November 03, 2023

#08-355: Ode on a Grecian Urn

Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase by Keats (Wikipedia)

Note: Some people are just--different. John Keats saw the world with fresh eyes, and left it at age 25, after creating such masterpieces as this poem.

Get Ready: Which is "truer": one's own experience of a thing or event (say, a mountain) or the lasting art produced of that thing or event (say, a painting of a mountain)? A woman, or the painting of her (say, the Mona Lisa)?

The Englishman John Keats is justly considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. He left behind around 135 poems--all the more astounding when you realize that he died of tuberculosis at the very young age of 25.

Of this considerable output, a handful have been singled out as "The Six Great Odes," all written in the same year: 1819. One of these, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," ends with two of the most-discussed lines in all of literature. But before we get to those, let's consider the form and content of the poem.

An ode is a type of lyric poetry meant to praise a particular subject. This one is supposedly about an ancient vase with a stereotyped set of images: a lover pursuing his beloved, people playing musical instruments, a tree, and a public sacrifice.

The main conceit of the poem is this: While the images depict more than mere words can express ("A picture is worth a thousand words," goes the proverb, and the urn "can express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme"), they are also frozen in time. The lover will forever be pursuing his beloved, the tree will never shed its leaves, the pipes--though "unheard"--are sweeter than the music we hear because they play to the spirit, not the ear. The first line calls the urn "the still unravish'd bride of quietness"--forever untouched, forever pure.

Although it's true that the "bold lover" chasing the girl can never catch her, it's also true that her beauty "cannot fade": "⁠Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"

The sacrificial cow "lowing at the skies," dressed in garlands, will never actually arrive at the altar. And the worshippers who left their homes this morning to witness the sacrifice will never return to them.

There is something of the eternal in this, the poem suggests. And "When old age shall this generation waste, ⁠⁠Thou shalt remain"--unchanged, "a friend to man," and saying to him:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all
⁠⁠Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The Romans said, "Ars longa, vita brevis": Technical skill takes a long time, but life is short. One might add: the results of that skill--the art produced--outlasts many human lifetimes. In the beauty of the urn, Keats found a lasting truth.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

  1. altar
  2. conceit
  3. considerable
  4. depict
  5. fade
  6. garlands
  7. lowing
  8. singled out
  9. stereotyped
  10. unravished
  1. idea; metaphorical intent
  2. not attacked
  3. mooing
  4. show; portray
  5. change; become less
  6. fixed in form; conventional
  7. a place for sacrifices
  8. large
  9. named specifically
  10. strings of flowers

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 3, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. a; 3. h; 4. d; 5. e; 6. j; 7. c; 8. i; 9. f; 10. b