Nearing his seventieth birthday, American-born and -educated composer, conductor, educator, pianist, and humanitarian Leonard Bernstein wrote a tender poem, called “Beauty and Truth Revisited,” for The New York Times.
Inspired by John Keats and overflowing life experience (“I feel that I have lived five lives or so / Already”), Bernstein penned a four-part poem on “Treasuring (not merely mouthing) truth;” welcoming aging; “Sensing beauty, rather than selling it;” considering the political and religious roles of artists (“For I count the artist to be a citizen;”); and learning how to live out that “all-embracing, brave Four-letter Word,” called, love.
Laila Robins, award-winning stage, film, and television actress, reads Bernstein’s poem for Classical.org:
“Beauty and Truth Revisited”
By Leonard Bernstein
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” – John Keats
Approaching now the fabled Biblic [sic] age,
Again I take in hand my rueful pen
To grace, perhaps disgrace, your grayish page,
0, New York Times; to tell in tuneless rhymes
The mournful numbers Threescore Years and Ten. …
I am far from being a politician,
Fiercely proud to bear the name Musician;
Yet I am a political man, I do protest,
In the sense that I am, too, a religious man.
For I count the artist to be a citizen,
A politic contributor to the art
Of living together in this lovely land
And on this trembling planet. In that sense,
The religious man is equally a part
Of a polity, but one who understands
That the polity shares in something greater far
Than we can yet conceive. For want of a clearer
Conception of the inconceivable,
Beginninglessness, the lineage of a star,
The key, the Ultimate Creative Mind,
He calls it God. Thus Politics and God:
Between those two concerns, somehow aligned,
I, an artist, always reached out to both,
In the certainty that humankind
Could now invent peace; would recognize
Greed for what it is; abolish war.
And so I have lived my long and varied life
Happily housed in music (work and play)
And in close-held, heart-bound family
(Including my most precious, long-loved wife),
And teaching (which is learning) and in countless
Loving friends. I have no grave complaints.
I feel that I have lived five lives or so
Already. By the grace of God. Although
I am not quite content to die just yet:
There still remains so much to be composed.
But if l did indeed cease life today
I would not beat my fists against the Fates.
For I am the luckiest, and most blessed, and
Most grateful person I have ever met.
Then why, today, do I find myself a-grumble?
Perhaps because I’ve just read through the Times,
And after fifty fighting, singing years
Of seeking truth and beauty, nothing’s changed. …
Pray mercy in this Time of Pestilence.
For even the Gipper must die, and so must I.
But when I go, I pray there may be heard
An all-embracing, brave four-letter word
I blush to name, so oft do we abuse it.
But let the letters speak; and bye-and-bye
We may no longer hesitate to use it.
The letters four are these: L for Learning;
0 for Oneness on this fruitful sphere;
And then a V for Verity (Keats, be near!);
Then E – but not for Ends that scoff at means,
Nor the military-industrial complex our Dwight D.
Warned us not to call Economy –
Not but a highly more courageous E
That sings Equality – all, now, and here.
These four spell (Oh say it, what the hell!)
Love. Love, the synthesis of Keats’
Great syllogism, where truth with beauty meets. …
Beauty is Truth is Art is Love: we learn
From Keats’ Nightingale and Grecian Urn
All we know on earth, and all we need to . . . [sic]
. . . [sic] Oh? And is that truly so?
And is there nothing more for us to learn?
Like implementing Love, playing it out;
Treasuring (not merely mouthing) truth;
Sensing beauty, rather than selling it;
Growing up, becoming the women and men
Who can accept, acknowledge, who they are;
Who can take the Four-letter Word and make it live
By learning to give, to give, to give, to give.
August 8, 1988
About this content
Leonard Bernstein’s “Beauty and Truth Revisited” provided courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
Robins audio recorded for WGBH’s Classical.org by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on April 24, 2018. Lawrence Rock, Audio Director. Mark Travis, Production Director. Special thanks to Margaret Mercer.
Did you know?
Listen in part one for “beginninglessness,” a word Bernstein coins in this poem, (“For want of a clearer / Conception of the inconceivable, / Beginninglessness, the lineage of a star, / The key, the Ultimate Creative Mind, / He calls it God…”), that he would use again two years later.