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Ode on a Grecian Urn was composed in May of 181. Some scholars believe that in this poem Keats is describing a particular Greek vase that he saw in a British museum, while most agree that no vase has been found that fits Keats description. The scene is supposed to be based on his general recollection of various works of Greek art. In addition to my comments, be sure to look at Pamela Moores analysis of the poem.
In this ode, Keats describes and comments on the scene on the ancient Grecian urn. He is struck by both the beauty of the urn and its implications. In the first stanza, basically, he says, a picture is worth a thousand words. Canst thou express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme (lines -4). He addresses the urn as Thou still unravished bride of quietness. The urn is in tact after so very long, unravished, but it still can not speak to tell the story that it presents. It is married to quietness. He questions the urn. Where is this story taking place? He mentions Tempe, a valley in Thessaly famous for its beauty, and Arcady or Arcadia, a district of the Peloponnesus, a pastoral country. Who are these people? What is happening - mad pursuit, struggle to escape, wild ecstasy? (lines -10)
In the second stanza, he tells the urn to play on, to tell its story. This type of address to an inanimate object is called apostrophe. The first two lines of the stanza discuss the capability of our imagination and expectations. Songs we hear can be sweet, but those we imagine and, even more so, those we anticipate can be sweeter. They dont exist in a physical or sensual sense, so they can be as sweet and wonderful as our imagination can make them. Power that with our expectations, and they can be much better than reality could ever be. Add to this realm of imagination the fact that no time passes on the urn. The beauty of the natural scene and the young lover and his maid can never fade. They are halted in this breathless and beautiful anticipation for all time. They are moments from what they seek, but they will never attain it. The Bold lover is pursuing the young maid to steal a kiss. He wont ever get the kiss, but she will always be young and fair, and his excitement is perpetual.
In the third stanza, Keats tells us that in the world of the urn, life will always be new; the couples love will always be happy; their passion will always be panting. He has a burning forehead, a fever for her and for life, and a parching tongue, a thirst. The word cloyed in line means to become weary with pleasure, to have so much of something wonderful that one tires of it.
In the fourth stanza, Keats begins to question the urn again. He turns from the scene of the two lovers to a more general scene of townspeople, who are leaving the town for the forest and leading a cow, a heifer, trimmed with garlands to sacrifice. This is a celebration or festival, but we can never know precisely of what, possibly the marriage of the young lovers. He has used the metaphor of the bride earlier in the poem. The town will always be empty, and the people will always be in the forest, in nature, always at a celebration.
In the fifth stanza, Keats tells the urn Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity. The scene on the urn draws us out beyond the limits of thought. We can try and try, think and think, but we will never know exactly what is going on; his questions can not be answered. He compares the attempt to decipher the urns message to our attempts to understand eternity, the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, the presence or God - all things we can never know completely. However, when he is dead and gone and when the reader is gone as well, the urn will still exist, and it will still say Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know (lines 4-50). These are two of the most often discussed lines of poetry in the English language. The many interpretations are quite diverse. The poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot wrote an analysis of the poem in which he discusses twenty-five different opinions of the meaning of these two lines.
Beauty and truth are associated several times in Keats letters What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth (Nov. , 1817); ...in close relationship of Beauty and Truth (Dec. 1, 1817); I can never feel certain of a truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty (Dec. 1, 1818).
In the face of all of this scholarly discussion, I submit my interpretation hesitantly. I have always viewed these lines from a very Romantic perspective. Obviously, the urn is beauty (as is the scene), and the urn is art. Truth, on a superficial level, is the answers to Keats questions about the scene on the urn, but truth is also the truth about all the big questions, questions about life and eternity (which he has just mentioned) - Truth with a big T. The pursuit of this Truth does tease us out of thought, usually with no satisfaction. However, the emotions that beauty and art evoke and the heights to which they stimulate our imagination are very real. They do bring satisfaction and pleasure. In my opinion, Keats is saying that beauty, whether the beauty of art or nature, and our emotions and imaginative reaction to them are all we can know on earth and all we need to know. This is truth. The wordless emotion itself is Truth.
Keats believed in something he called negative capability. He said nothing in this world is provable. Therefore, man must be capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. That is negative capability, a sort of acceptance and satisfaction with uncertainty. We can not be sure of the truth of words, but we can be sure of the truth of emotions.
For another discussion of this poem, check out Gerald McDaniels site, and heres a fantastic site on the poem.
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