Ode on a Grecian Urn

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 haunts 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?
–//–
ode on a grecian urn 1
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The last in a series on Romantic poetry, Ode on a Grecian Urn is another of Keats’ greats which  embodies much of Romantic ideology. It culimates with Keats’ own thematic focus “Beauty is truth, truth is Beauty.

In this poem, Keats addresses a Grecian vase, a “bride of quietness” and “child of silence” since the narrative upon its stone surface is wordless. Time has had little effect on the clarity of its images, freezing them as though in an eternal depiction of beauty. A “sylvan historian” it tells a tale of Greek detities and mortals, a scene Keats can barely understand but marvels at.

 

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!
–//–
 ode on grecian urn 3
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Keats dwells on the eternity of this natural scene in which youth will never age, the trees will never wither, but also the lover can never attain his love, forever pursuing. The scene embodies for the romantic poet the goodness of life before beauty fades and grief takes hold.

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.
–//–
ode on a grecian urn 2
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Happiness is as though frozen in time – forever desire is held in place, for ever panting and forever young.

Keats concludes the poem, admiring the stone pot for its eternal form.  The poet himself died of tuberculosis at the young age of 25 years,  and he had already seen many loved ones die. To him, this art form lived through the transience and sorrow of life, as a friend to man, and as an emobodiment of truth and beauty and so everything good and important to the world.

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.”
–//–

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pain
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
 –//–
 ode 5
 –//–
So starts John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Published in 1819 it is another of the great works of the Romantic era. It is full of Romantic adoration of nature, along with nostalgia, melancholy about the transience of life, mortality and loss.
 ode 6
Above all these, Keats elevated the artist’s vision of Beauty coining what is known as “negative capability” – the ability of one to exist without truly knowing.
 –//–
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
–//–

 

ode 3

The songbird is a happy nightingale, a voice that compels the narrator to join with in and forget the sorrows of the world. However,  Keats had recently suffered the loss of his brother. The song’s conclusion represents the result of trying to escape into the realm of fantasy.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
–//–

 

ode 4
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
–//–

The nightingale described within the poem experiences a type of death but does not actually die. Instead, the songbird is capable of living through its song, which is a fate that humans cannot expect.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

 –//–

ode 1

 

Keats imagines the loss of the physical world and sees himself dead—as a “sod” over which the nightingale sings. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man, sitting in his garden, is made all the more acute by his imagination.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
–//–

ode 7

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
–//–
ode 8

The poem ends with an acceptance that pleasure cannot last and that death is an inevitable part of life. To Keats there is something eternal in the contemplation of Beauty alone.

The poem celebrates what Keats described in a letter to his brothers as “negative capability.

….that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason ……… with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.