On Seeing the Elgin Marbles: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

The tone is one of intense admiration for the sculptures, yet a recognition that they have suffered and been degraded through time (saving them from decay was one of the major justifications for their removal from Athens), which plunges the speaker into a kind of despair. However, there is a strong sense of wonder for the civilization which produced such sophisticated beauty.
The speaker’s dizziness is suggested by the fragmented syntax of the final two lines, the dashes suggesting the clash of images which fill his mind. ‘Grecian grandeur’ is subject to ‘old Time’: what must have seemed so permanent to their creators is now in fragments in a British museum. 

Investigating language and tone in On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

  • How does Keats use language to create a tone of intense admiration?
  • How does the fragmented syntax of the final two lines achieve its effect?
  • What strong contrasts of language can you find in the poem and what is their effect?

Structure and versification in On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet rhyming abba abba in the octave and cd cd cd in the sestet. However, in terms of thought processes, the octave is divided into five and three lines, the sestet into two sections of three lines each.
The octave is centred on the speaker’s intense feelings of weakness and mortality. All the images he sees on the Elgin Marbles reinforce his knowledge that he ‘must die’. His only comfort is that he does not have such onerous duties to perform as the gods depicted in the sculptures.
The sestet reflects on the dual meaning of the Marbles: ‘Grecian grandeur’ mixed with a sense of the ‘wasting of old Time’.
Andrew Motion (Keats, 1997) suggests that the staccato nature of the last two lines (with the final three phrases separated by dashes) ‘alludes to the fragmentariness of the Marbles while perhaps also raising questions about how and why they had been removed from their original site.’

Investigating structure and versification in On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

  • Look at the quotation above from Andrew Motion about the effect of the final two lines. Do you agree with his assessment?
  • What is the focus of the sonnet’s octave and how does it relate to the focus of the sestet?
  • There are several examples of enjambement in the sonnet. What is their effect?
  • Keats uses dashes four times in this sonnet, once in line 1 and three times in the final two lines. Why?
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