"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy
Remembering to Die
Helen Regueiro Elam, State University of New York at Albany
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 poem.
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 waiting.
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 yet eloquent
"Why this happiness in forgetting? Happiness itself forgotten."
It is death, she said, the forgetting to die that is death. (Awaiting Oblivion, 43)
Blanchot, Maurice. Awaiting Oblivion. Trans. John Gregg. Lincoln: University of Nebraska P, 1999.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.