What is the contrast between art and life in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Ah, one of my favorite controversial subjects to discuss about one of my very favorite poems EVER!

The contrast Keats creates between art and life in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is precisely this:  that art is better than life (hence the title of the poem).  In fact, Keats proves this when he says, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter."  Why is art better than life?  Art, as in the form of the urn, can capture life at its best and keep it there.  Here is my favorite example:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve; / She cannot faded, though thou has not thy bliss, / Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Although ingeniously left unstated here, the contrast between art and life is quite vivid.  This lover can literally never kiss his love.  In life, they could kiss, yes, but that is not the real goal.  Keats even uses the word "winning" to prove that art is the true capturer of beauty here.  In life, this young lady's beauty would eventually fade and her lover's passion would fade as well.  Here I always imagine Keats exclaiming, "Not on this urn!"  This is literally the same point of so many poets:  that a love can remain eternal through poetry.  In Keats case here, through art.

Near the end of the poem, Keats even borders on jealousy of the urn, that will stand steadfast in beauty as the rest of the earth may waste away.  Keats even goes so far as to call it "Cold Pastoral!  When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain."  Of course, the contrast between art an life is finalized in the final lines of the poem as well:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Truth, then (according to the highly debated last two lines of the poem), can precisely be found upon the urn (and not always necessarily in life).  Therefore art presents for us a utopia for the world to reside in its own way.

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nusratfarah | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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On the urn, the immortality & the beauty have been captured by the artist, whereas, contradictorily, life is ruthless, humans are immortal, bound to face death & disease. For an artist, truth is what the piece of art bears. An artist creates his own axiom, his own reality. On the urn, all that is captured is beautiful and good, and, for the artist, all that matters, all that is true is the seeming goodness, beauty & immortality, and that is what art is. To him, life is just either a cruel Monster or a Topsyturvy.

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kc4u | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Keats's poem is all about a Greek urn, about the pictures of life as engraved on the marble surface of the ancient work of plastic art. The urn is called a "sylvan historian" which bears various images of the chronicle of life:some maidens being madly pursued by their lovers, the piper playing on his instrument to produce "unheard melodies," the youthful singer singing beneath the trees--the song never ending and the trees in evergreen lusciousness, the impassioned lover just about to kiss his beloved, the sacrificial rally moving towards some "green altar" etc.

All these motifs of love, music, sacrifice reveal the world of human passion. These motifs show some intense moments in the life of man, but those moments are transfixed on the urn's surface; all motions are frozen in the realm of art.

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subrataray | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Keats is first and foremost an artist and his concept on art and life has found the highest expression in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. In this poem the poet succeeds the very attempt which has been intended in “Ode to a Nightingale”. The attempt was to transport him to the world of permanence. Life, according to Keats, is transient, for, it consumes and gets wasted. On the other hand, art, although being “cold pastoral”, has no consumption .And here art attains the permanence. Apart from these two major aspects of his issue on art and life, Keats establishes – the fact that art evokes imagination and imagination leads us to the unending world of beauty and truth. Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” vivifies with concrete images the distinction between the transitoriness of life and the permanence of art.

On basis of some questions , the poet tends to imply the idea that art is greater than life .The silent forms of the engraved pictures perpetuate from age to age , while life with its warmth in its consumption , decays away .Again the lover and his virgin -maiden would ever enjoy the urge of union , young and living .

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