By David Gosselin
This is Part 2 to the series on Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”. Part 1 can be found here.
Chapter II: What is Poetry?
The yearning for harmony and perfection is an innately human desire. What else can satisfy this thirst for perfection, if not art? Even nature, in its infinite intricacies, endless complexity and sublime simplicity represents a force of danger, insurmountable obstacles and the uncertainty of the future— all these limitations great art vanquishes. And this is why art has always been one of the great battle grounds for humanity. For, if a population is not in a disposition to receive beautiful and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature in the realms of the arts, most of humanity will never be able to pursue them in the real world.
Friedrich Schiller expressed this sentiment when he encouraged his fellow artists to surround their contemporaries with:
the great and noble forms of genius, and encompass them about with the symbols of perfection, until semblance conquer reality, and art triumph over nature. (NA XX, 336/E 111)
In a famous poem by another great poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “On Contemplating Schiller’s Skull”, Goethe expresses his joy at the realization of precisely this idea: matter being formed by spirit, and spirit being formed into matter. The great irony, however, is that while the Modernist’s view – branded as “New Criticism” – claimed to not be concerned with philosophy, or a poem’s philosophical nature, underlying this critical approach was a very definite axiomatic system, namely that truth cannot be known—at least in art—and that there is no intrinsic value to artistic ideas; that immaterial ideas have no bearing on the real world and are not knowable as precise thought objects—only feelings could be viewed as precise and objectively knowable experiences. Everything that could not be classified in some category of objective sense-perceptual existence was cast aside into an obscure department known as “metaphysics.”
Thus, the philosophy of Modernism—typified by The Poetry Foundation’s poem guide, or T.S. Eliot’s critique of Keats’ ode—contents itself with limiting analysis of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to craft exclusively and its effects on an audience’s sensibilities. It is an outlook that has caused a great rift in the development of art and thought, and in the soul of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The result: the muses of poetic composition have been essentially enchained for more than a century.
Serious poems require serious thought. Even light-hearted poems can require serious thought, only the thoughts often come more easily, which is why we perceive them to be light-hearted, as opposed to weighty or considerable in gravity. The serious thought and effort that a young person puts into discovering the meaning of a great poem is the kind of serious thought that they can then put into the rest of their lives. It is the quality of thought they will need to apply in many of life’s most serious matters—its greatest paradoxes—paradoxes like love, mortality, creativity and the existence of something called “the universe.” Art informs our serious thinking; it inspires the angels of our better nature.
By thinking creatively, or poetically, we are not bound by the predetermined terms and definitions of a given situation, we are free to discover new ways of approaching the terms and matter of a given situation; we are allowed insights and glimpses into new levels of unchanging knowledge, ideas that persevere even as all the elements and happenings of the world around them fade, transform or mutate over time.
Modernist literary jargon will often include the requirement of precision—but it is a precision in language—not in ideas. The Modernist’s language must be clear, his/her descriptions flawless, but their ideas have no such requirements in precision. This is a very conscious bias and clear instance of where the Modernist attempt to divorce reason from poetry, ideas from language, Truth from Beauty, exposes itself in the very act of attempting to cover up its efforts, like the thief who is caught not because he was found committing a crime, but found out because of the traces he left in his attempt to cover up the crime.
The “One” and the “Many”
“Thy silent form doth tease us out of thought: as doth Eternity!”
-John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”
Keats chose a Grecian Urn for his subject. Such an artistic choice should not be ignored, nor should the historical significance of the Greek artistic heritage which Keats is shedding light on. Keats was of course enamoured by the tradition of classical Greece, its beauty and naturalness. He had been exposed to its sculpture when visiting the recently stolen Elgin Marbles. The marbles of Greece, while immobile, succeed in capturing moments of intense and compelling action. Our senses perceive something at complete rest, and yet, our minds are moved. We are compelled to perceive that which is not seen, but which we are impelled to conceive of.
Greek sculpture can be recognized by its characteristic irony. In classical Greek sculpture, Irony is communicated through the juxtaposition of differing actions. Our senses are captivated—captivated because the experience of the work compels us to look for something that is not there, something that it brings forward from us. In the same way, poetry is what is not said, it is that which stirs a new consciousness or heightened awareness in our mind; it is a consciousness that allows our mind to perceive that which our immediate senses and impressions cannot. Thus, great art always has a transcendent quality; it challenges us to resolve the paradox between the finite and infinite, the seen and unseen, the “One” and the “Many.”
However, if we turn our attention back to how a Modernist or Contemporary critic in The Poetry Foundation’s poem guide describes the sentiment expressed by Keats’ Ode, we find something very different and quite alien from a tradition that has existed and been carried over for millennia:
Keats surrounds the urn with all these pressing questions and tries to assure us at the end with its ventriloquent wisdom. Yet our doubts remain even in all this exquisite sound and shape—paradoxes to contemplate about art and life and beauty and truth—and that is why we are continually drawn to this poem. What is true is not always beautiful, and what is beautiful is not forever true. Negative capability may be a fantasy of identification with the Other; the Greek world was not at all ideal—the poet cannot escape his pain, yet his pain can make a marvelous poem. The poem and the urn do not have one meaning; the point is to be “overwrought”—to dwell in the difficult paradoxes, questions, and exclamations—and not reach for the simple or factual. To be human and mortal and not want to be—and to want to make art.
The question is not whether the poem has many meanings or not, but that there is Truth and coherence among these meanings. Keats opens the poem by describing the urn as something that tells us a story in ways surpassing anything that he could describe in his own verses, or simply given as some historical account:
“Sylvan historian who cans’t thus express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.”
Keats becomes the interlocutor of this seemingly timeless but mute fountain of wisdom.
In the second stanza, a series of questions and paradoxical statements follow:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter
Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on/not to the sensual ear, but more endeared/pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Before any melody is ever sung or performed, does it not exist? We are challenged to conceive of that which precedes all melody, the source from which all melody is born—the music of our inner ear and the score of the human heart. Keats is transporting us into an ethereal realm; the objects which he presents to us are not objects of the sense, but objects of the mind. For the nihilist, existentialist, modernist or contemporary thinker, these are very upsetting conceits because the nihilist, existentialist, modernist and contemporary thinker are grounded in the “Enlightenment” tradition where only that which was empirically perceivable could be accepted as “real.” What was real, Truth, became a matter of the five senses. One could not objectively speak of that which was not seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted—and yet Keats does.
Keats develops several thought objects—“enigmatic” images –in his second stanza, which force the mind to conceive of non-literal, but just as objectively definable thought-objects, or “gestalts.” It is through the ironical juxtaposition of these “thought-objects” that one is able to arrive at Keats’ higher metaphorical meaning, or metaphor of metaphors, regarding the intimate relationship between “Beauty” and “Truth.”
In the second part of the second stanza, Keats addresses the lovers on the urn directly.
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!
They are frozen in time; they cannot attain the object of their desire, but for just that reason, their passion and love can never fade. Keats relishes the seeming suspension of reality captured by the static nature of the urn and he proceeds to explore all of its poetic possibilities. However, these are not freedom-of-associations—Keats is hypothesizing; it is the power and freedom inherent in his choosing to allow his mind to explore the possibilities before him—his “Negative Capability”—without necessarily having all the answers i.e. not necessarily knowing what they will lead to—this defines an immense creative tension between the past, present, future, and all time—we are on the brink of Eternity. This defines the power of Keats’ “Negative Capability,” as Keats referred to it in one of his letters in which he was discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Such “negative capability”—the power and freedom of imagination—is not only the essence of great poetry, it is the essence of science. The scientist or poet is presented with a set of objective facts, images or perceptions, and they must then proceed to imagine what possibilities i.e. realities could account for the existence of the facts before them. It is a rigorous process, and also one that we grow more comfortable and accustomed to as we adopt creativity as a regular habit, rather than mere happenstance flashes and glimpses in our imagination, which may never be fully matured.
In the case of poetry, the “facts” themselves, the predicates of a work of art may also be imagined, and then the possibilities of these envisioned realities explored further. In this respect, the result of Keats’ high level of “negative capability” is pure timeless Beauty and Wisdom.
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.
But this state of suspended animation creates a tension with the known reality of our mortal world: if all these things fade, what remains? What can mortals cling to? “Nothing,” says the nihilist; “whatever you want—it doesn’t matter” says the existentialist; “nothing, or even if there is, we cannot know” says the gnostic. But Keats is none-of-the-above. Keats believes in the existence of creativity as a force in history and this world is his “vale” of “soul-making.”
All ideas that were ever conceived were conceived within a creative mind; none of the evolution of the human species, beyond hunting and gathering, could have ever occurred without the human creative process generating new ideas, new metaphors for making sense of the universe inhabited by our mortal selves. To then use the knowledge afforded by such ideas to create new modes of being, new platforms of economy, technologies, and an ultimately never-ending process of mining the infinite wealth inherent in the human mind, defines our species as uniquely creative. Everything else will fade. However, the existence of the creative process and its fruits can never be destroyed for just the reason, because they were never conceived of in a material world; and yet their Truth is objectively demonstrable; a Truth that the mind is able to perceive and then act on with a new heightened awareness.
All this philosophy over two lines of poetry?
Yes! That is precisely the point. Poetry says what cannot simply be said literally, but which can be discovered—discovered by our mind—because only our mind can make discoveries—even if our senses cannot. Human beings inhabit both the world of mind and of matter, we partake in both the finite and the infinite, we are both “One” and “Many.”
Chapter III: Tease Us Out of Thought
Everything needed to understand a great classical poem—or any great classical work of art—is already found within the work (historical, biographical and other related background knowledge will only serve to demonstrate the timeless and infinite nature of the wisdom embodied in a great piece of art). To the degree a work lacks a said quality of intelligibility, it is fragmentary. The skill of the artist is defined by his/her ability to weave these fragments into a harmonious whole – not only a harmonious whole of images, but a harmonious whole of idea defined by “the operations of the human mind”; the harmonious resolution of the parts—the “Many”—in a whole—the “One”—allows us to then discover this whole—the “One”—in each preceding part—the “Many.” Paradoxically, the “One” which has no parts, is only arrived at by identifying the “Many.” The leap between the “One” and the “Many” is the measure of Eternity.
More than nature, and more than anything in the universe, art affords humankind the ideals of perfection, ideals which may never be fully attained, but which for just that reason, the human species may always pursue and continue to improve upon. The great German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz termed this, “the pursuit of happiness.”
If this is true, then Beauty is Truth—a higher truth which transcends all the more unfortunate realities of a transient world, because a discernable higher truth exists which demonstrates that these tragedies are not necessary, even if they happen and will likely continue to happen—that nature and the universe are fraught with uncertainty is not something to lament, but accept and embrace, a nature that should cause a noble spirit to only strengthen their resolve and belief in the need to participate and further elaborate the creative Goodness of the human species.
Now, having kept us in a world of suspended reality for what feels like eons, with the two closing lines of the ode’s third stanza, Keats reminds us that this is only a vision, and that he must now bring us back into our mortal vale.
At the fourth stanza, Keats breaks away from all the previous thoughts and images, but does so in a lawful manner. What Keats creates is not a pastiche of images, a cubist pictorial amalgamation of disparate parts—a “Many” without the “One”—instead he directs our attention to another scene on the urn, a sacrifice:
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 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.
While having no logical connection to the scene that preceded it per se, Keats continues to build on the tension he has created, he maintains that tension – the “One” is still present – and he seeks to further unfold it—he is exploring the Urn for all its possible richness and realities in order to arrive at a higher level of reality, a transcendent truth that underlies all the images he has experienced—he is challenging the reader to situate themselves within the universal arc of history.
Guthrie was right to highlight the inherent tension of Keats’ experience at the beginning of The Poetry Foundation’s guide:
His urn, an imagined composite, reflects upon Keats’s philosophical and emotional concerns and contains his ambivalence about art and life within its rich, ambiguous tropes and vocabularies. Indeed, the poem’s ambivalences haunt its readers still.
However, to say that Keats’ was unable to engage with the ancient object is not true—it is the contrary of what happens. His interaction with the urn is infinite; all of humanity’s interaction with the urn is infinite. While humanity can never know all the particulars of something infinite, it can grasp the concept of the infinite; without it the concept of the finite becomes absurd.
While we may never know the “little town” painted on the Grecian urn, we find ourselves with a new heightened consciousness and sensibility for the totality of time and history, that though we will never know or be acquainted with the vast majority of events and people of history, we are yet capable of conceptualizing the totality of the historical process as a single “One,” and we are able to situate ourselves within that universal historical arc and act on it.
Arrived at the fifth and final stanza, Keats now redirects his intention away from the individual images and back towards the urn itself.
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.”
Keats treats the urn as something that not only has its roots in the past, but in the future. Or better-said, the ideas symbolized by the urn do not dwell in the past, present, or future, they are eternal; they are re-discoverable and should be rediscovered by each new generation.
Chapter IV: Conclusion
At the heart of all great art is a tension, a tension between that which we can conceive of and that which we will never be able to fully grasp; between the infinite gulf that exists between our individual mortality and the immortality of the species; between the universe in its finite present and its unbounded future, and yet, human beings can only thrive if they are willing to embrace this paradoxical reality and live a life informed by such paradoxes i.e. choosing to be creative and partake in the continuity of man’s evolution across generations and across all time. Without this “One,” the “Many” becomes meaningless; without an understanding of the unfolding process of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” its final statement is meaningless. We may choose to accept and embrace the beauty and truth of Keats’ ode, or we may simply become existentialists busy crafting our own personal narratives rather than choosing to share and partake in the common story of humanity. Modernism is essentially the “Many” without the “One”; classicism, the classical tradition of ancient Greece, the Italian tradition of Dante and Petrarch, the English tradition of Shakespeare and Keats, the German tradition of Schiller and Goethe exemplifies what happens when the “One” is united with the “Many.”
The individual who locates his/her identity in the future – who thinks and acts for generations yet unborn – acts immortally. The individual who is always only stuck in the immediate present, often feels like dying—the twenty-first century arguably has entire generations that think and feel this way—and must therefore eternally search for the next distraction. However, acting as a truly creative human being can only be willed if one has first embraced their own mortality. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is one of the most beautiful expressions of a human being embracing precisely this idea—of uniting the “One” and the “Many”—and celebrating art’s unparalleled ability to inspire this yearning in the whole of the human race. The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is Keats’ ecstatic and ekphrastic reaction to this idea.
 On May 26-27, 1789, Schiller delivered the lecture titled “What Is, and to What End Do We Study Universal History?” at Jena University. It was his first lecture in his new position as Professor of History. The young Schiller’s reputation was already such, that, for his first lecture, the classroom was filled to overflowing. A virtual march of hundreds of students occurred in the street, much to Schiller’s amusement, to secure a larger classroom, before Schiller could begin. The full translated transcript of the lecture can be found here.
 Camille Guthrie, “John Keats: “Ode to a Grecian Urn How to read the most famous poem “for ever“
David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse poetry website, which is dedicated to publishing and promoting 21st-century classical poetry.
Feature Image: “Winged Victory of Samothrace”