit, person. St Paul refers us to obtaining ‘the mind of Christ’ for ourselves, to grow day by day into the stature of the mind of Christ; and so to become beautiful after our Maker and Saviour.
This too is a beautiful idea, to be enabled by Grace to reach towards perfection in our day to day humdrum selves, by way of the love and sacrifice that was offered purposefully to us to obtain and enjoy, without coercion, without conditions imposed by decree, but from a revelation given that to grasp such a ‘last straw’ is to find peace, strength, joy, love and compassion, for oneself and towards others, to obtain and enjoy life, and receive life in abundance.
Where I am going is to claim for the whole gospels, and for much of the Old Testament and the New, that contain the Story of God’s gradual revelation of himself and his design for men and women and children, that they are beautiful, and tell a Story that is beautiful of itself, and as such are Artistic and Aesthetic Objects.
The language, the theme, the content, the expression, of much of the Story of God’s Design as it is told in the Bible are beautifully offered to us, as prose, as storytelling, as Salvation, as an offering we could not have hoped for otherwise, and in many more ways. All these aspects are aesthetic aspects.
Of course they are not only aesthetic aspects; indeed much of their beauty rests in their being tied, cemented, wedded, so forcefully to the terms of each of our individual existences; and to the existence of Creation itself. The technical literary terms to use to express this forceful connection with, (a word I don’t like using) ‘reality’; might be that the Bible has sincerity, authenticity, and verisimilitude. Everyone connects with it; even when they are against it.
The lines of John Keats, the words of Jesus, the narratives of the Creation and Salvation stories being beautiful in themselves also point in their subject matter towards beautiful things – Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’ or Wordsworth’s ‘thoughts too deep for tears’ at him seeing ‘ the meanest flower that blows’ – and they all say something deep and half-hidden about the nature of beauty.
I’d like to suggest that the ‘stillness’ of the Grecian Urn; the ‘unravishedness’ of it, and the ‘quietness wedded’ to it are within us all three, and engendered within us by the contemplation of the lines of verse, prose, the drawing, whatever.. They are our responses to beauty – an acute awareness of a sense of permanence, of peace, and of partaking in full measure in the experience of being present.
At such times in our lives when the full holiness of beauty hits us foursquare on the forehead, we can say to ourselves, as Hamlet says to himself, ‘We know what we are; but we know not what we may be’.
Ours is the stillness, quietness, weddedness, of permanence, of partaking in eternity, of realising that eternity is present with, and within us, even though most of the remaining time in our lives we are almost oblivious of beauty’s existence and even hostile to the idea of it being here; since so much seems to go wrong in our lives or needs our bothersome and reluctant detailed attention. The necessities of getting and spending, of drinking and eating, and serving and being served, get in our ways.
Jesus’s lilies of the field appear to us so fresh and so stunning in our mind’s eye in great part because of the solemn and majestic picture of Solomon robed regally and stood in state that comes before us and that is just as quickly dismissively and instantly discarded by Jesus in praise of the ‘one (lily) greater who is here’.
Jesus is also saying a truth not acknowledge as often as it ought to be; that nature, the lilies, be they ever so insignificant and transient and ephemeral, take the palm, and that art (Solomon’s raiment) does not challenge nature and does not overcome nature for primacy in beauty, and holiness. It is indeed ‘the meanest flower that blows’ that is superior and has more of God in it than Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, or Beethoven’s amazing ‘Hymn of Thanksgiving’.
That stillness we sense in the presence of severe beauty is for me a taste of Heaven, a sampler, a piece of evidence that Heaven is possible and even available around us. The absorption of our consciousness into the experience of beauty too is a foretaste of the possibilities for our rapture and bliss. It is an experience of the same denial of self, a sort of dismissal of and discarding of self, in the face of ‘a greater one’ being present, a sort of small scale likeness of that experience one imagines one will have when one stands before God and sees his incontestable glory.
The denial of self that Jesus preached and embodies is born in part out of the apprehension we have of his great personal inner beauty, and the beauty of his Way. The holiness of it all. It is no sweat to follow someone you admire to adoration.
You can find this kind of acknowledgement of the beauty of holiness in the Psalms again and again; when the singer sings of the beauty and delight of meditating God’s word in the nighttime on his bed.
With our sense of beauty, with our sense of holiness, comes a cleanness, a sense that what we behold is utterly pure and clean and free from stain, moral or physical. When we ourselves are sensible of having an uncleanness about us at a time when we are placed in the presence of refining beauty; we shrink away; even wince at ourselves, and feel unworthy. (‘For he is like a refiner’s fire, and who shall stand when he appeareth?’) Simon Peter has this experience when he pleads with the Lord; ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man…’ when the great revelation that Jesus is Messiah suddenly has hit his inner awareness like a blow to the head, and he confesses his awe and shame before and in the face of pure love.
The title then, A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever, is Biblical and is religious. And John Keats perceived precociously another great truth which has been argued over for nearly two centuries, by this and that literary critic and by this and that academic aesthetician, who in their capacity as persons and spiritual beings might better acknowledge that there is no argument to be had. Keats writes to close his poem Ode to a Grecian Urn:
‘Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty,
That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’