artistic illustration of a Grecian urn set against a backdrop of hills and columns

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

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Meditating on the Urn

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"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...

(This entire section contains 2005 words.)

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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 in the first line: Thou still / unrav / ish'd bride / of qui / etness. The unusual stanzaic form seems to be derived from the structure of the sonnet that Keats had used earlier in such poems as "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be." Instead of fourteen lines divided into a octave of two quatrains and a sestet of two tercets, each stanza of the ode consists of one quatrain of alternate rhymes (abab) and two tercets, printed as a single stanza. This speeds up the movement, in comparison to the sonnet, from the exposition of theme during the quatrain of each stanza to its exploration and development in the tercets. The quatrain is balanced by the tercets, the first of which introduces rhymes cde followed by a tercet that closes the cde rhymes in an unpredictable order. The structure can be seen clearly in stanza one where the quatrain concludes with the idea that the urn expresses "A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:", a statement clearly concluded by a full colon. This is followed by two tercets beginning "What leaf-fring'd" and "What men," in which "what" is used as a short refrain. The tercets here describe what is depicted on the vase. If Keats wanted structural contrasts, he also wanted the stanza to have unity and to flow without the thought and rhythm being halted—except at the end of stanzas where the space between stanzas allows for the next stanza to start on a new note. Within each stanza, excitement builds up as certain words or phrases are repeated and develop an accumulative force.

The following stanzas are less obviously divided into contrasting sections, but stanza two has a colon after the quatrain, stanza three a semicolon, and stanza four a question mark. Artists work within, against, or adapt previous artistic conventions, forms and styles. English poets have often tried to find some equivalent of the mixture of passion, seeming freedom, and control found in the classical Greek ode. Keats's stanzas may be read as single sentences, with various clauses, exclamations, and interjections, and the entire poem may be read as five sentences.

In the first stanza, Keats addresses the silent urn and asks it the significance of its decorations. In the second stanza, Keats addresses the decorations; their actions remain incomplete but, unlike those of flesh and blood, are permanent. The third stanza celebrates such permanence as a continual time of youth, strength, enjoyment, passion, happiness, and love, unlike the unfulfilled and passing desires and pleasures of the flesh. The center of the poem brings to a climax this celebration of an idealized life: "More happy love! more happy, happy love! / For ever panting, and for ever young." An unusual intensity is created by the repetition of such words as "more," "happy," and "for ever" and by the suggestion of a continuing activity in "piping," "panting," "Breathing," "burning," and even "parching." There is a change in mood in stanza four, as the past is found to include disturbingly strange rituals, blood sacrifices, and ways of life we do not understand. The town is desolate in being empty, but it also seems dismally silent after the activity and joys of the previous stanzas. Keats does not indicate what we are to think of this, but our thoughts might range from interest in other customs, frustration at not knowing more, to feeling that the past is no more a source of constant pleasure than the present.

No reading of a poem is complete; there is always something more to be said. Because the appreciation of beauty is subjective (in the eyes of the beholder) and shaped by conventions (what others teach us to recognize as beautiful), the criticism of works of art changes as a result of kinds of awareness, information, or assumptions. There is an old problem about the concluding two lines. Does the urn speak the two lines or, as is usually accepted, only "Truth is beauty, beauty truth." If the urn also said "that is all / Ye know on earth, all ye need to know," it would not necessarily mean the poet agreed with what the urn said. Indeed, he could be ironic in giving the urn such a limited vision in which the only truth was artistic beauty. In his book John Keats, Walter Jackson Bate claims that the final two lines are similar to inscriptions addressed to passersby on Greek monuments.

While the ode celebrates the survival of the past it may also remind us of the limitations of the aesthetic in contrast to actual sensual experience. Many critics see the poem as filled with ironies (suggesting the opposite of what is said). How can Keats or the urn so praise beauty when desire on the urn is unsatisfied by sexual pleasure and when the world it depicts reminds us of death and destruction? Moreover the language of the poem seems excessive: "Ah, happy, happy boughs!.... More happy love! more happy, happy love!" If Keats indicates a distance between the serene, silent beauty of art and the pains, anguish, passions, and pleasures of the world in which we live, are the former necessarily superior as thinking about the art on the urn might at first suggest? As we read with more sensitivity and with more familiarity, we wonder whether Keats might possibly be suggesting that his poetry is superior to the urn which, remember, is also a product of his own imagination.

Opinion has surprisingly varied among critics concerning "Ode on A Grecian Urn." T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and others have argued that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" does not make sense. John Keats: Odes, edited by G.S. Fraser, offers a useful, brief introduction concerning the place of this poem among Keats's other odes and addresses problems of interpretation. One problem concerns who says what in the final two lines. Critics now usually agree that the 1820 version of the poem is correct; here the urn only says "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," and the rest of the two lines is Keats's commentary. Does Keats agree with the urn, or might he be ironically implying a limitation to the urn's vision of the world? Is it enough to turn the acts and passions of life into permanence through art? Is it enough that "she can not fade, though thou hast not thy bliss"? Even the "still unravish'd bride of quietness" in line one raises questions. Might it eventually be ravished, might Keats's poem about it be a kind of ravishing of quietness and silence?

Source: Bruce King, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997. Bruce King is the author of several books relating to literature and is a freelance writer and poetry critic.

Soul-Making in Ode on a Grecian Urn

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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 in his writings on Keats, neither the poet's theory of life nor his theory of art was fixed in 1817. More to the point, if only because closer in time, is the "vale of Soul-making" letter to George and Georgiana Keats written between February and May 1819 and completed possibly just weeks or days before the composition of the "Ode." There Keats says:

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is "a vale of tears" from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitary interposition of God and taken to Heaven—What a little circumscribe[d] straightened notion! Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making" Then you will find out the use of the then are Souls to be made?... How, but by the medium of a world like this?... Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?

To be sure, Keats also says, "I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive," but these are, nevertheless, his working thoughts at the time he was writing the "Ode." The point is that in this letter Keats is turning to the natural world as the essential reality of life, as the only place wherein his basic intelligence can be fulfilled and grow into a soul.

Returning to the poem, one can see as it develops the same leaning that Keats describes in the Soul-making letter, away from the empyreal world and toward the natural world. Despite the poem's negations and ambivalence, the emphasis of the first three stanzas is on the joy and beauty of the supernatural world of the urn. At the end of the third stanza, however, there is a sharp turn. From the ideal world's lover "For ever panting, and for ever young," the poet takes a further and firmer step toward the natural world than simply the negations applied to his earlier images of supernature. Although the love displayed on the urn is

All breathing human passion far above, That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd, A burning forehead, and a parching tongue,

these painful sensations are the undeniable and inescapable conditions that follow the experience of human love, and the man who would avoid them must perforce forego human love. Abstinence would, of course, be desirable if one could share in the love of the ideal world, but, as the poet implies with his negative descriptions of supernature, the ideal world is unnatural and, therefore, beyond human achievement.

In the fourth stanza, while the attempted naturalization of supernature continues, the emphasis clearly shifts from the beauty of the urn's world to the truth of the real world. The poet is still lured by the legend: he now sees a "green altar" and a lowing heifer with its "silken flanks" dressed in "garlands." But the priest who is leading the procession is "mysterious," and the lowing becomes ominous when one realizes that the procession is part of a sacrificial ritual and that the animal is doomed. The poet's focus is moving from the urn's ideal world and its joy and beauty to the ironic implications of the legend and the pain and truth of reality. And his next vision is not on the urn at all. Rather, it imaginatively extends the marble legend to include the unseen town from which the figures on the urn have come. The town is "emptied," "silent," and, finally, "desolate." But it is also a necessary addition to the supernatural world naturalized, for, in referring the ideal to real life, the poet must recognize the town's existence. Its desolation is the inescapable, painful price for the happiness and "wild ecstasy" of the legend.

Like "forlorn" in "Ode to a Nightingale," "desolate" rings through the poet's visionary flight to toll him back to his earthly humanness, and his return is marked by an altered perception of the urn. No longer personified as a "bride," "foster-child," and "historian," the urn that reveals only the joy of an idyllic world becomes an "Attic shape," a "Fair attitude," and a "silent form." The world of the urn is beautiful, certainly, as these last three adjectives suggest. But the nouns that they modify are lifeless, and the legend becomes a "Cold Pastoral" for those who allow its beauty to "tease [them] out of thought." To accept the urn's beauty alone, to use it as an escape from the real world and its sorrows and suffering, is to be drawn into the urn's marble coldness and left there without a soul. "Thought" here is consciousness of the "World of Pains and troubles," attention to what Keats called "the Minds Bible." And, indeed, the last sentence in the poem begins with a reminder that the human condition, unlike the urn's, is bound to time and comes at last to waste and woe.

In what sense then, one must ask, is this lifeless and ultimately deceitful urn "a friend to man"? The answer lies in what the urn says to man at the end of the poem. Various readers have given differing interpretations of who says what to whom in these final two lines, and the textual evidence is strong for several views. The present reading of the poem, however, takes the lines as a unified statement, interpreted by the poet, made to man by the urn. As a "silent form," the urn can, after all, speak only through the poet's imagination. The message, therefore, draws its meaning and value from what the poet has learned in his attempts to penetrate the urn's hard surface or, to put it another way, to naturalize supernature.

And the poet has learned much from his efforts. To begin with, he recognizes that the urn is an alluring thing of beauty. Its happy pastoral scene is rich and inviting. But the poet's attempts to enter this idyllic, supernatural world are frustrated by his humanness and his unbreakable ties to the natural world. He can try to understand the urn's legend only by relating it to the world of his experience, and, when he does, he discovers that the atmosphere of the ideal world is too rare for him and finally too cold. This is not to say that the poet rejects the urn and its beauty. Rather, he rejects them as an absolute that can exist in isolation. Set in the context of real life, the idea of beauty demands the completion provided by a contrary, and, in this case, the contrary is desolation, waste, and woe. The urn is a friend to man, then, because of its totality—not its beauty alone, but also its implicit truth that a human being cannot live by beauty alone and still develop a soul. The beauty-truth equation is not mathematically exact. It is an equation of completion. Beauty does not equal truth, but the one cannot exist on earth without the other. Where there is beauty, there is also truth; where there is warmth, there is also cold; where there is joy, there is also pain and sorrow.

It is significant that the poet reverses the equation as well, and the repetition is not wasted. If beauty is truth, if joy requires pain, then so is truth beauty and so does pain require joy. If passion in real life "leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd," it is because the earthly lover has known a joy of fulfillment, or at least its possibility, that the figures on the urn will never know. The poem, therefore, does not end with equivocation or with mere longing after an unattainable ideal. The meaning of the beauty-truth equation goes much deeper. Ultimately, the urn's message is a validation of the miseries of human life and an assertion that these miseries are necessary for attaining what Keats called "Soul." The equation may not be all that man needs to know on earth, but, properly understood, it is a great deal, and perhaps all that is necessary to make inevitable the process of Soul-making.

Source: James Shokoff, "Soul-Making in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,'" in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XXIV, 1975, pp. 102-7.

The Pious Frauds of Art: A Reading of "The Ode on a Grecian Urn"

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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 various readings can be conclusively proved to be Keats's own, the punctuation of lines 49-50 can only result from an interpretive decision based on a critical analysis of the poem's overall meaning. The view adopted here is that the two lines are addressed to "man" by the urn, an opinion which has been steadily gaining ground in recent years. Additional arguments in its favor will be found in the answers offered here to the last two questions.

This essay would contend that the Ode presents a retrospective of Keats's thought, submitting early beliefs to the test of mature reflections. The figures depicted on the urn at first suggest to the poet that man's ability to idealize earthly beauty is the intimation of a form of immortality consonant with the heart's desires. In stanzas II and III, Keats's imagination rediscovers, with mounting enthusiasm, the possibility of believing in its own secret dream of an "immortality of passion." While the imaginative trance lasts, beauty and truth appear to be no farther apart than the temporal and eternal aspects of the same ultimate reality. Stanza IV then reveals that this belief, on which Keats based his most ambitious conception of art, will not stand the test of human logic. Stanza V first acknowledges the impossibility of asserting the absolute equivalence of beauty and truth, then controls the anguish resulting from this admission by turning to a greatly enriched form of Keats's creed in Endymion. Imaginative experience, more openly than in the "Ode to a Nightingale," is recognized as an illusion devoid of metaphysical validity. But, in an abrupt turn, balancing the wish to believe against an awareness of the limitations of belief, the poet finds grounds for accepting the "pious frauds" of art in the very unknowableness of truth.

Thus the final stanza of the Ode brings together two of Keats's early justifications of art: the conception, which may have been part of Keats's Wordsworthian heritage, that beauty is the sensuous form of truth, and the notion that beauty is a consolation for life's sufferings. By presenting, in the Ode, the former as the point of view of art, whose validity is limited to the aesthetic realm, Keats turns it into a poetic faith in favor of which the urn begs us to suspend our disbelief. The aestheticism of Endymion is thus placed on a basis compatible with Keats's mature skepticism and acquires seriousness from its being confronted with a lucid realism. But the transcendental vindication of art is renounced with melancholy reluctance.

It has often been remarked that the very ambiguity of the urn makes it peculiarly appropriate to serve as a focus for Keats's reflections on the meaning of imaginative experience. Indeed it would seem that its ambiguity is that of the poetic trance, leaving the mind in doubt whether it has been moved by a meaningless emotion or granted a glimpse of heaven. A temporal object which in a way is independent of time, the urn objectifies the ambiguity of Keats's "sensations." In stanza I it is seen as a messenger from eternity, as an "ethereal thing," to borrow Keats's paradoxical phrase, that is, a thing impregnated by spirit. Because the spiritual is engraved in its flanks, the urn is one of the objects which mysteriously transcend earthly limits, and which, in the language of Endymion, "Can make a ladder of the eternal wind." It hovers, that is, between heaven and earth, moving from the sensual to the spiritual with the nimble ease of angels on Jacob's ladder. At the time of Endymion, the existence of such mediators was one of the tenets of Keats's religion of beauty; in May 1819, his faith was shaken by doubts...

The initial question in stanza I is an invocation to the "Cherub Contemplation," an incantation designed to induce the trance-like mood which will enable the poet to hear the music in the urn's silence. Keats is creating in himself the imaginative the first step on the way to "happiness." Since imaginary scenes can be visualized with the vividness of actuality, the mind can extend its scope to embrace experiences which bodily limitations would preclude it from knowing; its condition then becomes that of a "floating spirit". The first stanza of the Ode moves toward the depersonalization of imaginative ecstasy... Keats was both aware of the psychological nature of this momentary transcendence and tempted to grant it metaphysical validity. Analysis reveals that such phrases as "our state / Is like a floating spirit's" can be read in a psychological, as distinguished from a metaphysical, sense. But their value for Keats was that they left the matter...

In the Ode, as in the letter to Bailey of 22 November 1817, the praise of "essential Beauty" is what allows Keats to elaborate the representation of eternity which lies at the center of the Ode and indeed of his whole poetic universe. The recurrence of this mental process is not fortuitous: the meaning of the beauty-truth equation can best be approached by bringing to light the relation which it bears to Keats's eternity myth...

The implicit starting-point of Keats's reflections in the letter is that the human mind uses natural beauty "as materials to form greater things— that is to say ethereal things." Out of the raw material of sensation, the imagination creates a quintessential abstract, purified from its grosser material aspects, comparatively independent of space and time, and refined into greater intensity. Keats, as we have seen, uses the adjective "ethereal" to qualify these productions of man's spirit, creations which combine the actual and the ideal. Indeed it seems that in Keats's usage the "ethereal" often refers to what we can know of the ideal here and now. The spiritual nature of the human mind is proved by this mental alchemy which is an "intimation of immortality." Since the imagination is able to subtilize sensation, to put it "into etherial existence," since it can endow sensuous delights with a degree of permanence, earthly life must be the reflection of a finer world which we shall know in the hereafter. This first hypothesis is used to support "another favorite Speculation" of the poet's: eternal bliss will be the repetition of our earthly joys "in a finer tone..."

As far as it can be reconstructed, Keats's argument in the letter runs briefly like this: if "essential Beauty" is a transient apprehension of heavenly bliss, logic has it, it seems, that eternal life must be "the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth"; one cannot turn beauty into a spiritual principle without postulating at the same time that eternal life is the quintessential continuation of natural existence. With such premises in mind, truth, that is, the ultimate meaning of life, cannot be essentially different from beauty; it is rather the transposition of earthly beauty into "a finer tone." In November 1817 Keats rejoiced to find that each of his "favorite Speculation[s]" seemed to be complementary to the other; moreover, their reciprocal fitness justified his conception of a paradoxical reconciliation of time and eternity. In the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" the poet's analogical imagination attempts to conceive images of such a nature as would substantiate his eternity myth. The last two stanzas express the disenchantment of a mind discovering that it had enclosed itself within the magic circle of a paralogism.

As it contemplates the figures on the urn, Keats's imagination gradually conjures up a vision of eternity which is consistent with his speculations of 1817, of whose validity the urn seems to afford objective proof. The artist's skill has included poised motion within the fixity of marble; the urn has reconciled changelessness with life. The figures on its flanks appear to know the "eternal Happiness" of sensuous delights etherealized into suspended imminence. "For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd," their sensations unite the full-blooded feel of life with freedom from change and satiety. Intensity knows no decay in this timeless world. "An immortality of passion," Keats's most cherished dream in Endymion, seems no illusion within the limits of stanza III.

This is a "fine isolated verismilitude," one of the "halfseeing[s]" which Keats was ready to accept in his "negative capability" mood. But at the end of stanza III, as every reader knows, the "disagreeables" of human experience claim to be taken into account. The explicit opposition between "human passion" and its artistic representation breaks the spell of imaginative reverie.

Stanza IV is the result of a lapse into "consequitive reasoning." As in the preceding stanzas, the poet's imagination conceives an act eternally about to happen, thus miraculously poised between eternity and time. The figures are seen "coming to the sacrifice," but then the imagination leaps from arrival to departure in an act which seems to repeat the process of stanza II. To create a past for the pictured scene at first appears to animate the figures, to infuse temporal blood into their arteries. In fact, the imagination has broken the isolation of the timeless moment and, in doing so, has subjected the mind to the processes of temporal logic. The implications of arrested motion are then followed to their logical conclusion: if the flow of time is suspended at any given instant, moments of desolation must co-exist side by side with moments of plenitude for all eternity. Eternal fullness forces upon the mind the possibility of an eternal void. Discursive logic forbids the poet to suspend the townsfolk forever in the "happy pieties" of sacrificial rites without freezing the "little town" they have left in an eternity of death. The realization of this inescapable necessity destroys the vision which the urn for a while had seemed able to substantiate, and the urn's value for the poet suffers a sudden reversal.

The "undertone of depreciation" of the "jarring apostrophe 'Cold Pastoral'" which H. W. Garrod was the first to analyze is by no means "accidental." The implications of this change of heart in the poet must be explored to guard against the risk of misinterpreting the close of the Ode. This depreciatory tone is perceptible not only in the punning alliteration of "Attic ... attitude" but even in the noun's suggestion of attitudinizing, which makes of "Fair attitude!" a melancholy sigh: fair as you are, nonetheless a fraud....

A similar disenchantment prevails in the first half of stanza V. The urn had allowed the poet to imagine a world where earthly beauty would find absolute existence, a form of eternity giving meaning to life; the intrusion of logic into this dream has destroyed it by exposing the ambivalence of the urn, able to symbolize an eternity of death as well as an immortality of passion. The urn, which has both suggested and denied the possibility of life out of time, like the "fogborn elf" of Endymion has cheated the poet "Into the bosom of a hated thing." Like the idea of eternity, the urn has aroused, and then defeated the wish to believe; it has teased the mind into activity only to lead it into the swamp of contradiction: the shadows of imagination can give the mind no help in elucidating the meaning of life:

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity.

These lines, which resignedly acknowledge the failure of imagination, express just the reverse of Keats's creed in the letter to Bailey: what the imagination seizes as beauty is not truth.

The meaning of stanza V rests on two antitheses: that which distinguishes the realm of art from the world of human experience, and that which balances the avowal of a radical agnosticism by the affirmation of the consolatory value of art. In the first half of the stanza, Keats relinquishes what had been the major tenet of his early poetic creed; that part of it which can meet the demands of his mature thinking is preserved in the second half...

The first half of stanza V shows, we have seen, that Keats finds it difficult to suspend his disbelief in the myths of imagination; beauty cannot be, after all, the earthly promise of "an immortality of passion":

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

With their tone of cool summation, these words veil the poet's intense disappointment and control the "Agony...of ignorance" by understating it. The Ode, we remember, was written just a few weeks after the sonnet "Why did I laugh tonight?" which records a moment of despair at the eternal silence of Heaven and Hell. Though he has also questioned the urn in vain, Keats makes its silence bearable by turning to the "pious frauds" of art.

The economy and skill of Keats's transition from line 45 to 46 has perhaps not been properly recognized. The exclamation "Cold Pastoral!" springs from the poet's realization that he has been led into an impasse: beauty is not truth; poetry cannot serve the one without betraying the other. In reaffirming the reality of human transience and suffering, line 46 both emphasizes the illusory character of the world of the urn, thus explicitly dissociating human experience from art, and, thanks to this overt severance, releases the poet from the deadlock of lines 44-45. The final resolution thus arises from a dialectical opposition between two justifications of art which Keats is trying to reconcile. The Ode has shown that to demand absolute truth from art is to crush it under a responsibility which it cannot bear; to regard art as a beautiful semblance of truth is at once to recognize the limitations which it shares with other forms of human knowledge and to re-establish its dignity, though admittedly on a less exalted footing.

The figurative exchange between lyric speaker and urn is no verbal jugglery but what makes the final resolution possible. The poem has established that the urn is objectively a "silent form," that the "wondrous lesson" which the poet had hoped to read "in [its] silent face" was a subjective dream. There should then be no doubt that the urn's final "message" is nothing but a figurative device used by the poet to present what the urn teases the beholder into thinking. The device finds its justification in that it enables the poet to blend two voices: that of the urn expressing what the imaginative experience, within its own limits, allows man to believe, and that of the lyric speaker stating what can be believed in the world of ordinary human experience.

In their figurative guise of a mute dialogue between the poet and the urn, the two views are not merely juxtaposed but brought into a relationship in which each sustains the other. Keats's early conception of poetry as a form of transcendental knowledge is saved from skeptical rejection by being presented as a consolatory illusion; his other, less ambitious, justification of poetry as a "soothing" compensation for life's sufferings derives seriousness from its presentation, not as an escape from life, but as the creation of admittedly relative values. Art is not life but can give meaning to life, provided we remember that it has no meaning apart from life, provided we do not attempt to turn it into some transcendental absolute. Such is the complex reconciliation attempted in the close of the Ode.

Art, or imaginative activity, cannot lead to absolute knowledge in the world of experience where truth and beauty are distinct; but it can offer to man the consoling image of a world where truth and beauty would be one. The urn, a product of human art, owes its existence to the attitude of aesthetic detachment which is able to perceive beauty even in the midst of pain. In the imaginary world whose spokesman it becomes, "the sense of Beauty...obliterates all consideration." What it offers to man, to help him to accept his woe suffered "in the midst of a great darkness," is the contemplation of beauty—beauty which contains a measure of truth provided one does not stray out of the magic circle of aesthetic detachment. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty": the circular form of the aphorism recalls the pattern of Keats's reasonings in the letter to Bailey; but now this circularity has a restrictive value. The equation is valid only within the limits of the imaginary world of art. That is why the aphorism is qualified by a fresh restriction: "that is all / Ye know on earth." This clause would of course be meaningless if Keats had regarded the urn's message as a final lightening of "the burthen of the mystery." "All / Ye know" refers back to lines 44-45: the poet tried to reach truth through beauty, and was led, in the attempt, to confess the incapacity of thought to discover the meaning of life, its inability to conceive a satisfactory connection between time and eternity. The only truth we may hope to reach on earth is that which is offered by the urn, the truth in beauty, the beauty which may yet be a substitute for truth.

"All ye need to know" is Keats's answer to his own anxiety, the resignation of an agnostic taking refuge in time to silence his yearning for eternity...

But though beauty and art have kept their consolatory function, they no longer provide an answer to the mystery of life. What the urn expresses is rather the position of the "negative capability" letter: let us accept, since we must, the limitations of human knowledge. One of the ironies of literary fame is that the Ode should so often have been read as a manifesto of unqualified Aestheticism: for it does not say that beauty is the refuge of those who do not think, but the comfort of those whom thought has bruised.

The Ode, then, criticizes the "pious frauds" of art, but the illusion is killed with kindness. Though he subordinates "sensation" to "thought," Keats tries to transcend the contradiction which he always found so teasing. Beauty is not truth; truth we shall never know on earth; let the partial truth of art reconcile us to our ignorance.

Source: Jean-Claude Salle, "The Pious Frauds of Art: A Reading of The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,'" in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 79-92.