. . . Truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Those are the final two lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The poem is considered one of the greatest odes ever written in the English language.
Here’s the nutshell: The poet, or the persona of the poem, encounters a piece of ancient Greek pottery which depicts two scenes: one of lovers about to kiss and one of a group of people apparently preparing to offer a sacrifice at the temple. The entire poem is the poet expressing how this work of art will outlast living people. The lovers will always be young and in love, and the people in the other scene will never reveal the purpose of their journey or their sacrifice.
Those last two well-known lines are the poet’s conjecture about what the urn would say to all who encounter it. But those last two lines are also some of the lines most debated by scholars. What do they mean exactly? Beauty is truth? Truth beauty?
Recently, I had the honor of hearing Lisa Fischer perform. If you don’t know Lisa Fischer, you should look her up. She has toured as a background singer for Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones and others. She is featured in the 2013 film Twenty Feet from Stardom, and she is a Grammy-Award winning artist in her own right.
But all that aside, let me engage in the futile attempt to describe an ineffable performance. Her vocals are simply impeccable. Almost other-worldly. She doesn’t perform songs; she moves into them and takes up residence, inhabiting the words of others as if they sprang from her own experience. She is a musician whose instrument is her body — not just her lungs and diaphragm and tongue and teeth, but her feet and hands and knees and neck. Her talent was not just the greatest I had ever witnessed, but it was greater than I might have imagined was humanly possible.
But there was something more than talent on stage. I sat through the entire performance with my hands in a prayer position against my lips. The unfiltered display of naked authenticity was almost more than I could take. Somehow I knew that I was watching her very essence — uncovered, unhidden, unashamed, unafraid — and in beholding her highest and truest self free and unfettered, I knew in that instant that this way of being was available to us all.
For 90 minutes, Lisa Fischer stood at the intersection of talent and authenticity, and it was holy ground.
She didn’t talk about god or spirituality or faith or a journey. I mean, other than the tanktop under her tunic that had the chakras running down the back. She didn’t have to talk about spirituality. The moment itself was sacred, and she was fully in the moment. And by her silent invitation, so were we.
That is the power of art — to create an image, a sound, a moment that transcends the material world and shows us the truth of who we are. Like a mirror that reflects our soul.
For you see, beauty is truth, truth beauty . . .