Domenica Vilhotti

ENG 550: British Romantic Period

Dr. Joffe

October 16, 2006

John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 1819: A Close Reading

In a letter to his beloved Fanny Brawne, Keats wrote, “…I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things…” (Mellor and Matlak 1256). This letter was written in the final months of his life as he withered from consumption; in context, the irony becomes apparent.  Note the use of the word “principle” and the past participle of “love” and consider the rather straightforward sentence without them: “I love the beauty in all things”.  Yet Keats does not say this, nor does he believe it.  Rather, Keats acknowledges his passion for beauty, but also understands the impossibility of its consummation. 

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” was written just after John Keats tended his brother’s deathbed.  Appropriately, the poem dramatizes the conflict between art and reality; beauty and decay; the eternal and the transient.  The Ode considers a Grecian urn, praising the timeless beauty depicted by musicians playing toneless and therefore flawless songs, the trees depicted as never bare, and maidens forever fair.  His praise soon becomes a dubious ecstasy, however, and he then grieves that although real life renders the “heart high-sorrowful,” the urn offers but a “Cold Pastoral” (29, 46).  The speaker ultimately finds the urn and its art hollow, mocking its only message to man: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’” (49, 50).             

The speaker begins his meditation on the urn trying to coax his muse from it. Approaching intimacy with the urn, he uses personification, addressing it directly as “Thou” and comparing it to three human forms: a “still unravish’d bride of quietness,” a “foster-child of Silence and slow Time,” and a “Sylvan historian” (1, 2, 3) (Wasserman 113).  Within the first line, however, the speaker intimates the poem’s conflict.  If “still unravish’d” is interpreted as “virginal,” the urn is shown to be pure and unblemished.  Yet Keats employs clever wordplay; the word “still,” particularly juxtaposed to “quietness,” also denotes “frozen”; together, the urn’s beauty is both inaccessible and unconsummated.

The second line continues the latent sense of the cold, distant separation that will eventually lead to the epithet “Cold Pastoral!” (45).  The urn is not the biological product of a sexual union; rather, it is the “foster-child of Silence and slow Time,” conjuring notions of frigidity while furthering the motif of barren incompleteness (2) (emphasis mine).  The consonance of the “s” in “still,” “unravish’d,” “quietness,” “foster,” “Silence,” “slow,” “Slyvan historian,” and “canst thus express” echoes these images of sterility (1, 2, 3).  Although the speaker claims the urn’s visual scene expresses a “flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” surpassing his own poem, his use of such chilling conceits and consonance even here implies his ambivalent attitude toward the urn (4).

In the second stanza, the speaker attempts to fuse an identification with the urn through an almost forced praise.  Commenting on the songs the urn’s musicians play that can never be heard, he asserts, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (11, 12).  Just as Keats appreciates the principle of beauty in all things, the speaker here celebrates perfection; unheard melodies are sweet to the speaker because they will never risk being marred by an imperfect musician or their reception in the human “sensual ear” (13) (Blackstone 309).  In keeping with the Romantic concept that the imagination is more powerful than reality and sensory perception, the speaker revels in the beautiful “spirit ditties of no tone” (14). 

It should be noted, however, that Keats’ notion of beauty[1] that is implied both here and in the poem’s penultimate line stands in opposition to the Burkian notion of beauty.  Specifically, Keats’ beauty connotes symmetry, exquisiteness, and perfection, but appears to exclude fertility and community.  As such, Keats begins to form an adversarial attitude to the emptiness of beauty.  As the stanza’s rhyme scheme shifts from abab, to cdeced, so does the speaker’s tone.  He speaks to what the members of the scene cannot do: the “fair youth” “canst not leave”[2] his song, “nor ever can those trees be bare”; the “Bold Lover, never, never canst… kiss” the maiden he pursues (15, 16, 17).  The optimism he offers to these breathless figures trapped in representation is instead ironic: he soothes, “yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair” (18, 19, 20).  Although an apparent consolation, the speaker only continues to offer more restrictions: the Lover must “not grieve,” the maiden “cannot fade,” and the Lover “hast not [his] bliss” (18, 19) [emphasis mine].  Severed from change, motion, and emotion, these are certainly eerie images, particularly the youth that cannot leave his song.  In this increasing awareness of stasis, the reader is left to ask whether the Bold Lover is really able to “love” forever, and to question the value of being forever “fair” (20).       

In the third stanza, the poem’s climax, the speaker most overtly states his point.  The urn, though perfect, is but a flat utopia that is unable to assimilate the imperfect speaker who resides in reality.  What appears to be exultant praise is actually grim sardonicism.  As the scene’s figures are blocked from the range of human emotions, they are repeatedly described with the tritely frozen placeholder “happy”.  The image of the ceaseless piper returns as the “happy melodist, unwearièd, / For ever piping songs for ever new” (23, 24).  The tree branches are “happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / [Their] leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (21, 22).  Although he uses the conventionally positive word “happy,” he again undercuts this notion with the negatives “cannot shed” and “nor ever bid” (21, 22).  The word “shed” evokes associations of change and exchange: the tree must shed its leaves to accept new life, and the snake must shed its skin in order to grow, yet these changes are unconsummated to the figures in the urn.  In “happiness,” in contentment, ultimately in blissful ignorance, these figures are completely stunted.  Is it genuine love the speaker calls for when he demands, like so much fluff, “More happy love! More happy, happy love!” (25)?

The mounting rhythm of this stanza punctuates the sense of entrapment.  Specifically, Keats’ use of repetition creates the tension of movement without change: circularity.  In addition to the repetition of “happy,” the stanza is further crowded by the recurrence of “for ever” and “nor ever”.  The trees will “[n]ever bid the Spring adieu”; the melodist will be “for ever piping songs for ever new”; the happy love is to be “For ever warm,” “For ever panting,” and “for ever young” (22, 24,26, 27).  The visceral effect is wildly dizzying, as though trapped in a Möbius loop.   

The pace abruptly halts, however, as the speaker breaks from his contemplation of the urn.  Beyond the eternal youth of the scene, resides “[a]ll breathing human passion far above,” referring to reality in all its imperfection (28).  As opposed to the artificial youth, who are “for ever panting,” or are eternally short of achieving the consummation of respiration, real humanity has “breathing …passion” (28, 29).  This carnal knowledge the Grecian youth are shielded from has the potential to destroy: it “leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue” (29, 30).  While the urn’s surface is tantalizingly pre-coital, human experience leaves one “cloy’d,” surfeit, disgusted (29).  The speaker also alludes here to the possibility of death via the symptoms of consumption, or tuberculosis: “A burning forehead,” or fever, and “a parching tongue”.  This disease, engulfed Keats’ life, killing his mother, his brother, and eventually, himself.              

            In light of the speaker’s realization that reality is transient and subject to decay, he ultimately becomes disillusioned with the urn because it is unable to offer a lasting solace, transcendence, or salvation (Wasserman 135).  Despite his initial efforts, he is unable to connect to the innocent pastoral.  Appropriately, the speaker stresses urn’s inanimate nature.  Whereas the urn was personified as a bride, foster-child, and historian in the first stanza, the speaker decries its “Attic,” or Athenian and classical, “shape” in the final stanza (41) (Oxford English Dictionary).  Contextually, this description is subtle criticism since the Romantic movement developed in opposition to neoclassicism.  As opposed to the vivacious verbiage of the “leaf-fringed legend,” “flowery tale,” and “wild ecstasy” of the first stanza, the speaker now only sees the “forest branches,” (but not its leaves) and the “trodden weed” (5, 4, 10, 43).  While the urn of the first stanza was associated with a coy, mysterious, and personified quietness, the speaker now addresses it crudely: “Thou, silent form!” (44).  The speaker notes the “brede / Of marble men,” playing here on both the meaning of “brede,” or “ornament,” as well as its homonym, “breed,” or the product of sexual union (Wasserman 136).  The forms on the urn are lifeless, either as mere decoration or as the ironic joke of a progeny of cold marble.  

            The speaker’s final indictment of the urn is that it “dost tease us out of thought /  As doth eternity” (44).  He means here that both the trapped permanence of the urn as well as eternity lure one into notions of timelessness and transcendence.  Thought doggedly returns, however, leading to hearts “high-sorrowful,” and the feverish confrontation with mortality (29) (Blackstone 336).  In this knowledge, man is incapable of blithe, “happy, happy love” (25).  The urn, even art in general, cannot fulfill its promise to grant meaning. 

Within a year of the composition of this poem, Keats submitted to the same disease that had consumed his mother and brother.  At his request, his gravestone reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” (Mellor and Matlak 1256).  The poet believed he never captured in the principle of exquisite beauty he so admired.  Rather, it was his belief that life’s “breathing human passion” had bested him: his forced separation from his beloved Fanny left his “heart high-sorrowful,” and his disease left him with “a burning forehead, and a parching tongue” (28, 29, 30).  It is in this light that the poem’s final lines must be viewed:

 

                      When old age shall this generation waste,

                          Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

                       Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st

                   ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, --that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’  

 

The poet foresees he and his circle eventually giving, like all men must, to death and decay.  The notion of wasting one’s age evokes the anxiety of impermanence, of one’s name being “writ in water” (Mellor and Matlak 1256).  The urn, however, and its flat utopia, will remain to console humanity in “midst of other woe” (47).  It will offer as dictum that, “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” (49).  Yet, can the speaker truly believe this is all man need know on earth?  The speaker certainly understands that life’s truth of “burning forehead and …parching tongue” can often be quite ugly (30).  The urn that is able to tell a “flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” must surely be a thing of beauty, yet ultimately it offers no real truth or meaning relevant on earth, outside the boundaries of its own superficial exterior; it is but a “Cold Pastoral” (45).      

 

 

           


Works Cited

"Attic." Def. 2. Oxford English Dictionary. 15 Oct. 2006 <http://www.lib.ncsu.edu:2176/>. 

"Beauty." Def. 1b. Oxford English Dictionary. 15 Oct. 2006 <http://www.lib.ncsu.edu:2176/>. 

Blackstone, Bernard. The Consecrated Urn. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1959. 1-426. 

Keats, John. "Ode on a Grecian Urn." British Literature: 1780-1830. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc., 1819. 1297-1298. 

Mellor, Anne K., and Richard E. Matlak, eds. "John Keats." British Literature: 1780-1830. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc., 1996. 1254-1256. 

Wasserman, Earl. "The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'" Keats: a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964. 113-141. 

 

Works Consulted

Fogle, Richard H. Images of Keats and Shelley. 1st ed. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina P, 1949. 1-296. 

O'rourke, James. Keats's Odes and Contemporary Criticism. 1st ed. Gainsville: University P of Florida, 1998. 1-193. 

Shepard, Grace F. "A Plan for Teaching 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'" The English Journal 21.6 (1932):  463-467. J-STOR. North Carolina State University, Raleigh. 13 Oct. 2006. Keyword: Ode on a Grecian Urn.



[1] In Endymion (1818), Keats writes “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; Its loveliness increases: it will never Pass into nothingness” (qtd. in Oxford English Dictionary).

[2] Note here Keats’ possible play on the word “leave” in the phrase “canst not leave” (15).  Besides meaning “unable to stop his song,” the leave is close to the plural of “leaf,” as in, “canst not leaf,” or unable to grow.  In this way, the apparently beautiful urn cannot fulfill the tenets of the Burkian beautiful, which necessitates growth, fertility, and new life.