How has Keats established the supremacy of art over life in his Ode on a Grecian Urn?
The Odes of John Keats basically deal with some of the conflicts that troubled Keats. As it is seen, one very peculiar feature of the Odes is the contrast between the permanence of Art and the transitoriness of human joy; and this feeling for the eternity of art finds it’s most complete expression in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. To Keats, it is Art which confers eternity on human passions; passions which otherwise cloy and leave behind, ‘a burning forehead and parching tongue’.
The poem Ode on a Grecian Urn deals with a metaphor namely the urn which has survived through many centuries and which therefore represents the immortality of Art. The ode opens with an invocation-
‘thou still unravished bride of quietness
thou foster child of silence and slow time’
These opening two lines strike the key note of the poem. In a very noisy and changing world, the urn is something beyond sound and beyond change. We are at once taken into an order of things remote from our daily existence. Then follows a string of questions, questions which are at the same time pictures,-
‘What men or god are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to scape?
As the poem develops with Keats answering the questions, we gradually come across the basic theme of the poem, which eventually certifies the permanence of art.
On the urn are carved numerous scenes like that of a Bacchanalian procession consisting of the flute players, the youth singing under the trees or the lovers about to kiss. These scenes make the poet think. To him this imagined life in the carved pictures appear to be more real than the human life of audible melody and physical embraces.
Human love and beauty are short lived. Even the fruition of human love never brings any real happiness. On the contrary, the love carved on the urn is happier, for he may not enjoy the fruition of love, but he would always love and his beloved would retain her beauty forever,
‘She can not fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
For ever wilt thou love and she be fair’
Apart from the permanence of art and transitoriness of human life, the ode also suggests the superiority of the sculptor’s art over poetry. For example, the poet says-
‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes play on
Not to the sensual ear, but more endeared
Pipe to the spirit deities of no tone.’
The above lines are one of those passages in which Keats rises from mere sensuous enjoyment to the enjoyment of the spiritual and the ideal. In fact, the lines touch the philosophy of art and the ethics of human life.
One of the pictures of the urn is that of a lowing heifer being led to the sacrificial alters. With this picture, Keats almost goes beyond the animated world and creates a whole landscape of river and sea-shore city in which the carven figures can live and move. With this scene on, the poet’s imagination passes from the finite to the infinite. Human life is temporary and finite, while art is eternal and infinite.
Thou silent form dost tease us ought of thought
As doth eternity; cold pastoral!
Line like these suggest that works of art like the urn seduce us from the ordinary life of thought into the extraordinary life of the imagination. It is imagination alone that can enable us to see into the life of things. The works of art, like the urn, awakens our imagination and thus seduce us from thought. They are as remote and eternal as eternity itself. They lie outside the scope of ordinary thought as well as outside ordinary emotions. Hence the urn is spoken of as ‘cold pastoral’.
However, towards the end of the poem, we have two controversial lines which constitute the final message of Keats.
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’
According to C.M. Bowra, here truth means reality, and he explains that there is nothing real but the beautiful and nothing beautiful but the real. A work of art is beautiful because it is an expression of the truth within the soul of the artist. The Grecian urn is a beautiful piece of art and therefore it represents a higher kind of reality. The lives and the rapture carved on the urn are eternal because they have been presented through beautiful works of art. In fact, this is the very message the urn leaves for human beings and it is this massage that Keats recommends his fellowmen to follow.