A few early critics from John Keats’s own lifetime had disdained his work, considering him an unworthy “cockney” poet. Still, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” has become, along with Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), one of the most famous and widely known poems in the English language. Readers of his time had valued Keats’s word-pictures and his evocation of the senses (especially, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the sense of sight) and his subtle use of poetic language.
Keats wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” probably in May, 1819, around the same time that he composed “Ode to a Nightingale”; the two odes share a similar structure and a theme, that is, the shortness and fleeting nature of happiness. Of Keats’s eleven odes, five have received the most attention from critics: those known as the Great Odes or the Odes of Spring, which were written mostly in the spring of 1819.
Critics and readers admire the imagery of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which focuses on the symbolism of the urn itself and represents pictorial art or art in general. The figures on the urn, the poet reminds readers, will never fade or lose their moment of wild happiness and excitement, thus contrasting with the transitory human experience of unhappiness (“woe”). However, by the end of the ode, as the poet’s meditation progresses, the urn is rejected, in part, as an alternative to real life. The urn is a “friend” to humanity, a consoling factor, but not one that wants to escape the world. The general problem this poem explores, then, is the relative superiority of art, symbolized by the urn, and the reality of life.
Critics have disagreed about the meaning of the poem’s final two lines: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty/ —that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” Does the urn itself speak these lines as a message to the world, or is the poet making this statement? Disagreement arises out of the variation in punctuation found in the poem’s early editions—that is, should the internal quotation marks surround only “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” to reflect a speaking urn, or should the entire aphorism be placed within quotation marks to reflect a speaking poet? Some critics believe that these final lines mar the poem because they introduce an abstraction to a work of concrete imagery.