Type of Work
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a romantic ode, a dignified but highly lyrical (emotional) poem in which the author speaks to a person or thing absent or present. In this famous ode, Keats addresses the urn and the images on it. The romantic ode was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the nineteenth century. It was the result of an author’s deep meditation on the person or object. The romantic ode evolved from the ancient Greek ode, written in a serious tone to celebrate an event or to praise an individual. The Greek ode was intended to be sung by a chorus or by one person to the accompaniment of musical instruments. The odes of the Greek poet Pindar (circa 518-438 BC) frequently extolled athletes who participated in athletic games at Olympus, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Nemea. Bacchylides, a contemporary of Pindar, also wrote odes praising athletes.
The Roman poets Horace (65-8 BC) and Catullus (84-54 BC) wrote odes based on the Greek model, but their odes were not intended to be sung. In the nineteenth century, English romantic poets wrote odes that retained the serious tone of the Greek ode. However, like the Roman poets, they did not write odes to be sung. Unlike the Roman poets, though, the authors of nineteenth century romantic odes generally were more emotional in their writing. The author of a typical romantic ode focused on a scene, pondered its meaning, and presented a highly personal reaction to it that included a special insight at the end of the poem (like the closing lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”).
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" was written in the spring of 1819 and published later that year in Annals of the Fine Arts, which focused on architecture, sculpture, and painting but sometimes published poems and essays with themes related to the arts.
In England, Keats examines a marble urn crafted in ancient Greece. (Whether such an urn was real or imagined is uncertain. However, many artifacts from ancient Greece, ones which could have inspired Keats, were on display in the British Museum at the time that Keats wrote the poem.) Pictured on the urn, a type of vase, are pastoral scenes in Greece.
In one scene, males are chasing females in some sort of revelry or celebration. There are musicians playing pipes (wind instruments such as flutes) and timbrels (ancient tambourines). Keats wonders whether the images represent both gods and humans. He also wonders what has occasioned their merrymaking.
A second scene depicts people leading a heifer to a sacrificial altar. Keats writes his ode about what he sees, addressing or commenting on the urn and its images as if they were real beings with whom he can speak.
End-Rhyming Words Are Highlighted
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?
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, unwearied, [un WEER e ED]
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 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.
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.
Keats calls the urn an “unravish’d bride of quietness” because it has existed for centuries without undergoing any changes (it is “unravished”) as it sits quietly on a shelf or table. He also calls it a “foster-child of silence and time” because it is has been adopted by silence and time, parents who have conferred on the urn eternal stillness. In addition, Keats refers to the urn as a “sylvan historian” because it records a pastoral scene from long ago. (“Sylvan” refers to anything pertaining to woods or forests.) This scene tells a story (“legend”) in pictures framed with leaves (“leaf-fring’d”)—a story that the urn tells more charmingly with its images than Keats does with his pen. Keats speculates that the scene is set either in Tempe or Arcady. Tempe is a valley in Thessaly, Greece—between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa—that is favored by Apollo, the god of poetry and music. Arcady is Arcadia, a picturesque region in the Peloponnesus (a peninsula making up the southern part of Greece) where inhabitants live in carefree simplicity. Keats wonders whether the images he sees represent humans or gods. And, he asks, who are the reluctant (“loth”) maidens and what is the activity taking place?
Using paradox and oxymoron to open the second stanza, Keats praises the silent music coming from the pipes and timbrels as far more pleasing than the audible music of real life, for the music from the urn is for the spirit. Keats then notes that the young man playing the pipe beneath trees must always remain an etched figure on the urn. He is fixed in time like the leaves on the tree. They will remain ever green and never die. Keats also says the bold young lover (who may be the piper or another person) can never embrace the maiden next to him even though he is so close to her. However, Keats says, the young man should not grieve, for his lady love will remain beautiful forever, and their love—though unfulfilled—will continue through all eternity.
Keats addresses the trees, calling them “happy, happy boughs” because they will never shed their leaves, and then addresses the young piper, calling him “happy melodist” because his songs will continue forever. In addition, the young man's love for the maiden will remain forever “warm and still to be enjoy’d / For ever panting, and for ever young. . . .” In contrast, Keats says, the love between a man and a woman in the real world is imperfect, bringing pain and sorrow and desire that cannot be fully quenched. The lover comes away with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”
Keats inquires about the images of people approaching an altar to sacrifice a "lowing" (mooing) cow, one that has never borne a calf, on a green altar. Do these simple folk come from a little town on a river, a seashore, or a mountain topped by a peaceful fortress. Wherever the town is, it will be forever empty, for all of its inhabitants are here participating in the festivities depicted on the urn. Like the other figures on the urn, townspeople are frozen in time; they cannot escape the urn and return to their homes.
Keats begins by addressing the urn as an “attic shape.” Attic refers to Attica, a region of east-central ancient Greece in which Athens was the chief city. Shape, of course, refers to the urn. Thus, attic shape is an urn that was crafted in ancient Attica. The urn is a beautiful one, poet says, adorned with “brede” (braiding, embroidery) depicting
marble men and women enacting a scene in the tangle of forest tree branches and weeds. As
people look upon the scene, they ponder it—as they would ponder eternity—trying so hard to grasp its meaning that they exhaust themselves of thought. Keats calls the scene a “cold pastoral!”—in part because it is made of cold, unchanging marble and in part, perhaps, because it frustrates him with its unfathomable mysteries, as does eternity. (At this time in his life, Keats was suffering from
tuberculosis, a disease that had killed his brother, and was no doubt much occupied with thoughts of eternity. He was also passionately in love with a young woman, Fanny Brawne, but was unable to act decisively on his feelings—even though she reciprocated his love—because he believed his lower social status and his dubious financial situation stood in the way. Consequently, he was like the cold
marble of the urn—fixed and immovable.) Keats says that when death claims him and all those of his generation, the urn will remain. And it will say to the next generation what it has said to Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” In other words, do not try to look beyond the beauty of the urn and its images, which are representations of the eternal, for no one can see into eternity.
The beauty itself is enough for a human; that is the only truth that a human can fully grasp. The poem ends with an endorsement of these words, saying they make up the only axiom that any human being really needs to know.
Figures of Speech
The main figures of speech in the poem are apostrophe and metaphor in the form of personification.
An apostrophe is a figure of speech in which an author speaks to a person or thing absent or present. A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things without using the word like, as, or than. Personification is a type of metaphor that compares an object with a human being. In effect, it
treats an object as a person—hence, the term personification.