Keats’ ’Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and Coleridge’s ’Kubla Khan’ have developed into seminal works both of their authors, and of the Romantic era. As one of the six Keatsian Odes composed in 1819, spanning the universal questions of the human condition, ’Grecian Urn’ is a crucial element in Keats’ philosophical contribution to the canon. Coleridge’s poem, also named ’A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment’, was composed twenty-two years earlier, and has become one of Coleridge’s most notable works.
Firstly, what common ground do the two poems share? A wholistic reading of both verses reveals that the driving energy in both instances is one of opposites, of paradox, of contrast. Coleridge’s vivid poem is most proficient in marrying the opposing concepts of ”Alph, the sacred river”, in its ”ceaseless turmoil”, with the ”sunny spots of greenery”. The opening stanza introduces these contending entities, and it is much like the river, “meandering with a mazy motion”, that both are gradually brought together. When in the latter half of the second stanza, the two are skilfully fused, Coleridge writes: ”The shadow of the dome of pleasure Floated midway on the waves”. The weightlessness of the shadows floating and the vivacious waves are put in diametric contrast here, a powerful nod to the natural ebb and flow of nature, perhaps. The two are also contrasted rather more emphatically: ”That sunny dome! those caves of ice!”, where Coleridge draws on heat and more sensual descriptions to juxtapose the river and the dome. In any case, this sense of contrast and duality can similarly be found in Keats’ Ode, beginning ”Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,”. Indeed, the very first line of the verse involves a paradox: the sexual tension of an ‘unravish’d bride’ collides with the concept of ‘quietness’. Not only do the words themselves present a paradox, but the theme of silence throughout the poem contends with the structure. An Ode, literally meaning ‘sung’ in Ancient Greek, is a poem intended for voice – yet the figures on Keats’ stimulus are described as being in ”silent form”. As well as that, Keats contrasts the empirical lifelessness of the figures on the Urn and their access to an abstract immortality: ”For ever panting, and for ever young”. This is perhaps the greatest dialectical achievement of Keats’ poem, to show that art transcends life – an assertion I will consider in more detail later. So, the two poems can be said to concur in their reliance on contention to provide energy and narrative.
The poems also seem to share the thought that art relies on imagination, and that the artistic world is far from our own. Coleridge deliberately writes of ”Xanadu” to set his poem in a distant, unfamiliar region. Indeed, the separation between Khan’s ”stately pleasure-dome” and a more pedestrian setting parallels Coleridge’s escape from the mundane with opium. The poem’s aforementioned alternative title also reveals that the images of which he writes were two visions of his; bearing in mind the apparent beauty of ”gardens bright with sinuous rills”, it could be said that such beauty is only accessible in imagination, and through poetry. Keats would seem to agree. In his ekphrastic contemplation of the Urn, Keats interacts extensively and actively with the depicted figures: ”What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?”. His rhetorical questions suggest to the reader that they too should interact with his poetry in a similarly interrogative way, which all in all posits an active role in the appreciation of art. Keats seems to write with a view to art as defined by the tradition of ”ut pictura poesis”, whereby art is contemplated specifically through poetry. The world of the figures on the Urn is one distinct to that of ours. In this case, time has separated those figures and the narrator but it would not be unreasonable to read, instead, that the characters of art and literature exist in a different way altogether. Here, we see the agreement of the two Romantic poets. We cannot truly develop a lasting relationship, they both argue, with the artistic world (the world of beauty), be that with the help of opium or not. Whereas Coleridge was physically disturbed from his vision by a physical interruption, Keats’ narrator fails to bridge the chasm between his world and the Urn’s.
It is at this point that the disparities begin to become clear. Most notably, the difference in tone between the two poems. Coleridge laments the gap between him and his narcotically induced visions, while Keats adopts a position of worship and praise. Coleridge wishes that he could access the vision eternally: ”Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ’twould win me,”, almost begging for the vision to return. On the other hand, Keats seems ecstatic in the mere comprehension that the figures on the Urn are eternal, and does not consider that he lacks that advantage: ”For ever piping songs for ever new; More happy love! more happy, happy love!”. These lines are effusive, the relentless repetition of ‘more’ and ‘happy’ create a sense of exaltation, and the iteration of ‘For ever’ emphasises the infinity of life which art enjoys. Thus, the poems seem to differ in their overall sentiment towards the nature of art: Coleridge is frustrated by the nature of poetic inspiration, where Keats is in awe of the power of art.
Lastly, and in conclusion, the poems differ in perhaps the most crucial aspect of their argumentation – their relationship with the time. Coleridge’s penning of ’Kubla Khan’ after a vivid dream about Kubla Khan’s residence (a description of which he had just read) is perhaps best described by Coleridge himself in the initial publication of the poem:
”On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”.
So, it is no surprise that Coleridge’s frustration pervades his poem – he cannot access the beauty of an imagined world with any consistency; the opium that once facilitated his access to a world of poetic beauty and inspiration does not suffice. Thus, ’Kubla Khan’ is a poem that regrets the elusive, evasive nature of poetic inspiration with regards to time and situation. However, in stark contrast, Keats idolises the atemporality of art and literature. This exemption from the physical decay entangled with the passing of time is reminiscent of many works of poetry. Shelley’s Ozymandias deals with the topic in a similar way, as well as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55:
”Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;”.
This can be seen in lines such as ”When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain…”, where the Urn is described as transcending the death of generations. On a personal level, this notion is a very appealing one. For me, that is the true beauty of literature: the ability to experience the thoughts and sentiments of generations past. Perhaps the very writing of this article is demonstration of Keats’ thoughts: his poems are very much alive today, and could very well be said to be “All breathing human passion”.