John Keats: Exemplar Analysis

How are themes of transience and eternity presented in Keats’ poetry?


Immortality and transience are both intrinsic elements to Keats’ poetry both ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. They are simultaneously sought after and championed despite the duality they demonstrate on the spectrum of experience. Both Odes, in this form, offer an apostrophe in exultation to their subject: “Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!” and “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.” This exemplifies the apolitical qualities of both poems – the focus instead remains on the idealistic and beautiful: “beauty is truth…that is all ye know on earth” which remains as eternal as a work of art or a birdsong. The natural innocence of a birdsong is mirrored in the “unravish’d bride” the urn is personified as; both highlighting eternity in the natural “sylvan” beauty. Keats’ deliberate choice in subject offers a traditional idealism typical of Romantics such as Wordsworth but veers away from the political social critiques encapsulated in William Blake’s verse. Art and beauty as objects of the immortal are central to Keats’ presentation of transience and eternity in his poetry. Whilst things such as human existence can be more beautiful in their brevity, there is a power is imbued in Nature that “was heard in ancient days” as well as moving “beyond to-morrow”.


Through his self-same coined concept of ‘negative capability’, Keats further demonstrates the beauty in unfamiliar or mysterious circumstances which often leave the subject without clarity: “was it a vision or a waking dream?”. In highlighting the beauty in fleeting uncertainty, Keats draws on the spiritual sublime of imagination:

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter; … not to the sensual ear but more endear’d”

Both ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ present moments of deep introspection and elevation of the natural. These moments are fleeting and yet extended, ephemeral and yet eternal, reiterating the dichotomy of these antagonistic qualities and Keats’ acceptance of both. This submission to the sublime and the power of nature is a common trope in Romantic poetry and whilst cyclical, Nature is often depicted as the sublime and eternal “for ever panting, and for ever young”. Beauty lies both in the brevity of experience for Keats: “Adieu! Adieu! They plaintive anthem fades” but also in the sublime enormity of Nature in a continuous cycle of rebirth . This is further exemplified in the Nightingale’s song as it does not end rather goes out of earshot “now ‘tis buried deep in the next valley-glades”. Exulting the sensual art and music; appreciating the eternity of the song yet feeling “fancy cannot cheat so well” highlights the inherent celebration of the sublime over the logical and thus the negative capability in both the transience and eternity of the two experiences.


Undoubtedly Keats celebrates the immortality and exuberance depicted on the “Attic shape” of the Grecian urn and sonorous melody of the “Darkling” however, this is tempered with depictions of being frozen in time and in the same sentence: “for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death.” Keats marks the beauty and endurance of these two subjects whilst highlighting the morbid sublime that “now more than ever it seems it rich to die.” The imagery of forlorn incompletion is mirrored in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’  for the “bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss”  and “thy streets be silent evermore will silent be; and not a soul to tell”. This illustrates a level of entrapment within the beauty of the vase, a silence and melancholy underscored by the assonance of these lines which slows the pace considerably and echoes of the lack of fulfilment. This constant juxtaposition in both poems of the ‘Janus’ qualities in transience and eternity are redolent of Keats’ own struggle with impending mortality. Written in 1819, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ depicts a momento mori for Keats knew he was also dying of tuberculosis. Both ekphrastic poems imply entrapment within the permanence of art. The extensive questioning in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’: “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? … What wild ecstasy?” is in contrast with the frozen art. The drowsiness of the “hemlock I had drunk… oh draught of vintage” in the “deep-delved earth” and “verdurous glooms…embalmed darkness” similarly depict an “easeful Death [and] quiet breath” as nature encases the subject. Keats symbolises a readiness and acceptance of his own transience highlights how he “might drink, and leave the world unseen” to euphemistically “fade away”. Yet the timelessness of his “poesy” becomes like the Nightingale or Urn to immortalise him.


Ultimately, Keats depiction of transience and eternity reflects his own mortality; the sublime and beauty in Nature. This permanence is accentuated in the homostrophic stanzas with regular ABAB, CDDECDDE rhyme schemes and the use of iambic pentameter to complement the natural and consistent beating of the heart. Structure becomes a powerful tool to highlight the inexorable march of time and incongruously, extending and lengthening the vowels with assonance and anaphoric “for ever[s]” to still the “wild ecstasy” into a “Cold Pastoral”.

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