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Introduction: Main Themes of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
The value of art is in its immortality. Poets and artists strive to maintain the beauty of the moment for people to enjoy it forever. In many cases, immortality closely correlates with ‘life,’ symbolizing eternity and contrasting to lifelessness. Similarly, artistic objects are compared to living ones that never age but exist beyond time and space. How is the contrast between life and art developed in Ode on a Grecian urn? In this essay, attempt to answer this question.
Immortality as a Theme in Ode of a Grecian Urn
In the third stanza of John Keats’s poem “Ode on Grecian Urn,” the poet addresses a tree that will never shed leaves. The description creates a paradox of lifelessness, and life is also expressed beyond the fair lady and the love and acquires a more temporal form. The symbols of eternity encapsulated in the poem repetitions of the word “forever” are also present in describing the unheard song and pipes playing endlessly.
In addition, John Keats’s odes present his own existential vision through a living death of immortal lovers who surpass this paradox through the scene of sacrifice. In whole, Keats’s poem is a deep philosophical reflection on the complex conflict between life and art, symbolizing eternity, living death, and the existence of art beyond the real world, which transfers the readers to another conceptual dimension.
The Contrast between Life and Art in Ode on a Grecian Urn
In the poem, Keats adheres to a philosophical representation of the connection between art and life through the concept of eternity. What is the meaning of grecian urn? Why is it the central object in the poem? Time does not affect the urn because it is composed of stone, that never ages and that can resist any changes: “…happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (Keats 1, line 21-22). Keats envisions the theme of immortality in Ode on a Grecian Urn to capture the conflict between art and life because “once [the poet] has imaginatively grasped the eternal beauty of the model and the material through which the sculptor of the urn worked, the problem of their actual existence completely vanishes” (Sato 3). This relation becomes one of the central “Ode on a Grecian Urn” themes.
Keats’s deviation from reality enables him to cognize the actual connection between art and life beyond time and space. His attempt to capture the immortal beauty is also brightly perceived in one of other John Keats’s odes – Ode on Melancholy: “She dwells with Beauty – Beauty must die; / And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/ Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh…” (Keats 3, line 21-23).
In this respect, the poet as if “provides a vivid account of the intense, complex struggle to replace with hope the bleakness of a world deprived of the consolidation of faith” (Bohm 3). At this point, Keats believes that imagery is one of the most potent tools enabling to connect the concept of art and life.
The living death is another topic in Ode on a Grecian Urn, integrated by the author to reach the connection between art and eternity. Keats’s aspiration to create the town outside the art is also challenged in the poem: “O Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought… as doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” (Keats 3, lines 41-45).
Interpreting this, the poet believes, “…’consecrated objects’ is a strong hostility toward the temporal advancement that is perpetually proving the absolute to be, after all, relative” (Burnett 400).
Similar to this, Keats condemns temporality in his other poems: “I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme” (Keats 4, lines 52-54). When one reads these lines, it is understandable that Keats’s desire to achieve immortality is committed to “a consciously alternative plan of salvation” (Lams 424). Therefore, all his creative searching is aimed at prolonging his poetical existence.
John Keats’s Art of Expression: Literary Devices in the Poem
The literary techniques and elements are also aimed at creating another reality where all Keats’s ideas and goals can be carried out. The line by line analysis shows that symbolic representation and personification are among those literary devices fostering interpretation of the established connection between art and immortality.
Specifically, Keats creates a paradox of living death through sacrifice: “Who are these coming to the sacrifice? / To what green altar, O mysterious priest, / Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, / An all her silken flanks with garlands drest?” (Keats 2, lines 31-34).
In order to explain the sensory imagery used by the author, it can be stated that “poems are encountered as coherent objects contained by intersecting or adjacent ground of interpretations, including field defined by genre, period, language and tradition.” (Starr 1). In order to adhere to the established traditions of romantic literature, Keats resorts to allegory and symbolism as the main literary devices to reach the goal.
This is also seen in other John Keats’s odes, such as in Ode on Psyche where Keats explicitly represents his emotional state between the real world and the artistic one: “Two fair creatures, couched side by side/ In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof/ of leaves and trembled blossoms…” (Keats 5, lines 9-11).
According to Spiegelman’s analysis of Keats’s poetry, his “most important “compositional choices” demonstrates his intelligent restraints, even at a moment of ecstasy” (2). Therefore, both Ode on Psyche and Ode on Grecian Urn disclose ambivalence and controversy between the art and life in his reality.
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This analysis aimed to show how the contrast between life and art is developed in Ode on a Grecian urn by Keats. In summary, it should be stressed that all Keats’s poems are directed at creating an alternative world. Specifically, John Keats’s “Ode on Grecian Urn” is a philosophical deliberation on sophisticated relations between the art and life that is expressed through eternity, living death and sacrifice, and existential motifs created in the imaginary world. The themes of eternity are also amplified in other poems by John Keats. Art and poetry can contribute to creating another conceptual dimension where everyone can live forever. That’s what the author attempted to show.
Bohm, Arnd. “Just Beauty: Ovid and the Argument of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Modern Language Quarterly 68.1 (2007): 1-26. Professional Development Collection.
Burnett, Leon. “Heirs of Eternity: An Essay on the Poetry of Keats and Mandel’shtam.” The Modern Language Review 76.2 (1981): 396-419.
Keats, John. Ode on a Grecian Urn. Web.
Lams Jr., Victor J. “Ruth, Milton, and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Modern Language Quarterly 34.4 (1973): 417.
Sato, Toshihiko. “Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Explicator 38.3 (1980): 2-6.
Spiegelman, Willard. “The Odes of John Keats (Book).” Comparative Literature 39.1 (1987): 92.
Starr, G. Gabrielle. “Poetic Subjects and Grecian Urns: Close Reading and the Tools of Cognitive Science.” Modern Philology 105.1 (2007): 48-61.