Analysis of the Poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats

Updated on February 4, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

John Keats
John Keats | Source

John Keats and A Summary of Ode On A Grecian Urn

Ode On A Grecian Urn focuses on art, beauty, truth and time and is one of Keats' five odes, considered to be some of the best examples of romantic poetry. The four others are Ode To A Nightingale, Ode to Psyche, Ode On Melancholy, To Autumn - all completed in a burst of energy in 1819, two years before his death in Italy from consumption.

The poem is an example of ekphrasis, a Greek word meaning to describe a work of visual art in words.

  • What makes Ode To A Grecian Urn of particular importance is its exploration of the idea that beautiful art transcends time and reality, that beauty is truth, interpreted through the poetic imagination.
  • But this ode also raises the perplexing question of art and its effect on the human psyche. Humans can be deceived because art, although enduring, could be a false ideal, like the notion of eternity.
  • In the end, the narrative - the speaker's approach to the urn - is turned on its head as the urn voices its wisdom to the speaker (and the reader and all humanity)...."Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"

Keats believed that spontaneous sensations of the heart held the truth, as opposed to the dry, reasoning mind. In a letter to a friend Benjamin Bailey on 22 November 1817 he wrote:

What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty -

It's important to note that Keats likened the poetic imagination to a religious edifice. In another letter to fellow poet Shelley he wrote:

My Imagination is a Monastry (sic) and I am its Monk.

This metaphorical approach to the artistic life of the imagination helped him create some of the best known romantic poems of his time. In his letters to various friends and relatives he also developed ideas relating to the role of the poet.

Out of these correspondences came Keats' famous term 'negative capability', (the opposite to 'consequitive reasoning'), whereby the poet's character is completely absent from the poem's content.

In an earlier letter to his brothers George and Thomas in December 1817 he explained:

I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in Uncertainties,Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'

Some scholars think this means that the poet has to be receptive, passive, which allows the imagination to do the work of the heart, transforming the initial feelings into poetry.

This is what John Keats lived for, to escape the confines of 'barren' reality by trusting in his 'sensations of the heart', letting go of the self, becoming a receptor, guided by passion and spontaneous feeling. Of course, he still had to discipline himself and form a coherent poem out of those initial stirrings.

Ode On A Grecian Urn was inspired by numerous visits of Keats to the British Museum. There he studied ancient artefacts from Greece, including the Elgin Marbles, and was enthused enough by his friend the artist Benjamin Haydon, to draw one of these antique vases.

Many researchers have sought for the one specific Greek urn described in the poem, but no one has found it - it is thought that Keats used several sources for the various scenes, so creating an ideal urn for the ode.

Ode On A Grecian Urn

Line By Line Analysis of Ode On A Grecian Urn - Stanza 1

Lines 1 - 4

Here is the speaker addressing the urn, looking at the pictures and designs that decorate the surface of this classically shaped vessel. Keats is known to have visited the British Museum several times and took inspiration from Greek friezes and other exhibits.

No one can as yet pinpoint the one urn that so inspired the young poet but it is reasonable to suggest that he used artistic licence and put together scenes from different artefacts to create an ideal decorated urn.

  • The first line has that word still in it, but which meaning fits the sense? Is it an adverb or an adjective? Is the unravished bride simply not moving or is she unchanged from her virgin state? Probably the latter meaning is the best fit.

The first four lines contain personification - the unravished bride, the foster child and the Sylvan historian. The bride is married to quietness, the child is that of the anonymous artist and time and the historian has the gift of the tale-teller.

Lines 5 - 10

The following sestet has a total of seven searching questions, the speaker uncertain about the figures being gods or mere mortals (changeless against perishable), and capable only of a reflex questioning.

As these questions build up, a sense of excitement is sparked. Note the language - mad pursuit... struggle to escape... wild ecstasy.

  • The classical rhyme scheme and full rhymes imply a tight-knit closeness - despite the ironical fourth line which suggests that the quiet ancient urn outstrips poetry when it comes to telling tales.
  • This first stanza ends up a bit of a puzzle for the reader because of all those questions but it sets the scene - ancient Greece, in myth or reality - and perhaps supplies some of the answers.

Ode On A Grecian Urn - Stanza 2

Lines 11 - 14

These four lines relate to music and sound and contrast reality - the sounds that can be heard - with the abstract - in this case the art on the side of the urn.

  • Again we have the duality, a comparison between life and art, and a judgement from the speaker who, at this point in the ode, thinks the abstract melodies 'sweeter'. This is a recurring theme of the ode and has its origins in the letters of Keats, who wrote:

'The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.'

The speaker addresses the pipes directly, suggesting they play to the spirit 'ditties' (short simple songs) that cannot be heard. There's an inherent paradox - how can you play music that has no sound? Well, it has to be imaginary music played to imaginary ears.

Lines 15 - 20

The sestet concentrates on the Fair youth and the speaker's reassurances that despite the possibility of him never being able to kiss, he will love forever. There's some interesting symbolism at play here:

  • the trees, which the youth stands beneath, represent nature.
  • the song, which the youth cannot leave, is a symbol of art and expression.
  • the lover, representing unrequited love and potential fertility.

In the end, there is no need for the youth to grieve (because he cannot consummate his love), the consolation of living forever in art being enough to balance things out.

This second stanza, with its unusual syntax, slows the reader down with its many medial pauses and focuses on the pros and cons of the real and the abstract.

Stanza 3 - Ode On A Grecian Urn

Lines 21 - 25

The happy stanza - with emphasis on the everlasting nature of the scenes depicted : the trees and their boughs, the melodist (musician) who can never play a dud or old note. These lines reinforce the idea of timelessness and sustained joy, carried along on a basic iambic rhythm:

Ah, hap / py, hap / py boughs! / that can / not shed

Your leaves, / nor ev / er bid / the Spring / adieu;

And, hap / py mel / odist, unwear / ied,

Forev / er pi / ping songs / forev / er new;

Lines 25 - 30

Keats uses the word happy six times in the first five lines and the word forever five times, underlining the positive emotion the speaker invests in the immortal scenes before him.

There is no aging, there will be no seasonal shift; the figures on the urn are free of time, pain, sickness and death - a theme repeated in Ode to a Nightingale for example - and are destined to stay forever young.

There is a sexual element here, in lines 25 - 27, where the gods or men are lusting after the females (maidens) ...Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,/Forever panting,..suggests that physical love is in the air, suspended for all time.

The last three lines, 28 - 30, have caused much controversy over the years. Some believe them to be a reflection of the state of the speaker, roused to excitement by the goings on on the urn:

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

The speaker's heart is affected as he is drawn into the charged scene in front of him.

Or do these lines refer to the pictures on the urn themselves? The human passion exists in those inhabiting the imagined world of the urn and they are subject to the physical effects of all this wild ecstasy.

Ode On A Grecian Urn - Stanza 4

Lines 31 - 40

This stanza offers a new scene - townsfolk and a priest leading a heifer (female cow not yet calved) to a sacrificial place. The whole stanza has a questioning tone, as if the speaker is not quite certain of just who is behind this action.

The heifer is to be sacrificed and represents the flesh and blood of nature; the ritual is religious (in a pagan sense?) and involves the whole of the community, a shared commitment to the gods.

The fact that everyone attends means that the town is emptied and it is this fact that prompts the enquiry. The silence of the town matches the silence of the urn; the speaker voicing concern that no one will be able to explain just why this has happened.

So the town is empty and will remain that way 'forevermore'; and the questions will never be answered.

Again the iambic rhythms persist, the ten syllables per line a solid foundation (except for line 32 which has eleven)

Ode On A Grecian Urn - Stanza 5

Lines 41 - 50

This stanza deals initially with the urn itself - the Attic shape (classic vase shape from Attica, in ancient Greece) and the woven pattern (brede) - but ends up with the situation flipped on its head as the urn is given a voice with which to address the speaker (and all humanity)

In line 44, following a description of the urn itself, the speaker finally reveals something about the effect the pictures and scenes have had on his mind. The conclusion is that the urn 'dost tease us out of thought', that is, the urn is just like the notion of eternity...we humans can be deceived by the idea of living forever, as the speaker has been deceived into thinking the scenes can last forever.

The speaker states 'Cold Pastoral!' - in an accusatory manner. The urn is nothing but cold country earth shaped so to attract but however it will prevail. When generations have passed, the urn will persist and in this sense it is to be welcomed as a friend.

Lines 49 - 50

A big debate rages among scholars...in an actual manuscript written by John Keats' brother George, the last two lines are in quotation marks which means that the urn speaks all of these words to man (to humanity).

In the published copy only the words "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," are given over to the urn.

So which is correct?

Well, there is no definitive answer but it seems likely that both lines are the voice of urn. Whatever the truth, the fact is that the five short words have become synonymous with the name of John Keats and this ode.

Within the confines of the ode beauty may well be truth and vice versa but in real life humans often seek a truth beyond art and the imagination, reaching for the realms of religious experience and transcendence.

Keats' ode is a reminder of the age of romanticism and the idea that art could be the salvation of humankind, an expression of deep spirituality. The ode explores Keats' notion of art being forever beautiful, beyond the grasp of time and inevitable decay, unlike we humans, creatures of flesh and blood, struggling with day to day reality.

What Are The Literary Devices Used in Ode On A Grecian Urn?

The literary devices used in Ode On A Grecian Urn include:

Alliteration

When two words close together in a line start with the similar sounding consonants, they are alliterative, which adds texture and phonetic interest to the poem. For example:

silence and slow time.....leaf-fringed legend.....ye soft pipes, pay on....though thou hast not thy....heart high-sorrowful....Lead'st thou that heifer lowing...Of marble men and maidens.

Assonance

When two words close together in a line have similar sounding vowels. Again, the sounds combine to produce echo and resonance:

The second line is a classic:

Thou foster child of silence and slow time,

As is line thirteen:

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

Caesura

A caesura is a pause in a line caused usually by punctuation in a short or medium length line. The reader has to pause for a fraction. In this poem, the second stanza has fifteen, which means the rhythm is broken up, fragmented, so the reader is slowed down and the lines become quite naturally more complex.

This line, 12, is a good example:

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Two semi-colons and two commas are effective and break up the natural flow.

Chiasmus

Is a device where two or more clauses are up-ended or flipped to produce an artistic effect with regards meaning, as in line 49:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"

Enjambment

When a line is not punctuated and runs on into the next it is said to be enjambed. It allows the poem to flow in certain parts and challenges the reader to move swiftly on from one line to the next with the meaning intact.

There are several lines with enjambment in Keats' ode, each stanza having at least one line. In stanza four for example lines 38 and 39 flow on into the last:

And, little town, thy streets forevermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

Personification

The first three lines use personification, giving human attributes to the urn. So:

unravished bride (virgin bride 'married' to the urn's quietness)

foster child ( wrought from the earth by the Greek artist, long dead)

Sylvan historian (able to tell the ancient tale).

What Is The Theme of Ode On A Grecian Urn?

The main theme of Ode On A Grecian Urn is :

  • the idea that beauty in art is enduring and permanent and therefore true, as opposed to earthly human nature which is transient and fades with time.


Metrical Scansion of Ode On A Grecian Urn

Ode On A Grecian Urn has a basic iambic pentameter template but many lines are altered metrically which helps vary the rhythm and also places special emphasis on certain words.

A good example is the first line. It has four iambic feet (daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM - unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable) but the fifth foot is a pyrrhic, with two unstressed syllables, which underlines the word quietness.

Thou still / unrav / ish'd bride / of qui / etness,
Thou fost / er-child / of si / lence and / slow time,
Sylvan / histo / rian, 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 Tem / pe or / the dales / of Ar / cady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad / pursuit? / What strug / gle to / escape?
What pipes / and tim / brels? What / wild ec / stasy?

And note the last line of this first stanza. The first and second feet are iambic, the remaining three a pyrrhic, a spondee and a pyrrhic. That spondee is a double stress, a complete contrast to the enveloping unstressed pyrrhics. This produces a loud bump and breaks up the steady beat of the previous two lines.

Vocabulary Used in Ode On A Grecian Urn

Thou - you (the one being addressed) 2nd person singular pronoun

thus - result of

thy - your

Sylvan - pleasant rural/wooded environment; rustic.

ditties - simple songs.

timbrels - circular drum/percussion instrument

adieu - goodbye. (original is french 'to God')

cloyed - causing distaste by being too sweet or sentimental.

heifer - a young cow not yet given birth to a calf.

Attic - pertaining to Attica, the region around Athens in ancient times.

brede - braid, woven pattern

What Is The Rhyme Scheme of Ode On A Grecian Urn?

Ode On A Grecian Urn has an unusual rhyme scheme because it changes in certain stanzas:

Stanzas 1 and 5 : ababcdedce

Stanza 2 : ababcdeced

Stanzas 3 and 4 : ababcdecde

which is a quatrain followed by two tercets or a sestet. The poem's layout is also geared to the rhyme scheme, with some lines indented by one space or two:

a and c lines are unindented;

b and d lines are indented by one space;

e lines are indented by two spaces.

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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    • profile image

      Anna 

      3 months ago

      thank you for sharing your view with us. you have help me and so many others out there

    • Jules du Plessis profile image

      Jules D 

      4 months ago from England

      So helpful, thank you! Your commentary on the poems take on eternity and its relationship with reality is fascinating :)

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      7 months ago from Canada

      If only!

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      7 months ago from UK

      This takes me back to my English Lit degree many years ago.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      7 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      West coast hi! A world in which the imagination rules the romantics created, their lyrical language the best of guides. Getting lost there however is always an adventure fraught with delicious danger. If only I could go back and sit for an hour with Keats studying that Grecian urn.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      7 months ago from Canada

      What a treasure trove of insight into Keats' Ode On A Grecian Urn. Fine, fine work, most appreciated.

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