Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
An ode, typically a lengthy lyric poem dealing with lofty emotions, is dignified in style and serious in tone. Lyric poems, in general, explore elusive inner feelings. John Keats, a widely admired poet of the English Romantic period, composed his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in five stanzas (sections), each containing ten lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. Keats invented his own rhyme scheme for the ode.
In stanza one, the poet speaks of a ceramic urn from ancient Greece; such urns often were used to hold the ashes of the dead and were decorated with scenes from daily life or from myth and legend. The imaginary urn of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a composite of several urns that Keats probably had seen at the British Museum or in books. He also might have been influenced by the Elgin Marbles, decorated portions of the Parthenon in Athens that had been brought to England, not without much controversy, in the early nineteenth century. One could thus imagine the poet either standing in front of a museum exhibit or looking at an illustration in an art book.
In describing the urn, Keats is reflecting on what he sees, engaging in an internal debate. The term “ekphrasis” means a description of or a meditation on a visual work of art; there exist examples of ekphrasis in literature from the classical to the modern. The poet is impressed with the antiquity of the urn and its pictured scenes, images that appear to affect the poet more strongly than do the poem’s words—the poet, though, seems unsure of the exact legend being conveyed by the pictured scenes. The urn depicts several scenes, including a wild party in which men chase after girls, the playing of musical instruments such as pipes and timbrels (tambourine-like percussion instruments), and a sacrificial ritual. The poet is impressed by both the frenzy...
(The entire section is 747 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” addresses many of the same concerns that occupied Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale,” except that in this poem he turns his attention from the natural poetry of the bird to the human artistry of the urn. Unable to escape his sense of life’s transience through the immortal song of the bird, Keats looks to the timeless truth embodied in the urn. Keats once again encounters the paradox that is central to all of his art: To achieve immortality is to rid oneself of change, but it is change, not stasis, that produces the contrasts necessary for all that is good.
In the first stanza, the poet contemplates first the urn as a whole, which he characterizes as a “historian,” and then turns his attention to the detailed scene engraved onto the side of the urn. The urn first is described as an “unravish’d bride of quietness,” calling attention to the fact that it is only when the poet begins to think about the urn that it begins to tell its story. The urn cannot speak, in other words, until it is spoken to. That is a significant point, for it leads to the conclusion that the immortal urn exists in any meaningful way only when it comes into contact with, and is activated by, the inquiring intelligence of a mortal observer. Immortality, the poet again seems to be saying, depends in some fundamental way upon its opposite.
He then begins asking the urn questions about the people portrayed on the side of the urn. He wonders who they are, “deities or mortals, or of both,” and speculates about the location of the engraved scene, “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?” The setting is obviously ancient Greece, a time when mortals and gods often interacted. From the very beginning, therefore, the poet is concerned with the issue of immortality, both as it is represented by the immortal urn and by the godlike characters whose “legend” is engraved on the side.
Stanza 2 shifts from questions to observations. The first observation stems from the experience of the first stanza. Having tried to experience imaginatively the scene before him, the poet reaches the conclusion that the imagination, when engaged by art, produces an experience that is superior to reality. The sounds of the pipes are sweet, to be sure, but the sounds supplied by the...
(The entire section is 941 words.)