BEAUTY & TRUTH

By Robin Lippincott
Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction

“Who or what inspires you?”

In her most recent post on this blog, my friend and colleague Eleanor Morse asked the question, “Who and what inspires you?” I thought then and still think that would make a strong series for faculty and students to respond to and continue: who or what inspires you? Eleanor memorably and movingly wrote about an artist friend, an abstract painter, and about how he had inspired her as a writer. And while there are many people and/or things that I could cite as sources of inspiration, what comes most immediately to mind, perhaps because of experiences I had in Rome with the program recently, are these well-known lines from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

I was probably 20 or 21 years old the first time I encountered those words (that poem)—a long time ago, but they made a lasting impression. In fact, I would say that those lines have been the aesthetic guidepost and inspiration for everything I have written: beauty and truth. (It seems important to note here that, as Paul Gauguin put it, “Ugliness can be beautiful (prettiness never” is the rest of the quote)).

keats-room

While in Rome, alumna Rosanna Staffa and I visited the Keats-Shelley House. There, we saw the room where Keats died, and his death mask, as well as some of his books, et cetera. Here’s a view of the Spanish Steps from the window at the foot of Keats’ bed:

 

A few days later, Rosanna and I, along with alum Omar Figueras, went to the Non-Catholic cemetery where Keats is buried. It took us a while to find his gravesite, which was occupied by a couple of women; and so we waited, allowing them their private visit. keats-graveBut when it became obvious that they wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, we joined them, made small talk, and learned they were from England, all while a charcoal-colored cat, which somebody joked was the ghost of Keats, circled our feet. I had asked Omar to print out “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and bring it along, so after the English women left, and while we had the spot to ourselves, I read the poem aloud.

Keats had requested that only the phrase at the end here appear on his tombstone, but two of his friends had this paragraph inscribed as well:

“This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone:

‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’”

It is a terribly moving sight. Keats was so young when he died, just 25. At various points during our visit, all three of us unexpectedly burst into tears.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Who or what inspires you?


Robin Lippincott’s most recent books are Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell, and Rufus + Syd, a novel for young adults co-written with Spalding MFA grad Julia Watts. His previous books include the novels In the Meantime, Our Arcadia, Mr. Dalloway, and the short story collection The ‘I’ Rejected.

Author photo taken by Sharona Jacobs.


For more information about our program, students and faculty, please visit our Spalding MFA website or email us at MFA@spalding.edu.

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