John Keats

"On Seeing the Elgin Marbles"


If the Augustan era of the Enlightenment looked back to Rome for its models, the Romantics tended to look to ancient Greece.

One of the greatest works of architecture in the world was the Parthenon, the temple that Athens built to Athena Parthenos (Athena the virgin), the goddess the city was named for.  Lord Elgin had brought the marble statues and friezes (a frieze is a carving on a flat piece of marble that is then put on the wall) from Greece to England in 1806.  In 1816 the British Museum bought them.  Greece wants them back, naturally.

He looks at the carvings of the adventures on the gods that are carved on the marble friezes.

The marbles remind him of his on mortality.  They are a memento mori.  They are so ancient compared to his brief time here, yet even they are subject to the decay of time.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Ancient Greece is renowned for its urns & pottery decorated with the beautiful figures.  Keats does not have any particular urn in mind; he combines elements found in many urns and other ancient art.

An urn could be a vase or a box.  It was normally used to hold the ashes of a dead person.  Since Keats is meditating on death and life, permanence and transience, the urn is a fitting object of his meditation.

This poem is an example of ecphrasis.

Ekphrasis is a literary description of a work of art - a frieze, an urn, a temple, a shield.  The earliest and most famous of these is Homer's description of the shield of Achilles (We'll be reading this in the final period).

Unravish'd bride = the urn hasn't been broken but has survived the centuries intact.

Such an urn seems to Keats like something permanent in a constantly changing world.  This urn shows a moment frozen in time.

Stanza 1

Stanza 2

Stanza 3

Stanza 4

Stanza 5

"To Homer" 1778

1  "giant ignorance"  He can't read Homer because he doesn't know Greek.  He has to read Homer in translation.  He liked the translation of George Chapman (see "On First Looking into
Chapman's Homer, p 1770)

2  Cyclades - Greek islands

5  Keats is blind because he can't read Greek.  Homer is widely believed to have been blind.