Essays and Criticism
Meditating on the Urn
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" was written in May of 1819 when Keats was 23 years old and his life was in emotional turmoil. In the previous six months his brother Tom had died, and he had met and fallen in love with Fanny Brawne who, at the time the poem was written, lived next door to him in Hamstead. It was a period of intense creativity during which Keats wrote his great odes; in them, he explored his emotions by addressing, describing, and questioning some idea or symbol that he celebrated. Keats's odes are a form of meditative poetry. In meditation, a person thinks intensely upon and draws conclusions from a subject. The subject may be imagined in detail as if it were actually present. During a time when ancient Greece was being rediscovered through archeological excavations and travel, as well as in books and exhibitions of Greek cultural artifacts, Keats projected his concerns about living fully, love, art, religion, death, and eternity upon a Grecian urn.
Because the urn Keats describes has been shown by scholars, including Claude Lee Finney, to be a composite of details from various sources, the poem is a commentary upon an imagined work of art. By writing an ode, originally a Greek poetic form, Keats is making his own claim to permanence. The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is Keats's own "silent form" meant to perform a similar function— "tease us out of thought"—as that of the original Greek urn, that, ironically, does not exist (unlike Keats's poem about...
(The entire section is 2005 words.)
Soul-Making in Ode on a Grecian Urn
Interpreting the beauty-truth identification in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" has become virtually an industry unto itself in the past century and a half; yet, with all of the sensitive, brilliant, and sometimes ingeniously inventive readings the poem has received, the equation that has been its most attractive problem remains an unresolved mystery. Some have seen the closing epigram as an artistic blemish in an otherwise masterful poem; others have modified that stand by calling the last lines a "brilliant failure" that is a statement of faith in an ideal, made against persistent doubts from the real world. More recently, critics have tended to agree that the identification is not a weakness of the poem, but have differed in explaining its significance. Is the poem ultimately a poetic expression of Keats's idea that the happiness we know on earth will be "repeated in a finer tone" in a spiritual life hereafter, or is it a rejection of too exclusive a trust in the permanence of the visionary or spiritual world and a consequent affirmation of process in the actual world? Certainly, no commentator can hope to settle the question once and for all, but perhaps a fresh look will add some useful complexity to our understanding of the poem.
In this essay, I shall join with those who agree that the beauty-truth identification is a consistent, meaningful conclusion to the poem and with those who believe that Keats is, in his greatest poetry, less yearning after...
(The entire section is 2343 words.)
The Pious Frauds of Art: A Reading of "The Ode on a Grecian Urn"
A poem of symbolic debate which ends on an explicit abstract statement, the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" raises a special critical problem. The poem is at once too limited and too rich a context to define what Keats meant by "beauty" and "truth," abstractions with a wide range of possible references. Scrupulous readers, who take care not to view the final aphorism in the light of their own preconceptions, who decline—in the interest of austere critical purity—the help which they might receive from Keats's other writings, run the risk of finding the Urn's message "meaningless," as T. S. Eliot illustrates by his famous throwing up of hands. A recent example may be found in John Jones's admirable book where the close of the poem is described as an "opaque and almost featureless assertion," "gummed hopefully onto an alien substance." In view of these difficulties, the only way of restoring the integrity of the Ode is to place its concluding statement within the broader context of Keats's poems and letters... The present reading is proposed in the hope that it helps to elucidate the complex meaning of a stanza whose obscurity is largely due to the extreme condensation of Keats's thought.
There are three main difficulties in stanza V. Who says what to whom in the last two lines? What do "beauty" and "truth" mean? What connections should be established between the final statement and the rest of the poem? In the absence of autograph evidence, and since none of the...
(The entire section is 3282 words.)