John Keats' "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles" is a sonnet written upon visiting the British Museum, subsequent to the country's purchase of marble statues that had originally been part of the Parthenon in Athens. The poem contains a web of underlying tensions and conflicts that are evident in both the words and imagery of the poem. However, unlike other sonnets in which conflict is often resolved by the end, this sonnet leaves a lasting feeling of despair which sheds light on the internal strife embodied within the speaker himself.
The conflict contained in this poem is reflected first and foremost in its theme. Much controversy surrounds the purchase of these ancient works of art. The lawfulness of the removal of these statues from the Parthenon is under review still to this day. The question remains, was Lord Elgin justified in removing the collection, and if not, should it be returned to Athens. While Lord Byron criticized its removal in his poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" stating that "Dull is the eye that will not weep to see / Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed / By British hands" (Canto II line 129-131), Keats was deeply inspired by them and supported the efforts of Haydon who wished to have the collection preserved in the museum to be displayed before the country. Keats went as far as to compose another sonnet upon viewing the marbles, which is addressed directly to Haydon in an attempt to express his indebtedness towards him for this inspiration. The writing of this second sonnet suggests that Keats feels his abilities are lacking, in that he allows for his greatness to be attributed to another.
Aside from the controversy surrounding the statues, the collection itself represents the ideas of conflict and strife. The only reference in the body of the poem to the statues, albeit indirect, refers to them as the mingling of “Grecian grandeur with the rude / Wasting of old Time” (l. 12-13). The statues, once the height of artistic expression and innovation, are now reduced to fragments of what they once were. This concept of greatness being reduced to ruins is something that is pertinent to the self image of the poet. The reception of Keats' poetry in the literary world was generally negative. While he regarded his own poetry as grandeur, the critics of the day, for the most part, reduced it to ruins.
Additionally, the imagery in the poem presents other instances of conflict. The speaker, through the use of a simile, likens "mortality" (l. 1) to an "unwilling sleep" (l. 2): a sleep that comes despite wanting to remain awake. Both of these concepts, the concept of the mortal human who pleads for additional time on Earth, and the concept of someone wishing for but a few more moments of wakefulness, are images of internal conflict. This allusion to the topos of memento mori, the idea that death is immanent, provides the reader with a sense of despair. This topos is then extended with the imagery of the "sick eagle looking...