John Keats, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” attempts to connect with two objects of immortality to escape from the rigors of human life. In “Ode to a Nightingale”, Keats attempts to connect with a bird’s song because the music knows nothing of aging and mortality. Keats has the same motivation in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” while trying to connect with three separate images on a mysterious urn. Connecting in this sense means to either fully understand the object or become the object itself. For example, when Keats attempts to “connect” with an image on the urn, he attempts to fully understand the origin of the image. While his attempts to connect with the two objects fall short, he nevertheless makes an interesting conclusion about the ideals of beauty and truth.
Keats begins the “Ode to a Nightingale” in pain, before hearing the melody of the nightingale. After hearing this music, he wishes to join the bird and leave the human world. He first attempts to connect with the bird using a “draught of vintage” (11), but upon further thinking, decides that he will “not (be) charioted by Bacchus and his pards” (32). (Bacchus is god of wine and revelry.) Keats finally joins the bird on the “viewless wings of Poesy.” Though able to imagine his flight with the nightingale, the narrator is can’t actually see anything. Keats can imagine the “fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves” (47), but “cannot see what flowers are at my feet” (41). He can also picture the moon in his mind, but says “there is not light” (38). The song of the nightingale has Keats in such ecstasy because he believes he will never feel any more pain of human life. He becomes so enthralled with the nightingale that he falls “half in love with easeful death.” The narrator’s journey comes to an end when his thoughts cause him to utter the word, “Forlorn!”
Keats celebrates the bird’s song as one that will live for eternity. The narrator believes that the bird’s music has dated back to “ancient days” (64), when emperors and peasants filled Earth. It is even possible, Keats says, that the biblical Ruth heard the same nightingale’s song as Keats did at that moment, as Ruth gathered corn in the fields. Furthermore, Keats said that the bird would continue to sing long after Keats’ had “ears in vain” (59). By putting the bird’s music in the past, the present and the future, Keats universalized this song throughout time, making the bird immortal. Therefore, the song will live far beyond the “last gray hairs” (25) of man. It also seems fitting that a poem that focuses around the celebration of music takes away sight in favor of other senses. Keats was captivated by the music from the bird, not the physical flight of it. When he mentions flowers and the moon, he can only imagine them and cannot see them.
While Keats attempted to portray his connection with the immortality of music in “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” explained his relationship with the static nature of sculpture. Embedded in the urn is an image of revelry and the sexual pursuit, a piper and a lover in pursuit of a fair maid, and a sacrificial ritual (882). The urn the narrator describes is the antithesis of human beings – the urn will not age, nor will it die. The maiden in the poem “cannot fade” (19) and their love will be “for ever new” (24). However, while they are immune to aging, they are frozen in time. As a result, they are robbed of experiencing life. The piper can never kiss the maiden nor can the townsmen who are off to the sacrifice ever return home. Keats tries three times to connect three times with the images on the urn.
In the first image, he asks, “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?” (8) However, this is as far as the narrator can go, because the urn cannot conceivably answer his questions. He then looks to the picture of the piper, describing the experiences of the maiden and her pursuer. Though the two will never kiss, Keats believes the chase for love is more important than actually receiving love. The narrator believes this because while the two are not physically together, the prospect of “more happy, happy love!” and being “for ever young” is far greater than the fate he is destined to – “a burning forehead, and a parching tongue” (30). Keats becomes sorrowful, and attempts to interpret the final image differently. Instead of looking at what he sees, the narrator instead attempts to imagine the experience of those going away from their hometown and towards the sacrifice. Before Keats can even get into this, he begins to think of the “little town” (38) and how the streets “will silent be” (39) because the people will never return. Keats runs out of things to question after this. The urn cannot tell him anything because the urn is static. He will never know who is coming to the sacrifice nor will he ever see the two young lovers kiss. His attempts to connect with the urn fail because the urn is static; he is not.
Keats failure to connect with the images on the urn is much like his failure with the bird in “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats can’t connect with the urn because the urn is fixed in time, and thus immortal. Because Keats is merely mortal, he can only admire the urn from an ascetic standpoint. Keats loses his connection with the bird because he feels the pain of humans, something that a bird can never feel. While he can admire a bird for never having felt “the weariness” (23) of man, once Keats mentioned an emotion that the nightingale was not aware of, forlorn, he awoke from his daze. Keats also perceives these things to be admirable for the same reason. It’s already been established that Keats favors the immortal over the mortal. He attempted to connect with the piper and his lover because they were nearly at the pinnacle of passion. While they would never get to their ultimate goal, Keats looked at this as an advantage, because they would also never experience fading love. Keats’ interest in the nightingale goes along the same lines, because the bird, while feeling none of the emotional pain that Keats did, sang the same song that had echoed since the beginning of man. The bird would sing far past the death of Keats, and he admired this much like he admired the immortality of the piper.
The urn and the song of the nightingale lived in their own self-contained world and as a result, Keats was never able to penetrate or fully understand these objects. Still, while Keats was not able to connect with the objects in the manner he desired, he still viewed the song and the urn as a “friend to man” (48 Urn). All we needed to know, according to Keats, was that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” (49 Urn). The narrator would never know what the nightingale meant when it sang its songs. Furthermore, Keats would never be able to fully understand the images on the urn because it was created in a different time period. Therefore, Keats would never understand the full truth behind either the song or the urn. But according to Keats’ conclusion, none of this mattered. The only truth that he needed to know was that these objects were beautiful and worthy of being admired.