The Union of Mind and Object
Comparing Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and Shelleys, "Mont Blanc," one discovers what at first seems to be two contrary representations of the facilities of the imagination in exchanges between the self and the world of things and/or nature. "Mont Blanc" seems to rely on the "powers"(ln 96) of the natural world, symbolized by the mountain, to achieve visions of imaginative creativity, and "Ode to a Grecian Urn," on those of the minds own independent creativity. Yet, under the contrasting surfaces, both poems in fact describe an imagination that plays essentially the same role in the creation of images perceived by the mind. Shelleys poem establishes the minds activity as a force that can only achieve true visions of imaginative creativity through a union with the objective world. This poem declares that it is not just the mind, but the minds interaction with the "universe of things"(1) that stimulates the imagination; thus establishing the necessity of a interdependent relationship. Keatss poem reaffirms this claim. This poem is an ode to an urn, a round form, which, like its shape, excludes the possibility of broader creative stimulation. As "Mont Blanc" evidences, the minds ability to achieve creativity is a result of the union of the objective and subjective at a place where the mind actively engages in observation of a dynamic external world. The Ode shows the minds failure to achieve any sort of creativity through observation of a static, self-encompassing object and its own wild musings. Hence, both poems show that true imaginative creativity is not found simply through the solitary workings of the mind, nor through the minds passive reception of the world of things, but in a place where the two actively meet, where the mind and the world of things act both as lenders and mirrors to the presence of each other.
The first stanza of "Mont Blanc," under a layer of metaphor, establishes the interdependent roles of mind and object necessary to attain any imaginative form of human thought. The poem begins, "The everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves"(1-2). The "universe of things," the world of objects, is compared to a river that flows through the mind. The phrase "rolls its rapid waves" emphasizes that the "universe of things" has its own vitality. It sends its "rapid waves" rolling through the mind, waves that can not be fully tamed by the mind and that insist that the mind is not the sole actor in creating thoughts/images.
As the "universe of things" is not a passive player in the creation of thoughts, neither is the mind a passive receptor. The following lines describe the "waves" that flow through the mind: "Now dark now glittering now reflecting gloom--/ Now lending splendour "(3-4). The river of objects, the external world, is not simply perceived as something sometimes "dark," sometimes "glittering" because this is its actual state. Instead, this "dark[ness]" discerned by the human mind is a "reflect[ed] gloom," a characteristic of the mind coloring its observations of the outer world. In contrast, yet as evidence to the same state of interdependence of mind and object, the "glittering" which the mind discerns is a perceived state initiated by the external world. The "glittering" is a "len[t] splendour," a something from the external world, something created beyond the influence of the mind. Though the external world may reflect the gloom of the mind, the mind is not the solitary actor in thought's creation, for the external world is also capable of shaping the images in the mind. In these lines both the mind and the external world are described as playing an active role. In the creation of what is perceived by the mind, neither the mind nor the world of objects plays a dominant or independent role in forming the creative images of the mind, but they act codependently.
The metaphor of the external world as a river that passes through the mind is a tool to understand the mutually dependent relationship of mind and objects in creating impressions on the mind; another metaphor, that of the mind as a ravine (through which the river flows) further develops an understanding of this interdependent relationship. The river Arve, named in the beginning of the second stanza, flows through a "dark, deep Ravine"(12). As the first stanza established, the mind is that which the "river" of "things" flows through, hence the "Ravine of Arve"(12) is to be understood as a metaphor for the mind. The noise of the river (the world of objects) is described as having a "sound but half its own"(6). Such a description is further insistence that though the river makes its own noise, this noise is not fully its own, it is colored by another dynamic, the existence of the ravine, a "many-colourd, many-voiced vale"(13). Yet the ravine can still not be seen as the dominant force, for the metaphors of ravine and river are of a fundamentally codependent relationship. A "ravine" is a valley, "a deep narrow hollow or gorge properly one worn by a torrent"(OED). Although it may seem that the ravine, the mind, is that which guides the river, instead it is the river that carved the ravine. The two collaborate in a way that requires each side to sacrifice a portion of their independence to the other. Only in this place where they meet do they exist as river and ravine. Likewise, only at a place where the mind allows the "universe of things" to "roll its rapid waves" through its very core and the world of objects, in turn, allows the mind to reflect some of itself onto the external world, can visions of imaginative creativity be wrought. Here the mind is at once the vessel and the creator and the external world is at once the initiator and the tamed; they are fully codependent, a state that is necessary for the mind to function to its full imaginative capacity.
Having established the necessity of a reciprocal relationship between subjective and objective realities for full creativity, the poem goes on to provide an example of the limits of the minds imaginative capabilities when separated from the objective world. Consistent with the established ideas, this vision is nothing but one of emptiness and vain striving. The speaker says he muses on his "own separate fantasy," his solitary human mind "which passively/ now renders and receives fast influencings, / holding an unremitting interchange/ with the clear universe of things around"(36-40). Though there is an interaction with the objective world, the fact that this is a "passiv[e]" exchange, rather than an interactive, interdependent one is a signal that this can not be an instance of true creativity. The fulfillment of this interdependent relationship requires that the mind's musings and the observation of the external world meet in a state where both are active. If the mind is "passiv[e]" during this interchange, it has missed its chance, the river flows on. The stanza continues, referring to the products of this passive exchange as "one legion of wild thoughts." They are such precisely because of this passivity.
The following lines show that such thoughts can not later be molded by the mind into something meaningful. The "wild thoughts" are describe are traveling on "wandering wings" that "now float above thy darkness, and now rest /In the still cave of the witch Poesy"(41-44). These thoughts "float above thy darkness" or hide in its farthest recesses, in a cave. The "thy" refers to the ravine, which has been established as a metaphor for the mind. Thus, the "wild thoughts" are untamed by the mind, floating above it, or slinking into the "cave of the witch Poesy." The thoughts floating above are out of reach; and thus are useless as means to initiating worthy imaginative visions.
The mind is unable to harness some of the wild thoughts, and the others, in the "cave of the witch Poesy," though the imagination is able to make use of them they produce nothing better than phantoms of what could have been. This cave can be seen to symbolizes a mind attempting to initiate its own imagination beyond the objective world. It is "the cave of the witch Poesy"(44). "Poesy" means poetry, but it also refers to the creative act itself. With such an understanding one can envision the "witch" of "Poesy" hiding in the darkness of a cave, attempting to capture that of the objective world that is necessary for the creation of "Poesy" or any creative imaginings. The word "witch" gives the image a fully negative connotation, as though the creative act (of the mind alone) is as a witch bending over her boiling cauldron attempting to conjure up imaginative visions. This leads into the following lines which show that the minds "separate fantasy" do not, in fact, yield any pure imaginative thoughts, rather, it produces naught but ghostly apparitions, definitely not the ideal product of the minds imaginative powers: "Seeking among the shadows that pass by/ Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee, /Some phantom, some faint image"(41-47). Here "thee" refers to the ravine, this time symbolic of simply the external, objective world. Following a passive interchange with the "clear universe of things"(40) the mind attempts, later, in the recesses of a cave, to make use of the interaction, but it achieves nothing but "shadows," "ghosts," and "phantoms" of the objective world. In seeking to be an independent force that can harness, whenever it wishes, mere remembrances of the objective world and create imaginative visions, the mind is left with nothing but a "faint image," the "ghost" of what is. Thus it is shown that an attempts to create visions, even with the powers of the "witch Poesy," will not succeed fully unless done as an dynamic interchange where the mind and the object(s) are at once present and active.
As the lines from "Mont Blanc" that considered the failure of a mind attempting to build imaginative visions from mere thoughts extracted from the objective world, so Keats's ode also shows the minds failure to reach imaginative truth when it relies on naught but its own activity. As "Mount Blanc" declares, the creation of thoughts relies on the dynamic interaction of the objective and subjective realms, and when there is an absence of either the process fails or leads to merely the "faint image" of what could be.
The previous example shows that the mind can not be passive in its interaction with the objective world, and Keatss, "Ode to a Grecian Urn," shows that the external world must also be active in this interchange in order to achieve imaginative creativity. As such a state comes through an interaction, a codependence of object and mind, one may guess, even before once reading Keatss, "Ode to a Grecian Urn," that it is doomed to fail in this sense. A "Grecian urn" is not only a motionless object, but it is at once a static representation of what has long been ancient history, and, as urns are commonly used to preserve the ashes of the dead, it is also a symbol of death. As the Ode evidences, the minds attempts to interact with such an unmoving scene lead only to contrived images and frustration. In contrast to the image of an "everlasting universe of things" that flows as a river from the distant glaciers of Mt. Blanc, in "ceaseless motion"(32) and "unresting sound"(33), bursting through the mind as a "flame of /lightning through a tempest"(18-19), and traveling on to the vast oceans, the urn is motionless and self-contained.
In the "cave of the witch Poesy"(Shelley, 44) the minds "wild thoughts"(41) attempted to harness the "shadows"(45) of things and thus stimulate the imagination; in the same way, the speaker of "Ode to a Grecian Urn" attempts, with "mad pursuit" and "wild ecstasy" to employ the static tracings on an urn in order to stimulate the imagination. Both attempts lack the minds active union with a dynamic objective world the union that is the only fertile soil for the creative imagination. As the ode continuously point out, it is not merely the actual urn itself that is a stagnant existence, but the story contained on the walls of the urn is also that which cannot but be perceived as something captured in a moment and so resistant to the minds attempts to interact with it in a way that would achieve creative visions. The poet asks, "What leaf-fringd legend haunts about they shape/ What men or goddesses are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggles to escape? / what wild ecstasy?"(Shelley 5-10). The poet, while realizing the limits of the urns contained images ("leaf-fringd" something with boundaries), is yet attempting to move beyond the enclosed form by seeking the "legend" that "haunts about," is found beyond, the shape of the urn. Vainly searching for such meaning, the poet questions the urn, "What mad pursuit?"(9). But given the image of the poet intently viewing the urn which is described with such words as "quietness," "slow time," and "silence"(1-3), it seems more likely that it is the poet himself who is in "mad pursuit," chasing after meanings and visions beyond what the urn actually offers. Likewise, the phrase, "wild ecstasy," which ends the first stanza, can also be inferred to be the poets own state of mind. This "wild ecstasy" enables the poet to continue on with his frantic questioning and assumptions that yield neither imaginative nor creative stimulus. This failure is because, as Shelleys poem reveals, it is only in a union of the mind and the world of objects where both are active participants that the imagination can thrive. The "wild ecstasy" of the mind alone is not sufficient.
The following stanzas provide further evidence that the speaker is indeed in a state of "wild ecstasy," and they reveal the imaginations failed attempts to instill a sense of life and creativity in a static self-enclosed scene. The speaker addresses the "fair youth, beneath the trees," asking that he "Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone"(11-14), and then insisting that the youth will be "for ever piping songs for ever new"(24). Such a request and statement are ridiculous when directed to an image trapped in porcelain; they are clearly of a mind wandering in "mad pursuit" in a state of mind overcome by "wild ecstasy." To ask for "ditties of no tone" is to assert that the mind is able to, independently, employ such that is "tone[less]" and make use of them. Insisting that the piper will be piping "songs for ever new," when these are "tone[less]" songs, is to declare that the minds powers of creativity will never be dried up, that it will forever be able to envision new songs. As the end of the poem shows, such an assumption is far from the truth.
That the poets descriptions are his own created fantasy is most apparent in the third stanza in which the speaker talks of the "happy, happy boughs!"(21), the "happy melodist"(23), and then of "More happy love! more happy, happy love!/ for ever warm /for ever panting "(25-27). In five lines of poetry we get six "happy"s. Such an excessive insistence on "happ[iness]" cries out that the poets description is fabricated. It is not only contrived, but as such it lacks eloquence and creativity. An author with the slightest imaginative creativity would at least attempt to describe the scene in such a way that it would convey emotions to the reader without the author having to repetitively insist on them. The vitality, the "happ[iness]" proposed to be exuding from the urn and perceived by the human mind is, in actuality, nothing but the fantasy of a solitary mind that insists on trying to find poetic inspiration through its independent musings about a static object. As such it lacks any flare of creativity.
This realization, that the vitality the poet insists is to be discovered on the surface of the urn is only what the harried thoughts of his mind can conjure up, comes upon the speaker in the final stanza and he is faced with the failure of the imagination when it attempts to create by itself, independent from the objective world, something that can be enjoyed as a creative work. With such a realization he turns back to the urn and accuses it for tempting him to follow such a futile path. The final stanza begins: "O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought,/ Cold Pastoral!"(41-45). The poet accuses the figures that he previously tried to imagine the lives of as being "overwrought," "worked" or "elaborated to excess"(OED). This is ironic when it is the poet himself who is most guilty of trying to elaborate unduly on them. The previous quote also shows the realization of the failure of the self-reliant imagination, for here a scene that was once described as being in "Tempe or the dales of Arcady"(7) (idealistic rural settings), is now declared to be "Cold Pastoral."
The final lines of the poem clearly show the poets failure to be able to create something worthy in the solitariness of his mind, a place barren of the stimulating movements of the objective world, for these final lines are themselves void of imaginative creativity. He ends his ode to the urn saying that the urn shall remain and say to all, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, --that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"(49-50). This could be argued to be an eloquent statement, but it is more emphatically unimaginative and meaningless. It seems the poet, his imagination having failed him, turns to philosophy as a last chance at creating some sort of profundity. Yet even this is a futile attempt, for like the self-enclosed, circular form of the urn, and also like the poet's own futile questionings, this phrase is a cyclic reasoning that leads nowhere.
The speaker of "Ode to a Grecian Urn" faced defeat not because he had a weak imagination, but because visions of imaginative creativity are not produced in the solitariness of the mind. The speaker had but an ancient urn, a self-enclosed object that tells the story of ages past, and he tried to make it come to life. The poets vain strivings faced the same fate as did the "wild thoughts"(Shelley 41) created by the "separate fantasy"(36) of the human mind. These thoughts rest in the "cave of the witch of Poesy," and produce nothing but phantoms of what could be.
Both of these poems show that visions of imaginative creativity must be produced where, as the opening to "Mont Blanc" describes, the external world and the mind both play a role, one "lending"(4), one "reflecting"(3). And this must also be a dynamic interaction on both sides. Should the mind interact passively the thoughts produced float away or slink into a cave where they become useless. Likewise, should the objective world be one of stasis, even the "wild ecstasy" of the mind is powerless to breathe creative life into it. The objective world is most powerful when it "burst[s]" through the mind "like the flame of / lightning through the tempest"(18-19), when it "rolls its loud waters"(125) and its "restless gleam"(121) is reflected off the ravines walls "lending splendour"(4) to the minds cooperative thoughts, to what, if conceived apart, are but meaningless musings or phantoms of what was.
Keats, John. "Ode to a Grecian Urn." British Literature 1780-1830. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. 1297-1298
Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2000. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni." British Literature 1780-1830. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. 1063-1064.