A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Keats

Ode on a Grecian Urn 

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness, 
    Thou foster child of silence and slow time, 
Sylvan historian, who cast thus express 
    A flowery 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? 

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 short, 
    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."
--John Keats
Back when I used to teach try to teach poetry to undergraduates, I told them that every poem has a plot, even the short ones. That was to get them away from trying to find the "moral" of the poem, or the prettiest lines. Otherwise, in this poem they'd run to the last two lines and tell me things like, "The poet is saying here that beauty is truth." Which we all know to be a lie.  

So I'd tell them that Keats's poem is like a five-act play, the typical structure of which is something like this:
I. Exposition 
II. Conflict 
III. Crisis 
IV. Struggle 
V. Resolution  
I. The exposition in Keats's first stanza tells us that someone is looking at (thanks to the title) a Greek urn, and has a lot of questions about the images on it. 

II. The conflict arises in the second stanza when the speaker tries to answer the questions by relating the images frozen in time on the urn to the world of change we know, in which music fades, leaves fall, and lovers consummate their relationship. 

III. This conflict reaches a crisis point in the third stanza when the speaker moves from a celebration of the happiness shown on the urn to a realization that human passion cloys and wearies. 

IV. So the struggle to make sense of the images continues when he looks at another side of the urn on which some sort of religious procession is taking place, but imagines that the figures have come from a town to which they can never return. 

V. Which leads us to the fifth stanza's resolution: an admission that we are teased out of thought by the urn's impossibly idealized vision of human life, one in which joy never fades. So why is it a "friend to man" if it tells us a lie, if it's a "Cold Pastoral" representation of warm and mutable and messy existence? For some that's a flaw in the poem, a flat-out contradiction of everything that has gone before. 

But if we think of the poem as a drama, as the struggle of the poem's speaker to come to terms with art and life, then the lie is understandable. I think Keats's point is that art presented his speaker with an image of beauty -- of unfading love, of things immutable and immortal -- that we can hold as an eternal verity, something about us that will still be around when our generation has faded, changed, and died. The urn is a friend to humankind for much the same reason that we cherish the snapshots in our photo albums: they are a permanent record of the way we once were and will never be again. Whether we regard this truth as a melancholy one or a happy one is up to us, but there is a kind of beauty about it. 


And my point is that a poem is more than the sum of its parts, however dazzling or quotable those parts may be.  Understanding its structure is essential to understanding what it has to tell us. 

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