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The second stanza of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is shot through with...

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arghyapikai | Student, Undergraduate | Honors

Posted May 20, 2013 at 3:40 PM via web

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The second stanza of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is shot through with negatives--unheard/not/no tone/nor ever/not thy bliss. The culminative effect of these negations is to cancel out the picture otherwise painted of fair youth and fair girls "winning near the goal." WHAT DOES THE LINE (THE CULMINATIVE EFFECT) . . . "NEAR THE GOAL" MEAN? Please explain in detail. It's urgent. 

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted May 20, 2013 at 4:20 PM (Answer #1)

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The use of negatives in the second stanza do not necessarily cancel out the image of "Fair youth." The negatives are used to express the paradoxical quality of the urn: how the images and music on the urn will never exist in time. In real life, in linear time, we can hear melodies. But on the urn, an artifact, the melodies the musicians appear to be playing can only be imagined. Thus, they are "unheard" and they are sweeter because they exist in an abstract state, a state where/when the tones are not subject to the limits of time. In one sense, if the melodies and tones are played in real time, they will eventually end. In the frozen, abstract world of the images on the urn, those melodies can not be bad and they can never end. While this is a spiritually pleasing idea of music, it also reveals a paradox. Although the melodies exist in a perfectly still state, the speaker can not physically hear them. Keats uses negatives to show this paradox: the unheard melodies are sweeter in his imagination but also physically absent. 

The same goes for the continuing use of negatives. The youth can never leave their idyllic place on the urn. The trees will never be bare. This also shows the good/bad paradoxical quality of the urn (and all of art). It's beauty is fixed forever (sans the eventual deterioration of the urn itself). The trees will always have leaves, always be full of life. But, to be alive is to experience time, so the paradox rears its head again. The forever, full trees symbolize life, but do not really live it. The same goes for the lovers. 

The lover can never consummate his love but the speaker tells him not to grieve because his beloved will never fade.

Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! 

He will never feel the bliss of kissing her because he is only almost to that point in that frozen state of the urn. But if the lover and his beloved existed in real life, in real time, they could consummate their love but it would eventually end and her beauty would fade. Thus, there are pros and cons to experiencing love in life just as there are symbolic pros and cons of the eternally frozen symbolism on the urn. The frozen symbols can not fade but the experiences depicted on the urn are not in time and therefore they lack vitality. The real life experience allows the lover to have his bliss but it would eventually end and his beloved would eventually fade. 

On the urn, the Bold lover is "always already almost" about to have his bliss. He is winning and near the goal but has not, and will never fully, achieve that goal. The speaker of the poem tells the Bold lover that although he will never achieve the goal (kiss, bliss), he should take comfort in the fact that his beloved (his goal) will never fade. So, at the very least, the lover will always have that beautiful goal in front of him, and it will never fade. 

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