April is National Poetry Month 2009, and to celebrate, I’ve included myself among those submitting classic poem reviews to Associated Content. The following analysis is for “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is significant for many reasons. That it was published shortly before he succumbed to illness serves as proof of the young poet’s mental/creative capacities, comparable or even superior to those of Chaucer and Shakespeare before him; it inspired in its wake a slew of parodies and homages, many of the latter composed by the reputed poet Wallace Stevens; and its subject matter serves as a final, haunting example of the “deliberate happiness” that evaded him for much of his life.
But the aspect of the poem that affects me most is the ambiguity permeating its stanzas. While Keats surely appears to assume a tone of optimism in relation to the painting on the Greek vase, his praise begs the question of what life must be like for those admiring it. Keats achieves this effect of simultaneous delight and sorrow through detail and metaphorical language.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is so named because it is not only an ode to the beauty of an urn, but also describes how the urn itself acts as an ode insofar as it immortalizes life’s most tumultuous moments. Keats affirms this when he describes the grandeur of “thou… Sylvan historian who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” The “leaf-fring’d legend haunting about thy shape” includes a piper and his lover situated in “happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu,” a chase scene, and a community sacrifice. Keats frequently remarks on the true meaning of these events; yet his intense, repetitive probing does not help to immediately clarify my understanding, especially when he undertakes a description of the chase:
“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
When I finally make sense of this passage, I learn more about the nature of the poem than if it had been unequivocally spelled out for me. Keats includes these details in order to demonstrate that truth can be difficult to uncover; it is as much a paradox as that of a jar being able to better express agricultural bliss than he himself could, or that which holds how “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” Other paradoxes include how the human figures carved into the urn are at once free of and bound to time, or how mortals and deities interact and work towards the same purpose. These conundrums lend credence to the juxtaposition of joy and grief that Keats has been steadily hinting at over the course of the poem.
Keats’ meditation on the urn also yields metaphors that help to alert the reader as to how deeply he wishes to deal with co-existing opposites. In addition to showing us how sculpture alienates its viewers through comparison to a human bride who is yet chaste and quiet, “the foster-child of silence and slow time,” Keats presents its subjects as elevated and even divine. The marriage of myth and manner, he claims, is best made manifest within the context of the urn – where “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!”
Unlike humans, who are possessed of eternally unsatisfied passions to the degree that they suffer from “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue,” those painted on the urn are timeless and have no needs; and therefore, he is free to liken even the sacrificial cow of the fourth stanza to a deity: “Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, / And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?”
If we could look upon this urn that Keats attempts to identify with at length, there is no doubt that we too might feel appreciation, longing, and discomfort. Keats himself seems to recognize the need for a well-rounded poem, for in the final stanza he concludes hopefully that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” My personal interpretation is that the dual nature of the poem thus far dictates that truth and beauty are interchangeable – namely in that “truth” invariably alludes to something more than mere facts, while anything that is beautiful encapsulates and expresses truth.
This is a very important point that helps to justify the poet’s initially fruitless efforts to engage with the vase; for while he will never understand the whos, whats, and wherefores of the depicted events, he remains content in the knowledge that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” or that deeper truth is the only thing that makes sense of its constituents and is really worth gleaning. Keats lays the foundation for such understanding on the reader’s part when he infuses “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with special attention to detail and metaphorical language.