Keats's Silent Historian: The "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Joanne Wilkes


In Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale", the speaker seeks to escape and transcend the world of change, decay and death through a flight "on the viewless wings of Poesy" into the intensely beautiful world of the nightingale. He wants to share the "ecstasy" (1. 58) ofa creature which, unlike himself, has never known the conditions inherent to human life: the pain, the suffering, the death ofthe young, the sense that nothing can last "[w]here Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,lOr new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow" (11. 29-30). In the "Ode on a Grecian Urn", which appeared immediately after the "Ode to a Nightingale" when the poems were first published together, the speaker contemplates a work of art which embodies this conquest of misery, transience and mortality. What the speaker of the "Nightingale" ode had sought unsuccessfully through poetry, the artist of the urn has achieved for the figures he has created: they are full of beauty, vitality, passion and creativity, but are immune to the effects of time. Yet, although the speaker does address the urn and the figures on it, he never strives to join or fuse with them, as the speaker of the "Nightingale" ode had with the bird. It is an "Ode on", not an "Ode to", and the tone is correspondingly more detached. And this detachment, particularly evident in the last two stanzas, arises from the speaker's growing realization that to arrest a moment of ecstasy may also be to arrest a moment of desolation.

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