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Ode on a Grecian Urn
John Keats portrays the theme of eternal innocence and the sufficiency of beauty throughout this poem. The Grecian urn, passed down through countless centuries to the time of the speaker’s viewing of it, exists outside of time in the human sense – it does not age, it does not die, and it is alien to all such concepts. In the speaker’s meditation, this creates an intriguing paradox for the human figures carved into the side of the urn: they are free from time, but they are simultaneously frozen in time. They do not have to confront aging and death (their love is “for ever young”)(594), but neither can they have experience (the youth can never kiss the maiden; the figures in the procession can never return to their homes).
In the first stanza, the speaker, standing before an ancient Grecian urn, addresses the urn, preoccupied with its depiction of pictures frozen in time. It is the “still unravish’d bride of quietness”(593), the “foster-child of silence and slow time” (593). He also describes the urn as a “historian” (593), which can tell a story. He wonders about the figures on the side of the urn, and asks what legend they depict, and where they are from. He looks at a picture that seems to depict a group of men pursuing a group of women, and wonders what their story could be:
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? (593)
Using these words, Keats makes the urn capture the picture of the chase before any sexual desires or intentions are fulfilled. Since the urn ceases to describe anything past the chase itself, the situation is purely innocent with beauty thus complying with the theme.
Also evident throughout the second and third stanzas is the theme of eternal innocence and beauty. Keats views art as something that is eternal and lets you experience what s happening in the painting. He writes of a young man sitting under a tree with the girl he loves. He is playing a pan flute to the girl and expressing his passion for her through music. While the speaker cannot actually hear the music of the young man s pipes, he can just imagine how sweet the melody would sound. Once captured by the urn, the picture will remain forever. The trees with the leaves, the maiden, and the young man himself will always remain the same. He will always play the flute and can never kiss the girl. Keats uses the following lines in this stanza:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (593)
These lines simply mean that the boy doesn’t have the bliss of the kiss; but the poet says not to worry because the young maiden will always remain by his side, young and beautiful. The urn captures her innocence. The two lovers will always be in love and will always have passionate symptoms including fever, heavy breathing, and dry mouth. Therefore, since the maiden and the young man never actually have a sexual contact relationship, their love is pure, innocent, and eternal thus complying with the theme of eternal innocence and beauty. He gives very real, very human qualities to these two painted beings.
Continuing to the fourth stanza, the theme of eternal innocence and beauty is profound with the subject of a peaceful, uncorrupted town. The urn presents a priest leading a heifer dressed in garland up to an altar. The people from the town are on their way to the altar. The reader wonders where they are going in line 32, To what green altar, O mysterious priest…”, and where they have come from. He imagines their little town, empty of all its citizens, and tells it that its streets will “for evermore” be silent (594), for those who have left it, frozen on the urn, will never return. The town symbolizes the potential of man (cheating, lying, pride, and envy). Then, as the story continues, a bit of irony becomes present. The people are portrayed to have taken over a spiritual nature of innocence and purity. They are spiritual in nature as depicted by the urn; but not even five minutes later, they plan to sacrifice the heifer. But, once again, by freezing in time the picture of innocence, the urn does not represent the corrupted image that is about to take place. It has caught the people in a holy moment, and it has caught the town as an empty picture of beauty. Therefore, Keats once again demonstrates eternal innocence and beauty by capturing on the urn the picture of an uncorrupted town and a group of holy people.
In the last stanza, Keats tells the reader he has teased their thoughts by convincing them that the theme of innocence and beauty are ever present in society. He tells us the paintings will live on to serve as a friend to other generations when his generation is long gone and dead. By using his imagination in interpreting this painting, Keats shows us what he thinks about art. A work of art can mean different things to people, but it remains for many generations to take from it what they will.
Keats penned these lines metaphorically:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
It is said that even Keats was not clear of the exact message presented by this statement. Most critics think he used the terms of truth and beauty in a Platonic sense, as verbal representations of the highest ideals. The first part of the statement is relatively clear–the highest expressions of art are the most sublime expressions of wisdom and truth. But, the last part of the message leaves one lingering in thought. Maybe he thought only the beautiful parts of life should be represented which is comparable to the images on the urn. Only Keats knew the real meaning. Overall, this last stanza forces the reader to see what is in the surrounding world. It foresees that when there is a presence of “other woe” (594) within the world (which is relevant to the world today: 180 years later), the urn and its eternal emanations of beauty will survive. So, even though the last stanza is of a different structure (does not have the urn representing a scene), it still represents innocence and beauty especially within the famous line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (594).
Therefore, as demonstrated throughout the entire poem by the use of innocent, unfulfilled images painted on the urn, Keats demonstrates the theme of innocence and eternal beauty.
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