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 …show more content…
The image plays heavily both on what was, the eagle soaring through the skies, and what remains, a gaping absence: an eagle-less sky and a lacking eagle. Hence, a fundamental element of the image is the existence of an absence. Two lines later, the speaker describes the "cloudy winds" (7) which he does not have. The unusual description of the winds as “cloudy” implies a fraught and stormy sky, and stimulates both visual and tactile senses; yet, these same cloudy winds are absent to the speaker. Thus, here too is an instance of the existence of absence; the vivid and sensuous imagery creates something substantial and tangible, and, as such, the negation of the image's existence, becomes all the more palpable; its absence becomes distinct and almost like an entity in its own right. The oxymoron “dim-conceived glories” (9) produces a similar tension. On a superficial level, the oxymoron is interesting in that it combines “dim,” connoting darkness, with “glories,” which often connotes radiance or light. Furthermore, there is a tension between the “dim” and “conceived,” the latter implying creation and thus existence, while the first paradoxically suggests something barely or non-existent. Implying the creation of that which does not exist embodies the tension between existence and the