John Keats is perhaps most famous for his odes such as this one, Ode on a Grecian Urn. As well as Ode to a Nightingale, in which the poet deals with the expressive nature of music, Ode on a Grecian Urn is another attempt to engage with the beauty of art and nature, this time addressing a piece of pottery from ancient Greece.
The urn itself is ancient. It’s been passed down over the millennia to finally reach Keats’s presence and, to him, seems to exist outside of the traditional sense of time. Ageless, immortal, it’s almost alien in its distance from the current age.
This allows the poet (or at least, the speaker in the poem) to mull over the strange idea of the human figures carved into the urn. They’re paradoxical figures, free from the constraints and influences of time but at the same time, imprisoned in an exact moment. For all that they don’t have to worry about growing old or dying, they cannot experience life as it is for rest of humanity.
The poem represents three attempts at engaging with the urn and its scenes. Across the stanzas, Keats tries to wonder about who the figures are, what they’re doing, what they represent, and what the underlying meaning of their images might be. But by the end of the poem, he realises that the entire process of questioning is fairly redundant.
Ode on a Grecian Urn Analysis
Like other entries in Keats’s series of odes, Ode on a Grecian Urn builds on a specific structure. Its closest formal cousin is probably Ode on Melancholy, though it contains a slightly different rhyme scheme. Split into five verses (stanzas) of ten lines each, and making use of fairly rigid iambic pentameter, Ode on a Grecian Urn is very carefully put together.
The rhyme scheme is split into two parts, with the final three lines of each stanza varying slightly. For the first seven lines, a rhyme scheme of ABABCDE is used, though the instance of the CDE part is not always as strict. In verse one, the final three lines are DCE; in the second verse, they’re CED; stanzas three and four both use CDE, while the fifth and final stanza uses DCE. This gives the piece a ponderous feel, adding a sense of deliberation to the final lines of each verse while still adhering to the form.
Just like in his other odes, the splitting of the verses into rhymes of four lines and six lines creates a distinct sense of there being two parts to each verse. As it is, this typically means that the first four lines (ABAB) are used to set out the verse’s subject, while the final six lines mull over what it means.
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-fring’d 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?
During this first verse, we see the narrator announcing that he is standing before a very old urn from Greece. The urn becomes the subject of the poem, so all of the ideas and thoughts are addressed towards it. On the urn, we are told there are images of people who have been frozen in place for all of time, as the “foster-child of silence and slow time.”
The narrator also explains to us that he is discussing the matter in his role as a “historian” and that he’s wondering just what legend or story the figures stuck on the side of the pottery are trying to convey. One such picture, seemingly showing a gang of men as they chase some women, is described as a “mad pursuit” but the narrator wants to know more about the “struggle to escape” or the “wild ecstasy.” The juxtaposition between these two ideas gives an insight into how he is projecting different narratives onto one scene, unsure of which one is true.
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!
During the second verse, the reader is introduced to another image on the Grecian urn. In this scene, a young man is sat with a lover, seemingly playing a song on a pipe as they are surrounded by trees. Again, the narrator’s interest is piqued, but he decides that the “melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” Unaffected by growing old or changing fashions, the notes the narrator imagines the man playing offer unlimited potential for beauty. While the figures will never grow old, the music also contains an immortal quality, one much “sweeter” than regular music. The narrator comforts the man, who he acknowledges will never be able to kiss his companion, with the fact that she will never lose her beauty as she is frozen in time.
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
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.
The third stanza again focuses on the same two lovers but turns its attention to the rest of the scene. The trees behind the pipe player will never grow old and their leaves will never fall, an idea which pleases the narrator. Just like the leaves, the love shared between the two is equally as immortal and won’t have the chance to grow old and stale. Normal love between humans can languish into a “breathing human passion” and becomes a “burning forehead and a parching tongue,” a problem that the young lovers will not face.
In attempting to identify with the couple and their scene, the narrator reveals that he covets their ability to escape from the temporary nature of life. The piper’s song remains new forever while his lover remains young and beautiful. This love, he believes, is “far above” the standard human bond which can grow tired and weary. The parched tongue he references seems to indicate that he’s worried about the flame of passion diminishing as time passes, something that won’t worry the young couple. On viewing the figures, the narrator is reminded of the inevitability of his own diminishing passions and regrets that he doesn’t have the same chance at immortality as the two figures on the urn.
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 this 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.
The fourth stanza really begins to develop the ideas. Turning to another image on the urn, this time a group of people bringing a cow to be sacrificed, the narrator begins to wonder about the individuals’ lives. We also see the speaker in the poem attempt to think about the people on the urn as though they were functioning in regular time. This means that he imagines them to have had a starting point – the “little town” – and an end point – the “green altar.” In turn, he imagines the “little town” they come from, now deserted because its inhabitants are frozen in the image on the side of the urn “for evermore.” This hints at what he sees as the limitations of the static piece of art, in that the viewer can never discern the human motivations of the people, the “real story” that makes them interesting as people.
The narrator’s attempts to engage with the figures on the urn do change. Here, his curiosity from the first stanza evolves into deeper kind of identification with the young lovers, before thinking of the town and community as a whole in the fourth. Each time, the reach of his empathy expands from one figure, to two, and then to a whole town. But once he encounters the idea of an empty town, there’s little else to say. This is the limit of the urn as a piece of art, as it’s not able to provide him with any more information.
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.”
The final stanza is perhaps the most famous piece of poetry Keats ever wrote. This time, he is talking directly to the urn itself, which he believes “doth tease us out of thought.” Even after everyone has died, the urn will remain, still providing hints at humanity but no real answers. This is where we come to the conclusions he draws. There is a sense that the narrator finds the lack of change imposed upon the figures to be overwhelming. The urn teases him with its immortal existence, feeding off the “hungry generations” (a line from Ode to a Nightingale) and their intrigue without ever really providing answers. The urn is almost its own little world, living by its own rules. While it might be interesting and intriguing, it will never be mortal. It’s a purely aesthetic piece of art, something the speaker finds to be unsatisfying when compared to the richness of everyday human life.
The last lines in the piece have become incredibly well known. They can be read as an attempt to sum up the entire through process of the poem in one couplet. ”Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as an idea has proved very difficult to dissect, however, due to its mysteriousness. It’s unclear whether the sentiment is spoken by the narrator, the urn, or by Keats himself, thanks to the enigmatic use of quotation marks. The source of the speech matters. If it’s the narrator, then it could mean that he has become aware of the limitations of such a static piece of artwork. If it’s the urn, then the idea that one piece of art (or self-contained phrase) could encompass humanity in any kind of complete fashion is nonsensical, and the line deliberately plays off this. There’s a futility to trying to sum up the true nature of beauty in just twenty syllables, a fact which might actually be the point of the couplet. Thanks to the dense, complicated nature of the final two lines, the opening remains open to interpretation.