Compare and Contrast Robert Frost's Mending wall to john Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn
The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was written by Romantic poet John Keats in 1819 and is known for its profound meditation and conclusions on the nature of beauty. It highlights the issues of beauty, truth and eternity. It portrays Keats’ attempt to understand the eternity of sculpture, an art form. Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” was written in 1914 and depicts how two men meet on terms of civility to repair a wall between them. This paper will try to compare and contrast “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with “Mending Wall” with regards to form, structure, and themes.
Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” starts with the speaker standing before an ancient Grecian urn and addressing it. In the first paragraph, the speaker describes the urn as a “historian” who can tell a story and thinks about the figures depicted on the urn. The speaker wonders what the pictures depicted on the urn represent. He observes a picture that depicts a group of men pursuing a group of women and tries to think the reason for their pursuit. The speaker then looks at another picture on the urn which appears to be of a young man playing a pipe and lying with his lover. He says that the young man’s melody is unaffected by time and therefore is sweeter than mortal memory. He talks to the young man and tells him that even though he cannot kiss his lover, he should not grieve as his lover’s beauty is eternal. In the fourth stanza, the speaker analyzes a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. He wonders about their whereabouts and imagines their town. He tells the urn that the village’s streets will be silent forever. In the last stanza, the speaker speaks to the urn and tells it that it is like eternity. The urn conveys the message that beauty is truth and truth is beauty. The narrator tells that beauty is the only thing the urn knows and the only thing it should know.
Hofman Klaus regards the poem as conveying the “speechlessness of the true language of art” (Klaus 251). The poem’s climax and the main idea of the poem is conveyed in the concluding lines: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (ll. 49-50). The lines convey Keats’ philosophy about art, beauty, and life. The rhyme scheme is fairly peculiar, with the first four lines of each stanza having ABAB rhyming scheme. However, the rhyming scheme changes in the last stanza and sets it apart thematically from the remaining stanzas. The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter, with ten syllables in each line.
In contrast, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost is written in blank verse and loosely follows an iambic pentameter structure. Although the majority of the lines have 10 syllables, there are ten lines that have eleven syllables. These lines break the rhyme and draws attention of the speaker. Frost also uses repetition to draw the reader’s attention. For example, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall," and "Good fences make good neighbors" and other lines link the structure with the theme of separation and the separation of people in society.
The poem is about a stone wall that separates the speaker’s property from his neighbor’s. The two meet in the spring to jointly repair the wall. However, the speaker does not like the idea of keeping the wall in the first place as there are no animals to be contained. However, the neighbor thinks otherwise and says that it is necessary. He is not persuaded by the speaker, who claims that a wall is not required and they can still live in peace without it. The neighbor insists that they can live peacefully with one another only if they have boundaries. “Mending Wall” is a poem about two types of people: one who open themselves to society, and another who are closed in their lives. It is about the boundaries that people build against one another and the speaker’s views of how the boundary should be pulled down. In the poem, Frost shows that the wall does not have any specific purpose and uses the wall as a metaphor to emphasize segregation.
Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Frost’s “Mending Wall” have two completely different themes. Keats in his poem talks about eternity and eternal beauty, while Frost believes in tearing down a wall that has divided society. The ode has an overall sense of pleasure, bliss, and eternity rather than death or separation. The speaker of the ode tells the lovers depicted on the urn that they cannot be separated because they are etched forever on the urn. However, the eternity suggested by the urn is only artistic and does not reflect mortal life. Keats provokes this aesthetic conflict and later resolves in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. The juxtaposition of such paradoxes suggest that the urn reveals a particular truth to man, which is the urn’s beauty. However, that beauty can only exist as captured, frozen, and artificial.
There is a central paradox to Keats’ ode. The Grecian urn, which has existed for so long, is outside of time in the human sense that it does not age or die, and its beauty is preserved as a piece of art. However, the paradox lies in the fact that the human figures carved on the urn are free from time, but at the same time are frozen in it. The figures on the urn are alien to the concept of aging and death, but they also cannot experience the passage of time: the youth can never kiss his lover or the figures in the procession can never reach their homes. As the poem progresses, the speaker depicts a certain kind of progress in his attempts to understand the urn. His curiosity about the figures changes into a more deeply felt identification as the poem progresses until a point where the speaker leaves his own concerns and thinks of the static art, on the urn.
“Mending Wall” like many of Frost’s poems can be interpreted as a commentary on the creative process. On a superficial level, the poem contains the discussion of the construction and disruption duality of creativity. Creation or mending is a positive act, but it can also be disruptive as it destroys the status quo. The stone wall embodies this duality of creativity being destructive and constructive. It also raises the question of boundaries and their worth. Barriers confine and separate individuals, but it is also encourages freedom and productivity for some people. Frost himself is the breaker and maker of the wall, as he broke away from the traditional poetic form and wrote the poem in free verse. He created the poem by using blank verse, which can be seen as maintain the tradition of formal poetry in a unique way.
Keats’ ode uses the idea of negative capability, particularly in the concluding stanza of the poem. The poem’s final stanza shifts attention from the images on the urn to the urn itself. Keats uses negative capability to allow the urn to give the final lesson to the speaker. The speaker is completely eradicated as his contemplation of the urn allows him to selflessly hear the message given by the urn. Negative capability does not allow the speaker to judge the poem or the urn’s message. The message is only reported and places the urn, and not the poet, as the ultimate communicator of the poem. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” can be seen as Keats’ journey into the interior of his mind and the soul. It reveals his most closely held beliefs of the aesthetic conflict that had preoccupied the Romantic poets. With the help of the urn, Keats provokes the reader to think about the nature of truth, beauty, and the function of art. The reader then concludes that life can only be captured when lived experientially, and not by trying to copy it in art forms.
The final stanza represents the speaker final attempts to engage with the urn. The speaker is overwhelmed by the existence of the urn, which is in its self-contained, separate world. The speaker says that the urn can be a man’s friend, but it cannot be moral, and the type of aesthetic connection he feels with the urn is not sufficient to human life. The final two lines can be interpreted in two ways: either the addresses the urn or the urn addressing the message to mankind. The speaker believes that the urn is speaking to mankind that truth is beauty and beauty is truth. If the speaker is talking to the urn, then it would appear that the speaker knows its limitations of the urn’s inability to understand complications of human life. If the last lines are spoken by the speaker, then the urn appears to know nothing beyond the equation of truth and beauty and might not require to know anything beyond this equation. However, the phrase cannot completely express anything about necessary human knowledge due to the complications of human life. In contrast, if the last line is spoken by the urn to mankind, then the phrase has importance and surpasses all the complications of human life. It tells that mankind only needs to know that beauty and truth are same and also related. According to Keats, beauty cannot be separated from truth and they are the two sides of the same coin: what is beautiful has to be true, while what is true must be beautiful. Keats implied that beauty in art, or perhaps ideal beauty, is the external truth.
The poems of Keats and Frost contrast each other in more than one way. Keats’ ode oscillates between the ideas of eternity, truth and beauty, while Frost’s poem delves into construction and destruction of a wall. The poem have different writing style and rhyming scheme. Frost’s poem is like the broken wall, without paragraphs and devoid of rhyme. In contrast, Keats’ ode is rhyming and follows iambic pentameter. The last lines differ in style only to add emphasis the poet’s conflict on art and beauty. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Keats refrains from using personal statements in his narration and instead focuses on imagery instead of its impact. It allows the urn to communicate its message without being judged and creates a poem without self-projection, thereby achieving negative capability. In contrast, Frost’s “Mending Wall” uses personal narration to differentiate the poet’s opinion from his neighbor. In Frost’s poem, the poet himself tries to influence his neighbor by telling him that the wall segregates people and should not be there in the first place. "Ode on a Grecian Urn" discusses art and its audience. The images described on the urn within the poem are used to describe common activities such as courtship or a religious rite. The images are depicted to be beautiful, while the urn is shown to be realistic. The poem implies a human observer draws conclusion out of the images on the urn, and the way in which the speaker interacts with the urn is similar to how a critic would respond to a piece of art, which makes the final lines of the poem ambiguous.
Hofman, Klaus. “Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” Studies in Romanticism 45. (2006)