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Patrick McEvoy-H alston

English383 / POl
Dr. Sanghara
18 July 2003

Sinister Advances and Sweet Returns: Seductionand Restorationof the Urn in John

Keats's "Ode on a GrecianLJrn"

John Keats tells his readersthe story, in "Ode to a GrecianIJrn," of a poet's (and maybe

his own) attempt to "ravish" an urn-that is, to demonstratepowerfully the superior statusof the

spoken word, of the poetic mind in action, and of the poet to a beautiful, lasting, but forever

static object of sculptural/visual art.l The poet, at least in the first three stanzas,conveys efficacy

and superiority as he manipulatesthe "sweet" (4) urn and "its" imagesto service his own self-

image. However, in promoting himself througlr his self-reflexive involvement with the plight of

those forever ftozenon the urn's surface,he is reminded of both his own inescapable

susceptibilityto decay and of his own inevitable demise. Remindedof his own needof a

"friend" (44), of reassurancesfrom someone/thingalien and superior to himself who could be

imagined as having accessor as being linked to penultimate truths (to "eternitt'' l45l), the poet

changeshis mind as to what he wants do to the urn in the closing starlr;a.In the last stanza,

rather than ravish it, the poet instead attemptsto restoreto the urn the fo-rmidablepowers of
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expressionhe had earlier downplayed and undermined. r - ' ) r L
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fvr.il
The poet clearly wants us to imagine not only that a rivalry exists betw6en the urn and

himself, but that the outcome of this contestis undetermined. The urn, we are told in the very

first line, is "still unravished." We intuit that he meansthat the urn is as of yet unravished, at

leastby its groom, "quietness"(1). Perhaps,we are encouragedto ask ourselves,with his rhyme,

with his voice, the poet might yet accomplish what quietnesscould not-name|y, a charged,

oratorical, even "orgiastic" (Friedman226) conquestof the beautiful urn.

t 'Ode on a Grecian IJrn': Pursuing the Feminine,"
Geraldine Friedman's "The Erotics of Interpretation in Keats's
also explores the "charged relationship [. . .f betweenthe speakerand the urn" (225; emphasisin original). She
characterizesthe poet's involvement with the urn as an "orgiastic pursuit" (226), and believes that the reader is
'still unravish'd
encouragedto mimic the "speaker's sexual urgency as he tries to penetratethey mysteries of the
bride of quietness"' (226).
McEvoy-Halston 2

how he canusefigurativelanguageto
In the first stanza,the poetskilfully demonstrates

undermine(undress)the authorityandprowessof (off o0 the urn. The poetgiveslip-serviceto

theurn's powers,and'oconfesses" (4)
theinabilityof his own rhymeto matchthe "sweet[ness]"

of theurn worksto suggestbothits
of theurn's "express[ion]"(3), but his personification

vulnerabilityandpassivity. By callingthe urn a "foster-child"in the secondline, he makesthe

andtherebyemphasizes
urn seemabandoned, the senseof the urn asvulnerable
andstrengthens

which he beganto establishin the stanza'sfirst line. Further,he portraysit asa vulnerable

creation,ffid therebydrawsattentionto the generativecapacitiesof thosewho "birthed" it.

told thatthe urn "expressfes]/ A flowery tale" (3-4),the statusof
Whenwe aresubsequently

the urn asthe story'steller seemsto us uncertain,unfixed,evenunearned.If the tale originates

in any one,is it not, we arepromptedto askourselves,really the poffer's(s') tale andlor the

painter's(s') tale,told throughthe mediumof their paintedurn asmuchasit is the urn's propet?'z'

And in makingthe ostensiblesubjectof the poemthe urn's beautifultale,or the urn's capacityto

on thepoet'sown empowered
tell a beautifultale,we morelikely sensetheurn's dependency

voiceto conveyits unseenbeautyto us. Portrayedasboth vulnerableandpassive,we are

to suspectthattheurn is merelya "shape[y]" (5) body,"dressed"(34)up prettily.
encouraged

its identityamountsto thatof a passive("still" [1]), virgin "child" (2), vulnerableto
Personified,

andwhosevery dressings(i.e., its surfacetale) the
ravishment,dressedup by long lost parentage,

poet subtlyconstruesasa perpetualsourceof discomfortfor the urn-not only might the urn's

of its own tale,it might be an
imagesnot be the surfacemanifestation/expression

providedby otherswhich forever"hAuntsabout[theurn's] [. . .] shape"
imposition/impression

(5; emphasisadded).

of questionswhich endthe
An argumentcouldbe madethatthe unintemrptedsequence

first stanzaserveasevidencethatthe poetis greatlyaffectedby the imageson the urn, evenif
McEvoy-Halston 3

their exactrelationshipto the urn is uncertain.But while mostcriticsbelievethatthe readers'

somesharemy
by thepoet'squestions,
own desirefor answers,for satiation,is likely aroused

schemingintelligenceis evidentlyat work in theselines. Andrew
sensethat acoordinating,

of lines5-10,Keatsprefiguresthe
Bennett,for one,arguesthat"[i]n themicro-narrative

nalrativemovementof the next two stanzas,and,toa certainextent,the largernaffative
'an attemptto capturethe virgin meaningof
movementof the wholepoemfwhichhe definesas

theurn,],i[WtveandAudience,|37),Sincethequestionsrelatetoananticipated

sexualconquest,they remind us of the urn's own unravishedstatus,and of the poet's previous
!
\.,1
of
prompting to imaglne and anticipatea ravishmentof the urn. I modify Bennett's assessment
/ i

,)"1
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s^rlv' the poet and argue that the questions,then, rather than help demonstratethe images' power, serve
tt''l"Y'.'
f. lI

, i .^t '
\ {" o' as notice that the poet intends to capture,so as to enrapture,the virgin urn.
_ l

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A'
.t..Y ), Further evidencethat the images do not teasethe poet out of narrative control is the
I
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confident manner in which he relatesto the images in the second starr;a. He is not hoping for "
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ri r
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answersin this starua;instead,he is eagerto (and does) dispensethem. In the second,third and .41"
, l. { i'
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t
fourth stanzas,in fact, the poet addressesimages he portrays as sentient,as capableof hearing t
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him, and as in desperateneed of oratorical encouragement,persuasionand soothing. He &-l v

"pipes" to "play on" (12). He useslogic to assista "youth" (15), the
encourages/commands

"bold lover" (17),the "boughs" (21) and a "melodist" (22) to imagine their immobility as a {
ri
t.
perpetual boon. What is portrayed as inspiring his addressto them, we note, is an aphorism- r.f
il.\ i
,\ l
lf
rF
'
"Heard melodies are sweet,but thoseunheardI Are sweeter"(11-12)-4" calls (wills) to mind. t^ I-'

By choosing to refer to words to inspire his involvement with the images,the poet privileges
/.,
them as containersof wisdom. The purported power of visual imagery is at the very least left

undevelopedby this "choice," and more than likely, is undermined.

The poet's involvement with the images,though superficiallytender,is self-serving,even
McEvoy-Halston 4

rough. It is self-serving becausetheir (the images') ignorance and needinesscall attention to the

poet's knowledge and capacitiesas a healer/lover. Becausethe images' immobility is the source

of their plight, we take greaternotice of the poet's active, energeticmind as he felicitously distils

and dispenseshis oratorical "medicine." It is rough, becausehe dramatizesthe benevolenceand

power of his counselby first emphasizingand reminding eachof the images of their plights

before he administersto them. He therefore shapeshimself into a tender and experienced

healer-well suited, we think, to tend to the vulnerable virgin urn's distressesas much as those

of the images,' as well as into a rough, active, and perhapseven muscular lover-well suited, wo

think, for a subsequentravishing of the urn.

Bennett arguesthat the poet literally manhandlesthe urn as he engageswith "its" images.

He arguesthat the poet is "mak[ing] his own story" out of the images "by turning [the urn]"

(142). He believesthat the poet usesthe image of the heifer in the fourth stara to define his

(the poet's) relationshipto the urn. He argues:

[T]he heifer which is being led to the altar is a visual double of the urn itself:

"What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape"becomes"And all her silken

flanks with garlandsdrest." This coincidencein visual detail makes of the urn a
oomysterious
priest[.]" 142
sacrificial victim and the poet a /

Though I conceive of theseimages as constituting a turning point in the poem where the poet

begins to want to surrenderhis authority rather than assertit, I find his linking of the poet to the

priest an apt connection to make. The poet, in the first three stanzasat least, is a "mysterious

priest" (32): we sensein his handling of the images someonewho is capableof greatmercy, but

also of ritualistic (he deals with eachimage swiftly and efficiently) brutality. I suspect,however,

that in the middle stat:ras,readersexperiencethe poet as involving himself more with the urn's

surfacethan with the urn proper. This is a distinction with a difference. For if we (at some
McEvoy-Halston 5

level) experiencehis involvementwith the images'distressashim handlingthe physical

imposeduponits surface,followingthe logic of thepoem'sdevelopingplot, we
dressings

of the urn's body awaitsus in the fifth and
suspectthat a figurativeravishmentftrumiliation

closingstanza.

The fifth staruadoesindeedbeginwith renewedattentionto the urn's "shape"(41) and

"form" (44),butwe aremeantto sensetheurn's power,not its depletion.In fact,the corporeal

highlightedin this stanzais the "wast[ing]" (46) awayof his own
desecration/disintegration

body. Why, leadto anticipate(relish?)an inevitableravishment,doesthe urn endup

in midstof otherwoe" (47)? Thepoet,unlikehis final estimationof
"remain[ing][unaffected],

theurn's motives,hasnot simplybeen"teas[ing]"(44)us. Instead,theportrayalof theurn in the

of his own vulnerability,andthereforeof
final stanzawaslikely influencedby his full awpleness
//
his own needfor an empowered"friend" (48). He wasableto usethe immobility of the images

offeredto thoseliving in "quick" time (asopposedto thoseexistingin
to dramatizetherewards

"slow time" l2l, or frozentime),which wasin his casethe ecstatichigh that purposeful

with self-
complicatin{tainting his self-enhancement
movementcreates,without simultaneously
/
doubt,becausehis activity createda momentaryadrenalinehigh.2 However,while the denizens

of frozentime cannotexperiencethe pitfalls of a changlng"terrain,"the poetknowsthat

historicaltime offersits traverserspropitiousfalls aswell asmountainoushighs. After his happy

theterrorof physical
rush,he becomes"parch[ed]"(30) and"pious"(37). He now contemplates

thathis pu{posefulactivity hadtemporarily"pushedaway."
degeneration

of the boonof eternalexistence,andthe blight of a terminalone,aswell
His awareness

asthe highly selCreflexivedynamiche createdwith his involvementwith the images,now lead

2
Indeed, the effect of this high is such that the repetition of the word "happy''in the third stanzais unlikely to draw
him to reflect upon the inadequaciesof languageas much as Bennett (amongst others) argues it does (139). Instead,
they effectively expressthe temporary sensationof unalloyed pleasurethat a high offers him.
McEvoy-Halston 6

in
him to closelyreflectuponhis own fate We sensethis narrativefurn, this suddenemergence

with the imagesin the fourth stanza.He
the poemof signsof his own distress,whenhe engages

doesnot seemasfocused.Previously,ttredeflnessandrapidity with which he dealtwith the
r' '' '- ' :1 ; ' r
t)- lt{-'v*'(tt

mind." Seeminglyintenton
,.//
imagescoillmunicateda confident,coordinated,gogLoriented

t plotting the urn's molestation,he didn't wander. In this statua,however,he seemgm9r9like he
{
/
\ is questingthanlike he is on a quest.We "witness"him returnto questioning.And, this time,

his questionsreflecthis situationalvulnerabilityratherthanhelp servicehis rhetoricalmastery

\,-. .{ /
'1f1 ,nt
- I
u'
overthe urn.
tV Ii
\,
d i , ' - L'-ld.\
r

.I r ' c{, hisrowndesire
The natureof his relationshipto the imagesin the fourth staruasuggests
, |\ I Ci.
6 l:
.'{)
,rr: rit.
.
their power: theheifer andthe priestseeminglyfeadlleadhis
for soothinganswers.It suggests
i /

;
)-
-conjurationof the abandoned
town. Unlike the aphorismhe willed forth earlier,this illusion
.E.i'

manifestshis vulnerabilityasa man,not his capabilitiesasa poet. Thetown's fate,we note,is

onethat canbe sharedby thoseliving in historicaltime. Much like the poet'sco{porealfate,

thetown is bereft,"emptied"(37) of its life-
with thosewho oncefilled its streetsdeparted,
,/
blood.'The town doesnot receivethe consolingresponsethe poet provided the imagesin the

secondand third stanzaswith. This lack of attentivenessis appropriate,as the town is a

manifestation which both capturesand reflects the poet's own situation. The town's unheard

anguish reflects his own desire for assistancefrom an empowered,mysterious source,and signals

the ripening of his awarenessof this desirO

When the poet inscribes the word "silent" at the end of the fourth stanza,then, we might

rightly imagine it as awakening the poet "out of [his self-reflecting] thought[s]" (44). Aware of

his own unmet needs,he turns to the "foster-child of silence" (2) with a new goal in mind.

Whereashe might have originally intended to conclusively display in the last stanzathe richness

of oration and writing, of rhymes, and the comparativebarenessof visual art, he finds himself in
McEvoy-Halston 7

no moodto do so.3Instead,he ffiesto establishfor theurn theprowesshe hadearlierdeclaredit

workedto call into question.Whereasin the
but hadimmediately,simultaneously,
possessed

theurn'sparentas"silence,"andits groomas"quietness"(1),
first stanzathepoetestablished
o'silent
andcomescloseto establishingits own powerasa
the fifth stanzafinally emphasizes

form" (44). Whereasbeforeits feminineo'shape" its vulnerabilityto masculine
(5) suggested

or rather,alienstrength.As Geraldine
ravishment,its shapenow links it to superhuman,

close-upsof the
Friedmannotes,thereis a "cycle of erosthatrunsbetweenthe impassioned *L'
..{-W
Ir"
individualpanels,beginningin stropheone,to the renouncingof passionin strophefive, where
it'
q

'Cold Pastoral'
theurn becomesa distant'Affic shape'[41] and f45f" ("Eroticsof Interpretation

in Keats's'Ode on a GrecianlJfll"' 226). Giventheurn's classicalorigins,by calling it a
ooform" i,|'\* ,L
b{t
utl
I

forms,andtherebyhelps
(44),the poetlikensthe urn's shapeto eternal,abstract,Pythagorean

neutralizethe urn's "sexy" physicality. The urn's teasingsin this statua,we note,functionto
'/"
remindhim of "eternity''(45),notof "sexual"conquest.

in the
The poetnot only lendsauthorityandmysteryto the urn's shape,he establishes

fifth stanzaa strongsensethat the imageson theurn's surfacebelongto, arecommandingly
.,
-
ownedby, the urn. No longerimageswhich hauntits shape,they constituteits "brede"(41).

the specificimagesthe poethad earliertaintedwith his
The urn is charactenzedasrepossessing

own influence.For instance,the"[b]old lover" (17)he consoledis now conflatedwithin a

multitudeof unknown"marblemen" (42). His influenceon the particularimagesis lost within

its "[c]old[ness](45)
repossession,
their suddenalgebraicmultiplication.Theurn's authoritative

and"[f]air attitude"(40) are,however,the perfectsalvesto help temperhis "burning" desirefor

an empowered,authoritative"friend" (48). Theseattributeshelp reconstitutethe urn so that its

'
a

The idea that the poet was working his way to a conclusive demonstrationof the power of his rhymes is buttressed
by Bennett's observation that "especially in the stanzasthree and four, [the poet] show[s] what poetry can do" (219).
But if he meansto inflate the impactof the um andits images,it certainlyseemsto work

againsthis purposeto €ndthe poemwith the lines written uponthe um's surface. Yet while

thesewritten words do conflict with his articulationof the power ofpictoriaVsculphral art, they

still function to enhancethe um's status.The lines arean aphorism"andremind the poet (andus)

that it was an aphorismwhich inspiled/movedhis purposefulencounterswith the urn's images.

In hopesof conclusivelyestablishingthe um's potency,then,the poet first showsits imaget
,. 4il
its imagesand,finally, hasit make a
affectinghim, offers it genuinepraise,hasit repossess
4; *
/
possessive with them./Giventhepoet't
claimontheverysourceofhis confidentinvolvement j'
, ;*qf i l l
l/ I
fruitfirlly beimagedasmolesting t'
prwiousmoresinisterinteirtions,theum's linescanp€rhaps .";,r,
l|" 1.
thelegitimacyof thepoet,sefficaciowandpridefulencounterwith theum. An4 in mimi"ti"g / . ff'.*\,,

stanzatobecome an efficacious dispenserof sweetjustice. /

PA; $ee (a r.a,^^r-t fu^A'
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McEvoy-Halston 9

WorksCited

UP, 1994.
Canrbridge
Bennett,Andrew.Keats,NarrativeandAudience.Carnbridge:

in Keats's'Odeon a GrecianLIrn':
Geraldine.'oTheEroticsof Interpretation
Friedman,

Pwsuingthe Feminine.n'Sudiesin Romanticism.93 (1993): 225-242.

Keats,John. "Ode on a Grecian{Jrn." Romanticism:An Anthologt with CD-ROM. zfr Ed.

Ed. DuncanWu. Malden: BlaclovellPublishers,2000.

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