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Transience and permanence in “The Odes” by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

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Keats composed the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, based on a sonnet written by Wordsworth in 1811.

The theme of transience and permanence, which struck Keats in Wordsworth’s poetry, forms the leading theme in the Odes. The ode, ‘To Autumn’, may be seen as a temporary ‘bridge’ in the debate between the two states, in this case symbolised by the seasons. A reprieve is achieved, although the problem is not solved,

“Where are the songs of Spring Ay, Where are they?

Think not of them…”

In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ the permanent element is the bird’s song, and the emphasis is on the beauty of this, and the bird’s rural setting. The bird is subject to change, but does not appear to be in the poem, the bird is unseen and only identified with its eternal song. The real victims are the men who:

“Sit and hear each other groan”

There are hints that the nightingale’s song symbolises poetry itself, especially in the fourth stanza where there is an apparent reference to Edmund Spenser, once Keats’s favourite poet.

In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ a comparison is seen as being between ‘life (which is transient) and Art (which is permanent). There is a ‘teasing’ illusion of life as the scene on the urn – but all its celebratory and amorous activities will never carry on to any conclusion. Permanence exacts its price, the painted scene will outlast outlandish passion, the sorrowful heart and (like the image in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’) the fevers men die of. But it is cold and has an aesthetic message that is uncompromising and elusive, as Keats later showed in ‘Ode on Melancholy’. However, if the last two lines of ‘On a Grecian Urn’ are taken as the urn’s complete message to us, then the conclusion is clear. Beauty is the whole story therefore permanence wins.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, ands all ye need to know.”

So far it’s obvious that the two states are tragically separate.

In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, permanent song is superior, and it is sad for the vision to withdraw, as ‘forlorn’, the word Keats describes as ‘like a bell’ (melancholy), indicates.

In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ permanence is questionable; art is long, but dead in itself, though still beautiful.

In the ‘Ode on Melancholy’, A union is attempted and achieved; the problem is solved by identifying the principle of beauty and therefore joy (even love) with transience. Keats felt that melancholy is a part of life and human experiences and must be accepted willingly as an inevitable element in life. His idea of melancholy can be updated and classified as depression, an illness that can lead to suicide in its acute stages.

Keats throughout the poem never addresses melancholy directly, and he makes a plea to an unnamed reader, thus covering a range of readers (age, sex, etc.).

This ode, which significantly concludes the set, expresses a vision of those beauties so characteristic of art, visions, which are incapable of gaining their effect unless perceived as fleeting. Hence ‘melancholy’, after being associated with passing things: the morning rose, the rainbow in the seaspray, an emotionally aroused lover, is then said to occupy the very throne in ‘the temple of delight’. ‘Ode to Melancholy’ is closely linked to ‘Ode to Nightingale’ and ‘On a Grecian Urn’ but this poem differs in tone, from the others. It is less personal than the Nightingale ode, the word ‘I’ doesn’t appear in this poem.

The poem opens with an urgent, empathic command/plea for the reader not to seek death, to resort to poison or have thoughts of graveyards or other reminders of death. Such things will numb the pain, and pain is better than no feeling at all in Keats’ eyes.

In the second stanza Keats tells the sufferer/reader, that when melancholy overwhelms them, feed it to the point of ‘bursting’ by looking at fresh, beautiful flowers, the sunlit spray of a wave breaking, or the light in your mistresses’ eyes when she is angry.

” But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud; “

The above simile is ambiguous; the shower is both ‘weeping’ and like a ‘shroud’, both unpretty images associated with death, but it is also life-giving in that it revives the drooping flowers, life Vs death perhaps? The unpleasant image, ‘glut’, with its connotations of greed and food, is attached to images of beauty and art. The ‘morning’ rose is probably a newly-opened bud still covered with dew, and the breaking wave holds for an instant the colours of the rainbow in its blown spray. But the final image of the stanza has puzzled me; ‘feeding’ upon one’s mistress’s eyes while not affected by her anger suggests sadism. However, I think Keats was trying to express that, what is admirable, is the energy displayed in a fit of anger be it negative or positive, it still takes incredible power and energy to perform. In this stanza Keats, using personification, explains that melancholy is inseparable from beauty, which is transient, and from fleeting moments of happiness.

“Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips” this suggests pleasure turning to bitterness in the few seconds it takes for a bee to extract nectar from a flower.

The rhetoric of the last stanza provokes thought, and adds strength to its argument against death/suicide.

Keats, throughout his poetry, emphasises the point that ‘Sorrow and despair reign where neither love nor beauty nor joy can last’.

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