Keats “Ode On A Grecian Urn”: Analytical View

To Keats, the Urn stands in a special sacred relation to a special kind of existence and keeps this relation immaculate and intact. The Urn is a concrete symbol of some vast reality which can be reached only through a knowledge of individual objects which share and reflect its character.

W. J. Neatby - Keats - Isabella

W. J. Neatby – Keats – Isabella (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are, Keats says, beyond the reach of fate, somethings which deserve a religious respect and devotion and belong to the essential elements of the world. These things are “silent as a consecrated urn.” They do not speak directly to us, but, like an urn, have a message which we feel to be holy. There are times marked in the natural order of the universe when these powers keep state, and it is then that we must get into touch with them and see what they have to reveal.

His ideal world was not a scheme of abstractions but of a source of living powers beyond the senses, and therefore silent, but more real than the most entrancing gifts of the senses through the devotion which it commands and the assurance with which he believes that it endures forever. Great art can’t but suggest something beyond its immediate or even its remoter meanings, an indefinable “other”, which is the most important thing it has to give. In our apprehension and enjoyment of this, we almost forget the details of an actual work of art and pass beyond them into a state which may be called silence because it speaks not to the ear but to the spirit. If we feel this in reading poetry, we can imagine how much more keenly Keats felt it in writing. In his inspired moments of composition, he sought to give expression in audible and musical words to that other indefinite and yet more powerful music which makes what it is.

Keats notion of silence is combined with his notion of time which indeed receives fuller attention, as if it were even more important, and so perhaps it is. The paradox of all art is that it gives permanence to fleeting moments and fixes them in an unchanging form. Thus, with this idea Keats is in part concerned and his ideal Urn embodies it. Preserved and sanctified by time, it keeps its original freshness and appeal nor is its permanence cold and inhuman. The work of art has its own life which is more vivid than the actual life on which Keats touches in the third stanza. The paradox of the Urn, as of all true works of art, is that it transcends time by making a single moment last forever and so become timeless  but not due to the material in which the artist works. The timelessness of his achievement is a true reflection of something known to artists when they work at the highest pitch of inspiration. In the act of creation, when all faculties are harmoniously at work together, time does not so much stand still as vanish. The artist is not conscious of it because he is caught in an activity so absorbing that it is complete in itself, with no sense of before and after.

English: John Keats by Joseph Severn 1819. Oil...

English: John Keats by Joseph Severn 1819. Oil on ivory miniature, 105×79 mm Deutsch: John Keats, gemalt von Joseph Severn, 1819 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keats expresses his willingness to leave his own special approach to experience through the imagination for something like philosophy and his refusal is based on the belief that the mystery of things can’t be mastered by an act of will but forces us “out of thought,” that is, from ordinary ways of thinking into the approach of the imagination. By thought he means the discursive, puzzled, analytical activity of the intellect. Keats was concerned with the relations of truth and beauty, and how he developed his own theory about them. This theory maybe expressed in something like the following form: Truth is another name for ultimate reality, and is discovered not by the reasoning mind but by the imagination. The imagination has a special insight into the true nature of things, and Keats accepts its discoveries because they agree with his senses, resolve disagreeable discords, and overwhelm him by their intensity. He is convinced that anything so discovered is true in a sense that the conclusions of philosophy are not. Keats calls this reality “beauty” because of its over powering and all-absorbing effect on him. In fact, he substitutes the discovery of beauty through the image (the discovery of facts through reason), and asserts that it is a more satisfactory and more certain way of piercing to the heart of things, since inspired insight sees more than abstract ratiocination ever can. Keats concern is with the imagination in a special sense, and he is not far from Coleridge in his view of it. For him it does much more than imagine in the ordinary sense; it is an insight so fine that it sees what is concealed from most men and understands things in their full range and significance and characteristic of the rational of poetry is that through the imagination it finds something so compelling in its intensity that it is at once both beautiful and real.

It is a theory of art, a doctrine intended to explain his own creative experience. He was increasingly conscious that art is not everything, and in his last two years he became more uneasy about the detachment from life which his work imposed on him. The belief that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is true for the artist while he is concerned with his art. It is no less true that, while he is at work, this is all that he knows for certain, and all that he needs to know for the proper pursuit of his special task. Unless he believes this, he is in danger of ruining his art. The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” tells what great art means to those who create it, while they create it, and, so long as this doctrine is not applied beyond its proper confines, it is not only clear but true.

Truth is discovered by the imagination which makes man aware of the nature of things. Beauty can’t be found in our world because it only exists in the world of truth. Imagination takes man to the world of truth which is the world of beauty. A worship of beauty was both the motivation and the message of Keats’ poetry. His first ambitious work “Endymion” begins with “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” and his Ode ends with ” Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

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Are the Romantic Poets, Poets of Nature???

English: Samuel Taylor Coleridge at age 42. Fr...

English: Samuel Taylor Coleridge at age 42. Français : Samuel Taylor Coleridge à 42 ans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before going into this critical discussion about Romantic poetry, let me briefly introduce romanticism and the theory of romantic poets about poetry.Romanticism comes from “romance” which is the term used by romantic poets in France who relied on their imagination that is able to create a new reality and not as a tool to escape from reality. The stress is on the individual and not on the society (believe in capacities of man). In other words, English Romantics who adopted this movement  believed that there must be a departure of the static (rigid conventions) of the 18th century. This movement is not a sudden  change it is a part of a chain, although French and German poets had a direct influence on the English romantic movement, because poetry is poetry which has roots.

The romantic movement is supported by a certain romantic theory, which backs up the romantic trend. In their theory, English Romantics gave a great importance to imagination (fundamental role). For the English Romantics the belief in imagination was like the belief in individual self. Mind is the central point and governing factor and the most vital activity of the mind is imagination. They believed when they exercised imagination, they partake of the divine activity of God. Romantics combine imagination and truth because their creations are inspired and controlled by a peculiar insight. What matters to the Romantics was an insight into the nature of things. They refused Lock’s (an English philosopher) limitation of perception to physical objects because it robbed the mind of its most essential function (perceive & create). Romantics wanted to explore the world of spirit. Visible things are not everything unless they are related to an embracing power.  They believed that through imagination and insight they could understand the things of spirit and present them in poetry.  Therefore, it was this search of an unseen world which awakened the inspiration of the romantics and made poets of them. In nature Romantic poets found their initial inspiration. It wasn’t everything to them, but they would have been nothing without it.

Coleridge classified imagination onto primary and secondary imagination; they differ only in degree. To Coleridge, poetry is the product of the secondary imagination. He believed that imagination partakes of the divine activity of God. Imagination is related to truth and reality and connected with a special insight. It sees things to which the ordinary intelligence is blind. Coleridge believed that insight and imagination are inseparable; they complete each other. Moreover, Coleridge had a deep trust in imagination as something which gives a shape to life. He believes that nature live in us, and it is we who create all that matter in it. Coleridge is a little hampered by the presence of an external world and feels in some way he must conform to it. But when his creative genius is at work, it brushes these hesitations aside. He thought that the task of poetry is to convey the mystery of life. He was fascinated by the notion of unearthly powers and it was their influence he sought to catch. He believes that life is ruled by powers which can’t be fully understood. The result is a poetry more mysterious.

English: A portrait of William Wordsworth. Thi...

English: A portrait of William Wordsworth. This is apparently an 1873 reproduction of an 1839 watercolor by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887) Deutsch: William Wordsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In any study on William Wordsworth’s poetry, we are faced with the following: “He is a romantic poet.” In fact, he is a romantic poet, but when we say “romantic”, the danger lies in   understanding that romantic means: the poet imagines, contemplates, meditates, and creates an illusion. But, when we study William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry, we see that he has to abide to a theory because the poem is a practice of the theory he believes in.  Wordsworth agreed with Coleridge about the distinction between imagination and fancy. He believed that imagination is the most important gift a poet can have; he didn’t relate reason to anything, but he insisted that the inspired insight is itself rational. As for Coleridge’s conception of the external world, Wordsworth disagreed with him. He accepted its independent existence and insisted that imagination must in some sense conform to it. Wordsworth believed that imagination must somehow be related to the external world because that world is not dead but living and has its own soul which is distinct from the soul of man. Therefore, man’s task is to connect with this soul because his life is shaped by nature. Wordsworth also believed that he helped this soul of nature to become closer to man and could show how the external world and the individual mind fits each other. As concerning nature, it was the source of his inspiration. He sought for a state in which the soul of nature should be united with the soul of man.

Many critics say  the following “William Wordsworth is the poet of nature.” However, when we read his poetry, we find out that in many lines he insisted that he is the poet of men. Even when it is a question of nature, if we ask Wordsworth himself, he says: “The mind of man creates half what it sees.” Therefore, when we say that he’s the poet of nature, the risk would be that one may think  he is a poet who describes nature and in that he is diminishing the estimation of Wordsworth because poetry does not describe but create. Many critics think that Wordsworth is a poet of nature because he says: “I’m a worshiper of nature. Accordingly, many readers misunderstand this statement. When critics say that Wordsworth is a poet of nature, they  mislead the readers of Wordsworth’s poetry. Moreover, saying that he is the poet of nature is dangerous because we will think that his poetry is about nature, or it is the mirror of nature. If we consider that the definition is true then the statement is wrong. If poetry is about nature then it is a reflection of nature. However, to Wordsworth nature was the source of his inspiration, and he could not deny to it an existence at least as powerful as man’s . He didn’t go so far as other romantics in relegating reasons to an inferior position. He preferred to give a new dignity to the word and to insist that inspired insight itself rational.

English: Title page from: Wordsworth, William ...

English: Title page from: Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems. London: Printed for J. & A. Arch, 1798. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

William Wordsworth repeatedly described all good poetry as, at the moment of composition, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Thus, he located the source of a poem not in the outer world, but in the individual poet, and specified that the essential materials of a poem were not external people and events, but the inner feelings of the author, or at any rate, external objects only after these have been transformed or irradiated by the authors feelings. But to Wordsworth, although the composition of poem originates from “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and maybe preceded and followed by reflection, the immediate act of composition must be spontaneous-that is, arising from impulse, and free from all rules and the artful manipulation of means to foreseen ends-if the product is to be a genuine poem. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth wrote that “I have at all times endeavored to look steadily at my subject”; and in a supplementary Essay he complained that from Dryden through Pope there is scarcely an image from external nature “from which it can be inferred that the eye of the poet had been steadily fixed on his object.” Therefore, because of the prominence of landscape in this period, “Romantic poetry” has to the popular mind become almost synonymous with “nature poetry.” Neither Romantic theory nor practice, however, justifies the opinion that the aim of this poetry was description for its own sake. Wordsworth in fact insisted that the ability to observe and describe objects accurately, although a necessary, is not at all a sufficient condition for poetry, “as its exercise supposes all the higher qualities of the mind to be passive, and in a state of subjection to external objects.” And while most of the great Romantic lyrics – Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, The Daffodils, and Ode: Intimations of Immortality; Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, Kubla Khan, and Dejection; Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, Keats’s Nightingale- begin with an aspect or change of aspect in the natural scene, this serves only as stimulus to the most characteristics human activity, that of thinking. Romantic poems are in fact meditative poems, in which the presented scene usually serves to raise an emotional problem or personal crisis whose development and resolution constitute the organizing principle of the poem and not to describe this natural scene. As Wordsworth said in his Prospectus to The Recluse, not nature, but “the Mind of Man” is “my haunt, and the main region of my song.”

Guest Blog: Keats and Stoicism

Interesting Literature

By Laura Inman

John Keats lived for twenty-five years, from 1795 to 1821. He is considered one of the great Romantic poets, along with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. Unlike those other poets of his era, most notably in contrast with Byron and Shelly, Keats was a middle-class commoner, whose parents were inn keepers, a factor that affected his outlook and reception as a poet.  Keats and his two brothers attended a progressively-minded school and received an education that included Latin, but not Greek, a language taught at upper-class schools.

Keats1

Keats’s life was marred by a succession of sad events, thus he wrote that he had hardly known any days of ‘unalloyed happiness’. His father died while Keats was a child, after which his mother fell into various forms of degradation and finally succumbed to tuberculosis. Keats nursed her through the final stages, as he would also do for his…

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