One of the most beloved among English poets is a man who died at the young age of twenty-five. John Keats was an English Romantic poet and despite his tender years, he was a master of imagery. It’s amazing to me that during his short life, he published only fifty-four poems. These weren’t silly, insignificant works (speaking to myself, here) but strong, robust poems of substance.
Keats wrote a series of odes for which he has earned some fame. Among these odes, Ode On A Grecian Urn was published anonymously in 1820. Through his use of classical Greek art, Keats contemplated transcendent concepts like the soul, nature, eternity, and as Ode On A Grecian Urn clearly shows, the curious relationship between Beauty and Truth.
Finding the sonnet form too constrictive for his tastes, Keats turned elsewhere and chose the ode form as his means for poetic expression.
Again, I’m amazed by the maturity of this young man to pursue his poetry in what appears to be a serious and concerted search for the form he felt would be most conducive in helping him develop his own unique style! How many twenty-year-old poets have that level of insight and self-awareness?
The image at right is a tracing of the engraving of the Grecian urn about which his poem was written. When you read the Ode, see if you can get a sense from this image of what Keats wanted to communicate.
Much discussion of the poem – both when it was originally published as well as through the many years since – involved the final two lines:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
In fact, some reviewers used these two lines in their critiques, suggesting the lines demonstrated the poet’s seemingly glib attitude toward knowledge. As much as anything, I think the reviewers may have disrespected the youthfulness of Keats, thinking it was an obstacle that prevented him from writing quality poetry. Consider though, if he’d waited to tackle poetry as an older, more experienced, wiser man, we might never know the name John Keats.
In the last year of his life, Keats was quoted saying: “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.” Over the next twenty to thirty years, love for his poetry grew and other poets and writers spoke very highly of his talent.
I don’t put myself in the same class as the Romantic poets. Nor do I pretend to understand all that Keats wished to communicate in his odes. But I do enjoy writing poetry!
Keats and I disagree about the sonnet form. He enjoyed the longer, more sustained movement of the ode, but in an era when poetry of all sorts is barely tolerated and long poetry is even less tolerated, an ode is not my preference. Keats didn’t care for the sonnet, but I find it delightful and challenging and an appropriate form for both serious and whimsical expressions.
After some reflection on the Ode On A Grecian Urn, my playfulness got the better of me and the sonnet that follows resulted. While I borrowed a couple small thoughts from his ode, mostly I just borrowed the title and tried to transform it into a workable theme.