John Keats Questions and Answers

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Comment on the basic theme of Keats's major odes.

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There are major themes weaving through Keats's major odes, the inevitability of death and the contemplation of beauty. Both, not coincidentally, are elements of the sublime. Beauty is ultimately a way of spending our too-short lives well, and serves as a counterpoint to death, which is frightening and destructive. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn" he observes that the urn, and the scenes depicted on it, will be around long after "old age shall this generation waste."  In his odes, Keats finds beauty enough to contemplate, and to revel in, in urns, Shakespeare, stars, Homer, the Elgin Marbles, and even the night sky, which makes him wish he could be as eternal, or "steadfast" as the stars.

The theme is perhaps most explicit in "When I have Fears that I may cease to be." Here Keats fears he will die before he has added his quota of beauty to the world through his poetry:

WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain, Before high pil`d books, in charact'ry, Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain; When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, And feel that I may never live to trace Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; And when I feel, fair creature of an hour! That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think, Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Beauty, in many ways, is what gives life its meaning, and death is held up as the negation of beauty. Yet true beauty survives death, and Keats earnestly hopes that he will live long enough to create beauty that, like the Grecian urn, or Chapman's Homer, will transcend death.


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