How does John Keats's Poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" illustrate Romanticism?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For the Romantics, poetry was the highest form of literature because it most easily expressed the concept of the "sublime" (a thrilling emotional experience that combines awe, magnificence, and horror).  Romantic literature also emphasizes the dream, or inner reality of the individual.  To express the inner reality of the consciousness of the individual, imagery and symbolism was often employed.

In John Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn," the poet clearly expresses the sublime as he contemplates the beautiful urn with its painted lovers and expresses a nostalgia for the Classical era of the past:

What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape/Of deities or mortals, or of both,/In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?/ What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?

Here, too, Keats expresses an awe for the beauty of the musicians and the two lovers on the urn, images that suggest the timeless beauty of art.  There is a perfection in this art because the musician will always play, the lovers always love.  The trans-formative element of Romantic poetry is also present here as the poet perceives how there is a truth to beauty that goes beyond what is.  And, here Keats expresses his theme:  There is mortality to all things, including beauty.  In lines 11-14, for instance, Keats draws the distinction between ideal nature of art and the flawed and fleeting nature of life:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Thus, there is a tension between the temporal(men) and the eternal (god).  Employing the symbols of "trees," for Nature, "song" for Art, and "Bold Lover" for procreation, Keats explains this tension between what is on the urn with what is real.  For the urn, "truth is beauty, beauty truth," since it is frozen in time.  But, for the poet who knows that beauty does not last, the truth is not restricted to the images on the urn; for the poet, teased out of thought, realizes that the lovers will never consummate their love, but will remain in only their moment.   And, here the poem becomes more melancholy, a characteristic often found in Romanticism.

Stressing the power of the imagination, John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" reflects the thinking of the Romantic in its reflections upon the Classical beauty of the ancient urn and its transcendental properties of transporting this imagination to understanding truths of Nature and Art and Humanity.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous post was very strong.  If I may jump to the concluding lines, which are some of the most quote lines in all of poetry:  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty-- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and ye need to know."  These two lines embrace so much of the Romantic philosophy with which Keats is so largely associated.  I would suggest that the initial Romantic ideals within this couplet would be the very praising of beauty.  For the Romantic thinkers, the individual expression and articulation of that which is beautiful provides meaning to the individual consciousness.  There is little else for a Romantic thinker that resides outside of the cherishing and seeking out of beauty in all of its forms. The world is replete with it, and thus, the Romantic thinker has an obligation to find and extol it.  Keats' ending reminds the Romantic of this need in existence.  Another Romantic concept which is present in the closing lines to Keats' poem is the idea of negative capability.  An idea that Keats popularized, but was very profound amongst Romantic thinkers was the embracing of the unknown and making peace with a lack of totality.  Such a notion is in stark contrast to the Enlightenment Era which preceded Romanticism and its absolute faith and trust placed in reason and science to solve anything.  Instead, Keats' argument is that individuals can and do live with uncertainty and to understand this and make peace with it allows individuals to better comprehend their state of being in the world.  This is a Romantic idea because it prompts one to be a part of the world, as opposed to a transcendent force outside of it, unable to experience its joys of beauty, nature, and love.  Both concepts of beauty and negative capability are large parts to Keats' work and the Romantic movement.

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Ode on a Grecian Urn

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