Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

A Buddhist emptiness inside of John Keats:” Ode on a Grecian Urn

Philip Kaveny

English 276 Pace


Short Paper


A Buddhist emptiness inside of John Keats:” Ode[1] on a Grecian Urn[2]

This paper will carefully examine two prepositions and their positional location mappings within the text of the poem “Ode on Grecian Urn”, focusing on the way   they assist the reader’s narrative construction process in John Keats (1795-1821) Poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. I will argue though on the level Anglo American cultural consciousness the poem has a significant level of fuzzy name recognition[3]. Further it is hard to think of anyone whose soul’s so dead that they that they have not, heard, or uttered the, or perhaps even plagiarized poem’s concluding formulation.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all 

                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Never the less I argue drawing on our limited class room experience, and some telephone and, web based, focus group interviews I have conducted informally. It can be said with some degree of confidence.  The poem’s title is often   miss-recognized as Ode to a Grecian Urn, rather than the correct title “Ode on A Grecian, which then in turn leads the reader to miss-recognize the subject of the poem as the imaginary[4] Urn its self rather than narrative encoded on the urn which is presented to us by the narrator, who is not necessarily the author, as reader response theory suggests.[5] Further, it begs for a further of the reading of a secondary valence for the preposition ‘on’.


The use of the correct title allows for a number approach to the text which enable us to address the empty space inside of fictional Urn to allow for a Buddhists approach to the Imagemapped space inside of the imagined urn which initially assumed to be empty. Yet if one can assume a degree of literary validity  for the application of Schrodinger’s cat paradox  then we can’t  be certain the imagined  Urn on which the Ode narrative is projected is empty . Just at this instant as I write I swear that I hear imagined little cat claws scratching against the inside of the urn, but I cannot be certain unless I break the Urn with my metaphysical sledge hammer[6]

Here what I am saying not that my intention simply to do a retrospective conversion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a Buddhist, aesthetic  (if one can even speak of such a thing)two hundred years after its completion, rather I will use my tectonic theory of literature mentioned later in the paper to say at the time of the generation of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Buddhism was grinding its way into the European cultural experience on a literary level due to the work of British Imperial Orientalist and linguist India Jones (1746-1795).[7]   And some of its formulations as they relate to art and suffering through the  work of continental philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) [8]

This use of a Buddhist-informed aesthetic allows us to contest the apparent manifest content of the image mapped on the imagined surface.[9] We the readers contrast the speaker’s constructed Westernized Hellenized messages of ecstatic suffering with the four noble truths of Buddhism which are as follows: One-The truth of suffering (Dukkha). Two-The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya). Three-The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha). Four-The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga).[10]


For many  my approach  may appear somewhat  disturbingly post and involves evoking my tectonic theory of literature which I have developed over the last forty years [11] However I hope  to use Post Modernism as a master jewel thief might use a watch makers  tools, to break into the vault to take what, I need rather than the wrecking ball that claims all meaning is positional, and no interpretation takes precedence over another, To restate  I will not do as take the tack of my  pagan Viking raider ancestors  who pried  be-jeweled cover off one Lindisfarne Bibles, took them to the pawn shop  and threw the text away[12].


It is useful to ask to conceptualize in terms of mid-twentieth media theorist Marshall McLuhan and think about the Ode on the urn as medium and message.[13]  We might think of the Ode as Message and the Urn then as the Medium, and yet even that can be problematic if we stop for a moment to reflect that in classical times and Urn was a vehicle to carry the ashes of the dead through time. Well into the second decade of the 21st century we of the westernized global elite expended massive amounts of treasure in the selective denial of death, which nevertheless specter haunts our nightmares with the fear of an extended life ending in an extended care facility. Keats is life experience adds a poignancy to his poem in that according to standard sources it was in terms nasty, mean, short, and of course he suffered the brutality of Regency England, even if was somewhat mitigated by sunny Italy which was then a geographic expression rather than a country [14]

Since this is only a short paper we will only be able to engage the title of the poem and a portion of the first stanza and the closing stanza leaving the rest of the poem confident in the portion of the poem we have examined does in fact embody like the one meter section of the hundred meter coastline the macrocosm of “Ode on a Grecian, and a dynamic tension between the west and the Orient which at the time the poem was conceived ,was, being discovered, and at the same time constructed in a manner which perhaps for a couple of generations scholars like Said  have too easily dismissed..

I ask myself: “Who is the ‘still unravished bride of quietness’?” I would suggest the answer is ambiguous. Within the question of who or what is the “unravished bride” rides the force of tectonic continental plates of Anglo-Hellenic literary tradition and a loosely constructed though authentically grounded representation of the British Orientalists.   What this means to me is the entirety of the poem’s narrative is not really a painting on an urn. Rather something more like a rotoscope animation. This in a phenomenological sense was what hit us on each of several trips my wife and I took to the British Museum to view the Elgin Marbles; that there is motion, perhaps even a Heideggerian being towards death, embodied in the narrative, one which not even the evocative beauty of these lines can erase or freeze in time much as the author would wish. One senses this motion on the marbles. The Greeks solved this illustrative problem nearly 23 centuries before Eadweard Muybridge scientifically and photographically solved the four-footed trotter problem for millionaire Leland Sandford in 1878’. : is there any point in the trotting cycle where all four of the horse’s feet were off the ground at once? Eadweard Muybridge proved that the answer was yes. The Greeks got it right and one can see it on the marbles. They got it right without Leland Stanford’s millions and without Eadweard Muybridge’s scientific and photographic instrumentation.[15] What I am saying is time and change are irresistible and even the stone cutter who seeks to fight time with marble[16] loses in the end to the two Buddhist axioms, suffering exists,[17] and everything changes.[18] This is only part one of the paper and if I would stop here it might appear as if I am trying to turn Ode on Grecian Urn against itself or inside out. Far from it. Keats lived and died the life of a great poet, passing away at age twenty-six, the same age as the Doors’ Jim Morrison, the same age at which I went clean and sober, which somehow recast my life. Though I will stop shortly with part one of this paper I feel a need to leave the reader with something which is strangely enough the hybrid philosophy which elsewhere I argue is generated out of an acknowledgement of the inescapable nature of suffering and yet still offers us the consolation of art.


 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! 


Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 

         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; 

And, happy melodist, unwearied, 

         For ever piping songs for ever new; 

More happy love! more happy, happy love! 

         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, 

                For ever panting, and for ever young; 

All breathing human passion far above, 

         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, 

                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 


Who are these coming to the sacrifice? 

         To what green altar, O mysterious priest, 

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, 

         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? 

What little town by river or sea shore, 

         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, 

                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? 

And, little town, thy streets for evermore 

         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell 

                Why thou art desolate, can e’er return. 


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede 

         Of marble men and maidens overwrought, 

With forest branches and the trodden weed; 

         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, to whom thou say’st, 

         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all 

                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[19]








[1] In early use (esp. regarding ancient literature): a poem intended to be sung or one written in a form originally used for sung performance (e.g. the Odes of Pindar, of Horace, etc.).


[2] An earthenware or metal vessel or vase of a rounded or ovaloid form and with a circular base, used by various peoples esp. in former times (notably by the Romans and Greeks) to preserve the ashes of the dead. Hence vaguely used (esp. poet.) for ‘a tomb or sepulchre, the grave’. In frequent use from c1640.

1374   Chaucer Troilus & Criseyde v. 311   The poudre…prey I þe þow take and it conserue in a vessel, þat men clepeþ an vrne, Of gold.



[4] Origin Middle English: from Old French imaginer, from Latin imaginary ‘form an image of, represent’ and imaginari ‘picture to oneself’, both from imago, imagin- ‘image’.




[7] Sir William Jones (1746–1794) Das, N. (2006), ‘[A] Place Among the Hindu Poets’: Orientalism and the Poetry of Sir William Jones (1746–1794). Literature Compass, 3: 1235–1252. doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00388.x






[11] I heard an early versions of the theory from the eminent critic and literary theorist J. Hillis Miller[3]. He presented it a lecture for the UW-Madison Comparative Literature Department in a seminar in 1977. Hillis Miller used the fractal-based metaphor of a single meter on the coastline of Maine embodying, expressing, and reflecting topographic features of a hundred-kilometer section of that same coastline. In the same wa1y, a very small unit of text might reflect the entire contents and structure of a larger work.


[12]JONES-KATZ, GREGORY. “XYZ, or, the ABCs of Deconstruction.” Raritan 36, no. 3 (Winter2017 2017): 54-70. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 8, 2017)






[16] To The Stone-Cutters by Robinson Jeffers: Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated Challengers of oblivion (1920)






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This entry was posted on April 11, 2017 by in Kaveny and tagged , , , , , , .
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