- Far too much has been said, in relation to Keats's "Ode on a
Grecian Urn," about its invocation of aesthetic transcendence,
culminating in the last two lines' identification of beauty and truth.
I begin, therefore, with Nabokov's refutation of that entanglement in
his reading of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "Beauty plus pitythat
is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty
there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always
dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual"
(Lectures on Literature, 251).
- Keats knew this with a sense so profound that his "Grecian Urn"
stands as an anomaly, or a compromise, and certainly a surprise. "She
lives in beautyBeauty that must die"the mournful gnats
of "To Autumn"the opening of "Endymion"and
the last poem Keats wrote"This living hand"all
point to his insistence not only on mortality but on poetry arising
out of a direct and violent confrontation with it. "This living
hand" is a stunning tour de force in this respect, because it forces
upon those who surviveincluding and most especially the readerthe
guilt that attaches to the living breath with which one reads and traces
- The "Grecian Urn" appears to be a reaction to these meditations,
or an escape from them. The echoes of mortality that traverse these
other poems are not there on the surface, and the ending (beauty is
truth, truth beauty) seems to emphasize the triumph of the aesthetic.
- Though one is tempted to begin at the beginning, there is something
to be said for starting at the end, as if an "end" were possible,
as if the "end" signalled not merely termination but the fulfillment
of desire. The last two lines of the poem"Beauty is truth,
truth beauty,that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to
know" are hardly Keats (though they are often taken as Keats distilled),
and hardly great. Keats certainly played with them, putting on and taking
off quotation marks. But finally, it matters little whether the urn
speaks, or the poet distills. For it is the very nature of the quotation
mark to disrupt whatever sense of aesthetic totality the poem might
have been aiming at by invoking an "other" context. To quote
is to point elsewhere and otherwiseto a foster-child incapable
of naming itself or its origin.
- That elsewhere and otherwise are the poem’s construction of
a counter-aesthetic, one in which the very marks of speech (with or
without quotation marks, the poem ends with the urn’s words, or
Keats' articulation of them) signal the failure, and not the culmination,
of the aesthetic phenomenon. Or as A.R. Ammons puts it, "it is
not that words cannot say; it is that what is said cannot be missed
if spoken." From the title on, the poem contemplates not so much
the urn as its silence, its refusal to yield the secrets that have led
to this scene, this poem. Unlike "Nightingale," this is an
Ode "on" an object, as if each word, each stanza, were at
once revelation and occlusion, a layering process that deepens the difficulty
or the impossibility of (the) last words.
- The questions, raised to a fever pitch, underscore this impossibility.
The poem is "on" an urn which depicts scenes wrought "on"
it, and this layering effect distances the object from its origin, enfolds
it in a silence resistant to the questions raised around it and about
it. The urn, the scene, the bride are "still," poised (and
posed) in arrested movement, as if a catastrophic event (like lava from
a volcano) had halted the movement of mortality. Whether eternity is
curse or blessing is not at all certain, and Keats knew full well the
ancient gods' fascination with mortality: the force that annihilates
us, but also the force that makes human passion, and love, possible.
The passion the poem describes as "human" ("All breathing
human passion far above") is in some sense no longer passion but
"far above" the turmoil of emotions.
- It is not enough to say that the force that drives the poem is a desire
for immortality; or, conversely, that in that gesture toward immortality
the poem loses touch with the temporal, mortal desires constitutive
of poetry. For the fact is, the poem "is" there, a gesture,
but a complex one that moves in both directions. Or perhaps not "moves,"
but is rather arrested in its double gesture. Arrested, yet poised,
and waiting, for an identification (truth/beauty) that cannot take place.
Truth would, like Perseus's Medusa, demolish the possibility of meaning;
and meaning is precisely what the poem cannot "know." Despite
the certainty and evenness of the poem's pronouncement(s), its force
lies in its subtle hesitation, in its almost inaudible doubling back
and questioning not the urn but its own progression.
- And perhaps that moment of hesitation is itself the "sacrifice"
the poem makes of its voice, stilling itself in the face of something
it does not know how to name any more than it can name itself. The poem
is and is not the urn, for the poem layers the silence of the urn with
its own inaudibility. Between silence and speech, between the urn's
(or poem's) annunciation and its refusal to yield a response to its
own questions, the poem hovers, a "silent form" that takes
the shape of a lyric punctuated by exclamation marks, colons, and commas
hung and taken away. It is as if the poem were not exactly an "offering"
but a "waiting," or rather as if its offering were in its
- Not exactly a happy ending, not even with—or especially because
of—the promise, and the expectation, that such waiting will be
endless, that hovering and hesitation are the mode of being of poetry
itself. The erotic, in all its mournfulness, is merely one of its figures.
The simultaneity in stanza three of exuberant happiness and a heart
sorrowful and cloyed underscores this imbrication of eros and death.
It is this intersection that, in the end, gives the poet voice and parches
his tongue, makes him remember and forget, in a strange admixture of
awaiting and oblivion. Awaiting oblivion. Awaiting not the eternity
and transcendence the urn promises, but a silence so profound that it
makes of the urn the funereal artifact for the poet's (the poem's) remains.
Though distanced by the direction of its subject matter from "Nightingale,"
"Melancholy," "To Autumn," "This Living Hand,"
and so on, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" returns to the space where
the living and dead are not that far apart, where they speak sotto voce,
in "whispers out of time."
- The whispering is heard into the French twentieth century, in the
writing of Maurice Blanchot:
"Is there still an instant? The instant that
is between remembering and forgetting. A brief instant.
Which does not cease. As for us, neither remembered nor forgotten.
Remembering through forgetting."
Keats never forgets to remember, and the Grecian Urn is his most muted
"Why this happiness in forgetting? Happiness itself forgotten."
It is death, she said, the forgetting to die that is death. (Awaiting
Blanchot, Maurice. Awaiting Oblivion.
Trans. John Gregg. Lincoln: University of Nebraska P, 1999.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.