Category Archives: grecian urn

The Everlasting What-If

In reading Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn the bittersweet parallel, or better yet, juxtaposition between reality and fantasy becomes apparent. Especially in the second and third stanzas.

Stanzas 2 and 3:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
They song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
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!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 

The everlasting sentiments embellished on the urn emphasize the ephemeral nature of reality, specifically in terms of joy, or the bits of happiness we are privy to. In other words, what we know to be real is only such for a moment.

In the fantasy world on the urn, everything is in a state of forever, and ever, and ever, unchanging, suspended in time, and unreal. Only in art is this possible. But is it beautiful? Maybe some sort of ideal, but… to never change? Trapped in one moment, never experiencing anything else, subsiding on potential? A constant state of “what if…”

The last lines of the poem have been interpreted in dozens, if not hundreds of ways, but I think they address this particular division between reality and some perceived form of the ideal.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Those lines are inscribed on the urn. But what is beautiful is not the image on the urn, because that is not the truth. On earth we don’t live in a suspended state of reality. Truth on earth, all we know, and need to know, is living, moving forward in time, rife with experience, a wide array of emotions and encounters. Each one is magnificent in its own way. The image on that urn is a vignette of happiness, captured in its prime, plucked from reality at its most ripe point, but never allowed to mature, or fully exist. The potential is never fulfilled.

Leaves fall, seasons change. And each time it is a little different, nevertheless beautiful. Yet if you don’t live life with this knowledge, time will still pass, things will still change, but you will remain stuck in your own fantasy enthralled with how wonderful everything is. You are not living in the moment, but in one moment, blind to how much else you could cultivate that millisecond into if only you just let it pass. As for everything you still want to do and experience, all the questions you have… well there is always tomorrow. Except there isn’t always time, and by the time you realize this, it might just be too late. Then you can eternally exist in a different state of “what if.”