In my last post, I got a little bit carried away with the references to Shelley’s Ozymandias because I was taken by the fact that an object that had been taken completely out of context could still provoke such a strong reaction. This got me thinking… what other objects have inspired poets?
Only a room away, I found an answer staring me in the face. It was so obvious it was practically mooing at me.
That’s right, mooing.
“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?”
(from Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819)
Ok, so ‘lowing’ rather than mooing, but still. It turns out that this part of the south frieze of the Parthenon (442-438 BC) inspired these lines in Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’
We know that Keats visited the Marbles in 1817, just after they had been moved to the British Museum and to this day the Museum has a note next to the piece of frieze (number XLIV, with figures 132-136 if you want to get technical) informing visitors and museum adventurers alike of its literary influence.
Something bothers me about all this though. Surely the inspiration for an ode to a Grecian urn would come from a gallery looking more like this:
More to the point, Keats wrote a sonnet entitled On Seeing the Elgin Marbles. Surely a quote from this would be a better fit than a caption from another poem, which is only thought to have inspired a few lines?
Or maybe… “Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time… a shadow of a magnitude.”
(from Keats On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, 1817)
It all sounds a bit controversial towards the end there, doesn’t it?