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...
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John Keats is recognized by all as a central figure in the Romantic literary movement, and "Ode On A Grecian Urn" is considered one of his greatest works, although some of its elements are pre-Romantic. This brings up one of the biggest problems modern readers have in discussing the Romantic age. We cannot avoid talking about it and using the term to put historical literary figures in context with one another, especially not when we are discussing works of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, but the traits that we use to recognize Romanticism can appear and then disappear within any author's collected works—even within any given poem. There have been qualities of Romanticism existent since poetry was first written, and there are poets today whom we would call mainly Romantic due to their view of the world.
The period that we consider the Age of Romanticism was the time in history when most of the significant artists created works displaying these traits. If there could be a starting date put on this idea, it would have to be 1798, when Lyrical Ballads, a volume of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was published. These poems solidified a way of thought that had already existed in the atmosphere; it placed a high value on spirituality and nature. The works in this volume, the majority of them being Wordsworth's, made the artist the main focus of a poem. They also showing a renewed interest in human...
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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.
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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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The ode is an ancient form originally written for musical accompaniment. The word itself is of Greek origin, meaning "sung." While ode-writers from antiquity adhered to rigid patterns of strophe, antistrophe, and epode, the form by Keats's time had undergone enough transformation that it really represented a manner—rather than a set method— for writing a certain type of lyric poetry. In general, the ode of the Romantic era is a poem of 30 to 200 lines that meditates progressively upon or directly addresses a single object or condition. In addition to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats wrote odes about the season of autumn and the song of a nightingale as well as about indolence, melancholy, and even the poet John Milton's hair. Keats's odes are characterized by an exalted and highly lyrical tone, and while they employ specific stanza forms and rhyme schemes, these can vary from ode to ode.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" consists of five, ten-line stanzas, each following a single rhyme scheme that combines the quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet with the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet. Thus, the first four lines of each stanza rhyme abab while the predominant rhyme scheme of the last six lines is cdecde. The reader will notice that the sestet's rhyme scheme varies in each of the first two stanzas: in the first, it is cdedce; in the second, it is cdeced. In these stanzas, however, the poem's order—the hierarchy of its three principle symbols— has yet to be...
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Compare and Contrast
1819: Parliament passed a series of repressive laws known as the Six Acts to stop angry farmers who had been staging violent protests against the Corn Laws. The Six Acts put limits on public meetings and on journalistic reporting and gave police greater authority to search people and seize their property.
1846: The Corn Laws were repealed; they had kept corn prices low, which impoverished many farmers and made them move to the city. As a result of this surplus of labor, England became a main force on the Industrial Revolution.
1854: Charles Dickens's book Hard Times was published. The novel exposed inhumane treatment of employees in London factories, including child labor, and new labor guidelines were passed because of the book's impact.
1945: Destitute because of the damage incurred during World War II, Britain elected a Labor Party government, which nationalized banks, utilities, and industries and implemented a welfare state.
1979: Margaret Thatcher was elected English Prime Minister. In the next 11 years she cut inflation by 20 percent and privatized many of the industries that the government had owned since 1945.
Today: England's healthy economy has made it a central force in the European Economic Community.
1819: The first paddle-wheel steamship, the Savannah, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in only 39 days. The ship carried no passengers...
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Topics for Further Study
Consider a painting that you know, and write a list of questions about what is going on in the scene. What do your questions tell you about the artist? What do they tell you about the nature of art?
Compare Keats's ideas about the scene painted on the vase with the ideas in W. H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," also included in Poetry for Students. What might Auden's speaker have to say about the person who painted the vase?
Give an example of an instance in which you think Beauty and Truth are not the same. Write what you think might be Keats's response to your example.
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What Do I Read Next?
Keats's poetry is collected in a definitive edition printed by the Oxford University Press called The Poetry of John Keats. The first edition was published in 1939 and it was updated for the 1958 second edition (minor corrections are noted in the preface by H.W. Garrod).
Well-known British critic John D. Jump published a short volume in 1974 called The Ode, which traces the history of the poetic form from ancient Greece to the twentieth century, telling readers just about everything anyone would want to know about odes.
Another famous critic, this one American, is Cleanth Brooks, who published a book about poetic forms in 1947 called The Well-Wrought Urn. The title, of course, refers to this poem, although the author's study of Keats is only one out of eleven chapters. This book is invaluable to any student of formal poetry.
For readers who are interested in both Greek mythology and modern literature, Lilian Feder's 1971 Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry looks mostly at twentieth-century authors, starting with Freud and Jung, and at how ancient stories are probably more "alive" now than they were for Keats. Poets studied include Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Auden.
The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism, a 1933 collection of essays by brilliant modern poet T.S. Eliot, has a chapter about Shelley and Keats that gives a smart contemporary perspective to the two Romantic writers.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brooks Jr., Cleanth, "History Without Footnotes: An Account of Keats's Urn," The Sewanee Review, Vol. LII, No. I., Winter, 1944, pp. 89-101.
Finney, Claude Lee, The Evolution of Keats's Poetry, Vol. 2, New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.
Fraser, G. S., editor, John Keats: Odes, London: Macmillan, 1971.
Hough, Graham, "Keats," in his The Romantic Poets, Hutchinson's University Library, 1953, pp. 156-94.
Unger, Leonard, "Keats and the Music of Autumn," in his The Man in the Name: Essays on the
Experience of Poetry, University of Minnesota Press, 1956, pp. 18-29.
Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
For Further Study
Frye, Northrup, A Study of English Romanticism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Frye, one of the most respected and influential literary critics of this century, takes the study of Romanticism back to ancient times and probes into obscure aspects of nineteenth-century life in this thorough examination.
Jordan, John E., Why the "Lyrical Ballads?" Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.
This entire, short volume is focused on one influential book published on 1798; it was the spark that began England's Romantic period.
Reeves, James, A Short History of English Poetry,...
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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 Structure of Poetry. 1947. Reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Literary scholar Brooks, in this analysis that includes discussion of Keats’s famous poem, helped to inaugurate the then-new area of literary criticism called New Criticism.
Christensen, Allan C. The Challenge of Keats: Bicentenary Essays, 1795-1995. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Contributors to this volume reexamine some of the criticisms and exaltations of Keats to find a new analysis of his achievements. Delivers an appraisal of the historical and cultural contexts of Keats’s work and a detailed discussion of the influences and relationships among Keats and other poets.
Cox, Jeffrey N., ed. Keats’s Poetry...
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