Home » Literary Criticism » Of Deities or Mortals, or of Both: A Deconstructive Reading of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Of Deities or Mortals, or of Both: A Deconstructive Reading of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Hi, folks!  Here’s a quick paper I wrote on John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  This was, of course, for my Literary Criticism class.  I’ll include the citation for the other article I used at the bottom.

John Keats

John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” lends itself easily to deconstructive criticism. Keats constantly juxtaposes the Greek world portrayed on the urn to the world of nature. Within that comparison, however, Keats never declares which universe he prefers, nor does he neglect to share the faults of each. Instead, he establishes the parameters of what makes each world good and bad based on what the other world is or is not.

The world of the urn is the world of art. At first, Keats treats the world of art favorably, saying “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” (Keats, ln. 1-4). Keats finds the unmovable beauty of the scene delightful, but he throws this delight into question immediately in the second half of the first stanza. He questions, “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?/ What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?/ What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” (ln. 8-10). Keats never answers these questions, and by not doing so, he automatically subverts the beauty he originally proclaims.

It could be said that “the world of art is not only blessed by eternity, but also cursed by frozenness, lifelessness and stagnancy. Similarly, the world of nature is not only blessed by human warmth and passion, but also cursed by ephemerality” (Mishra 53). Keats’ biggest critique of the Grecian world is that, while it escapes the curse of death, it leaves “all breathing human passion far above” (Keats ln. 28). The figures on the urn will never change. They will never die, but they will never rest and they will never feel warmth. The natural world, however, is not free from death. It will decay and people will die. Together, “this simultaneous depiction of the idealization and trivialization of the two opposite worlds – world of art and nature – judged by each other’s standards continues till the end of the poem, and the reader remains uncertain whether Keats is favoring the former or the latter” (Mishra 53).

A Grecian Urn

In addition to his vast comparison between the worlds of art and nature, Keats uses specific stylistic language to create “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In particular, he uses interrogatives, alternants, and adversatives to create mystery, tension, and paradox. The mystery and paradox throughout the poem create a constant stream of subversion and indecision.

As previously mentioned, Keats ends the first stanza with a series of questions that remain unanswered throughout the course of the poem. This set of questions “asked through the stylistic device of interrogatives without providing any answer perform the deconstructive function of creating mystery and open-endedness,” and “the interrogatives used in the first stanza create scope for the poet to engage in a number of surmises and gradually deepening the mystery rather than providing ready-made solutions” (Mishra 54). By imbuing his poem with mystery and indecision, Keats leaves the reader with the ultimate authority to choose which world they would prefer.

Also within the series of questions, Keats lists options for who the characters on the urn might be. He says “What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape/ Of deities or mortals, or of both” (Keats ln. 5-6), and then “What men or gods are these?” (ln. 8). In this situation, “the poet uses the formal stylistic device of alternant ‘or’ to provide a choice and to desist himself in reaching finality.” (Mishra 54). Not only does Keats provide himself the choice of indecision, he creates tension from unknowing. This tension deals with the possible divinity of the characters, and since no clear decision is made, the tension is never resolved. Much like the interrogatives, the alternant ‘or’ creates indecision and tension.

Keats returns to the difference between art and nature in the second stanza while he contemplates the musicians carved on the urn. He says that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ are sweeter” (Keats ln. 11-12). Here, Keats seems to be preferring the world of art, but he actually “presents a conflict between the world of art and the world of nature by using the adversative ‘but’ to create a paradox to expose the opposite of what is generally believed and expected.” (Mishra 54). Though he idealizes the unheard melody in lines eleven and twelve, Keats subverts this idealization by acknowledging that the piper “canst not leave/… nor ever can those trees be bare” (ln. 15-16). His ultimate critique of the world of art lies in “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss” (ln. 17). The world of art, though visually aesthetic, does not and cannot contain human passion. However, Keats continues to subvert himself by drawing attention to the fleeting nature of life: “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” (ln. 19-22).

This constant juxtaposition and battle between the world of art and nature reaches a climax in the last stanza. Keats accuses the urn of being a “cold pastoral” (ln. 45) while acknowledging that the urn teaches “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (ln. 49-50). Though there is obvious disdain for the message of the urn, and thus of art, there is also sufficient scorn throughout the poem of the changing habit of nature. There is no ultimate decision between the world of art and the world of nature; Keats instead chooses to use both as point and counterpoint to each other.

As promised, the works cited:

Mishra, Prashant. “A Deconstructive Stylistic Reading of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies 17.2: 49-58. Web. 8 Apr. 2012.


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