Sunday Poetry: Ode on a Grecian Urn, by John Keats

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

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!

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.

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.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
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.

- by John Keats

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It’s all about the final two lines – lines delivered by a Grecian urn we cannot see. T. S. Eliot, my fellow St. Louisan and one of the greatest poets ever to write, hated those two lines – “a serious blemish on a beautiful poem.” Do they make sense? Are they true? Are they meaningful, or do they merely sound meaningful?

Whether true or not, they present the risk of tying up a complex poem into a simple package. Personally, I think they are appropriate and a good way of summing up the inspiration Keats drew from the urn. Are they true? Well, I’m happy the body of human knowledge includes more that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – pharmaceuticals and toilet paper manufacturing have made important strides since Keats’ urn proclaimed that we on earth didn’t need to know any more. On a more poetic level, though, I read them as related to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s oft-quoted line, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Keats’ poetry is, for this age, an acquired taste. Who talks this way? “Thou still unravished bride of quietness”?? And what a complex structure for a poem – the rhyming scheme is ABABCDE*** – the CDE come back as DCE, CED and CDE. His poetry seems gushy and contrived to modern ears.

But if you persevere, there’s much to admire in Keats’ poetry. He died before he was 26, but, in that time, he wrote poems that inspired future poets, while drawing furious attacks from critics. It’s hard to imagine poetry gaining such attention these days – he was the Bob Dylan of his era, playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival.

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