Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ode on a Grecian Urn

In 1819 the Romantic poet John Keats produced a series of poems (Odes) including, Ode on a Grecian Urn. This poem for me captures the ever present core of what I suppose I could call 'romantic' humanity, which is concentrated in the first two lines of the second stanza: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." How often can you relate to this sentiment in your own life? When has the expectation of a realization filled you so much more than that realization actualized? In the very heart of our natural existence, we seek those sweet melodies intangible, yet grasping everything they could be. The grecian urn is a practical image of these melodies, arrested in eternity serving the ultimate aspiration, "not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd." The poem makes examples of this glorified suspended expectation in the image of a tree "that cannot shed [its] leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;" of youth never abating; a musician eternally about to continue his melody in frozen time. This is as much as anything the human condition, a sad, half-reality. A quarter-reality. An infinitesimal reality, devoid of everything but one thing that life should be- that life is. In fact, this is rather horrifying if you think about it. Expectations then replace the outcomes in a life so precious, and a journey so intimate, that existence should be about. But then again, is it really about either? Outcomes or expectations? I think instead, it should be about the conversation. A dynamic intercourse of give and take, grow and cut, invent and evolve: a love that cannot be bested by its anticipation but only ever is the sustaining quality of truth sought and gained. Keats finishes his poem with this statement:

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.'

Dear God, I hope not. Beauty is not truth inherent, but truth is beautiful. I will give you that. Truth to me is an incredibly beautiful thing, and it is a thing I search out always. It is not, however, a realization lightened by the gravity of my search, or an achievement enervated by my presumption. It is exactly what it is and a glory I can share with my Creator, like all things He sets before me. To be stilled in the act of pursuit of a single note in an eternal symphony is not a beautiful truth extricated from a misunderstanding of existence, and it is certainly not a gift. It is a damnation of the purpose Yahweh has set for you; that compositional masterpiece more passionate and incredible than anything comprehendible. Expectation lies, and expectation takes. Expecting things is natural, and in many cases is an intelligent and completely useful tool of the human intellect. It has its place. Don't let it take the place of anything else. This has been a lesson learned over and over again for myself, and I continue to battle my expectations and their attempt to usurp the places of ascension and achievement and promise and circumstances of my life.
     John Keats passed away four years after these publications at the age of 25 from tuberculosis. In a way, I can almost see this as grace. I can see a truth in the Psalm that says "hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life." When my heart is aligned, Yahweh has a galaxy of forests intended for me, each tree a tree of life.


  1. Beautiful post! The way you make sense of complex ideas (at least I find them complicated) is truly amazing. I myself have found that expectations can have negative effects. Truth is always better.

  2. I can say ditto to valpos post - you have made sense of something I knew to be true but couldn never have articulated like you did. It is so wonderful read - kind of exhilerating really to be able to see in words something I so strongly feel to be true - thank you Donjon - you are amazing!