Sunday, August 18, 2013

Keats - Poetry

The next poem on the list is one that I've certainly heard of but not one that I know.  It's Keat's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.

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 than our rhyme;
What leaf-fringed 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?

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, unwearièd,
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.

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 its 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.

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 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 need to know.'  

The poem is a bit on the flowery side, for me.  In some ways it seems like an exercise in finding flowery language moreso than expressing an idea.  But that may be unfair.  The entire poem is simply comentary on scenes found on a Grecian urn.  We have a piper who is playing but is obviously 'unheard'.  The music is only in the head of the patron.  There is a tree that will never lose it's leaves.  A bull on its way to be sacrified.  Each scene gets a story written about it.
And then we get to the heart of the poem.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - this is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  Beauty is truth, truth beauty.
Is that true?  Are all true things beautiful?  Or all beautiful things true?  Are beautiful things sometimes beyond the importance of truth?  Are artistic statements true, because of their beauty, rather than out of some pedestrian fidelity to honesty?
Keats thought so.  I'm not so sure.

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