The Cost of a Grecian Urn

 grecian-urn
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats is one of the most famous poems in English literature. Chances are, this poem has come across your path at some point in life, whether you’ve studied it in a highschool literature class or an intro to English course in university, or it just sounds vaguely familiar. Either way, let me refresh your memory (or introduce you to the poem) by inserting an excerpt:

“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;
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.”

It is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “Oh, how I wish I could stay in this moment forever!” or a variant thereof. This desire to capture a particularly exceptional moment in life and freeze it in time is not a rare sentiment. Keats specifically addresses this idea in stanzas two and three of his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he envies the eternal happiness of the figures painted on the urn. However, the thought of being trapped in an ideal moment forever may seem more appealing than the reality of it. Keats expresses three specific sentiments in the poem where he implies that the representations depicted on the urn are superior to real life; I, however, find that in each instance, the representations depicted on the urn are actually inferior to real life.

Firstly, Keats admires the piper on the urn and claims that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (11-12). Song can certainly produce wonderful feelings, and to imagine pausing life in a state of such euphoria may well be attractive. However, the joy that comes from a pleasant melody is a result of the progression of the notes and tune. Realistically, to stop time at the moment of listening to a song would also stop the song itself; at the very least, if it went on playing the listener would cease to hear it. This unheard melody is not superior to one that continues to play; on the contrary, the joy of a song is in its progression and ultimately its completion.

Secondly, Keats has a similar claim when it comes to the nature he describes on the urn. He praises the glories of spring and beautiful trees when he writes “Ah happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (21-22). It is true that after a long winter, one might consider the thought of an eternal spring to be wonderful. But what makes Spring so special is that it does not last forever. It is difficult to appreciate the fresh leaves of spring without having first experienced the bare branches in winter. This is true for all the seasons in that each is the most special and beautiful when contrasted with what has come before or what is coming next. To be trapped in one Spring day forever, no matter how wonderful that day might be, would mean to never again feel the warmth of Summer or see the colours of Autumn. It would be like a variation of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: always winter and never Christmas.

Finally, Keats is envious of the eternal youth in the scene on the urn. When addressing one of the couples, he exclaims that although they may be frozen in time, “For ever wilt [he] love, and she be fair!” (20). In a society like ours, so obsessed with finding ways to prolong romance and appear young and beautiful, such a sentiment might seem perfectly justified. However, just like with music and seasons, life cannot be enjoyed when put on pause. The couple in the poem might be happily in love forever, but they will also never be able to touch each other. Keats seems to consider this a worthwhile sacrifice, but is it really? Eternal happiness at such a cost might also be considered eternal torture. If the young couple are truly in love, then youth and beauty would not matter so much and their youthful love, though it would not stay the same, would be able to mature and deepen to an even truer form throughout their lives. If they merely have a passing infatuation with one another, then pausing at such a moment — even a happy moment — is ultimately perpetuating for eternity something that should actually end.

Although the thought of pausing life at a time of happiness and existing that way forever may seem pleasing to some, like Keats, it is far inferior to reality. All the things that Keats describes as being wonderful are only so because they are temporary. The urn prevents songs, seasons, loves, and even lives from being completed, but in doing so it robs them of that which makes them special. Music, natural beauty, and life are precious for the very fact that they are fleeting. Freezing them in time does not perpetuate them but ruins them by turning them into something unnatural. It is better to look forward to the next happy moments than to pine over the moments that have passed; all good things come to an end, and that is the way it should be.

 


 

Works Cited

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The Harbrace Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed. Ed. Jon C. Stott and Raymond E. Jones. Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education Ltd., 2012. 145-6. Print.

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