The Existence of Absence in Keats' "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time"

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In his sonnet "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time," John Keats presents a series of various forms of conflict and tension. Most prominent is the poet's sense of his own fleeting existence juxtaposed with the eternity of the Greek marble sculptures and, perhaps, with the timelessness of art in general. However, there is another, more subtle tension between what is in existence, and what is not, an absence which paradoxically manifests as a form of existence in itself. The presence of this conflict within the sonnet shows Keats's self-coined Negative Capability, the ability to be in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (Keats 863). Furthermore, the Negative Capability exemplified here is produced by the speaker's empathetic experience with the ruins of the Greek sculptures, which he appreciates in their entirety, not only for the fragments which have physically remained intact, but also for the lost portions and details, which are an essential element of their ruinous state. The concept of “mortality” (l. 1) is immediately foregrounded in the sonnet, with a significant enjambment on the word itself. So, from the outset, the speaker draws attention to his mortal state, which implies both life, an existence, and an eventual absence of that life. By then concretizing the abstract “mortality,” combining it with the word “[w]eighs” (2), the speaker produces a reification of mortality as an object weighing down on him; thus, a concept implying an absence, mortality, becomes an entity which affects him. The existence of an eventual absence of life, death, produces his turmoil. Another central image, that of a “sick eagle looking at the sky” (5), foregrounds the tension... ... middle of paper ... ... 91. Keats, John. "A Poet Has No Identity." Letter to Richard Woodhouse. 27 Oct. 1818. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume Two The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century. 5th ed. New York: WW Norton, 1986. 868. Keats, John. "Negative Capability." Letter to George and Thomas Keats. 21 Dec. 1817. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume Two The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century. 5th ed. New York: WW Norton, 1986. 862. Keats, John. "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Ed. Abrams H. M. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume Two The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. Print. Keats, John. "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles." Ed. Abrams H. M. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume Two The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. Print.

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