If not last month, then earlier, you learned from John Keats, or rather from that Grecian Urn that he oded on, this:
***“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
******Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
That’s the urn speaking, and, in case you missed it last month, I don’t totally agree with Keats. I understand the impulse amongst the constant struggles of his life to make that kind of pugnacious assertion; and it appears that Keats was as combative as that quote would indicate. In the words of a schoolmate, “Keats was not in childhood attached to books. His penchant was for fighting. He would fight any one.”[i]
I had a missionary companion who was like the Keats of that ode, needing to prove his point and seeking any means to do it. He once, asserting that the hymnbook was an official organ of the Church and therefore doctrinally sound, proved a theological point by citing a hymn. I said “Well, by that criterion I can prove that God is an Irishman, and that art is God.” He said “No you can’t!” So I was forced to demonstrate it by singing
***Our Father’s God, to thee,
***To thee we sing!
I drove the point home, or should I say twisted the knife, by citing Doctrine and Covenants 84:77 et passim, wherein God calls us his friends, and surely amongst his friends, God would be known simply as Art.
That kind of argument is what Keats makes with his equation “beauty is truth, truth beauty” — and since he is asserting a universal truth based on a cold pastoral, one in which the friezes are eternally frozen, he breathes on the vase merely to polish it.
That’s not the manner of his ode “To Autumn.” This ode has the breath of life in it, not just on it. That may owe something to the subject, the close observation of Autumn, ripeness and maturation, and to a certain yearning to mature that Keats would never fulfill, except perhaps as a poet — but the contrast in tone with “Ode on a Grecian Urn” could not be stronger. Both odes were written in 1819, and are included in this not-uncommon assessment: “In the case of the English ode he brought its form, in the five great odes of 1819, to its most perfect definition.”[ii]
“To Autumn” is shorter than “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” because in it Keats has stopped striving to be a poet, and instead presents the poem as the cumulation of a long year’s maturation. Read it, aloud, and savor it:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
***Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
***With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
***And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
******To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
***With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
***For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
***Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
***Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
***Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
******Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
***Steady thy laden head across a brook;
***Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
******Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
***Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
***And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
***Among the river sallows, borne aloft
******Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
***Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
***The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
******And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.[iii]
Here, in three stanzas of 11 lines, Keats again creates his own form, and again relies on the iambic line, rather than following the varying line lengths of Wordsworth, whom he much admired.[iv] His three stanzas take up the ripening, the harvesting, and the progression from spring. I especially like
***Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
******Among the river sallows, borne aloft
*********Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.
It reminds me of many an autumn in the San Rafael River, or Muddy Creek. No nightingale here, no shepherd piping on his oaten reed, and none of the mournful tone of the Grecian urn. This is a lively, lived-in season. Here Keats creates a true pastoral, one with gnats, crickets, robins and swallows swelling the progress, starting a scene or two — humorous, but never ridiculous, laughing perhaps at the earnest youth on the Grecian urn who never will kiss his lass, unlike the farmer watching the oozings at the cyder-press, who will drink deep when the press is done.
I know that the farmer is the season in this middle stanza, but as written, the season is the farmer, and in presenting his abstraction thus, Keats redeems the nonsense of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” — although I’m not all that sure that Keats agrees with his urn either.
But hold on, I hear you say. You still haven’t justified your assertion last month that “Keats exhausted the ode as surely as Milton did the use of blank verse in the epic.” And didn’t Keats write his own blank-verse epic in Endymion?
[i] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-keats, accessed 31 May 2014, quoting a schoolmate, Edward Holmes. Any otherwise unsupported assertions about Keats in this post are owed to this source.
[ii] Ibid., although the observation is not unique to this source; it is a commonplace in Keats criticism, although I have not found its original yet. Wikipedia lists 6 odes composed in 1819: “Keats wrote the first five poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn“, “Ode on Indolence“, “Ode on Melancholy“, “Ode to a Nightingale“, and “Ode to Psyche” in quick succession during the spring, and he composed “To Autumn” in September.” Wikipedia also notes that “While the exact order in which Keats composed the poems is unknown, some critics contend that they form a thematic whole if arranged in sequence” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Keats’s_1819_odes, accessed 31 May 2014).
[iii] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/240196#poem, accessed 31 May 2014.
[iv] In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats emulates Wordsworth far enough to insert one three-syllable line amongst the 9 lines of iambic pentameter. But go back to post 38and read Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood and see if it doesn’t seem a much more radical reworking of form than any of Keats’s odes,