Ode on a Grecian Urn: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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Introduction

      The Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in the spring of 1819. Colvin points out that no single work of antiquity now extant can be regarded as the source of its inspiration. Lord Elgin pillaged a collection of ancient sculptured marbles from Athens in 1812, and deposited them in the British Museum. Byron expressed his sturdy protest against this plunder in his Childe Harold, Keats saw these pieces of sculpture, and one of them, a Grecian urn, inspired this beautiful poem. (An urn is a vase for the preservation of the ashes of the dead).

Summary

      The poet sees a Grecian urn, and the human forms depicted thereon. He is filled with a sense of wonder and he speculates what might be the theme of the urn. The life-like attitude of the figures depicted strikes him with astonishment—there are men who might be mistaken for gods; there are blushful maidens struggling to escape the importunities of lovers; there are pipers playing on with unwearied zest.

      These naturally make the poet conscious of the superiority of Art over Nature. The unheard music, suggested by the figure of the piper, gives ample scope to the imagination and is therefore the sweeter, for in life the sweetest music must come to an end. In the piece of sculpture the lover cannot get his beloved, but at the same time she cannot escape out of his sight as she would have done in real life. Thus his love will be as eternal as the beauty of his beloved.

      From this thought Keats is led to the contemplation that the trees on the urn can never shed their leaves, nor the musicians ever weary of their songs, nor the love of the young people ever reach satiety. The joy of art is something eternal, and is far more satisfying than the joys of real life which end in a sad satiety.

     Keats is then led to creating out of the figures represented on the urn a scene of classical Greece as though he was seeing it before his very eyes. It is a sacrificial scene that is depicted and he contemplates the priests and the heifer and the altar arranged in a proper attitude. The sight of this makes him speculate what town it might be that had been made empty of its pious worshippers on this festive day.

      Having thus reviewed the entire scene in its details as well as its implications, Keats concludes the poem with the reflection that the urn will remain when the present generation of men will be long dead and gone. The urn will teach men this supreme lesson that Beauty is Truth and Truth is Beauty. To the poet it is a great discovery, and so he defiantly asserts that it is really all the knowledge that a man should know.

Critical Analysis

      The sight of the urn sets the poet’s mind works. The opening invocation is followed by a string of questions, which flash their own answers upon us out of the darkness of antiquity—questions which are at the same time pictures—

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels What wild ecstasy?

      The next two stanzas express the vital difference between life and art. Life has no doubt the vividness and warmth of reality, but it is subject to change and decay, whereas art is the unchanging expression of beauty. The happy piper would for ever remain standing under the tree, and the tree will never shed its leaves. The lover depicted on the urn would always be loving, without feeling the satiety or anguish of love of real life. The static figures on the surface of the urn become dynamic and instincts with life and motion and energy. There is another picture on the Urn—that of a sacrifice and an assemblage of men and women. The poet’s- imagination goes beyond the actual scene represented on the urn; he imagines how the town from which the people have come to attend the sacrifice, must be for ever in desolation.

      The pastoral legends represented in cold marble shall outlive future generations amidst their various moods, and shall remain for ever a source of consolation to the world. They proclaim the noble message: Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty. This is the noblest ideal can have, because it provides to man a shelter from the mutability and transitoriness of life.

      The sight of the Grecian urn raises in the poet’s mind a host of associations. His mind goes back to the past and he reconstructs in his imagination the details of the pictures carved on the urn. The beauty of the figures left intact even after the lapse of ages makes the poet think of the permanence of art as contrasted with the transience of human life and of sensuous beauty. Human emotion and human happiness are brief, but Art can enshrine them with an- ideal beauty that never fades.

A happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs, for ever new;
More happy love: more happy, happy love
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever painting and for ever young.

      The actual men and women represented on the urn are gone, but art has conferred upon them a permanence which age cannot wither.

      In this Ode, Keats “attains to a higher degree of philosophic thought than in any other of his poems. It touches the philosophy of Art and the ethics of human life’’. (Downer).

      The Ode to a Nightingale presents the pathetic side of human life - its fever and fret, and the loss of youth and beauty and the satiety of love. The poet escapes from the realities of life to the ideal world of the nightingale. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is not a, sad poem—no inquietude of spirit troubles its deep calm. ‘‘The spirit of the untroubled past, living in artistic expression, unchanged and unchanging, possesses and soothes the poet’s mind.” All personal emotion is stilled in the vast silence of the past; the poet thinks objectively of life and art. ‘‘The hush of personal emotion leaves him free for objective thoughts, and hence he can soar higher and range wider than when chained to the joys and sorrows of the moment. There is no doubt an undertone of pathos where he speaks of the pain attendant on passion and pleasure—but this subtlety elevates the general thought, which rises into the sphere of pure contemplation—the contemplation of the Beautiful”. (Downer). The poet’s contemplation leads him to the realization that beauty is identical with truth and that beauty is the highest ideal of mankind. Thus we find in this Ode “the poetry of truth and the poetry of beauty. The poet enters the realm of metaphysics when he discusses the superiority of plastic art over human life in respect of permanence, and “in the celebrated words which close the poem, he treats the great ethical question of summum bonum greatest good of human existence as consisting in a knowledge of the equivalence of Beauty and Truth.

      The Ode takes us away from the world of time to the world of eternity, as in the Ode to a Nightingale. The beauty which art has enshrined on the urn belongs to the world of time; it is concrete beauty—beauty of form, and the concrete form of beauty is liable to decay and death in the world of time. But the poet says that art has preserved the beauty through its living form perished long since. Thus the imagination of the poet passes' from the concrete form of beauty to the eternal spirit oi beauty—that is, from the finite to the infinite. A concrete form of beauty perishes but the spirit of beauty is eternal. To the seeing eyes, however, the spirit of beauty which is eternally true, is present in the finite form of beauty which is perishable. Those who can see in the finite form of beauty the eternal spirit of beauty which is truth are true seers and Keats says that there is no higher knowledge attainable by man than this realization of the infinite in the finite.

      The Ode on a Grecian Urn is not a dream of unutterable beauty, nor is the urn itself the sign of an impossible bliss beyond mortality. It has a precious message to mankind, not as a thing of beauty which gives exquisite delight to the senses, but as a symbol and prophecy of a comprehension of human life to which mankind can attain.

      The Ode is thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Hellenism. Beauty with Keats as with the Greeks is the first word and the last word of Art. Keats worshipped Beauty as did the Greeks, and the Greeks alone in all the world could say with Keats, “Beauty is Truth”. The poem is full of happy, and well chosen epithets in which makes the pictures leap into the imagination. “The most original character of the poetic art of Keats is density; each epithet is extraordinarily rich in suggestion; the long lingering of each word in a thought which lovingly enfolds it, has loaded it with a whole spiritual crystallization” and this quality of density is illustrated in this ode more than anywhere else:

Thou still unravished bride of quietness:
Thou foster-child of silence and slow Time;
That leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue,
Thou, silent, form: doth lease us out of thought As doth eternity; Cold Pastoral:

Critical Opinions of Critics

      W.T. Arnold: The Greek vase which inspired Keats was no figment of his imagination but had a real existence and is not, it is said, under the arcade at the south front of Holland House.

      Middleton Murray: The Ode on a Grecian Urn is not a dream of unattainable beauty, nor is the urn itself the sign of an impossible bliss beyond mortality. It has a precious message to mankind, not as a thing of beauty which gives exquisite delight to the senses, but as a symbol and prophecy of a comprehensive human life to which mankind can attain.

      Sahney: The main idea of the Ode on a Grecian Urn is the mutability of life as contrasted with the immortality of the principle of beauty as expressed in art. The poet’s vision is here confused up by his scrutiny of an old vase of the Golden age, of Greek rural life, Pan’s pipe, and the passionate lover, and the ritual of sacrifice, and the little town by the sea-shore are dust, but they live eternally on the Attic Shape of the urn.

      Rossetti: In the ode the axiom is ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ which pairs with and even transcends ‘A thing of Beauty is a joy forever’ is put forward as the message of the sculptured Grecian urn to man, is thus propounded as being of universal application., It amounts to saying—Any beauty which is not truthful (if any such there be), and any truth which is not beautiful, (if any such there be) are of no practical importance to mankind in their mundane condition, but in fact there are none such, for, to the human mind and truth are one and the same thing. Keats’s perception and ‘thought’ crystallized into this axiom as the sum and substance of wisdom for man, and he lias bequeathed into us to ponder over itself and to lay to heart as the secret of his writings.

      Downer: The message of the urn is summed up in five pregnant words, ‘Beauty is truth truth beauty’. It is as near to a moral as Keats allows himself to go. This verse, the last two lines of which contain its real interest, possesses two philosophical ideas—(1) The incomprehensibility of the Infinite in Art and Nature and (2) The Ethics of Beauty. To Keats, beauty is the touchstone of truth. ‘To see things in their beauty’, writes Matthew Arnold in reference to this passage, is ‘to see things in their truth’, and Keats knew it. What the imagination seizes as beauty must be Truth; he says in prose; and in immortal verse he has said the same thing—Beauty is truth, truth beauty to know:—No it is not all; but it is true, deeply true, and we have deep need to know it.

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