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 it).
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" concludes with the urn saying "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," and the poet commenting "—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." In themselves, such statements are close to nonsense. Truth and beauty belong to radically different realms, and there is nothing especially true about, say, a beautiful automobile or dog. We can test a scientific truth, but there is little to make us agree about the beauty of a car or animal. We say beauty is in the eye of beholder. Keats is using paradoxical language to make a claim for an alternative kind of truth. This claim makes sense within the logic of the poem, but it is also meant to have a wider application to how we view reality. The poem makes claims about the value and uses of art (and poetry) as represented by the urn, in contrast to other kinds of truth. These other kinds of truth might be scientific, religious, or philosophical, but the poem says clearly that "on earth" we can not know anything more true than what we will learn from art and that such knowledge is sufficient. There might be other forms of knowledge after death or in some "other" realm, but they do not concern us and we are unlikely to know much about them while "on earth."
These are large claims for art, but what has been claimed? Stanza five says the urn "dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity." "Tease," with its variety of meanings ranging from tempt to mock, suggests that, like thinking about eternity, the seductiveness of the topic and impossibility of coming to any conclusion mean we shouldn't worry about it. The urn itself, however, has its own kind of eternity. It remains after "old age shall this generation waste." A concern of the poem then is aging, the passing of time, and death. "Waste" is a powerful word made even more powerful by being in rhyme position at the end of a line and being the last word of an introductory clause. The basic meaning of waste is consume, finish, or use up, but the range extends from ruin to turn into refuse or trash. Our lives not only pass, but at the end we become waste. The urn, however, remains—a work of art that speaks to others "in midst of other woe." As each life and generation suffers from pain and fears, the urn is "a friend to man" by offering its religion of art, its own kind of truth, and its own permanent portrait of human desires and activities.
We might say that the poem shows how in the nineteenth century some people were losing faith in Christian revelation. These people had become agnostic toward any "truth" and were seeking in art a substitute for the comforts of religion. It is significant that the work of art that offers such comfort is a painted Grecian urn. The vase (like a poem) has a shape or form, and it has a narrative (like a poem) that needs interpretation. The end result is the knowledge that art gives permanence to our feelings and desires. That the subject is a Grecian urn might well remind us that the early nineteenth century was a time of archeology, the collecting of the past, the rediscovering of Greece and the Mediterranean, and the high evaluation of Greece, along with Egypt, Rome and Israel as the origins of Western civilization.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is itself a well-formed work of art. It consists of five rhymed stanzas; each stanza has ten lines, and each line consists of ten syllables, usually of iambic pentameter. The feel of the rhythm is established...
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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 an ideal than recognizing and affirming the value of the real world in which he and we all live. The poet's progress toward this conclusion can be described as an attempt to penetrate the hard surface of the urn and to reach and understand its essence. The urn is clearly more than a marble vase: the poet is, at first, concerned mainly with its legend, and the essence he seeks is spiritual rather than substantial. The urn is to him a supernatural object, because it is removed from time and its tale is immutable and imperishable. It is, moreover, a "foster-child" rather than a natural one, and its haunting, leaf-fringed legend is "All breathing human passion far above." Its figures are deities or mortals, but, even if they are only mortals, their residence in Tempe or Arcady gives them a mythological status that is reinforced by their inclusion in the urn's "legend." The absence of a comma where one might be expected —and, indeed, where one appears in the Annals of the Fine Arts version of the poem—offers another suggestion that the urn, for the poet, is removed from a natural context. In the first line, "still," not followed by a comma, can function as an adverb as well as an adjective, and adverbial "still" underscores the unnatural state of the bride whose marriage has never been consummated.
"Unnatural" is not, of course, generally taken as synonymous with "supernatural," but in this poem the two are deliberately brought together. The apprehension of the timeless urn is couched in natural terms. In his mind, the poet animates the figures and tries to understand their existence by relating it to real life and the natural world. But, in so doing, he uses repeatedly the language of negation. The bride is "unravish'd"; the music of the urn is "unheard" and has "no tone"; the "Fair youth" can never leave his song, nor can the trees ever be bare. The "Bold Lover" can never kiss his beloved, and she, in turn, can never fade. Therefore, the lover, who has not his bliss, should not grieve. The "happy, happy boughs ... cannot shed / [their] leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu," and the "happy melodist" is "unwearied" of piping his songs. Other negations of sorts are the paradoxes, observed by Cleanth Brooks, of the "Sylvan historian" who tells a "tale" rather than records history and the silent urn that can express itself "more sweetly than our rhyme." The supernatural and the natural are, thus, brought together of necessity. The poet's best expression—perhaps his only comprehension—of the world of supernature is to attempt to naturalize it, and, when he does, he finds that it is unnatural and something apart from the actual world in which he lives.
At the same time, the supernatural world of the urn is attractive. Its tale is "flowery" and sweeter than the poet's rhyme; the figures' lives are lived in a "wild ecstasy"; and their music is sweeter than any known to the sensual ear. Love and the fairness of beauty are everlasting, and the second and third stanzas of the poem ring with words of joy: "fair," "kiss," "bliss," "love" (three times), "happy" (six times), "new," and "warm." Despite the poet's awareness of the unnaturalness of supernature, he sees its beauty and feels its lure.
At this point, one might jump ahead to the beauty-truth equation and conclude that Keats is expressing the same thoughts he had related in a letter to Benjamin Bailey:
What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not... We shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated... Adam's dream will do here and seems to be a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human Life and its spiritual repetition.
In perceiving the beauty of the urn, the poet, according to this interpretation, is also perceiving truth, and the truth is that the ideal, permanent world he sees in the urn is a preview of a better world in the afterlife. But one should not fail to note that in his letter Keats calls these thoughts "favorite Speculation[s]" and, in looking back some three years later, likened his state of mind in 1817 to "a pack of scattered cards." As Jack Stillinger warns persistently...
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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...
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