Mar 15, 2012

Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn": Forgotten Towns and "Sunday Morning Coming Down"

The famous conclusion of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" makes for great discussions. I think we should wonder if Beauty is indeed as close to Truth as anyone will ever come. However, I also think the fourth stanza's unobtrusive little passage about an empty village might be my favorite part of the poem. The rest is so busy, full of panting passion and maybe hysteria that this quiet, though desolate village is almost a welcome relief. Also, of course, I feel as I've lived in and driven through hundreds of  such towns, especially on Sunday mornings.

    What little town by river or sea-shore,
    Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
    Is emptied of its 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.

Remember Kris Kristofferson's brilliant "Sunday Morning Coming Down"?  Is it just my wishful thinking or does it fit the Keats Passage?  (Sorry I couldn't get a one-click link for you). 

Here is the whole of Keats' "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 haunt 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.


RuneE said...

I'm sorry, but I got sidetracked on this one. Rex Stout uses a slightly changed variation in his book "The Doorbell Rang".

Quite another type of literature.

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, I'm trying to imagine the poem in Norwegian . . .

Anonymous said...

In this best of all possible worlds.

I think Keats is lost to me forever, after endless parsing in college. Not that I disliked the class, I didn't. But now this poem is all tangled up with other memories.

PJ said...

Think of Keating instead, KB.

Interesting side trip, B52, rocketing through small towns, especially late at night, is a favorite pastime of mine. I'll take you to the Bijou with an invitation to watch "Bright Star". While it most likely isn't entirely historically correct I think I find Keat(ing)'s poetry more interesting for having watched it. He seems more than a distant memory now.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Truly - I can see how Keats was used to torture English majors (along with Moby Dick)

The earlier stanza(?)

"What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its 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."

My reply - Wall Marts come to town

I want to take that night journey with Paula

Pasadena Adjacent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pasadena Adjacent said...

try again - this is the link to the video in my post

Stickup Artist said...

I know it's a super famous poem but I lost my concentration and my mind wandered off... to your photos, which I found more compelling than the Ode. They made me wistful for spontaneous road trips, rainy Sundays in small eastern towns, and the good old days when I could tank up the car, take to the road, and not have to worry about how much it cost...

Anonymous said...

Among those that never got lost in the where and the what of my present -- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Anonymous said...

O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!
The Hermit crossed his brow.
`Say quick,' quoth he `I bid thee say -
What manner of man art thou?'

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, I liked Bright Star more than I expected to, though I wanted more on Keats outside the romance.

All, it seems we've all lost, or never had, any infatuation with this poem or Keats in general. I still admire "Nightingale" and still like "La Belle Dame." Beyond that, I fear the lad's poetry is no longer what he once was to me, though his tragic life still moves me. In "Grecian Urn" I just find it hard to buy his getting that worked about a pot. Maybe the poem never sold me on that proposition; it definitely doesn't now. I do like its central issue--the idea of freezing human passion into an eternal moment of highest intensity. But it's so theoretical that I can't get worked up about it, while Keats is very worked up about it.

PJ said...

Right, and I think it was underrated. I was very glad I spent that time.

Lovers' Lane