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O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought

I am having trouble understanding Keats's use of the word "attitude" in these lines, and the explanation given by the editor of my Penguin edition of Keats's poems is not satisfactory.

He (the editor) thinks that attitude is being used in the sense "A posture of the body proper to, or implying, some action or mental state assumed by human beings or animals" (OED). There was also an earlier technical sense which referred specifically to the posture or position of a figure in statuary or painting, but according to the OED these two senses have been merged for a few hundred years.

The problem is that neither of these can be naturally applied to an urn, which does not itself represent a human or animal figure and therefore does not have a posture. Now, there is an established figurative sense, in which "attitude" is used to refer to the position of an inanimate object which is not a representation of a human or animal figure, and in fact Keats uses it in his poem "Specimen of an Induction to a Poem":

LO! I must tell a tale of chivalry;
For large white plumes are dancing in mine eye.
Not like the formal crest of latter days:
But bending in a thousand graceful ways;
So graceful, that it seems no mortal hand,
Or e’en the touch of Archimago’s wand,
Could charm them into such an attitude.

Here, as you will see, the word attitude is used figuratively to refer to the physical position of the plumes--the way they bend in the wind--which Keats thinks has a graceful quality. Because the word "attitude" is associated with the posture of a living being, its application to an inanimate thing has a personifying effect, and the imagery of the plumes bending gracefully in the wind--as though they are dancing--is rendered more vivid as a result.

All that makes sense to me. But in Ode on a Grecian Urn we are talking about an urn which is presumably just sitting there, upright, as you would expect an urn to do. The poem gives lots of details about the figures carved or painted on the urn, but doesn't say at any point that there is anything particularly remarkable about the physical positioning of the urn itself.

Accordingly I am at a loss to understand exactly what Keats means by attitude. The only thing I can think of is that he has stretched the established figurative usage a bit, so that instead of denoting the position of an inanimate object, he instead means to denote its overall appearance, so that in this case he is simply saying that the appearance of the urn is "fair"--Ie. beautiful.

I am interested to hear if you agree or disagree with my interpretation.

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  • You're overthinking this. "Attitude" just means posture or positioning. He's saying the urn is both shapely in itself and is also well-positioned in its relation to its setting--personally I think of having a level base, so that it stands symmetrically, upright, and balanced.
    – Tiercelet
    Commented Apr 15 at 17:53

2 Answers 2

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Your argument is that the urn cannot have an “attitude” (in the sense “a posture of the body”), even considered as a figure of personification, because it is “presumably just sitting there, upright, as you would expect an urn to do”. But surely “sitting upright” is as much “a posture of the body” as any other?

Keats is thought to have been inspired to write ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by the illustrations in Henry Moses’ A Collection of Antique Vases. Notably, Keats drew or traced a copy of Moses’ plate 38, which depicts the Sosibios vase, a volute-type marble krater or mixing vessel, with reliefs of Artemis, Hermes, maenads, a satyr, and a musician.

Left: Sosibios vase (1st century BCE). Paris: Louvre. Photo by Clio20, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Centre: Henry Moses (1814). A Collection of Antique Vases, Altars, Paterae, Tripods, Candelabra Sarcophagi, &c., plate 38. London: Henry G. Bohn.
Right: John Keats (c. 1816). Drawing or tracing of the Sosibios Vase. Rome: Keats–Shelley House.
The figure on the right can be identified as a maenad as she is holding a thyrsus, a staff tipped with a pine cone, associated with the worshippers of Dionysus.

With a little visual imagination, we can interpret this krater as the arms, torso and skirt of a women with her hands on her hips. Such a figure could certainly be said to have an “attitude”.

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  • OK, that's plausible now that i see the photo. I guess I was having trouble imagining how the posture itself of the vase could be considered beautiful.
    – Thomas
    Commented Apr 15 at 23:46
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Keats is not referring to the urn's attitude. (That would require a bit of explaining.) The subject of the sentence is the plumes, not the urn. The pronoun "them" makes it clear: Keats is referring to the plumes' attitude. ("Could charm them into such an attitude.")

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  • Talk about overthinking! Commented Apr 28 at 18:47
  • You've misread the question—the plumes and the urn are in two different poems! Commented Apr 28 at 18:54
  • An indefensible error. Talk about careless reading. Commented Apr 28 at 19:12

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