Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ode on a Human Urn: John Keats Cries a Warning into Pottery

 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.
(Lynch, et al. 930)

In John Keats's poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, the speaker is addressing not only the art of on the urn, but the futility life itself. This section of Stanza 5 of the poem depicts the speaker looking at a decorated urn with wonder and speculation. He speaks to the inanimate urn, endowing it with human characteristics when he says "thou." The important idea to note is that Keats is not just creating a commentary on Greek art, but a commentary on human endeavors.

Here we see a drawing of the urn by John Keats, where humanities struggle goes beyond a single emotion. The downcast face of the figure on the right contrasts with the joyful figure to the left. This shows only one side of the urn, but the stark contrast of the two characters expresses that the rest of the urn must be full of a range of emotions.

Though the speaker refers to the urn as thou, he ends the poem by speaking to ye. Ye is the reader, and the urn as well. In a way, the speaker is telling the urn of its limited scope of emotion. The speaker is not only addressing the urn, as their range or speculation goes beyond a single idea depicted on the urn, such as beauty. A more considerable argument would be that ye refers to the author's own epiphany, and who he addresses. Yet the clearer argument is the singularity of both urn and audience; the audience being humanity.

In the first stanza, the urn is referred to as the "unravish'd bride of quietness," and the "foster-child of silence," ("Ode" lines 1-2). As the bride of quietness and the child of silence, the urn has lived a very boring life unravished. Keats's use of lonely figurative imagery contrast with the busy literal imagery found on the urn, which explains line 4 where the speaker refers to the depictions on the urn as "a flowery tale."

However the speaker is also referring to humanity here to address the dilemma of wasted life, spoken in line 46, “when old age shall this generation waste.” The unravished bride of quietness is humanity's life of inconsequentiality. This is confirmed not only by the overall melancholy tone of the poem, but the emphasis on the futility of human endeavors: The pastoral piper plays "not to the sensual ear" (human ear) but to "more endear'd" ("Ode" line 13) - the spirits; the "fair youth, beneath the trees," (line 15) can't leave - this is because his spirit is stuck in the urn; and the "bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss," (line 17). 

It would appear that these depressing notes are rationalized by the lines "yet, do not grieve; she cannot fade...for ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" ("Ode" lines 18-20). However, stanza 2 relies heavily on ethereal imagery and thus each claim must be taken into context in order for the reader to understand the speaker’s message, that life is wasted in humanity’s innocence. The fair youth can't leave from underneath the tree because his spirit is stuck, the bold lover will never be kissed because she too is stuck, "she cannot fade" because she is a spirit and therefore immortal, and the two lovers passion will last "for ever," in death. 

Though the afterlife is not specifically mention in the poem, "passion" that "will last for ever" alludes to that idea, while the afterlife was a common theme throughout romanticism and Keats's other muse, neoclassicism - as evidenced by Keats's use of capital letters for emphasis, a particularly neo-classical trait. The reader can understand the purpose of the speaker’s message with the connection to Keats’s allusions to other forms of literature; by understanding the connection, the theme of death and the treatment of life as insignificant are made clearer. (Connection between romanticism and neoclassicism addressed in class February 18th).

Stanza 3 also alludes to the afterlife through euphoric language which contrasts with the inconsequentiality of mortal life. This is shown through inflated language not expressed in any other stanza, such as “happy, happy boughs!” and “happy love! More happy, happy love!” ("Ode" lines 21 and 25). From stanza 2's tone of motionless (meaningless) life, stanza 3 contrasts with the warmth and happiness of the afterlife "far above" (line 28). It also refers to the urn, physically, where the speaker notices the boughs of the trees "that cannot shed [their] leaves" (lines 21-22) due to their permanent state (painted on the urn).

Therefore stanza 5's mention of a "silent form" can refer to both the death of humanity as well as the inactivity of the urn. This silent form "dost tease us out of thought," which, according to Shmoop, means to "disentangle," (Shmoop Editorial Team). The silent form of the urn discourages the speaker (disentangles him from thoughts of hope for humanity, i.e. stanza 3), because it is "brede[d]" with "marple men and maidens overwrought [by marble men]" ("Ode" line 42). The speaker is teased out of encouraging thoughts "as doth [thoughts of] eternity: Cold Pastoral" (line 45) tease him out of negative thoughts. This stanza speaks on the non-heavenly afterlife, the more incarcerative (i.e. hell) which men of this nature are banished to, rather than the heavenly realm, reserved for the innocence of the those with lives of such oppressed passion such as the youth and his lover. This is shown by the contrast in foliage with stanza 3: "happy boughs! that cannot shed your leaves, nor even bid the spring adieu," (lines 21-22), "forest branches and the trodden weed," (line 43). The parasitic imagery of weeds along with the contrasting invigorative trees of stanza 3 show the choice in destination of humanity, as well as the contrasting images observed by the speaker.

Whether it be a wasted motionless life or a wasted overwrought life, the speaker remains confident that life's essential beauty will be captured by the beauty of the urn, that the urn "shalt remain" as well as humanity as a whole, and that despite "other woe than ours" the urn will continue to capture the beauty of both calamity and love in its honest depiction of human nature, upholding the ode that "beauty is truth, truth beauty," ("Ode" line 49).

Works Cited
Lynch, Deidre, and Jack Stillinger. “John Keats.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Ninth ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 930-31. Print.
            L, GR. Drawing of the Sosibios Vase. Digital image. Flickr. Yahoo!, 17 Nov. 2005. Web. 25 Mar. 2015. 
Shmoop Editorial Team. "Ode on a Grecian Urn: Stanza V Summary." Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 8 Mar. 2015.