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Beauty, truth and love

May 22, 2012

Amsterdam Letter by Jean Garrigue

“The urn and the garland of leaves”, seen in a canal side shop, remind Garrigue of the famous ending to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn.

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

But she’s a modern traveller, learning a few local words but glad that English is spoken, comparing peaceful Amsterdam with raucous New York while flirting with her cabdriver, and visiting Rembrandt’s house and the red light district.  And although written in 1960, when coffee shops still sold coffee, she’s describing the modern city.

The urn’s perspective on the calming of passions is a little longer than the tourist’s quiet weekend, so the final lines differ.


Brick distinguishes this country,
And broad windows–rather, rectangles
Of wide and glittering scope–
And cabbages.
Cattle a specialty, and cheese, storks–if they are not all dead
Or abandoned–and flowers, oh, flowers!
Some say as well, quick humor.
Is it a specimen of humor that a cab driver proposes to marry me?
The speaking of English is at least general.
I have spoken as well a little Dutch with an old Fresian lady.
How affable she was, amusing and helpful!
(They are helpful and affable, and their far too occasional teams of horses
Wear rosettes by the ears.)
Aside from that and above all, the dense, heavy, fragrant sky
And rich water, a further extension of color-
The sky a low window over this twining of green water and bridges-
And the sedate gabled houses pressed closely together
And bicyclists, six abreast or more,
Whirling round corners like swallows
How quiet they are! Even the trolleys!
While the trains seem to glide like sleighs on runners
So that after those many places dedicated, it would seem, to clatter,
The absence of it becomes an active delight in itself.

The delight is in part, of course, the lovely dividing of the city
By those ancient and ripe green canals, and the mixed fragrance
Of the River Amstel and roasting coffee,
And the bravura of carved animal heads, the elegance of panels,
And those panes of violet and panes flushed yellow
(To transmit the effect of sunlight in winter)
That alternate the pure meaning of glass
With the blindness of shutters closed over warehouse windows,
And that Gothic German-French sense of the arabesque and the scroll,
The urn and the garland of leaves.

As for that delicacy of manner, that responsiveness to many,
That prevalence of what seems self-possessed, contained and easy-
I am speaking of those who went out of their way
To lead me to Rembrandt’s house
(Which in his lifetime he lost),
Of the woman at the Cantine,
Of the Madame, too, in the Zeedijk,
Amiable conversationalists
Who did not make me feel stupid
Because I would never speak their language
Who by a manner suggested
What I have no word for-
Unfeigned it is and unblighted,
That “generous, free disposition”
That so strongly confirms
A fitness of things,
As do also the upright geraniums
All of which, by the elm-dark canals
(Where dogs on the loose loped up to me
With cold, wet noses
And ducks paddled under the Seven Arches
And the gilt swan rode on the crest of the fortified tower),
Offered some measurable glimpse of what
There, by the water beds
And the ancient, calmed passions of their reflections,
Informed me as the moon does,
Which was in part the pleasure of learning
Those words that I did from the old Frisian woman-
Horse, sky, cow, tree, thank you, I mean,
Beauty, and love.

Jean Garrigue 1960

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