Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem composed by John Keats, an English Romantic poet, and first published anonymously in Annals of the Fine Arts in May 1819. “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Psyche” are among the “Great Odes of 1819,” which also contain “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Psyche.”
Summary of Ode on a Grecian Urn
In the first stanza, the speaker addresses an old Grecian urn. He is obsessed with the way it depicts images stuck in time. It is the “still unravish’d bride of quietness,” the “fosterchild of silence and slow time.” Additionally, he refers to the urn as a “historian” capable of telling a storey. He enquires about the figures on the urn’s side, wondering what mythology they reflect and where they came from. He examines a photograph that appears to show a group of guys pursuing a group of women and speculates on their storey: “What mad pursuit? What is the struggle to escape? / What are the pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
The speaker glances at another image on the urn in the second stanza, this time of a young man playing a pipe and sleeping with his girlfriend amid a glade of trees. The speaker asserts that the piper’s “unheard” songs are more beautiful than mortal melodies due to their impermanence. He advises the boy that, while he will never be able to kiss his girlfriend due to his immobility in time, he should not grieve, as her beauty will never fade.
In the third stanza, he considers the trees that surround the lovers and rejoices that they will never lose their leaves. He rejoices for the piper because his songs will remain “forever new,” and rejoices for the boy and the girl because their love will endure forever, in contrast to mortal love, which deteriorates into “breathing human passion” and eventually vanishes, leaving only a “burning forehead and a parching tongue.”
The speaker views another image on the urn in the fourth stanza, this time showing a group of peasants carrying a heifer to be sacrificed. He is perplexed as to their destination (“To what green altar, O mysterious priest…”) and their origin. He envisions their small town devoid of all its inhabitants and informs it that its streets will remain silent “forever,” since those who have left it, frozen on the urn, will never return. The final stanza returns the speaker’s attention to the urn, stating that it, like Eternity, “teases us out of thought.” He believes that even after his generation has passed away, the urn will remain, imparting its mysterious message to future generations: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” According to the speaker, that is all the urn knows and needs to know.
Structure of Ode on a Grecian Urn
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” maintains the same ode-stanza structure as “Ode on Melancholy,” except the final three lines of each stanza have a more varied rhyme scheme. Each of the five stanzas of “Grecian Urn” is ten lines long, metered in fairly accurate iambic pentameter, and divided into a two-part rhyme scheme with changeable last three lines. Each stanza’s first seven lines follow an ABABCDE rhyme scheme, but the second occurrences of the CDE sounds do not. Seven through ten are rhymed DCE in stanza one; CED in stanza two; CDE in stanzas three and four; and DCE in stanza five, just as in stanza one. As with other odes (particularly “Autumn” and “Melancholy”), the two-part rhyme scheme (the first section using AB rhymes and the second section using CDE rhymes) produces the impression of a two-part thematic structure. Each stanza’s first four lines broadly establish the stanza’s theme, while the latter six lines broadly explain or develop it. (As with other odes, this is a general rule that applies to some stanzas more than others; for example, stanzas such as the fifth make no connection between rhyme scheme and theme structure at all.)
Themes of Ode on a Grecian Urn
If “Ode to a Nightingale” depicts Keats’s speaker’s engagement with music’s fluid expressiveness, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” depicts his attempt to deal with sculpture’s static immobility. The Grecian urn, which has been passed down through countless centuries to the time of the speaker’s viewing, exists outside of human time in the conventional sense—it does not age or die, and indeed is alien to all such concepts. This presents an intriguing dilemma for the carved human figures on the side of the urn during the speaker’s meditation: They exist outside of time but are also frozen in it. They are not confronted with age or death (since their love is “forever young”), yet they also lack experience (the youth can never kiss the maiden; the figures in the procession can never return to their homes).
The speaker makes three attempts to engage with the urn’s carved scenes, each time asking it a different question. In the first stanza, he examines the image of the “mad pursuit” and speculates on the true storey behind it: “Who are these men or gods?” What is the loth of the maidens?” Naturally, the urn cannot reveal the whos, whats, whens, and wheres of the stories it depicts, and the speaker is forced to abandon this line of inquiry.
He examines the image of the piper performing for his lover beneath the trees in the second and third stanzas. The speaker here attempts to imagine what the figures on the urn must be going through; he attempts to identify with them. He is enticed by their escape from time and drawn to the piper’s unheard song’s eternal newness and his lover’s eternally unchanging beauty. He believes their love is “far above” all transient human passion, which, when expressed sexually, inevitably results in a loss of intensity—when passion is satisfied, all that remains is a worn-out physicality: a sorrowful heart, a “burning forehead,” and a “parching tongue.”
The speaker’s recall of these circumstances appears to remind him that he is inescapably subject to them, and he abandons his attempt to identify with the figures on the urn.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker attempts to think about the figures on the urn as if they were human, imagining that their procession has a beginning (the “little town”) and an end (the “green altar”). But all he can think about is how the town will remain permanently deserted: If these people have left, they will never return. In this sense, he confronts the limitations of static art head-on; if it is impossible to deduce the whos and wheres of the “true storey” from the urn in the first stanza, it is also impossible to deduce the origin and destination of the figures on the urn in the fourth.
True, the speaker makes progress with each subsequent attempt to engage with the urn. The speaker’s idle curiosity in the first attempt gives way to a more deeply felt identification in the second, and in the third, the speaker abandons his own concerns and considers the processional solely on its own terms, with a genuine and generous feeling for the “little town.” Ultimately, however, each attempt fails. The third attempt fails simply because there is nothing more to say—once the speaker confronts the little town’s silence and eternal emptiness, he has reached the limit of static art; on this subject, at least, the urn cannot tell him anything more.
The final stanza summarises the speaker’s three attempts to interact with the urn. He is overcome by its existence outside of temporal change and its capacity to “tease” him “out of thought / As eternity does.” If human life is a succession of “hungry generations,” as the speaker in “Nightingale” implies, the urn is a distinct and self-contained world. It can be a “friend to man,” as the speaker puts it, but it cannot be mortal; the aesthetic connection the speaker has with the urn is ultimately insufficient to sustain human life.
The final two lines, in which the speaker imagines the urn communicating with humanity—”Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—have proven to be among the most difficult to interpret in Keats’ canon. Following the enigmatic phrase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” no one can say for certain who “speaks” the conclusion, “that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The speaker could be speaking to the urn, or the urn could be speaking to mankind. If the speaker is speaking directly to the urn, it would appear that he is aware of its limitations: While the urn does not require knowledge beyond the equation of beauty and truth, the complexities of human life render such a simple and self-contained phrase incapable of adequately expressing necessary human knowledge. If the urn is addressed to humanity, the phrase carries the weight of a vital lesson, as if, despite the complications of human life, all human beings need to know on earth is that beauty and truth are synonymous. Which interpretation to accept is largely a matter of personal choice.
Detailed Analysis of Ode on a Grecian Urn
A man is speaking love nothings to a Grecian urn, an ancient Greek pot with drawings on it. He believes the pot is married to a man named “Quietness,” but they have not had sex yet, so the marriage is not legally binding. He also believes that the urn is the offspring of “Silence” and “Slow Time.”
The speaker then tells us about the urn’s profession: it is a “historian,” and it tells stories far better than the speaker ever could. The speaker examines the urn more closely, attempting to decipher what is shown in the paintings on it. The urn depicts a storey that may or may not involve gods, men, or both. It appears that a group of men is chasing attractive women through the woods. People are banging on drums and playing pipes. Everyone appears to be content. The scenario is chaotic, and the speaker is unsure what is going on.
The urn not only tells a greater storey than the poet, but the musicians in the image have richer sounds. The poet then tries to listen to the music that the folks in the image are playing. That is right: he is trying to listen to the music with his “spirit” even though he can not hear it with his ears. He glances at the depiction of a young man playing a song beneath a tree. Because photos do not change, the man will continue to perform his song for as long as the urn exists, and the tree will remain full and green.
The speaker then addresses one of the men pursuing a maiden and gives him some advice: “You will never make out with that girl, because you are in a picture, and pictures do not change, but do not worry – at least you will always be in love with her, because you are in a picture, and pictures do not change.”
The speaker imagines how delighted the trees must be to be able to keep all of their leaves eternally. In the realm of the urn, it is always springtime, and every melody sounds fresh and new. Then he starts talking about love and repeatedly mentions the word “happy.” He feels envious of the couples on the urn since they will always be in love. He believes that the best part of being in love is attempting to persuade your sweetheart to hook up with you, rather than the part that follows. We are beginning to suspect that the speaker could benefit from a cold shower. The word “panting” threatens to take the poem into X-rated territory.
Things were becoming a little heated, but the speaker has now gone to a different portion of the urn. He is staring at a drawing of an animal sacrifice. This was exactly what he needed: a chilly shower. A priest guides a cow to be sacrificed. People have travelled from a nearby town to observe. The speaker imagines that it is a holy day, and that the town has been emptied in preparation for the sacrifice. The town will always be vacant since it is a photograph, and photographs do not change.
The speaker begins to panic a little. He is basically yelling at the urn right now. He used to be very pleased about the prospect of living in the eternal world of the drawings, but now he is not so sure. Something about it strikes him as “cold.” He considers how, when everyone he knows is gone, the urn will still be there, telling its storey to future generations. The urn is both a teacher and a friend to mankind. It teaches every generation the same lesson: that truth and beauty are the same thing, and that this understanding is all we need to get by in life.