This essay was written by me in October 2010 for submission on October 22 2010 to my 3rd year Romantic Literature class with Professor Musgrove at the University of Ottawa. Until today (February 19 2011), no one has had access to it except me and my professor. If this paper was submitted to you in 2011 or later in whole or in part, then it was plagiarized.
Also, if you are a student looking for information on this topic, keep in mind that this was submitted by an undergraduate. I am not an expert.
Negative Capability in John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
In his correspondence, John Keats writes of his desire to achieve negative capability in his poetry, that is, at its simplest, to empathize so strongly with others that he completely effaces his own voice from his poems. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Keats avoids personal statements in his narration, choosing to focus on imagery instead of the impact of the imagery, and allows the urn to communicate its message unjudged to create a poem without self-projection or self-interest, achieving negative capability.
While a poet not making use of negative capability may have chosen to use the titular urn as a conduit to explore the emotions said urn evoked in him, the speaker in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” makes no direct personal statements, instead focusing attention on the object itself and the imagery painted on it. Each depicted character on the urn is described in turn and contemplated as a fixed image; the speaker does not project his personality as a living human onto the painted images, but describes them as frozen images, for instance, describing the “bold lover” (17) as incapable of attaining the kiss he approaches. The speaker comes closest to personal involvement as he empathizes with these characters, but even here the focus remains on the image and not on the image’s effect, for instance, the speaker tells the lover that “for ever wilt [he] love, and she be fair” (20).
The poem’s conclusion in the final stanza shifts focus from the images depicted on the urn to the urn itself. A poet not using negative capability may have chosen the final lesson given by the urn to be self-focused, as something that the poet himself has discovered while contemplating the urn; Keats places the final lesson directly in the voice of the urn, as it tells the world “beauty is truth, truth beauty” (49). The speaker is utterly effaced: his contemplation of the urn does not allow inspiration to strike his brain, but instead allows him to selflessly hear the urn’s message. Furthermore, the message is not judged by the speaker. But only reported, placing the urn, rather than the poet, as the ultimate communicator of the poem.
These techniques in culmination create a poem that succeeds in poetic self-effacement, achieving Keats’ ideal of negative capability.
Keats, John. "Ode on a Grecian Urn". The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.