Physical Value in Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn
The poetry of John Keats contains many references to physical things, from
nightingales to gold and silver-garnished things, and a casual reader might be
tempted to accept these at face value, as simple physical objects meant to evoke
a response either sensual or emotional; however, this is not the case. Keats, in
the poem Ode Upon a Grecian Urn, turns the traditional understanding of physical
objects on its head, and uses them not solid tangible articles, but instead as
metaphors for and connections to abstract concepts, such as truth and eternity.
In the poem, Keats dismisses the value of physical things as only corporeal for
what he feels is more substantial and lasting, the indefinite and abstruse
concepts behind them.
It would be beneficial to gain a historical perspective on the poem. Ode
Upon a Grecian Urn was written at the height of Keats' creative output, in May
of 1819; in this same month he wrote the Ode Upon a Nightingale and the Ode Upon
Melancholy. It is worth noting that two of the subjects of these odes are
physical things, because Keats is chiefly remembered for his writing about
physical, sensual things. Yet he betrays this attempt at classification; the
Grecian urn is more than just an ancient piece of pottery which Keats values
because it has in some ways defeated time ("when old age shall this generation
waste / thou shalt remain. . . ", lines 46-47) and because it will never cease
depicting youth and gaiety (". . .that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid
the Spring adieu", lines 21-22). Keats values this urn because of the message it
conveys (directly or indirectly, a topic which will reviewed later), that
beautiful things are the embodiment of truth ("Beauty is truth, truth beauty -
that is all", line 49); that in actuality physical things are perfect metaphors
for abstract things.
What is the metaphysical "truth" then, that Keats seeks to connect to the
physical beauty of the Grecian urn? Webster defines truth as "Conformity to fact
or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been; or shall be.";
another description, more Romantic and fitting to Keats, is Bertrand Russell's:
"Truth is a shining goddess, always veiled, always distant, never wholly
approachable, but worthy of all the devotion of which the human spirit is
capable.". Keats is essentially saying through the urn that truth, the
conforming to facts, is the exact same thing as physical beauty; beauty is a
factual attribute of an object.
An analysis of the text, searching for connections between the abstract and
the tangible, would do much to elucidate this matter. The poem is broken into
The first section opens with a description of the urn as a bride, a
foster-child, a historian. All these personifications are subtle linkings of the
abstract actions related to those roles which...