By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’. This line is among the most famous quotations found in the work of John Keats (1795-1821). But what does the line mean, and how should we analyse it? How can ‘unheard’ melodies be of any use to anyone?
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is one of the best-known and most widely analysed poems by John Keats; it is one of his celebrated Odes which he composed in 1819. He wrote five of these Odes in all, and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is perhaps the finest, and most critically acclaimed, of them. And it is in this ode that we find Keats’s declaration that ‘heard melodies are sweet’ but ‘those unheard are sweeter’.
The words begin the second stanza of Keats’s poem, where he tells us:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
But what does he mean by saying that ‘unheard’ melodies are ‘sweeter’ than those we can hear? After all, no matter how much I enjoy a song, I’m going to prefer to hear it played than just have the memory of it in my mind. Surely?
Well, not entirely.
After all, there is something to be said for those works which exist only in the human imagination. And Keats, being a Romantic poet, was keen on the power of the imagination, which his fellow Romantic poet Percy Shelley argued was the quality which made poets the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.
As the title of his poem suggests, Keats is looking at an ancient piece of pottery, an urn from the days of ancient Greece, and trying to figure out what the carvings on the pot represent. The urn shows musicians playing pipes and timbrels (a kind of ancient tambourine). He acknowledges that although he cannot hear the pipes and timbrels being played, this actually makes their (imagined) sound even ‘sweeter’ to the ear.
In other words, the ‘spirit ditties’ which Keats imagines the pipers on the urn playing are more powerful than any actual music could ever be. To lower the done for a moment, there’s a line in one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels which states that the best drink of the day was the drink Bond had in his head before the first drink of the day. No actual martini could ever match the perfection of that ‘ideal’ drink which exists only in one’s mind.
But to return to Keats and the Romantics, we can see that the concept of ‘heard melodies’ being sweet, but ‘those unheard’ being sweeter as a quintessentially Romantic idea, because it places the human imagination above empirical reality, or what actually, physically exists in the world.
Sticking with the subject of music, Keats’s contemporary and fellow Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), famously wrote a short lyric which begins:
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory –
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
In other words, music which resonates in the mind long after it has ceased being played is as powerful as the music itself. But Keats takes this idea of remembered music and develops it further: we will never know the music those ancient Greek pipers were playing (and, for all we know, those specific pipers never existed, and are simply an artistic ideal), but for Keats, that is what makes their ‘melodies’ even ‘sweeter’ than any ‘heard melodies’.