John Keats: Some Discussion Points for Ode on a Grecian Urn

April 5, 2009 at 4:09 pm Leave a comment

We do not know at which Grecian urn Keats was looking. Nonetheless, the Grecian urns are some of the most beautiful works of art / craft in the world.

We do not know at which Grecian urn Keats was looking. Nonetheless, the Grecian urns are some of the most beautiful works of art / craft in the world.

John Keats: the Consummate Romantic.

John Keats was, in many ways, the epitome of the romantic poet. He was of a generation of poets known as “high romantics,” which included Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. They were writing most of their poems in the early 1800s, and are considered high-romantics because they follow the initial romantic breakthrough of Wordsworth, Coleridge and the German and French romantic philosophers.

For the most part, romantic poetry had become more accepted when Keats was writing, although there still remains a feeling amongst high-brow intellectuals that romanticism is a sort of dirty, low-brow literature. It is interesting to see moments when Jane Austen clearly satirizes romantic poetry in her novels. Often when one of her characters enjoys romantic poets, they are the individuals Austen holds up in scorn. Austen’s novel Northinger Abbey is a very funny satire of the Gothic tradition growing in popularity in the early 1800s.

John Keats is a tragic figure. He contracted a particular form of tuberculosis when he was a child. As he grew up, he knew that he would die young. By the time he was twenty four years old, he knew he had only months to live. Despite a very short adult life, Keats wrote prolifically, and much of his poetry constitutes the best and most loved poetry in England. In particular, his “odes,” which he wrote in the last months of his life, are some of the most powerful romantic poetry. They are all the more powerful when you consider that he was aware that at any moment he was going to die. Look at the combination of agony and ecstasy, beauty and terror in “Ode: to a Nightengale.”

The Agony and Ecstasy of Romanticism.

Keats absorbed by a book. Romanticism gives birth to scenes such as this, people absorbed in reading or writing. It is known as the scene of reading (or) writing. Such images were not very prevalent before the late 1700s because 1) you do not have too many people reading books, since there were not many around, or writing 2) Such an image of solitary engagement in an imaginative realm would only convey suspicion. Artistic solitude as a value is a romantic invention, one that we still value today.

Keats absorbed in a book. Romanticism gives birth to scenes such as this, people absorbed in reading or writing. It is known as "the scene of reading (or) writing." Such images were not very prevalent before the late 1700s because 1) you do not have too many people reading books, since there were not many around, or writing 2) Such an image of solitary engagement in an imaginative realm would only convey suspicion. Artistic solitude as a value is a romantic invention, one that we still value today.

The combination of happiness and despair, ecastasy and agony, best characterizes his odes. Although the combination of these moods mirrors the emotional tensions in his life at the time, he also uses his inner strife to explore the nature of joy and despair inherent in romanticism itself. Many of his poems, particularly his odes, indicate a tension in romantic poetry and philosophy. Many dichotomies highlight these tensions: the desire to emotionally express oneself and the consequences of doing so; the desire to form a union with nature and the reality of the human’s division from nature; the desire for permanence in a world that refuses to keep still; a desire for “immortality” and the reality and fear of “mortality.”

As you can see, I predicated these dichotomies with the word, “desire.” The notion of desire–what desire means, how desire inspires and drives literature–becomes a heated issue in romanticism and continues until today. Keats reveals the joys of deisre, and the disappointment and sense of incompletion that follows.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

One of the most famous romantic poems, particularly because of its puzzling final lines. (Think of all the philosophy of aesthetics courses that have dwelt upon these lines.)

First, you need to establish a sense of “place,” “perspective” and “object” in this poem. What is Keats looking at? How close is he to the object? How does the object move him, and why does he choose this particular object over anything else he might study?

What scene does the urn depict? What pictures does Keats see and record in his poem?  Why do these particular images move him to write a poem?  How do you think that these pictures / images speak to Keats? How do they convey “theme” (that word I despise)?

The scene on the urn that Keats depicts in his poem is full of movement, a flurry of activity that races around the urn–around and around, you might say. How is such a scene, however, paradoxical in the context of its depiction?  What is, in short, ironic about the constant activity that Keats observes on an urn.

Paradox is the central trope of “Ode on a Grecian.” Can you try to come up with the varioius paradoxes that structure this poem?  It is helpful to think of the many bipolar-oppositions in the poem: life / death; movement / stasis; youth / age; visual / verbal; inner / outer, etc.

What effect does the poem have that Keats is not writing about “nature” in its natural context — he is not looking at the world around him and holding a mirror up to represent it — but he is looking at “nature” as it is depicted on a work of art. In other words, Keats is creating a work of art — the poem — by looking at another work of art — the urn. If Plato were alive at the time, he would have claimed that Keats looks at an inferior object because it is one step removed from reality, and creates an even more inferior object, because his poem–an imitation of an inferior reality–is therefore two steps removed from reality. The genre in which an artist creates a work of art (or a poet writes a poem about a work of art) is known as ekphrasis. In what ways do you think that Keats plays with reality by using ekphrasis? Consider the poem as resembling (although not the same as) how Shakespeare would create a play-within-a-play.

Near the end of the poem, Keats calls the urn a “Cold Pastoral!”  Why? Is this not a rather sudden and unexpected judgment?  Why cold? How can a “pastoral” be “cold” in the first place?

OK, the mysterious final two lines.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ 50

What do they mean?  Why does Keats end the poem with what sounds like an adage, or a little golden-nugget of philosophical wisdom? What does he mean by beauty, and what does he mean by truth?  And why are they equivalent? Why does he claims that this “adage” is “all” we “need to know?”

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Entry filed under: British Literature.

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