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John Keats' poem 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is one of the most memorable poems written about the wonder of nature, with an emphasis on the importance it has in providing a timeless reflection. The poem's title roughly translates to "the speechlessness that an actual language of art can produce."
The core concept that the poet attempts to convey is the complexities of poetry. The dramatic paradoxes painted by imagery and metaphors have been included to lure the reader into deep reflection and provoke his/her thinking to a state of consciousness of the visual art's paradoxes. The narrator tries to invoke the reader to think of questions such as what good art is and its intended purpose. To this effect, the poet uses the urn as a vehicle to drive his point. Ordinarily, the term is used to describe a long vase with a slender neck used for cremation purposes. However, when you try to put it in the perspective of the poem, the urn becomes a sophisticated vessel, though it is designed beautifully, no one ever knows its end because once it serves its intended purpose, its original beauty is arrested at a single instant. Clearly, from this complex imagery, the poet tries to explain the point that not all work of art has a specific message for the readers but is used to stimulate the viewer’s mind to get the different perspectives that it portrays.
From the poem, Keats tries to explain that it is a participatory act can only acquire the message any artist tries to bring forth by any artistic work. For one to get an in-depth insight of any literary work, and before even appreciating it, he/she must bring himself to the position of a co-creator with the artist in order to make meaning out of it.
For example in the fourth paragraph, the final line of the poem states that “Beauty is Truth, truth is beauty- that is all/ye know of earth and all ye need to know.” The interpretation of these lines can be subject to question since the readers cannot be sure what the urn says to the narrator, who is the poet in this case. One way to look at it is to consider the use of “thou” and “ye” in the lines. The latter is used only in the last lines of the poem can be taken to mean that the message is urn’s. Since this is just one way to look at it, the lesson we get from the poem is that it is impossible to interpret any work of art using logic, since artwork cannot be similar to the logic truth often used in interpretation. If anyone tries to apply logical thoughts, the points that a poet tries to put forward in the poem will be missed completely. That can be seen in the fifth stanza, in the fourth line where the narrator observes that artwork, which in this case is personified by the urn, seems to “tease us out of thought.”
However, the narrator gives hope to the reader when he says that any work of art is still important as it is a“friend to man” in second last line of the fifth stanza. Keats makes a case for his readers on behalf of art, to make the readers appreciate the true value of art for what it is and its ability to uplift human begins.
The Poet tries to bring forth the above themes of the poem and explain his points of view using symbolism and imagery that makes the poem attractive to the readers since they give a beautiful depiction of nature. These two techniques have been adopted to give life to the theme and to develop cohesive meaning to the poem.
The urn as used by the narrator is a paradox of both life and death. Despite the fact that it is an invaluable piece of art that is beautiful and immortal, it also represents death since its primary purpose is to store cremation ashes. By using the images of both sacrifice and joy that the urn has, the reader tries to bring forth the point that it is impossible to have pleasure without despair or a happy life without eventual death.
Imagery has been used extensively in the poem. For example, the poet paints a picture of a group of women being pursued hotly by some men: “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?” The narrator wonders what legends this could be and what they could be doing, and at what point in history this happened, but since the urn cannot explain to him, he has no other option apart from abandoning the question. In the second stanza, the narrator introduces us to yet another picture of a young man lying gracefully under a tree playing a pipe in the company of his lover. The narrator then tries to explain that the unheard pipe’s melodies are sweeter than mortal tunes because they are timeless. It is an attempt to explain to the young generation that they should never grieve over their lover because their beauty will last forever.
He is contented that the trees surrounding the two lovers will never shed their leaves. His contentment comes from the fact that the pipe’s songs will be “forever new” and their love last forever. However, when he compares this to the mortal love, he is sad that it is temporary that vanishes with time leaving “a burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”
There is yet another picture showing the villagers leading a heifer to an altar and wonders where they are coming from or where they are heading to “To what green altar, O mysterious priest…”.The narrator tries to explain that at one point in life, every living thing will die. He further explains by imagining an empty and desolate town. The narrator ends with one major lesson that gives hope to the reader: “Beauty is truth and truth is a beauty.”
In conclusion, it is evident that any work of art is timeless. Since the first manuscript was written in 1819, the poem has retained its ability to ‘speak’ to human minds, making us relate to the experiences of the urn when studying any artwork. Despite the fact that the poem introduces us to the paradox of life through many unanswered questions in the first and second stanza, the reader has closure that the beauty of life is all we need to know and appreciate while on this earth.
Keats, John. "Ode on a Grecian urn." The Journal of Museum Education 25.1/2 (2000): 20-20.
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