The value of art consists in its immortality. Poets and artists strive to maintain the beauty of the moment for people to enjoy it forever. In the majority of cases, immortality is closely correlated with ‘life’ symbolizing eternity and contrasting to lifelessness similar to artistic objects contrasting to living ones that never age, but exist beyond time and space.
In the third stanza of John Keats’ poem Ode on Grecian Urn, the poet addresses a tree that will never shed leaves. The description creates a paradox of lifelessness and life is also expressed beyond the fair lady and the love and acquires a more temporal form. The symbols of eternity encapsulated in the poem repetitions of the words “for ever” are also present in describing the unheard song and pipes playing endlessly.
In addition, the author presents his own existential vision through a living death of immortal lovers who surpass this paradox through the scene of sacrifice. In whole, Keats’ poem is a deep philosophical reflection on the complex relation between the art and his understanding of life symbolizing eternity, living death, and existence of art beyond the real world, which transfer the readers to another conceptual dimension.
In the poem, Keats adheres to a philosophical representation of the connection between art and life through the concept of eternity. Time does not affect the urn because it is composed of stone that never ages and that can resist any changes: “…happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (Keats 1, line 21-22).
Keats envisions immortality to capture the relation between art and life because “once [the poet] has imaginatively grasped the eternal beauty of the model and the material through which the sculptor of the urn worked, the problem of their actual existence completely vanishes” (Sato 3).
Keats’s deviation from reality enables him to cognize the actual connection between art and life beyond time and space. His attempt to capture the immortal beauty is also brightly perceived in his Ode on Melancholy: “She dwells with Beauty – Beauty must die; / And Joy, whose hand is eve at his lips/ Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh…” (Keats 3, line 21-23).
In this respect, the poet as if “provides a vivid account of the intense complex struggle to replace with hope the bleakness of a world deprived of the consolidation of faith” (Bohm 3). At this point, Keats believes that imagery is one of the most powerful tools enabling to connect the concept of art and life.
The living death is another concept integrated by the author to reach the connection between art and eternity. Keats’s aspiration to create the town outside the art is also challenged in the poem: “O Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought….as doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” (Keats 3, lines 41-45).
Interpreting this, the poet believes, “…’consecrated objects’ is a strong hostility toward the temporal advancement that is perpetually proving the absolute to be, after all, relative” (Burnett 400).
Similar to this Keats condemns temporality in this other poems: “I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme” (Keats 4, lines 52-54). Viewing these lines, it is understandable that Keats’s desire to achive immortality is committed to “a consciously alternative plan of salvation” (Lams 424). Therefore, all his creative searching is aimed at prolonging his poetical existence.
The literary techniques and elements are also aimed at creating another reality where all Keats’s ideas and goals can be carried out. Symbolic representation and personification are among those techniques fostering interpretation of the established connection between art and immortality.
Specifically, Keats creates a paradox of a living death through sacrifice: “Who are these coming to the sacrifice? / To what green altar, O mysterious priest, / Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, / An all her silken flanks with garlands drest?” (Keats 2, lines 31-34).
In order to explain the sensory imagery used by the author, it can be stated that “poems are encountered as coherent objects contained by intersecting or adjacent ground of interpretations, including field defined by genre, period, language and tradition.” (Starr 1). In order to adhere to the established traditions of romantic literature, Keats resorts to allegory and symbolism to reach the goal.
This is also seen in his other poems, such as in the one called Ode on Psyche where Keats explicitly represents his emotional state between the real world and the artistic one: “Two fair creatures, couched side by side/ In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof/ of leaves and trembled blossoms…” (Keats 5, lines 9-11).
According to Spiegelman, “Keats’s most important “compositional choices” demonstrates his intelligent restraints, even at a moment of ecstasy” (2). Therefore, both Ode on Psyche and Ode on Grecian Urn disclose ambivalence and controversy between the art and life in his own reality.
In conclusion, it should be stressed that all Keats’s poem are directed at creating an alternative world. Specifically, Keats’s poem called Ode on Grecian Urn is a philosophical deliberation on sophisticated relations between the art and life that is expressed through eternity, living death and sacrifice, and existential motifs created in the imaginary world.
The topics of eternity are also amplified in his other novels and disclose Keats’ attempt to break the stereotypes of the real world persuading the audience that poetical works and art can contribute to creating another conceptual dimension where every one can live forever.
Bohm, Arnd. “Just Beauty: Ovid and the Argument of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Modern Language Quarterly 68.1 (2007): 1-26. Professional Development Collection.
Burnett, Leon. “Heirs of Eternity: An Essay on the Poetry of Keats and Mandel’shtam.” The Modern Language Review 76.2 (1981): 396-419.
Keats, John. Ode on a Grecian Urn. n. d. Web 15 May 2011 < http://www.ph-ludwigsburg.de/html/9e-aaax-s-01/seiten/Dines/Austen/Keats.pdf >
Lams Jr., Victor J. “Ruth, Milton, and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Modern Language Quarterly 34.4 (1973): 417
Sato, Toshihiko. “Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Explicator 38.3 (1980): 2-6.
Spiegelman, Willard. “The Odes of John Keats (Book).” Comparative Literature 39.1 (1987): 92.
Starr, G. Gabrielle. “Poetic Subjects and Grecian Urns: Close Reading and the Tools of Cognitive Science.” Modern Philology 105.1 (2007): 48-61.