Keats and the Pursuit of Happiness Essays

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To fully grasp this idea, one must understand Keats' world at the time he wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn. Only slightly older than a modern university graduate, at age twenty-three Keats' life was in a state of, "emotional turmoil." (website) His brother Tom had recently passed away, and he was madly in love with a woman named Fanny Brawne. Brawne was clearly his muse as Keats was fervently writing poetry at the time of their relationship. His conflicting emotions are clearly evinced in his letters to Brawne, as well as in his poetry written at the time. Keats writes her, "I could be martyr'd for my Religion- Love is my religion- I could die for that- I could die for you." (P&P 373) This letter written shortly after Ode on a Grecian Urn reveals a man concerned with the ideas of love and death, but in a larger sense immutability and immortality. Keats was afraid of change and losing that which he held most dear. For him, time was merely an inconvenience to his pursuit of love and happiness. In a different letter to Fanny Brawne he speaks of, "the effect off every one those hours in [his] side" (P&P 514) in reference to the time a mutual friend spent playfully flirting with Brawne. He goes on to write, "Do not write to me if you have done anything this month which it would have pained me to have seen." (P&P 514) This is as if to say do not write to me if you have changed since the last time I saw you. Keats' language in his letters embodies the Romantic notion of love. For Keats, love is not growing old with a partner, it is an instance of passion frozen for eternity. He reminds me of the Batman villain Mr. Freeze, who keeps his terminally-ill wife cryogenically frozen, petrified that time may run its course. As scholar Robert Kern explains it, "the problem that romance poses [for Keats]- escapism, solipsism, avoidance of what is most commonly regarded as empirically real- is never solved in the sense that Keats never manages to reconcile his romantic desires for transcendence with his awareness of the realities of history and the human condition." (CE 69) How though, is this relevant to the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn? One will soon understand the titular urn represents that which Keats could never have had. Ode on a Grecian Urn is one the most misunderstood poems ever written. Many neophytes in the world of Keats' poetry misinterpret the speaker's ekphrasis as praise for the urn, and a celebration of art's eternal beauty. These readers fail to notice Keats' subtle irony and thus misconstrue the author's message. In fact, "if we look carefully at... the ode's implicit themes of pursuit and frustration, we may be prepared to understand the speaker's ambivalence toward the urn." (SW 142-143) The speaker's neutral attitude towards the urn is used to mask Keats' jealousy towards the urn, for the scenes and people depicted on the urn remain in stasis whereas Keats is subjected to reality. The poem begins with the speaker apostrophizing the urn with, "an homage to its strange genealogy." (SW 135)

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. (1-4)

The scene is thus created of the speaker coming across a perplexing urn that can tell the stories of the past better than any poem could. The placement of the word "still" (1) before "unravish'd" (1) implies the speaker wishes to ravish the urn and unlock its mysteries. It should also be noted here that the speaker seems to give the urn a female gender role by referring to it as a bride. The second half of the first stanza marks a change in the speaker's attitude as he goes from perplexed musings to pointed questions. This juxtaposition emphasizes that "the urn is temporally alien to him" (SW 136) in its medium of "slow time." (2) The reader is meant to experience the confusion of the speaker in this part of the poem. We are meant to think of a world…