The Reconciliation of Classical and Romantic Art in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

April 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

While the countless paradoxes in John Keats’s Poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” could lead one to envision a battle between Classical and Romantic art, Keats tries to reconcile the two types of art through the form and theme of his poem. The various paradoxes that Keats establishes in his poem are so complex and seem so impossible, one could assume that Keats is commenting on the irreconcilable nature of Romantic and Classical art. However, upon closer inspection, the paradoxes seem to point to the exact opposite—that Romantic and Classical art depend on each other. In stanza 2, the utility of the paradox is illustrated well as the speaker examines the scene between the piper and his lover. The lovers are immortalized on the side of the urn, both frozen in time as well as free from it. The piper plays a song for his lover, a “fair youth, beneath the trees” that “canst not leave / [the piper’s] song, nor ever can those trees be bare” (15-16). The speaker depicts the lover as “fair”—beautiful and young. There is music involved in the scene coming from the piper’s instrument, as well as nature in the form of the tree beneath which the lover sits. The urn attempts to create a scene of perfection—even the nature of the unheard melody played by the piper is thought to be superior to an audible tune because it allows for imagination which, in itself, is yet another paradox (11-12). Yet the very nature of art—of capturing a single moment and inscribing it in stone—does not allow for completion, which makes it deficient. The lover sitting beneath the tree will never see the beautiful colors of autumnal leaves nor hear anything other than the single note played by her piper at the very moment he was commemorated in stone. The speaker recognizes the shortcomings the lovers must face, asserting that the lovers “never, never canst thou kiss, / though winning near the goal” (17-18). While the scene is beautiful and seems almost perfect, it is heartbreaking in its finality; the repetition of never in line 17 serves to reaffirm the futility of the lovers’ efforts to kiss. No amount of time will allow them to consummate their love; it is left severed and unyielding on the side of the Grecian urn. Just as the lovers will never be able to unite, Romantic and Classical art seem worlds away from each other. However, there seems to be reconciliation in sight. The speaker, after articulating the lovers’ plight, urges the piper, “do not grieve” (18), although the lack of completion brings grief because it is not perfect and does not offer satisfaction. The speaker goes on to remind the piper that his beautiful lover, sitting beneath the trees, “cannot fade,” that she “for ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” (19, 20). While the eternal nature of art does not allow the lovers to unite in a kiss, it preserves their youth and beauty, so that they will never age, will never wilt, and will be able to look on beauty for all of eternity. The compromise seems to be an acceptable one for the speaker. Still, the scene nears perfection so closely, yet remains unfulfilled. To be near perfect is to be imperfect. The scene’s near-perfection—or desire for perfection—is typical of Classical art, while the scene’s incompletion, its yearning for something more speaks to Romantic art. These two notions are married seamlessly in the complex paradox the immortal lovers face. Romantic and Classical art are also aligned by the form and theme of the poem. Though Keats is recognized as a Romantic poet, his poems are markedly different than those of Wordsworth or Coleridge in both form and theme. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” there is no elaborate exaltation of Nature and, moreover, no perceived objective of aligning Man with Nature. Instead, the poem celebrates art and beauty—subjects often characteristic of Classical poetry. In an attempt to bridge the gap, to marry Romantic and Classical art, Keats employs a peculiar form. Lines one through four of each stanza follow the rhyme scheme ABAB; they are intensely structured and the end rhymes involved are almost always perfect rhymes. Such structure is characteristic of Classical poetry. Lines five through ten of each stanza, however, depart from this rhyme scheme, following a wilder, yet not completely random pattern. Such lack of structure is characteristic of Romantic poetry. The changes in rhyme scheme could have symbolized the irreparable separation between Romantic and Classical art, yet Keats uses content to bridge the two. For example, stanza 2 begins with the speaker encouraging the piper to play music “not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone” (13-14). In the first lines of the stanza, where the structure is strictest, the piper is told not to play in accordance with logic or reason, not to the “sensual ear,” but to satisfy the “spirit” or the imagination. Therefore, Keats manages to integrate Romantic ideals into Classical structure, reconciling the two in strange harmony. The themes that arise in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are strange for Romantic poetry—they speak more to Classical poetry—yet Keats manages to unite the two art forms. The final lines of a poem often serve as a summing-up, as a culmination and as an area where the theme of the poem is a bit more accessible. However, the closing couplet of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” have always been a point of contention for scholars and, one might argue, that is exactly how Keats wanted it. To say that “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (49-50), is to say something highly contradictory to Romantic philosophy, which is concerned with substance more than beauty. In order to derive an appropriate theme from the closing lines, one must first identify whom the speaker is addressing. There are several possibilities. It would be fair and reasonable to assume that the final two lines are meant to be a message from the urn to the reader, which is what the context seems to suggest. After all, the speaker addresses the urn as “thou” throughout the poem, and does so directly preceding the closing couplet in line 48 (“a friend to man, to whom thou sayest”). Throughout the poem, the speaker consistently asks the urn questions and investigates its various scenes. The last two lines could well be the urn’s answer to the speaker’s countless inquiries. If the adage of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is, indeed, said by the urn to the reader, then the notion of art is meant to teach and enlighten. Art, therefore, serves as a worthy guide, an ideological source. If the urn is the speaker in the closing couplet, the poem seems to suggest that art is a source of enlightenment and, therefore, is of supreme importance, which is representative of the mindset involved in Classical poetry and art. However, the final lines could be interpreted as the speaker addressing the urn. If the final two lines are aimed at the urn, they become somewhat patronizing. After such a probing and thoughtful examination of the urn and its inherent philosophical properties, the speaker seems to be reducing the complexity of his finding to the singular mantra of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and that the urn “needs to know” no more than that. Beauty seems to be superficial in this instance and the speaker seems to belittle the urn and its artwork. If the speaker is addressing the urn, the speaker seems to realize both the shallowness of beauty as well as the triviality of art for holding beauty so highly. It is as if the speaker is telling the urn to “just sit there and look pretty.” If beauty is, in fact, art’s truth, the speaker could be criticizing art for its inconsequentiality, yet simultaneously realizing that the nature of art is to, in fact, portray beauty and superficiality. This observation of formal art—in a nearly condescending manner—speaks more so to Romantic notions of art. So, Keats offers both the Romantic and the Classical notion of art in the final lines of his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” leaving the reader’s utility intact to choose how to read the closing couplet—but perhaps the reader does not actually have to select one reading or the other. The ambiguous ending is meant to, once again, bridge the gap between Romantic and Classical art. To assume that the speaker in the final lines has to be either the urn or the speaker is to not give the poem its due credit. If a reader were to assume that both the urn and the speaker are declaring the closing couplet, Romantic and Classical art are, once again, reconciled in a strange chorus of voices. By marrying Romantic and Classical art, Keats is suggesting that one art form is not inherently more correct or true than the other and that opposites can, indeed, exist in strange harmony.

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