At the centre of Keats’s imaginative achievement lie his odes, in particular ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Owing to the fact that they were written within months of one another, one might reasonably expect to find similarities of interest, theme or mood between them, however unique and distinctive each individual ode may be. What is noticeable about Keats’s work is that it can be related to inner conflicts, as love is intertwined with pain, and pleasure is intertwined with death.
The dictionary defines an ode as a lyrical poem that praises something or someone, and English odes in particular are written to eulogise a person, music, poetry or even abstract concepts. Being one of the second generation of Romantic poets meant that Keats was able to take liberties with the original form of odes, created by Pindar, which were written to eulogise people such as victorious athletes. Keats’s own odes are arguably much more personal owing to the fact that he is known for his habit of taking something abstract as a starting point to explore and reflect his state of mind. Having written odes on such subjects as nature, ‘To Autumn’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, artwork, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and emotion, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, to name but a few, it has been commented that each of Keats’s odes open to “prepare the way for an intense central experience, comparable to that of love.”
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a poem structured around the contrast between the poet, who is earthbound, and the bird, which is free. It is in this ode that the transience of life and the tragedy of old age, “where palsy shakes a few, sad last grey hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies,” is set against the eternal renewal of the nightingale’s song, that was “not born for death, immortal bird”. A major concern in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is Keats’s perception of the conflicted nature of human life, such as the interconnection of pain and joy, intensity of feeling and numbness of feeling, the actual and the ideal and finally, the mortal and the immortal. Similarly ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is also centred around a major contrast, that being the one between art and life; the urn being a work of art and everlasting beauty, contrary to human life which is imperfect and temporary. What links these two poems is the related opposition between the mortal world that is full of sorrow and marked transience and the world of beauty, marked by joy and immortality.
One of the many pondered questions where ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is concerned is that of why Keats chose the song of a nightingale to be the basis of his meditation. Since the nightingale has traditionally been associated with love, and it is likely that Keats would have known Coleridge’s poems ‘To the Nightingale’ and ‘The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem’, critics believe that since the nightingale’s song is vocal, but without verbal content, it can serve as a pure expressive beauty. Helen Vendler has proposed that Keats’s choice of the nightingale’s song owed to his belief that it was a “symbol of pure beauty, non-representational, without any reference to ideas, to moral or social values.” Though normally connected with love, the nightingale has been interpreted to symbolise a variety of things; for example, the music of nature, the ideal, an artist, where the bird’s song is a form of self-expression or poetry, and also pure, unmixed joy.
It has been argued that if ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is an attempt to portray Keats’s speaker’s engagement with the expressiveness of music, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in turn portrays his attempt to engage with the immobility of sculpture. The Grecian Urn is believed to exist outside of time in the human sense as it does not age and it does not die. In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ the speaker meditates over the themes of creative expression and the mortality of human life, whilst the speaker’s meditation in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ concerns the paradox of the figures carved on the urn; they are free from time yet simultaneously frozen in time.
The themes of permanence and mutability are prevalent in both ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Owing to the frequent reminders of mortality Keats experienced in his short life, it is hardly surprising as a poet that he should be concerned with change. Having nursed his brother until his death of tuberculosis, Keats has first-hand knowledge of what he describes in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as the “weariness, the fever, and the fret”, of a realm where “men sit and hear each other groan” and “youth grows pale.” It is understandable that he would be familiar with a world where nothing remains constant and even “Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes.”
What is distinguishable in much of Keats’s poetry is the paradoxical recognition that what is of true and lasting value can only be found in a world of change. When Keats’s speaker searches for some kind of unchanging truth and beauty in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, he ultimately realises that the everlasting perfection of the urn is deathlike, in that it offers no movement, change or fulfilment. The description of the scenes depicted on the urn of the “Lover” also embody this concept as he will always be in love with the maiden who will always be fair and will always experience the full bliss of anticipation, yet he will never reach the moment of the kiss. In the central stanzas of this ode, Keats contemplates an apparent visionary solution to the problems of time and mortality, finding it in the permanence of art. However, he realises that the urn’s vivid sculptured happenings in one place must be paid for by eternal absence from another. One critic has claimed that the sense of transience often conveyed in Keats’s poetry is created “by the structural device of framing, which creates a feeling of perspective,”. It has been argued that vivid dream-images of love and beauty are placed behind a foreground or framework of history or reality, which makes for a sense of loss and distance.
Keats draws heavily on classical in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, alluding to the mythical Lethean River and the fountain of Hippocrene, as well as the Goddess Flora and the God Bacchus. The Lethean River was one of the five rivers that were believed to lead to Hades and to drink from it led to oblivion. In context of the ode, Keats implies that he feels as though he is sinking towards death owing to his heartache and feeling of numbness, “as though of hemlock I had drunk.” His reference to the Flora, the Italian Goddess of flowers and spring in the second stanza, links to the wine Keats’s speaker drinks and also relates to his allusion to the fountain of Hippocrene, which was the mythical fountain of the muses who drank from it to gain inspiration. Keats’s referral to the God Bacchus, the God of wine, relates to the context of Keats’s wish to “fly to thee,” the nightingale, without the necessary help of alcohol, “Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,” and even makes a biblical reference to Ruth in the seventh stanza.
Language is used effectively in both odes to create mood. In the opening stanza of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, there is a sense of sluggishness, suggested by the heavy alliterative ‘d’, ‘p’ and ‘m’ sounds when Keats describes his heartache at hearing the song of the nightingale, ambivalently experiencing both joy and pain. Compared with the first half of the first stanza, the second half is full of light and sensual assonantal sounds such as “beechen”, “green” and “ease”. In this particular ode, there is a concentration on the senses and frequent use of synaethesia. In the first stanza, the visual can be said to evoke the aural and vice versa where the bird’s “plot” is described as “melodious”. In the second stanza, Keats manages to convey the taste of wine with reference to colour, song, dance and sensation, “Tasting of Flora…Dance, an Provenï¿½al song, and sunburnt mirth.” The fourth stanza combines sight with movement in “there is not light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown,” and in the fifth stanza there is emphasis put on the senses of touch and smell in “soft incense.”
In the opening line of ‘Ode on Grecian Urn’, Keats makes use of a long drawn out ‘i’ sound with his repetition in “still unravished bride of quietness”. Since ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is about a work of art, Keats draws attention to the fact that his ode is a work of art with the use of assonance, echoes and insistent sound patterns. His use of repetition in the second stanza, “unheard echoes heard”, “sweeter sweet” and “pipes pipe”, is effectively combined with the assonance of “ears…endear’d” and “no tone”. It is the frequent use of parallelism, constant personification of the urn, and the invocations and exclamations of this ode that highlights the specific language used for the reader. This ode uses what can be said to be ‘poetic’ language as it draws attention to its artifice, to the fact that the poem has been consciously and artfully constructed.
Both odes are written in ten-line stanzas, however, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ differs from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in that it is metrically variable. It also differs from the other odes in that the rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza and consists of Keats’s most basic rhyme scheme of all the odes, as it follows the scheme AB AB CDE CDE. Comparably, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ follows a similar structure to ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and is made up of a two-part rhyme scheme. This rhyme scheme helps to create a sense of a two-part thematic structure where the first four lines of each stanza roughly outline the subject of the stanza, and the last six lines develop it.
The final two lines of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, in which the speaker imagines the urn speaking its message to mankind, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” have proved to be amongst the most difficult to interpret of Keats’s work, along with the final lines of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, where the speaker asks “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?…Do I wake or sleep?” Keats’s final question on the status of his experience in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is problematic for a number of reasons. Whilst some critics have affirmed that the poem is about the inadequacy of the imagination, others believe there is a greater kind of ambivalence in Keats’s attitude.
It has been argued that Keats still suggests through his final question that such a vision or experience is possible, or at least, something he longs for. The last two lines of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is perplexing and has sparked much debate. However, it has been interpreted in several ways, mainly, in that it could be the speaker addressing the urn and it could also be the urn addressing mankind. It has been argued that if it is the speaker addressing the urn, then it would seem to indicate their awareness of the urn’s limitations, however, if it is the urn addressing mankind, it would appear that Keats’s message is that beauty and truth are one and the same.
There are significant differences between ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, as in the latter, there is a sense of formality not experienced in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Most notably, there is no ‘I’ and the focus is not so much on the mind as on the work of art, the urn itself. The suppression of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is matched in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and in many ways, can be said to be companion poems. In the later poem, the speaker confronts a created art-object not subject to any of the limitations of time, whilst in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Keats’s speaker achieves creative expression through the nightingale’s song which is spontaneous and without physical manifestation.
In conclusion, though there are both evident similarities between the two odes, it is clear that their differences outnumber them. Whilst ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is much more formal, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is arguably the more personal, if not the most personal out of Keats’s odes. Perhaps it is the opening of the ode with the statement “My heart aches” that makes the ode appear subjective, whilst ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ combines both subjective poetic expression but also objective historical expression. Although similar in format, the odes differ in their rhyme schemes and also it is the many paradoxes of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ that differentiate it from the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. One of the many paradoxes found in this ode is that of the urn itself, as it is silent but is also said to be a “historian” that can communicate. Ultimately, one can appreciate that there are a variety of comparative and contrasting elements of the two odes, however individual each one may be.
Glennis Byron – York Notes Advanced, John Keats Selected Poems
Longman Literature Guides, Critical Essays on Keats poems and letters
Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats