Ode on a Grecian Urn EssayExplication of Ode on a Grecian Urn
Ode on a Grecian Urn is considered to be the third of the five odes written by John Keats, an author who died a young man, he was aware of the fact that he was dying of tuberculosis. That is why the ideas of mortality and immortality are skillfully and deeply explicated into this ode. It was written only two years before his death when his thoughts were preoccupied with meditation on life and death sense, their inevitability and symbolism. For many readers it is not very easy to comprehend the sense of the poem, as they come upon the action that is already taking place without any preamble. In his poem John Keats “discusses immortality and things frozen in a state of perfection, such as the urn” (Hirschman).
From the very beginning when one reads the poem for the first time it seems that its tone is light and the poet who wrote it is rather happy and even joyous, but this impression is surely delusive. As though the poem is multiplayer and one has to find out the underlying meanings of words and phrases, discover the real mood of its author. So called first layer is superficial, it lies on the surface, it created positive atmosphere while reading as Keats tells of happy love, happy boughs, sweet melodies, lovers, etc. Actually, the poet uses the word happy five times in the third stanza, this may mislead an inconsiderate reader. But if to examine the ode more closely, it has biographic motives of its creator and the poem is generally morbid. The ode is a bright example of how philosophy and literature are interdependent, how one sphere can explain, clarify the other. Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is famous for many of its lines and the poet is often quoted, but the last stanza of the poem that is deluded, puzzles the majority of readers for nearly two centuries already. It is one of the most explicated and controversial poetic lines in literature. Jenna Hirschman in her Explication of Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn states that the following lines are proclaimed as the deepest lines of the whole work: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats 49-50).
But Keats’ story-teller and the urn itself give us information about events from their own standpoint. The definite meaning of those lines is dubious and scholars cannot agree to whom the last thirteen lines are addressed. There are various combination variants: urn to reader, poet to urn, poet to reader, and even poet to what is painted on the urn. Jenna Hirschman suggests the reader to imagine that the narrator examines the urn panel by panel or picture by picture and each of them tells its own story (Hirschman). The first one is panoramic, it gives general data, the first lines make us feel that some work of art is forgotten and here Keats asks a number of various questions, united by common theme of sorrow described in the legend which is unfortunately lost in the course of time. Keats states: “Though foster-child of Silence and slow Time” involve the characters’ connection with time, their mortal nature is emphasized. The story is somehow lost in time and main characters are already dead. Words, used by Keats, such as quietness, silence, slow time reveal the idea of death. All the people who participated in the process of creation of the urn, those who told the legend are dead, and nothing can be changed. The narrator has a constrained feeling to create a new story as the legend is dead and brings the main characters of it back to life with the help of the lines of his poem. The narrator looks at the urn, while explaining what he sees there he sets it all in his own mood and subjective comprehension of the scenes portrayed. The urn for him is a symbol of death, as Keats realizes immortality does not exist: “Forever warm and still to be enjoyed, Forever panting, and forever young” (Keats 26-27).
It can be noticed that the author attacks both the poet and the artist saying that their creations are “spirit ditties” (Keats 14). He glorifies and then contradicts himself, it is a kind of a paradox. In the second stanza he depicts lovers, “the scene described is one of loss and unhappiness. The scene is frozen in time: the season is stagnant and the lovers can never be reunited” (Hirschman). Lovers cannot be together with their unfulfilled desire. And the beauty of art is somehow doubtful in the context of describing this unfulfilled desire and unhappiness of two people who love each other. As the legend is lost in time one can only guess what the action in it was and if the lovers can be united in a better world. But John Keats asks the reader not to grieve, because it is possible that lovers feel much better than those living on the earth. It reminds us again of a paradoxical dilemma of those mortal people whose lives are inevitably limited to definite period time. May be it is better for lovers not to kiss and not to date because love can have distressing aftertaste and echoes in their afterlives. The third stanza still concentrates on lovers and Keats exclaims: “More happy love!” (Keats 25) several times and later on tells of beauty and truth. But still he emphasizes how he understands true love in the following line: “Leaves a heart high-sorrowed and cloyed” (Keats 29). The opinion of fulfilled love is given for the reader to speculate upon it and maybe to compare it with the affection the described lovers had. Keats implements the poet into the work, but he is hardly visible in the lines about love. He renders the idea that the poet, the author may be quickly forgotten though his works are immortal and can withstand the calamities of time.
Masterpieces outlast the creator and it is proved by us at every step, when we remember the song or the novel and know quite few about the creator. It is one of the main problems touched upon in Ode on a Grecian Urn (Hirschman). Maybe the fears of John Keats are expressed in this thought as he does not want to be forgotten, he says “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Keats 49). The general view that beauty is truth and vice versa and, what is more, the urn’s message equalizing beauty and truth is rather ambiguous, even if we perceive this urn as an object of eternal consolation. John Keats also points out the profound silence, it is the only thing which removes us from “breathing human passion”, “burning”, etc. which were shown by him before. The reader as well as the narrator are time-bound, but the urn seems to have withstood the eternity. It can be clearly seen that though Keats says that beauty is truth he understands that it is not a gospel truth at all, it really calms him down, seems to have some reason and a logical explanation (Hirschman). To a certain extent Keats’ urn may not be referred to just as an object rendering the legend, but some elaborate code, it can be interpreted as a key to a code, an allegory.
John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is rather controversial and is considered to be among the most frequently and zealously discussed works in literature. Being multiplayer it continues to awake interest and surprise readers with its hidden deep philosophical sense.