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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Foster-child of silence and slow time (Keats)

41. Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819)
John Keats


1.

THOU still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

2.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
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!

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.


Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence, 1994 :
Plenitude — experiencing all the space as filled, so that ideas cannot enter — means impenetrability, opaqueness. For a person to become silent is to become opaque for the other; somebody's silence opens up an array of possibilities for interpreting that silence, for imputing speech to it.
The ways in which this opaqueness induces anxiety, spiritual vertigo, is the theme of Bergman's Persona. The theme is reinforced by the two principal attributions one is invited to make of the actress' deliberate silence. Considered as a decision relating to herself, it is apparently the way she has chosen to give form to the wish for ethical purity; but it is also, as behavior, a means of power, a species of sadism, a virtually inviolable position of strength from which to manipulate and confound her nurse-companion, who is charged with the burden of talking.
But it's possible to conceive of the opaqueness of silence more positively, free from anxiety. For Keats, the silence of the Grecian urn is a locus for spiritual nourishment: "unheard" melodies endure, whereas those that pipe to "the sensual ear" decay. Silence is equated with arresting time ("slow time"). One can stare endlessly at the Grecian urn. Eternity, in the argument of Keats' poem, is the only interesting stimulus to thought and also presents us with the sole occasion for coming to the end of mental activity, which means endless, unanswered questions ("Thou, silent form, cost tease us out of thought/As cloth eternity"), so that one can arrive at a final equation of ideas ("Beauty is truth, truth beauty") which is both absolutely vacuous and completely full. Keats' poem quite logically ends in a statement that will seem, if one hasn't followed his argument, like empty wisdom, like banality. Time, or history, becomes the medium of definite, determinate thought. The silence of eternity prepares for a thought beyond thought, which must appear from the perspective of traditional thinking and the familiar uses of the mind as no thought at all — though it may rather be an emblem of new, "difficult" thinking.

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