It might be hard to believe that a poem by a British writer from the 1800s could have anything in common with a song by a 1970s American pop singer. Nevertheless, both John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Don McLean's "Vincent" share numerous similarities in style, content and themes. Keats' and McLean's respective works can be compared through their styles, use of imagery and themes about the disparity between art and life.
Both Keats's and McLean's pieces are examples of ekphrastic poetry, a type of poem where authors respond to another art form, most commonly the visual arts. Often, these poems attempt to tell the stories taking place in them, imagine what has been left out or interrogate the artist or characters in the piece. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats responds to an ornate vase painted with images of musicians, Greek gods and villagers. In "Vincent," McLean responds to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, specifically his masterwork "Starry Night."
Keats and McLean also both use personification, a figurative language device where authors give human characteristics to objects or ideas. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the speaker describes the urn as a storyteller that can more accurately portray history than even the greatest scholars. In the fourth verse of "Vincent," the speaker describes Van Gogh's paintings as "eyes that watch the world and can't forget" the artist who brought them into existence. The paintings are objects that can't see or have memories, but come to life through these human qualities.
The works of Keats and McLean also both incorporate visual imagery to recreate the urn and Van Gogh's paintings for readers. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats uses visual imagery when he describes the activities of the people in the urn's carving, from lovers beneath green trees to their unchanging green branches and leaves. In "Vincent," McLean makes a composite of Van Gogh's paintings through the verses, describing the colors, textures and lighting of his work, as well as the seasons, landscapes and people that inhabit the paintings.
Art Versus Life
Ultimately, both poems address the theme of the seeming idealism of art versus the pain and suffering in the real world. At first, the speaker of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" seems to celebrate the fact that in the world of the urn's carving, life is frozen in time. By the final stanza, though, his attitude shifts to sadness because the vibrant scene it depicts is merely "cold pastoral" carved in stone. In "Vincent," the speaker reflects on Van Gogh's insanity and loneliness in contrast to the brilliant colors and vivid emotion in his work.