Poetry Project II: Ode on a Grecian Urn, by John Keats

This is the second in an occasional series. The previous one was on Ozymandias.

If poetry is a romantic pastime, and if a poet is a dreamy young man who conjures up in flowery language with rhythm and rhyme a lovely but unreal world, then John Keats (1796-1821) is surely the most typical poet of all the English poets. He is certainly the most Romantic of England’s five famous Romantic poets, the other four being Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron. Keats died young, but not before he had composed a number of poems which are in all the collections of English poetry, and that includes his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. After the poem itself, let us see what it tells us about Keats, about Romanticism and about life:

“Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Thou still unravish’d 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-fring’d 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 endear’d,
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 enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
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 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.

This Ode was written in 1819, probably inspired by a visit of Keats to a museum in London where he will have seen, brought recently from Greece, one of those masterpieces of pottery from the high age of Greek art. Etched in black against a red background on two sides of a clay urn going back over two thousand years, will have been the two scenes from country life which fired the young poet’s imagination.

Verse One takes us back into the countryside of Ancient Greece where godlike humans freely mixed with manlike gods, where heaven and earth lived in a natural harmony which was being lost in Keats’ own age of the Industrial and French Revolutions. The urn shows men or male gods happily chasing after girls, while playing rustic music suited to the chase.

In Verse Two Keats evokes the music, silent on the urn, and the likewise motionless pursuit by one youth of his longed-for girl. In Verse Three Keats similarly imagines the perpetual spring-time of the background trees, and the unchanging happiness, on the urn, of the youngsters’ love-affair. Verse Four changes to the second scene, a religious procession, also in the countryside, where a priest is leading an animal to be sacrificed, followed by a crowd of people who have quit their town and villages to attend. Again Keats conjures up in his imagination how they will never return home.

Finally in Verse Five, Keats sums up the teaching of the silent but beautiful urn: from generation to generation of mankind, each suffering its own woes in this valley of tears, the urn will draw men by its beauty into a world of peace and happiness and joy unchanging. Therefore – in the famous last two lines – if men look for eternal happiness, they should seek no further than wherever they can find beauty here below.

Certainly there is beauty in the Ode itself. Its imagery and vocabulary are rich – in the first three lines alone the urn is compared in swift succession to a bride, a foster-child and a historian! And each Verse of the Ode is laden with verbal enchantments to draw us into the world of Keats’ imagination, a world of peace and delight where time has stopped, and where his restless heart can rest…

Or can it? A famous quote of Keats runs: “I believe in nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination”. Now, all due credit must go to the Romantic movement, after nigh on two centuries of dry reason and cold science, for reaffirming the feelings of the heart and the flights of fancy, but unless those fancies and feelings are anchored in something more solid than just the human heart and human imagination, they can hardly be relied on! The Ode affirms that music unheard is better than heard, that love unfulfilled is better than fulfilled (Verses Two and Three)! But the merest common sense tells us that music is made to be heard, and love to be fulfilled! Keats would have us all living in a perpetual adolescence! Compare Hollywood and its stars and its mentality, living for the chase, for love “warm, panting and young” in one “partnership” after another, doomed to unfulfilment! Keats is a modern man.

Yet like all Romantics, Keats was right to affirm the human heart and imagination. His mistake was to stop there. Before dying, he never found anything more to believe in, so that he died an unhappy death in Rome, with just one English companion by his bedside, after a harrowing illness. The tuberculosis will have given him time to think, and Joseph Severn urged Keats to trust in his Creator, but his only Creed was still the last two lines of this Ode, and that was not enough to give him happiness – Sin often looks beautiful without being true, Virtue is true but it by no means always looks beautiful!

After Keats died, the Romantic movement lasted through the 19th century, being finally – and not unjustly -- blown away in the muddy and bloody trenches of World War One. During that time some Romantics did rise from fancy and feeling to something, or Someone, more substantial. Frederick Faber, who began as a poet-pupil of William Wordsworth, went on to become an outstanding priest in the “Second Spring” of English Catholicism. But most Romantics, while rejecting the coldness of the modern world, did not reject its godlessness, which is why they lacked real foundation, and the modern world ran over them. Poetry and poets, generally taken to be Romantics like Keats, are now widely discredited. No self-respecting newspaper would today print verse in any other way than as if it were prose.

Yet even Rockers and Rappers use rhythm and rhyme to punch over their message! The human heart will not be denied. It has its reasons, as Pascal said, that the reason knows nothing of, and if it is thrown out of the restaurant and the café, it will go to eat in the gutter. Keats is not the gutter, nor are the elevated and nourishing sentiments of the “Ode on the Grecian Urn”. Keats does give room to the human heart, and he does give lovely expression to its longings. He does know that it longs for immortality. He does not trust in the Creator who alone can bestow that immortality, but unlike many souls more modern, he has not given up on the longing, however much it hurts. He prefers to make his own religion out of his own resources. Another quote of his runs: “My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk”.

Almighty and Everlasting God, as Fr. Faber rose through the poetry of Wordsworth to the great and eternal Truths, grant of your mercy that many souls may rise through created beauty, like that of the poetry of Keats, to the fullness of Beauty and Truth, completely identical in your Godhead, in the sharing in which lies that real happiness of immortality for which alone You created us all!

Bishop Richard Williamson
La Reja, Argentina
15 November 2008

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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1 Response

  1. BLYFOX says:

    The Bishop, being British, has poetic insight not available much elsewhere today.

    I am very fond of Keat’s line: “Already with thee, tender is the night. Here, there is no light, save what from heaven is with the breezes blown through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.” (Quoted from memory, so please excuse errors.) I don’t know about beauty, but this is the closest Keats ever came to truth.

    The Bishop is correct: Romanticism slid into another cesspool by way of legitimate reaction. We have never recovered.

    I hereby request that the good Bishop fulfill a request he once made to Dr. White and tackle Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” The late Eugene Ionesco, a Catholic, once stated that Beckett was a very religious and much misunderstood writer. I agree – with the caveat, that Beckett never wrote anything but “Godot.” His “novels” are junk.

    For the record: my favorite poet (prescinding about a dozen English and Irish fellows) is the American Emily Dickenson. She did more in four lines than any Romantic poet did in his entire oevre.

    A super series, and I hope that it has a long life.