Life and works
Born in London, on 31 October 1795, John Keats dedicated his short life to the perfection of poetry, marked by vivid imagery that expressed a philosophy through classical legend.
He lost his parents at an early age: his father's death had many effects on his life, both from a materialistic and abstract side; family's financial security was disrupted and this events shaped Keats' precarious view of human condition.
His mother left the family, some years later his father's death, but she died of tubercolosis after little time.
Keats found comfort in art and literature: at Enfield Academy, he proved to be a great reader and become close to the school's headmaster, a sort of father for him.
Back home, his grandmother took financial control in a London merchant hands, that didn't allow to children to spend too much money, even for school. So Keats left Enfield to become a surgeon and study medicine.
In 1817, Keats publishs “Poems by John Keats”. Then “Endymion”, a poema based on a Greek myth, appears.
Anyway, his style earned him some crtitics. So he stars reexamining poetry's role in society: it should take its beauty from real world human experience rather than some mythical grandeur. At the same time, he was formulating his most famous docrtine: Negative Capability, which is the idea that human could transcend any constraint and far exceed what human nature allows.
In 1818, his brother falls deeply ill with tubercolosis, but Keats continued to write, even if he came back home: he published many works, such as “Isabella”, “To Autumn” and a Romantic piece inspired by a Greek myth, “Hyperion”.
His brother's death influenced his writing, in fact he returned to work only in late 1819, rewriting “Hyperion” and changing the title in “The Fall of Hpyerion”. These works had a small audience and only after Keats' death critics appreciated them.
In 1819, Keats contracted tubercolosis. His health detoriated quickly: in November, he arrived in Rome and he was placed on a strict diet, in order to limit the flow of blood to the stomach. He died in heavy sufference in 1821.
Ode on a Grecian urn
Keats' conception of art as manifestation of beauty it's clear from the first line of the “Endymion”: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”.
His love for beauty, combined with his sense of precariousness of human nature, make him admire ancient Greek art.
From this admiration, in 1819, “Ode on a Grecian urn” borns.
It's a irregular Pindaric ode, composed by 5 stanzas that follow the rhyme scheme ABABCDEDCE.
We can divide the ode in three parts: introduction, the first stanza; body of the text, from the second stanza to the fourth; conclusion, the last ten lines.
In the introduction, Keats' presents the theme of art's intangibilty, with the description of the urn and a series of questions; in the body, the poet describes the scenes represented on the urn; in the conclusion, Keats' does a sort of poetic declaration.
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:*
What 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?*
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone*:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!*
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;
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*.
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**, *.
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 of 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. 1-4: in these lines, Keats talks to the urn as a living being. It's “bride of quietness”, because of his duration in time; “Sylvan historian”, because of rural scenes we can see represented; finally, it's the “foster-child of silence”, because of its intangibilty.
*ll. 5-10: this part of the text it's the perfect example of negative capibility, the sense of vagueness. The poet asks himself what stories are represented on the urn and makes the reader imagine some of these. “Ecstasy” it's an important word, because refers to the reign of imagination.
*ll.11-14: The main theme is the power of imagination, that it's greater than our sensations.
*ll.15-20: Keats talks to a “fair youth”, that is trying to kiss a lady, but the poets invites him to not despair, because art is immortal, so – even if he couldn't kiss the lady – this scene, as the beauty, will be eternal.
*ll.21-30: in this stanza, Keats underlines again the immortality of the moments represented on the urn, that won't finish as human's passions, but will be eternal.
*ll. 31-40: now, Keats describes the second scene we can see on the urn, that of the “mysterious priest” that conducts a heifer in a place we don't know. This element it's very important, because is an example of negative capitibilty. In fact, the poet makes many questions and lists many place – sea and mountains, two opposites – in order to stimulate reader's imagination.
*ll. 41-50: Keats returns to reality. In ll. 41-43 he describes again what he sees; then he says that when the “old age shall this generation waste”, the urn will remain as “a friend to man”, because of the teaching that leaves: “Beauty is truth, truth beauthy”. It's all we need to know – another link to negative capibility. So, despite of human destiny – they are “condemned to death”, we can say – art will remain forever, thanks to the power of imagination.