Lifelines and Ashes of Beauty

jan 2013

In 1819, British poet John Keats (1795-1821) offered a new life to an old genre, the ode, with six pieces that would later become classics, and contribute to his fame: “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode to Psyche,” “To Autumn” and finally, “Ode of Grecian Urn.” In the latter piece, a poem of 5 stanzas, Keats reflects on the nature of Art, and in particular representational Art, via the discussion of two scenes displayed on an imagined Greek vase. As a poetic representation of a piece of art, this ode belongs also to the genre of the ekphrasis, itself prominent during the era of Greek art. The first scene represents two lovers and communicates an idea of an impossible passion. The second represents villagers about to perform a sacrifice. In this short commentary, I shall try to discuss certain passages of the ode, and explore the underlying reflection or contemplation that Keats attempts to undertake.

1. The impossible love

Thou still unravish’d 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-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?

Keats opens his ode by addressing the urn directly: it is a “bride of quietness,” the repository of (secret) stories which have been unheard for too long. It is also a product of “silence and slow time,” the central characteristic of the artisan’s work. Keats reflects on the indeterminacy of the stories displayed on the urn: where is it happening? Who are the characters? Are they divine being or simple humans? This lack of information contributes to the general feeling left by the piece of art in general: a sense of universalism, the attempt to express an emotion that each and every human being could rely to. Greek art does not aim at addressing only an intimate or private feeling: it is concerned by general truths. Keats will conclude the ode altogether on these very lines: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
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!

The theme of silence is declined, this time to a melody that, through what would become a famous expression, is necessarily more beautiful when unheard. There is also a clear Platonic and even Stoic undertone in the values expressed in the painting, as observed by Keats: “Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:” beauty for the senses is of value, but the highest qualities are those of intellectual matters. Declined on the subject of love, this theme implies the idea of an impossible love, of an attraction never fully satisfied: “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss.” But, here again, the prohibition, this inherent limitation is presented as a greater good: the satisfaction of the mind is more important than that of the senses.
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.

The third stanza closes the meditation on the impossible love. Hellenistic Greece and its Platonic influences made natural human passions subsidiary to a set of higher Ideas. In the midst of this betrayal, the lover would rather have never known love, would rather be a “bough” that never had rich flowers, or a melodist not interested in finding new tunes. He is forever “sorrowful,” mourning the old dream of a boundless love. This stanza is a critical reflection on the conclusions of Platonism and the following accusation of all things sensual by the Stoics, in particular under the growing Christian cultural climate. This theme is perfect for Keats, the romantic poet: real love is impossible.

2. The Greek sacrifice

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.

The second scene is one that depicts a group of villagers about to sacrify a young cow. The fourth stanza is marked by three questions. Keats is almost discussing with the urn, expressing (rhetorical) questions that would, naturally, remained unanswered. The theme of the silence is once again found. Silence, melody and music are themselves invisibly inscribed in the very genre of the poem: “ode” comes from the Greek aoide, meaning “song.” The sacrifice scene should also be linked to the final moral of the poem: with the Greeks, visual arts can be representational, simply aiming at depicting normal activities of human societies. Art becomes linked with truth and realism.
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.

Keats closes the ode by returning to the urn itself. His poem is a praise of Art, a realisation of its eternal mystery exceeding human intelligence (“Thou… dost tease us out of thought”) and that goes beyond the life of a singular individual, more: of a whole generation. Humans perish, Art remains. One thing is left: the moral of the story, written beneath the surface. The purpose of Art and its association with philosophy during the Greek period: Truth and Beauty are one and the same. Under the Platonic influence, Beauty and Truth meet at the level of Ideas, of untouched values and virtues, unaltered by the corruption of worldly things.

Keats, John (1993): “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Bartleby.

Image courtesy: Wordsworth