Philosophical contemplation

Keats uses lots of rich imagery in Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn, and his use of the five senses makes it more effective. Nature is a motif in both odes, and inspired many composers, writers and artists of the Romantic era. In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the urn’s scene is painted ‘overwrought /With forest branches and the trodden weed’, while the nightingale flies above ’The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild’. In Keats’ odes, nature is a likeness and contrast to himself. It can embody his emotions, like ‘fast fading violets’ and the ode To Autumn represent his short life ahead.

Unlike himself, though, nature is eternally beautiful, as after every winter there is a spring. The inclusion of song in both poems is one way Keats appeals to the reader’s senses. The nightingale sings sings ‘of summer in full-throated ease’ and the vase details a ‘happy melodist’, ‘pipes and timbrels’. Like visual art or his poetry, song will last for longer than himself. Contrast in Keats’ imagery is common; principally life and death. As Keats not far from his death bed when he wrote his odes, he would have been very aware of life and death.

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Connected with this would be the ability to live forever and never grow old, something that he could never do. Both poems’ stimuli represent living forever, but only through art. The nightingale is ‘immortal’ and the figures on the urn will still be here ‘When old age… this generation waste’. To enforce this idea, Keats refers to myths, which have already lived on for centuries. He questions what ‘legend’ the Grecian scene has come from and tells the nightingale he will reach eternity through his poetry, not ‘by Bacchus’, the Roman god of wine. Other contrasts of imagery tie into life and death.

For example, the use of noise and silence, especially in Ode on a Grecian Urn, presents the existence of sound as a sign of life and the absence of it as a sign of death. The people on the Urn can hear the ‘soft pipes’ but he cannot, meaning that the urn’s figures are very much alive but Keats is the opposite. This can be seen to a lesser extent in Ode to a Nightingale, where when the nightingale’s song is ‘Fled’, the poet realises he might be very near death. Another example is the use of hot and cold imagery; hot being alive and cold being death.

In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats wishes for wine that has been ‘cool’d a long age’, then later on confesses his want for a quick death. It is possible there is a connection between the two. In Ode on a Grecian Urn, he says the figures’ love is ‘For ever warm’. They have symptoms of love like ‘A burning forehead’ and ‘a parching tongue’. These can be compared to Keats’ feverous symptoms of tuberculosis. Both show that they are alive, and when they go it will because of old age, in the urn’s people’s case, or death, in Keats’ case.

More generally, there is a contrast between the coldness of the urn and the warmth of the figures on it. Urns were for people’s ashes, a link between coldness and death. Keats’ main concern are the figures on the urn, as the ode is ‘on’ rather than ‘to’ the urn. They are young, happy and healthy and so connotes life with heat. A reoccurring word in both odes is ecstasy. The urn’s figures are in a ‘wild ecstasy’, and the nightingale sings ‘In such an ecstasy! ’. The phrase is so important, it abandons the stanza’s rhyme structure.

As it is an extreme emotion, it can be used for both the deep depression the poet is in and the euphoria his characters are in. In conclusion, both Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale contemplate, above all, the writer mortality and the use of beauty to soften its effects. The Grecian urn and nightingale, the inspiration for the poet, are both beautiful works of art. The nightingale as well as the insouciant figures on the urn’s contrast with the speaker’s feelings of despair and depression. The speaker is both superior to them, in knowledge and age, but inferior to them, in health and happiness.

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