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The Beauty of Stasis: Silence and Slow Time in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, by Laura Linker

Keats’s famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820) remains one of his most complex works about the nature of art, beauty, and the ambiguous concept of “truth.” The figures on the urn, forever suspended, symbolize Keats’s longing for unattainable beauty that dominates much of his verse. He collapses beauty with truth, conceptualized as a mystery that exists beyond “old age” (l. 46) and human existence. The urn’s beauty is conveyed through its “slow time” (l. 2) and stillness. Its pictorial representation of the figures communicates their perpetual passion, and the suspension of lasting joy that the speaker wants to access imaginatively conveys tension in the longing for a realm unavailable to humans, who live in time and die. The urn’s artistic silence defeats time and mortal decay through its stasis, the only form of “true” beauty in the poem.

The speaker contrasts the world of natural process with an imaginative world that never dies. The scenes depicted on the urn represent eternity, which Keats feminizes. As Philip Cox, Diane Hoeveler, Anne Mellor, and Karen Swann, among others, have argued, the feminine is often the symbol for the imagination in Keats’s art and letters. His relationship with Fanny Brawne provides scholars with a possible real-life figure of feminine youth and beauty for the female figures appearing in his poetry. Keats features the urn as a feminized work of art, a pure bride, possibly like Keats’s real-life fiancée, Fanny, the “bright star” whom he passionately addresses in letters but could never marry.

In the poem, the speaker delights in the beauty of the young maiden depicted in stanza two: “She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” (ll. 19-20). While the speaker acknowledges that the lovers on the urn cannot enjoy the sensual pleasures that humans can, he privileges their joy as anticipation. As art, they point to an immortal realm that exists beyond the body: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (ll. 11-12). To exist in time is to miss Keats’s larger point that the world of art represented by the urn defies the senses and thus mortality. Though the “ditties of no tone” (l. 14) cannot be heard by human ears, the stilled music presents a sweeter tune tied to immortal and artistic divinity.

The urn and its figures’ stillness emerge as a “flowery tale more sweetly” (l. 4) told than even the poem itself. The “silent” story narrated pictorially on the urn is preferred over the one written by the poet. Because the poem employs language, it exists in the mortal world. The urn figures, however, exist in silence, a divine perfection outside of religious orthodoxy. For Keats, the divine is always tied to immortal art; spirituality is communicated through poetic imagery but cannot be fully articulated through human speech. Music is Keats’s preferred mode to represent his ideas; birdsong and the nightingale frequently emerge as examples. Here, however, there is no music heard by human ears, and Keats presents an artistic hierarchy with the art object preferable to the written, spoken, or sung one. Silence teaches the speaker in Keats’s artistic vision.

The first stanza establishes silence as an important way of defining the urn characters. It leaves the speaker without answers to a series of questions he poses:

Why leaf-fring’d 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? (ll. 5-10)

The speaker wants to understand both the narrative of the depicted scenes and the origin of art, but the urn figures do not fulfill his request. His questions become more frantic and insistent as the stanza progresses. The speaker desires knowledge from the urn, a position that conforms to Keats’s descriptions of the poet’s identity in his “Letter to Richard Woodhouse” as one that “has no self—it is everything and nothing…it has no character” (836). The poet becomes a “chamelion…the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body” (836). He receives no answer in human speech. The urn figures refuse to fill his imagination with human language, and the speaker cannot transform into a figure of art to access their knowledge. Rather than raging at them or his mortal existence, however, the speaker argues that their unresponsiveness points to a higher world, one finally realized in the last line, when the figures relay a message that only the poet can interpret, that stasis itself is beauty. This is the sweetest music that the speaker examines throughout the poem. It is imaginative speculation that brings him joy and wish-fulfillment. He speculates about this ecstasy and what it means to humans, who experience pain and the need to access art for its palliative effects on the human spirit (Holstein 32-5). [1]

Beauty is two-fold in the poem. It exists both in the form of the urn as art object and in the artistic process, contrasted against the world of natural process in stanza three:

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. (ll. 21-30)

The pleasure of anticipation—another form of stillness—is preferable, the speaker argues, even to the earthier sensations of the body. The silence is replete with longing for anticipated but unconsummated sexuality. The speaker repeats the word “happy” six times, emphasizing that forms of true joy do not lie in what is attained but in what is anticipated. The perpetual excitement of near possession brings more happiness than sexual gratification, the highest form of human ecstasy that Keats imagines in many of his works.

The figures do not exist in a “fallen” state but are perpetually virginal, the “still unravish’d bride of quietness” (l. 1). The idea of stillness, even the word “still,” has intrigued scholars, and “still” conveys both lack of motion and timelessness. We are meant to interpret stillness both ways because the two definitions are intertwined in the poem. The urn figures are forever young and unspoiled by time. They are the “foster-child of silence and slow time” (l. 2). Together, they form the “Sylvan historian” (l. 3). While Keats does not work in a specifically Christian or orthodox tradition, he does invoke the tradition of the “fall” from a higher, Edenic realm to a lower earthly one (Peterfreund 63-4). Following Plato, Keats, like Wordsworth, explores the Romantic desire to move beyond the flawed world of shadows, age, and death, but it is not to pre-existence, as it is in Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode. Instead, Keats modifies neo-Platonism to accommodate his own vision of artistic immortality, which he conceives as an artistic state beyond mortality. We can never access it directly, only see and interpret it as a symbol in art.

Art, thus, holds no compensatory force for Keats, for whom there is no spiritual renewal in the mortal world. We can dwell in stasis and the dream-state of sleep, which he describes in poems such as “Ode on Melancholy” and “Sonnet: To Sleep.” For him, two realms exist—mortal and immortal, and they rarely commingle in his works. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the speaker apostrophizes the urn figures, illustrating this divide:

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 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. (ll. 41-50)

To humans, the art is a “Cold Pastoral” because it is not alive as mortals are. We can perceive it, however, through the imagination. Keats creates alternate artistic states of perception and being, generated in imaginative stasis.

In Keats’s now famous letter to Benjamin Bailey, he describes beauty and the artistic process through imaginative dreaming. Such dreaming serves artistically as a “Shadow of reality to come” generated by the “Life of Sensations,” which Keats describes as a state of desire for intellectual and divine pleasure in “the authenticity of the imagination.” Art is “essential beauty” and allows the poet to access imaginative beauty, which is Keats’s conception of the humanized sublime:

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections

and the truth of Imagination—what the imagination seizes as Beauty

must be truth—whether it existed before or not—for I have the same

Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their Sublime, creative

of essential Beauty… The imagination may be compared to Adam’s

dream—he awoke and found it truth…O for a Life of Sensations rather

than Thought! It is ‘a Vision in the form of Youth’ a Shadow of reality to

come…we shall enjoy ourselves ihere after by having what we called

Happiness on Earth reapeated in a finer tone and so repeated—And yet

such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than

hunger as you do after Truth—Adam’s dream will do here and seems to

be a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the

same as human Life and its spiritual repetition. (257-58)

Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is spiritually reaffirming despite the seeming coldness of the art. Stuart Peterfreund argues that in Keats’s poetic theory, imaginative beauty is free of temporal limitations. Instead, it exists in the “realm of being—the realm of the is” (69). What humans possess is “the means for the partial apprehension” of imaginative beauty. He explains that, as mediating figures between the physical world and the imaginative one, the artistic figures in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are essentially dead because they are cold representations. Humans search for beauty as a fixed locality and find, rather than eternity, a dead reality that only points to eternity (69).

Keats does not represent the urn figures as “dead” characters, however, but as preserved entities belonging to a different realm. The figures are cold only because they belong to the artistic world and not the human one, though they are depicted in scenes that range across many human emotions. The speaker tells the “Bold Lover” (l. 17) not to “grieve” (l. 18), for his mistress will always be beautiful. She can never die. The figures “tease us out of thought” (l. 44), bringing the viewer to new consciousness and perception of art’s higher realm. They give imaginative warmth and represent human emotions, though they can feel none themselves. The figures instead “Pipe to the spirit” (l. 14) the silence of wonder and awe—the internalized human, sublime condition Keats explores in all of his major odes.

Stanza IV offers the greatest complexity in the interpretation of the urn figures. The speaker sees the figures in postures of seeming mortality. He reverts to the interrogative:

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. (ll. 31-40)

Silence in this stanza also indicates lost history, and Keats makes the point that art can communicate beauty in death. The urn, both as art object and as “Sylvan historian,” depicts past cultures. Even if the urn cannot explain in human language what happened to the figures, it can represent timelessness in human experience through ritualistic experience. History and art are collapsed; both are inaccessible and beautiful to the speaker, who will one day join others who have lived, becoming part of history as well. The scene in Stanza IV shows postures of death, but this too is beauty, a position Keats fully realizes in the “Ode to Autumn,” when, contemplating his own mortality, he comes to a position that death is conceptually if not actually beautiful. Even the representation of death offers divine transport and a beautiful truth.

The speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” separates death, which Keats had frequently encountered during his years as a physician, from art. The lovers depicted in Stanza III are “far above” (l. 28) illness, their suspended “breathing” (l. 28) a form of afflatus, meaning divine wind, that is superior to “human passion” (l. 28). Their bodies cannot feel sorrow or pain. Through art, Keats implies that we find aponia, absence from pain as well. Only the recognition that we cannot stay in stasis “leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue” (l. 29-30). As humans, we experience mortal decay. The description of illness in the poem could apply to many diseases Keats likely encountered in his medical studies and brief career. He employs tubercular symptoms such as the “parching tongue” (l. 30) metaphorically to indicate mortal thirst for eternal health, youth, and vitality. Speech and language, even poetical language, emerge from a longing tongue, desirous of drinking divine waters. The “burning forehead” (l. 30) also alludes to the warm imagination Keats describes in his letters about the experience of creating art.

While often frustrated both by mortality and silence—there is the sense that Keats would like the urn figures to come to life—Keats converts longing and suffering to awe for the sage lesson art offers through slow time. The figures are divine for him, and art replaces the figure of God as a sublime force. Keats revises earlier eighteenth-century ideas on the sublime by Robert Lowth and Longinus, reconfiguring these ideas to explore personal artistic wonder. It is not awe for the divine but a profound reverence for art that generates the feelings of the sublime. The timeless figures on the urn emerge as silent oracles, predictors of ancient beauty that can be touched, if not lived. They stop time for Keats, even as he moves constantly towards age and mortality.

 

[1] As Walter Jackson Bate, Sidney Colvin, John Middleton Murry, and Andrew Motion explain, Keats’s experiences as a physician and his own family tragedies contributed to an overall artistic vision of poetic loss and desire through the imagination.

 

Works Cited

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