Truth and Beauty of Passing Time Neglect, death, and immortality are powerful themes of not only Romantic poets, but poets throughout every age of history. Countless works of poetry dwell on the seemingly inconsequential passing of life, while still more endeavor to discover something so significant that it can entrench itself into the folds of history as truly immortal. Two Romantic poems that engage wonderfully with these themes are Percy Bysshe Shelleys “Ozymandias” and John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
Although they take opposite approaches–shelley uses “Ozymandias” to express the mutability of ife, while Keats uses the Urn to show that art can be timeless–both poems revolve around an object struggling against the passing of time. Both “Ozymandias” and “Ode on a Grecian urn” exemplify the struggle with the passing of time, and although the two poems appear to have opposite approaches to the subject, each can be read with a second interpretation that shows the two are actually extremely similar. Ode on a Grecian Urn” beautiful captures the frozen state of the characters painted on the urn. The speaker is entirely enamored by the beauty of the scene. He peaks to each scene as he moves from subject to subject, becoming ever increasingly overwhelmed by the serenity of the Urn, “What leaf-fringd legend haunts about thy shape / of deities or mortals, or of both, What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? ” (Keats Lines 5-9).
He focuses in on a single motionless piper, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on” (Keats 11-12), and then moves to a youth who is nearly about to kiss his love, “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal–yet, do not rieve; / She cannot fade” (Keats 18-19). In both pictures the speaker dwells on the apparent immortality of the piper and girl, telling the youth “not to grieve” because his lover will never age.
This line, and in fact the entire second stanza, ends with an exclamation mark, signifying the confidence of the statement not to grieve, “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! ” (Keats 20). In addition to being one of only two exclamation marks used at the end of a sentence–meaning exclamations such as “more happy love! ” are a different use of an exclamation mark–it is also the only time stanza ends with an exclamation. This likely signifies how the Youth’s frozen beauty stands as the most important symbol of the urn. A more cynical interpretation, however, says the Youth should grieve.
To be frozen Just out of reach of a lovers kiss is actually quite tragic. The exclamation mark may be the extra emphasis needed to persuade the Youth not to grieve, masking the truth of his sorrowful position, or even more dramatically, hiding the truth that the urn on which he exists will certainly not last forever. This paradoxical understanding of the sad nature of the painted fgures, hen compared to the more standard view that the figures are frozen immortally in time, can be said about the Piper that comes before and the little town that follows.
All three appear at first to be suspended in splendor, but it is equally possible to interpret their position as profoundly sad. The central tone of the poem first appears to be excited wonder. The dominant use of exclamations and questions shows this. Ten question marks are used, most of which appear in the first part of the poem– exclamations within the poem are centered around the middle of the poem. This akes sense in the normal interpretation: the speaker is intrigued by the urn, asking many questions about it and gets more excited the more he sees.
He then begins to understand the significance of the piece, finishing with a definite and absolute ending punctuation, a period, along with the grand conclusion, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’–that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. ” (Keats 49-50). Upon closer reading, the second interpretation from before begins to reveal itself. Despite existing as immortal figures suspended in time, the paintings still live upon the urn. It is true that the figures have, and will continue, to outlive those that view it.
The progression from this second perspective almost surpasses the progression from the normal reading. Again, the speaker has an acute fascination with the urn, expressed by the many question marks, but as he inquires about the pictures he begins to realize that the fgures on the urn should grieve the inability to ever progress through time. The abundant use of exclamations as the poem moves on is indicative of the speaker’s attempt to hide the truth he is realizing. The last lines of the poem also make sense when read this way.
At the beginning of the 5th stanza, he says, “When old age shall this generation waste, thou shalt remain” (Keats 46), which tells of the urn’s longevity. However the last line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” says two things simultaneously. First it expresses the truth that all things pass away, showing that even the urn cannot exist for all of eternity. Second, it is a recognition that the “truth” of the urn, that all things eventually cease to exist, is also the most beautiful element of the urn.
The Grecian Urn shows the speaker that existing in a frozen state of bliss is in fact not wonderful. It shows him that the passing of time, and with it all things, is the truth and the beauty of life, it is “all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ (Keats 51). A poem that beautifully captures this explanation is Percy Shelleys “Ozymandias. ” It is far shorter than “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which mirrors the scarcity of existence within the poem. It is a short poem that speaks of a short life. Also, the poem is primarily quoted by the speaker, “l met a traveler from an antique and / who said.. ” (Shelley Line 1), which further removes the poem from the concreteness of reality; it is entirely possible that the statue has never existed at all. The speaker, and the readers of the poem, are only heard about the statue as a secondary source. He did not actually see the statue, and obviously the readers have never seen it as well. To further emphasize the transient nature of the statue, there exists an ellipsis in the center of the third line, “Stand in the desart…. Near them on the sand” (Shelley 3).
The ellipsis shows that the portrayal of the statue is only being partially told to the reader; there is more told to the speaker by the traveler that is simply left out. Like the statue itself, only pieces of the story remain. The central body of both have been lost, “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies” (Shelley 4). The poem centers around a great statue raised to commemorate the life of the long past Pharaoh Ozymandias, who not is but a shadow of the both the original statue but also of the Pharaoh and the kingdom of Egypt as it existed at the time the statue was erected.
Unlike “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ozymandias” has no uses of question marks. It is not an inquisitive poem, there is no sense of “excited wonder” as described before for the urn. Instead it is a poem of resigned realization, “Nothing shows the subdued feeling of the poem. The poem ends with a resigned realization that, “Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away’ (Shelley 13-14). This is a line that explicitly shows the barren nature of the desert in which the remains of the statue lay, but it also comments on the “boundless nd bare” nature of life.
Like the second reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” this poem is content with the passing of time; death, decay, and neglect are understood as the prevailing power, along with truth, of life. No matter what is built, or written, or painted, time is a master of all elements of life, this is the truth explicitly stated in both poems. Yet, there is still some wonder to be found in the language of “Ozymandias. ” In the same manner of the two possible readings of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” there are two readings within “Ozymandias. The first, as Just shown, is a omber tone of resigned realization, but it is possible to find moments of grandeur within the poem; it can be read in a similar way to the first reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn. ” Most immediately obvious is the fact that we, the readers, are being told this story of Ozymandias’ statue. There are many small and insignificant things in life, almost all of which are completely ignored. Rocks erode into sand, sun bleaches our clothes, and bad art is specifically avoided. Yet this poem takes the readers to a very specific monument.
Clearly we were meant to focus on the boundless and bare” element of the poem, Ozymandias would not even need to be included. A blank page of paper would do a far better Job expressing the “boundless and bare” truth about life. Instead the poem takes us to a statue, to a story, of a time before. We, the speaker and the reader, think of the wonder of the time that has passed. If the speaker did not, then he would not recount the story told to him by the traveler. Furthermore, despite the statue of Ozymandias existing as a broken and mangled form of what it used to be, it does still exist.
It has survived through the ages, and like he Grecian urn, it will likely survive far past the life spans of those who have seen it. Even if the statute fully and thoroughly erodes away, the traveler has, through his stories, given the statue life. This life has the ability to surpass the destruction of matter, and can grow through the minds of those that hear it; this poem itself gives the statue life. There is something wistfully powerful about the story. It is a story that tells of death and erosion, but also a story the tells of greatness. The passing of life is accompanied by the brute stubbornness of humanity to exist past death.
Ozymandias has successfully done that, as has Keats and Shelley. As long as humanity survives as a species the three of them will live on forever, along with the Grecian urn and the statue of Ozymandias. Both “Ozymandias” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” contain a more in-depth, and partially opposite reading than the common first glance interpretation. Although the two first glance interpretations appear to be opposite one another, in actuality they are very similar poems that attempt to understand the truth and beauty of the relentless passing of time.