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Surfacely, the tone seems very light...a poet describing a sublime piece of visual art. The speaker calls the beauty of the object, “A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme."
However, on deeper inspection, the tone is actually pretty morbid. An urn, like this ornate one, was an object for the ashes of a dead person. Conversely, the figures on the urn are "forever young." But youth and everlasting beauty are lies in the real world. Only in art can the illusion be sustained.
At the beginning of his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats’s tone seems admiring of the urn and the scenes on it. This fascination with the urn continues throughout the poem. The concern is, however, that the figures on the urn, though lovely, are “Cold Pastoral” (45) and not living. Certainly the unending love on the urn could be “more happy, happy love” (25), and the sylvan scene will never “bid the Spring adieu” (22). Unfortunately, though, the love and the scene are not real, so one could also read the poem in an ironic tone since the urn will never actually experience real life.
What a great question! Count how many times "happy" appears in the 3rd stanza, and then count the "never" in stanza 2, and this conflict produces an irony the speaker can't resolve. He sees this ode to love on the urn, but the urn, too, is a "cold pastoral" because it depicts an ideal that can never be consummated (those lovers will never kiss), a type of love never realized in this our real world. But then the last couplet about Beauty and truth: why would the urn tell us this as the essential knowledge we "need"? I would guess the urn tells us,that we might experience beauty, and through beauty truth, but love will always escape us. Keats was a Platonist, believing that truth exists in a different realm than our reality, and that our access to it is through art. This, perhaps, is the message of urn, so that if what you want in life is beauty, that's good, but if you want love, that message is less good.
Ode on a Grecian Urn" consists of five stanzas that present a scene, describe and comment on what it shows, and offer a general truth that the scene teaches a person analyzing the scene. Each stanza has ten lines written in iambic pentameter, a pattern of rhythm (meter) that assigns ten syllables to each line. The first syllable is unaccented, the second accented, the third unaccented, the fourth accented, and so on. Note, for example, the accent pattern of the first two lines of the poem. The unaccented syllables are in lower-cased blue letters, and the accented syllables are in upper-cased red letters.
thou STILL un RAV ished BRIDE of QUI et NESS,
thou FOS ter - CHILD of SI lence AND slow TIME
Notice that each line has ten syllables, five unaccented ones in blue and five accented ones in red. Thus, these lines--like the other lines in the poem--are in iambic pentameter. Iambic refers to a pair of syllables, one unaccented and the other accented. Such a pair is called an iamb. "Thou STILL" is an iamb; so are "et NESS" and "slow TIME." However, "BRIDE of" and "FOS ter" are not iambs because they consist of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable. Pentameter--the first syllable of which is derived from the Greek word for five--refers to lines that have five iambs (which, as demonstrated, each have two syllables). "Ode on a Grecian Urn," then, is in iambic pentameter because every line has five iambs, each iamb consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. The purpose of this stress pattern is to give the poem rhythm that pleases the ear.
In England, Keats examines a marble urn crafted in ancient Greece. (Whether such an urn was real or imagined is uncertain. However, many artifacts from ancient Greece, ones which could have inspired Keats, were on display in the British Museum at the time that Keats wrote the poem.) Pictured on the urn, a type of vase, are pastoral scenes in Greece. In one scene, males are chasing females in some sort of revelry or celebration. There are musicians playing pipes (wind instruments such as flutes) and timbrels (ancient tambourines). Keats wonders whether the images represent both gods and humans. He also wonders what has occasioned their merrymaking. A second scene depicts people leading a heifer to a sacrificial altar. Keats writes his ode about what he sees, addressing or commenting on the urn and its images as if they were real beings with whom he can speak.
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