Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

Final Draft of A Buddhist Emptiness Inside of John Keats’s Ode On A Grecian Urn

Philip Kaveny

English 276 Pace

Short Paper II

May 17th, 2017.



A Buddhist emptiness inside of John Keats’: “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” revisited a month later.



Approximately six weeks after I submitted the first iteration of this paper I found myself staring into the face of Buddhism’s axiomatic impermanence, also called Anicca or Anitya, which is one which articulates the metaphysics of Buddhism. The doctrines are also rereferred to as the three marks of existence. The doctrine asserts that all conditioned existence, without exception is “transient, evanescent, and inconstant.[1]  As simply as I can say it I contend and demonstrate how John Keats expresses in his Ode on a Grecian Urn a penultimate truth which rests upon Buddha’s four Noble Truths in the same way as the continents of our globe wobble and slide uneasily on the tectonic plates upon which they float upon the subterranean lakes of molten magma where the great salamander writes the creation myth into being out of nothingness[2].

However, before I delve further into my penultimate truth claim we must address the question of the transmissions of Buddhist ideas into the work of the early 19th British Romantic poets, John Keats among them.  Many of these had origins twenty-three centuries in the past and fifteen centuries further into deep time, if we honor their Vedic roots and creation mythology.[3]




Five months ago, I wrote the following paper which now exists in electronic and illustrated format on my blog. “The Emergence of Protestant Buddhism in early 19th Century Sri Lanka: Some Global Connections, Three Different Possible Routes of Transmission, and a Possible Precursor.”[4]


Until May 9th, 2017 when I reflected on the 1926 Countee Cullen poem Heritage it reformatted the way I thought Buddhist ideas might have permeated the consciousness of certain British romantic poets through the process of Enlightenment and Globalization, maybe that’s because Countee Cullen’s forbearers were living commodities in the triangle trade, sometimes with cannon balls and chains attached to their ankles if this human cargo had to be jettisoned. However, since one of the axioms of Buddhism is ‘everything changes’ my thought about how Buddhism might have affected John Keats (1795-1821), and how he, through his Ode on a Grecian Urn, made an original and yet syncretic contribution and formulated a fifth noble truth, has permutated.  Just to make this clear, I am contending that Keats articulated this penultimate truth and we have been talking about it for the last two centuries:

“Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”




Countee Cullen took a chance with his TO JOHN KEATS, POET, AT SPRING TIME almost a hundred years ago. Make no mistake.  As we worked out in class Countee is saying that John Keats is not above being judged by his own formulation and that Countee Cullen is really problematizing Keats’ formulation, for perhaps being as the song Too Beautiful for Words by Jennifer Hudson, from The Color Purple goes:[5]

And you and I, shall we lie still,
John Keats, while Beauty summons us?
Somehow I feel your sensitive will
Is pulsing up some tremulous
Sap road of a maple tree, whose leaves
Grow music as they grow, since your
Wild voice is in them, a harp that grieves
For life that opens death’s dark door.
Though dust, your fingers still can push
The Vision Splendid to a birth,
Though now they work as grass in the hush
Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth.


In Cullen’s poem Heritage he expresses what from now on I will refer to as Keats’ fifth noble truth.   “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


What has changed the most in this paper is that now I am willing to risk and develop my theory of thirds and apply it to the transmission of a Buddhist aesthetic in John Keats in 1821, and Countee Cullen almost a hundred years later, first through his poem TO JOHN KEATS, POET, AT SPRING TIME but even more certainly in his poem Heritage. However, to do this, I must state my theory of thirds which is grounded in my reading of Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka which is Janouch’s reflections on conversations he had as a teenager with his father’s officemate in Prague, Franz Kafka, during the period of the end of WWI and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and Kafka’s death June 3, 1924, Kierling, Klosterneuburg, Austria. My motivation is to suggest another mode

The conversation in which we are most interested takes place shortly after the modest publishing success of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the appearance of David Garnett’s Novella Lady into Fox which Gustav Janouch suggests is mere imitation and is not really from a conversation with Kafka but rather one of Janouch’s fellow students named Bacharach.  Bacharach suggests that the two writers started at the same point. However, as Janouch visits a very ill, perhaps dying, Kafka, he says as he showed him the Garnet book. “Your friend did not did not get that it was a matter of the age. We both copied from that. Animals are closer to us than humans.  Those are the prison bars we share.” So, what is the third?  It is the entity that connects two previously unconnected entities across chasm of time and the reality of the grave or the cremation urn. If I have not made this clear enough, the penultimate I refer to is the next to last truth and just as the correct use of the preposition ‘on’ in the title of Ode on Grecian Urn rather than the more commonly misused ‘to’, for this paper I am drawing from the idea that what I refer to as Keats Fifth Noble Truth is not the ultimate, not the end or final truth. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” This esthetic may in fact be like a mask in a Greek play, sometimes comic sometimes tragic, but, always the show must go on but plays out very differently.




There is another way that Ode on a Grecian Urn connects to Buddhism. I sense in the poem a processional aspect as inspired by Keats’ viewing of the Elgin Marbles newly arrived in the British Museum, as I have said on several occasions. I will say in a sentence what took me nearly a thousand words in the first iteration of this paper. I will attempt to do with words what I previously did with illustrations. Though   I am turning the final  version  to the able hands of my art  editor  Brandon Hovey  to be  re- illustrated Keats seeks to freeze the kiss in time but that is impossible in a Buddhist universe where change is axiomatic.  We hear the imperative voice say, “Take your place on the Great Mandela where time and art dance a sexy tango, fighting each other for who will lead the tango. Art fights with time and at its best it sometimes captures it.  An American WWII Veteran who lived as a prisoner of war through the most horrific air raid on a European city had an interesting formulation on art and time. The allied air raid’s firestorm turned the entire German city into a Leichenmine, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote eloquently in his novel Bluebeard about the difference between art and illustration. Art does not freeze things in time. It transcends time, and allows things to move when they should not. Elsewhere in the course work, on my blog, and in some professional writing I have written about Non-Western religion, even a review article on “The Theology of Battle Star Galactica,” and surely J.R.R Tolkien’s fictional universe, demonstrated fascination with the difference between “mortal men doomed do die” and his other race, the elves. In a Buddhist sense Keats, who referred in to himself as “One whose name was writ on the water.” was taxed by his own mortality. Yet in a Buddhist sense this was the best he could get, an end to suffering if he lost desire.


We are we reborn as part of the eternal cycle of Samsara which is an integral part of our study of Buddhism.  I contend that In Buddhist teaching, the reason Samara exists is that people fixate on themselves and their experiences and desires. It comes from ignorance and it causes a state of suffering and dissatisfaction. Samaras in Buddhism can be overcome by following the Buddhist path and accumulating good karma, and dissipating, bad karma earned through one’s actions, and meditation during one’s lifetimes. Essentially, the Buddha teaches us that life on earth is filled with sorrow and pain, and, suffering, yet there is an end to it.   In Buddhism, this cycle seems to be eternal in origin, but not necessarily eternal in duration[6].


And yet cold comfort as it may be we can see a kind of immortality that exists and Countee Cullen refers to it as chalky fingers reaching out even form the grave to create a poem which asks the same question of John Keats as he asks the world. This is what I am claiming as the Keats’ iteration of the penultimate and fifth noble truth, all one needs to know.

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

            I am thinking about this as I write and wondering if the best that any of us can hope for is a prescriptive Buddhist emptiness of desire, and finally loss of existence, a permeant catharsis.

Early 19th century (in catharsis (sense 2)): from Greek katharsis, from kathairein ‘cleanse’, from katharos ‘pure’. The notion of ‘release’ through drama (catharsis (sense 1)) derives from Aristotle’s Poetics.[7]So, what is that third that pulls and causes the Buddha, John Keats Countee Gustav Janouch and a class mate of Gustav Janouch named von Bacharach and finally myself maybe it is that truth that nobody can know but everyone feels that occupies the empty space after the penultimate truth, maybe it is the Neoma, that elusive entity the exists but Is problematically accessible to our consciousness.[8]


            Earlier in this paper I suggest possible routes that might have brought Buddhist ideas and formulations to John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. I am not entirely satisfied with what I have claimed so far yet I still see through the clouds of my perception Keats as a second-generation romantic poet who made a reputation with his in 1816 poem. Which might be reflected upon through Michael Foucault’s concept of episteme [9]  as summarized in the OED [10]Which then allows me not necessarily to argue that Buddhist formulations came back to Britain with the British East India Company in the late 18th and early 19th century but certainly marched in with the Hellenized Roman armies in the first century of the common era.


On First Considering Chapman’s Homer

Related Poem Content Details


Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


I am arguing that Keats structured and created this poem through a Buddhist mode of perception. Drawing from Dr. and Roman Catholic Ruben Habito’s class, which was delivered to us in an audio, visually-interactive, manner, on two giant 7x 4 meter screens and which also allowed him to see the class and us to speak to each other as if we were in the same room, even though at the time he was either in real time in a Zen Center or in his academic office somewhere in the Philippines.[11]



Dr. Ruben Habito


What Ruben Habito clarified for me was the difference between a discursive understanding of a text and an intuitive one.  For his purposes, he is talking about a logical, rational, reasoned approach to a small unit of a selected text usually illustrating a problem. That is Habito’s mode of perception. The intuitive then means a perception of a text other than through the intellect. This may be at the core of the timeless value of Keats work. His sensibilities are open to other than the intellectual doors of perception. That is how I support my claim that John Keats through his lines “Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


Meta Textual Summary

I feel like I have accomplished something with this paper at least for myself and I hope for others. I love stories and I want to close by saying I have had at least a couple of Buddhist- like insights, one of them not long ago.  It was in early 2011 when everyone had lost faith in our Picturing Tolkien, now an academic best seller. Jan had lost heart and said I was the only writer that was worse than her and my best friend, the late Bob McKiernan, laughed in my face and Michael Drout, one the brightest not so young Tolkien scholars was about fink out on his contribution. I remember sitting in the PT Cruiser (the one that later got rammed by the dump truck as I was completing   my independent study with you on Evil in Tolkien a couple of years later. And thinking about a very interesting about I had read about the role Hellenic Greek statuary had in creating images of the Buddha.  Your term for it drawing from Homi K. Bhabha would be the interaction of two hybrid cultures.  So, any way as old blue eyes said in “That’s Life”

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate
A poet, a pawn and a king
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race





[2] I have nearly completely ground the previous iteration of this paper into a Hegelian antithesis hoping that out of that pile of festering detritus a new synthesis will follow. Yes, Hegel was inescapably neo classical and neo classicism got its Buddhism transmitted on camel back along the Silk road. Or to rephrase:  when Buddhism came to England through the early 19th century British colonial enterprise, it had already arrived centuries before as an influence on the development of neo-classicism.







[8] Noun Philosophy. In phenomenology: an object of perception or thought, as opposed to a process or aspect of perceiving or thinking. Origin Mid-16th century (in an earlier sense). From ancient Greek νόημα thought, perception, idea, concept from νοεῖν to see, perceive, understand, intend + -μα. In sense 1, after Quintilian’s use and definition of the term (Inst. Oratoria 8. 5.



[10] Pronunciation:

Brit. /ˌɛpᵻˈstiːmi/


U.S. /ˌɛpəˈstimi/

Frequency (in current use):

Origin: A borrowing from Greek. Etymon: Greek πιστήμη.

Etymology: < ancient Greek πιστήμη knowledge, understanding, skill, scientific knowledge


  Scientific knowledge, a system of understanding; spec. (Foucault’s term for) the body of ideas which shape the perception of knowledge in a particular period. Cf. epistemology n.

1842   National Preacher June 123   None but the philosopher could attain to the spiritual knowledge of religion. To him pertained the episteme; the people must be satisfied with the doxa, a compound of falsehood and truth.


1967   P. P. Hallie in Encycl. Philos. VIII. 368/2   There is episteme or science, when all our firmly certain conceptions combine into a system.

1970   tr. M. Foucault Order of Things x. iii. 365   The ‘sciences of man’ are part of the modern episteme in the same way as chemistry or medicine or any other such science; or again, in the same way as grammar and natural history were part of the Classical episteme.

1982   M. M. Slaughter Universal Lang. & Sci. Taxon. in 17th Cent. iii. 187 (heading) The end of the taxonomic episteme.

2001   C. Freeland But is it Art? vi. 164   Las Meninas typifies the early modern episteme, which placed a new focus on self-consciousness and on the perceiver’s role in viewing the world.

(Hide quotations)






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: