John Keats’ Vision for Art in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

(Greg Wolfe’s mission inspires a reading of Keats’ well-known poem)

This essay is adapted from a paper originally written for Dr. Lorraine Eadie’s ENG 330: Restoration and Romantic British Literature.

“Beauty is truth, truth, beauty.”

In his lecture “Conservatism and the Arts: A Lover’s Quarrel,” [Hillsdale College, October 2014] Greg Wolfe argued that in order to conserve what is good, true, and beautiful, the form of art must change so that it remains in connection with the contemporary culture. “Because we are fallen, limited creatures, beautiful styles get hackneyed,” Wolfe said, and used the fragmented and modern style of T.S. Eliot’s poetry as an example of how a modern style can convey conservative ideas. John Keats, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” has a parallel intent. The forms of art at play in the poem form a striking contrast. Lyric, the (then) radical style of poetry that the Romantics favored, describes a subjective experience of viewing a Grecian urn, the quintessential example of an ancient and long admired form of art. This is imagination fully engaged by its images. That Keats chose to write about an ancient urn, which has persisted in its message for thousands of years, indicates his concern with art, its forms, its structures, and its purpose. Like Eliot, Keats uses the contemporary style of his day to describe and conserve the universal truth of the human condition that he sees in the urn. The urn, an ancient art form, has clearly not stopped portraying a truth, but if artists had only communicated via urns for thousands of years, clearly something would be wrong. It is entirely fitting to Keats’ greater argument about art that he uses his modern lyric style to describe an old form of art. Forms of art may change over time, but the beauty and truth they conserve and portray does not. No matter the form, art should convey that “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty”.

Keats structures the poem by introducing the urn as a true piece of art in the first stanza, examining the urn’s portrayal of truths about the human condition in the middle stanzas, and concluding with his broader argument about the relationship between art and life. The poem has an inner component where Keats uses the urn to demonstrate the truth of the human condition’s unfulfilled nature, fleeting passions, and troubling mysteries. There is also an outer argument, where Keats defines the urn’s greater purpose as a true and beautiful piece of art and holds it forth as an example of what all art should be. The urn, which permanently portrays the fragile, the unfulfilled, and the troubled, accurately reflects the human condition. Keats argues that the urn is a true work of art because it reflects a truth and a beauty that will remain a lasting guide in a world of unknowns.

Before continuing, it is important to acknowledge and distinguish the two levels of beauty present in the urn and in the poem. The urn has a physical beauty in its images and form, and the poem certainly contains beauty in its language. However, the deeper beauty that Keats perceives in the urn concerns its portrayal of a truth about the human condition and how his experience of viewing the urn leads him to it. The elements of beauty in the urn’s details about nature may provide the viewer with a guide to interpreting the beauty of both the urn and the poem. Who can deny the beauty of a tree permanently in the glory of its spring blossoms? The viewer sighs, “Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu” (21–22). But because of the permanence of the urn, the spring blossoms never turn into the glory of green summer leaves; the trees, despite their physical beauty, go unfulfilled like everything else on the urn. The soft “Ah,” and the inability to say goodbye create a melancholy and troubled tone; because of the inability to say adieu to springtime, nothing can change, develop, and be fulfilled. So while a superficial and earthly beauty is present, it pales in comparison to the greater, more beautiful truth that the urn portrays about the troubled and unfulfilled condition of man.

Clearly, then, within Keats’ argument that art should direct people to a greater truth and beauty is the urn’s portrayal of the truth of man’s unfulfilled and troubled state. The urn’s images, forever frozen in time and forever on display, reflect the timelessness and permanence of mankind’s state in the world, with all of its passions and struggles as intricately intertwined as the carvings in the marble. For example, the famous image of the “Bold lover,” paralyzed forever without having achieved his kiss with the fair maiden, evinces an aching sense of an unfulfilled love. The viewer, upon observing this, says, “Yet do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bliss / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair” (18–20). The slightly bitter tone of this speaker suggests his awareness of the fleetingness and fragility of beauty and youth in real life, which is paradoxically contrasted by the very permanence of the beauty of the figures on the urn. However, this preserved state of outward beauty has the far darker consequence of love forever unfulfilled. The bold lover will always love, but it will never be reciprocated, and the fair maiden will never be anything but pretty. Yet there is a far deeper beauty to be found in the urn because it reflects the truth of the human condition. The frozen lover on the urn demonstrates how love and life go unfulfilled, permanently and universally, and the frozen loveliness of the fair maiden, by its very permanence, makes apparent the fleetingness of outward beauty.

The paradox between the permanent and the fleeting continues in the urn’s portrayal of human passions as fragile and ephemeral. Indelibly part of man’s condition, they are forever preserved in the artwork on the urn. The urn inspires a series of emotions and rapid questions from the viewer. In the first stanza, the viewer asks questions using highly charged phrases such as “mad pursuit,” “struggle to escape,” and “wild ecstasy,” which cast a tone of anxiety over the images on the urn (9–10). This anxiety, coupled with the ardent lovers in the second stanza and the passionate language in the third, makes for a wrenching representation of human emotions, which swing highly and wildly with “More happy love! More happy, happy love!” (25) before burning out and leaving “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / a burning forehead, and a parching tongue” (29–30). “Cloy’d,” which means “burdened,” or “surfeited” (“Cloyed”), implies that what was once enjoyed has now become excess, completely unable to provide any sort of fulfillment. The urn does not elevate the viewer’s opinion of human passions or contain a glamorous beauty; rather, it causes the viewer to use the language of both thirst and a sorrowful, burdened heart to express his response. The language of this response is so searing and penetrating because the viewer has realized a truth: the passions of the human condition waver, fluctuate, and burn out. The overarching beauty of the urn stems from this truth because the urn provides the viewer with this portrayal of the human condition and the viewer’s reaction and analysis of human passions demonstrates that he is using the urn as a guide to beauty and truth.

The fourth stanza enters into the realm of speculation about the urn, in which Keats addresses the overwhelming presence of mystery in life. Keats contemplates the image of the sacrifice, with a priest leading a heifer decorated with garlands to the altar. However, this sacrifice has some ambiguity and mystery around the edges because he is unable to determine anything else about the image. He is led to supplement this scene by imagining a little town on a coast or a mountain that is empty because of some religious celebration pertaining to the priest and the sacrifice. The key lines, however, come at the end: “And, little town, thy streets for evermore / will silent be; and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return” (40). “Not a soul to tell” suggests a greater, completely unknowable mystery, which will remain unknowable despite any speculations by any viewer. The streets will always remain silent because the urn is frozen in time. The way in which the urn leaves the viewer to muse upon the mysterious details of this town represents how wondering at the unknowable, going without answers, and simply not being able to know everything is an unavoidable part of the human condition. In his lecture, Wolfe too addressed this value of ambiguity in literature. “To recognize that ambiguity is the nature of our experience is to be reminded of a need for humility,” he said. Mystery and ambiguity are humbling in that they make obvious the limits of human knowledge and the difficulty of putting morals into practice (Wolfe). Keats acknowledges this limit of knowledge through the use of ambiguity in the fourth stanza, and then defines the limits of knowledge more directly in the final lines of the poem, when he describes how time and mystery will humble and waste man, but knowledge of beauty and truth will remain.

From the fourth stanza to the fifth, Keats crosses over from exploring the nature of the human condition as treated by the urn to exploring the relationship between art and life, holding up the urn as an example. The way in which the urn engages its viewers in the mystery of the empty town demonstrates how art can both communicate with a part of the soul that is often unreachable and address complexities that may be far beyond one’s individual perception. Keats says to the urn, “Thou silent form, dost tease us out of thought / as does eternity” (44–45). The urn, as a true piece of art, gently tugs its viewer out of a disconnected contemplation into a contemplation in communion with the piece of art, just as the thought of eternity pulls an individual out of his disconnected time and place, or even his disconnected life, and into a conception of time far more complex and profound than his individual, unfulfilled life. This sort of connected contemplation that art can create is also hinted at earlier in the poem, through the image of the musician:

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 (11–14).

The unheard melodies of the musician indicate how the urn connects directly with the mind, or rather, how it “pipes to the spirit,” which connotes a more mysterious, inexplicable communication that is forged with the imagination. Keats shows through the urn that not only should art reflect the human condition, but it should also completely “endear” or captivate the spirit and imagination of its viewers, directing them to beauty and truth.

In the final five lines of the poem, Keats completes and unifies his argument, defining the end and purpose of art through the urn. Art, as a lasting guide to truth and beauty, will also remain a comfort and a trustworthy source of knowledge in a world where the unfulfilled and unexplained often leave man otherwise perplexed. Keats says to the urn, “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man” (46-48). The contrast present in the first line between the passing of time that wastes and ages and the urn that endures encompasses all that Keats saw on the urn in the previous stanzas. The permanently unfulfilled state of the images on the urn mirrors the permanently unfulfilled condition of man, and will remain a truth for generations to come when the lives of this generation have passed. In a world of “woe” that transcends all generations, the urn remains “a friend to man” and a knowledgeable and trustworthy “Sylvan historian,” (3) as Keats describes in the first stanza, that comforts its viewers with its beauty and truth. Keats personifies the urn, which breaks a silence and speaks aloud its famous line, “Beauty, is truth, truth, beauty” (49), with a tone of wisdom or counsel. Keats’ response to this comment, “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (49–50), answers the problem of mystery present in the fourth stanza, where he demonstrated that one cannot know everything. The urn, however, suggests that beauty and truth are things that, in a world of unknowns, one has the ability to know, especially through art.

The final lines reveal the numerous levels of ideas at play in the poem, all of which point toward Keats’ concern with the purpose of art in life. He uses a new form of poetry to describe an old form of art, demonstrating how they both portray and conserve beauty and truth. He uses the urn to portray the truth of the human condition, in all its unfulfilled struggle and troubled passions, with a beautiful lyric that engages the viewer and shows how the urn is a perfect example of what art should be to its viewers. He addresses two layers of beauty: that which is aesthetic and that which transcends. The urn is beautiful because it depicts the truth. In the fourth stanza, the urn engages its viewers in a mystery, and in the final stanza, Keats broadens this idea by suggesting mystery and ambiguity in art forge a connection with its viewers and thus better communicate truth and beauty as a guide in a world of unknowns.

So many critics of this poem dislike the final two lines because of their lack of clarity; however, Cleanthe Brooks’ argument that they must be read in the context of the entire poem bears a great deal of weight (133). The urn says, “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty” because it is a piece of art, whose purpose is to convey these ideas in an indescribable communication with its viewers. Read in this context, Keats’ line does not seem so very different from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s line in The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.” As Greg Wolfe argues so eloquently in his book, titled after Dostoevsky’s line, art conveys a beauty that will guide people back to truth when all else is obscured. Keats, as it seems from this poem, would agree.

Sarah Reinsel is a sophomore studying English.

Image courtesy Elena Creed.

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