Literary Analysis Of John Keats’ Odes

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John Keats in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and ‘Ode on Melancholy’ certainly discuss how beauty reveals the truth about life. ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is an ekphrastic poem that juxtaposes the tranquility of Urn (for ashes) and fragility of human existence. ‘Ode on Melancholy’ elucidates that all things are doomed to die, and pleasure and pain are closely linked. The oxymoronic title was possibly inspired by the book Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) gifted by Charles Brown to Keats.

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Beauty reveals the truth about life which is to seize the day before its gone. The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is a social commentary on how beauty transcends time especially noted by the philosophical aphorism “beauty is truth, truth beauty”; Keats utilizes themes of wisdom and knowledge to celebrate how beauty is eternal and sacred. In addition, the line ‘Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss’ is an empathetic epizeuxis exploring a finite experience. The metaphor of the ‘Bold Lover’ signifies that he will never kiss the maiden he pursues and therefore will never experience real, physical love as it is a lifeless object. Keats addresses the ‘Bold Lover’ who, although imagined by the poet as a perfect lover, will never have the privilege of being a real-life lover. Keats wrote ‘O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts’ to justify his mindless sensualism but it may instead be a version of Platonic idealism. For Keats, the sensation is the literal information of the senses; the way to the ideal is through the real. ‘Ode on Melancholy’ similarly uses permanence/transience – “but when the melancholy fit shall fall”. Keats acknowledges that melancholy is transient, too—pleasure might turn to pain, but perhaps the reverse must also be true. The heavy use of assonance in the line “deep, deep… peerless eyes” reiterates themes of death and sadness by elongating the rate of the poem, slowing the pace down. This shows Keats’ deep appreciation for these figures of his happiness, and unlike in the strophe, where the use of caesura and imperatives speed through the symbols of death, here Keats takes the time to be immersed within his thought of happiness. This is a didactic poem where Keats rejects that the world is a ‘vale of tears’ and asserts instead that it is ‘the vale of soul-making’ he focuses on the need for experience in order to form an identity. He remained true to this belief even upon his deathbed. Eventually, the urn’s beauty would fade, decay, and break down losing its story over time replicating how the feeling of melancholy over time goes away; hence in the two poems, overall, Keats emphasizes the importance of cherishing its history forever and to concentrate on the present.

‘Ode on Melancholy’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ conveys that beauty in both nature and human forms is immortal and pure in life. Unlike many other Romantic poets – such as Byron and Wordsworth – Keats never formulated his ideas on the imagination in a systematic manner. In a letter, he wrote ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination.’ This inspired him to write both lyrical odes in formal iambic pentameter; although in ‘Ode on Melancholy’ there is a regular rhyme pattern of ABAB switches at the end to suggest his thoughts fluctuate. The synaesthesia “sorrow on a morning rose” represents that the speaker wants us to think of beauty and sorrow as being linked together, somehow, because all beauty fades with time. The anaphora “or” in three lines further expresses that beauty is tactile and valuable. Keats feminizes many objects and concepts – in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in this poem the urn is to be stared out and used for a purpose. The women (“unravish’d bride” and “maidens”) are passive and stagnant possibly symbolizing their innocence and fragility – resembling the soft material of the artifact in the poem. The youthful lovers painted on the urn suggests wistfulness and purity. Keats once stated he will not spend ‘any time with Ladies unless they are handsome.’ Critics have argued that in his earlier poems the temptation to escape the responsibility of adulthood is projected on to an entrapping female. Furthermore, the repetition of ‘happy’ (6 times) and ‘for ever’ (5 times) seems to underline the poet’s belief in the superiority of art. Therefore in the two odes particularly in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ Keats realizes that art, although immortal and perfect, is also cold and lifeless.

Beauty reveals the truth about life that life is full of suffering. Keats utilizes highly pictorial imagery in his poems. Words such as ‘pastoral’ in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ has connotations for having simplicity & charm attributed to rural areas, therefore, stories urn presents are beautiful & serene, however, with negative word choice of ‘cold’ which has connotations for having no emotion or passion, Keats highlights the urn’s transcendent and unchangeable nature, ultimately rejecting its lifeless immortality along with his desire to live eternally. In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – the love for Greek art began with Johann Winckelmann who wished for a recreation of the Greek spirit and the production of art according to the classical idea of noble simplicity and calm grandeur. Winckelmann has an idealized version of Greek art as being beyond history, presenting a world of unchanging beauty. Both odes are apostrophizing something – the preposition ‘on’ acts as a detached reflection on his desire to find some eternal idea of truth and beauty. Alternatively, in ‘Ode on Melancholy’ Keats recognizes that at times, even the beautiful natural flowers are ‘droop-headed’ and negative. This could show the importance of not fully immersing yourself in joy or sorrow. Mutability is now seen in a far more positive light, change is essential for development and identity. Keats proposed negative capability – His later poetry yearns for the comforts of certainties with a narrator tortured by the fear that his speculations may be useless illusions. In both poems, overall, the desire for imaginative transcendence has been replaced by a desire to focus on the truth of human suffering.

In conclusion, in ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ Keats successfully delights in the ways in which beauty, in both natural and human forms, revealed the truth about life. Keats utilizes beauty and truth in his poems to proclaim that life is full of suffering and beautiful moments must end at some point but art and nature are immortal bringing eternal happiness.  

16 December 2021

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