The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
It is important to apprehend the dramatic situation in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” both to understand the poem on a literal level and to glean any larger meaning from it. A narrator looks at the pictures that decorate the outside of an urn; between the “leaf-fringed legend[s]” (line 5)—literally, the decorated borders on top and beneath the painted figures on the vase—the narrator sees two distinct scenes, consisting primarily of figures engaged in two activities common to Greek life: raucous sexual play and religious celebration.
The speaker in the poem addresses the urn directly, as if it were a living object. Viewing the first scene, which consists of a collection of young people engaging in some form of revelry, the narrator asks about the identity of the people and about their motives: Are the women escaping from the men, or is this a courting match? Why is there music (represented by a figure on the urn who is playing an instrument)? The scene makes the narrator realize that he can only imagine his own answers—but in a sense, the “unheard” melodies that he imagines are “sweeter” than those he might actually hear (lines 11-12). Gazing at what he believes to be two lovers about to embrace, he observes that, though they can never consummate their relationship, they will never change, either; instead, they will be forever in that heightened state of anticipation that precedes the climax of a love affair.
At the beginning of the fourth stanza, the narrator shifts his gaze to the second scene on the urn; in it, some townspeople are leading a calf to an altar for sacrifice. Once more the narrator asks questions: Who are these people? Where do they come from? Again he realizes that he cannot get the answers from viewing the urn; the questions will be forever unanswered, because the urn is not capable of providing such information. Rather, it sits silently, provoking his curiosity.
In the final stanza, the narrator recognizes the futility of his questioning and acknowledges that the urn is simply capable of teasing him “out of thought” (line 44)—leaving him unable to come to some logical conclusion about the stories depicted on the urn, and hence about the value of the urn itself. The narrator concludes by calling it a “Cold Pastoral” (line 45) whose ultimate worth lies in its beauty, not in its message.
Ode on a Grecian Urn (Magill Book Reviews)
“ODE ON A GRECIAN URN” is one of the loveliest and most richly puzzling of English lyrics. In five short stanzas of ten lines each, Keats vividly presents the scenes adorning an ancient urn, which he personifies and addresses directly as “still unravished bride,” “Foster child of silence and slow time,” and “sylvan historian.”
The urn’s frieze eloquently if wordlessly proves that art offers a permanence impossible in the real world. The pictured trees beneath which a piper forever plays will never lose their spring leaves. The “bold lover” pressing his suit will never stop loving, nor will his lady cease to be fair. On the other hand, the kiss sought can never be granted, the melodies can never be heard, the trees can never bear summer fruit--so the changeless state conveyed by art clearly has its drawbacks.
Having reflected on the living moments frozen into decorative “attitudes” on the urn--love, flight and pursuit, music making, ritual sacrifice--Keats backs away to view the urn as a whole. The “cold pastoral” of the urn lives forever precisely because it has never lived. However the reader chooses to interpret the poem’s cryptic final lines, which because of a punctuation discrepancy in early editions permit sharply different readings, the urn’s message of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is a statement of triumph and limitation entirely valid in the realm of art where the urn exists.
Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
John Keats’s meditation on the significance of the pictures on this piece of classical pottery shares many of the characteristics of the Horatian ode. It consists of five stanzas of equal length (ten lines), with a consistent rhyme scheme in each: The first four lines are rhymed abab, and the final six lines contain three rhymes, arranged in various patterns (cdecde or cdeced). The limited number of rhymes, coupled with the many end-stopped lines, give the poem a restrained quality; readers are forced to pause often and are constantly, if subtly, brought back to previous lines by the rhymes. As with any rhymed composition, the reader comes to develop a sense of expectation at the end of a line; that expectation is fulfilled when the rhyming pattern is fulfilled. The regularity of stanzaic pattern and rhyme scheme is further reinforced by the poet’s use of iambic pentameter as his basic meter. The slow cadence of this conversation-like line gives the poem a quality of meditation and seriousness. All these techniques work together to achieve Keats’s aim: to get readers to pause, as his narrator does, to contemplate the significance of the two scenes on the urn.
The regularity of these formal devices is undercut, however, by Keats’s use of ambiguity in his language. He makes extensive use of double entendre and paradox in describing both the urn itself and the scenes displayed upon it. For example, in the opening line, the...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Barnard, John, ed. John Keats: The Complete Poems. 3d ed. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988. This comprehensive collection of Keats’s poetry includes an excellent short commentary to “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. A superb critical biography of Keats, despite its age. Bate is accurate with biographical details, subtle in his analyses of Keats’s psychology and how it influenced his poetry, and always reliable when discussing the style and themes of the poems. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is discussed in chapter 19.
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the...
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