Cold Pastoral: Ode on a Grecian Urn
Note: this paper is one in a series written for a lit class. Each essay examines a text from a specific critical perspective.... which is why this essay begins with an in-depth explanation of both inter-textual criticism and the Ode.
Inter-textual criticism is a study of how surface structures (letters, words and eventually sentences) work together within a text’s role in a specific literary type or genre. In order to better understand an ode then, it is important to understand both the historical aspects and development of the ode form, and the established conventions of the period during which the ode was written.
Generally a long lyric poem, the ode, as a form of poetry or song, has an extensive history. Though in actuality odes vary in topic and occasionally structure, three flavors of ode have risen to the foreground in literature. These three forms are identifiable by their different features, and all odes carry characteristics that line up somewhere among the three (though they may contain parts from one form and pieces from another, this is generally true). The third form of ode, which this paper will not focus on, is the irregular ode, in which the “rhyme scheme, number of stanzas, and stanzaic form are irregular and at the poet’s discretion” (Bedford 183). The two most well known and best-established ode forms are the Pindaric and the Horatian odes, of the Greek and Roman traditions respectively.
Named after a 5th century B.C. Greek poet, the Pindaric ode consists of a triadic structure, which emulates the musical movement of early Greek chorus. Because of its close relationship to the Greek language and language structure, this form of ode is rarely found written in English. However, though infrequently attempted, some examples of the Pindaric ode do exist in the English language. Thomas Gray’s “The Progress of Poesy” is one example (Bedford 284).
The Horatian ode is, like the Pindaric ode, named after a poet. Roman poet Horace is given credit for this form of ode, which is usually “composed of equal-length stanzas having the same rhyme scheme and meter” (Bedford 158). The Horatian ode, unlike the Pindaric ode, also has a tendency to be personal, and thus less formal than the Pindaric ode, which was generally very formal and was used to make public announcements.
Perhaps the only elements shared by Pindaric and Horatian odes are their tone and subject matter. Both types of ode have a tendency towards serious topics, which lends them a sometimes-somber tone. Another similarity is a propensity for including apostrophe: a literary device in which an object, animal or otherwise non-present person who cannot respond intelligently, is addressed as if it were able to give answers (Poetry 710). One particularly good example of this can be found in John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which an urn and the decorative carvings on its surface are recipients of a series of questions from the poem’s narrator.
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? (Ode 486, 5-10)
Although an ode, and an exemplary example of apostrophe, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” varies in respect to how it fits into the time period in which it was written. My interest in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” then, is combined. First, I find it interesting that it is an ode instead of some other form of lyric poetry, and second I find it fascinating that Keats does such extraordinary things within the poem.
My reason for finding Keats’ Ode so interesting in form is that the ode, as a style of writing, was revived during the neoclassical period (during which it was quite popular to study classic form from Greek, Roman and early English traditions), in an effort to try to emulate the styles of poetic “fathers.” That it is an ode is not altogether surprising then, as it is a form of lyric poetry that was used fairly frequently during the Romantic period. However, in looking at Keats’ short writing career, it is easy to see within his writing a shift from the popular sonnet form to the older form of the ode towards the end of his life. This suggests that in order to make progress as a poet, he necessarily had to step back and embrace a prior poetic form. When examining the twentieth century, critics have noted a revival of neoclassical qualities, and The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms observes that “Many critics have viewed this revival as a corrective reaction to the excesses of romanticism, whose assumptions, styles and traditions nonetheless still influence our literary landscape” (Bedford 236). Even though Keats wrote his odes at the beginning of the nineteenth century, I think that it is possible that he stands as an early indication of this reaction.
My second point of interest, the actual events of the poem, stems from a contrast between the contents of the poem and the conventions of romanticism. The romantic period, which began in the late eighteenth century and ended in the mid-nineteenth century, was important because it highlighted a shift in the literary world from a retrospective to a more introspective mentality. Instead of humanity and humankind as subject matter (as was common in the neoclassic period which preceded romanticism), individuality became a much more prominent focus: specifically in respect to nature and the natural world.
Keats thus obliges his readers by including a type of nature into his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and creating a persona with whom nature can interact. This nature, however, is different than the nature found in most other poems of the romantic era. “Instead of stilling the disturbing forces of the world beyond the pastoral bower, he freezes the pastoral world and reduces it to a single sculptured panel on his imaginary urn” (Metzger 307). Because of this, I tend to believe that the narrator’s reference to the images on the urn as a “cold pastoral,” is accurate on the poetic level as well as in reference to the urn’s design (Ode 487, 45).
In Keats’ poem “To Autumn” the narrator observes that flowers keep blooming in the autumn afternoons “until the bees think warm days will never cease”(Autumn 127, 9-10: emphasis mine), however, it is clear that at some point autumn must end. This is especially clear because fall is referred to as the “Season of mists” which at least suggests the presence of other seasons (Autumn 127, 1). Also, it is clear that at least one other season has already come and gone, “For summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells” (Autumn 127, 11).
The narrator of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” on the other hand, observes that spring can quite literally never end:
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,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (Ode 486, 17-20)
This is because the scene that the narrator is describing, instead of being an emotional interaction with nature itself, is an emotional interaction with a permanent image or reflection of nature.
Usually in romantic poetry, the poem is based on some interaction with, or observation of nature. Keats plays with this convention by writing a Horatian ode, with all of the seriousness and careful diction that that form of ode implies, and then twisting the nature of “nature” in his poem. The narrator of the ode actually seems to play with irony in places, labeling the urn one who “can thus express / a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” as if poetry were an insufficient way to express the beauty of nature (Ode 486). I label this tone ironic, first and foremost because despite the narrator’s statement on the inability of poetry to express nature in its entirety, he goes on, in rhyme and meter, to attempt to do just exactly what he has already ascertained that poetry cannot. I also label this irony because the narrator later tells the urn that its “silent form, dost tease us out of thought / as doth eternity,” as though (despite the narrator’s grudging compliment at the beginning of the poem) the urn itself is incapable of truly reflecting the nature which it carries on its surface (Ode 487, 44-45).
This statement surely reflects on the persistent attempts of romantic poets to demonstrate, in writing, the sublime interaction and commune with nature that they experienced in real life. The narrator’s tone in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” combined with Keats’ manipulation of subject matter mingle in a way which I believe supports my prior claim: that this poem stands as a tribute to Keats’ move back towards a more neoclassical approach to poetry. Rather than standing as a tribute to the romantic period during which it was written, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in fact employs textual elements which rely on previous literary movements.
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Keesey 486-487.
---. “To Autumn.” Meyers 127-128.
Keesey, Donald, comp. Contexts for Criticism. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill,2003.
Metzger, Lore. “Silence and Slow Time: Pastoral Topoi in Keats’ Odes.” Keesey
Meyers, Michael, comp. Poetry: An Introduction. 4th Ed. Boston: Bedford 2004.
Murfin, Ross. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston:
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