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When the Arts Speak in Harmony

By Marilynne S. Mason / June 9, 1993



GREECE IN POETRY. Edited by Simoni Zafiropoulos, Abrams, 176 pp., $39.95.

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O Attic shape! Fair attitude!

with brede

Of marble men and maidens

overwrought,

With forest branches and

the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost

tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold

Pastoral!

When old age shall this

generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in

midst of other woe

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....

- From "Ode on a Grecian Urn," by John Keats

OUT of the distant past survived a work of such surpassing beauty that the English poet John Keats read in its pleasant form a whisper of the eternal. The Grecian urn represented something more than a merely decorative vessel. Its beauty had not faded with age. Its essential form and the painted scene it held captured more than the stylized details of Greek belief and culture.

A lesser work might have remained an interesting artifact of a departed people, but a great work of art showed Yeats something forever authentic about the very nature of life on earth. However transient and shadowy human understanding might be, an inkling of truth was still within reach. Keats realized, as he beheld the enduring grace of the urn, truth as beauty - the eternal captured as eternally beautiful, a voice speaking to us through the ages.

More than 150 years have passed since Keats wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and his poem still moves us, his insight is still sound. The poem, like the urn it venerates, remains both beautiful and true. It will last because it speaks to issues of lasting significance.

Keats seized the meaning of a work of art, a voiceless visual prize, and put it down in poetry - the music of language. One work of art often inspires feeling so great it can be expressed only in another work of art.

Many painters listen to music when they paint, for example. The theater brings many arts together, as does opera. And works of art can "hold a dialogue," as it were, when they are intelligently juxtaposed. Poetry and painting or sculpture wisely placed side-by-side in a book can produce something altogether new - a different grasp of "beauty and truth" than either the poem or the visual art evokes alone.

"Greece in Poetry," edited by Simoni Zafiropoulos, gathers great verse from ancient and modern Greek sources and lays them out beside ancient and modern works of visual art. The poetry selections are diverse enough to give the viewer a feeling for the culture's complexity. And still, there is a kind of persistence of vision from the ancient to the modern that unifies the book and confers a sense of cultural continuity.

Sometimes contemporary art is used to "illustrate" an ancient poem. "Alkinoos' Garden" from Homer's "The Odyssey," Book VII (circa 9th century BC), sits next to a marvelous reproduction of a 1959 oil painting by Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas called "Wild Garden."

The poem describes an orchard where apples, figs, and pears grow side by side. All year long the fruit ripens, one kind after another, so that Alkinoos is always provided with fresh fruit. The fountains of his garden bring fresh, clear water into his house through a system of channels. Rows of vegetables that flourish in every season lie next to the vineyards. Currants dry in the sun. Homer's paradisiacal description of the garden evokes a vision of plenty, purpose, beauty, and benevolence. "These were t he gifts of heaven to Alkinoos."