An Early Death
"Ode on a Grecian Urn," "My Last Duchess," and "To an Athlete Dying Young" explore concepts surrounding death, immortality, and life, beauty and truth. In these poems the general attitude toward these subjects does not appear to change very much between the three eras in question. Of the three poems the one which differs the most from the attitude and message of the others is "My Last Duchess," and that poem does not directly challenge the way of thinking in question it merely exposes it to scrutiny in a way that brings out its flaws. These three poems all illustrate and comment on the achievement of beauty or truth through death. The moral implications of the views expressed in these poems are not fully explored by the poems themselves. In particular "Ode on a Grecian Urn" does not even directly acknowledge that what it is dealing with actually is death, or at least a form of it. Overall these three poems speak dismissively of life and life's potential valuing instead the images that imitate life or depict it. In each case a single moment, emotion, accomplishment, or image is placed above the value of the life or truth itself as a whole. These poems advocate, or at least observe, a sinister perspective, and none of them fully explore the consequences of adhering to such a mindset; as a result none of the poems move far beyond the perspective of the others regardless of the time in which they are written.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" lauds immortal images of trees, instruments, and two lovers about to kiss. In the images the perfect scene is captured in such a way that it can never be despoiled or fade out of existence because the urn itself will not age. "Ode on a Grecian Urn" finds immortal beauty and truth in art, specifically the images on the urn. In the first stanza of observing the urn the narrator imagines the action of the image he is viewing. "What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? (pg 453, lines 9-10). The narrator is producing this description from his observation of the urn. In contemplating a static image the narrator wonders after the story of the image and attempts to create one inside his mind to make sense of what he is seeing. Hence, the narrator is asking many questions about the activity depicted on the urn taking it for granted that activity is somehow implied. The narrator then creates the activity within his own imagination through his interpretation of what he sees on the urn. In the second and third stanzas the narrator congratulates the actors of the scene depicted. "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," (pg 453, lines 17-20). The narrator recognizes the frustration that the actors must feel but encourages them that they will never be forced to leave the moment. Again the narrator is attributing to the actors, as to the scene itself, desires and goals as if these things were implied. Simultaneously, the narrator realizes that these things cannot ever be accomplished by the images to which he attributes them. In the fourth stanza the narrator imagines where these actors could possibly have come from. "What little town by river or sea shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?" (pg 454, lines 35-37). The narrator is asking about a fictional location perhaps implied by the images on the urn but in every way the product of his own imagination. Finally the narrator concludes by summing up the message he has taken from the urn by making the ambiguous statement that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty..." (pg 454, line 49).
The narrator's assertion that the urn speaks "Beauty is truth, truth beauty..." (pg 454, line 49) defines the poem. The speaker has spent the entire course of the poem wondering after and describing an ideal moment in life and time. In this moment the narrator sees beauty and truth. The narrator admires the urn because it can capture both beauty and truth for eternity preserving the moment against the ravages of time. However, throughout the entire poem the narrator is the one who gives life and meaning to the image. The narrator is the one who asks the questions about the action occurring in the image. The narrator is the one who attributes love to the picture of the young man and woman. The narrator is the one speculating on where their home city might be. It is the narrator who speaks to the urn the truths that he perceives about it. It is the narrator who tells the urn how beautiful it is and how lucky it is that its images will never fade. In fact, the urn is dependent upon the narrator to observe it for all of its life, beauty, or truth. Ironically, the narrator imagines the urn speaking to him "Beauty is truth, truth beauty..." (pg 454, line 49), but in actual fact the nature of the urn can only ever be and throughout the poem only ever is what the narrator attributes to the urn himself. The narrator does not fully explore the implications of the static state of his subjects. The images on the urn are no more capable of appreciating their own timelessness than he will be "When old age shall this generation waste," (pg 454, line 46). In other words, according to the nature of the poem itself these images only possess meaning when they are viewed by living beings. Their "wild ecstasy" is actually the product of the narrator's own mind, which is itself very much alive, attributed to the dead image which it is observing. The beauty which the narrator envies so much is the immortality which he believes he sees, however it is only a mirage which he has painted for himself over a merely stagnant image. Beauty by its definition demands observation in order to exist, therefore beauty cannot exist without time because it cannot be observed without time. In other words, in order to be beautiful at all beauty requires that life also exist. On the other hand, truth, if it is truth, must remain true regardless of whether it is being observed or not. That is to say that, unless the images on the Grecian urn can live and breathe and still be timeless then they cannot represent truth and beauty but only perhaps point the way toward those elements. If the narrator sees truth and beauty converge within a dead and stagnant image then it is only the truth and beauty imposed on it by the imagination of the observer himself. The Grecian urn does not possess the essential element of life that only the observer can provide.
The first two lines of "My Last Duchess" are extremely significant "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive..." (pg 735, lines 1-2). Unlike "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "My Last Duchess" is honest about the fact that the object under observation is dead. In a very real sense, the beauty and truth which inspired the image, the source material of the painting, has been corrupted as it has become dependent upon the perception of the viewer for imparted life because the Duchess herself is dead. In "My Last Duchess" it is not so much that the narrator wanted to preserve the beauty of his last Duchess or to accurately depict the truth about her character as much as he wanted to control it and the way it was perceived. The painting on the wall is not able to contradict his tale about how it was made, why, or the truth about the subject as she was in life. In fact, the painting itself is tailored to pander to his own perceptions and the narrative which he has decided to construct around his Duchess now that she is dead. "My Last Duchess" does not make definitive statements about the moral implications of what the narrator has done one way or the other, but considering the dark tone of the poem the message begins to materialize. The narrator has not simply killed a woman into art he has killed both beauty and truth into art. Who the woman was in life can no longer be directly experienced. Her beauty and the truth about her character are now subject to the control of her widower husband, "...since none puts by, The curtain I have drawn for you, but I" (pg 716, lines 9-10). Just as the Grecian Urn is dependent upon being observed the painting of the Duchess must be observed, and in both cases the observer brings to the image everything he imagines that he finds in the image.
Unless the reader is to take the words of each narrator completely at face value it must be assumed that the interpretation which the narrators create about the images really says more about what the observers want to believe than it does about the images themselves. In the case of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" it's already been established that the narrator is obviously attributing to the images on the urn all of the meaning which he in turn draws from them. In the case of "My Last Duchess" the fact that the narrator controls who looks at her and only allows the painting to be viewed while he is present proves that he is determined to give her an identity after her death by controlling the way her image is viewed and interpreted. The nature of the control in "My Last Duchess" is slightly different from the control in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," because the Duchess was actually alive once. In order to create his version of the truth about the Duchess the narrator must first kill her. That is to say that, in order to see clearly the truth which he has decided is real the narrator must destroy the truth that really is real. In manufacturing his artificial perception of beauty and truth the narrator must kill living beauty and truth first. This is why the images on the Grecian Urn must be static and the Duchess must be dead. After the death of beauty and truth those that killed them expound upon them as if the images they created to represent beauty and truth were real beauty and truth themselves. In reality the images both on the Grecian Urn and of the Duchess are pale reflections of either beauty or truth.
"To an Athlete Dying Young" is also similar to "My Last Duchess" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." "To an Athlete Dying Young" encourages the athlete who passed so soon because he will not outlive his highest achievement, "Now you will not swell the rout, Of lads that wore their honours out," (pg 1135, lines 17-18). "To an Athlete Dying Young" essentially condones the attitude of "My Last Duchess." This is not changed because one death was planned and the other was accidental. The reality of both situations is that the perception and memory, life and identity of both individuals, the athlete and the Duchess, are now subject to and defined by the perceptions and control of other people. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn" this is only slightly less true as the image on the urn itself cannot be altered. However, this distinction is not significant since the painting of the Duchess also cannot be altered and that doesn't change the reality of control and controlled perceptions over her image. Nor do the glories won by the athlete protect him from what people might think or say about him now that he's no longer present to contradict those perceptions. These manipulated perceptions can have negative effects whether the perceptions are positive or negative. In the case of the athlete, or any gloried hero, people may attempt to use that name and legacy to their own ends by leveraging the accomplishments the hero had in life after their death. In other words, the truth about that dead hero is no longer his to decide but will not be imposed upon him according to which truths those observing his legend wish to impose. The athlete who "... won your town the race" (pg 1135, line 1) may have avoided outliving his greatest accomplishment, but the assumption that this was the pinnacle of what he could accomplish in life is condescending not to mention merely a perception which the narrator himself is now imposing upon a person who will never have the chance to contradict him. More than that, it does the athlete no good whether his accomplishment is revered or not when he is dead. The lines which state, "And silence sounds no worse than cheers, After earth has stopped the ears," (pg 1135, lines 15-16) are patently nonsense. The narrator, not being dead himself, cannot have any idea about what the grave is like or whether the silence therein is "no worse than cheers." The narrator is making an assumption about the athlete and what the athlete would have wanted based upon the narrator's own agenda. Now that the athlete is dead he does not have the power to tell the narrator either that silence is worse than cheers or that the athlete would prefer cheers even if silence isn't worse. The narrator is exploiting a young athlete's death to advance his own interpretation of life's realities by imposing the truth he has already decided to believe upon a subject who is no longer capable of contradicting him. The beauty of the athlete's accomplishment is now valued above the truth about the athlete himself. The truth about the athlete himself died with him and it has been replaced by the perceptions of those he left behind.
Each of these three poems, either in fact or in illustration, uses death as a means to bend both truth and beauty to other purposes. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "To an Athlete Dying Young" it is a first person narrator who does the bending. Each of them begins with an object which has no life of its own and each of them projects onto that image the picture which they themselves desire to see. In "My Last Duchess" a third person narrator is observed going through the same process performed in the other two poems. This process depends upon a subject which will not contradict the observer or his predetermined bias. In effect, this process depends upon a subject which is dead. The fact that "My Last Duchess" is written in third person gives the reader much needed perspective on the issue. It is entirely possible, for this reason, that the author is not buying into the process which is utilized by the other two authors. However, even in "My Last Duchess" the process of bending truth and beauty with death is not directly challenged but instead merely observed. Therefore, because no direct challenge of the process exists and because the process plainly occurs both before and after "My Last Duchess" it can only be deduced that this methodology, or attitude or philosophy as the case may be, is not really altered from era to era although it may have been observed and noted in passing. That is to say that, these poets as a group among the eras adhere to a process of killing reality into stagnant and manageable pieces whereby living truth can be reinterpreted by them into whatever they desire, or have already decided, to believe. In summary, beauty is not truth and truth is not beauty. In order for the truth to be true it must remain true whether it is observed and acknowledged or not, but in order for beauty to exist it necessitates observation. Therefore, truth and beauty can only converge in a living being. The truth, the beauty, and the truth that there is beauty all exist simultaneously in life itself. Describing the nature of that convergence is beyond the capacity of this writer at this time. However, this convergence must exist as a consequence of the necessity that death enter before the nature of truth and beauty may be pretended at by the poets and the pale reflections which they have created. The poets of each era have grasped at truth and beauty by imparting life to images of their own creation and failed to either imagine or accept a circumstance where truth, beauty, and life coalesce. In fact, each of the images which have been created have necessitated that death be introduced first so that there will be a need for the narrator to impart life and it is by this artificial necessity which the narrator manufactures that he gains control of truth and beauty and consequently kills truth and beauty along the way.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
by John Keats
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
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
Thy 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.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
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?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
"My Last Duchess"
by Robert Browning
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
"To an Athlete Dying Young"
by A.E. Housman
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.