THE ABSTRACT AND THE TANGIBLE in JOHN KEATS'S 'ODE ON A GRECIAN URN' John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a poem that rests largely on the author's powerful imagination, and therefore his extensive use of imagery is one of the most attractive elements of the poem. Keats seems to be fascinated with the mystery of art and views beauty and love as a pure and unchanging form. The poem contains many references to physical things. A casual reader might accept these at face value, but Keats modifies the traditional understanding of physical objects and uses them not as tangible articles but instead as metaphors for and connections to abstract concepts, such as truth and eternity.
This essay analyzes the text and searches for connections between the abstract and the tangible, and shows how in actuality physical things are perfect metaphors for abstract things. I shall explore this connection through each stanza of the poem, Keats use of imagery, his possible reasons for writing this poem and the possible outlooks concerning the final and most ambiguous fifth stanza. The poem starts with an introduction of the Grecian urn. The urn, passed down from centuries, exists outside of chronology - it does not age or die. This creates a paradox for the human figures carved on it; they are free of time, but are simultaneously frozen in time. The Grecian urn is more than just a piece of pottery that Keats values because it has in some way defeated time and because it will never cease depicting youth and joviality; Keats values this urn because of the message it conveys - that beautiful things are the embodiment of truth, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all" (Line 49).
The urn is described as a bride, a foster-child, and a historian. All these personifications are subtle links to the abstract actions related to those roles, which Keats assigns to the urn. H reinforces these links with observations of what is painted on the urn. " What men or Gods are these What maidens loathe / What mad pursuit What struggles to escape / What pipes and timbrels What wild ecstasy" (Lines 8-10). He makes the statement that what is physically on the urn is a series of conceptual things, such as 'ecstasy', 'escape' and 'pursuit'. The second stanza opens with yet another junction of the physical and the abstract.
(Lines 11 and 12), "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard /Are sweeter", is a clever example of the above statement. The 'unheard melodies' is an abstract concept, which is tied in with the more concrete 'heard melodies'. The 'unheard melodies' are pleasant because they are created by the reader's imagination for our own fulfillment. Keats then goes on to address the figures on the urn directly. "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," (Lines 15-17); he is connecting the abstract actions of those painted on the urn with the urn itself. The end of the second stanza demonstrates how eternal the events depicted with the figures are; the unknown artist has depicted the sorrowful lover and his beloved inches apart, and therefore he will never be able to kiss her.
They are both frozen in time and therefore her beauty will never fade and neither will his love. The emotions of the figures are eternal, but they could not exist without the urn, which encase them. The theme of unchanging love is present too in the third stanza. Keats goes on to connect the abstract with the physical by connecting the abstract actions on the urn with the physical urn itself when he talks about how fortunate the urn is, that it will never experience old age, and weariness. "Forever warm and still to be enjoyed, / Forever panting, and forever young; ... / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue" (Lines 26-30).
The lover thinks that his love is 'far above' all transient human passion, which, in its sexual expression, inevitably leads to an abatement of intensity and all that remains is physical exhaustion. The fourth stanza emphasizes Keats use of imagery when he says "Lead " st thou that heifer lowing at the skies" (Line 33). The use of the verb 'lowing' is an example of Keats adroit use of imagery. The idea of the urn's immunity from the negative aspects of time continues in this stanza, and consists mostly of inquiries Keats makes of the urn. "What little town by river or seashore, / Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, / Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn / And, little town, thy streets forevermore" (Lines 35 - 38). Keats goes into an elaborate description of the tableau, relating it to an entire world that lies somewhere beyond the urn, thus creating a relationship between an abstract universe of unseen streets and towns and the physical world.
Also the author's skillful use of imagery evokes feelings of loneliness, irrevocability and eternity, "thy streets for evermore / Will silent be; and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e'er return" (Lines 39 - 40). In the final stanza, the speaker reaches the conclusions from his three attempts to engage with the urn. He is overwhelmed by its existence outside of temporal change, with its ability to 'tease' him "out of thought / As doth eternity" (Lines 44 - 45) The urn is a separate and self-contained world. This kind of aesthetic connection that the speaker experiences with the urn is another example of the concept of relating the abstract to the tangible. The final two lines in which the poet imagines the urn speaking its message to mankind - " Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (Line 49) - has many interpretations to it. After the urn utters the enigmatic phrase no one can say for sure who 'speaks' the conclusion, "that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (Line 50).
It could either be the poet addressing the urn, or the urn addressing mankind. If it is Keats addressing the urn, then it would seem to indicate his awareness of its limitations; the urn may not need to know anything beyond the equation of beauty and truth, but the complications of human life make it impossible for such a simple and self-contained phrase to express this knowledge sufficiently. If it is the urn addressing mankind, then the phrase has rather the weight of an important lesson, that all mankind on earth should know that beauty and truth are one and the same. 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' portrays Keats attempt to engage with the static immobility of sculpture. Throughout the poem the reader is probed with a series of questions. Keats issues a series of questions, which he 'expects' the urn to answer.
He then allows the urn to speak without speaking, to "express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme" (Lines 3 - 4). He seems to be questioning the urn, and then imposing his own answers. The urn, containing superficially wholesome scenes, is, nevertheless ambiguous in its meaning, hence Keats's insistent questioning throughout the first and fourth stanzas. These unanswerable questions are then left open. Keats, knowing that he cannot know, poses his own interpretation for what stories the urn reveals. Then, almost immediately Keats becomes as ambiguous as the urn, finally haunting readers by questioning the nature of Truth as represented by the urn and by this poem.
Another arguable subject is the possibility of the urn being 'actual and tangible' which might have inspired Keats to write this ode. Or the urn could be purely fictional, that the creator of this imaginary urn was Keats himself, and the artwork and stories he weaves throughout the poem is a figment of his own imagination and doesn't really exist. By creating the urn, maybe Keats was representing a lifestyle that he always wanted to be a part of - a social circle whose adage was "Beauty is truth, truth beauty", and were in turn the words they lived by. 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' can be read as the words of a speaker soothing his own fears of death and obscurity, and knowing that what he says is not the gospel truth, but merely something that appeases his logic and reason. The speaker may desire this to be the Truth or become the Truth, but he cannot fully accept his own godly proclamations while looking for fulfillment here on earth that will make the need for thinking evaporate.