John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 55|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
In the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" we pass from nature to art. Here we get the deepest soundings in the poetic life of Keats. It is itself a thing of beauty; and in this well-nigh perfect gem he has crystallized his philosophy of idealism. The style has reached the all-comprehending reticence of the classic manner. The ode is thus the quintessential product of his maturity. He could not have done anything better if he had lived a hundred years.
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There stands the urn; a bit of ancient pottery; a souvenir of sylvan love, of a sacrificial procession, of a town deserted for the woodland altar. But this urn, like the Shekinah in Solomon's temple, is the visible manifestation of a divine idea. A decorative trifle has become the unravished bride of quietness, the foster-child of silence and slow time. A concrete object of this earth has been lifted into the abstract, into the sublime.
Antiquity is dead. Ages have passed. Empires have come and gone. Yet this urn still survives as a symbol of something eternal. And how has this immortality been conferred? By art; by art's power to transmute the physical forms of sense into the metaphysics of the mind. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. The boughs that shed their leaves in ancient Greece have mouldered. The melodist that played his pipe and the lover that clasped his maid have gone the way to dusty death. The cavern boughs of art still enjoy perpetual spring; the melodist plays on unwearied; the lover pants with keen desire forever, and his maiden is forever fair. The temporal has been embalmed by art into eternal archetypes. The life of the senses is mastered by the divine idea.
It is here that Keats abjures his loyalty to the senses. Realization is of the flesh; it brings satiety, disenchantment, death. Anticipation is the privilege of the spirit, breathing the idealism of the sweet to-be. Arrested anticipation is immortal life in the ideal. Art makes this arrest in beauty; and when man has fixed his soul in it, he has attained all essential truth.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"—that is all
Ye known on earth, and all ye need to know.
His curiosity about the mysteries that plague the human mind stops here. For him this is enough to live by, to die by and to assure salvation. The idealism of beauty as final truth,—this is his enduring refuge.
From these five odes, as fragments of himself, we can construct the full stature of the intellectual man. In the early years he did live disproportionately in the senses. Romantic love was an absorbing motive. The "Ode to Psyche" shows this love yielding precedence to other themes. From the ode "To Autumn" may be reasonably inferred this continuing joy in out-of-doors. It is in the "Ode on Melancholy" that we find him striking deep into pessimism. It may be a platitude that he who enjoys most keenly must suffer most poignantly; but Keats feels this with such intensity that it ceases to be a platitude. He discovers, moreover, that melancholy is not morbid; it is normal,—an inevitable element in mortal fate. In the "Ode to a Nightingale" he finds an escape from pessimism in nature. Yet nature, whatever her strength of appeal, can bring to him only a temporary relief. Nature may have her eternal note of comfort. Keats can seize it; he cannot hold it. Wordsworth seized and held in his consciousness—
an ever-enduring power
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.
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