Greek vases

November 22, 2009 at 2:58 am (Art, History, Poetry)

In a post on my recent sojourn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I mentioned being stunned by  the Greek vases in the Greek and Roman Art galleries. Since this past May, when I journeyed to Naples, a city first colonized by the Greeks in the 700’s BC, I’ve become newly fascinated by the literature of the classical period. Now I was face to face with the art produced, in some cases, in the same period. I had not anticipated the effect these works would have on me.

My first thought – when I was able to think again – was of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: specifically, the words, ‘O attic shape, fair attitude.’

Here is the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?

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:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

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.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
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,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

These astonishing works of art, which in earlier visits to the Met I have always sailed right past, cheerfully distracted and oblivious, now seem to me the most miraculous of objects, and for just the reasons that Keats cites in his poem: their timelessness, their freezing of a moment in time, their promise of eternal youth, of an eternity of bucolic joy in a setting devoid of any hint of ugliness.

I have just purchased this book: and have ordered this glorious tome from the Met: . I shall enjoy learning more about these Attic shapes…

The section of the Met’s collection database that deals with these works is entitled: “Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques.”

When I told my New York friend Helene about my new-found fascination with Greek vases, she, who has tutored me in love of the arts almost my entire life, smiled and said, “Keats knew something, huh?” Oh yes, he did – with his tenuous hold on life, Keats knew.

John Keats 1795 - 1821

1 Comment

  1. magistermoho said,

    just committed the last stanza to memory. A recent visit to the British Museum with the Parthenon Frieze reminded me of the poem.

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