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The poem `Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is a poem written by John Keats in the form of an ode. In its original (Greek) form, an ode is an elaborately structured poem written in praise of an event or individual, with a perfect amalgamation of intellectual and emotional approaches. In the history of British poetry, the ode has retained its purpose (glorification), but altered the structure. The Great Odes by Keats
The ode being discussed is one of the `Great Odes of 1819’ written by John Keats.
The set of odes consist of six odes written on themes as diverse as `a nightingale’, `melancholy’ or `autumn’. Keats wrote these six odes within the space of a year which is often referred to as his annus mirabulis or year of miracles. This ode was published the next year alongwith the `ode to a nightingale’ in a magazine called the `annals of fine art’. Though the ode was not received very warmly at the time of its publication, it is now acknowledged to be one of the greatest odes written in the English language.
The Poet – Background and Style
The poet of this ode, John Keats, belonged to the era of Romanticism. The youngest of the Romantic poets, Keats occupies a unique position in English poetry as the lover and worshipper of beauty. He is a poet of sensations. ` That Keats had the healthiest of imaginations, balanced at last in a harmony of its own impulses is now generally and rightly believed.’ (A Visionary Company, Harold Bloom) Keats was born in the year 1795 in London, the eldest of four siblings.
His father was an inn keeper, but died when Keats was very young. His mother too died when he was just 14 years old. Orphaned at an early age, his life was full of tragedies. Poverty, ill health and unfulfilled love made reality unbearably sad for him. In order to escape from such sorrows he turned to beauty which was to him `a joy forever.’ In addition to beauty, he loved antiquity. He turned to the medieval romances and Hellenic forms of art as a means of escape from the fever and fret of daily existence. Keats lost his younger brother, Tom, to consumption in the year 1917. This proved to be a turning point in his life. Until then he had
been vacillating between pursuing the profession that he had been training for (that of a surgeon) or following the impulse of his heart and turning to poetry fully. But this close encounter with death sharpened his perception of his mortality and he chose to devote all his time to writing. `The presence of death heightened Keats imaginative naturalism by giving it relentless urgency without persuading Keats that the earth is less than enough.’ (Bloom H., A Visionary Company, 1971) The `Ode on a Grecian Urn’
Life on earth is transitory, as he describes in the `Ode to a Nightingale’. In contrast, art is something permanent, having lasting beauty. In `Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Keats makes an imaginative exploration of the inter relationship of art and life and concludes that beauty is truth and truth beauty.
The poem, `Ode on a Grecian Urn’ comprises of five ten-line stanzas. Though termed an Ode, Keats varied this from the traditional structure of odes. The poem is technically termed as an `ekphrasis’, which is a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art, possibly imaginary. Keats has used a rhyme pattern which in each stanza begins with a Shakespearean quatrain(ABAB) and ends with a Miltonic sestet (CDECED). Thus, the first four lines of each stanza is written in the classic form whereas the next six lines are a deviation from the symmetric structure of the classics.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn furnishes us with a beautiful example of the artistic potential of ekphrasis. The entire poem details a piece of pottery that the narrator finds immensely interesting. On reading the poem, one is made to feel that Keats has a particular urn in mind. But no urn with the scenes mentioned in the poem has been traced. So it is assumed that Keats’ imagination has blended many sculptured forms with which he was familiar. The fact that he chose an urn, with many scenes displayed on it, as the subject of his poem may have been a result of the viewing he had of the Elgin Marbles. It is also to be remembered that Keats had developed a fondness for the Greek classical mythology. Some critics also imply that he
may have attempted to compensate for the lack of an aristocratic education by showing a sense of familiarity with the Greek classics and Greek art. But what is impressive is that there has been no such urn identified only serves to underscore his magnificent power of imagination and creativity.
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child 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
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?
The ode opens with an invocation. The poet calls the urn a bride of quietness, thus assigning a gender to the urn. The invocation also announces the poem as a conversation between the poet and the urn where the reader is but a witness to this dialogue. The urn is depicted with its permanent record of the scenes of ancient life. Though the urn is wedded to quietness, it tells the tale of Greek life in ancient times through the pictures carved on it. It is not begotten of passion, but adopted by silence and slow time. Its true begetter is the sculptor who has been forgotten. The urn is now addressed as a sylvan historian because it is a truthful recorder of beauty that it has seen passing by. This line again emphasises on the time moving slowly and thus, the urn having been witness to much in history. Though it is wedded to silence, it can, by its art, express beauty and tell a colourful story more eloquently and sweetly than verse. Sculpture is regarded as superior to poetry. The poet wonders whether the scenes depicted on the urn represent life in the vale of Tempe or life in the dales of the Arcady. He asks whether the figures carved on the urn are those of men or of gods or of both. He asks if there is a struggle to escape. He paints a lively picture with this question and hints at the permanence of the figures carved on the urn. He uses the term ` leaf-fringed legend’ to allude to the ornamental leaf work bordering the scenes depicted on the urn. The first stanza ends with a string of questions. These questions referring to the different scenes on the urn prepare us for a close scrutiny of some of the scenes etched on the urn. Moreover, the questions express the beholder’s sense of wonder. The movement of the verse, slow in the first four lines, gathers momentum with these short questions. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; 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
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
The second stanza gives us a closer look of some of the carvings on the urn. The poet notices a frieze of three scenes; a fair youth playing a pipe, a tree that shelters him and a lover who tries to kiss his beloved. The three scenes respectively represent art, nature and human passion and the three are inter – related. The pastoral setting inspires the piper and his melody excites the lover. The stanza opens with the poets’ statement that heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter. Conception is always greater than execution. Reality falls short of imagination. And for that very reason, the music of the pipes depicted on the urn is more pleasing than any song heard by the sensual ear. He is playing to the imagination, songs of no particular tune. Music which is heard only through imagination is sweeter because it is lasting and appeals directly to the soul. The poet asks the piper to continue his delightful music and thus fill his soul with its silent melody. The youth playing the pipe under the shady tree will never cease playing and the tree will never shed their leaves. Here, the poet glorifies the permanence of art. Similarly, the lover on the urn trying to kiss his beloved can never actually fulfill his desire. His goal seems to elude him from within his hand’s reach. The poet tells the lover not to be
sad for he can be happy in the thought that his beloved will be always as beautiful as she is now. His love too will remain as fresh and new as it is. Art has conferred immortality on his love and on her beauty.
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!
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.
In the third stanza, the poet dwells more firmly on the idea of the permanence of art. What art loses in reality, it gains in permanence. The green branches of the trees carved on the urn will never shed their leaves and hence enjoy spring forever. The musician will never get tired. He will play on forever and his songs will always be new and fresh. The lover will be happy eternally for his love will remain young and passionate. It will be a source of joy for him for every moment he will be expecting to kiss his beloved. The pleasure lies in the ardent passion and not in the actual attainment. The warmth remains unabated owing to the joy of expectancy. The love made eternal by art transcends all earthly love. This love will ever remain calm and elevated and it will be quite different from ordinary human love which brings sorrow and suffering in its wake. There will be no misery of the loss of the loved one here, in contrast to what Keats himself experienced in his life. That the fulfilment of earthly love results in `sad satiety’ is an idea that is expressed by another Romantic poet, Shelley, in `To a Skylark’.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
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.
The scene shifts in the next stanza. The poet’s eye focuses on the scene of a religious sacrifice. It is an animal sacrifice on a pagan altar. An unknown priest is leading a heifer to the altar. The soft and silky sides of the animal are covered with garlands as it is an animal for a sacrifice. While it is being led to the altar, the heifer is lowing to the skies. Even this scene of sorrow and cruelty can give aesthetic pleasure when it is transformed into art by the sculptor of the urn. This scene showing the sorrowful side of life acts as a foil to the happy scene preceding it. The sensual aspect of one scene is replaced by the spiritual aspect of the other. Together, they present a balanced and complete vision of life. The poet goes on to wonder from which town the people have come to witness the sacrifice. It could be a town near a river or sea or on a mountain. It is a feature of Romantic poetry that location and time are often left vague. The reader is free to give it a local habitation and a name. The town from which the people have all gone to the place of sacrifice will always remain silent. None of the people gathered around the altar will return to tell why the town is empty. Once again, it is the permanence of art that the poet points to.
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!
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 poem draws to a quiet conclusion in the fifth stanza. The poet addresses the beautiful urn and muses once again on its lovely pictures. The urn with its exquisite beauty and silent message baffles and confuses the human mind just as eternity does. The urn is a pastoral poem in marble. Even when this generation has passed by and away, the urn will remain as it has remained for centuries. It will be a silent witness to the sufferings of the world. For the coming generations too, the urn will be a prophet of consolation with a message of its own – that is beauty is truth and truth is beauty. The urn may be speaking from its own experience. In an existence which hardly varies with time, it is what is sensed and perceived that seems to hold fast. In the same way, is there a greater truth than what we perceive to be beautiful?
The principal theme in this ode is the permanence of art in contrast with the fleetingness of the human life. This permanence is actuality and beautiful. Keats believed that to see things in their beauty is to see things in their truth. `Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is his tribute to the beauty of art.
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