Romantic readings: ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats

by Lynn Roberts
Humans want to know things. They’re as full of ’satiable curtiosity as the Elephant’s Child, and when anything interests them they want to find out all about it – especially if finding out is almost impossible. They want to know exactly who Shakespeare was, and what he thought, and what he had for breakfast, and when they discover the vacuum between the glovemaker’s son and the greatest playwright in the English language, they try to fill it with Christopher Marlow, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Southampton.
Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’ is in this respect rather like Shakespeare. It conjures a solid object from the vasty deep so convincingly, and with such a wealth of detail, and uses what it’s called up not just for itself, but as the basis of other arguments, that we believe in its reality, and want to track it down and see it for ourselves. And when we find an urn-shaped vacuum, we want to fill it with something suitable.
Fortunately, there is a lot of material ready to hand.  The British Museum had been founded in 1753, based on the more than seventy-one thousand objects in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, and opened six years later in the place it still inhabits, although in a rather smaller building. By 1816 it had acquired many more major items, such as the Elgin Marbles; it had also accepted Charles Townley’s collection of antiquities, previously displayed at his house in Park Street, Westminster, where anyone interested could visit them and read his hand-written catalogues.
And in Zoffany’s group portrait of Townley and his friends amongst the classical sculptures in his library, there is an urn, top centre, standing on the library shelves.
This is the Townley Vase (2nd century AD), which had been bought in Italy in 1774. It is pretty big – between 3 ft 5” and 3 ft 6” high (or 1.06 metres) – and carved out of creamy marble. It had been found in pieces in the Villa of the Antonines, which lies on the Appian Way south of Rome, restored, and acquired by Charles Townley for £250 (or about £27,450 if he were buying it now). By 1805 Townley had died, and the Vase was in the collection of the British Museum, ready for Keats to admire its ‘Attic shape… with brede/Of marble men and maidens overwrought,’ in his 1819 ode.
A lot is going on, on the Townley Vase. You can see every side of it here:  It’s carved in quite deep relief, with a Bacchic procession – the god of wine, with his wand or thyrsus, is leading a troupe of men, women, satyrs and leopards in a never-ending circular dance, accompanied by wine jars and torches (but sadly no ‘pipes and timbrels’).
This is the fly in the ointment with such identifications.  There is a lot going on, in a virtuoso evocation of dancing drunken figures, but it doesn’t cover a tenth of what happens on Keats’s Grecian urn. There’s definitely a Bold Lover winning near his goal, and quite a bit of wild ecstasy, but very little else; so, although the British Museum catalogue entry is actually introduced by the last lines of Keats’s first stanza –
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
     What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
     What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? –
this is wishful embroidery over the rest of the entry, which admits that Keats was subject to ‘many different influences, not only the vase’.

The Portland Vase, about AD 5-25, © Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has more strings to its bow, however, and more than one vase. Slightly earlier (1st century AD), and made of a fabulously deep, rich, lapis lazuli-blue glass overlaid with a layer of white glass, the Portland Vase was lent to the museum by the Duke of Portland in 1810.
No-one knows where it was found, as it wasn’t recorded until 1601, but it may also be Roman, and may have been made on the occasion of a marriage. The figures which circle it have been carved with extraordinary skill out of the white glass layer, the dark blue background supplying them with shadows and modelling in a tour de force of intuitive precision. There is also some background here – three trees and a pile of rocks, which at least provides for a ‘leaf-fring’d legend…/In Tempe or the dales of Arcady’, and for ‘forest branches and the trodden weed.
The museum doesn’t commit itself to any Keatsian quotations, but the Portland Vase has also been a candidate for the Grecian urn in its time. It was copied in jasperware by Josiah Wedgwood between 1790 and 1795, which brought the original even more fame.
Wedgwood also copied the Borghese Vase, a 1st century BC Greek marble urn in the Louvre, which has another Bacchic (or rather, Dionysian) procession carved around it in high-relief. This one has pipes and timbrels, or tambourines, too. It’s more likely to have been known to Keats through Wedgwood’s blue-&-white jasper versions than in the origianl, but there were also a great many engravings of all sorts of antiquities around at this time, both in folios for wealthy men and single copies displayed in shop windows.
Looking at these vases now, perhaps it’s almost possible to recapture the sense of awe and mystery which must have hung about their early years in their respective museums, when classical artefacts weren’t available by remote control or mouse click, and when only Grand Tourists and their entourages could visit the places they came from. But it can never be possible to recapture the novelty of such objects working on an imagination like Keats’s, filtered through his sensibility, coloured by his penchant for myth and legend, aware of contemporary interest in archaeology, living in an age when the fashionable style was NeoClassical.
Keat’s Grecian urn is only his; it doesn’t exist anywhere in reality in the way he describes it. He may have melted the British Museum’s vases into the metal of his imagination, but in the end his ability to carve his own urn out of words, metre and rhyme have given us something nearly as tangible and almost as concrete as the Townley and Portland Vases.
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…
[1]Titled everywhere ‘Ode on…’, with the exception of this article by Klaus Hofmann and its ferocious opening.

Lynn Roberts

Lynn Roberts is an art historian specializing in the history of picture frames. Her poetry has been published in a number of magazines; she won the 2009 Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection, and has reached the longlist for the 2011 & 2012 National Poetry Competitions. In 2011 she published Rosa Mundi and Pandora’s Book; her latest collection, A Brush with Poetry (2014) is published by Oversteps Books.