John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Notes by Dr. Honora M. Finkelstein   Keats began his career as a medical student, intending to become a doctor. However, his medical studies allowed him to recognize that he was himself in the latter stages of tuberculosis, so he gave up his hopes of a career in medicine and spent the last three years of his life writing poetry, in the full recognition that he would soon die. Many of his poems are therefore on themes of the briefness of human life, and the sad sweetness of a flirtation with impending death. (One of the marks of the last stages of tuberculosis is insomnia, and an intense energy and sense of awakeness as the body progresses in the disease; Keats's poetic output was tremendous in the three years he spent writing, leading some critics to suggest that he probably slept only rarely.) His "Ode on a Grecian Urn," is supposed to have been inspired by his visit to the British Museum, which had recently, thanks to the efforts of Lord Elgin, acquired many original artworks from ancient Greece, among them a group of urns, each containing pictures of Greek life and divinities. The first three stanzas of the poem picture a bridal ritual pursuit, a relic of the primitive "marriage by capture." The fourth pictures a religion procession to the altar of sacrifice. And the final stanza makes sense of what the urn means to the poet. Stanza 1: When he speaks of "Thou still unravished bride of quietness," he is referring to the urn itself, which has come across time, unbroken and still unused. He recognizes the picture of pursuit, but the urn does not reveal who are the subjects of the pursuit, or what it means, or why the pair are running. Stanza 2: According to the Romantic temperament, anticipation was better than realization; fulfillment would betray the glorious potential of any experience. Hence, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter . . . " The running lovers are caught in an eternal stasis, a perfect moment that will never fade. Stanza 3: Because the lovers are caught in an eternal moment, the boughs will always be green, the music will always be new, the love will remain passionate, and the lovers will never have to experience an unpleasant "morning after." Stanza 4: The town pictured on the other side of the vase is empty—so the reason for the sacrifice of the heifer is not known and never will be. This stanza considers the limits of art—the sole reality of which lies in its eternally perfect present. Art is a selective process, the creation of essences rather than material reality. Stanza 5: The urn is silent—it won't give answers to the questions its pictures suggest any more than will eternity give humans answers to the reasons for their being on the earth. But the urn will outlive the present generation and will forever give to man the following message: "Essential beauty and essential truth are one and the same. And that is all humanity can know or needs to know." Keats is reconciled here to accepting the human situation with its brevity of time and experience and its limited understanding of meaning. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily