Irreconcilable Differences for Shelley and Keats

The poems "Mont Blanc" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" each focus on the distinguishing characteristics of the mind and the other, which are primarily their mortal and immortal characteristics. Each poem compares the human mind to an external object or force. In Shelley’s poem, the other is represented by nature, specifically the "Everlasting universe of things"(1) and in Keats’ poem the other is a form of art which represents an ideal world. For Shelley the self and the other represent counterparts of a whole, but for Keats they are simply opposite realities, which remain separate, but coexist. Therefore, the two poems represent the self and the other as encompassing two opposite realities, a mortal reality in the case of the self and an immortal reality in the case of the other, the speaker’s become aware of this dual existence through imagination. However, the poets envision very different interactions between the two realities. Shelley, seems determined to fuse the two realities by finding a common source between them, which he calls "Power" (96). For Keats though, the separate realities of the self and the other coexist without any need for reconciliation, and it is enough for him to know that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (49) in some existing reality.

In the first stanza of Shelley’s "Mont Blanc" the other, or the force of nature, is differentiated from the self, or the human mind by its immortal status. Although this force of nature is separate from the mind, it is given an active role in which it influences human thoughts, rendering the mind passive, and may be perceived by the senses and transformed in the mind, rendering the mind an active role:

The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark-now glittering-now reflecting gloom-

Now lending splendor, where form secret springs

  • The source of human thought its tribute brings

    Of waters,- with a sound but half its own,

    Such as a feeble brook will oft assume

    In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,

    Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,

    Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river

  • Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. (1-11)

    The "everlasting universe of things" represents the external, natural world for the speaker, it encompasses all "things" that are "everlasting", which by definition excludes the mortal mind. Nature is described as a force which "flows" through the mind of the speaker, actively influencing his thoughts through his senses which are capable of experiencing nature’s "dark" and "glittering", characteristics. At the same time, the external world plays a passive role, acting like a mirror, "reflecting" the "gloom", which originated in the mind of the speaker. Thus, we may see that for Shelley the human mind is at once passive and active, it receives thoughts from nature through the senses, and it actively transforms those thoughts to create a perception of the external world via the imagination.

    This interaction between the "Everlasting universe of things," and the mind through the senses and imagination shows that the two realities are connected, though they represent the opposing characteristics of mortality and immortality, respectively. We may return to the metaphor of water, which is shared by both the realities of the self and the other, to discover that these separate realities may have a common origin. In the passage quoted above, the mind "brings" "tribute" to the "source of human thought," which comes from "secret springs." The "tribute," which is "Of waters" implies that the "feeble brook" of "human thought" not only has a source, but also a destination, since tributaries flow into larger bodies of water. Similarly, the river, by definition, must also contribute to some greater body of water, and the fact that the speaker deals with the two together suggests that the river and the brook may flow to a common end. It is also possible that the speaker means to suggest that the river and the brook have a common source, since they are both "Of waters" and the "brook" "brings its "tribute" to its "source" "with a sound" that is "half" of the sound it began with. The other half of the sound may be compensated for by the river, which "bursts" and "raves." The mind and "the everlasting universe of things" may be thought of as two halves of a greater whole, the whole, which they may both be flowing into, and the whole source from which they came.

    As the poem progresses, one must keep in mind that the things the speaker is describing were inspired by the natural images he experienced in the Vale of Chamouni, as the title of the poem suggests. This means that the river and brook, which represent the "everlasting universe of things," and the mind respectively, actually exist, and do have a common source, because they both originate in the same vale: "Thus thou, Ravine of Arve-dark, deep Ravine- / [] / Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down / From the ice gulfs that gird his secret throne, / Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame / Of lightning through the tempest; -thou dost lie" (Shelley, 7, 11-14). The "Ravine of Arve" refers to the ravine of the River Arve, the source of which is in the Vale of Chamouni, according to the footnotes. It seems fair to assume that the River Arve is the same "river," which represented the "Everlasting universe of things" in the first stanza of the poem. It also seems fair to assume that the brook flows through the vale described as well, although not with the same "Power in likeness of the Arve." If it is true that the brook also comes from the vale and flows near the river, we may assume that their common source is not only the location of the vale, but from the "ice gulfs." This common source of glacial ice probably originates on Mount Blanc, since this mountain is the subject of the poem, and may be the "secret throne," from which the river comes "Bursting" "like the flame of lightning through the tempest." This powerful description of the river, parallels the description of what we can now be sure is the same river Arve in the first stanza. However, now the river has "Power" that is "in likeness" of something that is unnamed.

    At the end of the poem, this common source of "human thought" and "Everlasting universe of things" is named by the speaker, who has been trying to identify a common ground to reconcile the opposites of immortal and mortal which coexist in the universe. Just as the brook represented "human thought," and the river represented the "everlasting universe of things," the "secret" "source" from which they "spring" is Mont Blanc, which represents a God-like power: "Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: -the power is there, / [] / [Mont Blanc is] The secret Strength of things / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee" (Shelley, 127, 139-41). The "secret Strength of things Which governs thought" and "Of Heaven is as law" is clearly Mont Blanc according to the speaker. Clearly, the mountain is meant to represent a God-like power, because it is "as law" to "Heaven," and it has power over both the mind and nature. Thus the speaker of the poem has succeeded in identifying a common link between the self and the other, and creating a vision of a powerful, and reconciling force in the universe.

    In the first stanza of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the self belongs to a mortal, earthly reality, as does the self in "Mont Blanc," which we have found is connected to the other by the common source of power, discussed above. However, in the ode, the source of the self and the other is not an issue, and the other is not an immortal representation of nature, as it is in "Mont Blanc," but it is an ethereal, ideal reality represented by a work of art. The poem begins with a description of an urn, as a "Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme" (3-4). Because "Sylvan" refers to a deity, the urn clearly belongs to an immortal, and unearthly world, which we may infer is ideal, and which somehow enables it to tell a "flowery tale" better than the speaker and his fellow poets who attempt to do the same with their "rhyme." We may see that there is a distinction between the immortal world of the urn and the world of the poet, who describes the urn from an objective point of view in the first stanza. He does not know the identities of the "men or gods" (8), who exist in the ideal locations of "Tempe" and "Arcady" (7), and who know of the ideal beauty and happiness, which they represent, and the speaker, thus far does not comprehend them.

    As the ode progresses, the speaker’s reality, which has been defined above as immortal and earthly, becomes that of the reality of the urn, which is a world of ideal truths, where the speaker discovers that the beauty he did not understand before is truth in the ideal world. Although the speaker’s reality in the "Ode" has changed, there is nothing that suggests that the speaker actively attempted to access, or even passively accept this secondary reality, as we found the speaker in "Mont Blanc" doing. Instead it seems that the speaker’s ability to imagine the reality of the urn through negative capability has allowed him to be part of that reality. One must have the capacity to let go of the restrictions of the transitory world to find that: "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" (11-14). The speaker is able to temporarily forget the rules, which have governed him in his mortal world, and comprehend that there are "melodies" which are "heard" and "unheard" in this new reality. These are "melodies" of the mortal world where the senses represent truth for many people, and "melodies" of the immortal world where there are songs that are played "Not to the sensual ear," but to the "spirit," which needs "no tone." We may infer that the "melodies," which are "unheard" "Are sweeter" because they are beautiful in a truer sense than they are in the mortal world. For the speaker, they are the embodiment of the knowledge, that "truth is beauty, beauty truth" (49), which in the ideal world, does not need to be filtered through the senses, but can move directly into the mind. The speaker finds these truths all around him in the reality of the urn, and he is able to access them through his imagination, by accepting that opposites coexist, and are irreconcilable, as he saw with the "melodies."

    The speaker finds that in this ideal reality everything is immortal because time is not linear in the world of the urn; it is stationary. Since the beauty of love, and melodies are unchanging in the ideal world, they are eternal and therefore may be equated with truths:

  • 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. (Keats, 21-30)

  • The "happy boughs cannot shed their leaves" because the state of "spring" in the ideal world is unchanging, because time does not exist, so the "happy melodist" will play his pipe "For ever" without tiring. "Love" will also remain "happy" and "warm," the lovers, being "for ever young." Thus the members of the ideal reality of the urn will always remain as they are, and this is why there are truths in this world; because none can change, in order to deceive the original beauty they represented. Thus, the speaker understands that the immortals on the urn leave "human passion" behind, "sorrow[]" does not apply to their world, nor does any other emotion except "happy love."

    However, just as the speaker becomes aware of the truth in beauty of love and life in the ideal world, he leaves behind his temporary coexistence with the ideal reality of the urn. He finds that he cannot completely abandon his own world and its boundaries and rules. He applies his mortal concerns to the world of the urn, when he wonders about the "town" which has been abandoned in stanza four. He realizes that once he has questioned the world of the urn and applied human feelings and characteristics to it such as "peaceful" (Keats, 36) and "pious" (Keats, 37), he cannot return to it. But he seems content to know that: "When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou (the urn) shalt remain, in midst of other woe, / Than ours, a friend of man, to whom thou say’st, ‘Beauty is truth and truth beauty’" (Keats, 46-49). This, he claims is all anyone on earth may know, and it is all that they will need to know (Keats, 50). For the speaker the knowledge that in some reality there exists beauty in truth is enough for him to know, and is maybe all there is to know. He seems to be satisfied to believe that the two realities of the mortal self and the immortal other coexist, he finds no need to reconcile them. For him art represents an ideal, which is created by the imagination, which will forever maintain that "beauty is truth" and will "remain" like the urn, even after he and his "generation" have "waste[d]."

    Shelley’s "Mont Blanc" and Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are excellent representations of the different visions of the imagination in the Romantic period. Shelley’s poem represents the point of view that the mind and nature represent two opposing components of the universe, which he feels the need to reconcile by finding a higher, common source for the two. Keats’ poem represents the point of view that there are opposites in the universe, which do not need to be reconciled, but can perhaps be better understood through negative capability.







    Works Cited

    Keats, John. "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Mellor and Matlak 1297-1298.

    Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Mont Blanc." Mellor and Matlak 1063-1064.

    Mellor, Anne K., and richard Matlak, eds. British Literature 1780-1830. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996.