John Keats

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By reading Keats' poems we can recognise two main themes:
1 - the contemplation of beauty
2 - transience of life
These themes are related to each other: beauty is intended as permanent beauty, and the idea of permanence is essential for the poet to put up with the transience of life. We also have to understand what he meant with "contemplation of beauty": "contemplation" is a very intense participation with the life of the object which is contemplated. The poet tends to identify himself with the object under contemplatio, so it is not just a contemplation from the outside. This idea of identifying with the object is related to Keat's idea of the poet: according to him, the poet is a person who has no identity, no self and is like an empty vassal to be filled with the object under observation. The poet is ready to change like a chameleon that changes the colour in a sort of gradual identification that we can see clearly in the poems we read: in "Ode on a Grecian Urn", he becomes the urn and only before the last stanza he becomes himself again and sees the urn as a marble piece. To Wordsworth the poet had something to do for people so people could see unusual things, whereas Keats is totally wrapped in this process of contemplation of beauty, which is also related to another conception that Keats had: the theory put forward by him that he called the "negative capability": "It is when man is capable of remaining in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". Basically, it is the capability of someone of resisting the temptation to explain everything, all the mysteries and doubts, and the capability of forgetting about himself and becoming something else. Thus, the poet's attitude is not passive but submissive, not aggressive to this contemplation of beauty. Now, what is the effect of the contemplation? During it, beauty produces pleasure to the senses and joy to the spirits. Perception also takes place through the senses (above all Keats liked touch because he liked classical sculpture, and he makes a large use of synaestesia).
"A thing of beauty is a joy forever". "Oh for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts" (from Endymion). Keats is generally held to be the one who paved the way for the aesthetic movement among the Romantic poets for the changes in literature he made: the aesthetic motto was indeed "Art for Art's sake". His kind of poetry does not want to be moral or didactic: he also talks about the dark side of beauty, that can destroy, kill and murder as in "La belle dame sans merci".
The ethical element is still present though: the "Grecian Urn" will be "a friend to man" because it will be able to console man and make him come to terms with the tragedies of life. In Keats we find "the coexistence of a man of humanitarian feelings with a poet". He knew what suffering was like, and he was "pursuing a pure detached idea of poetry". Therefore, he is not a real aesthete because we find this idea of "humanitarianism". To Keats, life means sorrow, growing old, dying, but it is also experience.
Most of his life was spent in London, and it was a pretty uneventful life: he took up medicine but never ended, he dropped to devote himself completely to literature. His life was characterised by lots of deaths: his parents and his younger brother died in a young age and he also got consumption and died very young. During his life he was not very successful and had some bitter disappointment: he had a friendship with Lee Hunt who was actually much more successful those days. He was famous for writing his own epitaph "Here lies a man whose name is writ in water". He had to decide to be either a lover or a poet, beacues he got very very ill and he eventually decided to move to Rome because of the climate but it didn't really help. He lived with his friend, a painter. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome and there he still lies near Piazza di Spagna. He is usually considered a real Romantic poet because of his life, because he died so young and suffered a lot. In general, he neglected the ideal and much preferred the real, and he deeply loved life. The cult of beauty like the one he has is a typical feature of the aesthetic movement but in Keats there are also ethical basis, because art is seen as the only way to find comfort and relief. The musicality of his words is often due to the alternating of short and long vowels.
The ode consists of 5 stanzas each made up of ten iambic pentameters. The rhyme scheme is A B A B C D E C D E. There are some imperfect rhymes as well. It is like a Petrarchan sonnet, but we lack a quatrain, so we can call it a "miniature sonnet". There is usually a separation between the quatrain and the sestet, as we usually have a dividing line between the octave and the sestet.
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 that 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?
"You as yet untouched bride of quietness, you adoptive child of silence and slow time, sylvan historian, who can in such a way express a flowery tale which is sweeter than the tale I can tell with my lines: what leaf-decorated legend of gods or human beings, or of both, in Tempe or the valleys of Arcady, pervades your shape? What men or gods are these? What reluctant girls? What mad pursuit? What great effort to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"
The ode starts with an apostrophe and some invocations: the poet is speaking directly to the urn, and makes use of a number of metaphors.
The first gives a sense of human quality to the urn, which is said to be married to silence: but later on, silence and quietness will come back in stanza 4 only. The urn it is still untouched, and this stresses its purity; it is called "adopted child" because it was the child of its maker, but now it has been adopted by silence and slow time, because after all it is a material object even though time is so slow that we can think of eternity. Then Keats calls the urn "sylvan historian", in contrast with the first image, in order to underline a new aspect: it is "sylvan" because of the pictures and what we can see on it, and "historian" because it can tell us a story; so it is silent but can speak as well. The oxymoron was indeed very important to Keats.
The poets also admits that the tale told by the urn is sweeter than the one he can tell with his lines, because what the poet writes is real, but what the urn can tell is related to our personal imagination, to the imagination of the person who watches it, therefore the urn is able to tell a different story each time a different person talks to it. The concept behind all this is that the unreal is superior to the real.
Then we have a number of questions, through which we understand why the tale told by the urn is better: because it is not easy to understand.
These rhetorical questions have the function of introducing the figures on the urn, the scne and the atmosphere: we understand there are some human forms on the urn, so we must imagine men and gods frozen in the act of pursuing the girls who are reluctant. There is also a presence of musical instruments. The difference between the first quatrain and the questions in the sestet is thatthe questions are pressing one after the other, so if the first part gives a sense of quiet and stillness, the second section has a lot of movement, and this causes a very sharp contrast.
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!
"The melodies that we hear are sweet, but those that we cannot hear are sweeter; therefore, you soft pipes, keep playing; not to the physical ear, but, more wished for, pipe to the songs of no tone: fair youth, beneath the trees, you cannot stop your song, nor ever those trees can be withour leaves; passionate lover, you can never kiss, thought you have almost reached your goal - yet, do not suffer, she cannot grow old, thought you don't have your happiness, for ever you will love, and she will be beautiful!"
Now the poet is adressing the pipes and concentrating on the music, and he makes this statement saying that the melodies we hear with out physical ear are beautiful, but those we hear with the ear of the mind, or of the imagination, are still more beautiful, and the music played by the pipes on the urn is superior to real music and more precious: he makes use of the oxymoron again, "ditties of no tone" is like "melodies of no melody". Then the poet adresses the fair youth, and says that he cannot stop singing, in the same way the lover will never reach the girl in spite of being very close to his goal. We find here the same themes as in the ode to a nightingale: the poet tells the lover not to be unhappy because the girl will be beautiful forever even though he cannot have his satisfaction. Thus, we see again the pros and cons about life and art: life offers what art cannot offer but everything has to pass. In fact, all these negatives and prohibitions imply lack of life and express the idea of a potential state as opposed to the act of living.
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
Forever 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.
"Ah happy, happy boughs! that cannot lose your leaves, nor ever say good-bye to the spring; and, happy musician, not tired, forever playing songs forever new; more happy love! more happy, happy love! For ever warm and yet to be enjoyed, for ever panting, and for ever young; a love that is far above all physical human passions that leave the heart very sorrowful and overfed, a burning forehead and a dry tongue".
The poet here continues with the same thoughts: the boughs are happy because they will never lose their leaves, and spring will never pass.
The musicians will play a music to him and the music will be new again.
The love represented on the urn is happier than real love because of its eternal promise: the expectation seems to be superior to reality. The painted love is also superior to human passion. The last line describes the intense activity and physical strain.
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.
"Who are these people coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, o mysterious priest, are you leading that young cow mooing at the skies, and all her silken sides dressed with garlands? What little town near the river or the coast, or built on a mountain, with a fortress to protect its peace, is emptied of these people, this pious morning? And little town, your streets will be silent forever; and no one can ever return to tell why you arre empty".
Now we understand that the poet is describing another scene from the same urn, and he starts asking questions again: what do all the images mean? We can see some figures coming to a sacrifice: the poet can see the priest but not the altar, and he actually sees only some images, and he just imagines some others. He cannot see the little town but he imagines its existence, and makes hypothesis on its geographical location. He imagines it is empty because all the people are going to the religious ceremony, and that's also why he calls the morning "pious". He also imagines that in the same way spring will never end and the young men will continue to love, no one will ever come back from the little town, because if the urn can make a beautiful scene eternal, it can make a scene of desolation eternal too.
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 the 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 nee to know.
"O classically elgant shape! Beautiful form!overwrought with ornaments of marbel men and girls, with forest branches and the trodden grass; you, silent form, do tease us out of thought as eternity does: Cold Pastoral! When old age will destroy this generation, you will remain, among other pains than ours, and you will be a friend to man, to whom you say: "Beauty is truth, truth is beauty," - that is all you know on earth,and all you need to know".
The poet is here is addressing the urn again with some invocations that express his ecstasy at the urn's beauty, but also the effect of stillness that the urn produce because everything is fixed in a marble scene. Now the urn is no longer personified as it was in the beginning: there is a sense of cold deriving from marble. There are also branches, so the poet is again giving some elements of the urn, and he now calls it "silent form", in contrast with what he said before calling it "historian". He says that we have some feeling before the urn as we have with eternity, and it is difficult for us to grasp the idea of eternity, it makes us feel confused, it is a challenge for our thought that has limits. So the urn stands for permanent beauty, the beauty of art that lasts forever. We can see how the poet's towards the urn attitude has changed: up to now it was alive, now it is just a cold piece of art. It is also called "Cold Pastoral": "cold" because it is made of marble, and "pastoral" because it shows a bucolic scene. This is paradox at the heart odf Keats' concept of artistic beauty: the beauty of art, though lasting, is doomed to be cold and deprived of the warmth of life. The urn will also witness different kind of woes: it will be "a friend to man" because man needs the idea of consolation, and the urn will provide man with comfort by giving the illusion of permanence. In the final remark, the poet says that beauty is art, and art is permanent beauty that will never betray us, and will stay always untouched and unviolated: beauty is truth because it doesn't change, and we cannot trust what changes. Therefore, the only source of knowledge is through the imagination because it can perceive the truth in what is beautiful, but through imagination and not logical reasoning. Keats himself explained the meaning of this statement in a letter to his friend: "I'm certain of nothing but of (the heart's affections and) the truth of the imagination. What imagination seizes as beauty must be the truth".
The poem is basically about the relation between art, life and death. What symbolises art in the poem is the nightingale's song because in this case it is that that remains, so it stands for permanence, because art is what remains. We can see that Keats is well aware that there are contradictions in life, and he seems to show to understand them.
Life to Keats is all we find in stanza 3, but we also find a completely different description of life in other stanzas e.g. stanza 5 and stanza 2 are expressing a cheerful vision of life: mainly, two very different aspects of life are reflected through the poem. Stanza 3 symbolises transience, contrasting with art which is permanent, and symbolises eternity: in life everything passes, so life here is seen as suffering, pain, irritation, worries and disease. On the other side, stanza 3 and 5 express in an intense way Keat's love for life, basically joy and pleasure, whereas stanza 3 is about pain. Thus, we can see how contradictory life is, and when the poet thinks about stanza 3, he wants to die. He could not find any kind of reconciliation between these two aspects of life, the only thing was to find eternity in art.
Death seems to be a partial solution, because it i also a way to escape this passing of time: but we die, whereas art remains, so it is impossible to reconcile the two aspects because they both exist.
We also find some more references to death as just a partial solution to the passing of time: the poets wants to die because by dying, he would freeze that moment and stop the passing of time, but immediately he realises there is no solution because that way he couldn't hear the nightningale's song anymore. So we need also life, we understand from stanza 2 that the poet cannot do without life because he loves life too much. He especially likes the rhetorical figure of the oxymoron, and in his poetry we always find the same recurrent themes: he is unable to make a decision between art and life, probably because we need both, and this leads to a continuous alternation of emotions positively towards death and negatively towards death, an alternation between death wish and life wish.
There is a division between the first quatrain: alternate rhyme, then a sestet A B A B C D E C D E. There is a separation in the rhyme scheme, a sharp contrast with each other.
The nightingale (usignolo) is a bird famous for its beautiful voice and singing. Usually, an ode is a poem of address: it addresses someone or something, and this is a typical feature of the ode, which is a solemn kind of poem. There are 8 parts. Here the poet addresses the nightingale.
Looking at the first stanza, we can see that it is separated into two sections: the first 4 lines being about the poet ( and the second part being about the nightingale. The two sections actually express two different moods.
The poet feels drowsiness and numbness, a state where you cannot feel, and a general sense of suffering. He feels as if he had drunk a sedative, or opiate (a drink based, coming form opium).
Hemlock = cicuta. Poisonous herb or some sedative. Empty to the drains 0 to drain (I drained a glass of wine). Dull = effect of the opium.
Lethe = the river of oblivion and forgetfulness.
He's describing a particular state of drowsiness. Note the last verb "sunk", with the idea of moving downward and also the sound, a motion directed towards death.
Immediately we have a change with the repetition of "happy lot" = fate.
He insists on the change of mood and atmosphere.
Dryad = nymph of the wood. This is what he calls the nightingale. We have the nightingale singing loud, in a natural way of singing, without difficulties. Even the place where the bird is is melodious.
Beech = faggio.
The nightingale is singing without any kind of efforts. We can imagine that the poet is in the same place. First he thinks about himself and then he realises about the bird. The first 4 lines are about a state of mind, whereas the second section is about life.
The language is quite difficult.
The second stanza continues in the same way. The song of the nightingale suggests the idea of summer, and the poet continues in the same direction and makes a wish. The second section has the opposite movement.
Oh for a drink of wine, if I would have a drink of wine...
Deep-delved earth = cellar
Delve = to dig
The wine would taste of (the Goddess of) flowers, of dancing, of Provenзal singing and mirth = cheerfulness.
Sunburnt = cheerful faces.
He wants to feel, to perceive flowers, signing, etc.
Beaker = a cup.
Warm South = metonym, it means wine.
Hyppocrene is a very famous fountain sacred to the muses. Wine here is seen as a sort of inspiration. If you drink wine, you speak your mind and are sincere.
Blush = it makes your cheeks red
Bead = perlina
The bubbles are shining like beads.
Winking = flashing at the brim (bordo del bicchiere).
Oh for a drink of wine, that I might drink...and with thee (the nightingale).
Dim = gloom, dark
The motion is the opposite compared to the first part. Alternation, continuous alternation towards life and death, which is typical of Keats.
Note how every section is related to the first one. There is a crescendo, it sounds like an emotional outburst. The nightingale has never known the evils of life, so he starts making a list of evils.
Fret = irritation and worries.
We sit and spend our time hearing each other groan = moan.
Palsy = paralysis.
Keats is thinking of all the young people that were dying of consumption those days. His mum and his two brothers had also died of consumption, and he will die of that, too, when he is only 25.
The very act of thinking makes you experience sorrow and pain. When you are desperate, your eyes are as heavy as lead. But the worst of all is the passing of time: beauty passes so quickly, both beauty and love don't last. We have a very dramatic view of what life is.
Again he repeats his cry but he doesn't ask wine to carry him away.
Pards = leopards.
This time he's asking poetry to help him go away, and the wings of imagination are invisible. The spirits wants to go away but the flesh pulls him back on to the earth because he loves life.
Haply = perhaps
Clustered = raggruppate
Fays = fairies.
Little light that can penetrate through the woods, blown by the breeze. We keep seeing two different visions: one with light, made by imagination, whereas the other one is gloomy.
It's dark so he cannot see the flowers hanging upon the boughs. We have three senses involved.
Incense = smell and touch.
He can perceive them through the senses. He was a lover of the senses and makes use of them especially touch. He loved Greek sculptures. He can express his sensual nature.
Embalmed darkness = synaesthetical metaphor.
I can guess each sweet... le dolcezze che la stagione e il mese di maggio regala agli alberi da frutto.
Endow = donare
Thicket = a small wood
White hawthorn = biancospino
Eglantine = rosa selvatica
Musk rose = rosa muschiata
He cannot decide between living or dying.
I listen in the darkness to the nightingale's song. Then he makes a sort of confession: he has been for a long time half in love with death bringing peace, restful (euthanasia).
Mused = thoughtful.
Now he wants to die, it would stop the passing of time, he wants to stay here forever. While you keep on pouring around, singing in such an ecstasy. Still you would sing and I couldn't hear your song, I'd have become a zolla di terra al tuo alto requiem.
Continuous movement, alternation towards death, art as the only remedy for the passing of time but then he wants to live.
In this particular stanza he explains why the nightingale is immortal: it is not him but its singing that becomes a symbol of eternity.
Tread down = kill.
Clown = original meaning of peasant, a humble person.
By emperors and clowns = by everybody
Ruth = Biblical character
Corn = field
Casements = windows
Foam = schiuma
Perilous = dangerous
Forlorn = lonely, forsaken
Every time the same word has a new emotional impact.
to toll = suonare a morte
Fancy = fantasy
Famed = said
Deceiving elf = fantasy, like an elf playing tricks.
Plaintive = sad, melancholy fades away
Glade = radura
Waking = a occhi aperti
Fled = over