A Bruised Self Image: An Analysis of Conflict in John Keats' "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles"

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John Keats' "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles" is a sonnet written upon visiting the British Museum, subsequent to the country's purchase of marble statues that had originally been part of the Parthenon in Athens. The poem contains a web of underlying tensions and conflicts that are evident in both the words and imagery of the poem. However, unlike other sonnets in which conflict is often resolved by the end, this sonnet leaves a lasting feeling of despair which sheds light on the internal strife embodied within the speaker himself.
The conflict contained in this poem is reflected first and foremost in its theme. Much controversy surrounds the purchase of these ancient works of art. The lawfulness of the removal of these statues from the
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12-13). The statues, once the height of artistic expression and innovation, are now reduced to fragments of what they once were. This concept of greatness being reduced to ruins is something that is pertinent to the self image of the poet. The reception of Keats' poetry in the literary world was generally negative. While he regarded his own poetry as grandeur, the critics of the day, for the most part, reduced it to ruins. Additionally, the imagery in the poem presents other instances of conflict. The speaker, through the use of a simile, likens "mortality" (l. 1) to an "unwilling sleep" (l. 2): a sleep that comes despite wanting to remain awake. Both of these concepts, the concept of the mortal human who pleads for additional time on Earth, and the concept of someone wishing for but a few more moments of wakefulness, are images of internal conflict. This allusion to the topos of memento mori, the idea that death is immanent, provides the reader with a sense of despair. This topos is then extended with the imagery of the "sick eagle looking up at the sky" (l. 5). The sick bird yearns to fly, but instead is confined to the ground and is left to pine for the peaks that it cannot reach. The previous sense of despair is now combined with a sense of frustration. It is interesting to note that the image of the sick eagle is, in a way, exactly opposite to that of the human condition of mortality.

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