Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The central theme of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is the complex nature of art. The dramatic situation—the narrator’s puzzling one-way exchange with the urn as he views the scenes painted upon it—is intended to provoke in the reader an awareness of the paradoxes inherent in all art, but especially visual art. The central question raised by the narrator is: What good is art? What purpose does it serve? The urn is beautiful, to be sure, but as a vehicle for conveying information it is woefully inadequate. No story on the urn is ever finished and communicated; all action is arrested at a single instant. Only through imagination is the narrator able to come to some human understanding of the “message” on the urn; hence, the work of art does not really have a message for its viewers at all, but only serves as a stimulus for engaging the imaginations of those who look upon it.
Perhaps Keats is suggesting that the “message” of art is always achieved through a participatory act. If there is a “truth” to be gleaned from the appreciation of art, it is a truth found only when the viewer serves as a co-creator with the artist in developing meaning. Such an interpretation helps to make sense of the final enigmatic lines of the poem: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty—That is all/ Ye know of earth, and all ye need to know” (lines 49-50). Even that interpretation is subject to question, however, since readers cannot be certain exactly what the urn...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
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The main thing that captures the speaker's attention about this urn is that the figures on it are frozen in time in the middle of what they were doing and they will remain there, unchanged, for eternity. The "bold lover" will never kiss the girl he is pursuing, but then, she will never age either. The boughs will never lose their leaves. The piper will be "For ever piping songs for ever new," and the ceremonial procession will always be on its way to the sacrifice. Of course, these claims are only true in the imaginary sense, since there are no real lovers, trees, musicians, or procession but only a picture of them; so it is not that they will always be doing what they are but that they never have. In asking us to take the leap of imagination that would let us pretend that these pictures have real lives, Keats is skipping over one of the basic facts about time: time is motion. Another way to say the same thing is to point out that time is change. Age is not just a product of time, it is time. Time passes for people because their bodies wear down, but if that did not happen, time would still pass because they have done different things today than they did yesterday. When Keats presents the figures on the vase as having had life but being frozen in eternity, he is casually getting the reader to accept a bigger contradiction than it seems at first, because the figures actually do have some pull of time if they exist at all.
In stanza 4...
(The entire section is 1096 words.)