Sunday Pages: "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

A poem by John Keats

Dear Reader,

The weather has been glorious here in the Hudson Valley these last few weeks. In past years, winter has transitioned to summer so quickly that I’ve often made the joke, “I remember when I was young, and we used to have four seasons.” But this has been a proper spring. It feels overdue and much deserved, after all that time in quarantine—like Mother Nature is making amends.

Not only that, but tonight, my beloved New York Knicks—unwatchably atrocious for the last 20 seasons—take on the Atlanta Hawks in their first game of the NBA playoffs. This team was supposed to suck. Instead, they are not only good, but incredibly fun to watch and root for. It’s hard to convey to the non-basketball fan what an unexpected joy it has been to cheer on Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, and an out-of-nowhere rookie point guard whose last name is—you can’t make this stuff up!—Quickley. Rodger Sherman at The Ringer articulated my feelings perfectly: “I’m a Knicks fan, and no matter what happens in this season’s playoffs, rooting for this team has been one of the great joys of my sporting life.”

So I’m bring out the big guns for today’s “Sunday Pages.”

John Keats was born in 1795 and died in 1821. This was a great historical moment in which to be writing poems in English, but a wretched time to be an Englishman living in Europe. The Continent was at war for most of his short life. Also, tuberculosis ravaged the population. His mother, siblings, and many of his friends died of it, and it would claim him as well, in Rome, in a house off the Spanish Steps, at the age of 25.

He trained to be a surgeon. His family invested heavily in his medical training. And one can only imagine their consternation and disappointment when, right after getting his apothecary license, Keats was like, “Guys, instead of being a doctor, I’m going to be a poet!”

And yet as far as canonical literature is concerned, Keats made the right choice. That’s what William Faulkner thought, at any rate. “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art,” the novelist wrote. “He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Said ode consists of five stanzas, in which Keats addresses the urn, and then describes what he sees on its elaborately illuminated surface. He is fixated on its ability to arrest time, to show us a scene that can never change. A piper plays pipes we can never hear, lovers move in for a kiss that will never be consummated, a priest prepares for a sacrifice that will never be made. All is permanent. Nothing fades. It is a snapshot of a moment, it is everlasting, and—as the poet notes in the famous closing lines—it is both truly beautiful and beautifully true.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”