The speaker spends the poem ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles‘ thinking about their own death, inspired by the incredible sight of these Greek statues. They remind the speaker of how small he is in comparison, even though the statues are only shadows of themselves. They are broken but still powerful enough to be effective.
On Seeing the Elgin Marbles John Keats My spirit is too weak—mortality Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, And each imagined pinnacle and steep Of godlike hardship tells me I must die Like a sick eagle looking at the sky. Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep That I have not the cloudy winds to keep Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye. 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—with a billowy main— A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
Explore On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ by John Keats discusses human mortality while describing the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.
The speaker starts the poem by asserting that their spirit isn’t strong enough; they are weighed down by the inevitability of death. SO much so, it feels as though they are about to fall asleep at any time. They look at the states of godlike hardship, and they know that they are going to lose their life one day.
The speaker makes other comparisons, suggesting that they are like an eagle that is too sick to fly, but that gazes at the sky. They also say that these thoughts make the speaker hone in on the struggle in their heart. This is compared to the way that the Elgin Marbles make the speaker feel awestruck and in pain. They are filled with both beauty and suffering. They make the speaker, he concludes, think of the sea and sun, but at the same time, they are shadows of something else entirely.
Structure and Form
‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ by John Keats is a fourteen-line sonnet that conforms to the pattern popularized by Petrarch. This means that the sonnet is contained in one stanza and that uses a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBACDCDCD. As with all Petrarchan sonnets, there is no single pattern used to unify the last six lines. In other iterations of this form, readers might find rhyme schemes like CDECDE or CCCDDD.
The poem is also written in iambic pentameter, the most popular of all English metrical patterns. This means that each line is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.
Throughout this poem, Keats makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, / And each imagined pinnacle and steep.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound a the beginning of multiple words. For example, “sick” and “sky” in stanza two.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza.
My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by noting that his spirit is too weak to deal with the pressure of his future death. He’s thinking about dying, and that makes him feel as though he’s about to fall asleep unwillingly. He can’t keep his eyelids open.
He imagines the world of the gods, playing out in the statues in front of him, and their hardship speaks to his inevitable death.
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
The speaker uses a simile to compare himself to a “sick eagle” who, unable to fly, looks at the sky longingly. The speaker notes that, unlike the eagle, at least he can take some comfort in being able to cry over his inability to fly and see “the opening of the morning’s eye,” or the sunrise.
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—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
The poem’s turn, or Volta, occurs between the eighth and ninth lines. Here, the speaker transitions into discussing his own thoughts. He notes that these thoughts of flying and God-like hardship create a new struggle in his heart. This is compared to the way that the statues make him feel their pain and awestruck at their grandeur.
The speaker ensures that the reader is aware of the “Wasting of old time” that’s visible on the statues. They’re still beautiful, but they are broken in a way that’s hard to ignore. Time destroys even the greatest of statues, so he, one mortal man, does not stand a chance against it.
The last lines inform the reader that the statues make the speaker think about the billowing seas and the sun. But over everything, time rules.
The main theme in this poem is mortality. The speaker looks at the Elgin Marbles and is reminded of their own mortality. They know they are going to die one day and that knowledge is oppressive.
The speaker is likely Keats himself, but it doesn’t have to be. Any reader can place themselves in the speaker’s shoes and consider their own mortality, especially against such an impressive backdrop.
The purpose is to discuss human mortality and compare it to the degradation of impressive Greek statues. Time comes for all things, even those that seem the most beyond it.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading other John Keats poems. For example:
- ‘A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever’ – is about Endymion, an Aeolian shepherd who lived in Olympia and was loved by Selene, the goddess of the moon.
- ‘A Song About Myself’ – a joyous poem in which a young boy travels, writes poetry, catches fish, and learns about himself and others.
- ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ – is a story of unrequited love, illness, and the impossibility of being with whom one cares for when they are from different social classes.