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Silence from the Past: Keats and Kierkegaard on Coldness and Temporality

Emil Archambault

Emil Archambault

Concordia University, Montreal


Silence from the Past: Keats and Kierkegaard on Coldness and Temporality


While Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling both seek to understand artworks from a distant past, they differ in regard to the value their respective analyses assign to the historical context. The silence experienced by the Poet facing the Urn is caused by historical distance, which also gives it an impression of glacial perfection. The story of Abraham, on the other hand, is lifted out of universal and historical time by faith and remains vividly alive despite the centuries elapsed since the historical Abraham. Thus, while the Poet is an outside observer, separated from the Urn by an altered historical setting, Johannes de Silentio’s distance from the story of Abraham is caused by a metaphysical separation, Abraham establishing himself as the particular beyond the universal. I argue that while the Urn possesses the ability to communicate when placed in the proper historical context, Abraham’s faith is intrinsically silent and could not ever be properly understood. Thus, while both Keats and Kierkegaard seek to transcend the limits of reason, they encounter their object from the past in distinct ways, with major implications as to the possibility of understanding.



Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling both deal with an artwork from the past, although these artworks are very different in nature and in treatment. In Keats’s Ode, the Poet[i] contemplates an antique Greek urn, while Kierkegaard’s narrator Johannes de Silentio is fascinated by the story of Abraham from Chapter 22 of Genesis. In both cases, the artwork is analyzed through a contemporary perspective. Both texts emphasize the limits placed on the viewer’s understanding of the artwork: all attempts to go beyond the immediately visible medium (the Urn and the written account of Abraham’s actions) are bound to failure. However, in the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the Poet’s inability to go beyond the immediately visible is caused by a historical distance; in Fear and Trembling, Abraham is outside the universal and as such is beyond the reach of reason. Thus, while the Grecian Urn is viewed in relation to its temporal framework and belongs to a past long dead, Abraham’s story is always contemporary and is shed of its historical context to become a purely philosophical subject.

            The Ode on a Grecian Urn begins with an emphasis on the silence of the Urn, on its inability to communicate with the Poet. The three first lines refer to the Urn as a “bride of quietness” (Keats l. 1) and as a “foster-child of silence and slow time” (Keats l. 2), which canst thus express / A flowery tale” (Keats l. 3-4); this silence is not limited to speech, but refers to the mystery which shrouds the Urn. This motif of silence is closely linked to the perfection of the subjects depicted: it is true that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (Keats l. 11-12). Although the actions depicted are perfect since they speak “to the spirit” (Keats l. 14) and not to the senses, they are at the same time only imagined and not perceived. The Poet is left to construct his own impression of how the melodies played by the sculpted musician sound; the Urn cannot communicate this fact to him. While the poet, through his imagination, can construct a melody, he cannot retrieve the original song: the Urn is effectively silent, and that is what guarantees its perfection. Its perfection derives directly from its silence; thus, all the urn can communicate is that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Keats l. 49). Since the Urn is silent, the only certain knowledge one can have about it is that of its perfection, and this perfection requires silence.

            In the third Problema of Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio discusses Abraham’s silence and concludes that the only way for Abraham to remain a knight of faith is to keep silent, just like the Poet asserts that the Urn’s perfection derives from its inability to communicate with its viewers. As the knight of faith is individually placed higher than the ethical which governs all other humans, he is outside of the community in which speech is present. He is completely solitary and acts in ways that are completely unexplainable through the recourse to the universal, to speech. Johannes de Silentio explains, “If when I speak I cannot make myself understood, I do not speak even if I keep talking without stop day and night. This is the case with Abraham…there is one thing he cannot say and since he cannot say it, i.e. say it in a way that another understands it, he does not speak” (Kierkegaard 137). Abraham, being outside of the universal and acting “on the strength of the absurd” (Kierkegaard 65), cannot communicate his explanation of the sacrifice of Isaac in ethical speech since that act occurred through “a teleological suspension of the ethical” (Kierkegaard 83).

           Thus, just like the Poet from Keats’s Ode is left only with the equation of beauty and truth which paradoxically can only exist in silence (Keats l. 49), Johannes de Silentio ends each Problema by describing the paradox of the uncertain nature of Abraham: either “the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal…or else Abraham is done for” (Kierkegaard 108) and “is not even a tragic hero but a murderer” (Kierkegaard 95). This uncertainty is caused the unattainable knowledge of faith for anyone who is not a knight of faith. The narrative from Genesis being extremely brief and concise, Johannes de Silentio can never solve the paradox, as he says in Problema III: “If I go further [than the ethical universal], I always run up against the paradox, the divine and the demonic: for silence is both of these” (Kierkegaard 114). Just as Fear and Trembling uncovers a paradox, where faith can only exist in silence, the Ode on a Grecian Urn implies a paradox where truth (perfection) requires silence, where beauty must be inexpressive and where action would ruin perfection. “Heard melodies” (Keats l. 11) are never as beautiful as silence, though they can be perceived; similarly, actions that can be explained through speech are never as perfect as actions that are based on faith and remain silent.

           Since in both cases, silence is the only constant, the two narrators’ questions remain unanswered. In Keats’s Ode, the Poet wonders what precisely is being depicted on the Urn, asking “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?” (Keats l. 31) and “what little town” (Keats l. 35) is depicted. However, the “silent form” of the Urn “dost tease [him] out of thought” (Keats l. 44), and he is led to regret that there is “not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate” (Keats l. 39-40). As discussed above, the only understanding the Poet can derive from the Urn lies in what is immediately observable--there is no possibility to go beyond what is perceived on the surface through understanding and rational inquiry. Only imagination can supply the defects of reason and provide an answer to the numerous questions asked by the Poet. However, while imagination may provide the missing songs from the melodist, it can never get to absolute truth; thus, the only truth is the perceptible beauty, grasped through understanding, and “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats l. 49-50).

           In the same way, Johannes de Silentio cannot resolve the paradox which is posed by the story of Abraham and is left to question in vain. While his reason can lead him to uncover under which conditions faith could exist, it can never definitively affirm that faith exists, nor can it positively assert that Abraham is a knight of faith and not a murderer. Against Hegel’s view that philosophy is superior to faith, Johannes de Silentio declares that while he can understand most of Hegel’s philosophy, “when [he has] to think about Abraham [he is] virtually annihilated…and [his] thought, for all its passion, is unable to enter into it” (Kierkegaard 62). As Johannes de Silentio says in the Preface, “Even if one were able to render the whole of the content of faith into conceptual form [which he does, to some extent], it would not follow that one has grasped faith” (Kierkegaard 43). Rather than trying to resolve the paradox, Johannes de Silentio is forced to accept it as the only fundamental truth; the example of Heraclitus’ disciple in the Epilogue shows that striving to go further might destroy all the established doctrine (Kierkegaard 147). Understanding cannot resolve the paradox of faith; attempting to rationalise the irrational would only lead to the denial of the existence of faith, since it is impossible to prove its existence through reason.

           Both Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling end with an admission of the inability to understand through reason what is beyond the immediately visible, to go further than the surface. In Keats’s Ode, the Poet can use imagination to replace the defects of understanding, but imagination can never lead alone to the truth. Johannes de Silentio, although he gives a philosophical account of the nature of faith and how it operates, can still not resolve the paradox and properly understand faith. He has no way of determining through understanding that Abraham was a knight of faith and not a murderer. He is able to rationally distinguish Abraham from the tragic hero and the knight of infinite resignation, as these two are part of the universal, but faith is completely outside of his reach, for in faith “all human calculation has long been suspended” (Kierkegaard 65).

           However, while these two texts both center upon a work of art which remains silent to the narrators and cannot be understood, the Urn, though analysed through a contemporary point of view, remains part of time and is determined by its historical context. On the other hand, Abraham’s story is not viewed as a historical event but is rather lifted out of time to be considered on its own, without any reference to its surrounding context. The ethical, according to Kierkegaard, is never changing, and as such, the story of Abraham is not part of the past but rather always remains present. While Keats’s Ode considers time to be the cause of the incomprehension of the Poet, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling views Abrahams’ exclusion from the ethical to be the reason for the lack of understanding.

           As discussed above, the Urn, in order to remain perfect, must necessarily remain silent and shrouded in mystery. It is by no accident that, when comparing the Urn to eternity, the Poet describes it as a “silent form” (Keats l. 44): as it becomes eternal, the Urn becomes cold and in some ways dead. Paradoxically, the “happy love... For ever warm” (Keats l. 25-26) must become part of the “Cold Pastoral” (Keats l. 45) in order to be preserved. The Urn and the actions depicted on it must be stripped of all passion in order to be preserved. In a way, they are preserved by entering a state where they do not fully exist anymore. For instance, the boughs described on lines 21-22 exist in shape and in appearance on the Urn, but they are not really boughs anymore, they are only dead images of the living original. Thus, while the Urn physically exists and is contemplated by the Poet, it is not the same Urn as the one that was crafted in Ancient Greece. While the Urn “shalt remain, in midst of other woe /Than ours” (Keats 47-48), it does so by losing much of its significance and being reduced to a single, very limited message: “Beauty is truth” (Keats l. 49).

           Hence, the Urn is silent partly because of its cold, inexpressive nature, but also because it is taken out of its historical context. The Poet is an outside observer, who is separated by time from the Grecian Urn. To the viewers of Ancient Greece, who lived in the same cultural framework as the Urn when it was crafted, the Urn was not perceived as cold and dead but rather as alive and communicating. All the questions that the Poet is forced to ask about the events depicted could be omitted since the viewers from Ancient Greece possessed external knowledge which allowed them to identify the action. The “leaf-fring’d legend [which] haunts about thy shape” (Keats l. 5) was not a mystery but could be identified through the knowledge which was part of the cultural framework. However, this cultural external knowledge was lost through the passage of time and the changes occurring in history. The cultural and historical context which gave significance to the Urn has disappeared and the Urn now only exists in itself, without any explanatory knowledge to uncover its mysteries.

           The clearest reference to this situation in which the Urn is changed through history is found on line 2, where the Urn is described as “Thou foster-child of silence and slow time” (Keats l. 2). The expression “foster-child” means that the Urn was not born from silence and time, but rather was adopted by them. When it was created, the Urn could communicate and was not silent, as its viewers were able to understand what it showed. Johannes de Silentio wrote about Abraham, “If when I speak I cannot make myself understood, I do not speak” (Kierkegaard 137). At first, the Urn was able to make itself understood by its viewers through references to the immediately present culture. However, the Urn was then put in the care of “slow time,” which transformed it into a “bride of quietness” (Keats l. 1). As time passed by, the real parent of the Urn, Greek culture, faded away and the Urn became an orphan, raised in “silence and slow time,” becoming what it was not meant to be when it was conceived, but in this way allowed to continue to exist. While the Urn was not speechless to the Greeks, it has been rendered silent by history and the disappearance of its original surrounding culture. While the Urn still speaks like it did before, it cannot make itself understood anymore to the Poet and contemporary viewers.

           While the silence of the Urn is caused by its passage through time and the loss of its cultural environment, the incomprehension of Abraham by Johannes de Silentio is not caused by historical distance but rather by the very nature of Abraham’s faith: Abraham is intrinsically silent and has never been understood by anyone, regardless of the historical period. While the Urn could be understood through recourse to knowledge external to the Urn itself, the story of Abraham is completely impossible to understand for anyone but Abraham himself. The knight of faith is entirely separate from the universal and placed as the individual above the ethical, and is thus not related to anything outside of himself except God. Unlike the Urn, which is connected to its time and culture, the story of Abraham is entirely contained in itself and is completely independent from its temporal context. Abraham’s contemporaries could not understand him any more than Johannes de Silentio--had they been able to understand him, Abraham would have spoken to Isaac and Sarah. However, while the ethical is equated with disclosure and speech (Kierkegaard 109), the individual knight of faith is outside of the universal community. Thus, the story of Abraham, unlike the Urn, is not affected by changes in the individual occurring through time and history but rather remains completely isolated and intact forever. The story of Abraham as it is read by Johannes de Silentio is exactly the same as that which was perceived by Sarah and Eleazar, or by any other reader.

           Abraham’s story is thus not affected by time but remains eternal and always incomprehensible to reason. Besides, the crucial element of Abraham’s story does not lie in the sacrifice of Isaac itself, but rather in Abraham’s attitude towards the sacrifice. As the four Attunements show, there are several ways in which one could be led to attempt the sacrifice, but only one of these ways can be said to be an act of faith (Kierkegaard 48). The key to the knight of faith lies in what is completely hidden, in what is not immediately perceptible. As Johannes de Silentio states, “whether the individual is now really in a state of temptation or a knight of faith, only the individual can decide” (Kierkegaard 106). While for tragic heroes like Agamemnon, who are part of the universal (Kierkegaard 113-114), their actions can be proved through understanding to result from a movement of resignation, the visible signs cannot allow an observer to judge the actions of a knight of faith. Hence, Abraham never could nor ever will be understood. As such, his story, not being affected by the universal, never loses passion nor becomes cold, unlike the Urn. While the Urn had to be raised by “silence and slow time” (Keats l. 2) in order to survive the loss of its surrounding cultural framework, the story of Abraham had always been devoid of context and always existed independently from the universal. Silence is the result of the very nature of the story, and not of its changes through time. The Urn became dead and cold through change, while Abraham’s story always remains alive and unchanged.

           Knights of faith, being out of the universal, also are outside of time; as such, the story of Abraham is as contemporary to Johannes de Silentio as it was to Sarah and Isaac. The Attunement begins by a frame narrative, the story of a man who chooses to repeat Abraham’s journey to Moriah in order to try to “accompany [Abraham and Isaac] on the tree-day journey, when Abraham rode with grief before him and Isaac by his side” (Kierkegaard 44). This man does not supply his own passions through “the finely wrought fabric of imagination, but [felt] the shudder of thought” (Kierkegaard 44) which originated in the story itself. While the Poet must through his imagination create the passions he then attributes to the cold Urn, the man who is in contact with Abraham’s story draws his feelings from the story itself, which never becomes cold but always stays alive. The ending of the Attunement shows the same man completely exhausted by this “shudder of thought”: “he collapsed in weariness, clasped his hands, and said: ‘Yet no one was as great as Abraham; who is able to understand him?’” (Kierkegaard 48).

           Both Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling portray a narrator who faces the limits of his reason. The artworks which the narrators try to understand remain desperately silent, being unable to be understood by a contemporary viewer who cannot relate back to the context of the work. However, while the Grecian Urn has been rendered different through passing time and the loss of the cultural context on which its significance depended, the story of Abraham is by nature incomprehensible and remains impossible to grasp, regardless of the universal context. The distance between the Urn and the Poet is historical, while the separation between Abraham and Johannes de Silentio is metaphysical. Kierkegaard understands the universal (the ethical) as being permanent and unchanging through history, while Keats rather sees it as broken and divided by changes. While Keats affirms constant change and the only permanence of beauty, Kierkegaard asserts the unity of the universal, regardless of historical change. Abraham is placed outside of the universal by his reliance on the absurd, and will always remain so; the Urn, rather, was once part of the universal and has fallen out of it when the universal changed. Nevertheless, in the end, both texts assert the limits of rational understanding: beyond reason, all that is left is imagination and belief.



Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Alastair Hanney. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” John Keats: Selected Poetry and Letters. New York: Rhinehart & Co. Inc., 1960. 247-248.

[i] When referring to the narrator of the Ode, I will use “the Poet.” When I refer to John Keats, the author of the Ode, I will refer to him by his name.



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