Nicholas Hiromura

Endnotes to an Ode on a Grecian Urn


Illustration by Wesley Ryan Clapp

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.

1. Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated poems in any language. But it is a poem of great difficulty to comment upon and, as I have read it, the difficulty of commenting on this poem lies at least partly in the fact that it is a poem which ends by refusing commentary.

2. Writing about Keats´ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Cleanth Brooks titles the chapter he devotes to the poem “Keats’ Sylvan Historian: history without footnotes.” He does so because “the sylvan historian certainly supplies no names and dates—‘what men or gods are these.’” But to what extent is the poem, more than only lacking in footnotes, a poem against all commentary, a poem which ends by setting a limit to what should be said about the Urn and thus a limit to itself? And does the poem not therefore deny not only its own attempt to say anything about the Urn but also our attempt to say anything about the poem? Perhaps the better question is how the poem does not say more than should be said about the Urn. Keats is trying to say something about the Urn without adding anything to it. So he writes no footnotes but instead an ode. What follows are not footnotes but endnotes. Perhaps they can be something like odes to an ode.

3. The entirety of the poem hangs on the interpretation of the word ‘still’ and its simple but double meaning: adjective and adverb. On the one hand the Urn is the quiet bride of quietness, the still bride. The Urn is still, it does not move. While its figures and the scene it depicts may not move, Keats draws out of this a story and thus a movement and thus a statement. Keats asks the question which is itself an ode:

What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

On the other hand the Urn still is: it remains. The ode is a question, asking more for an answerer than an answer. ‘Who will answer this question’ when the town is empty? When this scene captured on the Urn once was, but is no more and all things die – except the Urn.

4. The Urn is also the still unravished bride of quietness. Again we can ask which meaning of still we should here understand. Is the unravished bride of quietness a very quiet bride? Or is the Urn still unravished, yet, nonetheless and in spite of it, unravished? In spite of what? The marriage to the stillness?

5. At some point as one reads this poem it begins to become clear that the Urn is this poem or this poem is the Urn. They are: the vessels. But if they are vessels then what do they contain? Nothing. What the Urn actually contains is air, nothing, darkness. The vessels contain the same melancholy emptiness which fills the town that Keats imagines. And in some way it seems to me the town is something like the Urn. Once it contained people and life, but now it is filled with emptiness. This is a poetic idea; I think the town is a poem. This is the kind of paradox by which this poem functions, being full of emptiness in all its fullness. When we ask what it is the Urn contains, then I think we should keep in mind that the story which Keats describes, the village, the lover, the altar, is a scene painted on the surface of the Urn. What the Urn “contains” is its exterior. And perhaps this is part of the force of the poem’s departing line:

´beauty is truth, truth beauty.
—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

But if the Urn really contains nothing, then perhaps we can also ask what the poem contains. And if the answer we receive is, as in the case of the Urn, nothing, then why do we still think of the poem as a vessel for meaning? There really is only the Urn and only the poem: that is all we need to know. Yet perhaps it is precisely this thought which drives the poem: that there is something more to the poem than just the poem. And in the moment where we learn that there is nothing but the poem, the poem is more than itself. Suddenly it is not only full, it overflows itself.

6. What would it mean, if we take seriously the idea that the Urn is in a way the poem itself, for the poem to be unravished, still? Does it mean unwritten? Because the greatest violence against a poem is to write it down? Isn’t that a kind of murdering of beauty? Does it mean unread? Because we perpetrate a sort of violence in reading? Should we take a few years, take some time and go and not read books – in order to stop doing so much violence to the world? Moreover, to return to the beginning of this poem, what do we make of the Urn’s marriage to quietness? And if the Urn is still unravished, despite the marriage to quietness, then we should ask how it is that quietness ravishes.

7.       Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
          Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on

A preliminary note: Buying ripe fruit is the art of knowing which piece of fruit is closest to but not yet rotten. Likewise the sweetest melody is the melody closest to but not yet silence.

So why does the Urn remain unravished? What, and this I think the most important question, should have ravished her? The stillness.

But she remains: unextinguished and unvanquished because marriage to the stillness has not yet silenced the song. Unheard but not yet silent, it is the ripest of all songs. This is a poem between sound and silence. It is about the way the written word intimates music to us, a melody not heard but seen. The bride, the urn, the poem we thought silent, ravished and defeated into the muteness, speaks. In her stillness she is closest to but not yet silence. There is music which is not heard but seen.

8. How do the paradoxes work? The exterior as the contained, the emptiness and fullness, the speaking silence, ravishing quietness and moving stillness. How has the Urn remained unravished despite its marriage, to quietness? This is the question which drives Keats’ description of the Urn. How does the Urn, mute in the wake of being ravished, speak? He is searching for its source of beauty, he is trying to find where it is that the Urn begins and where it ends. And yet, in its last line the Urn, the still unravished bride of quietness refuses him and us and everyone the search for the source of its beauty and speaks:

Beauty is truth and truth is beauty
that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know

– thus ending the poem.

9. And even if we will never know the source of its beauty, never kiss, there are the lines:

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!

The still unravished bride of quietness.

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