John Keats was born in London into a lower middle-class family. He studied in the school of Rev. Clarke from 1803 to 1811. He then decided to study to become a physician (= doctor) and he registered as a student at Guy’s Hospital in London. However, he never abandoned his intention to become a poet. In 1816 he was introduced to Leigh Hunt who was a critic and a publisher. This friendship was of vital importance for Keats because Hunt gave Keats the encouragement he needed to pursue a literary career. He became ill with consumption around 1820 and moved to Italy in an attempt to recover from this illness, but died in Rome in 1821.
Keats published 3 volumes of poems. The first one Poems in 1817, then he published Lamia in 1818 and Endymion in 1820.
ODE ON A GRECIAN URN
On à he uses “on” to express his reflections: the poem we will read reflects his thought.
The poem was inspired by different Greek vases and also by Elgin Marbles: they were sculptures that originally decorated Parthenon in Athens: they were brought to England by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and are now at the British Museum.
Tu per sempre invidiata sposa della quiete
Tu figlia adottiva del silenzio e del tempo lento,
Narratrice silvestre, che non può così esprimere
un racconto fiorito più dolcemente della nostra poesia:
quale leggenda adorna di foglie si sviluppa attorno alla tua forma
di dei o di esseri mortali, o di entrambi,
nella valle di Tempi o nelle valli dell’Arcadia?
Che uomini o dei sono questi Quali fanciulle restie?
Quale folle inseguimento? Quale lotta per sfuggire?
Quali zampogne e quali timpani? Quale estasi selvaggia?
Le melodie che si possono dire sono dolci, ma quelle che non si possono dire
sono più dolci, perciò voi dolci zampognari continuate a suonare;
· Ditties of no tone = soundless melodies
· Keats calls the urn “the bride of quietness” because it stands in a special relation to the ideal world. The world beyond the physical world, a special kind of reality which is silent (which does not speak to us) until we learn how to perceive it.
· “Still unravished” because it keeps its original vividness and appeal but above all because of it has kept its relation to the ideal world intact/unchanged through the centuries. The urn was made by a Greek artist who died a very long time ago but it has been fostered by silence and slow time.
· Slow time: the urn has existed in the physical world, where everything is subject to the destructive effects of time but by enduring for many centuries it has made time unimportant/irrelevant to its existence. Time passes much more slowly for human beings than for the urn
· Sylvan historian: the urn is an “historian” because it is historiated (=decorated) but also because it tells a story. “Sylvan” because it is associated with woods (flowery tale leaf-fringed, the idea that the urn is associated with woods is picked up/returns in this expression). The urn is Sylvan because the story narrated is one of shepherds (= pastori) in the valleys of Thessaly and Arcady.
· Lines 3-4: this two lines have been interpreted in two ways: the urn can express its tale more sweetly than the poem written by the poet because it is the bride of quietness and the foster-child of silence and slow time, or figurative art can express a tale better than a poem.
· Line 5: the story the urn narrates is not marked by particular events or dates, it is similar to myth.
· Lines 5 to 10: Keats asks a number of questions as he tries to understand what the figures on the urn are (whether they are human beings or gods) and what they are doing. The use of these questions can be seen as Keats’s way to introduce the figures in scene, what they are doing and the atmosphere of the scenes.
· Lines 11-12 à This stanza opens with a paradox: unheard music (soundless music) is sweeter than any music that can actually be heard.
· In lines 13-14 Keats asks the flute-player to play his music to the spirit, not to the sensual ear. Unheard music refers to the music that exists in a reality which is larger than the physical world and may be called an ideal world. Unheard music is sweeter than the music we can hear in our world because it is the ideal of what music ought to be.
· In line 24 Keats refers to this music again saying that it is “forever new”. This expression indicates that the ideal music beyond all existing music has an eternal freshment because it is the essence of music. He is talking about a world to come/the next world/theworld beyond the physical world.
· Lines 15-20: Keats refers to the power of art to give permanence to certain moments of real life and keep them unchanged forever. Unlike in real life, the flute-player on the urn can never leave his song, the trees can never shed (= perdere) their leaves and the lovers will love one another forever.
· The 3rd stanza is a repetition of the themes of the previous one: the trees which cannot shed their leaves, the musician who cannot leave his song and the lovers appear again. This stanza further develops the idea that art can fix happy moments of our life and hold them unchanged for centuries.
· “Happy” is repeated many times. The repetition of “happy” and the use of exclamation marks indicate Keats’s delight is in the imaginative eternity of spring, music, love and youth. These literary devices also express the idea that happiness and joy has represented in art possess more purity, more intensity and more power over the imagination than when they are experienced in real life. In real life these things are subject to decay.
In the last three lines Keats refers to human passion and its difference from the passion depicted on the urn. Human passion is short-lived (it doesn’t last long) and is subject to disappointment and sorrow.
This stanza presents us a sacrificial procession with a priest at its head leading a victim-beast, a young cow, to the alter. Keats takes us to a place which is not depicted on the urn: the little town which has been emptied of its people on this pious morning (of the sacrifice).
The little town is “silent” and it will continue to be desolate forever like everything connected with the urn. The silence of the little town is different from the silence of the urn: it is caused by the absence of people, so it is the silence of physical world (the silence we experience in the physical world) whereas the silence of the urn is that of the ideal world, a world which is reflected by the urn.
· Lines 44-45 can be interpreted in two different ways:
ü “Eternity” is enigmatic for us. The figure depicted on the urn share the same quality as eternity because they have remained unchanged through centuries. Eternity bewilders us (= ci sconcerta) because as human beings our perception is limited by a temporal perspective.
ü By “thought” Keats meant the analytical logical activity of the intellect. In these lines he says that objects like the urn entice us (= ci attirano) out of the rational thoughts into the imagination (in simpler terms objects like the urn lead us to abandon for a moment the rational activity of our mind and follow the imagination).
· Line 45: this phrase is paradoxical (“Cold Pastoral”). The word “Pastoral” evokes warmth, spontaneity, the idyllic, the simple, but the urn works in terms of men and maidens made of marble (= conveys its message through men and maidens).
· Lines 49-50 contain the urn’s final message to human beings. It is message which sums up the meaning of its existence. “Truth” is another name for the ultimate reality (= the next world). So Keats identifies beauty as the essential feature of the ideal world. He sees the urn as a concrete symbol of the ideal world. He believed that the physical world was not everything and it must be related to some larger reality (the ideal world) which is permanent and concrete. He believed that human life is just a shadow of the world to come. He also believed that human life would be repeated in a spiritual form and without the shortcomings and transience of our world in the world to come.
Keats asserted that this reality could be reached through the imagination and through a knowledge of individual objects, which share and reflect its character.
Keats was not very far from Coleridge in his view of imagination. He asserted that the imagination has a special insight into the true nature of things, it understands things in their full significance, and it perceives what is concealed from most men. He had some reservations about Wordsworth and Coleridge because they were constantly following logical trains of thoughts. Keats had learnt an important lesson from Leigh Hunt: it is not the poet’s task to impose a vision or an interpretation on the external world but to immerse and lose the self in the contemplation of the outside world. Wordsworth and Coleridge by contrast placed all the emphasis on the poet’s mental processes and above all on the modifying power of the imagination. In one of his letters Keats stated that the poet is the most unpoetic thing in existence because he has no identity, no self, no character. He can be everything and nothing.
· Lines 1-4: Keats presents the urn as a whole. The stanza begins with a quiet meditative tone, the rhythm is slow and it captures a sense of reverence.
· In line 5 there’s a change of mood. The questions capture Keats’s involvement and excitement in the scene depicted on the urn.
· In the 2nd stanza (the first four lines are referred to the flute-player) Keats enters into the world of the story, which unfolds around the urn. He begins to analyse the details of the scene.
· In the 3rd stanza Keats is participating in the happiness and immortality of the symbols/figures on the urn. In the final three lines he thinks about the shortcomings of human life and its transience
· The 4th stanza: here the mortal and immortal are separated unlike stanza 1 (line 6). The scene Keats is looking at shows a procession going toward the alter of a pagan god. The separation from mortal to immortal implies a degree of separation between Keats and the figures on the urn.
· In the 5th stanza Keats addresses the urn as a whole as if from an external point of view. His involvement with the symbol has come to an end. The empathic process is a process to which the poet identifies himself with the objects he is contemplating and through his contemplation he is able to move on beyond the immediate meaning of the objects and perceive the ideal world. Keats also stated that the poet should be able to negate his logical rationalizing ability to render it ineffective (= inefficace) and just follow his intuition, the activity of Imagination. He called this “negative capability”.
The main themes of Ode of a Grecian Urn
The main theme is the contrast between transience and permanence and in particular between the transience of human experience and the permanence of art. Art is the only theme immune to time. It captures fleeting moments when love is perfect, spring is beautiful and youth is in bloom. Art seems to be superior to life because it captures these fleeting moments and freezes them forever. The lover on the urn will forever love the girl, she will be forever beautiful and the trees will forever be in leaf. If art seems to be superior to life, and offer a solution to the shortcomings (= difetti) of human experience, it also limits the potentialities of life to the attitudes it represents (art is not subject to change and decay as is human life, but at the same time there is no fulfilment in it). Another important idea is that art comforts man, it gives him solace (= sollievo) from his daily experience of sorrow because it speaks to him of a higher and permanent reality in the world to come. Ode of Grecian urn has been defined as Platonic poem because Keats used the Platonic identification of beauty and truth in it (see the final lines). According to Plato all Ideas are all pervaded by Beauty.
The final stanza includes two important concepts:
ü Art is superior to life because it captures moments of great intensity (when love …) and holds them forever, but there is no fulfilment, no life in the figures depicted on the urn. They are just marble men and maidens.
ü Truth (the ultimate reality) can be perceived/grasped through the imagination and by the experience of Beauty, which represents the ideal world (in Ode of a Grecian Urn it is Beauty represented by art).
Hegel defines Beauty as the sensuous semblance of the Idea. Beauty is the embodiment of an Idea with simultaneous transfiguration/sublimation of reality: Beauty is a mediating function because it mediates between the ideal world and the physical world. According to Hegel Beauty is the effect of an Idea, and an effect represented by art.
Another English writer, John Ruskin (1819-1900) had the same concept of Beauty as Hegel even though its application is somewhat (= un po’) different. For Ruskin Beauty vivifies (= brings to life) god’s qualities in the world. According to him, art has to convey an impression of god’s work. The Platonic notion (= idea) of Beauty dominated aesthetics far into the 19th century (molto avanti nel 19° secolo). Aesthetics is that brunch of philosophy which deals with such concepts as beauty, taste etc.
Walter Pater sees beauty as something relative. He rejects as meaningless the abstract definition of beauty which Ruskin was still seeking (=stava ancora cercando). Pater’s justification for this standpoint was that time has the last word in all human affairs and therefore invalidates (=renders ineffective) all abstract values. So everything ends with the end of our life, there is no world to come, no spiritual life after death. For Pater Beauty only exists as a form of appearance.
While Hegel stated that Beauty is the sensuous appearance of what he calls the Idea, Pater reduced the formula to the appearance. The task of the student of Aesthetics, according to Pater, was not to find an abstract definition and general definition of Beauty, but a concrete and particular one for every manifestation.