An in depth analysis of John Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
One of Keats’s greatest poems is “Ode on a Grecian Urn” which was written in 1819. In this ode, the speaker gazes at an ancient Greek urn and expresses his admiration for the beauty of the scenes depicted on it and acknowledges the eternalness and purity of the existence of the depicted musicians and lovers in nature. However, through contradicting images of pleasure and pain and several metaphors, he expresses sorrow and weariness because the characters on the urn represent only the imagination and not life, and so the desires of the characters in the scene can never be fulfilled because their existence is limited to the timeless world of art where beauty is truth.
There are a variety of images throughout the ode. For each image, the speaker takes a different perspective on what he is viewing. In the first stanza, Keats is concerned with the images being frozen in time, like an “unravish’d bride of quietness” and a “foster child of silence and slow time.” (1-2). He also contemplates the possibilities of the origins of the figures such as where they came from and what their purpose is. Keats writes, “what men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstacy?” (8-10). In both the second and third stanzas, he expresses admiration for the people in the images and wonders what it would be to like to be them. The speaker is tempted by the melody of the piper’s tune and the eternal beauty of the woman. In the fourth stanza, he questions what it would be like if the people on the urn were to experience human time. He imagines they have a starting point and a destination rather than being trapped in time. He also describes the little town as being emptied. The final stanza offers the speaker’s conclusions on his efforts at engaging with the urn.
The images described in this poem contribute to the interpretation of its context. There are many images of individuals from ancient Greece such as maidens, pipers, mortals, gods and young lovers. There are also images which depict the actions of those people. Many of them are contradict one another. Several of the images depict pleasure, while many follwoing images depict pain. When the speaker is gazing at the urn, he sees images of pleasure, but the people in the urn are frozen in time and only able to enjoy the present joys because they cannot experience life. This makes the images ironic as Keats writes, “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” (16-17). This quote exemplifies an example of a situation where pleasure is followed by pain. The man is in a blissful moment with his lover, however he never actually enjoying the kiss. Another example is when Keeats writes, “Fair youth beneath the trees, thou canst not leave thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare” (15-16). The trees are at their peak, however they cannot grow anymore and will never be as beautiful as they are right now.
Keats uses paradoxes throughout the poem to establish a happy tone, and then contradicts it with statements about the limitations of the world of art. He also explores the complex relationship between art and real life. One such paradox is in the second stanza when the speaker is describing the beauty of the music. “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, of no tune” (11-14). This does not describe actual music but the music of the imagination, which is more beautiful. In the next stanza, Keats describes a joyful situation, “Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu; and happy melodist, unwearied, forever piping songs for ever new; more happy love, more happy, happy love!” (21-25). This description identifies the trees as being happy because they will not lose their leaves, and the piper as happy because he will play his song forever, and the young man as happy because his love for the maiden will last forever. However, a paradox is evident in the next lines when the speaker describes the passion of the lovers as “All breathing human passion far above, which leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, a burning forehead, and a parching tongue” (28-30). This shows that love in the real world is imperfect and can bring pain and sorrow. Additionally, the next stanza provides a description of townspeople traveling to an altar for sacrifice. They travel to a peaceful fortress. However, there town remains empty and they are frozen in time and will never be able to return. The figures on the urn are free from the bonds of time but frozen in time as well.
Keats’s poem is filled with speech acts which help to understand the context. The speaker does a lot of questioning in the beginning of the poem when he is asking about many of the figures which are on the urn. “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? (8-11). He is questioning whether or not these are human or god like figures and also is wondering what it is they may be doing. Later in the poem, the speaker examines a town full of people and wonders where it is they are going and why they are leaving their town empty. An additional speech act of the speaker is expressing admiration for the urn, especially for the images which are permanent. He praises the silent music, which is the music of the soul. He also praises the young lovers along with the leaves on the trees because they are both fixed in time. The speaker has admiration for the beauty of this scene because it is beauty which will never fade and will last for eternity. The speaker also feels sorrow when looking upon the urn. The speaker is somewhat envious of the figures on the urn that seem happy and will remain in that state forever. However, he also expresses his own concerns with life which brings death and pain from loving. The figures on the urn will never be able to experience life, both the joys and the pains which it brings. The speaker sees the mystery of the urn as being similar to the mystery of eternity which humans face: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought as doth eternity: Cold Pastoral” (44-45). The speaker also expresses acknowledgement of the mystery which future generations will come across with the urn. “When old age shall this generation waste… Though shalt remain, in midst of other woe…Than ours, a friend to a man, to whom thou say’st… ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (46-50). This shows that the urn can be a friend to man, however its reality comes from the imagination and the world of art. Keats would contest that this reality in the imagination gives us potential to understand existence, however the world of art and the real world have difficulty coinciding. “Beauty is truth and truth beauty” tells us to look at the art for its splendor and representation of the eternal, however one should not look beyond the present. The present is the epitome of beauty and therefore, it must be given full attention.
There are a few ideas from Keates’ Letter of Negative Capability that are expressed in this ode, as the reader does not know who the figures are on the urn, what they are doing, or where they are going. Instead, the speaker revels in this mystery, as he does in the final couplet, which does not make abrupt clear sense, yet continues to have poetic significance. The ode ultimately deals with the complexity of art’s relationship with real life.
As well, Keates draws in ideas from the first letter we discussed when he looks out the window and sees the bird picking at the ground. Keates begins to imagine that he is the bird, and here in this ode, he imagines he is the people in the urn, and even more simply, the urn itself.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn is a poem where Keats looks deeply at an ancient Greek urn and expresses appreciation and admiration at the beauty of the scene being depicted and acknowledges the permanence of the individuals on the urn, however, through contradicting images and comparative metaphors, he expresses sadness and weariness because the characters on the urn represent only the imagination and not life, and the desires of the characters in the scene can never be fulfilled because their existence is limited to the timeless world of art where “beauty is truth,” which is different from the world we live in.