Shrouded in Silence: The Shortcomings of the Urn’s Storytelling in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Updated on October 6, 2017
Victor Dorn profile image

V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.


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.



    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)