“Ode on a Grecian Urn”: Beyond the Canvas

The narrator in Keats’ poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” uses evocative description, along with prodding interrogation, to portray the imagery transfixed onto a piece of ancient Grecian pottery. Using the dynamics of language to exploit the static nature of the urn itself and the art it displays, the narrator illustrates the transcendence of literature through language and its superiority to fine art. In every stanza, the narrator provides a description of each scene which directly expresses the nature of the urn; it is static and very much lifeless.

The lines “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express—A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” at the end of the first stanza, present the most blatant expression of the urns limited scope of portrayal (Keats 1340). The narrator undermines the urn’s ability to convey a story better than the art of literature. Another example of this articulation occurs in the second stanza, when the narrator describes the first scene depicting two “Fair youth, beneath the trees” (1340).

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It is because they “canst not leave—Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare”, that it is clear the depiction is fixed permanently on the urn (1340). The lines, “happy boughs! That cannot shed—your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu,” from the third stanza, which parallel those of the second, simply serve to reiterate the narrator’s view of the urn’s nature (1340). Note that the phrase “for ever,” is used by the narrator to denote permanence, and is repeated several times in the third stanza (1340).

The repetition of a phrase implying permanence, in combination with the illustrative language the narrator uses, highlights the concrete imagery displayed as being very much bound by its own physicality. Within the descriptions provided, a perception of movement from each of these physical portrayals is established by the language throughout the poem. Each abstract descriptive term defines the characters and objects in the imagination.

As the poem progresses, it is apparent that not only is the narrator beginning to evoke a sense of movement within each picture, but he is also moving the reader about the urn, or more aptly, the poem itself is turning the inanimate piece of artwork. Through the poem’s structure, the narrator provides strong support for the argument that literature, magnified by the scope of language, has the potential to spark imaginative response, and truly to engage the reader; where fine art is dually constrained by the medium on which it is expressed and its limited ability to convey a tale.

This movement of the urn through the abstract language of the poem truly holds the implication that literature, as an art form, is superior to that of fine art; literature has the capability of transcending the medium through which it is expressed and involves a much deeper integration on behalf of the reader’s own personal beliefs. Concerning fine art, the emotional investment on behalf of the viewer is limited.

The depiction (such as the urn and the images on its surface) of abstract thoughts and ideas in the artist’s mind, and the cementation of his or her own emotional tie to each, does not allow the viewer to experience an emotional response using their own perception of the abstract ideas physically conveyed by the work. Literature, consequently, has the unique power through language, to warrant a deeper emotional response.

The abstract terms used to formulate a sentence are very generic, and the mental image sparked is one that is truly significant for the reader and his or her own past experiences with (or beliefs about) each term used. A fantastic example is in the lines “Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies—And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed? ” (1340). The generic, albeit descriptive, language present in these lines allows for a liberal imaginative interpretation on behalf of the reader. Words such as “heifer” or “garlands” have a unique visual interpretation for each reader (1340).

Any color attributed to the animal in question, or the breed of flowers used for the construction of the “garlands” it is wearing, will rely heavily on the reader’s own personal preferences or experience (1340). The reader’s greater emotional investment, allows for the experience one has with literature to occur on a much higher level. The narrator in Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” has made clear his view on the nature of literature, even the nature of his own poetic description, and its superiority to the physicality of the art portrayed within, and on, the urn itself.

In light of the support for the argument that literature is superior to fine art, due to its free flowing and dynamic nature, further argumentative analysis might beget the question: What implications do the superior and dynamic nature of literature versus fine art, have in terms of the allover nature of art? It holds; one would be altogether incapable of producing physical works of fine art , without the ability to formulate and direct a flow of abstract ideas through language.

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