Laokoon Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), the Enlightenment writer and at the... of author of tragedies, comedies, fables and poems, Lessing was also...

Lessing’s Theories in his Laokoon Debated by John Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), the Enlightenment writer and at the same time, the
conqueror of rational classicism, is the driving force of the literary profession of his time. Not only an
author of tragedies, comedies, fables and poems, Lessing was also a literary theorist and critic, a true
scholar of literature, an art historian, and a deep philosophical and theological thinker. Born in Goerlitz,
an intellectual center in Saxony where his father was an influential Lutheran minister, Lessing began his
studies of theology at Meissen and Leipzig, but he renounced this career to become a journalist,
librarian, and translator of texts in French, Italian, and Spanish. His deep interest in the art and literature
of Ancient Greece and Rome places him in the ranks of the foremost scholars of his age.
Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) observes in his Kritische Schriften that when Lessing began to
write, German literature is one of the youngest among the European literatures (“die deutsche Literatur
ist eine der juengsten unter den Europaeischen .”) German literature had not yet developed into the
Weimar Classicism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). It
remained for Lessing to lead the way to awaken the German mind and to instill in it a philosophy that
embodied both the romantic and the classical in the realm of literature.
Lessing laid the foundation for a genuine German literature by challenging the literary dicta of
Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700-1766) whose views dominated German literature when Lessing came
on the scene. For more than a generation, Gottsched and his followers had demanded that German
literature adhere to imitating French classical literature with its strict rules drawn from the literary
tenets of classical antiquity. This adherence would have excluded works of Shakespeare, Ariosto, Tasso,
and Milton from being considered as worthy literary creations! In every aspect of his being, Lessing was
German and immersed himself in classical lore without looking at it through foreign interpretations such
as those of the French. Unfortunately, Lessing’s works today are little known outside Germany.
However, three dramatic works that still generate a broad interest are the comedy Minna von Barnhelm
(1766), the tragedy Emilia Galotti (1772), and the philosophical drama Nathan der Weise (1779).
Especially important today among scholars everywhere is his critical treatise entitled Laokoon (1766).
That Laokoon: Oder, ueber die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766) astonishes the reader with
the depth of Lessing’s knowledge of the aesthetics of Ancient Greek and Roman literature and art lends
credence to his being awarded the title of “Polyhistor”by an admiring German public. Lessing had great
respect for Johann Joachim Winkelmann (1717-1768), the art historian and archeologist whose Hellenic
interests reflect his articulation of the differences between Greek, Greco-Roman, and Roman art. He
asserted in Gedanken ueber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke, in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst
that the principal characteristics of Greek sculpture exhibited “eine edle Einfalt und eine stille Groesse”
(a noble simplicity and a quiet greatness). In his study of the Laocoon statue Winkelmann concluded that
natural beauty was the foundation of Greek art. His “noble simplicity and quiet greatness” meant that
the sculptor hoped to show that greatness of soul would overcome expression of pain.
Lessing, whose knowledge of Laocoon came from his literary study of Homer and Sophocles,
maintained that greatness of soul did not require a suppression of an expression of pain. Winkelmann
had written in Geschichte der Kunst des Altertumes in the chapter entitled “Von der Kunst der Zeichnung
unter den Griechen und von der Schoenheit:”
In the anguish and suffering of the Laocoon (statue), which is shown in every muscle and nerve,
we see the tried spirit of a great man, who wrestles with torment and seeks to suppress and
confine within itself the outbreak of sensibility. He does not burst forth in a loud cry as Virgil
describes him to us, but only sad and still sighs come from him….(98)
Laocoon, a Trojan hero, was the son of Agenor of Troy and a priest of Apollo or of Poseidon,
depending on the sources one reads. He warns the Trojans against the wooden horse that the Greeks
left before the walls of Troy. Virgil (70-19 BC) writes in Book II of his Aeneid: “Equo ne credite/Quidquid
id est,/timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” (Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear Greeks
bearing gifts.) Various reasons for Laocoon’s death are given in ancient texts, but Virgil’s account is one
of the most widely accepted. As Laocoon was sacrificing a bull to Poseidon to gain his favor for the
Trojans, Athena, a supporter of the Greeks, punishes him for warning the Trojans about the horse by
sending serpents from the sea to kill him and his two young sons. The sublime story of Laocoon’s death
was a subject for both poets and artists in the ancient world. Virgil’s rendition in Book II of the Aeneid,
lines 199-227 is the poetic version known to most people. According to Pliny the Elder (23-79), the
Laocoon sculptural group by the Rhodian artist, Agesander (1st century BC) adorned the palace of the
Roman Emperor Titus (39-81). Unearthed in 1506 during the papacy of Julius II on the Equiline Hill in
Rome, the Laocoon group can be seen today in the Vatican Museum (see fig. 1).
Winkelmann’s comparison of the Laocoon sculptural grouping of Agesander with the poetic
description of Virgil stimulated Lessing to write his 1766 critical treatise. The effect of his Laokoon,
especially in Germany but also on the rest of the Continent and in England, ushered in a new approach
in aesthetic culture and literature. Lessing seeks to resolve Winkelmann’s criticism of Virgil for having
Laocoon scream while Agesander suppresses his emotion to a sigh. Lessing concludes:
Wenn es wahr ist, daB das Schreien bei Empfindung koerperlichen Schmerzes, besonders nach
der alten grieschischen Denkungsart, gar wohl mit einer grossen Seele bestehen kann; so
kann der Ausdruck einer solchen Seele die Ursache nicht sein, warum demohngeachtet der
Kuenstler in seinem Marmor nicht nachahment wollen, sondern es muB einen andern Grund
haben, warum er hier von seinem Nebenbuhler, dem Dichter, abgehet, der dieses Geschrei mit
bestem Vorsatze ausdrueket.
If it be true that the cry which arises from the sensation of bodily suffering, especially
according to the old Greek fashion of thinking, may well consist with a great soul, then the
outward expression of such a soul cannot be the cause why- notwithstanding it- the artist
should not imitate in his marble this cry; but there must be another cause why, in this respect.
He differs from his rival Poet, who has very good reasons for expressing this cry.
Lessing presents in his critical essay the differences between the plastic arts and the literary
arts. In the plastic arts, such as sculpture and painting, one’s aesthetic response is simultaneous and
static, a fact that requires the artist to capture the most pregnant moment in his creation. Agesander
does exactly this in the Laocoon group where he has Laocoon opening his mouth ever so slightly which
reveals the moment of his realization that he and his sons are doomed to die from the attack of the
serpents sent by Athena. By contrast, the literary arts- lyric, epic, and dramatic – affect the reader or
listener quite differently. Literature, according to Lessing, is successive and dynamic. In Virgil’s
description of Laocoon’s death the poet presents a succession of events that moves toward a climax.
This evokes in a person a much different aesthetic response from that of the plastic arts.
Lessing takes issue with Winkelmann and makes clear the distinction between Agesander and
Virgil’s interpretations of the myth.
Laokoon erhebt kein schreckliches Geschrei, wie Virgil von seinem Laokoon singet; die
Oeffnung des Mundes gestattet es nicht; es ist vielmehr ein aengstisches und beklemmtes Seufzen, wie es Sadolet beschreibt. Der Schmerz des Koerpers und die
GroeBe der Seele sind durch den ganzen Bau der Figur mit gleicher Staerke ausgeteilet, und gleichsam abgewogen. Laokoon leidet, aber er leidet wie des Sophokles
Philoket: sein Elend gehet uns bis an die Seele; aber wir wuenschten, wie dieser groBe
Mann, das Elend ertragen zu koennen.
Laocoon raises no horrible scream as Virgil sings of his Laocoon; the opening of the
mouth does not permit it; it is more an anxious and oppressed sigh, just as Jacapo
Sadoleto describes it. The pain of the body and the greatness of the soul are spread out
through all parts of the statue with the same force and at the same time in various
directions. Laocoon suffers, but he suffers like the Philoket of Sophocles: his misery goes
to the very depth of our souls; but we wished, like this great man, to be able to bear the misery.
With his Laokoon, Lessing sets aside the aesthetic criteria of the Renaissance and Baroque and
paves the way for new aesthetic approaches, ranging from neo-Classical purism to neo-Romantic
eclecticism. For John Keats (1795-1821) and Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), Lessing’s critical treatise served as
an inspiration to these English romantics to contemplate his critical premise regarding the distinction
between the plastic arts as simultaneous and static and the literary arts as successive and dynamic.
Hunt, as editor of various literary journals, is largely responsible for the publication of much of Keats’
Keats was fascinated by classical antiquity, and although his financial situation precluded his
traveling to Greece and Italy, he took full advantage of the classical treasures, such as the Elgin Marbles,
that were a growing part of the British Museum’s collection in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries. He also knew well the epic poems of Homer and was especially moved by his description of
Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad that is considered the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition. This
passage implicitly compares visual and verbal means of description most dramatically by weaving
elements that could not be part of the shield (like movement and sound) with things that could be (like
physical material and visual details).This emphasizes the possibilities of the verbal and the limitations of
the visual. What is described becomes real in the reader’s imagination despite the fact it could not exist.
Perhaps one of the most important examples of ekphrastic poetry is Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian
Urn,” written in 1819 and published in 1820 in the Annals of the Fine Arts (see fig. 2). Keats, like Homer,
mixed descriptions of things that could have been both visible and not visible on the urn, but he differed
from Homer in that he made his personal experience in viewing the urn part of his ode. This represents a
shift in emphasis that led to a transformation in the genre of ekphrasis. In using the elements of Hellenic
ekphrasis, he embraced the past while still concerning himself with the present where his imagination
could overshadow reality. Ancient Greece symbolized for Keats a magical, idealized world in his head,
accessible only through ancient writings and monumental artwork created by the Greeks during that
Much speculation has arisen since the publication of this ode regarding what particular vase or
urn inspired the poet. At one time it was believed that the “Townley Vase,” part of the collection of
Charles Townley (1737-1805) in the British Museum, was the urn from Keats’ ode (see fig. 3). It is wellknown that this large Roman vase in marble from the second century was one of the poet’s favorite
artifacts in the museum. Though the subject of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is neither Roman nor a vase, we
know that Keats made a sketch of the marble Greek “Sosibios Vase” in the Louvre that he found in
Henry Moses’ book, A Collection of Antique Vases (see fig. 4). Other possible inspirations for the urn are
the Roman cameo-glass vessel from the first century that was acquired by the dowager Duchess of
Portland in 1774 and later became part of the collection of the British Museum (see fig. 5) and the
marble Greek “Borghese Vase” from the first century BC in the Louvre (see fig. 6). Keats’ friend, Leigh
Hunt, spoke of the urn as a “sculptured vase,” intimating it was marble and not an Attic red and black
vase in clay. Keats’ reference to the “little deserted town” on the day of the wedding has caused some
critics to suggest he might have been inspired by pastoral scenes in paintings (see figs. 7 and 8) by
Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).
That no specific work of art has been established as the poet’s inspiration for the urn with the
wedding procession depicted around its surface, one can assume that his subject for the ode has arisen
out of the poet’s imagination, drawn from his personal experiences with both the plastic and literary
arts. Scholars since the publication of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” have presented countless analyses of this
most famous of John Keats’ poems. The following analysis seeks only to examine the poem as the poet’s
personal debate on Lessing’s theory as to which of the two arts, the plastic or the literary, is superior.
As we read the memorable first line of the ode- “Thou still unravished bride of quietness” – we
are reminded of Lessing’s belief that the plastic artist must not create the most emotional moment but
the most pregnant one. The bride is full only of anticipation for the approaching sexual union with her
true love. The debate commences when Keats poses the question whether or not the urn’s artist can
express the situation “more sweetly” than his poem. The pastoral scenes of Arcady on the urn leave us
with the desire to know exactly “what men or gods are these” and details about their specific activities
during the day. With this question, Keats implies the simultaneous and static limitations of the plastic
arts. The debate continues with the proposition that “Heard melodies are sweet (poetry), but those
unheard are sweeter “ (painting/sculpture).
The static nature of the plastic arts will allow the young lovers always to remain young and
beautiful, and they will experience eternal Spring, but they will be frozen in time on the urn and never
reach their goal of living a life together. The limitations of the plastic arts continue to be stressed by the
poet. We will never know to what altar the priest is going to sacrifice the heifer for the celebration, nor
will we know anything of the people portrayed on the urn whose town will be deserted because they
cannot return home. The literary arts, on the other hand, being successive and dynamic, have the
potential of conveying a moving succession of events that reveals to us a comprehensive presentation
able to provide for us past, present, and future details germane to the subject. In the final stanza Keats
addresses directly the “Attic shape” with its “marble men and maidens overwrought.” We are beguiled
by the “silent form” which the poet calls a “Cold Pastoral.” We are reminded of the transitory nature of
human existence and the permanence of art- “ars longa, vita brevae” with the poet’s conclusion that the
urn will continue to exert an aesthetic effect on future generations, long after his generation has passed
from the scene into eternity.
The intended meaning of the final lines of the ode has intrigued scholars for nearly two
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st
“Beauty is truth. Truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
In Book X of The Republic, Plato in his example of the “Bed” presents the concept of the realm of
the ideal of which reality is an imitation and art an imitation of that reality. Leaving aside his argument
that artists take us one more degree away from the ideal, we can use his concept of art imitating reality
to consider art as mimetic. Mimesis is the representation of reality in a form foreign to or different from
that reality being represented. In my view Keats’ “beauty” represents all art, both plastic and literary,
and his “truth” represents the reality that all artists imitate in their creations. I would venture to say that
all forms of art, both plastic and literary, are equal in importance, because they are representations of
the real human condition and transcend the ravages of time. Simply put, Keats’ urn is telling us that “art
is long and life is short.”
Figure 1: Laocoon Group in the Vatican Museum
Figure 2: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats
Ode on a Grecian Urn
THOU still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
Figure 3: The “Townley Vase” in the British Museum
Figure 4: The “Sosibios Vase” in the Louvre
Figure 5: The “Portland Vase” in the British Museum
Figure 6: The “Borghese Vase” in the Louvre
Figure 7: Pastoral Scene by Claude Lorrain
Figure 8: Pastoral Painting by Nicolas Poussin
Works Cited
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900.
Ed. Arthur Quiller Couch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1919. Print.
Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Lessings Werke: Laokoon. Charleston, South Carolina: Nabu
Press, 2010. Print.
Schlegel , Friedrich Karl Wilhelm. Kritische Schriften. Munich: Hanser Verlag, 1958. Print.
Winkelmann, Johann Joachim. Gedanken ueber die Nachahmung der griechischen
Werke, in der Malerei und der Bildhauerkunst. Stuttgsrt: Reclam Verlag, 1986.
------------- Geschichte des Alterstums. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche
Buchgesellschaft, 1993. Print.