Friday, April 20, 2018

Poem: John Keats

John Keats

If there is a perennial pre-1900s poem about art from the Anglo-American literary tradition, the English Romantic poet John Keats's (1795 - 1821) "Ode on a Grecian Urn" would be it. Keats, in contemplating the Greek artifact, sets a standard for how to write about it, and art in general. The "tl;dr" version of this poem would be "Art lasts, life is brief, the beauty in seemingly dead, antiquated art provides deeper truth." Our mortality is assured, and the art work's instructive and illuminatory qualities will outlast us, a sentiment that would not have been lost on Keats, who died very young from tuberculosis, his health rapidly declining after he published his first book of poems in 1817. This poem's argument pretty much agrees with many of the poems I've posted so far in as much as their argument interrogates the relationship between art and life, between artifact within the moment it was created and the moment, millennia later, in Keats's case (and ours), in which an art lover, a connoisseur, a viewer looks at and tries to understand it, to gain something from it.

The "Grecian urn" that Keats's speaker is viewing--or thinking of--has not been cracked or chipped, unlike so much of what people bring these days to The Antique Roadshow, eager to learn the financial value of some heirloom or family treasure, or a painting, poster or dresser they picked up at a garage sale or church fair; it would not be out of place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, given its pristineness. Its specific references also remain somewhat opaque to a viewer like Keats. We would assume that a scholar of Hellenic pottery would be able to grasp what the urn's images depict, what "leaf-fringed legend haunts about" the urn's curves and sides, who those "men or gods are," "what maidens loth?" (I love that "loth," though there is no conceivable way to weave it into contemporary conversation or prose.)

Akin to Friedrich Nietzsche's notion of the Apollonian and Dionysian, in The Birth of Tragedy, Keats assesses the tension between the "cold pastoral" (punctuated by an exclamation point) the urn's form and still imagery embody, and the "wild ecstasy" the urn depicts, its record of human and deific pleasure and excess, and how what we cannot know from experience but gain from the art work can delight us even more, just as we take pleasure in the very act of trying to figure out what the urn is showing us. It will survive and a new generation will come along to try and figure out what the urn's images mean, what its function was, just as some four centuries later I am reading and interpreting Keats, and finding knowledge and truth in his poem.

As for "beauty" being "truth" and vice versa, reading this too simplistically is a problem. Scientific considerations of symmetry, the role of mathematical order in nature and natural systems and so forth set to the side, I don't think that Keats is necessarily saying that something "beautiful" is intrinsically "true" (or good, for that matter). The relationship between the two that Plato explores is, we know today, much more complicated than a facile reading would imply. The beautiful can be quite false, and fake things can beguile us far more than something intrinsically beautiful (by various criteria). Yet, as Keats seems to be saying, there is something lasting in truly beautiful art, something that compels us generation after generation, even taking into account the effects of the social and political,  cultural shifts and changes, and so on. And we can learn something from that lasting beauty, those art works that do survive. That is all "ye" need to know, or at least something we should not forget too quickly.


by John Keats

 Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, 
  Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express 
  A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts 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.

Below is an image of the Sosibios vase, which Keats sketched and which inspired his poem, along with his drawing below it:

Sosibios vase, image
from the Louvre
Keats's drawing of the Sosibios
vase in 1818, his annus mirabilis

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