Since the semester I took a Tulane class in Romantic poetry at age 19, I’ve puzzled over John Keats’ line “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases.” On a clear morning in Peru, before the pandemic, as my wife and I hiked up Machu Picchu — the ancient Incan site opening before us — I wondered again, as I recited the line from “Endymion,” about the enigmatic notion that loveliness, instead of fading, deepens with time.
Around us were plenty of youth as well as travelers of my generation, all exclaiming, in English, Japanese, German, Spanish at the vistas below. Nancy grasped the hand of our guide, then I, as he hoisted us up a ledge for a better view. A native of Cuzco, Peru, whose first language was the Incan tongue Quechua, the guide was 26, only a year older than Keats when he died. His name was Jonathan.
As we went higher, marveling at the mountainside terraces where Incans had farmed corn, I felt uplifted. The sensation was physical, as we sea-level creatures of America’s Gulf Coast, adjusting to the thin, dry air, climbed with slow but sure footsteps, grateful that our aging bodies still did our bidding. It was emotional, too.
We reached the pinnacle and paused. Looking out at the “apus,” or sacred peaks, I thought of Jonathan’s stories, how Machu Picchu was the estate of Incan king Pachacutec in the 1400s, abandoned by the 1500s, its ruins discovered by archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911.
A deep visceral knowledge overtook me. As we stood atop stones smoothed by dwellers half a millennium ago, so others would stand here just as long from now. The architecture of granite, the travelers escaping, to quote Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of the mundane round — it would recur tomorrow, the next day and next.
“It will never,” Keats said of a thing of beauty, “pass into nothingness.”