By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
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.
thou STILL..|..un RAV..|..ished BRIDE..|..of QUI..|..et NESS,Notice that each line has ten syllables, five unaccented ones in blue and five accented ones in red. Thus, these lines—like the other lines in the poem—are in iambic pentameter. Iambic refers to a pair of syllables, one unaccented and the other accented. Such a pair is called an iamb. "Thou STILL" is an iamb; so are "et NESS" and "slow TIME." However, "BRIDE of" and "FOS ter" are not iambs because they consist of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable. Pentameter—the first syllable of which is derived from the Greek word for five—refers to lines that have five iambs (which, as demonstrated, each have two syllables). "Ode on a Grecian Urn," then, is in iambic pentameter because every line has five iambs, each iamb consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. The purpose of this stress pattern is to give the poem rhythm that pleases the ear.
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.
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.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
By John Keats
End-Rhyming Words Are Highlighted
melodies are sweet,
but those unheard
that cannot shed
these coming to the
shape! Fair attitude!
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.
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
embroidery) depicting marble men and women enacting
a scene in the tangle
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.
An apostrophe is a figure of
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.
Thou foster-child of silence and slow timeAlliteration
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian, who canst thus expressAnaphora
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?Paradox
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? (The images move even though they are fixed in marble)Oxymoron
those [melodies] unheard