Friday, November 01, 2013

Keats and His Urn

Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions and would speak, if he had loved…
                                                     ("Fall of Hyperion")

Halloween approaches and passes, and John Keats comes to mind, not because of costumes or the dim memories of saints but because Keats was born on October 31st. We don’t get to choose our birthdays nor the situation or family into which we arrive. Keats’s family was tubercular: his mother died of the disease, as did Tom, Keats’s brother, as did John himself. It’s a sad story and well-enough known to those who find Keats’s odes among the finest poems one keeps within arm’s reach on a desk.

As with the work of other writers – Plath, Woolf, Weldon Kees, Emily Dickinson – the act of reading Keats’s poems seems now almost inevitably bound up with the facts of biography, his too-short life. It is as though Keats himself has become a figure on his own “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a silent form who teases us out of thought. What would he have written had he lived as long as Coleridge? Keats letters are rich with theorizing. He was a writer keenly observant, whether of a nightingale, the manners of his friends, or the workings of his own responses, his own intellect and negative capability. Aside from the odes, one could argue that he never got the chance to test or fit his ambition to its appropriate forms. Keats knew this as he was dying, and it vexed him.

But Keats is best thought of now not for his biography but for what can only be termed, inadequately, his profound curiosity, his impulse to thoroughly inquire in and thoroughly partake of the time he had. Biographers suggest that his interest in medicine – which he studied until his money ran out – had its origins in watching his mother, then his brother, die. Of course this makes sense. But such a motivation may merely have been the topmost layer of a much deeper and all-encompassing interest in how things work, and particularly in how human things work. The same mind interested to trace the seemingly twin experiences of dream and thought (as in “Sleep and Poetry” and “Ode to Psyche”) may well have found medical knowledge a compelling if insufficient part of the much larger picture.

And this same curiosity (the term is too lightweight, alas) led, in Keats, to a sort of humility that could also be understood as ambition. Keats was interested in his own experience, yes, but that interest he always saw as a doorway or introduction to something far larger and more compelling. He looks at a Grecian urn and sees not his own mind but rather an expression of something he identifies as essential in human life, essential and recognizable to any who share the cultural knowledge to interrogate what is presented on the urn itself. Keats doesn’t see this effort or the education necessary to it as elitist; he eagerly scrutinizes the urn because doing so offers a way to understand (so he hopes) part of the complexity of human experience – all human experience. He knows art for what it is: artifice. Yet he also knows such artifice makes experience and that such experience may lead to understandings or recognitions or qualities of mind unavailable except through art. For Keats, art is an effort to be learned because it is artificial and because it is human to want to try more and know more.

Keats wants to understand how art stops time (even as it reproduces it), and whether such art can tell us anything. The urn stops time in that it preserves a moment. In this, it’s like a photograph (unknown to Keats) or a painting. In preserving the moment, it also reproduces that moment, over and over, whenever someone cares to look. The urn is thus a seamless embodiment of a contradiction, one it holds poised, its elements at once resolved and ever opposed. The people on the urn are at once forever happy and in love – and forever unable to move beyond the moment.  So how are we to understand their condition?

The urn itself speaks at the poem’s end, and what it says goes unchallenged except by the silence that follows it: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Is beauty the only truth we’ll know and the only one we need to know? That’s the question Keats learns in examining the urn. It’s a valuable thing to figure out how to pose a question. The urn not only helps Keats pose a question, it also offers its own answer.

We know, then, what the urn says. Do we agree? Would Keats, at 60, have agreed? We’ll never know, “For poesy alone can tell her dreams” (“The Fall of Hyperion,” canto 1).

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

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