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This is one of the most discussed of Keats's odes because of the ambiguity of the closing lines. To determine their meaning, however, one must consider the whole poem. The poet begins by addressing the urn, a large sculpted vessels that is unlike any real urn. Keats made up the figure on the urn from a variety of sources among Greek works of art.
STANZA 1. The poet speaks of two qualities of the urn. As an "un ravished bride" it is a perfect object, unmarked by the passage of time. As a "sylvan historian" it provides a record of a distant culture. The poet seems to ask the urn who or what are the figures carved on its sides.
The questions suggest that the scene depicts maidens running from "men or gode's" to the accompaniment of music. It is a Dionysian scene that represent the wild, uninhibited celebrations of the god of wine and fertility. STANZA 2. In the second stanza the poet imagines what music is being played in the scene. He prefers to imagine it because music actually heard is never so perfect or ideal.
Similarly, in the figure of a youth about to kiss a maiden, the anticipated kiss is better than either the reality or the maiden; as a work of art, the moment cannot grow old nor the maid un kissable. Art has the advantage over reality of being perfect and unchangeable. STANZA 3. This stanza is an expression of pure joy on pondering the urn's scenes. The word happy is repeated six times. The happiness is then contrasted with "breathing human passion, " which cannot be so satisfying or so lasting.
STANZA 4. Here the poet describes another scene, as if the urn has been turned to reveal a different surface. Here there is a procession; a priest is leading a cow to some ritual sacrifice. The poet imagines that the little town from whence the people in the procession came is empty because all the folk have joined the procession. Thus, the poet's imagination goes beyond what the work of art represents and sees what it merely suggests. STANZA 5.
In the final stanza the poet reviews the whole urn and recapitulates his perceptions. Looking at the urn, he has been "teased" out of thought. As when one tries to imagine eternity one gets to a point beyond which the mind seems unable to go. The poet calls the urn a friend, one who brings a message about truth and beauty and their sameness to the many generations since it was created. The urn will continue to bring that message to generations in the future.
The truest thing, because it is perfect and unchanging, is a thing of beauty, a work of art like the urn. Truth is what does not decay, nor does it feel despair but only happiness. DETAIL: We must presume, since Keats went on after writing the Ode to a Nightingale to write Ode on a Grecian Urn (as near a twin to the earlier ode as one poem can be to another), that his experiment in analyzing, distinguishing, and objectifying his thoughts and feelings about creation, expression, audience, sensation, thought, beauty, truth, and the fine arts were still in some way unsatisfactory to him. And yet he was not ready to examine "art" in some general way: abandoning nonrepresentational "natural" music as his metaphor, he took as metaphor another special case, the one (because of the Elgin marbles) most in the public eye, the case of sculpture. He has, we realize, given in and joined his phantoms of Indolence on their urn; but in this new speculative enterprise he has somewhat changed the cast of characters, retaining Love and Poesy (as maiden and pipe player) but discarding Ambition, and adding new figures to which we shall come. The Ode on a Grecian Urn squarely confronts the truth that art is not "natural, " like leaves on a tree, but artificial.
The sculptor must chisel the stone, a medium external to himself and recalcitrant. In restricting itself to one sense, the Urn resembles Nightingale, but in the Urn the sense is sight, not hearing. The Urn suppresses hearing, as the Ode to a Nightingale had suppressed sight (and as both suppress the "lower senses" of touch and taste). If Nightingale is an experiment in thinking about art in terms of pure, "natural, " nonrepresentational music prolonged in time, the Urn is an experiment in thinking about art in terms of pure, "artificial, " representational vitality extended in space (a space whose extension, in Keats's special case, rounds on itself -- the urn is a see-limiting frieze). As we have seen, precisely because the nightingale's song is nonrepresentational it can ignore that world "where men sit and hear each other groan"; because is non conceptual or non philosophical in can avoid those shows and leaden-eyed despairs inseparable from thought. The Ode to a Nightingale can therefore bypass (until the questions which break its trance end the poem) the question of truth, and expiate in its consideration of sensation and beauty, suggesting, by its darkness, that the more indistinct and dim and remote that beauty, the better.
Beauty, in the form of the bird's song without words, stimulates the reverie of the musing Fancy, which endlessly projects itself on a perfect void -- the essentially vacant, if transfixing, song of the nightingale. (116 - 117) ) The poem had begun, we recall, with a comparison of the urn with rhyme -- to the disadvantage of rhyme. The urn's whole and simultaneous visual art, where everything can be present (and presented) at once, seemed to Keats, fresh from his disillusion with the nightingale, sweeter than a temporarily experienced art like music or poetry. (126)
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