Definition of ODE

An ode is a lyrical stanza written in praise for a person, event or thing. The form developed in Ancient Greece and had a very specific and elaborate structure involving three parts known as strophe, antistrophe and epode. The form was later popularized and adapted in Renaissance England and led to a new set of conventions.

Background information of John Keats:

  1. • Keats lived a short, difficult life, dying at the age of 26 years because of tuberculosis.
  2. • He battled anxiety and depression.
  3. • He is considered a Romantic poet. The British romantics have following characteristics.
    1.  They believed in the beauty of the supernatural.
    2.  They championed the individual.
    3.  They understood and celebrated the importance of nature.
    4.  They were concerned with the dangers of technology.

In his short life John Keats wrote some of the most beautiful poems in English language. Among his greatest achievements is his sequence of six lyric odes written between March and September 1819 when Keats was only 24 years old. He died barely a year after finishing the ode to Autumn in February 1821. In Ancient times the ode was usually performed at a ceremonial occasion with music .Keats may have been inspired to write about a Grecian urn because he was using a Greek form. Some odes follow the formal rules set by the two most famous Greek writers of odes Horace and Pindar. But Keats did not follow any set form.

The Inevitability of Death:

Even before his diagnosis of terminal tuberculosis, Keats focused on death and its inevitability in his work. For Keats small, slow acts of death occurred every day and he chronicled these small mortal occurrences. The end of a lover’s embrace, the images on an ancient urn, the reaping of grain in autumn- all of these are not only symbols of death but instances of it. As a writer Keats hoped he would live long enough to achieve his poetic dream of becoming as great as Shakespeare or Milton in “Sleep and Poetry”. Keats outlined a plan of poetic achievement that required him to read poetry for a decade in order to understand and surpass the work of his predecessors. Hovering near this dream, however was a morbid sense that death might intervene and terminate his projects; he expresses these concerns in the mournful sonnet “When I Have fears that I may cease to be.”

The Contemplation of Beauty
In his poetry, Keats proposed the contemplation of beauty as a way of delaying the inevitability of death. Although we must die eventually, we can choose to spend our time alive in aesthetic revelry, looking at beautiful objects and landscapes. Unlike mortal beings, beautiful things will never die but will keep demonstrating their beauty for all time. The speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” envies the immortality of the flute players and trees inscribed on the ancient vessel because they shall never cease playing their songs, nor will they ever shed their leaves. He reassures young lovers by telling them that even though they shall never catch their mistresses, these women shall always stay beautiful. The people on the urn, unlike the speaker shall never stop having experiences. They shall remain permanently depicted while the speaker changes, grows old and eventually dies.

The five Senses and Art
Keats imagined that the five senses loosely corresponded to and connected with various types of art. The speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” describes the pictures depicted on the urn, including lovers chasing one another, musicians playing instruments and a virginal maiden holding still. All the figures remain motionless, held fast and permanent by their depiction on the sides of the urn, and they cannot touch one another, even though we can touch them by holding the vessel. Although the poem associates sight and sound, because we see the musicians playing, we cannot hear the music. In Ode to a Nightingale , the speaker longs for a drink of crystal clear water or wine so that he might adequately describe the sounds of the bird singing nearby. Each of the five senses must be involved in worthwhile experiences. Which in turn lead to the production of worthwhile art.

Symbols—Music and Musicians—
Music and musicians appear throughout Keats’s work as symbols of poetry and poets. In ‘ode on a Grecian Urn for instance , the speaker describes musicians playing their pipes. Although we cannot literally hear their music, by using our imaginations, we can imagine and thus hear music. The speaker of To Autumn reassures us that the season of fall, like spring, has songs to sing. Fall, the season of changing leaves and decay, is as worthy of poetry as spring, the season of flowers and rejuvenation. Ode to a Nightingale uses the bird’s music to contrast the mortality of humans with the immortality of art.

Like his fellow romantic poets, Keats found in nature endless sources of poetic inspiration and he described the natural world with precision and care. Observing elements of nature allowed Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley among others to create extended meditations and thoughtful odes. For example in Ode to a Nightingale hearing the bird’s song causes the speaker to ruminate on the immortality of art and humans. The speaker of Ode on Melancholy compares depression to a weeping cloud then goes on to list specific flowers that are linked to sadness.

Ode on a Grecian urn is one of the five great odes John Keats composed in the summer and autumn of 1819. It is considered one of the greatest odes ever written. It was first published in July that year in a journal called annals of the Fine Arts, and subsequently in Keats ‘s final publication. Urn were used in ancient Greece to hold the ashes of the dead. Keats does not describe specific urn in his ode but he knew Greek art from engravings and experienced it at first hand on visits to the British Museum. Greek sculptures were admired for their formal perfection and ideal beauty and the changeable reality of everyday human experience. What was interesting to Keats about all of this and what’s still kind of interesting today about Grecian urns is that they were really heavily decorated.

“Foster –Child of silence and slow time”
In the Ode to Nightingale immortality is glimpsed in the bird’s effortless song. In the Ode on a Grecian Urn it is to be found in the stillness and silence of classical sculpture. Keats praises the urn as a foster-child of silence and slow time whose pictorial narratives are sweeter than words:
Lines-----“heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on: not to the sensual ear, but more endeared, pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.”

The Subjects depicted:
Where are the places the urn depicts? Asked Keats. Who are the people? He then describes that in one scene there is a lover and a maiden in a grove trees and a piper, another shows a crowd on its way to a ritual sacrifice and a mysterious priest. The silent scenes are timeless and speak unchanged across generations and that basically protects the subjects of the urn from the impermanence of human life. The trees may never lose their leaves but are forever caught in spring and so will never come to their full summer fruition. The maiden will never elude the pursuing lover and his love will never fade, but he will never reach her.

Lines----“all breathing human passion far above, that leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloyed, a burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”

Form used in Poem:
Ode on a Grecian Urn follows the same ode stanza structure as the Ode on Melancholy, though it varies more the rhyme scheme of the last three lines of each stanza. Each of the five stanzas in Grecian Urn , each line has ten syllables, with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. The meter of the poem is in a fairly strict iambic pentameter, and divided into a two part rhyme scheme, the last three lines of each stanza follow an ABABCDE rhyme scheme, but the second occurrences of the CDE sounds do not follow the same order. In stanza one, lines seven through ten are rhymed DCE; in stanza two, CED in stanza three and four CDE and in stanza five DCE .The scheme of two part rhyme scheme creates the sense of a two part thematic structure as well. The first four lines of each stanza roughly define the subject of the stanza and the last six roughly explicate or develop it.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”------
In the final stanza the speaker imagines the urn speaking its message to mankind. It has proved among the most difficult to interpret in the Keats canon. After the urn utters the enigmatic phrase, no one can say for sure who speaks the conclusion. It could be the speaker addressing the urn and it could be the urn addressing mankind .If it is the urn addressing the mankind then all human beings need to know on earth is that the beauty and truth are one and the same.

References :

  1. www.keatsian.co
  2. https/englishhistory.net
  3. www.johnkeats.com
  4. www.cliffnotes.com
  5. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu

Prof. Madhvi. R. Acharya, Assistant Professor (ENGLISH), P.D. Pandya Mahila Commerce College Ghodasar, Ahmedabad.