Views on Transience, Permanence, Art, Life, and Beauty in Keats’ Odes

Keats is a poet of beauty. But he is not a poet of sensuous and ephemeral beauty. He is a poet of permanent and ever-lasting beauty. As a poet of beauty, Keats considers art as the embodiment of that everlasting beauty. So, to Keats art represents a permanent, everlasting beauty which contrasts the transient human life. Keats’ view on art is mainly expressed through the contrast between the human life and art that are represented in the form of urn, song, and autumn.

Keats’ most significant views on art are expressed in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” In this Ode he makes a contrast between human life and the life of the Urn. Keats finds the Urn much superior to human life. As a work of beauty the Urn represents a permanent life.

In “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” Keats emphasizes the fact love, beauty and youth are all immortalized in the work of art. The beloved in the Grecian Urn is immortal; she will not lose her beauty.

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

The lady’s beauty and youth have been made permanent in the Urn which is a wrought piece of art. His final comment about the Grecian Urn is:-

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,"

The poet discovers beauty which is unfading and truth. This beauty is undying in excellent artistic creations. He gets the very taste of eternity in the excellent work of art.

Comparing the transience of life with the permanence of a work of art, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ asserts the quality of both the real world and the world of art. In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Keats actually prefers the immortal nature of art over the mortal nature of human activities in the real world.

Although the urn exists in the real world which is subject to time and change, the life it presents and itself are static and unchanging; thus the bride is "unravished" and as a "foster" child, the urn goes through the "slow time" and not the time of the real world. The figures carved on the urn are not subject to time, though the urn may be changed or affected by slow time.
Keats views on art are also expressed in his “Ode to a Nightingale” as a work of beauty. Once again he makes a contrast between the world of the Nightingale which represents the world of art and the human world. In Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," he contemplatse the essence of the nightingale and contrasts it with his own worldly state and the nature of mortal life.

In Ode to Nightingale the poet spotlights the beauty and fascinating charm of the bird’s song. He simultaneously underscores the mast fleeting nature of human life. Human youth and life itself are quite transient. Human beings grow up, flower up into blossoming youths and then fade and die. This is the nature of all human passions. Human beings do not have permanent beauty and permanent joy. Human life on this earth is ever a stratum of happiness and contentment. Human youth and human happiness soon disappear leaving behind an arena of desolation and dry dreariness. Keats refers to life in this world in the following lines of Ode to a Nightingale.

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Here the poet refers to the importance of youth. Man’s weariness, his fret, palsy, grey hair, pale youth have been referred I order to show that life is just like a passing show on the earth. Again he says

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

The poet has drawn the vivid picture of the mortal world. Here beauty fades, love pines, sorrow and despair seize men and to think is to be full of sorrow. Happiness in the earth is just a feeling thing. So, the idea of importance or transience is quite dominant in Keats’s poem.

But it is only the aspect of Keats’s poetry. He is occupied with the idea of impermanence, it is true. But that is not the only phase. We also represent the idea of permanence. He is searching of unfading beauty and permanence in the world of the Nightingale. Not with the help of intoxicating wine but with the fluttering wings of his imagination he will go to the world of the Nightingale, i.e the shelter of nature where he gets abode of permanence and then he will take refuge in the stratum of permanence. He says
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Here we see that Keats passing from the world of transience to that of permanence. He discovers unerring permanence in the world of nature which does not change and betray.

According to Keats the Nightingale as a part and parcel of nature is immortal. A bird may die as individual but the species will continue from generation to generation. So, Keats adds:-

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

The song of the Nightingale has immortal delight because it is an integral part of nature and nature does not die. The song of the bird stirs the poet’s imagination ad opens the “magic” casement of poetry. This is the theme of permanence as we find in Ode to Nightingale where the poet is transported to imaginative ecstasy.

As a romantic poet Keats imagines a pure and enduring life for all natural objects and natural creatures. In “Ode to autumn” Keats celebrates the season of autumn. Autumn is abstracted and given a universal form. The beauty and the activities of autumn are true for all ages.

The basic tension of the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is between art and the human life. Art though unreal has permanence of beauty and the power to enrapture us through fanciful experiences which are richer than those of artificial life. He clearly portrays the shapes of the Urn which have an eternal life. In “Ode to Nightingale” the speaker wants to share his experience of intensifying to the song of a Nightingale and its effect on his mind. He states the unrestricted, spontaneous happiness of the bird. By simultaneously using figures as personifies of autumn, Keats raises them out of their transient human bodies and eternizes them.