John Keats: Lyric Poem Compared to Narrative Essay

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John Keats: A lyric Poem compared to a narrative one

The poetry of John Keats:

Common themes in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Both poems by John Keats "La Belle Dame sans Merci" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" have a common theme: the transient nature of human desire. The poems reflect common Romantic preoccupations: exotic settings, art, and mysterious powers that serve to underline the limited nature of human love and desire. The ballad romance "La Belle Dame sans Merci" tells the story of a knight who is miserable after being abandoned by his lover, the fabled woman of the title. The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is written in the poet's own voice as he gazes on the work of classical Greek sculpture. The poet compares how reality is always changing and imperfect while art is eternal, including the static, artistic portrayals of the two lovers on the vase.

The poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci" relates the tale of a mysterious, beautiful woman "Full beautiful -- a faery's child" who captivates an Arthurian knight. The poem begins with the nameless speaker (whose gender and relationship with the knight remains unclear) inquire why the main is wandering by himself alone.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

The speaker suggests that the time is winter (symbolizing the death of passion and the misery of the knight) in the series of images he calls up to describe the setting. The knight tells him about the beautiful woman he met. The woman apparently gave herself to the knight completely in an act of love:

I made a garland for her head,

And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;

She looked at me as she did love,

And made sweet moan

However, after the knight is taken to the lady's elfin grotto, he has a terrible dream that various knights, kings, and princes come and warn him that La Belle Dame sans Merci has him in her grasp. The precise evil of the lady is left unspoken in the poem and is unclear, only that the wandering knight is now "alone and palely loitering." The speaker of the poem who questions the knight describes him as haggard, as if the lady's curse is to leave the man with his desire forever unfulfilled, knowing that he will never experience anything as remarkable and lovely as the lady's affections.

The Belle Dame does not do anything specific to the knight, rather by implication it is that she has stolen his manhood from him in some respect. He now seems to have no desire to fight and lives outside of the pale of humanity. Rather than acting as a hero, he walks about depressed and sighing, as if the act of loving the woman has permanently emasculated him. This suggests that desire in general can be dangerous and the person who engages in sexual lust runs the risk of damaging himself in some fundamental and unspecified way. The lady herself is not injured, rather it is the knight who is spent and damaged. The moment of pleasure he has enjoyed with the lady has ruined him for life, just as it has so many other men. This is a reversal of the conventions of some love stories in which the woman is 'ruined' by love by a man.

The meaning of the central metaphor of the poem of the mysterious lady is unclear: is she a metaphor for the transient nature of lust? For the impermanent nature of human love? Or of some kind of spiritual or physical disease? The poem also leaves a number of aspects of the narrative unclear, such as who is the speaker who is probing the knight with questions. The speaker only appears in the first stanzas and gradually retreats in importance as the knight takes over the telling of his own tale. The structure of the poem is a traditional ballad but there is no firm conclusion. Also, the question of what happens to the knight and the lady is an open one, they exist forever as a kind of parable of the dangerous and transient nature of desire. The woman evaporates, the man continues to wander as if neither alive nor dead. He seems to embody the concept of the Romantic, Byronic hero separated from the world because of some 'mark' that is now upon him.

Desire is thus fleeting -- and deadly.
This idea of the transience of human love and desire is also seen in another of Keats' famous poems, that of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Unlike the ballad, however, the ode is clearly narrated in Keats' own voice. Also, it is not on a fantastic subject, set in a fairytale kingdom, but in a real life setting, as the poet actually gazes and reflects upon the real vase. Although the poet engages in fantastic speculation, it is always grounded in the here and now.

In marveling at the eternal static beauty of the figures on the urn, Keats creates a contrast between reality and art, just as "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" creates a contrast between the love of the knight before it is fully consummated (pure bliss) and the aftermath (pure hell). In both poems, reality fades, changes, and dies. The longing of the poet for the life of the figures on the urn suggests that when love is consummated it loses its luster, just as it does in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." But in art, lovers can always be poised at the point of consummation and never lose their passion. What is unseen and unsaid is often more potent, just as the promise of the Belle Dame is much more inviting than the conclusion of the affair. In "Ode on an Grecian Urn," the fact that no one can ever know the melodies played by the characters on the urn makes them sweeter because everyone can fantasize his favorite tune: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on." Also, the lovers will never enjoy one another and their relationship will never change but at least they will never grow old:

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!

These lovers are very much unlike the lovers of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." Because they are static creations on an urn, they will always be in love and the lady will always be young, beautiful, and true. La Belle Dame, although fictional and a fairy, does fade (suggesting her metaphorical nature with real womanhood). This woman cannot. This also suggests a stark contrast between the nature of narrative and art: visual art always locates the narrative in a fixed point in time, so lovers can be eternally beautiful. A story, however, must move forward and may leave the lovers in misery, just as life can do. And even the happiest lovers in real life, unlike lovers in either fiction or art, will eventually die.

The removal from reality is underlined in both poems as both make use of exotic settings: Arthurian England in the case of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and ancient Greece in the case of "Ode to a Grecian Urn." The setting of the medieval ballad is harmonious with the poetic structure and also the fairytale romance. The use of the more formal ode, is commensurate with the structure of the ode to the urn. The urn's shape and what it represents to Keats is also "cold" to him in the sense that it is not affected by the realities of human passion but is frozen in a perfect moment of bliss: "Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!" The pastoral scene is not cold in the sense that is emotionless. It does portray love but to Keats as a human observer it seems cold, despite its beauty, because it does not take into consideration the realities of suffering to be in love, and the fact that lovers in real life will eventually die.

Although the dramatic structure is different in both poems and both share the common theme that it is before passion is consummated that lovers are happy, after this occurs in the real world (which it does not on the urn), then the fallout is almost inevitably tragic, as seen in the ballad. Not all persons experience the same degree of angst as Keats' wandering knight of course, but this is a larger and more dramatic expression of what all lovers feel upon the death of love or the death of the beloved.

Thus, love for….....

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