Ode on a Grecian Urn - John Keats
This ode, written in 1819, develops the theme of the consolative role of art: John Keats never visited Greece, but his admiration for Greek art was immense. He spent hours at the British Museum contemplating the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures taken from the Parthenon. The inspiration for this ode came from a vase he saw during a visit: the poet reflects on the immortality and perfection of art versus the caducity of life. The urn, commonly used for storing human ashes after cremation, is a very work of art: it's decorated with different scenes, such as musicians, a young man trying to reach a maiden and a procession of people following a priest leading a young cow to an altar to be sacrificed to the gods.
1st stanza: an Arcadian landscape
2nd stanza: musicians are playing pipes and a young man is kissing a girl
3rd stanza: an eternal spring
4th stanza: a priest leads a young cow to be sacrificed to the gods, followed by a procession of people.
The images of the urn described within the poem are depictions of common activities: an attempt at courtship, the making of music and a religious rite. The figures of the urn are able to always enjoy their beauty and passion because of their artistic permanence.
This urn is cold, because it's made of marble, but, at the same time, it's friend to man, because it remains men of the possibility of escaping from human caducity into the eternal world of art and beauty.
In the 1st stanza, the poet addresses the urn using three different metaphors:
“urnavished bride of quietness” (intatta sposa delle quiete)
“foster-child of silence and slow time” (figlia adottiva del silenzio e del tempo lontano)
“Sylvan historian” (narratrice silvestre)
The poet's questions introduced three kind of world:
Valley of Arcady a pastoral ideal world where gods ans human beings live together.
World of love
world of music
The term “Ecstasy” implies a passage out of rational state to a higher form of thought: we can reach the realm of imagination through the world of sensation represented by nature, love and music. This world depends on a passage to the spiritual beauty, a deeper experience of joy which suggests the sense of sublime that art can communicate.
The term “What” introduces a question which maintains the tension between presence and absence, by stressing the supposed dynamism of the scenes represented, it simultaneously reverses into the urn's passivity.
Paradoxes arise when the narrator compares his world with that of the figures on the urn, meant to carry the ashes of the dead.
Expectation is better than fulfillment which is, for the poet, a betrayal of potential. “ART” is both satisfying, because it allows the audience to connect with the beauty, and alienating, because public doesn't benefit of narcissistic fulfillment.