John Keats once said regarding Lord Byron that “he (Byron) describes what he sees, I describe what I imagine”. Keats is a typically Romantic poet in the way in which he uses the fluid boundaries of imagination within his poem to formulate his aesthetic vision which is projected in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Pope notes that the etymology of ‘aesthetics’ derives from the Greek meaning ‘things perceptible to the sense’ and ‘sensory impressions’; within the poem Keats uses evocative techniques to project the ‘refined sense of pleasure’ which he receives from observing the ancient piece. For Keats, the piece of art represents a timeless beauty which he longs to achieve within his own work; he hopes that his own poetry will transcend his impending death and that he will be remembered well into the future for his masterpieces. The poem is significant in the way in which it portrays aesthetic beauty in ‘artistic media’ whilst raising several questions of what is meant by true beauty and whether it is possible for man to achieve the same perfection.
In the first stanza of the poem, Keats expresses his aesthetic vision of the urn by the way in which he considers the piece of art to be an “unravish’d bride of quietness”, thus forming immediate feminine connotations. As noted by Charles Patterson, the physical shape of the urn also lends itself to the female figure. He comments upon the fact that it is significant that Keats chooses to classify the urn as a particular gender as all life is created and unfolds through the female body; as such, the feminine outline of the urn is seen to provide the characters, which are depicted within the art work, with their vivid animation that Keats appears to observe.
This is a typically Romantic method, whereby the poet’s clear imagination is used to give life to an inanimate object by seeing past the rigid, impenetrable surface and delving into the stories frozen within the “silence” of the piece. It could be that Keats uses this stillness to emphasise the inaudible communication which is created between him and the artwork with a deep appreciation for the urn and the stories he sees it as presenting.
The repeated questions in the final lines of the first stanza build a mounting anticipation and also enhance the mystery as to the aesthetic beauty of the urn; there appear to be many unanswered questions regarding the stories which are told within the art work and Keats is intrigued to unravel the secrets which it holds. The questions simultaneously increase the ambiguity of the urn and create Keats’ aesthetic vision of the object within the reader. Pope comments that the aesthetic is ‘an aversion to the ordinary and ugly’; Keats’ repeated questions enhance the reader’s belief that there is nothing simple or plain about the urn, with: “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape” producing a vivid display of the feelings and the emotions of those figures who are immortalised within the urn.
By using “struggle”, Keats acknowledges the desperation of the characters to be freed from the marble prison which they are cemented. The verb enhances the aesthetic vision of the art as Keats produces a new dimension to the object which begins to establish the tale of the “marble men” which he observes. The story of the “little town” is further developed by the “wild ecstasy” of the young couple suggesting a thrilling relationship between the lovers who are pictured, increasing the aesthetic vision of the urn as an element of a sexual relationship is formulated. Keats’ use of language could also be seen to reflect his own inner thoughts at the time which he wrote the poem with the “struggle to escape” relating to his personal toil at being trapped by his illness with no means of treatment. In this vein, the characters of the urn are also forever encapsulated in their environment, with no means of progression or conclusion to the story which they depict.
Keats also uses the preservation of time to formulate his aesthetic vision in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. The way in which the woman “cannot fade” is used as a consolation from Keats to the lover of the maiden, as her beauty will transcend time and will not spoil with age despite the fact that the couple will never be able to “kiss” and thus consummate their relationship. Contextually, Keats uses this fabricated romance to not only express his vision of aesthetic beauty but also to mirror his own personal tribulations. He too was in love with a woman, Fanny Brawne, and just like the figures of the urn, Keats was unable to act upon his passionate feelings due to his lower social status and an uncertain financial situation.
Like the characters which he empathises with, Keats felt consumed in the immovable cold marble, thus using his aesthetic vision of the urn to portray his inner despair. Keats’ envy at becoming immortalised and to remain “unwearied” like the “happy melodist” of the poem highlights his concerns as a poet. Pope refers to high art, such as the urn as being ‘fine, sublime and timeless’, and essentially, Keats aspired to create literature worthy of the same praise. With his Romantic methods, Keats longed for his work to be remembered and outlive him following his tragically early death from tuberculosis.
For Keats, the urn represents a deep sense of loss: “generation waste” displays his horror at the transience of material objects and the feelings of disregard felt towards them. The piece of artwork which he studies could be seen as a survivor of a lost age, and is an evocative image of a lost world which can no longer be visited. Some may say that Keats sees his own work in this image; he longs for his poetry to continue to be read and bring pleasure to a wide audience long after his death, however he feels concerned at the prospect of becoming forgotten and his work to become overlooked and unappreciated, as is likely to be the fate of the urn which he studies.
Unlike much of his other poetry, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ contains a regularity within its stanzas which is not necessarily present in the other works of Keats. This firm structure reflects the aesthetic vision of the urn itself, as it provides a solid tightening of expression with a pattern which mirrors the physically rigid nature of the object. Such is the nature of ‘Ode on a Nightingale’ where Keats writes in a ‘bold, explorative’ manner, that it directly contrasts with the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ which is apparently stripped of any direct expression of the poet’s own feelings. Taking this into account, it comes as a particular surprise when in the final stanza, Keats’ narrative appears incredibly mournful at the state of the urn and displays a burst of passion which had previously been lacking from the poem.
He begins the final stanza with “O Attic shape!”; creating a different, melancholy tone which is expressed by the exclamation, thus replacing the previous excitement and enthusiasm which had been expressed towards the urn. This line emphasises Keats’ aesthetic vision of the art, with “Attic” referring to ‘Attica’, a region of ancient Greece of which Athens was the major city. By mentioning a specific location in history, Keats is able to transport the reader to the time period which the urn embodies, and his aesthetic vision of the artwork is projected as an animated scene.
Klaus Hofman recognises that in the penultimate line of the final stanza, Keats seems to express his beliefs that beauty can only exist as it does on the urn: ‘captured, frozen, artificial’. Pope also refers to a formula which supports Keats’ message that such perfection can only ever manifest itself within art. Arguably the “truth” which Keats refers to is the comfort that man should receive from observing a perfect object. The idea that ultimate beauty can only exist in a piece of art such as the urn and cannot be achieved by mortals should act as a comfort to man, and urge us not torment ourselves by striving for the impossible.
Ultimately, Keats is able to express the aesthetic vision of the urn by his message of the purpose of art. He shows that as humans, we should pursue and live life experimentally and that ‘perfection’ is only an idealistic approach which can be all-consuming. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is a further example of how Keats’ language reflects the aesthetic vision of the urn. The circular quote mirrors the physically round nature of the urn, whilst enhancing the theme that man can continually struggle for beauty and perfection without successfully achieving it.
AQA Booklet R.Pope
Romanticism A Critical Reader
[ 1 ]. R.Pope’s formula: Aesthetics = refined pleasure = art = beauty