Featured poem: ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats

Keats twice in one month!? Yes, and what a way to brighten up February.

John Keats died on 23rd February 1821, in Rome, aged just 25. What he might’ve produced had he lived longer isn’t worth thinking about. Luckily, what he did produce in his short lifetime is more than enough to keep us blissfully occupied for the duration of ours.

It is hardly original to point out that, like the Grecian Urn he is addressing, Keats’s poetry shall live on “When old age shall this generation waste … a friend to man”. But, unlike sculptures and paintings and other physical works of art, poems have an even stronger bid for immortality: they are built out of words “And so not built at all, / And therefore built for ever.”

Provided, of course, we keep reading them…

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flow’ry tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed 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 endeared,
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 enjoyed,
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
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 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.

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 sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

by John Keats, 1819

Posted by Mark Till

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