The Greek term ekphrasis seems rather exotic if you rarely encounter it, but it refers to an act that we have all engaged in at one time or another: that is, describing a work of art. The best ekphrases make this description as vivid as possible, to the point that it becomes a work of art in itself. The English language offers no better-known example of ekphrastic poetry than John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” of 1819, which succeeds in the trick of taking both its subject and genre from the same ancient culture. – among other virtues, of course, several of which are explained by Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in his new video above, “How John Keats Writes a Poem”.
Puschak calls “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “arguably the finest poem by the finest romantic poet,” then launches into a line-by-line exegesis, identifying the techniques Keats employed in its construction. “The speaker aspires to the ideal and eternal love represented and symbolized by the urn,” he says. “But the way he speaks – well, it’s almost embarrassing, even hysterical, feverish.”
Keats uses compulsive repetition of words like thrilled And for all time to “communicate something about the speaker that goes against his words. It reminds me of those times when you hear someone emphasizing how happy they are, but you know they’re just trying to make that fact exist by saying it.
During the poem, “the speaker begins to doubt his own desires for the permanence of art. Is it really as perfect as he imagines? All along, “he turned to the urn, to art, to quell his despair in the face of life”, a task at which he ultimately proves not quite up to it. “In life, things change and fade, but they are real. In art, things may be eternal, but they are lifeless. The famous closing lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” come to the conclusion that “beauty is truth, truth is beauty”, and how much of a literal interpretation to give it remains a matter of debate. It may not really be all we know on Earth, or even all we need to know, but the fact that we are still discussing it two centuries later is a testament to the power of art – as well as the power of art. about art.
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Based in Seoul, Hake MArshall writes and broadcaststs about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city books, the book The City Without a State: A Walk through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.