John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” - Reading with Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Reading with Literary Theory

Structuralism and Formalism * New Criticism * Poststructuralism

John Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is one of the most famous and most puzzling Romantic poems. It is an example of a form known as ekphrasis, the representation in a literary work of an artistic work in another medium. A reading of the poem following Roman Jakobson's formalist theory would note how ekphrasis determines the formal structure of addresser and addressee and how the interaction of context and code determine meaning. The opening line - “Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness” - clearly indicates an addressee, presumably the urn, and an addresser, the “I” implied by the use of “thou.” The scene of ekphrastic meditation splits this formal mode of address, directing a part of its message to the urn and another part to the reader. The poem is further complicated by an ekphrastic structure that doubles its referential ground: on one level, the poem represents an urn, but on another level, the urn serves as a reference point for another representation (i.e., what is inscribed upon it). The speaker's question about a ground for these representations - “What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape/Of deities or mortals, or of both”? - leads not to any definitive answer but to a litany of more questions. And it is unclear whether these questions are addressed to the reader or to the urn itself. The speaker's address to the urn in the second stanza is a rhetorical set-piece, a vividly painted scene of potential vibrancy awakened in the poet's imagination by the urn's silent history:

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 has not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Keats's stanza form in this ode is a ten-line structure, the first four lines rhyming abab, the second six alternating in one form or another, as here cdeced - very much like a Petrarchan sonnet. The poet calls upon the formal limitations of this sonnet-like stanza to perform the same function as the urn itself: to capture a moment of longing and desire. The stanza is shot through with negatives - “unheard,” “not,” “no tone,” “canst not,” “nor ever,” “never, never canst thou,” “do not,” “cannot,” “not thy bliss.” The cumulative effect of these negations is to cancel out the picture otherwise painted of fair youths and fair girls “winning near the goal.” NEGATION structures a verbal form of painting: it simulates the stasis of action in representation. The poet's selection of metaphors (i.e., substitutions for ideas) - melodies, soft pipes, ditties - are “projected,” as Jacobson would say, onto the level of metonymy (i.e., the world of extension, time, contiguity), which is also the level of cancellations and prohibitions. The poetic function, then, is precisely this invocation of metaphors that must be cancelled, in order to reproduce the effect of a “painted scene.” This function is, indeed, the poem's message: immortality lies in the representation of immortality.

A New Critical reading of Keats's poem might focus on rhetorical figures, especially irony, PARADOX, and ambivalence, which give the poem its powerful but tentative formal unities. It opens on a significant AMBIVALENCE: the urn is referred to as a “bride of quietness,” the “fosterchild of silence” but also as a “Sylvan historian.” Moreover, what the historian of silence tells us is ambivalently associated with “deities or mortals, or … both.” The poem hangs on this ambivalence, because it creates the rhetorical grounds for the questions that conclude the first stanza. The poem's formal structure concentrates and intensifies verbal, prosodic, and rhetorical symmetries; this is especially the case in the second and third stanzas, where negations and ecstatic repetitions symbolize the contrapuntal energies unleashed in the process of artistic creation. The tension of opposites is resolved or reconciled in the unity of an aesthetic object (an urn, a poem). The persistently unanswered questions in the fourth stanza - “Who are these coming for the sacrifice?” - remind the reader of the fundamental strangeness of this artifact: it sends a message, but the original context (and addresser) is missing. Keats's poem transforms this puzzling message into a new context, harmonizing an authentic but lost meaning with a new meaning derived by the modern poet meditating on eternity and concluding, with Blake, that “eternity is in love with the productions of time.” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” the urn offers as its final, nearly neoclassical lesson; it is all we need to know.

The harmony of this lesson is undermined somewhat by an image of the “Cold Pastoral,” another ekphrastic doubling that splits the pastoral into a scene on the urn and the speaker's (and reader's) more distanced “cooler” perspective meditating upon it. This short phrase reflects an aspect of the poem's ambivalence that in Poststructuralism is called “undecidability.” The speaker (or reader) cannot decide with authority how to interpret the phrase. The most powerful example of this undecidability occurs in the last lines - “ ’Beauty is truth, truth beauty' - that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” This appears to be a message of startling simplicity and power, though it is a matter of fierce critical debate just what exactly the urn says (in part because in some editions the internal quotation marks enclose the last two lines, rather than the opening phrase of the penultimate one). This raises an important question: who or what speaks the quoted words about beauty and truth? This question signals an APORIA, a point at which contradiction expresses itself as an unsolvable puzzle, an incomprehensible script, an allegorical or coded message. The speaker reminds us that the urn's story is a fiction, a series of images, “with brede/Of marble men and maidens overwrought.” Keats's ekphrastic meditation on a “painted scene” is thus a representation of a representation. On this view, a Poststructuralist reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is redundant, since the poem is already deconstructing itself, drawing the reader's attention to its formal contradictions, its mirroring, and its ekphrastic doubling.