Discuss the theme of mortality and immortality within Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn and Byron’s Child Harold’s Pilgrimage canto IV, stanzas 139-144.
In the following essay I will discuss the themes of mortality and immortality, time and timelessness to show how these romantic poets conveyed their views upon the fragility of human life. These themes are clearly expressed by Byron and Keats within their respective works: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Ode on a Grecian Urn. I will achieve this by closely analysing the texts and studying the individual poetic styles used by each author and the similarities and differences produced by these differing styles.
Both of these poets wrote during the Romantic period. This new Romantic style of poetry was created as a reaction against the previous Augustan poetry typical of the first half of the eighteenth century. This Augustan style of poetry was both political and satirical, involving the reinvention of the styles used within classical forms of poetry, namely that of Milton and Virgil. Conversely, the new wave of romantic poetry attempted to reconcile man with nature by filtering human emotion through the mind of the poet to create an art form and by using a non-didactic approach and language familiar to the common man, thus leaving the reader able to draw his own conclusions. First and foremost the Romantic poet produced poetry as a form of creative expression rather than the previous political attacks masked beneath the use of satire seen earlier in the century. As Dr Salah Mahajna writes, ‘The key word for romanticism is freedom to give reign to one’s emotions and dreams’ (2002: 51).
However, with this new emotional introspection came concern and preoccupation with mortality and immortality and the fragility and imperfection of human kind. The Romantic poets came to address and ponder these issues and much of their poetry reflects this. Keats famously wrote a poem entitled ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ and Wordsworth notably prayed to God to give him the life to finish his works. Along with these speculations came a realisation and fascination with the nature of discontinuation of life and the simultaneous existence and continuation of inanimate objects.
This is clearly expressed within Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. In order for Keats to express this new notion he developed his own original type of ode in order to produce a lyrical type of poetry which incorporated both the symmetry of classical poetry and the asymmetry of Romantic poetry. The use of the ABAB structure in the beginning lines of each stanza reflect the symmetrical, structured poetry found in the classical literature of Shakespeare and the remaining six lines of each stanza appear to be a deliverance from this traditional structured type of ode. Through this new creation Keats was able to express his own artistic ideas regarding the tensions between order and the world’s lack of order. It could be interpreted that Keats used this unique style to poetically express the perfection and untouchable eternity of an inanimate object (the urn): ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness! Thou foster-child of silence and slow time’, while simultaneously highlighting the opposing nature of the past people that fought, struggled and died who are designed upon the urn; ‘What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? (Keats 1819: Stanza 1, lines 1-2).
However paradoxically, although these people who are imprinted upon the urn represent loss and time upon a timeless and untouched object, they are also ‘frozen’ in time by their being interpreted and therefore preserved through art: ‘She cannot fade, though that hast not thy bliss, Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (Keats 1819: Stanza 2, lines 19-20). This theme continues throughout the poem with reminders of death within nature and the stark contrast of the eternal beauty of the urn. The reader becomes aware of this in stanza four with the sacrifice of the cow: ‘who are these coming to the sacrifice…O mysterious priest, Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies’ (Keats 1819: stanza 4, lines 1-3). This is then immediately contrasted at the beginning of stanza five as Keats again reminds the reader of the urns eternal beauty; ‘O attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede of marble men and maidens overwrought’ (Keats 1819: stanza 5, lines 1-2). The reason for the paradoxical nature of the poem according to Andrew Motion (2003: 77) is because Keats wanted not to give didactic instruction upon a subject, but rather give the reader an opportunity to speculate upon many life issues. The poignant and yet somewhat unclear last words of the poem, ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’, (Keats 1819: stanza 5, lines 49-50) could be interpreted as expressing the triumph and ultimate perfection of the aesthetic within a mortal and imperfect world. Within the urn it could be seen that Keats found the perfect correlative for his concern with the longing for permanence and perfection in a world of change and imperfection.
This concern is also expressed by Byron within his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. According to Jerome McGan (1985: 132), by masking himself behind a literary artifice, Byron was able to express his view that ‘man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he cannot attain’. Although the style in which Byron wrote this narrative poem differs from Keats’s ode form, the effect produced has similarities. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is written in Spenserian stanza, used by Spenser in his Faerie Queene. It is a nine line stanza made up of eight lines of iambic pentameter ending with an Alexandrine iambic hexameter which produces a slowing effect due to the additional foot. Its rhyme scheme is ABABBCBCC. This style is often regarded as a remarkable and original metric innovation. Like Keats’s ode, the effect produced is musical and fluid in its nature, giving the impression of the seamless eternity they endeavoured to portray: ‘But when the rising moon begins to climb, its topmost arch, and gently pauses there; When the…..’
The same paradoxes seen within Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn also exist within Byron’s narrative poem. However, Keats uses the contrast of the urn and Byron instead chooses the earth beneath the feet of those lost as his vehicle. Although the ground cannot be considered inanimate as it is an organic matter, it is, like the urn and those images imprinted upon it, free and untroubled by the battles and losses of human kind: ‘When the light shines serene, but doth not glare, Then in this magic circle raise the dead: Heroes have trod this spot – ‘tis on their dust ye tread’ (Byron 1818: canto IV, stanza CXLIV). Like Keats, it is in this way that Byron expresses continuation and eternity whilst simultaneously articulating the mortality and fragility of humanity. Upon this ground Childe Harold see’s the earthly struggles and sufferings of men: ‘I see before me the gladiator lie…his drooped head sinks gradually low – and through his side the last drops, ebbing slow’ (Byron 1818: canto IV, stanza CXL). However, It is perceivable that while Keats offers no alternative to the finality of the death of man, Byron does appear to suggest that death is not a finality and our earthly imperfections will fade as we are resurrected within heaven and that in some sense the essence of those who lived lives on; ‘All this rushed with his blood—shall he expire’, And unavenged?—Arise!’ (Byron 1818: Canto IV, stanza CXLI).
However, through Childe Harold, Byron unlike Keats seems to express a desire for communion with the perfection of nature in order to escape from the imperfection of man. Within the fourth canto Byron makes clear the destructive nature of man both towards fellow man shown by the trials and ultimate death of the Gladiator, ‘As man was slaughtered by his fellow man…the plaything of a crowd’ (Byron 1818: canto IV, stanza CXLI) and also his destructive impact upon nature as he describes the Gladiators arena: ‘A ruin—yet what ruin! From its mass….It will not bear the brightness of the day, which streams too much on all, years man, have reft away’. Here Byron does not show the beauty and perfection of a manmade object as Keats’s does with his urn, but rather shows it to the reader as a rude and ugly interruption to the beauty of nature’s perfection.
In conclusion we can see that Byron and Keats’s respective poems have many similarities although they appear to differ on the point of nature versus the manmade. While Keats appears to hold the belief that the urn with all its intrinsic qualities is somehow superior to mankind in its ability to be eternal and untouchable and to pass through time unscathed, Byron gives the reader an opportunity to see the destruction that man causes both to himself and his natural habitat. Although, as the reader becomes aware both of these poets do find perfection in something outside of humanity and both use it as a way of highlighting the themes of timelessness, time, human fragility and suffering, perfection and imperfection and importantly the tensions between order and the world’s lack of order.
Word Count: 1502
Keats, J. (1819) The Norton Anthology of English Literature: W.W Norton and Company.
Mahajna, S. (2002) Literary Terms and Criticism: Palgrave.
McGan, J. (1985) The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation: The University of Chicago Press.
Motion, A. (2003) John Keats: The University of Chicago Press