Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics



Horror, Beauty and Truth in Poetry


By James Aitchison


The Montréal Review, June 2011



Portrait of six Tuscan poets (1544) by Giorgio Vasari (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)


For a few poets and many readers, there is only one kind of poetic truth. When Keats imagines the Grecian urn saying: '"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"', he understands that beauty is not only the ideal world of the people and the landscape depicted on the urn but also the urn as a work of art and thus the objectification of the artist's ideal of beauty. The beauty of the urn will persist, Keats writes, 'When old age shall this generation waste'; and the poet in his mortality is tormented by the everlasting beauty of the urn:

Thou, silent form! Dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity.

In his imagination the beauty of the urn and of the world it depicts are as if eternal; the urn is both a physical object and an abstract ideal, a concept of beauty so absolute that it must, in Keats' view, be a kind of truth. He makes a similar observation in his letter of 22 November 1817 to Benjamin Bailey: 'What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth'. Beauty is a kind of truth, but so too is deformity.

A year or so before he wrote to ode, "On A Grecian Urn", Keats wrote that astonishing letter of November 1817 to Benjamin Bailey. In the letter, one of several insights into the nature of poetry and the poetic imagination is this:

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affection and the truth of Imagination - What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.

Keats' surging imagination outpaces his syntax as if he were making spontaneous, instantaneous discoveries in the act of writing the letter. Thoughts and emotions merge in a complex ideational flow that is not entirely coherent but is clearly the expression of a great discovery, a discovery that has perhaps been half-formed, semi-conscious, until the moment of realization. And in that moment the urgency, the importance of the discovery makes it a belief, an item of faith, a truth. For Keats in the course of writing the letter, truth is the play of imagination on beautiful things and on ideas of beauty; the truth of beauty, or truth in beauty, is an ideal, an absolute, and thus a projection of inner reality onto the external world as well as an inner recognition of external beauty.

In December 1817, just a few weeks after writing to Bailey, Keats wrote to his brothers, George and Thomas: 'the excellence of every Art is in its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.' The 'close relationship' is, of course, in the mind of the poet. And on this occasion Keats' sense of truth in beauty differs fundamentally from that in the letter to Bailey or in 'On A Grecian Urn'. He is writing with enthusiasm about a painting by Benjamin West, Death on a Pale Horse, which he describes as "wonderful picture".

West's was one of several pictures with the same title in the exhibition of art works by William Blake and his contemporaries in the Tate Gallery in London in the spring of 2006. The picture, in landscape format and approximately four feet by two feet, portrays the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse not as messengers of death but as dashing Hussars. Death on a Pale Horse is dynamic and rhythmic, and West's media, ink and wash, give the picture a lightness of execution.

Later in his letter, Keats adds: 'but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness.' He then gives the example of King Lear to illustrate the idea that all disagreeables evaporate when they are related to beauty and truth. It is as if in the act of writing the letter to his brothers - Keats was then twenty-two years old - he discovers the paradoxical aesthetic of the mature artist who finds satisfaction in giving imaginative expression to the harsher truths of the human condition, and who finds beauty in the well made play, or painting, or poem in which the harsh truths are expressed. These things are clear to the reader, and yet one feels that there is an even greater complexity in Keats' understanding of beauty and truth.

Edgar Allan Poe, by contrast, divorces beauty from truth. In 'The Poetic Principle' (1850) Poe states that beauty is transcendental; a sense of the beautiful is 'An immoral instinct', and the search for beauty is 'Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave' and is a 'struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness'. Truth and beauty, Poe argues, are incompatible:

"In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason."

It is through reason that Poe reaches that conclusion. The earlier chapter, "The Truth In Poetry", has shown that Poe also dissociates truth and poetry.

Coleridge discusses beauty in his letter of August 1829 to Joseph Henry Green. The letter is a delighted but not entirely coherent response to what he calls Green's "theory of the Beautiful", a theory that leads Coleridge, in the act of writing the letter, to formulate a concept of beauty that extends beyond aesthetics. He writes:

"Not only in the whole circle of the Fine Arts but in practical Morals, it will have a most salutary influence to have an admitted principle - that the Beautiful is the centripetal Power, which dare never be out of Act even under the boldest and apparently wildest centrifugation."

The central and centralizing force that beauty exerts cannot, must not be displaced even by the strongest opposing forces. Coleridge adds:

"Another useful corollary is, that the Beautiful is an Idea - the spirit of this or that object - but not the object in toto - as Beauty adequately realized. As you truly observed, it is the subjective in the form of the objective - a foriori, not the objective in contradistinction from the Subjective."

Beauty lies not in the object itself or the object as a whole; the beauty that is thought to be a characteristic feature of the object is a concept that is realized, made real, in the mind of the viewer. And so the concept that leads Coleridge to state that beauty "is the subjective in the form of the objective" is more subtle and complex than the statement that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Coleridge concludes: "We behold our own light reflected from the object as a light bestowed by it. The Beauty of the object consists in its fitness to reflect it". The light, or the sense of beauty, that we project onto the object seems like a light, a beauty, that emanates from the object. An object can be called beautiful only when it is fit - one assumes that fitness includes the object's size, shape, colour and texture - to reflect or represent the sense of beauty projected by the observer.

For poet and reader alike, the recognition of beauty - in a poem or other artefact, a landscape, a thought, a human face or body - and the pleasure that comes from the recognition, are natural functions of mind. Most readers and observers do not need to search for the truth as widely or as deeply as the poet; for them, the act of recognizing beauty and the truth of beauty is an end itself, beauty is not only a sufficient truth but the only truth of art. In the Western world, the concept of beauty and the physical configurations that are regarded as beautiful are not absolutes, but the concept and the preferred images have remained remarkably constant over time. The animals painted some ten thousand to twenty thousand years ago in the caves at Altamira and Lascaux - the horses, bison, aurochs and deer must have seemed to tremble as if alive when they were seen by the wavering light of flaming torches, the mysterious gift of light - are regarded as beautiful today. And the human figures sculpted in Greece more than two thousand years ago, like the figures on Keats' urn, are still seen as celebrations of the beauty of the human form. For the public at large, then, an aesthetic of beauty is the only truth of art; art that acknowledges horror is regarded as perverse, and not true art. Artists can feel impelled to celebrate the beautiful, and through the act of celebration - the making of the poem, the painting, the piece of music - they re-create the beauty; but they also feel impelled to recognize horror.


Is it paradox or plain contradiction to say that pain, disease, and death are beautified by the artistry of the poem in which they appear? Keats finds no beauty in disease or his approaching death; his last letters make that agonizingly clear. But poets know that they must confront horror, because it is part of the truth of the human condition. This problem, like so many other problems in poetry, is confronted and partly answered by T. S. Eliot. In "Matthew Arnold" in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), Eliot writes:

"It is of advantage to mankind in general to live in a beautiful world; that no one can doubt. But for the poet is it so important? We mean all sorts of things. I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not, to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory."

And by confronting the horror, by admitting it to the creative imagination and making from it a work of art, poets make the horror imaginable, containable by the imagination, and also meaningful. The immediate reality of horror will always have the power to horrify; if we ever lost that sense or horror we would lose part of our humanity. But we cannot live our lives in a continuing state of shock; that, too, would be a threat to our humanity. We cannot by an act of will banish the memory of the horror, and so we must find a way to living with it. Art shows us one of the ways. A work of art can incorporate and imaginatively assimilate so that it becomes the meaning or part of the meaning of the completed work. The finished work is not then an escape from painful reality; it commemorates that reality in a way that makes the memory bearable, understandable, and sometimes beautiful.

Physical horror is also mental horror and that horror is a state of mind. How, then, might the poet confront and transform a horror that is entirely or mainly in the mind? In trying to understand these things, and searching still for the truths of poetry, our understanding is blocked not so much by the paradox of the power of art to transfigure horror as by a failure to understand or even to identify some crucial function or functions of mind. For the poet, that part of the mind remains a mystery. At some points in Winter Pollen (1994), Hughes seems to penetrate that that mystery. In "The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly" (1984) he writes:

"New art awakens our resistance in so far as it proposes changes and inversions, some new order, liberates what has been repressed, lets in too early whiffs of an welcome future."

We sometimes resist new art because it makes a new kind of demand of our imagination and requires us to re-assess our existing values and perhaps to re-order our mind. But such re-ordering is likely to be preceded by an experience of disorder, perhaps chaos, and it is understandable that we should regard some new art as disturbing and as "an unwelcome future". In the same paragraph, Hughes adds:

"But when the incidental novelty has been overtaken or canonized, some other unease remains. At least, where the art is serious and real (one supposes, major) it remains. And immanence of something dreadful, almost (if one dare to say it) something unhuman. The balm of great art is desirable and might even be necessary, but it seems to be drawn from the depths of an elemental grisliness, a ground of echoless cosmic horror."

Even when a new work of art is assimilated by the reader or observer, even when it is understood, it can continue to disturb.

Perhaps Hughes' observation, that a major new work or art retains a dreadful, almost unhuman immanence, is prompted by his awareness that the work originates in and is partly shaped by mental forces that are nonconscious, unpredictable, sometimes uncontrollable, and are thus not readily recognized as human. The grisliness - literally horror or terror - would then be the fear that one's mind might be possessed by unhuman or supernatural forces. The metaphor of echolessness suggests that there is nothing that reflects sound, that is, no boundaries to contain the power of the new work; and the cosmic horror is the projection of these fears into the external world or, more probably, the cosmos is the mind, its neurons as innumerable stars. Perhaps Hughes is also referring to a particular condition or function of imagination, the kind of openness or suggestibility that prevents us from becoming inured to horror but leaves us forever vulnerable.

Hughes develops the theme or horror as truth in his intricate analysis of Coleridge's poetry, "The Sneak in the Oak" (1993). He writes of Coleridge's creation, Geraldine, the woman-serpent, the snake in the oak, in "Christabel":

"Though his vision of her is one of terror, he will speak of her only as "surpassing fair". Though he sees her as the Goddess of Death and the rotting sea, as well as the Goddess of Life and of the effulgent sea of birth, he will worship her as the wholly beautiful".

The transposition of the image of corruption, "the rotting sea", from the "Ancient Mariner" is appropriate. Hughes writes of Coleridge and Geraldine as Graves writes of his White Goddess, as forces of good and evil, bringers of life and death; but Hughes knows, perhaps more consciously than Coleridge and Graves, that Geraldine and the White Goddess are creatures of these poets' minds. When a poet creates such a goddess, he must worship her in order to prise the life-force and propitiate or appease the death-force. Hughes continues:

"This is not a poetic or religious perversity. It is a commonplace of the mystical life. Perhaps of the life of the dedicated scientist also. It is a simple recognition of the natural and presumably biological law that whatever is perceived as reality emits a compelling fascination indistinguishable from beauty. And his female presented herself to Coleridge's unusual awareness as the ultimate reality, therefore the ultimate truth, therefore the ultimate beauty."

Reality can, indeed, exert "a compelling fascination," but Hughes is mistaken in stating that this is indistinguishable from the fascination exerted by beauty. We respond to beauty with fascination and delight; we respond to horror with fascination and revulsion. Can we make sense Hughes' three-in-one resolution: "the ultimate reality, therefore the ultimate truth, therefore the ultimate beauty"?

Geraldine, writes Coleridge, is "Beautiful exceedingly!" Our recognition and enjoyment of beauty are innate; the delight that we find in some symmetries and configurations can be so great that we feel the beauty and delight to be kinds of goodness: how could someone so beautiful be other than good? But Geraldine is also the woman-serpent, the theriomorphic devouring female who seduces, and thus spiritually devours, both Christabel and her father, Sir Leonine. The evil in Geraldine's mind is contained within the beauty of her face and body in such a way that the irresistible allure of her beauty makes the horror, too, irresistible. Coleridge finds these elements in Geraldine because he put them there; she is the personification of these things in his mind; she is the realization, the making real, of horror, truth, and beauty; and in these ways, perhaps, she is Hughes' three-in-one. But can there be, as Hughes claims, ultimate forms of these things? Can there be an ultimate form of truth?

Hughes' argument requires us to reconsider the view expressed earlier in this essay: that ultimate truth might be unattainable. Poets yearn for ultimate understanding, ultimate truth. When they pursue an idea to the limits of their understanding, the limits of imagination, they sometimes have the feeling that the idea continues beyond these limits. Eliot expresses this experience when he writes in "The Music of Poetry" (1942):

"If, as we are aware, only a part of the meaning can be conveyed by paraphrase, that is because the poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist."

Poets long to follow the meaning, the truth, into that beyond, and sometimes they succeed. They must search for and create the truth of the experience in the poem in progress; they must realize, and they must exhaust, the creative impulse that is the motive power of the poem; and they must meet the artistic need for originality. In order to achieve these aims, poets are sometimes driven beyond the limits of imagination; and in order for that happen, they must extend or re-combine their existing neutral networks or create new networks, the effect of which is to extend the limits of imagination. When that occurs, poets know that they have entered the longed-for beyond and have created an ultimate truth of the imagination; ultimate, that is, until they are impelled to repeat the search in the next poem.


James Aitchison has published four collections of poems and the critical study, The Golden Harvester: The Vision Of Edwin Muir. He received a Gregory Award for the poems that formed the basis of his first collection, Sounds Before Sleep (1971), and in 1992 he won the Canadian Writing Wilderness award for the long poem, 'Canada', which appeared in Brain Scans (1998). Formerly a senior lecturer in the Department of Print Media, Publishing and Communication at Napier University, his other publications include Cassell's Dictionary of English Grammar and the textbook Writing for the Press: An Introduction.


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911

about us | contact us