AD's English Literature : Analysis of John Keats’ Ode to the Grecian Urn: Contrasting the Real and the Ideal

Analysis of John Keats’ Ode to the Grecian Urn: Contrasting the Real and the Ideal



"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
John Keats (1795 - 1821)



  • Treatment of Beauty   
  • A Controversial Poem  
  • As a poem Blemished by the Final Didacticism  
Keats, unlike Wordsworth certain man's spiritual uplift in Nature or Shelley's faith in Promethean salvation, was a poet who primarily explored the human predicament the yawning chasm between the real and the ideal , the temporal and the timeless misery and serenity , the decay and eternity . If the poem like Ode to Autumn ,and Ode on Indolence are concerned with the sensuous enjoyment of earthly luxuries , and if Ode on Melancholy deals with beauty ' that must die ' Ode to a Nightingale and Ode to the Grecian Urn are attempts at a resolution of the human dilemma while in ode to a Nightingale the 'forlorn' poet realize the 'deceiving' nature of the Nightingales imaginative world , in the Ode to the Grecian Urn the poet reaches beyond the inherent pessimism to an affirmation of the eternity of artistic creation . Beauty was of the greatest concern to Keats. For he had repeated by emphasizing that he has ' loved the principle of beauty in all things ' and that ' whatever the imagination seizes beauty must be the truth’. It is indeed this concept of beauty in the final and apparently didactic statements ' beauty is truth, truth beauty which it is noteworthy that it is this didactic statement which has led to its being one of the most debated and controversial poems. If for Robert Bridges, these lines redeem an otherwise not very distinguished work for Quilter couch ' they are an uneducated conclusion ' T. S. Eliot would even call it ' a serious blemish on via controversial beautiful poem. But in spite of Eliot's disparagement, a sensitive reading of the poem brings out the fact that the poem has been meticulously organized to reach the conclusion which is also a consummation. 


Keats addresses the urn as the ' unravished bride of quietness ‘, which in its vibrant repose and pristine, animation projects a ' leaf fringed legend ' of pastoral life more accurately than a poet. The urn recaptures the sculptured life. By way of questions, which make up the separated units of felt life carves on the urn, Keats proceeds to explore the world of the urn. The impact of such beauty is perplexity, indeed, this more forward relentlessly to the deeper truth of existence. All the seven questions of the first stanza constitute the episodes of field life carved on the urn they are: the flute Players, the youth singing under the trees.


In the second stanza, the silence music of the marble pipes , the love that never attains the sad society of fulfillment , the trees that never shed their leaves ---- all this imagined life is felt to be more enviable than the human life of audible truth of reversal in life , for the fulfillment of love never brings real happiness . And moreover, beauty in life fade just as love fields to time; but in the world of art, love is the permanent possession of the marble figures. The repetitious in the last stanza underlines the imperfections of the immobile figures within implied contrast of the real world.


In the third stanza, the repetitions of happy and 'forever' stress the observer's feelings of ambivalence with an undertone of longing. The love - episode wrought on the urn is repletion to human passions because of its unchanging intensity and undiminished happiness; but here is an undertone of depreciation, for human passion is living, though the feverishness and exhaustion of sexual passion may be cloying. 


Image: Ode to the Grecian Urn
In the fourth stanza, Keats directs our gaze toward other detail of the sculptured life through images of a priest leading a heifer to the altar along with a crowd of devotees. Here Keats not only animates the marble , but also goes beyond it to create a whole landscape of river , seashore and city in which the frozen figures can live and move . The constant shift between the ideal and the real world is more is more pronounced in this stanza ; words like  'emptied' 'desolate' and ' can e'er return ' evoke 'forlorn' in  Ode to a Nightingale which told him back to reality , and also to the imperfections of the ideal world , its thinness and back of vitality . The 'mysterious  priest' with a claim to the unquestioning banality and conviction of the worshipers in an ancient town with a ' peaceful citadel ' in the midst however , seems to be in sharp contrast to the reality of faithlessness and lack of integrity of the present world .So the ascent into the ideal world leads him inevitably to a descent into the reality ; the extreme paradoxical of the urn as ' cold pastoral ' is the ultimate realization in the light of which the attic shape is only a ' Fair attitude ' immutably arrested in frozen marble , with the young lover , the maiden and the musicians embroidered on it . They shall remain in the dusts of others woe than ours. This permanence is the gift of beauty, which is a value to be cherished in the midst of evanescence. 


The message ' Beauty is Truth - truth beauty ' has relevance for poets and artists who can bear the load of human mystery. In the poet's vision the dead sculpture stirs into life, and in a flash of enlightenment, the strange hieroglyphics reveal is coherence of meaning. The dead urn speaks and its quivering lips utter a message that the poet alone, like the mysterious priest, can decipher. As the ancient  ritualistic worship has lost its relevance for modern man in this complex state of civilized life , he can have the pristine vision only through an inward process (through knowledge ) of disengagement from the world of fluke in which he is involved through instinctive , biological needs (generation ) . In such a state of disinterested perception the vision of the quintessential flow of life is possible. The view of the ultimate creative principle is beautiful and this deathless reality alone is true.  


Image Courtesy:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_on_a_Grecian_Urn

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