I was writing a short story about Henry Charles Litolff, the prolific nineteenth-century pianist and composer who invented the four-part concerto symphonique and knew all the greats but whom you’ve never heard of unless you happened to catch his rarely performed only hit, a single movement of a concerto symphonique that’s never played in its entirety. Poor man! My tale is a ghost story, and in death Litolff speculates, hopefully, that unheard melodies really are sweeter than heard ones. Thinking the adjective in Keats’s poem was “unplayed” or perhaps “unsung,” I took my high school literature anthology off the shelf.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” was actually not my favorite Keats poem. I preferred “Ode on Melancholy,” which I’d read on my own and memorized for the hell of it. Like “Grecian Urn,” “Melancholy” shows the skull’s grimace behind the living smile, the flip side of beauty, which is death and decay. But while “Grecian Urn” dwells on its subject’s endurance, the consolation that “Melancholy” holds out is more obviously short lived, confined to its middle part and expressed in such ephemera as rainbows and waves and morning roses. In high school in southeast Georgia, I didn’t know what a morning rose was—or even a peony, another of Keats’s images of impermanence. But I figured, from the rest of the stanza, that the bloom was dead on arrival, destined to be shriveled by noon, which is also the fate of the poem’s suicidal addressee. I related to this person’s plight, who, though encouraged to gaze at rainbows, is just the sort to recognize that “Ay, in the very temple of delight/ Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” This dark inner chamber is accessible only by he whose “strenuous tongue” can “burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.” Unlike his fellow mortals, those happy-go-lucky dolts, he can’t just partake of joy, by eating the grape; instead he bursts it against his palate, a difficult, off-label use. And for his trouble he tastes no cheer, indeed becoming Melancholy’s quarry and ending up “among her cloudy trophies hung.”
I knew what Keats was talking about. Darkness was a stronger lure than rainbows for me. But when it came to the more famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I missed the point, though it took me three decades to realize it.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” written in the same year as “Ode on Melancholy,” is addressed to the urn, which depicts, among its various scenes, an imminent animal sacrifice and a “fair youth” who will never grow old but also never get the girl, both of them fixed in their chaste beauty. The youth will pursue his lover for eternity; the group of believers led by a priest will forever lead the terrified cow to its death. Keats represents the urn itself as a violence waiting to happen. By remaining whole all these centuries, the urn is “unravish’d” like a bride, like the girl being pursued by the “Bold Lover,” like the cow under the shadow of the blade. What kind of beauty is this?
In my high school anthology, the famous formulation at the start of the final couplet has no quotation marks:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
There was a question of attribution, our teacher explained. Is the “thou” who is speaking the urn itself, and if so, what is the quotation—what precedes the dash or all of it? The Modern Library complete poems has an open quotation mark before the first “Beauty” and a closed one after the comma. This punctuation, absent in the original manuscript, appeared when the poem was first published, in 1820, and now seems to be standard. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” then, is a quotation within the longer utterance made by the urn. The equation of beauty and truth—a neoclassical maxim probably derived from the eighteenth-century painter and theorist Joshua Reynolds, who in his seventh “Discourse on Art” used “beauty” and “truth” interchangeably—is something an objet d’art can get behind.
But can the poet? In high school it seemed clear to me that Keats was in fact endorsing this view, offered up at the end of the poem as a kind of consolation for aging and death. We are impermanent but the urn lives on. For providing such reassurance, the poet considers this object “a friend to man.” The poem plays on the tension between life and death, youth and old age, fertility and impotence, happiness and sorrow, and so on. The urn itself is in constant tension with the forces of destruction. The poet wavers between these poles, praising the urn’s form while condemning its ornamentation as kitsch, admiring its powers of storytelling while noting its silence. But by the end of the poem, I felt, the poet finds the urn’s best use: to cheer us with art, divert us during our short span from thoughts of mortality.
Like other readers before me, notably T.S. Eliot, I didn’t really get what it meant to equate truth with beauty. Our teacher led us down ancient Greek paths of thinking, but I couldn’t get past my grievance that my high school’s beautiful people, whom no one would have counted me among, had scored another one. In art as in life, beauty overwhelmed all other considerations.
The dryness of my faded notes penciled in the margin of the anthology takes me back to those loveless days when I first read Keats. When I first studied Keats, that is: I obviously just wrote down the teacher’s remarks. Apparently he had a lot to say about these lines in the second stanza:
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Above “sensual,” the word “temporal” (or maybe it’s “physical”) sloped up into the previous line. The second line got this acute-angled gloss: “pipe to the spiritual, not physical.” Then another flurry of activity around the next stanza’s final lines:
All breathing human passion far above, That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed, A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Next to “cloyed” I wrote “dissatisfied.” Alongside “a parching tongue,” which I underlined, I wrote “ironically pleasurable constant beauty.”
My teacher made his remarks and I wrote them down, albeit somewhat garbled. But how could I, never having kissed anyone, understand that real-word passion involved suffering, and physical symptoms akin to the flu! Irony? Keats was just stating facts. The dopey depiction of love on the urn—“More happy love! More happy, happy love!”—can remain so because it isn’t real. The expectation of perfect communion built into a love relationship guarantees disappointment, whereas the couple’s lack of consummation on the urn ensures an eternity of firm fresh flesh. Unlike the supposedly wise old urn, that “Sylvan historian,” Keats gives readers a choice: the “spiritual,” Hallmark version of love engraved in marble or the feverish one that he provides.
Having never known the latter, which must have sounded horrible to me, I chose the former. I may have hated the beautiful people, but truth is, I fetishized beauty back then. To recognize something beautiful for its beauty was always my first response. In ninth-grade history, Mrs. Schmidt, who also taught Latin, guided us through the Greek and Roman worlds. She assigned us Catullus for homework one night. This guy wrote some racy stuff—to Aurelius in poem 21: “For although you plot against me,/ I’ll stick it to you first, my dick in your mouth”—but surely we read something more tame, whatever it was. The next day Mrs. Schmidt asked us what we thought. “Catullus,” I immediately exclaimed, to smirks all around, “is so beautiful!”
I didn’t just have a thing for classical beauty. As the aesthetician Madonna has taught, beauty’s where you find it—and I found it everywhere but the mirror.
All that happy love in the poem’s third stanza complicated a straight reading of its ending. The word “happy” appears six times in five lines, culminating in “More happy love! More happy, happy love!” I scribbled the word “irony” and I remember getting it: With the repetition of the word and the two exclamation points, Keats signals that all might not be puppies and valentines. By the time you reach that final “happy,” the word has lost all meaning; it’s just a grouping of letters, a sound in the mind.
But by the end of the poem, whatever the urn depicts seems irrelevant. The first stanza poses a series of questions—“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?” among them—that induce speculation but are never answered. Abandoning such inquiry, the final stanza seems to dismiss the urn’s crowded greenery, with its “brede/ Of marble men and maidens overwrought,” as porn, and not even especially titillating. “Cold Pastoral!” the poet cries. Instead it’s the urn’s “Attic shape!” and “Fair attitude!” that fixates the poet, who finally sees this objet d’art as an object, a “silent form” that “does tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity.” In the end the urn has no history to relate, no story to tell, no XXX action to heat us up. It’s just a beautiful, enduring object and as such offers the most attainable consolation “[w]hen old age shall this generation waste” and new woes befall the next one.
If you look through the books I read once I was out of college, the marginalia sound much different. Not smarter and more mature, as one might hope, but super-casual and often arch. Rarely do I note the irony, structural or otherwise, of any given passage. I punctuate margins with big exclamation points. My highest praise seems to be “v. beautiful.” My skepticism expresses itself as “Oh, please” or “Yeah, right.” “Ugh” isn’t out of the question, especially when the noted passage is a Philip Roth sex scene. Sure, you’ll find smarty-pants points here and there, connections made between one book and another (“cf. Moby Dick”), mini-analyses of characters’ psyches, and so on. But mostly I deface books with my gut reactions as a reader rather than a critic’s more thoughtful ones.
Rather than like any authority, my notes sound like me. My high school marginalia on “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by comparison, are so detached from the human that they fail even to capture the voice of my teacher, a recent Dartmouth graduate who sported seventies-porn-star facial hair, wore cowboy boots, and rode a motorcycle. I might have understood the poem better had I spent class time studying him as a beautiful object instead of the Keats. What close attention I paid to the truths this man dispensed! This line is ironic, he told us. I wrote it down.
Thirty years later I was living on the other side of the country, in a city where you’re never more than a stone’s throw away from other men who’d been odd little aesthetes as children. I was married to a wonderful man. I’d experienced passion, published books, had great friends, held down a not-horrible job, rode a bike, parented an interesting dog who was regularly praised for his golden looks…
I took out the anthology from the bookcase we’d had built into our century-old walls. The line I was looking for opens the second stanza: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter.” But in my beautiful living room, in my happy life, I read to the end of the poem and suddenly understood, though based on no evidence in the poem itself, that the members of each woeful, wasting-away generation, when they behold Keats’s subject, are looking at a funerary urn, their own final home.
This was all so obvious a way to enrich the poem’s meaning that I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before. My high school English teacher must not have mentioned it, because the words “funerary urn” didn’t appear in my sloping hand next to the title or anywhere else. I’d always just thought of it as a vase. But now, in my middle age, the urn seemed to have a different purpose than displaying flowers or storing oil or whatever. And I understood that the last stanza’s preoccupation with death—the urn is compared to eternity in its ability to stop thought—is in no way diminished by the urn’s endorsement of beauty = truth. For the urn, this master equation is meant to explain everything terrestrial—“all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”—and so seems to justify the poet’s claim that the urn is a “friend to man.” But how then does the urn, as the poet claims, “tease us out of thought”? And could the urn, in twice calling the paltry equation “all,” be steering the reader away from thought and toward nothing more than a visual appreciation for objects like itself? Maybe the urn survives the ages only by turning its beholders into idiot aesthetes, the kinds of people who look at its “Grecian” lovers and exclaim over their “happy, happy love!”
I slid the book back onto its shelf, then sat down on the couch and stared out at the city. In high school or afterward I’d learned that some critics felt the poem was ruined by its enigmatic last lines, which come off as minimalist and dispassionate, thoroughly un-Romantic, compared to the ones that precede it. I’d had no opinion on this—the cryptic lines were there and so had to be worked out. But now I saw that by letting the urn speak directly, rather than through the pictures on its sides, Keats was letting it destroy itself, something time had so far been unable to do.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” on the other hand, is still with us. Keats’s own objet d’art is possessed of great beauty while offering up another kind of truth. Beauty only gets you so far; its consolations are brief. Death is the end of thought, and the end of thought is death.