Friday, 22 May 2015

Exploring John Keats' Philosophy of Art in “Ode On A Grecian Urn”

@omotayome  for Twitter

Ode on a Grecian Urn celebrates the reality of still-life in art than the harsh realities of normal life. In the painting on the Grecian Urn, everything becomes important in their lifelessness and stillness. It is as if John Keats is elevating deadness to life as an ultimate escape from life’s stinging realities. In the poem, John Keats comes to see art as many things. For one, he glorifies it as he portrays it as the fulfillment of that which the limitedness of life cannot achieve. The limitations of life are various; and they have always continued to define humans. Time and its transience are perhaps the dominant of these limitations. Most times, these limitations make the joy of living pass off so soon. In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the opposite of that is attained; everything is permanent. Permanence rolls on with luxuries, longings, and unending passions. However, amidst these luxuries of permanence are unanswered questions – the evil of stillness perhaps, perhaps not. In the poem, so many questions are left unanswered. More than they being rhetorical, one may say, just as with stillness, answers to them have also been frozen:

 Who are these coming to the sacrifice?...
      ....And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
 Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

John Keats’ philosophy of art can be briefly summed up as: art is that which life is not. That means art’s glory is manifested in the inadequacies of life. In the poem, one can deduce John Keats’ philosophy of life as thus: Art as an ultimate preserver, Art as a Keeper of Beauty and Time, Art as a True Picture of Humanity and Art as a form of Escapism.

Art as an Ultimate Preserver

The addressed Grecian Urn is an object that records the various scenes and stories the poem talks about. In the opening of the poem, the persona calls this urn:

 Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness…
And to further portray the preserver and recorder nature of the urn, he follows the above with:

 Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
The painting on the urn preserves the histories of man by freezing and keeping the pictures in ultimate silence, so that nothing is rushed and nothing uttered. It is because of this feature of the painting that an encounter with the many stories on the urn is possible with the persona. Many people, like the persona, must also have witnessed this same painting on the urn and the Grecian urn must have been in existences for years. It is in the ability of the painting as an ultimate preserver that such stories still live on for the persona to encounter and relive in the poem. Hence, deducedly, John Keats sees art as the ultimate preserver.

Art as a Keeper of Beauty and Time

In stanza two of the poem, a lover bent on winning a damsel is implored to take ease. He is so advised because time is permanent and his lover’s beauty will be forever fresh. However, there is futility of pursuit to the lover's attempt; he will never be able to kiss the lady, his wooing would not stop and her beauty will not fade. In the art he is perpetually subjected to eternal grieve of continued proposition. The endless pursuit of the lover is portrayed here:

 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!   

Art as a True Picture of Humanity

On the Grecian urn, different stories are told about various occasions of life. The different scenes on the urn come to picturesquely depict humanity in all its forms – the fantasies, wiles, beauty and religion. As humanity is made up of different happenings so also are the paintings on the urn. In the first stanza of the poem, one encounters the wild sexual ecstasy of men, of maidens wanting to escape this wild estasy and the stomping revelry around it all:
                         …What maidens loth? 
 What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?  
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

In the second stanza, there is music and a story of love. These two subjects are of essence to life. Music, an integral part of our daily existence and love, as some say, the thing our emotions must uniformly identify with:

 Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;…

 Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve…
 In the fourth stanza, one is confronted with religion. There is a ritual rite to be carried out. One sees a priest approaching an altar to offer sacrifice to some gods, perhaps in appeasement perhaps for other things. One can only assume.

Art as a Form of Escapism

By reflecting on the pictures on the urn and eulogizing them, John Keats engages in escapism. He goes into the world portrayed on the urn to briefly forget the horrors of this world and its temporal nature. The reason for John Keats’ escapism is understandable. One could link this escapism to John Keats’ falling health as this poem was composed at a time tuberculosis was almost pulling the last strand of his life1. In exalting the still nature of the art, he is imploring the reader to turn away from life and focus on art as the ideal form life.

1.      1. Biography Online: John Keats Biography (

  • This was an assignment written for one of my literature courses in school.

Monday, 30 June 2014

2014 Caine Prize Shortlist (2)

  • Read the first part of the review HERE
If you are patient enough, you might like some pieces in this year’s Caine Prize than you thought. Just like how I couldn’t relate with Absurdism in my drama class, few things in some of these pieces, especially those I will be focusing on in the last part of this review, frustrated my reading. The internet does not allow you to easily give the kind of attention these stories demand. The internet is a jealous thing, you know.  And one with more interesting stories to offer. In my drama class, for the grade, I took to liking the Absurdist movement; if only to be able to fault it well and please my lecturer. In the nonsensicalness of Vladimir and Estragon (in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play text), I took up an interest, rationalizing everything in to make sense of everything. In the endless dribbles of Vladimir and Estragon and the bestial servitude of Lucky to Pozzo, I saw how humanity could be vain and nothing and wicked. And so with the responsibility that comes with completing this review, I have made some sense of The Gorilla’s Apprentice and The Intervention and I have dug up some interesting things in them; if only to be able to review them well.

These stories usefully make use of good subtleties. In Billy Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice for instance, nothing is directly quickly revealed. Before anything is really shown, you must have known, so that when it is eventually revealed, it does not then only become a revelation, but a knowledge that is made known to understand other things. Instances of this abound in Billy Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice. It is in the same use of subtleties, that Billy’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice and Tendia’s The Intervention share some writing style. 

In “The Intervention”, though politics is a noticeable theme, the writer does not make it dominant. He only turns it into a passing commentary that complements the squabble between the young couple of Tamu and Sarah, and the characters’ lives as exiles. With this, it is only in the sufferings and anxieties of these characters and their conditions as immigrants that commentaries on the devilish politics running down their home country are made. Interesting way of writing there. 

With “The Gorilla’s Apprentice” too, the author never pushes it to you that Kenya is in a political turmoil. After you may have been hooked by Jimmy’s obsession with the old mountain Gorilla, chips of political uncertainties are only made reflective: in how long the tourists will stay at the zoo; in the crazy attitude of motorists on the way to Jimmy’s house; in the screams and billows observed away from the zoo. All these subtleties make these two pieces somewhat engaging.

“The Gorilla’s Apprentice” by Billy Kahora

Nothing matters to Jimmy Gukonyo, only the Gorilla does. The zoo is his escape from many miseries. That boy really has suffered. From a torn home, to the miseries that come with being raised by a single parent and his sight condition; a young boy cannot have bargained for so much despair. Nothing bears him comfort than in the non-verbal company of the gorilla. So, it is understandable that life for the gorilla is also one for him. As the gorilla ails, Jimmy soon seeks a way to talk to it. Semambo is his solution; Semambo is the havoc.

Billy takes feminism overboard in this piece. It does piss me off! We should stop this vogue of making men unjustifiably cruel in literature. This is the kind of literature that preys on the common for some misplaced gender right. We are never informed of what happens to Jimmy’s father, why he leaves Jimmy and his mother. We do not know what he does or does not do. All the reader knows is that he is the devil and the cause for the broken home. The author does not tell you this directly though, but the manner Jimmy’s father is mentioned in the stories makes you assumes as much. When a man leaves his home and child, he is always the devil and the women a saint in her singlehood (as she finds life afterwards in all manner). Just make men the devils anyhow and female characters in our literature are instant heroines. Rubbish.

 “When Jimmy was twelve his father left them, and Jimmy began to come on his own, except for the year he had been in and out of hospital.” (pg. 1)
Why did he leave? Billy will not tell you. Billy will again tell you he left:

“Jimmy knew all about these children – had lived among them, and become one of them after his father had left and his mother had taken them to her parents’ in Kerugoya for six months.” (pg. 3)
And then the father will be called names:

 “‘What are rabbits anyway? Your father is a rabbit. Always up in some hole.’” (pg. 4)
The question for his leaving is still unanswered:

“ ‘You know, when your father left I thought that we would just die, but look at us now.’” (pg. 4)
And Jimmy’s mother is made a heroine:

She would smear on her lipstick and flounce out of the apartment to meet a new man friend. (I’ve no time for boys. I need a man. James, will you be my man? Protect me.)(pg. 4)

“The Intervention” by Tendai Huchu

This interestingly blends a large scale political turbulence with a trivial emotional issue. In this story, the characters are distanced victims of what is happening in their country. This is one piece that almost articulates the drivel and dribble of the exiled. It shows the hypocrisy of opinionated immigrants even as they are ensconced elsewhere away from where it burns. It is easy to wax rhetoric when you are removed off the heat.  For a long time, exile will always be better than home for third world immigrants. They might only say otherwise to constantly always remind themselves; that they have homes, that their exile is not total. But really, the exile is total.

Z will hope the opposition party wins the election here:

 “ ‘Change is coming to Zimbabwe,’ Z said.
‘It’s been a long time coming,’ said the blazo.
‘As soon as our victory is confirmed, I’m packing my bags, leaving this goddamn country and going home,’ Z went on.” (pg. 8)
But when something else happens, his hypocrisy is magnified:

The results were out. The Party had won. The Party had won. The Party had won. The Party had. The Party? I saw a joyful smile mixed in with relief on Z’s face, because the Party’s win was a victory for him too. He had an asylum claim pending with the Home Office and if the Opposition had won, he’d have been screwed. He quickly mastered himself and frowned, now wearing a new look, a cross between sorrow and anger. (pg. 8)

Does anyone understand the dumb poetic outburst of Samba here in the story?:

“The children of Africa cry
When they should be laughing
Can you hear them, can you hear them.
Will you help them, will you help them.
The land of the fat hippopotamus
The home of the mighty Zambezi
The mystical ancestors
The wide African skies
The children of Africa cry
Waa-waa-waa” (pg. 9)

Just what is the significance of that anyway? And don’t tell me it is a mark of some resignation. There are several other ways that could be achieved.

This year’s stories are mixed for me. They all have what you will like them for and otherwise.

Follow Joseph Omotayo on Twitter @omotayome