John Keats – On Seeing the Elgin Marbles


This sonnet attempts to convey the poet’s complex attitude towards death, couched in a reflection on the British Museum’s greek statues. A combination of obscure and abstract images give the poem a lightness which belies its proposed interest in stone and monuments. The poet is sensitive to the play between weight and weightlessness in the poem, applying it loosely to a deeper conflict between permanance and transience, although much of this application and examination is left to the reader.

The poem’s opening lines present ‘mortality’ as a burden to the ‘weak’ speaker – the idea is that he cannot escape an oppresive consciousness of the proximity of death. However, the simile ‘like unwilling sleep’ contains an ambiguity that suggests the poet’s attitude to death to be something more complex than a simple fear. We might read it as ‘unwanted sleep’, suggesting that, like a traveller fighting exhaustion, the poet must make a continual concious effort to stay alive. Even here we have a suggestion of a natural inclination towards death; reading ‘unwilling sleep’ as ‘sleep that is willfully holding itself back’ implies that the ‘weight’ felt is that of an active desire for death.

Here the poet turns to the statues themselves, ostensibly the objects of the sonnet. The ‘pinnacle’s and ‘steeps’ suggest columns and tiles of the temple itself, while ‘godlike hardship’ suggests statue figures. It is seeing these that precipitates the realisation of mortality, ‘tells me I must die’. This phrase has a striking immediacy in a poem mostly formed of abstract images. We wonder if the feeling of death’s proximity comes from a consideration of life in contrast to the permanence of stone. Alternatively, the desire to die suggested as well by the eaglelooking at the sky’ might come from a yearning to be immortalized in Art like a grecian figure. An ugly, scrawny animal might be a reflection of the ‘weak’ human spirit, contrasted with the pure beauty of greek art.

The rest of the octet reflects, through obscure imagery, a sense of conflicted relief at the impermenence of the human soul. Despite the richness of symbolism and imagery, these lines have a feeling of weightlessness, almost translucence. This is partly an effect of sound, with open vowels dominating in ‘cloudy’, ‘opening’, ‘morning’. We also feel a lightness in the images themselves, the pale light of ‘morning’, and white ‘cloud’. Where the iambic metre crumbles at line 8, we are made to feel as though we are looking straight through the fabric of the poem into its very heart. Consequently it is striking that the meaning of the lines requires coaxing out. It is the ‘sick eagle’ that need not ‘keep’ to ‘cloudy winds’, its sickness keeps it grounded: this is perhaps an expression of the Romantic metephor of the poet as a bird, therefore this represents an ailing poet’s relinqueshing of poetic duty. Taking the line as running on to mean ‘keep fresh’, we have the idea of a God or celestial being, responsible for providing the wind which clears the sky for the sun, ‘the morning’s eye’. Both readings give a sense of conflicted relief at the surrendering of a meaningful, significant obligation. Although the readings can be drawn out and reconciled, a first glance at the poem gives the impression of a void of meaning, reflecting perhaps a lack of clarity of thought on a fundamental level in the poet.

At the start of the sestet, we have an admission from the poet to a similar effect. ‘these dim-conceived glories’ recognises that the images invoked, while exultant and beautiful, are distant. They provoke an inner conflict, where the verb ‘bring round’ marks the beginning of a subdued, almost metaphysical, conceit. Describing a ‘feud’, ‘bring round’ suggests ‘surround’, or ‘lay seige to’ we are put in mind of the numerous precedents for the ‘heart under seige’ conceit in the poetry of Donne and Herbert. Then at ‘dizzy pain’ the idea becomes one of repeated circling, we hear a momentary echo of the ‘sick eagle’ in the ‘wind’. As the conceit develops it gives a full picture of the poet’s tumultuous inner state – trapped on all sides, disorientated and sick.

This violent, troubled personal state strikes up against the constancy and purity of ‘Grecian grandeur’ and echoes of the sonnet’s abstract imagery dissapate in fragments. The ‘wasting’ sickness of the eagle, the ‘billowing’ of the wind, the ‘sun’, apostraphised previously as ‘morning’s eye’. We wonder if this illustrates a soothing of the violent emotion, brought about by the beautiful, silent statues, or a resignation and despair at the futility of any attempt to match their purity and permenance. The more concrete, collected mature of imagery found in the sestet suggests perhaps the strength taken from the sight of permenant beauty. However, the final image is ambivalent, as a return to the abstract and obscure. A ‘magnitude’ conotes for a modern audience ‘earthquake’, implying a portentous, ominous symbol of destruction – yet its ‘shadow’ might be approaching or receding. ‘Magnitude’ might more simply mean ‘power’, suggesting that even these monuments represent ‘a shadow of their former glory’, having been removed from Greece, ‘across the billowy main’.

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5 thoughts on “John Keats – On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

  1. I hv my exam tmrw. Nd i m left with only few hours.. a lot of syllbus is left yet buh i m done wid a lil out of it. I couldn’t understand dis summary cause i didn’ read it properly.. due to lack of time. :p

  2. Pingback: Anthropology Poetry | Cupertino Poet Laureate

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