In the sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”, what are the poet’s reactions to the Ancient Greek statues and friezes, and the wisdom he derives from them?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Through the speaker who is presumably Keats, a set of revelations about being in the world is offered.  In seeing the relics of antiquity, a fierce understanding about what embodies consciousness is thrust upon the speaker and reader.  "A most dizzy pain" is evident within the speaker.  The speaker's feelings regarding his own mortality are confirmed with seeing the ancient relics.  At one point, Keats recognizes that these stones and marbles represented some of the finest in human endeavor.  They were full and complete, reflective of the totality within human advances in architecture and complex thought.  They embodied the best of human capacity.  They represented "Grecian grandeur" and "the Sun."  Yet, over time, they withered, unable to stand the ragged strain of being in the world.  As Keats looks at them, they now become the "shadow of a magnitude," a testament to a sense of greatness that is long past.

Viewing the statues and remains triggers feelings of mortal limitations that were already present in Keats. Lines such as "Like a sick eagle looking into the sky" and "My spirit is already weak" help to convey such a sensibility.  Keats is already in the process of examining his own life, seeing how things that once were now look.  It is here where a melancholic wisdom presents itself.  What used to be has now become replaced with a "godlike hardship [that] tells me I must die."  The limitations of mortality are already present in Keats' understanding of the world and his place in it.  Such feelings are enhanced when he sees Elgin's marble statues and friezes for they represent the sum total of what once was the Parthenon.  The impact of time, reducing something so grand and majestic to nothing more than figments and fragments is similar to how Keats sees his own being in the world.  An individual consciousness that once consisted of "Such dim-conceived glories of the brain" has also been withered and reduced to almost a shell of what it used to be.  The viewing of Elgin's marbles becomes a physical embodiment of a subjective experience.  A critical part of Romanticism, Keats is able to illuminate this in the poem to enhance what he considers to be part of his philosophical understanding of negative capability.

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