Ode on a Grecian Urn


June 9, 2011

Ode on a Grecian Urn

It has been quite some time that I have posted a poem on this blog. Tonight, I feel the need to indulge in a beautiful poem. For this purpose, I have chosen John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn.

In this Ode, I think, Keats  wants to create for us a world of pure joy, but here the idealized or fantasy world  is the life of the people on the urn. Keats sees them, simultaneously, as carved figures on the marble vase and live people in ancient Greece. Existing in a frozen or suspended time, they cannot move or change, nor can their feelings change, yet the unknown sculptor has succeeded in creating a sense of living passion and turbulent action. The real world of pain thus contrasts with the fantasy world of joy.

CLF , Terence Netto, and other lovers of poetry, can you attempt to interpret this last two lines of this Ode for me:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’–That is all
Ye know of earth, and all ye need to know.

I find them challenging to this day, the link between Beauty and Truth, in the context of this Ode which I read and studied ages ago. As I ride into the sunset, I have yet to fully appreciate these two lines. So, I googled and found this commentary on the beauty-truth equation, and am still not sure if I get it :

“The final stanza contains the beauty-truth equation, the most controversial line in all the criticism of Keats’ poetry. No critic’s interpretation of the line satisfies any other critic, however, and no doubt they will continue to wrestle with the equation as long as the poem is read. In the stanza, Keats also makes two main comments on his urn. The urn teases him out of thought, as does eternity; that is, the problem of the effect of a work of art on time and life, or simply of what art does, is a perplexing one, as is the effort to grapple with the concept of eternity. Art’s (imagined) arrest of time is a form of eternity and, probably, is what brought the word eternity into the poem.

The second thought is the truth-beauty equation. Through the poet’s imagination, the urn has been able to preserve a temporary and happy condition in permanence, but it cannot do the same for Keats or his generation; old age will waste them and bring them woe.

Yet the pictured urn can do something for them and for succeeding generations as long as it will last. It will bring them through its pictured beauty a vision of happiness (truth) of a kind available in eternity, in the hereafter, just as it has brought Keats a vision of happiness by means of sharing its existence empathically and bringing its scenes to emotional life through his imagination. All you know on earth and all you need to know in regard to beautiful works of art, whether urns or poems about urns, is that they give an inkling of the unchanging happiness to be realized in the hereafter. When Keats says “that is all ye know on earth,” he is postulating an existence beyond earth.

Although Keats was not a particularly religious man, his meditation on the problem of happiness and its brief duration in the course of writing “Ode on a Grecian Urn” brought him a glimpse of heaven, a state of existence which his letters show he did think about. In his letter of November 22, 1817, to Benjamin Bailey, he mentioned “another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.”– http://www.cliffsnotes.com

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

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 haunt 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.

17 thoughts on “Ode on a Grecian Urn

  1. Hmm.., tough one Din.

    Imagine Keats staring at an ancient and dumb piece of pottery and coming up with something as transcendent as this! Says very much about the power of art-forms, imagination and the ‘eternity’ that is embedded in them.

    Perhaps like Arthur Schopenhauer’s view that momentary transcendence for non-aesthetics like us is achievable by art, poetry and music. In his words: “… a paradise quite familiar and quite remote…easy to understand and yet so inexplicable.”

    I don’t think anyone should take the last 2 ‘inexplicable’ verses out of the context of what has preceded. Otherwise the rest of the poetry becomes banal and terribly idiotic.

    So to me “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty” is probably an anodyne (assuages the pain) for the fact that ‘beauty can be ugly and truth, painful’. The counterpoint of which is Love that transcends Time, so wrought in the preceding narrative – even if it is an unfulfilled longing. Happiness and Love are synonymous, is it not? That then is the allusion to our earthly existence. All we need is Love that transcends emotion and the senses.
    __________
    CLF, thanks for that elucidation. Let us see what Kathy, Abnizar and Frank have to say. And Mongkut Bean, after he has a few glasses of Budweiser, will have plenty of points to make.–Din Merican

  2. Btw, if you are still able to appreciate such stuff, you are not about to ride on any kerbau into the sunset for a long, long time yet! Your faculties are too acute and intact for that.

    Chronological age is no indicator of mental nor physical age, nowadays, my friend. Nothing that a few pieces of electronic-ware won’t fix. The reverse is probably true – our youngsters are ‘zombified’ and suffer from juvenile senile dementia of ignorance and unawareness…

  3. Thanks, CLF, you are most kind. I am moved by this poem which I read when I was a student in the Penang Free School in the 1950s.

    My other favorite poem by John Keats is Lamia , written in 1819. It tells how the God Hermes hears of a nymph who is more beautiful than all. Hermes, searching for the nymph, instead comes across a Lamia, trapped in the form of a serpent. She reveals the previously invisible nymph to him and in return he restores her human form. She goes to seek a youth of Corinth, Lycius, while Hermes and his nymph depart together into the woods. The relationship between Lycius and Lamia, however, is destroyed when the sage Apollonius reveals Lamia’s true identity at their wedding feast, whereupon she returns to her serpent state and Lycius dies of grief.

    Yet another favorite of mine by Keats is La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which ends like this:

    And this is why I sojourn here
    Alone and palely loitering,
    Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
    And no birds sing.

    The Urn reminds me of my own mortality and given the fact that some of my friends have gone to the happy hunting ground, I am acutely aware of the impermanence of my earthly existence. The urn or the grave awaits us all. Right now, I am good health and that makes me grateful, CLF, for small mercies from our God.–Din Merican

  4. We are all ‘jars of clay’ my friend, waiting to be filled. Our existence is inextricably bound with the notion of ‘be-ing’ and one that is soulish, physical and mundane. Man’s individual spirit cannot be extinguished unless he is completely burdened, overwhelmed and blinded by this world. That happens to the best of us, and we can at best glimpse our own poor reflection.

    The reason i came up with a fairly quick response was that Keats in this Ode to the Grecian Urn, reminded me of a Spanish Mystic of greater antiquity, St John of the Cross, in his “Dark night of the Soul”. The allegorical insights start from our earthly senses and soar to the heights of a Union with God /Love. It’s not religious is a literal sense of the word, but a yearning of Man who seek true meaning of his fleeting temporality.

    For you and your beloved, as sung by Loretta Mckennit:

  5. Bro. Din,

    Before we all finally arrived at the urn ( Buddhist keep our ashes in Urn) let us enjoy the dance. here is a good one for you dr. kam and Tun Tan Sri Tunku Datuk Dr. Mongkut, the unknown lover of Miss Ozawa.

    The floor is yours,

  6. Thanks, Tean, for the reminder that we will disappear into nothingness. And everything we have is borrowed and must be left behind, including our loved ones.–Din Merican

  7. ( Corrections )

    VOICES FROM THE WILDERNESS…

    I hear voices from the wilderness…..
    Or….are they echoes from the past… ?
    With bated breath, consumating tenderness,
    Keep raving – this strange torrential lust

    In my breast – they yearn and burn….
    Like some powerfull beacon from an ancient clime;
    Even as now long past in the myriad of a forgotten time…

    BIt shines yet, like glowing amber in a magical urn !

    But now the unseen hands are come to wrest
    My weary soul – it yearns to dream & dream no more…..
    Ere the angels come a-calling for my eternal rest
    I ask only that deep slumber relieves me of my woe !

    In deep slumber taken to flight with dreamfull ease
    The soul traverses as time was not; noe death…
    As in this dimension all things desist…..decrease…..
    The other, all of the vast expanse, but a moment’s breath !

    ( 7 more stanzas….. NB kindly delete those erros above )

  8. (Addition ) ; Title should be :

    VOICES FROM THE WILDERNESS;

    ECHOES FROM THE PAST…..

    VOICES FROM THE WILDERNESS…

    I hear voices from the wilderness…..
    Or….are they echoes from the past… ?
    With bated breath, consumating tenderness,
    Keep raving – this strange torrential lust

    In my breast – they yearn and burn….
    Like some powerfull beacon from an ancient clime;
    Even as now long past in the myriad of a forgotten time…

    BIt shines yet, like glowing amber in a magical urn !

    But now the unseen hands are come to wrest
    My weary soul – it yearns to dream & dream no more…..
    Ere the angels come a-calling for my eternal rest
    I ask only that deep slumber relieves me of my woe !

    In deep slumber taken to flight with dreamfull ease
    The soul traverses as time was not; noe death…
    As in this dimension all things desist…..decrease…..
    The other, all of the vast expanse, but a moment’s breath !

    ( 7 more stanzas….. NB kindly delete those erros above )

  9. ( II )

    When passage through an appointed time in this reality
    We are trapped in the delusions of amoral hours,
    Think we this span of life as infinite credulity –
    Nay, ‘Tis only to ingratiate our earthly bowers !

    Why….wherewithall was the seed of discord lain
    That wrought the cleavage to humanity assunder ?
    Deep in the human psyche posits hatred….disdain ,
    Cries : all else infidels, save ” I ” , the chosen one sur grandeur !

    From times of yore, humanity revered Revelation’s decree :
    The Maker had bespoken: I created man in My Image !
    Man but reviles Him, and arrogates : the Creator in my image be
    ‘Tis ” I ” who, on the tides and affairs of mankind, presage !

    And each on that debase premise driven to violent rage
    Such tumultuous conflict…unholy…and to battle-riven –
    Give vent to ignoble desires; and his pride to assuage,
    And roll the drumbeat to lay claim the banner of heaven !

  10. Sorry, I should try and answer : Beauty is truth…truth beauty….that is all ye need to know….
    May I offer an illustration : its in the Jewish spiritual persepective – the Kabalah – for example as to the ” elusive ” nature of ” Time “. It says :

    Time gives the delusion of chaoa, wheras in fact there is concealed order.

    Therein lies this ” dualiity ” : the seen and the unseen, the hidden and the manifest ( or the patent and the latent ) It’s ENCRYPTED in Nature : In good there may be bad, and in bad there is a hidden good. Often people would say ” blessin in disguise “.
    If we lift the veill, we see the unity of purpose… what God Wills one might say ! That is, trial & tribulations for man.

    Ultimately, we see ” truth ” in all phenomena…and that is Beauty….Nature is Beautifull… all contradictions & paradoxes vanish.. Truth is Beautifull & beautifull are all truths…

  11. Sorry, I should try and answer : Beauty is truth…truth beauty….that is all ye need to know….

    May I offer an illustration : its in the Jewish spiritual perspective – the Kabalah – for example as to the ” elusive ” nature of ” Time “. It says :

    Time gives the delusion of chaos, whereas in fact there is concealed order.

    Therein lies this ” duality ” : the seen and the unseen, the hidden and the manifest ( or the patent and the latent ) It’s ENCRYPTED in Nature : In good there may be bad, and in bad there is a hidden good. Often people would say ” blessing in disguise “. If we lift the veil, we see the unity of purpose… what God Wills one might say ! That is, trial & tribulations for man.

    Ultimately, we see ” truth ” in all phenomena…and that is Beauty….Nature is Beautiful… all contradictions & paradoxes vanish.. Truth is Beautiful & beautiful are all truths…

    With your permission, may I highlight a few clues in Keat’s Grecian Urn.
    The urn teases him out of thought, as does eternity…Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard more sweeter ( and ) more endeared Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone… So, the work of art & beauty of the Urn is only allegorical.

  12. ( Sorry again dear Colleagues, .not proficient enough, have to do a kursus in the new format..)

    So, regret unable to complete Part III of four stanzas for completetion. and waiting for better opportune time, if any, to still try & pen them…hopefully, thanx

  13. (III)

    What are the mysteries of the heavens and the distant stars
    Which govern life – or, what secrets beyond the quantum fields ?
    Though sciences have unravelled the quasars and the pulsars
    But pray, what ultimate treasure to human knowledge yields ?

    Known to science only the two component of matter and energy,
    But Vedic knowledge knew of the trigunas’ transverse –
    Its third component – information – in a scientillating trilogy :
    Dances to to the Supreme Intelligence’s commands of the universe.

    Perfidious man may be the only label to thy sacred name
    Of the Abrahamic faith – who profess to be people of the Book –
    Nay, perdition be the only redemption for thine abhorrent shame !
    Why art thou so pernicious in thy fatuous ways and outlook ?

    Were it not the gift of love, as nature’s wondrous delight
    That shone forthand set darkness and human ignorance free ?
    As all things borne and all life cleaved from the selfsame Light –
    They shall be triumphant, and salvage the human destiny !

    (Abnizar – completed in 1999 after 12 painfull years…)

  14. How to do corrections ? I should not inconvenience Dat Din, but I am not proficient. There are too many repitions, so I wish, I could edit it. Will try & learn, thank you very muc

  15. ” Truth is beauty, and beauty truth…..” that is all you need to know… on this earthly plain. ..

    All external piety…..worship & prayers…and charitable acts, full of pretensions, for outwardly show….true charity is silently performed. Otherwise, charities are exhibited for show in front of the camera or media !

    Beauty is truth, truth beauty suffces for Salvation of man !

  16. Dear CLF, quite belatedly ; of what sublime beauty your astounding quote of Arthus Schopenhauer’s glimpse of the ” eternal ” transcendence :L

    “….a paradise quite familiar and quite remote….easy to understand and yet so inexplicable……” (even if it is unfulfilled longing…. as you put it – have to read ” The Lotus Eaters ” by Lord Alfred Tennyson )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.