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Ode on a Grecian Urn -- John Keats

Guest poem sent in by Aseem
(Poem #1603) Ode on a Grecian Urn
 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-fringed 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 loath?
 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 have 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 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.

 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
If we are on the subject of grand old poems that have slipped through the
Minstrels net - I can't think of a more startling omission than this one.
For sheer lyricism, Keats is hard to beat. Byron is wittier, I'll grant you,
and certainly more conversational, but nowhere (except perhaps in
Shakespeare) is the English tongue so ravishingly beautiful.

Ode on a Grecian Urn, is, of course, one of those established classics about
which it's difficult to say something without having about half a million
Eng Lit undergrads breathing down one's neck. What I love about it is its
almost solipsistic brilliance - the way the poem, in some sense contains its
own meaning (a distinction it shares with Shakespeare's "Not marble, nor the
gilded monuments" [Poem #1575] - a poem that makes interesting reading with
this btw). For nowhere is the truth of "Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty" more
evident than in this poem.

It's a stunning achievement really - a poem so incredibly sensuous, so
amazingly rich and pleasing to the ear, that manages at the same time to not
only paint with exquisite precision a series of delicate images (so that
reading it you can almost imagine this great mythic vase) but also to be a
direct and compelling statement of Keats' overall aesthetic philosophy. If
you want poetry at its purest, its most classical - this is it.

It's ironic perhaps, and also one of the greatest joys of this poem that
much of what Keats says of the Urn is as true today of his own poetry. "When
old age shall this generation waste / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other
woe / Than ours, a friend to man." If that isn't true of John Keats, I don't
know what other poet it's true of.

Aseem

P.S. Another interesting read to go along with this poem is of course Yeats'
Byzantium [Poem #60] - two great poets, saying, in a way, the same thing,
yet so very different!

40 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Penney Mark said...

This poem was spoiled for me forever, before I even read it, by The
Music Man. If you haven't seen it (or even if you have), it's a warmly
nostalgic musical comedy about a charlatan fly-by-night salesman who
sells band instruments uniforms and music lessons, all paid in advance
of course. In one subplot, the mayor's harridan wife gets onto his game
(which is that he is not a musician at all), but the salesman throws her
off by flattering her into forming an interpretive dance troupe.
They're awful. There's a scene where you see these middle-aged Iowa
farmers' wives wearing ridiculous classical garb, including artificial
grapes in their hair. They are prancing around, supposedly making the
shape of various objects. The mayor's wife says, "One Grecian urn!"
and, voila, the ladies form an urn shape. Everyone applauds politely.
Then they form "Two Grecian urns!" and, um, you get the idea. "And
the fountain-trickle, trickle, trickle!" Two ladies appropriately
trickle from a fountain formed by the rest. You will agree that this
has little to do with Keats. Even so, every time I see this poem, the
association with The Music Man is there, completely dominating any
attempt to read the poem rationally. "Oh Attic shape! Fair attitude!
And now the fountain-trickle, trickle, trickle!"

By the way, "Oh Attic shape! Fair attitude!" is, as a grad-school
professor of mine pointed out to us, a surprisingly bad pun.

--M.

Priscilla Jebaraj said...

I agree...I can't believe Minstrels hasn't had this poem on yet. But I'm
re= ally glad it popped into my mailbox today.

After a 24-hour day at work, covering some rather "unbeautiful" things
(I w= ork for a news channel), it's good to have a reminder of sylvan
beauty...be= auty that's not just on the surface and ephemeral, but
rather something tha= t's destined to remain, a timeless classic beauty.

Apart from the subject of the poem, of course, the poem's got its own
sooth= ing beauty. Which I needed today. Thank you.

Priscilla

Kaul Aseem said...

Oops! It's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' of course - sorry. (New Year
Resolution: I have got to stop making these tpyso...errr...typos)

Aseem

Abraham Thomas said...

Q: What's a Grecian Urn?
A: Oh, about 1000 drachmas an hour.

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