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Reviewing Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats


Reviewing Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Ode on a Grecian Urn is a reflection on the contrast between the perfection of the world of art and the shortcomings and sufferings of real life.

The poet wonders how a cold and motionless object 323c29d like the urn (symbol of death in ancient Greece since it served to preserve the ashes of the dead), has the power of arousing deep emotions.

The poet addresses the urn as if it were alive and he calls it sylvan historian. The story it tells, however, lacks precise details and a definite setting. What matters in the urn is not historical accuracy but the stimulus it gives men to get an insight into the world of imagination which is free from the limitations that the passing of time imposes on real-life events. The placing of the urn in an atemporal dimension makes it superior to life.

Keats, however, is also fully aware that the permanent world of imagination is not without faults. In fact, even though the scenes represented in the urn are eternal and unaffected by time, they are not alive; this means that the love and feelings in the urn can never be enjoyed: they lack the very basic experience of physical love as we live it in real life.

The first part of the ode describes, in fact, scenes of love-making which will remain forever frozen in the urn. The superiority of this love from a temporal point of view is counterbalanced by the fact that the love scenes will never be fulfilled.

In stanza 4 the scene changes completely, as if the poet were observing another side of the urn: it no longer deals with the frantic love scenes described before but with the religious solemnity of a sacrifice. Also in this section of the ode the contrast between imagination and real life is carried out through the description of what the poet really seems to see and what he imagines is happening in the world of the little town created in his mind. What goes on in the town is reported as desolate, because it is emptied of its inhabitants ; the world of imagination seems again to lack the warmth of real human feelings that imagination so powerfully evokes.

In the last stanza of the ode, the poet seems to restate the superiority of imagination through the urn's ability to stimulate men's insight into the deepest truth of things. This superiority is well exemplified in the much-celebrated line: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty", which has been variously interpreted by critics. One of the possible interpretations is that the urn is beautiful because it is an object of art; the urn, however, also tells the truth because it tells a story capable of generating feelings: this truth,  as realized in the realm of imagination, is beautiful because is permanent and not subject to decay as sensorial experiences are. That is why even though it has faults the world of the urn seems to be superior to the real world: it can function as a friend to man, and give him solace by helping him go beyond the suffering of real life.

As regards the style, it has already been pointed out that the poem is built on a series of paradoxes as, for instance, the famous line "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter", which stresses the superiority of imagination over sensorial experience. To give another example, the phrase Cold Pastoral highlights once more the urn's ability to generate feelings of love and human passion even though it is a cold marble object.

What is also striking in this ode are the images of movement that are suggested, despite the complete stillness that characterizes  its world. An example of this contrast is provided in stanza 1, where the lack of movement is revealed by words like quietness and silence which qualify the urn, while at the same time scenes of passionate love are also represented.


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