Friday, June 30, 2017

Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819)

by John Keats

Anyone who knows my literary preferences will know that I have a strong dislike for poetry. In the first place, poems are far too brief to be compared favorably to anything like the sustained effort it takes to produce a novel. But it’s probably the artificiality of the rhyme and meter that put me off the most. I prefer my literature in naturalistic language, and so I will always prefer prose. That being said, there is no denying that there are examples of poetry that are unsurpassed in their beauty and eloquence and must be respected as a the literary equal of any other. John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just such a poem, and as such has been the source of much spilled ink over the last two centuries. The greatest source of contention for modern critics has been the quotation in the final sentence of the fifth stanza: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” At first glance it is difficult to make out how there could be any controversy in the statement, for the simple fact that it seems self-evident.

The best example supporting Keats’ idea comes from, of all places, science. In 1987 the BBC produced an episode of their Horizon science series called Life Story, eventually renamed Race for the Double Helix, about the discovery of the structure of D.N.A. The film was based in part on James Watson’s book The Double Helix, and written by William Nicholson. In the film Watson, played by Jeff Goldblum, and Francis Crick, played by Timothy Pigott-Smith, attempt to guess at the structure of D.N.A. without using any original research, taking what they know and have heard from other scientists working in the field to see if they can piece it together before anyone else. As they are beginning their quest, Crick suggests William Astbury’s work might be a place to start, but Watson shoots down that idea by saying one word: “Ugly.” Crick responds by saying, “You don’t like ugly?” to which Watson replies, “It doesn’t deserve to be true. Truth is . . . pretty.” At the end of the film when the two scientists do in fact come up with the structure, Watson says, “I knew it would be pretty.” Again, the idea seems self-evident, as the simple beauty involved in the scientific structure inheres its very truth. And this idea seems just as fitting a way to explain the historic messages conveyed by Keats’ personified urn. Others, however, are not as convinced.

T.S. Eliot famously said of the statement, “This line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement that is untrue.” While Eliot’s inclination is clearly toward the later, I’m inclined to see it as the former. Literary critics Kenneth Burke and Cleanth Brooks, among others, have devoted entire essays to the explication of the poem. Brooks essay, “Keats’ Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes,” begins rather unfairly, however, suggesting that Keats, “would have approved of Archibald MacLeish’s dictum ‘A poem should not mean / But be.’

          Hence it is the more remarkable that the “Ode” itself differs from Keats’s other odes by culminating
          in a statement—a statement even of some sententiousness in which the urn itself is made to say
          beauty is truth, and—more sententious still—that this bit of wisdom sums up the whole of mortal
          knowledge. This is “to mean” with a vengeance—to violate the doctrine of the objective correlative,
          not only by stating truths, but by defining the limits of truth.

The reason I say this is unfair is that Brooks begins by putting words into Keats’ mouth—the words of MacLeish’s dictum—and then chiding him for violating them. The fact that Brooks wants to read into Keats’ poem an underlying objectivism based on the subject matter, an inanimate urn, does not obligate the author to adhere to the critic’s expectation. Rather, the onus is on the critic, in the words of Eliot, “to understand it.”

Brooks goes on to make a further misstep when he states that “one can emphasize beauty is truth and throw Keats into the pure-art camp, the usual procedure. But it is only fair to point out that one could stress truth is beauty, and argue with the Marxist critics of the ‘thirties for a propaganda art.” How anything labeled propaganda can be associated with the idea of truth is a bit mystifying as the two would appear to be mutually exclusive, but the real question that emerges from Brooks’ two arguments is, what’s the difference? Clearly Keats didn’t think there was one, which is why he tied the two phrases together and united them as a single thought. The more beautiful something is the more it speaks to the truth inherent within, whether that truth is designed to enlighten or ennoble or inspire. Likewise, the truth inherent in the work of art is born out by its beauty. Certainly there are truths to be had in things that are not beautiful, but that isn’t really Keats’ point. The two phrases belong to one sentence, and begin with the word beauty. In the context of the poem they must be referring to the same specific object. Once the beauty of an object has been established then beauty and truth are interchangeable. Reinforcing this is Brooks best line in the essay, where he finally grants Keats the genius of his own artistry. “This is surely not too much to ask of the reader—namely, to assume that Keats meant what he said and that he chose his words with care.”

In the opening sentence of the poem, Keats offers an utterly devastating—in its positive sense—example of compression. “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:” Though he speaks of quietness and silence, this is light-years away from the comparison Brooks tries to make with MacLeish’s “palpable and mute” fruit. The emphasis here is on the nouns. Keats’ unravish’d bride still holds within her the secrets of history that she has been decorated with. Likewise, she has also been born away from her home like a foster-child who remembers a time long before but can only tell us what it was like, vague reminiscences of something we can never experience for ourselves. And then all of this is summed up in a phrase of almost Shakespearean invention: “sylvan historian.” Again, it’s the noun that informs the previous phrases by demonstrating that the urn itself is not merely a piece of history, but an historian that has the ability to tell us something about the past. As Brooks says, “historians tell the truth.” What is most telling is the adjective sylvan. The urn, while man made, has now become a part of nature, perhaps even reclaimed from the soil in which it was once buried. Like the scientist who examines plants as a way of making any number of deductions about their lives and habitats, the narrator understands that the urn can only reveal its secrets in the same voiceless way. And just like the plant, the urn is able to express her “flowery tale” with an aesthetic quality more pleasing than the poet’s pen.

In the second half of the first stanza the narrator wonders aloud what secrets the urn has to tell. “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?” The ring of leaves that frame the scene is similar to that worn by men, thus reminding us of the personification of the urn in the first sentence which also renders the last spoken line of the poem perfectly understandable. The scene it decorates is a legend that “haunts,” a vestige from the past, murky and unclear but vivid enough to seem real, from a time back in time that the ancient Greece of Tempe and Arcady evoke. The male figures might be mortal or might be representations of the gods, as are the maidens they pursue. Loth in this context means reluctance rather than hatred, though it depends on the context. If the “mad pursuit” is love, then reluctance is merely prudence. If it depicts a “struggle to escape,” then hatred would certainly apply. The fact that the scene is accompanied by musicians playing flutes and tambourines implies the former, especially as the narrator goes on to use the phrase “wild ecstasy” to describe it. Nevertheless, all of this is conjecture, a questioning on the part of the narrator who must explore all possibilities—much as the botanist does—before coming to any conclusions.

Again, Keats uses the next sentence to explain not only what has come before, but what will come after. “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:” The unheard melodies are like the information offered by the sylvan historian, silent and yet all the more exquisite because of it. As is so often the case with art, the imagination is far more powerful than anything the artist can render. The musician on the urn who plays in perpetual stillness therefore plays for our soul rather than our ears. It’s in the second half of the second stanza that Keats most obviously waxes Shakespearean. “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!” Comparisons with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18—and there are many others—in which it is the poem itself that forever captures the beauty of the narrator’s lover, are inevitable. Frozen in time upon the urn, the lovers who are serenaded by the silent musician will never touch, will never consummate their love. But the narrator tells them not to grieve because their love will never grow old and never be spoiled, and they will always be beautiful.

In the opening of the third stanza Keats uses his overlapping technique to good effect by taking a passing phrase from the previous stanza, “nor ever can those trees be bare,” and expanding on it. “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;” Though in the previous stanza Brooks would have us ponder the fact that perhaps the musician who “canst not leave” is trapped, here we are told he is “unwearied,” as is everything else in the scene. The branches on the trees are just as happy as the musician, as they will never grow old, never lose their leaves and always exist in the full spring of their youth. Keats then expands on this idea for the lovers. “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 first line is important, because the emphasis here is on the adjective happy. The love that young lovers experience—and even more so because they have yet to consummate their love, “still to be enjoy’d,”—is the most exquisite there can be. And so it is only that happy love that the eternal lovers will share. Keats continues with an impressive description of the heart that is “for ever panting.” First he says that the heart is “high-sorrowful,” as in the bittersweet ache for something not yet possessed. But then he goes on to use the word “cloy’d,” meaning completely full up with desire, which is really an absence. This is a tremendous juxtaposition of ideas, though he ends the stanza with a more prosaic comparison of unconsummated love to a fever in the final line.

In the fourth stanza Keats shifts his gaze completely—to another scene on the urn in the conceit of the poem, though in reality probably an entirely different work of art. Here he witnesses a religious rite being performed. “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?” If there’s a stanza that’s confusing, it’s this, not the final one. Keats repeats the same kind of questioning from the end of the first stanza, wondering aloud exactly what these people are doing, especially the “mysterious priest,” but the rest is primarily description. From the foreground scene Keats then shifts to the background. “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.” The issue is that Keats has devoted fully three stanzas to the lovers and the musician, only to shift to unanswered questions about this new scene that suggest there is no background at all and we are simply left to imagine whether these people lived by the sea or in the mountains. Brooks, however, manages deftly to remind the reader of the purpose of the urn in the poem, and that Keats’ intention here is “thoroughly relevant to the sense in which the urn is a historian.” Thus, instead of seemingly being taken in a different direction by the poet in this stanza, he is actually returning full circle to the main idea rather than allowing us to be so transported by the timeless lovers that we forget our purpose, which comes finally in the fifth stanza. According to Brooks:

          The “reality” of the little town has a very close relation to the urn’s character as a historian. If the
          earlier stanzas have been concerned with such paradoxes as the ability of static carving to convey
          dynamic action, of the soundless pipes to play music sweeter than that of the heard melody, of the
          figured lover to have a love more warm and panting than that of breathing flesh and blood, so in the
          same way the town implied by the urn comes to have a richer and more important history than that
          of actual cities. Indeed, the imagined town is to the figured procession as the unheard melody is to
          the carved pipes of the unwearied melodist.

The beginning of stanza five also finds Keats returning to the first stanza in the way that he once again addresses the urn directly. “O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought, / With forest branches and the trodden weed;” Attic is a reference to another region of ancient Greece and, along with the weaving together of branches, men and maidens on the urn, is taking the reader back to the first stanza literally as well. The next sentence is probably the most important in terms of understanding the final stanza. “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity:” Thought, in this context, is the mind filled with the cogitations of everyday life. The “silent form” of the urn is then able to release the viewer from those mundane thoughts in order to focus on something else, in the same way that the contemplation of eternity makes us think of things beyond ourselves. These scenes of everyday life in a time long past, will eventually be no different than the viewer’s life, swallowed up by the distant march of time. “Cold Pastoral!” the poet addresses the urn in another cunning juxtaposition, a lifeless piece of clay that nevertheless has the power to conjure the bucolic reality of those long dead and give solace to those in the present. “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.’”

Brooks makes a nice observation about the word generation here, which is in keeping with Keats’ own use of juxtaposition. The verb form of the word implies action, things being generated, people being continually created as in the breed (brede) of the men and women who inhabit the urn peopling the earth down to the present day. But as a noun, along with Keats’ reference to the wasting of that generation, the word conveys the finite amount of time that humans have to live. And still the urn remains, a friend to future generations in the way that it will continue to inform the human soul. More importantly than the “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” line, however, is the context in which it is presented. This is all that we can know on earth. Things beyond our sensory perception will forever remain beyond them, and the urn is letting us know that this is as it should be. It’s all we need to know. The implication is that in setting our sights on things beyond our knowledge we ignore all the aesthetic truth that the world has to offer right now. Whether we believe that a god created that beauty or not, the emphasis of life needs to be on allowing beauty to “tease us out of thought” so that we don’t wind up mired in our own “woe” all our lives. The search for love, the creation of music, the attention to duty, these are all to be done with the consciousness of the truth inherent in all of these actions, and the more beautiful they are the better.

It’s clear by the end of Brooks’ essay that his initial unfairness is simply his way of playing devil’s advocate. Despite some minor quibbles, his respect for the author and the assumption of authorial preeminence in analyzing the author’s work become obvious the deeper the reader gets into the text. In looking at those elements of juxtaposition in Keats’ poem, which Brooks calls irony, his respect for the author is evident. “The purpose in emphasizing the ironic undercurrent in the foregoing lines is not at all to disparage Keats—to point up implications of his poem of which he was himself unaware. Far from it: the poet knows precisely what he is doing. The point is to be made simply in order to make sure that we are completely aware of what he is doing.” And this gets to the very heart of what it means to analyze literature: the assumption that the author knows what he or she is doing. The first step in finding meaning in literature is to understand what the literature means in and of itself, “‘to mean’ with a vengeance,” rather than bringing to the work preconceived theories or ideas that turn Keats’ “well-wrought urn” into something unrecognizable. This is something Brooks deals with convincingly in his conclusion:

          If we can see that the assertions made in a poem are to be taken as part of an organic context,
          if we can resist the temptation to deal with them in isolation, then we may be willing to go on to
          deal with the world-view, or “philosophy,” or “truth” of the poem as a whole in terms of its dramatic
          wholeness: that is, we shall not neglect the maturity of attitude, the dramatic tension, the emotional
          and intellectual coherence in favor of some statement of theme abstracted from it by paraphrase.

And nothing could be more beautiful than the truth of the author’s words allowed to stand on their own and conveying all their meaning to us in “silence and slow time.”

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