September 20, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Ode on a Grecian Urn[1]
By: John Keats (1819)

Thou[2] still[3] unravish’d bride of quietness,[4]
Thou foster-child[5] of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape[6] 5
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?[7]
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?[8]
          What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?[9] 10

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter;[10] therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave 15
Thy song,[11] nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal[12] yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
          For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair![13] 20

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love![14] 25
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
          A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.[15] 30

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?[16]
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing[17] at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,[18] 35
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
          Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.[19] 40

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought[20]
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral![21] 45
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.[22] 50

Notes & Commentary

  1. For the Romantics, the ode became a poetic vehicle for exploring the imagination and expressing sublime and expansive thoughts; it also attempted to reassert the power and voice of the poet (Bloom 2001, p. 18). Like a hymn, it is the expression of a private voice reaching for and yearning to “participate in the divine” (quoted in Bloom 2001, p. 18) and exemplifies a mature and complex voice (Garrett 1987, p. 47). Keats used the ode in an attempt to transcend time and establish the permanence of poetic expression. Keats’ “Urn” uses a rhetorical technique called ekphrasis, a poetic description of a work of art, and Keats’ poem is the exemplar of this device (Bloom 2001, p. 19). It borrows from the classical pastoral, a poetic form that celebrates an idealized life of shepherds.
         Keats’ ode contemplates the ironies of human life while the poet looks at the carvings on a funeral urn, either real or imagined. “Urn” contemplates the visual and spatial dimensions of representational art (Vendler 1983, p. 116). The urn depicts “sexual pursuit and flight, of music-making and courtship, and of communal religious performance” (Vendler 1983, p. 117) carved in marble that the ravishes of time cannot touch, unlike the real world of humanity. Even though these figures are immobile, they have achieved a perfection that we cannot living in time. Yet, a sacrifice is implied by the images: that while time has stopped, they live in a “state of candid hope and expectation that time and experience will never disappoint” (Garrett 1987, p. 47). Ultimately this is a cold, deceptive vision wrought by the poet/speaker’s imagination and our own willingness to be deceived by an idyllic dream. On the surface, Keats’ ode is about the power of art in general and poetry specifically in capturing a moment of truth and beauty for anyone wishing to experience it, yet it could also be read as a dark critique of the history of art linked with violence. In a way, Keats gives a glimpse of paradise or the promise of an ideal beyond the temporal world of decay.
  2. Nersessian observes that this opening is unique for a Keatsian ode, that it amounts to an aggressive “hey-you!” that foreshadows a subversive meditation (Nersessian 2021, p. 43).
  3. Still is ambiguous: is it an adverb meaning “yet” or an adjective meaning “motionless”? It seems to be both, and the ambiguity and tension established here is maintained and developed throughout the poem (Garrett 1987, p. 48).
  4. The unravish’d bride is not subject to the passing of time, but lives forever in an ideal marble domain. There is a sexual connotation here as well, as she—the urn is feminized as a bride—will never be subject to sexual love or abuse. Similarly, Nersessian argues that this ode is about sexual violence and its use as a subject for poetry; thus he reads these lines as ominous (Nersessian 2021, p. 44). Ravish is derived from the Latin rapere, to seize, and refers to a crime of theft through the Middle Ages (Nersessian 2021, p. 45).
  5. Not a real human, as the bride is a carving on the urn in the narrative, and a product of Keats’ imagination.
  6. The urn is a time traveler in essence, having been created in a different time, now far removed from the poet’s present, he must speculate about the significance of the images (Garrett 1987, p. 48).
  7. These loth maidens might be playfully coy, or they could really hate what they are being forced to do. They are echoed later in the heifer lowing in protest against her sacrifice (Nersessian 2021, p. 46). There is an ambiguity here between a science of potential violence and one that is playfully idyllic.
  8. Again, these lines contain an ambiguity: is this playful or sinister? I can’t help but think about Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne from The Metamorphoses—one that would certainly have ended in rape. Images like leaf-fring’d—perhaps a direct allusion to a metamorphosed Daphne—deities, and gods add additional support for this reading. In fact, the lowing of the heifer on line 33 might just be Io’s lament after having been raped by Zeus.
  9. Along with the unravish’d bride, these figures exist in a state of “frozen animation” that emphasize Keats’ longing for “permanence in a world of change” (Bloom 2002, p. 20). These seem to be rhetorical questions that would be more at home in a monologue, and Nersessian suggests they are evidence of a narrator performing—one who is simply observing the scene on the urn and missing its significance—separating language from morality (Nersessian 2021, pp. 50–51). Art here is pretense and performance detached from the the dark realities of the world (Nersessian 2021, p. 52).
  10. Imagined music may be more sweet than that the sensual ear can hear. Here, Keats suggests that things implicit are more compelling than those which are explicit, or “Expectation is better than repletion: the dream nourishes, the reality palls” (Garrett 1987, p. 48). This idea is applied to live below.
  11. These melodies of the imagination are more valuable because they are more appropriate to this tableau of frozen time (Bloom 2002, p. 20).
  12. An interesting way to refer to a lover, one who may be about to be raped (Nersessian 2021, p. 46).
  13. Even though sexual love is always deferred, so is aging and death. These figures transcend the scope of time and human desire, keeping their hope for consummation perpetual at the same time as keeping actual touch impossible.
  14. Keats’ lovers are happy in a world where the pain of aging and grief that comes from human passion cannot touch them.
  15. The poem seems to turn here, from paean to something darker: there's something too much about this world. Along with cloy’d from the previous line the descriptions here seem to be of exposure or even poisoning. This might be the speaker’s own love sickness that only comes through experience of love consummated (Garrett 1987, p. 49). For a moment, the pastoral scene seems forgotten, having been replaced by the void.
  16. The darkness is carried over into an image of religious sacrifice to be paid for the happiness and permanence.
  17. The heifer seems to be a sacrifice and parallels the bride in the first stanza.
  18. The speaker considers what is not represented, suggesting a ghostly and perhaps apocalyptic silence and absence.
  19. The animated world of the first three stanzas has turned into an eerie landscape of quiet and desolation for evermore (Bloom 2002, p. 21). The poet’s voice assumes an air of ambiguity between preferring an unchanging world of perpetual youth and promise of the first stanzas and the emptiness and hollow world he sees as he looks closer.
  20. Keats addresses the urn of his imagination admitting that what came before as fiction. Indeed, his descriptions have been so convincing, he is like the wizard behind the curtain who exposes himself as the illusionist who has led us all astray with our own desires for an idyllic world.
  21. A reference to the only reality of the urn: its marble. This also suggests death which urns are often made to encompass.
  22. These last lines have been the subject of much debate, but they seem to be a playful, though melancholy admission of the power of art to deceive as we willingly participate in the seduction (Bloom 2002, p. 21). Yet, as part of the irony of the poem, art may also help us see and contemplate the reality of the world at the same time. Like Keats’ urn, art is both a dead and cold artifact, but it can be animated by the power of the poet’s imagination.
         Two other interpretations are suggested by that: that the urn is ultimately a piece of marble and one of limited insight, so it can offer an observer very little. Or that the urn does not need to know any more than that since it is just an urn (Frye 1987, p. 92).
         Nersessian sees this pithy moral coming from the pompous persona performing the monologue, and to agree with its proclamation would be to uphold “a world in which harm and the threat of harm remain infinite even as they are covered up and brushed aside. It is to affirm a vision of masculinity as license to hurt and of femininity as perpetual provocation” (Nersessian 2021, p. 55). This statement is a satire on the speaker and all that he represents; Keats wants readers to see through the bullshit that art sanctions violence and pain.

Bibliography

  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2001). John Keats. Bloom’s Major Poets. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House.
  • Frye, Paul H. (1987). "Voices in the Leaves: the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'". In Bloom, Harold. The Odes of Keats. New York: Chelsea House. pp. 83–92.
  • Garrett, John (1987). Selected Poems of John Keats. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Inglis, Fred (1969). Keats. Arco Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
  • Nersessian, Anahid (2021). Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Vendler, Helen (1983). The Odes of John Keats. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.
  • Wasserman, Earl (1964). "The Ode on a Grecian Urn". In Bate, Walter Jackson. Keats: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. pp. 113–141.

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