John Keats practically defines the term "Romantic." Not just in the literary sense, referring to a group of English writers working in the first half of the 19th century, but also in the more modern sense of a guy whose life is filled with drama and passion. He was raised in a middle-class family, unlike many of the more aristocratic Romantics such as William Wordsworth, and critics mocked him as a small town boy and an upstart. His first poems were either made fun of or ignored, and he never succeeded in becoming famous or respected during his short life. Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, shortly after the publication of his last book of poems, which included the "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Based on the quality of these poems, written at so young an age, it’s awe-inspiring to think of what kind of writer Keats could have become had he survived as long as his peers. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that he could have been another Shakespeare. But his early death has only increased the myth and aura of the Romantic Keats.
Keats wrote five odes, and all of them are shockingly good. These are the kinds of poems that literary critics die for, and that send later writers into bouts of envy. Of the five odes, "Grecian Urn," with its immortal and mysterious final lines, is the most well known. The "ode" is an Ancient Greek form of poetry that is marked by its seriousness and technical difficulty. They are usually very thoughtful works that try to praise and elevate their subject. Keats’s odes are considered the best in the English language, and they are certainly the most famous. Anyone who has even a passing interest in poetry should read them, and re-read them. To a great extent, they have defined what modern lyric poetry is.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" was written in 1819, the year in which Keats contracted tuberculosis. He told his friends that he felt like a living ghost, and it’s not surprising that the speaker of the poem should be so obsessed with the idea of immortality.
The poem consists of a person talking to a kind of fancy Greek pot known as an "urn" that was made of marble. Keats would have been able to see many urns from Ancient Greece at the British Museum, the world's biggest archeological treasure-trove. (The northern Europeans plundered the Greeks' ancient artifacts, and some might joke that now the Greeks are taking revenge by blowing up the European economy…) Urns are known not only for their sleek, beautiful shape but also for the quality of the pictures that were often painted on their sides. Most of the poem centers on the story told in the images carved on the side of one particular urn. But this isn’t some mellow reflection on a pot: it’s a wild rollercoaster of a poem covering BIG subjects like sex, love, nature, and death.
Back in the 19th century, the first readers of John Keats’s poetry were like, "Keats, man, this stinks." They might also have thrown in some slander about his middle-class origins. Nowadays, people are more likely to have the opposite reaction and say, "Wow, this is the most amazing poem I’ve ever read!"
How could a single work provoke both disdain and ecstatic praise? We need a modern equivalent to understand the phenomenon. So, we’re going to compare the publication of Keats’s first book of poems, which included this ode, to the time when Bob Dylan started playing "Like a Rolling Stone" on an electric guitar. If you don’t know the back-story, Dylan started his career playing folk music and protest songs on an acoustic guitar at small festivals. Sometime around the middle of the 1960s, he began writing songs for a full band and electric guitar, which many of his fans considered high treason. He’d start out his concerts playing his old stuff, the quiet folk songs, and halfway through he’d plug in his electric guitar, turn the volume way up, and basically blow people’s ears off. Subtle? No. Historic? Definitely.
The Romantic poets made a similar fuss back in the 19th century. Before they came along, most English poets were writing quiet, polite poems with simple rhyme schemes about old-fashioned subjects like Ancient Greece and Rome. Then the first Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge came along and published poems in everyday language about dramatic subjects like shipwrecks and the plight of rural farmers. Returning to our comparison, this was like the invention of rhythm and blues. But it didn’t stop there.
The second generation of Romantics, including Keats, came along next, and they were like, "Guys, this is really good, but it’s not radical enough. We need to turn the volume way up." So Keats wrote poems like this ode, which takes a polite subject – a study of a Greek pot – and turns it into a screeching, over-the-top celebration of music, sex, and youth. The form is incredibly dense and complicated, and the language practically chokes you with complex metaphors, bizarre repetitions, and tortured emotion. Even the first generation of Romantics had to plug its collective ears and say, "For heaven’s sake, turn it down!" But it was too late. After the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," poetry was never the same, just like rock and roll was never the same after "Like a Rolling Stone." Pandora’s Box had been opened. Unlike Dylan, however, Keats didn’t live to see his poems become famous and critically acclaimed. He died when most people still thought he was a crummy poet.