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3.6: Reading Keats’s “Urn” through the Psychoanalytic Lens

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    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-fringed 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?

    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!

    Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

    Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

    And, happy melodist, unwearièd,

    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 its 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.’


    1. Have your class read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1919;, 1999),
    2. Break up into at least three groups.
    3. Assign each group one critic: Freud, Lacan, or Jung.
    4. Have them discuss ways to apply their theory to the poem.
    5. Have them develop a claim about the poem that uses the theory.
    6. Bring the class back together and have groups present their theories.
    7. Engage in a larger group discussion about psychoanalytic literary criticism.
    8. Now look at the following overview and compare with your class discussion.

    Keats’s “Urn,” as you have discovered, lends itself well to the psychoanalytic perspective. Compare the classroom discussion with some critical applications of psychoanalytic theory to Keats’s poem. Leon Waldoff in Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination (1985), for example, demonstrates how Keats’s loss of family members creates “feelings of separation anxiety,” especially the loss of his mother and brother Tom.Leon Waldoff, Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985). This loss becomes manifest in “an unconscious determinant” that creates key symbols in Keats’s odes, the Grecian urn being an example.Leon Waldoff, Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985). The urn symbolizes, argues Waldoff, an “undying longing for permanence” that symbolizes an “unending quest conducted at the deepest levels of the mind by the silent work of the imagination, which repeatedly seeks to heal an insistent sense of loss and to deal with its more conscious complement—a penetrating awareness of the transience of human life and a concern with philosophical questions raised by that awareness.”Leon Waldoff, Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985).The urn, like the other artifacts in Keats’s odes (nightingale, autumn, melancholy), shows “the fundamental impossibility of controlling imagination and the desire impelling it toward a finer conception of its object.”Leon Waldoff, Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985). Waldoff contends Keats’s melancholia that results from familial loss “provides a structure or context within which the unconscious processes evident in the poetry may be seen to work with cohesion and unity of purpose in the direction they give to the imagination.”Leon Waldoff, Keats and the Silent Work of Imagination (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985). Keats’s life, then, is the key subtext that is the foundation of the odes.

    A Lacanian reading could extend Waldoff’s argument: the poet, unable to regain the lost past, attempts through poetry to fulfill this desire for his mother and brothers. The urn is an object of desire—objet petit a—that acts as a temporary anchoring point for the poet. However, since the poem generates meaning through language, and since language cannot fulfill desire, the urn image ultimately fails to fulfill; it is a “Cold Pastoral.” Keats’s repetition of the word happy in stanza three—“More happy love! more happy, happy love”; “Ah, happy, happy boughs”; “And happy melodist”—reflects the emptiness of language that tries to capture true desire. Happy can only approximate “happiness,” the signified that the poet wishes to convey. In a sense, Keats’s poem attempts to reach the Real to satiate the longing to move from the Symbolic realm that continually frustrates fulfillment.

    Finally, in The Nightingale and the Hawk: A Psychological Study of Keats’s Odes (1964), Katharine M. Wilson provides a Jungian interpretation of the odes. She argues that Keats’s odes are attempts to tap into the archetypal collective unconsciousness, for poetry works by “images…which come from the deeper layers of the poet’s psyche, rather than from his superficial observation, or from his personal unconscious.”Katharine M. Wilson, The Nightingale and the Hawk: A Psychological Study of Keats’s Odes (London: Allen and Unwin, 1964). The odes are Keats’s “quest for the Self.” In “Urn,” in particular, “beauty for Keats was entangled with intimation of the Self”; thus beauty’s “permanence lies in the realm of the psyche.” “The urn is like a frozen archetype,” argues Wilson. “It is a permanent object passed from generation to generation of sorrowing humanity, but has fixed on its objects of beauty.”Katharine M. Wilson, The Nightingale and the Hawk: A Psychological Study of Keats’s Odes(London: Allen and Unwin, 1964). The urn, consequently, as frozen archetype epitomizes truth and beauty that resides in the Self, that Self tapping the larger collective unconscious for its images.

    This page titled 3.6: Reading Keats’s “Urn” through the Psychoanalytic Lens is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.