Elgin Marbles

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Elgin Marbles

Postby ashley0223 » Sat May 01, 2004 11:02 pm

Hi. I am a senior at LSU and am writing a paper, analyzing Keats, "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles." I have to talk about what he sees when he looks at the Grecian friezesin the British Museum. I also have to tell how this sonnet is like "...Chapman's HOmer" and "Grecian Urn." Is there anyone who would like to offer me any insight? It would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you - Ashley
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Query about "On seeing the Elgin Marbles".

Postby Saturn » Mon May 03, 2004 11:24 pm

When Keats first viewed the 'Elgin' Marbles in early 1817, they had been newly acquired by the British government from Lord Elgin and were being displayed in the old British Museum.

It is first of all important to remember that the sculptures and friezes were being laid out in the then fashionable picturesque arrangment of Museums at this time, in which aesthetic concerns far outweighed the historical truth of their arrangment on the actual monument.

Keats visited the museum with his great friend, the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon. According to anotherlater friend, Joseph Severn; Keats actually visited the exhibit many times, often spending an hour or more in rapture of the reliefs.

The sonnet itself has a tone of awe and reverence for not only a thing of beauty, but of great antiquity as well. It also speaks quite tellingly of exclusion. Keats feels he is unable to fully take in the beauty of the works, his 'spirit is too weak' to comprehend the reality that these pieces of sculpture are thousands of years old - his own mortality seems to be meaningless and without consequence compared to the long lifetime of carved stone.

There is also a feeling of Keats' own powerlessness in terms of his own art. He feels 'Like a sick Eagle looking at the sky' i.e. he feels unable to reach the lofty heights of art which the Parthenon friezes represent.
The cool, calm, and quiet dignity of classical sculpture is compared with the ephemeral nature of his chosen art of poetry, and makes him feel the uncertainty of the survival of his work.

Even these great sculpture have felt 'the rude / Wasting of old Time' and have become a shadow of what they once where in their splendour, they've become 'a shadow of magnitude' (a Miltonic word used to express something only dimly discerned).

I mentioned a sense of exclusion earlier; this is the link between this poem and 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer' and 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.

In 'On first Looking into Chapman's Homer' Keats expresses his joy at discovering the great Greek epic poet Homer through Chapman's translation - Keats knew Latin, but little Greek and was thus excluded from the knowledge of this great poet because of his lack of aristocratic educational opportunities.

He compares himself to the great discoverers who were informed about the lands to the west, but only dimly perceived them until when they actually sailed into view.
He felt himself like an astromoner who knows of the existence of other planets, but is overjoyed when one 'swims into ken'.

In the 'Ode on Grecian Urn', the exclusion is more about the lack of knowledge of us all about the past - represented by the urn itself, with it's strange scenes of primitive sacrifice, whose meaning is conjectural and open to debate.
Keats sees this as symptomatic of all art in general, and that perhaps beauty should be the only criteria by which art is judged:

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

These views are of course my own; and no doubt simplistic, but I hope they are of some use to you on your paper.
Good luck!!
"Oh what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints".
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