Keats’s Love of Greek Art
The ancient Greeks used to cremate a dead human being and to deposit the ashes in an urn which was then buried. An urn was a kind of vase generally made of marble or of brass. Often, different kinds of scenes and situations were carved on the outer surface of an urn.An urn, therefore, apart from serving as a repository of the ashes of the dead, was also a work of art. The present poem was partly inspired by a marble Grecian urn which was in the possession of Lord Holland on which was carved a scene of pastoral sacrifice such as the one that is described in the fourth stanza. A Bacchanalian procession was also sometimes carved on a Grecian urn. It seems almost certain that Keats was not merely thinking of the particular urn in the possession of Lord Holland, but also of Greek sculpture in general as represented by the famous
2. CRITICAL SUMMARY
Various Scenes Depicted on the Urn
Keats addresses the Grecian urn as an “unravished bride of quietness and a foster-child of silence and slow time”. Thus Keats conveys to us the idea of the silent repose and the great age of this piece of Greek sculpture. He also calls the Grecian urn a “Sylvan historian” because of the rural and forest scenes carved on its surface. In a series of questions, which are also vivid pictures, he gives us an idea of what those carvings represent. He refers to the human beings and the gods depicted on the urn in the beautiful valleys of
and Tempe . He refers to the men in a passionate mood chasing maidens who are struggling to escape from their clutches. Then there are the flute-players playing wild and ecstatic music. Arcadia
Art is Superior to Life
The poet goes on to say that music which is imagined is much sweeter than music which is actually heard. The music of the flute-players depicted on the Grecian urn cannot be actually heard by us: we must imagine what tunes they are playing. These unheard, but imaginable melodies are sweeter than the songs that we actually hear. Besides, the lover who is trying to kiss his beloved on the urn will always be seen in the same mood of pleasurable anticipation. In real life, love and beauty decline and fade; but the love and beauty depicted on the urn will remain ever fresh. In real life, spring is short, and the trees must shed their leaves. Similarly, in real life a musician will at least feel tired of playing his music and will stop. The enjoyment of the pleasures of love in real life is followed by disgust and satiety. But the trees depicted on the urn will never shed their leaves; the melodist will for ever play his tunes, and the heart of the lover will always throb with passion while the beauty of the beloved will never fade. In this way, the poet wishes to convey the idea that art is, in one sense, superior to real life.
The Town Emptied of its Folk
Then follows a picture of a crowd of people going to some place of worship. A priest leads a heifer which has been decorated with garlands and which is to be offered as a sacrifice. The worshippers have come from some little town situated close to a river or on a sea-shore or at the foot of a hill on which stands a fortress. The town which has been emptied of its people, will always remain desolate, because the people shown on the urn will always be seen going away to the place of worship but never returning to the town.
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
The poet then addresses the urn as “Attic shape”, “Fair altitude”, and “Cold pastoral”. These expressions convey the beauty and the poise of the urn and refer also to the rural scenes depicted on it. The feelings which the urn awakens in the poet are like the overwhelming feeling which arise when the poet thinks of eternity. The urn, says Keats, will always be a friend to man. The generations of men will come and pass, and will perhaps undergo sufferings and sorrows of which we have no notion at present. But the urn will have a valuable message for those generations, the message, namely, that, Beauty and Truth are not separate things but two sides of one and the same thing. (Or, Beauty and Truth are not two things, not even twin things, but one and the same thing seen from different aspects.) The knowledge of this great fact is of supreme importance and this fact represents the very essence of wisdom. Having this knowledge, mankind needs no other knowledge.
3. CRITICAL APPRECIATION
Inspired by Greek Sculpture
This poem was inspired by a collection of Greek sculpture which Keats saw in the British museum. Partly, perhaps, the inspiration for the poem was derived from a marble urn which belonged to Lord Holland. In giving us the imagery of the carvings on the urn, Keats was not thinking of a single urn but of Greek sculpture in general. Keats had a native sympathy for, and a natural affinity with, the Greek mind. This ode shows the full force of Hellenic influence acting on a temperament essentially romantic.
Concrete and Sensuous Imagery
A striking quality of Keats’s entire poetry is fully revealed in this ode. Keats had a genius for drawing vivid and concrete pictures mostly with a sensuous appeal. The whole of this poem is a series of such pictures— passionate men and gods chasing reluctant maidens, the flute-players playing their ecstatic music, the fair youth trying to kiss his beloved, the happy branches of the trees, the worshippers going to a place of worship in order to offer a sacrifice with a mysterious priest to lead them, a little town which will always remain desolate—these are pictures which Keats vividly brings before our minds. The passion of men and gods, and the reluctance of maidens to be caught or seized is beautifully depicted in the following two lines:
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
Here is the picture of a bold lover trying to get a kiss which will never materialise:
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—
Though winning near the goal—
The ecstasy of the passion of youthful love is depicted in the following lines:
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d
For ever panting and for ever young.
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d
For ever panting and for ever young.
The Superiority of Art Over Life
An important idea in this ode is that, art is superior to real life in certain respects. The trees depicted on the urn will always enjoy spring. The flute-players shown on the urn will never tire of playing tunes which are ever new. The passion of the lovers depicted on the urn will never decline, and the beauty of the beloved will never fade. Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter. The music of the flute-players depicted on the urn has a sweetness which music in real life can never possess.
Sidney Colvin’s Comment
“The second and third stanzas express with perfect poetic felicity and insight the vital differences between life, which pays for its unique prerogative of reality by satiety and decay, and art, which in forfeiting reality gains in exchange permanence of beauty, and the power to charm by imagined experience even richer than the real.” (Sidney Colvin)
Sidney Colvin perceives a dissonance between the idea of the second and the third stanzas and that of the fourth. The fourth stanza, this critic points out, speaks of the arrest of life as though it were an infliction in the sphere of reality, and not merely, like the examples of such arrest given in the preceding stanzas, a necessary condition in the sphere of art, having in that sphere its own compensations. But Sidney Colvin would like the reader to reconcile himself to this dissonance.
Beauty and Truth
The central thought of this ode is the unity of Truth and Beauty. Beauty and Truth, says Keats, are not two separate things. They are one and the same thing seen from two different aspects. What is beautiful must be true, and what is true must be beautiful. There can be no question of Beauty being separated from Truth. Every piece of art which is based on truth or reality must be beautiful; and every beautiful work of art must have a hard core of truth in it. Thus Keats seems to reject the school of gross realism in art on one side, and the school of ornament for ornament’s sake on the other. Keats may have no right to frame a law for the artist, but the idea contained in the final stanza of the poem may justly be regarded as his main contribution to speculative thought.
Mingling of Intellectual and Emotional Elements
This ode represents the maturity and the height of Keats’s poetic power. His poetry is essentially imaginative and emotional, but his greatest poems possess also an intellectual appeal. This ode, for instance, represents an exquisite fusion of the imaginative, emotional, and intellectual elements. The moral of the urn, namely, that Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty, has an intellectual basis. But, apart from this, the poem is charged with emotion and shows rich imagination. The first three stanzas, especially, have a passionate quality about them. Lines already quoted above in a different context amply show that.
This ode is written in a regular stanza of ten lines, consisting of a quatrain and a sestet. Thus it does not follow the pattern of the long unequal stanzas of the Ode To Psyche. Like most of his other poems, this ode shows Keats’s genius for coining original, striking, and appropriate phrases. “Sylvan historian”, “leaf-fringed legend”, “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d”, “Cold pastoral”, and “Fair attitude” are some of the examples: while the statement “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty”, is a neat and compact expression of a profound fact, an expression which is one of the most often quoted from English poetry.
H.W. Garrod on the Theme of This Ode
H.W. Garrod writes: “The theme of what has gone before (in the first four stanzas) is the arrest of beauty, the fixity given by art to forms which in life are fluid and impermanent, and the appeal of art from the senses to the spirit. The theme of the final stanza is the relation of beauty to truth or to thought. Nothing has prepared the transition to this…..The figures of the urn become for Keats, suddenly, a “Cold Pastoral”—cold, the character of everything that is enduring…..The second half of the stanza—of which the first, marring seriously, as I think, the effect of all that has preceded, has called in question the appeal of art…..Down to the end of the fourth stanza there is a very perfect development of the governing idea—the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfection. Perhaps the fourth stanza is more beautiful than any of the others—and more true. The trouble is that it is a little too true. Truth to his own main theme has taken Keats rather farther than he meant to go…..This pure cold art makes, in fact, a less appeal to Keats than the ode as a whole pretends; and when, in the lines that follow these lines, he indulges the jarring apostrophe ‘Cold Pastoral’, he has said more than he meant or wished to mean.”
(Among other critics who have found fault with the last stanza are T.S. Eliot and Allen Tate.)
Another Critic’s View
According to another critic (Robin Mayhead), the Ode on a Grecian Urn seems to disparage sexual love, even though it sees to establish a balance between art and life. The poet seems to imply that if only love could stop constantly at the stage of mere desire all would be well. Although the poem admits the claims of a warm-blooded life, it seems to convey the feeling that sexual love is something of a disaster. (The Ode To Psyche presents an altogether different view.)
The Urn as a Symbol
In the Grecian urn, Keats find a more satisfying symbol of permanence than the song of the nightingale. But the deficiencies that the poem implies in the value of art wee ken its power as a symbol, because one would certainly prefer the warm Impermanence of human life to the cold permanence of the urn.
Charles Patterson on the Ode on a Grecian Urn
According to Charles Patterson, the Ode on a Grecian Urn gives as much importance to passion as to the idea of permanence. This ode should not be regarded as a lyric of escape and should not be taken to represent Keats as a young man unwilling to face life as it is. The duality of the theme of this ode is indicated in the very opening stanza where we find a clue to Keats’s real attitude toward the permanence of the urn and the supremacy of art. In this opening stanza Keats gives us a contrast between something unchanging (the urn) because it is dead and something transient because it is alive. This equipoise is continued in the second stanza, but the poet continues to toy with his dual matter, without asserting or implying that lasting permanence is superior to transient passion. Nor does he indicate any preference in the third stanza, though the emphasis here, as in the second stanza, is upon the warmth and the turbulence of life. We have not been made to feel that Keats has any distinct preference for an unrealised but permanent love over an actually experienced and vital passion. In the fourth stanza we are carried into a world (the little town) that is permanent, but permanently empty, just as the figures on the urn are permanent but permanently lifeless. In the final stanza the poet ends his dual game. Here he emphatically addresses this thing of beauty as just what it is, a Grecian urn. This work of art, he says, has teased us out of thought, that is out of the world of actual into an ideal world in which we can momentarily and imaginatively enjoy the life that is free from the particular imperfections of our lot here. But this ideal world is not free of all imperfection; it has very grave deficiencies, for it is lifeless, motionless, cold, unreal. The brief journey into fairyland is over, and Keats unmistakably means it to be over.
The Duality of the Theme of the Poem
Keeping in mind the duality of his theme in the poem, it is clear that Keats deals with two kinds of experience: (1) human life in actuality, and (2) the appreciation of an imaginary representation of several human activities (love, music, community life, and religious ritual). The two kinds of experience are related. Art alone can never satisfy us completely (because the urn is a cold pastoral); it is only an imitation of reality. But this work of art can tell us something important about the real or actual experience, the love passion that is so fleeting and transient. That is, the essence of physical love is participation in the life-force and the continuing life process; only the individual instance is transient and short-lived. “Beauty is Truth”, then, means that beauty is total reality properly understood; that is, beauty is the true significance of things in our world and in the ideal one.
The Significance of the Identification of Beauty and Truth
The line “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” has troubled almost all critics who have dealt with this ode. T.S. Eliot looks upon this line as a serious flaw in a beautiful poem. Middleton Murry calls this line a troubling assertion which is an intrusion upon the poem, which does not grow out of the poem, and which is not dramatically accommodated to it. Such is essentially Garrod’s objection also.
As Cleanth Brooks observes: “It is possible to emphasise the first part (“Beauty is Truth”) and reach the conclusion that Keats is a pure aesthete, upholding art for art’s sake. But it is also possible to emphasise the second part (“Truth is Beauty”), and argue with the Marxist critics that Keats upholds art as a medium of propaganda.
Cleanth Brooks on the Ode on a Grecian Urn
The First Stanza
This critic makes a rapid survey of the Ode on a Grecian Urn to show that the last lines of the poem (which seem to strike a discordant note in the eyes of some other critics) have dramatically been prepared for. In the first stanza, Keats emphasises the silence of the urn—a “bride of quietness”, and a “foster-child of Silence”. But the urn is a historian too, a rural historian. This historian supplies no names and dates, and it gives the .actions of men or gods, of god-like men or of superhuman gods. The action is intense even though the urn is cold marble. The scene is one of violent love-making, but the urn itself is like an “unravished bride” or like a child of Silence. The paradox is to be noted.
The Second Stanza
The second stanza begins rather with a bold paradox which runs through the stanza: action goes on though the actors are motionless; the song will not cease; the maiden, always to be kissed but never actually kissed will remain changelessly beautiful. The poet is obviously emphasising the ever-fresh charm of the scene which can defy time and is deathless. The beauty portrayed is deathless because it is lifeless.
The Third Stanza
The third stanza repeats some of the earlier ideas. The trees cannot shed their leaves; the untiring melodist and the ever-passionate lover reappear. There is a tendency to linger over the scene sentimentally. Whatever development there is in the stanza depends on the increased stress on the paradoxical element. The musician plays sweeter music because he is unheard, but it is implied that he does not tire of the song for the same reason that the lover does not tire of his love: neither song nor love here can find fulfilment. The songs are “for ever new” because they cannot be completed. The paradox is carried further in the case of the lover whose love is for ever warm because it is still to be enjoyed. The love depicted on the urn remains warm and young because it is not human flesh at all but cold ancient marble.
The Fourth Stanza
The fourth stanza emphasises, not individual aspiration and desire, but communal life. It constitutes another chapter in the history that the “Sylvan historian” has to tell. The lines which the poet speculates on the strange emptiness of the little town are among the most moving in this poem. “If the earlier stanzas have been concerned with such paradoxes as the ability of static carving to convey dynamic action, of the soundless pipes to play music sweeter than that of the heard melodies, of the figured lover to have a more warm and panting love than that of breathing flesh and blood, so in the same way the town implied by the urn comes to have a richer and more important history than that of actual cities.”
The Fifth Stanza
In the fifth stanza we move out of the enchanted world depicted on the urn to consider the urn itself as an object, an “Attic shape” and a “Cold Pastoral”. The urn itself is a “silent form”, and it speaks, not by means of statement, but by teasing us out of thought. It is as enigmatic and bewildering as eternity is. The marble men and maidens of the urn will not grow old as real men and women will, and the “Sylvan historian” will recite its history to other generations. What will it say to them? The urn is beautiful and yet its beauty is based on an imaginative perception of essentials. Such a vision is beautiful but it is also true. The “Sylvan historian” presents us with beautiful histories, but they are true histories, and it is a good historian. Moreover, the truth which the “Sylvan historian” gives is the only kind of truth which we are likely to get on this earth, and it is the only kind that we need to have. The “Sylvan historian” so orders the selected facts that we have not only beauty but insight into essential truth.