To create a world of pure joy is what the most renowned romantic poet, John Keats, intended while writing his two famous odes- Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. Through both these great odes of Keats is heard a note of solemnity, deepening now and then to poignant suffering. A haunting sense of unreality is also well evident in his words. In Ode to a Nightingale, the nightingale’s song is an illusion, that too, an illusion which soon fails, leaving the listener alone with his grieves and cares. Likewise, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, he advocates that there is no refuge but in art, the serene, but immortal and unchangeable, as the marble world which lives for ever on the carved shape of a Grecian urn.
Many critics are of the view that Ode to a Nightingale displays Keats’s power as a master of poetic language at its highest. Here he shows consummate skill in the choice of words and in making original and highly expressive phrases. The phrase “the blushful hippocrence” which refers to the red wipe of the fountain of the Muses makes us think of the blushing cheeks of a pretty girl, and it would be difficult for a man to decide which of the two tempts him more. Again, this wine has “beaded bubbles winking at the brim”. The word “winking” itself shows forth how sparkling it is.
The bubbles seem to be inviting a man to the wine as a girl’s wink would invite him to her company. Another suggestive phrase is “purple stained mouth” which shows forth again the high quality of the wine. Other memorable phrases and lines include – “the murmurus haunt of flies on summer eves”; “embalmed darkness”; mid-May’s eldest child the coming musk-ros”. The line “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” effectively describes the perplexities and anxieties of life and “leaden-eyed despairs” effectively conveys the dullness in the eyes of a man who is in a state of hopelessness.
The Ode to a Nightingale shows the ripeness and maturity of Keats’s poetic faculty. This poem is truly a masterpiece, showing the splendor of Keats’s imagination on its pure romantic side, and remarkable also for its note of reflection and meditation. The central idea here is the contrast of joy and beauty and apparent permanence of the nightingale’s song with the sorrows of human life and the transitoriness of beauty and love in this world.
No doubt, it contains the fullest, the highest, the most intense, and the most valuable mental experience which Keats can imagine. This experience is the centre of the poem and the basis of its unity. Within this unity, however, is a complex of feeling and thought which moves in alternate rises and falls, a series of waves. These waves are not of equal height; they rise gradually to a climax in the seventh stanza, and the rise subsides in the conclusion.
Ode on a Grecian Urn was inspired by a collection of Greek sculpture which Keats saw in the British museum. Partly, perhaps, the inspiration for the poem was derived from a marble urn which belonged to Lord Holland. In giving us the imagery of the carvings on the urn, Keats was not only thinking of a single urn, but of Greek sculpture in general. He had a native sympathy for, and a natural affinity with, the Greek mind. This ode professes the full force of Hellenic influence acting on a temperament essentially romantic.
In the Grecian urn, Keats finds a more satisfying symbol of permanence of beauty than the nightingale. But the deficiencies that the poem implies in the value of art weaken its power as a symbol, because the common man’s essence would definitely prefer the warm impermanence of human life to the cold permanence of the urn.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn contains a series of vivid and concrete pictures – passionate men and gods chasing reluctant maidens, the flute players playing their ecstatic music, the fair youth trying to kiss his beloved, the happy branches of the trees, the towns people going to a place of worship in order to offer a sacrifice with a mysterious priest to lead them, and the little town which will always remain desolate. The poem illustrates Keats’s genius in imaginative phrasing. The phrases “sylvan historian” and “cold pastoral” are appropriately used for the urn.
The first phrase refers to the fact that a number of forest scenes are carved on the urn, while the other shows the poet’s awareness of the deficiency of work of art. When we read the phrase “cold pastoral, the glowing carved figures which had been animated and vitalized by the poet recede and fade; these figures reassume their immobile, lifeless status on the urn. The phrases used for the urn in the closing stanza include “attic shape”, “silent form” and “fair attitude”, all of which reinforce the meaning of “cold pastoral”. We are made to feel that, although art has both beauty and permanence, it has no reality. But his most famous line in this ode is: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, which is a neat and compact expression of a profound fact that is never denied by man.
Both the poems abound in contrasts that are otherwise not at all noticed. Ode to a Nightingale presents before the reader a fine contrast between the immortality of the nightingale through its song and the mortality of human beings who claim to be of a much higher order of existence. A contrast between the happiness and joy of the bird and the sufferings, afflictions and sorrows of the human world where beauty, youth and love are all short-lived is also very effectively drawn. On the other hand, in Ode on a Grecian Urn, we have clear-cut contrasts drawn between the discrepancy of the urn with its frozen images and the dynamic life portrayed on the urn, the human and changeable and the immortal and permanent, participation and observation, and above all life and art.
The Ode to a Nightingale begins with a description of the poet falling into a drugged sleep, and then sharing the great happiness with the bird which is too happily singing. This paradox is resolved in the sixth stanza of the poem in which we are told that he has often been “half in love with easeful death” and that in listening to the nightingale “more than ever seems it rich to die”. Keats dreams of escaping from the miseries of the world, first by drinking wine, and then on the wings of poesy. What he wishes is to leave this world unseen, and even in the richly sensuous description of the surrounding darkness we are reminded once more of death in the telling phrase “embalmed darkness.”
It is no use complaining about the so-called illogicality of Keats’s pretence that he is listening to the same bird as the one that sang to Ruth. It is definitely the symbolic representation of song of the poet. Keats here contrasts the immortality of poetry with the mortality of the poet. This is the climax of the poem and the point where several themes are harmoniously blended – the beauty of the nightingale’s song, the loveliness of the spring night, the miseries of the world, and the desire to escape from those miseries by wine, or by poetry, or by death. The nightingale’s song acquires a greater poignancy from the miseries of the world.
The ode should never be mistaken as the expression of a single mood; it is definitely about a series of moods. From being too happy in the happiness of the bird’s song, Keats becomes aware of the contrast between the bird’s joy and the misery of human life, from the thought of which he can only momentarily escape by poetry, wine, beauty of nature or the thought of death. In the seventh stanza, a sharpening of the contrast is felt.
The immortal bird, that is a symbol for natural beauty and poetry, is set against the “hungry generations” of mankind. This contrast is followed by the poet’s going back to history and legend, to Ruth in tears, and the “magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas”. But the “faery lands” are “forlorn”. Reality now breaks in on the poetic dream and beckons the poet back to his self. Fancy, the Muse of escapist poetry, is “deceiving elf”. Keats expresses with a maximum of intensity the desire to escape from reality and yet he reaches the shocking realization that no escape is possible.
Keats’s observation of nature is very keen and nothing escapes it. In the Ode to a Nightingale, we have a couple of remarkable nature pictures owing Keats’s delight in the purely sensuous appeal of nature. One is the picture of the moon shining in the sky while there is darkness on the grassy floor of the forest:
And happy the Queen Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by her starry fays…
The other is a picture of flowers:
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves…
In the Ode to a Nightingale, the readers are made to think that neither beauty of nature (the nightingale’s song) nor the beauty of art (the flights of poesy) can console us for the miseries of human existence on this beautiful green planet. In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats makes another effort in the same direction. The life of the figures portrayed on the urn possesses beauty, the importance and the externality of nature and this is expressed in sharp contrast, at times explicitly and otherwise implicitly, with the transitoriness, the purposelessness, and the unpoetic nature of actual life.
In the latter poem, the “unwearied” melodist “for ever piping songs, for ever new”, and the uncloying love of the imaginary world of the artist are contrasted with the inevitable imperfections of human existence. In the last stanza, Keats proclaims that the sorrows and the meaninglessness of life can be transcended if we realize that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The poet, here, recognizes the proposition that beauty is an image of truth and that, therefore, if we see life steadily and see it whole, the disagreeables of life will evaporate as they do in a great work of art. Thus art points to the fact that life can be as meaningful as art. Keats is fully aware of the limitation of art.
Even when he is congratulating the lover on the permanence of his unsatisfied love, he hankers after “breathing human passion.” when he is describing the scene of sacrifice which will remain for ever beautiful, he thinks of the desolate town, emptied for ever of its inhabitants. Art is invaded by human suffering. The “cold pastoral”, although perfect, is lacking in the warmth of reality.
Both these odes are replete with wisdom and feeling. Their account of experience speaks straight to the hearts of men. Highly concentrated language and imagery adds to the effect. Each sentence is put to work in the most profitable way so that it is rich with all the possible meanings relevant to the theme. This is to “load every rift with ore”, so that each bit of the poem shines with meaning, but does not demand too much attention for itself.
Both these odes are constructed with harmonious skill. They deal with the favorite themes in Keats’s romanticism – one representing the artistic quality of a Greek urn which gives us the message that truth and beauty are one, and the other, the painful craving of the soul to find a beauty that endures and the fascination of death. Keats’s most characteristic form of writing of odes consists of a group of stanzas of highly complex structure, but regular or nearly regular in their resemblance to one another. Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn is no exception.
Each stanza of each of the odes consists of the first half of the octave of a Shakespearean sonnet,(that is to say, one elegiac quatrain, instead of two), followed by a Petrarchan sestet (of the Ode to a Nightingale, the rhyme scheme is abab cde cde and that of Ode on a Grecian Urn, it is abab cdedce) . Each of them is built of stanzas of ten lines which can be considered as a kind of mutilated sonnet. Though Ode on a Grecian Urn slightly differs in the second half, these odes are interlinked by their themes and by their moods.
The language in these poems sparkles with all the gems of speech, without their brilliance predominating over the conciseness and exactness of the whole. The rhythms are perfectly adapted to the supreme unity of impression. That exactly is the taste of the modern literary reader who demands an intellectual discipline but is not averse to a highly imaginative handling of a theme or an emotional treatment of it.
The odes of Keats basically deal with some of the conflicts that troubled him. These conflicts render a dramatic quality to his odes. No doubt, the first and foremost conflict, according to him, is between the real world and the ideal world. Keats always tend to escape to the world of imagination, the world of beauty, the world of perfection, such as the craving presented in the worlds in Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. But his escape is always thwarted or obstructed by a painful realization of the actualities of life.
- Forman, Buxton H., (ed) “The Complete Poetical Works of John Keats”, ed. Oxford University Press (1907)
- Larrabee, Stephen A., “English Bards and Grecian Marbles: The Relationship between Sculpture and Poetry Especially in the Romantic Period”, Columbia University Press, 1943, 204
- Rollins, Hyder Edward., (Ed.) “The Letters of John Keats.” 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
- Scudder, Horace Elisha. Ed., “The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats”, Boston: Riverside Press (1899)