Wednesday, 9 March 2011

'Ode on a Grecian Urn' - A Closer Look

Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flow'ry 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,
For ever 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,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever panting and for ever 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 drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its 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 sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I thought it would be interesting to have a look in more detail at the works we discussed during the lecture on Romanticism. Lets start with an 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.

The text begins with a description of a beautifully crafted Ancient Greek Urn, which Keats seems to admire greatly. He refers directly to the object as a 'historian'. Perhaps it is the pictures upon the urn that, in Keats mind, give it this title. The pictures tell a story of the period. Keats describes the images upon the urn. He seems to be questioning what it is he sees before him. "What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?"

Keats describes a scene involving a group of men chasing women through a forest. "What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?".

The speaker appears to be piecing together the clues the urn reveals to create a more vivid picture. It is through the use of rhetorical questions that the reader begins to realise the speaker has a very loose grasp on the meanings behind the images upon the urn. Keats then goes on to address the idea of music. He studies the images of musicians on the urn and attempts to imagine their melody. The theme of eternal life is also explored, with Keats writing: "Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave". As long as the urn remains intact, so too will the musician upon the urn and so too will the trees upon the urn. Until the urn is destroyed, the beauty of music, life and nature remain preserved.

Keats continues to explore the idea of the urn having the power to preserve. The speaker studies a man upon the urn pursuing a lady. He writes: "Thought winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, thought thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!". Keats suggests that the lover should not be fearful, as he is part of a picture. This picture will remain preserved and as a result, so too will the mans love.

As the text reaches its conclusion, Keats begins to become more emotionally invested in what he is saying. Lines such as "O Attic shape! Fair attitude!" and "As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!" clearly emphasise an overwhelming sense of feeling. Keats concludes with further ideas referring to immortality. He writes: "When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe". Even when the speaker has passed away, the urn shall live on, telling its story to future generations through the images crafted upon it.

The influence of Romanticism on the speaker is clear here. The idea of the mans love for his lady living on, for example, is a typically romantic concept.


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