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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Number 124: John Keats "Ode On a Grecian Urn"

Ode On a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished 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-fringed 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?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

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,

Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

Forever piping songs forever new; 

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,

Forever panting, and forever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

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."

--John Keats

Hap Notes: It's hard to believe that Keats wrote six of the greatest English Romantic odes in a period of 3-6 weeks, isn't it? They were all written around this time of year in 1819. Keats wrote poetry for a total of about 6 years, he died when he was 25 – it's almost too extraordinary to contemplate. How did this young man, whose work, in his time, was highly criticized as "uncouth" and "raw" ever write these wonderful poems? This is one of those six odes.

When I read this poem as a kid, I thought the ode was written ON the urn- like a label. This silly thought has a bit of merit – the urn IS telling us something about life on earth, its transitive quality. But it isn't actually written on the urn- I suppose you knew this already. (Come on, I was 12 years old – I was guessing.)

Whether Keats is talking about a specific urn (I don't know that he was) or not, the poem is describing an antique urn, the pictures on it, and then telling us something about the nature of love, life, truth and beauty. Not bad for 50 lines or so, eh?

First some vocabulary: Tempe and Arcady are places, Tempe is in Thessaly (Greece) and Arcady is a region in Greece. These places are used to indicate the pastoral ideal.
The "little town" he's talking about is not pictured on the urn but is "emptied" of its residents as the figures on the urn are running around in fields and making sacrifices.
Brede means braiding or embroidery.
Loth is reluctant.
Attic shape means Attica in Greece- he's just saying it's a Grecian urn. (I won't tell you what I thought this meant when I was a kid but you can guess, I'm sure. And it makes sense, too – maybe they kept the urn in the attic... just sayin'.)

Okay, now to the poem. Keats calls the urn an "unravished bride" because it is intact. It has existed down through the ages in its solitude. It is a "foster child" of silence and time because time has left it in its pristine condition and it is well, silent. So, like any child, it exhibits qualities of its parents, it has "adopted" them.

The poet says the music being played on the urn, because we are just seeing pictures of people playing music, is all the sweeter because the music is for the spirit, the artist created the music players for us to see that music exists, is being played, is part of the scene. The piper will always play happy songs. The young man can never touch his fair maiden, but they will always be, on the urn, in love, always beautiful, always in the blush of romance.

Okay, you're getting the drift now, I suppose. The urn is a frozen bit of blissful time that reminds us of the beauties and joys of life that drift down through the ages. We know and understand what is going on in the pictures and future generations will contemplate the same things as they stare at the urn. This beauty, this frozen time, this understanding of the joys of everyday life (oops I'm sliding into MY interpretation now) is the only truth we can all understand. It means something to us as we see happy pipers, lovers, worshipers, going about their lives on this silent piece of pottery (or marble- I'm never sure on that).) This beauty fills us, we know its truth. And this, Keats says, is all we know and all we need to know. This filling up of life – the urn reminds us of the precious gift of life (uh, that's my interpretation again.)

I have to admit that I used to hate the last two stanzas of the poem because I thought (in my youth) they sounded rather facile and shallow. But Keats isn't really talking about only physical beauty here, he's talking about the beauty of life itself, in all its happiness. (I suppose I should mention to NOT use my interpretation of this poem for a term paper. Keats is certainly saying that youth and beauty are fleeting and love eventually leads to sorrow and the body ages. But he was 25 years old and I think the beauty and truth he feels are those one feels as a youth. As one ages, one sees the great beauty in aged beat-up urns, as well. And the spirit of Keats in the poem makes me think he'd have known this as he aged. And of course, he's saying that art will live on as generations fade.)

Keats has always seemed to me to be like a sort of angel that left poetry for us and then disappeared – which is a sort of sappy way to look at it when you consider his last days which were filled with smelly suffering.

Think on this – the poor guy is sick with tuberculosis (which they haven't figured out yet), he's bled (a common medical practice. Even George Washington was pretty much bled to death to "cure" him) and his friends think a trip to the warm sunny climes of Italy will help cure him. So this pallid, sickly poet and his physician and his friend Joseph Severn get on a ship. It's a rough crossing with big storms and then days of no wind or ship movement. Imagine you are that weak and ill and stuck on a sailing ship in the middle of the ocean. Sheesh! When they finally get to Italy, no one is allowed to leave the ship because there was an outbreak of cholera in England and the Italian authorities didn't want it to spread. By they time they get off the ship they had been on it for a month.

By the time they get off the ship it's November and it's not all that warm in Italy really. Keats had asked for some tincture of opium (he was in pain) and Severn had some for him but Keats may have seen the drug as a way to commit suicide (at least it seemed that way) so Severn finally ended up giving it to the doctor to hold. Keats was never given the drug again (this is sad as his pain increases.) Instead the physician prescribed a "diet" because he though Keats' trouble was stomach related. So now we have this thin, weak, pale guy on a diet of one anchovy and one piece of bread a day!! (I'm not particularly blaming the doctor here – the medical profession is littered with as much idiocy as it is heroism.) Three months later (!!!!) Keats died. Severn held him through the "death rattling" breathing and he passed on. Keats knew he was going and was somewhat relieved. He is said to have said, "I shall die easy; don't be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come."

Now, go have a hearty breakfast or lunch or supper. Take a good long walk. Enjoy the trees and the weather, whatever it may be. Thank your stars no doctor will bleed you to death if you get sick and on top of all that Keats left you some lovely verses to read. Don't wallow in sorrow, now – be glad that Keats left some of his best thoughts with us to enjoy. Death will come to us all. And his beautiful words hold some truth. Our beauties are transitory – rejoice in living in them. That's the gift we get from Keats' life – and that, is a lot really. It's universes full of sad joys.

The pictures are Severn's sketch of Keats while he was tending him in Italy and Keats' sketch of an urn he'd seen. Isn't it marvelous that people drew things then?

Here's where we've talked about Keats before:

P.S. Over the years I have loved this poem, written parodies of it ("Ode to Grecian Formula", "Ode to Greasy Earnings" (about a waitress), despised it and, after all these years, have come back to cherishing its youth and warmth. The poem can take a lot of abuse and still stand as a truth – just like the urn in the poem. Now, off for a good walk and a hearty lunch and a more than a bit of thanks to Keats!

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