Friday, April 09, 2010

Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

All that talk of the Greek and Roman gods yesterday in the post about "The Garden" by Andrew Marvell called to mind one of the most famous of famous Keats poems, which I've not yet posted here. It seemed high time to remedy that situation, and so it is that today's selection is one of the five famous Odes written by Keats in 1819: "Ode on a Grecian Urn". The title doesn't mean that he physically wrote the poem on an urn, but that he was inspired by the frieze around the outside of a Grecian urn.

The poem closes with a maxim based on the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose works on the nature of art were well-known and respected by Keats and many of his readers: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Ode on a Grecian Urn
by John Keats

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 haunt 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?

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!

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.

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.

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."

*Tempe or the dales of Arcady: Tempe and Arcadia are beautiful locations in Greece, representing here a form of idealized rural or pastoral beauty

**Attic: of, relating to, or having the characteristics of Athens or its ancient civilization; marked by simplicity, purity or refinement (per Merriam Webster's dictionary)

***brede: An archaic word even in Keats's time referring to embroidery

Form: The poem is written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and each stanza is rhymed ABABCDEDCE (sort of like a truncated Italianate sonnet - a quartet followed by a sestet, rather than an octet followed by a sestet).

Discussion: This poem is ekphrastic (based upon a work of art), in that Keats is describing the scenes depicted on the urn itself. It is also a poem of address - at least at the beginning of the poem (more on that in a moment) - in that the speaker addresses the urn itself and/or the figures depicted on it. He celebrates the urn's survival over time, discussing the scenes that appear on it. In the final stanza, he concludes that this ancient urn will continue to exist just as it is while man ages around it, and that its continued existence is a form of statement.

The most-quoted (and most-discussed/analyzed) portion of this poem is its final two lines, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." There is an ambiguity as to the identity of the "ye" in these lines: is it Keats or the urn speaking?

I have to say that based on the 1820 version of the poem (which is what you find above), I find it plain that those final two lines are attributed to the urn itself. The urn is speaking to the people who look at it. The additional quotes around "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" indicate that the urn is quoting Reynolds's philosophy as part of its statement to the world.

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