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Keats and Fowler and Truth and Beauty

Keat’s line,

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

Has always seemed arresting to me but a bit incomprehensible. Perhaps it is the symmetry of that couplet that makes it tantalizing approachable and yet unreachable.

H.W. Fowler was the consumnate English grammarian. His Dictionary of Modern English Usage was for decades the record book that settled all linguistic bets. See if Keats’ writing becomes clearer upon reading Fowler on the word inevitable.

“What the critic means by inevitable is perhaps this: surveying a work of art, we feel sometimes that the whole and all the parts are sufficiently consistent and harmonious to produce on us the effect of truth; we then call it, for short, convincing: thus and thus, we mean, it surely may have been or may be; nothing inclines us to doubt.

To be convincing is but a step short of inevitable; when the whole and the parts are so admirably integrated that instead of Thus and thus it may have been we find ourselves forced to Thus and thus it must have been or was or is, when the change of a jot or tittle would be plain desecration, when we know we are looking at the Platonic idea itself and no mere copy, then the tale or the picture or the music attains to inevitableness.

Hmm. Admirably integrated. I am closer to understanding Keats. And I get closer and closer with each rereading of Fowler’s discussion.

His complete entry on inevitable spans six or seven lengthy paragraphs. His Dictionary was revised in 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers and you can find a copy at most large used bookstores. I prefer Gower’s second edition.



By thomasfarley01

Business writer and graphic arts gadfly.

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