The controversy between the mortal and the immortal and the distinction between the dynamism of active life and the continuity of art have long been the topics of major poetic concern. Where poets sought to express their views on art and to create an objective and universal picture of artistic continuity, the opposition between art and real life also became the foundation for the unlimited poetic argument. For John Keats, the opposition between life and death, static life and dynamic movement shape a new vision of artistic and poetic beauty.
For readers, this vision of beauty stands out as the concept full of contradictions and controversies. In the light of the growing political anxiety and under the pressure of historical controversies of the 19th century, the poetic significance of Ode on a Grecian Urn is in the symbolic opposition between the mortality of dynamic life and the immortality of the static art; and where the reader seeks poetic consolation, he or she can choose between the turbulence of action in the real life and the continuity of passion in unchangeably fixed artistic expression.
John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was evidently written in May 1819 along with Ode to a Nightingale, for both poems seem to cover similar topics and artistic moods (Blades 115). For Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn came as a response to the historic anxiety so characteristic of the period between the beginning and the middle of the 19th century. It would be fair to say, that as one of his most romantic and the most problematic poetic works, Ode on a Grecian Urn has come to signify the poet’s desire to close himself in the world full of peacefulness and quietness, away from pain and violence which he witnessed in his real life.
“This intense desire and poetic accomplishment are consistent with his expressed opinions in his letters on the horrors and atrocity of political and religious oppression” (Watkins 104). As long as Keats sought to emphasize the relevance of his religious and political expressions, he had to create a new world where beauty and immortality would play not secondary, but primary roles. In this context, his Ode seems to be deeply embedded in the social and historical contradiction of which Keats had to be a witness.
Despite the fact that the poem expresses Keats’s laudable desire to escape the realities of his cruel life, his Ode has never been able to escape the tint of oppression, opposition, and controversy which haunted Keats during his life. Keats begins his poem with a set of questions, which raise the significance of art, time, mortality, continuity, and change. “What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both, / In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? / What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
/ What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? ” (Keats). Although without any clear answers, the urn seems to maintain an active dialogue with the viewer, and this is one of the essential paradoxes Keats reveals in his work, making the opposition of real silence and imagined dialogue even more strikingly visible. The use of apostrophe underlines the feeling of muteness, to which Sun refers as the critical component of Keats’s poetic expression (62). “The object’s enigmatic inexpressiveness serves as the very point of departure for the poem, eliciting the speaker’s act of address” (Sun 64).
These first stanzas and the enigmatic expression of muteness shape a unique and somewhat unusual understanding of beauty, which reader has but to accept in order to understand the true poetic implications of Keats’s artistic ideas. True, Keats promotes a complex ideal of artistic beauty, and where eternity stands out as the means to preserve the continuity and unchangeable nature of art, the reader realizes the price one has to pay for this continuity, – the price that comes in the form of non-vitality, immobility, and unnaturally static nature of artistic expression.
Through the whole poem, and up to its very end, the reader is intentionally positioned against the painful reality of artistic coldness which nevertheless carries a tint of passion and never-ending movement in it. “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 / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! ” (Keats). These lines altogether hide and reveal the controversial combinations of imagination and beauty, art and time, truth and knowledge, and even the possibility of escape (Blades 116).
This urn and the vision of movement on it are used by Keats to project, challenge, and disrupt the traditional vision of art which for readers grows from within the urn, and for Keats is depicted at the urn’s surface. Despite these visible controversies, and despite the increasingly important meaning of opposition between mortality and immortality of art, Keats seeks to establish the single and the universal truth: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.
In Watkins’ words, “the last lines of Keats’s poem reaffirm the rhetoric of the surface and reduce questions to the flatness of statement and the urn itself to its merely decorative appearance” (105), but simultaneously, Keats seems to provide the reader with a relevant choice between the mortality of real life and the immortality of artistic beauty, which, although static, can still be used to pass the valuable knowledge about beauty to the next generations of viewers.
Keats has never been able to resolve the controversy between dynamic life and static art, and for him this obvious opposition resembles his own fight for the truth of beauty, which he vividly expresses in his talented poetic works. Conclusion In his search for spiritual peace, John Keats creates a highly controversial and complex picture of beauty, where the static nature of art is successfully opposed to the dynamic nature of real-life interactions.
In his poem, the reader is offered a relevant choice between mortal life and immortal beauty, and whether he or she chooses turbulent action or continuous but static art will depend on the cost each of the two elements requires to pay for becoming an essential component of one’s individuality and consolation. Annotated Bibliography Blades, J. John Keats: The Poems. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. In his book, John Blades provides a comprehensive review of Keats’s poetry.
Through the prism of profound textual analysis, Keats’s poems appear to represent the essential elements and key features so characteristic of the nineteenth century’s Romanticism. Keats, J. “Ode on a Grecian Urn. ” 1884. Bartleby. com. 13 April 2009. http://www. bartleby. com/126/41. html Ode on a Grecian Urn is one of the most prominent Romantic poems in the creative career of Keats, providing an insight into Keats’ ideas about romantic beauty and art. Sun, E.
“Facing Keats with Winnicott: On a New Therapeutics of Poetry. ” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 46, no. 1 (2007): pp. 57-76. The author of the article provides a detailed explanation of the role apostrophe plays in conveying the meaning of the two Keats’s poems Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. The apostrophe in Keats’s works serves the link between different inanimate objects, revealing the essential feeling of humanism in all poetic stanzas. Watkins, D. P.
Keats’s Poetry and the Politics of Imagination. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989. Daniel P. Watkins provides readers with a chance to reassess historical dimensions of Keats’s poetry. In the context of historical and political calamities, and in the light of the growing political and religious oppression, the romantic works of Keats are heavily influenced by the real-life atrocities, and serve the means of escaping the cruel reality into the world of peaceful romanticism and artistic quietness.
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