Shrouded in Silence: The Shortcomings of the Urn’s Storytelling in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
There is a sense in Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that silence is a tool crucial to the urn’s storytelling power. “Heard melodies”, the poem proclaims, “are sweet, but those unheard/ are sweeter” (11-12) and the urn silently “canst thus express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” (Keats 3-4). Words and songs are therefore unnecessary and perhaps unequal to the task of narrating the scenes on the urn as the images demonstrate their own “sylvan” histories. And yet, despite these proclamations on the power of silent imagery, I would argue there are some very large shortcomings present in this “cold”, quiet method of description. The urn, rather than being able to silently stitch together some cohesive scene or story, rather remains a frustrating mystery, inspiring more questions than those it can possibly answer. Ultimately, despite the speaker’s apparent initial enthusiasm, the urn’s silent methods are a hindrance, rather than an asset, to a fuller, richer understanding of its stories.
The failure of the urn’s silent storytelling begins to become apparent in lines 31-40. In fact, this stanza begins with a question: “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?” (31). The speaker of the poem does not know what people are being represented in the image, where they are going, or to what they are making their sacrifice. More questions follow the first, and it is clear that with the scant information provided by the urn the speaker will never fully understand the events depicted. Interestingly, there is a direct mention in this stanza of the sad emptiness silence can encompass:
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
Here, an entire town is mysteriously, eternally emptied, the silence swirling through its hollow streets like fog, smothering any attempt at explanation. We cannot ask the urn why it is desolate, and we cannot fully comprehend the lonely images the untold stories have left behind. There is “not a soul” who can make this silence mean something.
The frustration with the urn’s silence comes to an impassioned climax in the last stanza, which interestingly immediately follows the stanza just previously discussed. It is as if, after experiencing the shadowed silence of the empty town, the speaker is now disillusioned with the urn’s silent storytelling. “Thou, silent form!” (44) the speaker exclaims, addressing the urn, claiming it “dost tease us out of thought/ as doth eternity” (44-45). Being teased out of thought does not imply some kind of straightforward comprehension but rather the frustrated attempt to make sense of the urn’s teasing, half-told stories. The comparison to eternity only furthers this conclusion; eternity, for humanity, is impossible and incomprehensible, as inaccessible as it is immortal. The urn occupies the same kind of role; it is a mystery that will last forever, shrouded in silence.
The “unheard music” of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is in fact not sweet, and is not even properly experienced or understood. Where the urn at first appears to be successful in its storied silence, imparting some kind of unheard history and wisdom to the speaker, it becomes clear that it is only superficially accessible, and that its silence is a barrier to true understanding.