Term Paper: Keats: Ode on a Grecian John

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Keats: Ode on a Grecian

John Keats was the last to be born and the first to die of the great Romantics. He is considered by many critics as one of the most important of the Romantic poets.

His work encapsulates many of the central aims and intentions of Romanticism.

As a Romantic poet he found the meaning to life and the human condition in artistic creation and not in the world of common sense and rationality. Art, for Keats and the Romantics, was never seen as a "sideshow" or an adjunct to life and meaning. "Keats felt that the deepest meaning of life lay in the apprehension of material beauty, although his mature poems reveal his fascination with a world of death and decay." (John Keats) the central aspect that will be explored in this analysis of Keats and his poetry is the importance of artistic imagination in the transcendence of the opposites of existence.

One of the central aspects which inform the work of the Romantics, and particularly the work of Keats, is the belief in the supreme power of the imagination. Keats emphasizes this aspect in a letter written in 1819 in which he describes the difference between his approach to poetry and that of Byron, another great Romantic poet. "There is a great difference between us. He describes what he sees - I describe what I imagine."

Ridley 283)

The belief in the truth of the imagination is central not only to Ode on a Grecian Urn, but to all of his work.

This aspect is described in another letter which he wrote to Ben Bailey in 1817.

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not -- for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.

Keats lived for twenty-five years and four months (1795-1821). Despite this short period, his poetic achievements were enormous. His actual writing career lasted for only five years in which the three famous Odes "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "Ode on Melancholy" were written. (John Keats: An Overview)

An important thematic concern that adds to our understanding of Keats is that prominence of the conflict between opposites and paradox in his poetry. Many do the poems, as well as Ode on a Grecian urn, are created out of a sense of inner conflict that results from a perception of the problems of the human condition.

Keats's important poems are related to, or grow directly out of...inner conflicts." For example, pain and pleasure are intertwined in "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; love is intertwined with pain, and pleasure is intertwined with death in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil."

One of the central conflicts that appear in Keats's works is the tension between the ideal and the real. Aligned with this is the desire for transcendence of the common life of change and death and a belief in permanence through art. At the root of all of his poetry is the Romantic perception of an ideal and permanent world of imagination, which is contrasted with the common human world of reason and decay

Another aspect evident in the Odes, is the tragic acceptance of the human situation, as well as the belief in 'negative capability'. This refers to the acceptance, though art, of human life which is not ideal. There is a continual tension in the poetry between the desire for perfection and the realization of the mutability of ordinary life. This "tragic acceptance" of the antinomies of life is expressed by the famous critics Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling.

Beyond the uncompromising sense that we are completely physical in a physical world, and the allied realization that we are compelled to imagine more than we can know or understand, there is a third quality in Keats more clearly present than in any other poet since Shakespeare. This is the gift of tragic acceptance, which persuades us that Keats was the least solipsistic of poets, the one most able to grasp the individuality and reality of selves totally distinct from his own, and of an outward world that would survive his perception of it.

A large part of the significance of the poetry lies in an understanding of the way art relates to the tragedy of the human situation. Keats transcends or escapes change and decay though the realization of the power of art.

In 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' Keats tries to free himself from the world of change by... identifying with the urn, representing art." (ibid) the resolution to this conflict lies in creation of imaginative art, as is evidenced in Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Two aspects are essential in understanding Ode on a Grecian urn.

The first is that the Urn represents and emphasizes a sense of both permanency and change at the same time. The figures on the Urn are in a state of joyous life and activity. The sensuous nature of their activities emphasizes this central aspect of vibrant life. At the same time they are figures trapped in a work of art. Therefore, by contrast, they also symbolize the mutability and the changing nature of ordinary human life and the inevitable march towards certain death. The second aspect that should be emphasized is that the Urn is an artistic creation. The Poem seems to suggest that the only way in which the problem of mutability and human death can be 'solved' or dealt with is through art and the creation of beauty.

The opening lines of the poem clearly emphasize the fact that the Urn and the figures on it are "out of time" and not subject to the decay and decline of ordinary life.

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Lines 1-2)

The metaphor of the " unravish'd bride" refers to the innocence and the escape of the timeless figures from the ordinary process of human life and death. The "quietness" of the figures also emphasizes their mystery and timelessness. The rest of the stanza frames a number of questions:

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

A lines 8-10)

These questions add to the sense of wonder and mystery that is central to the Romantic imagination. The questions suggest that we can never truly know what the figures represent; and this sense of mystery adds to the imaginative depth and life of the Urn as a living work of art. The figures are also described in terms of sensuous activity. These activities represent intense life but paradoxically this sense of life is frozen and trapped forever on the Urn. Keats is a sensuous poet and he uses evocative imagery to create an intense contrast between the life depicted on the vase and the actual fact that it is a "Cold" and inanimate object.

This is the case in the first stanza where the images of "ecstasy" and enjoyment are sensuously described.

In the first lines of the second stanza we encounter as important concept which is germane to the understanding of the poem as a whole.

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:

lines 11-14)

These lines emphasize the concept that the imagination is often more real and significant than common reality.

The sounds are made more mysterious and imaginatively enticing by the fact that we cannot actually hear the songs or voices. This is a form of "negative capability" which means that imaginative is more effective than plain actuality, even when it is 'negatively' heard. This also refers to the Romantic desire to escape the world of common sense and to become aware of deeper and more significant dimensions of experience.

In stanza four the poem explores the Urn as it relates to ordinary human existence.

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!

A line 41-45)

The Urn become a symbol of eternity and an ideal reality which " teases us" and creates an inner tension as we compare the ideal world of the Urn to the pain and suffering of ordinary life. The Urn then becomes a "Cold Pastoral"; an object that awakens us sharply to the tragedy of our own mortality.

The third stanza emphasizes the happiness and joy in the never-ending activity of the figures on the Urn. The… [END OF PREVIEW]

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