Themes and Meanings
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 actually “says” to the narrator. In most publications, some or all of the words in the final lines are placed in quotation marks; in Keats’s manuscripts, no quotation marks are used. The shift from “thou” (used by the narrator to address the urn) to “ye” (used in the final lines only) suggests that the entire sentence in the final lines are to be read as the urn’s “message” to viewers. If that is the case, then the lesson of the poem is that one can never arrive at logical truth through an apprehension of art, since art does not work in the same way that logical thought does. The narrator’s observation that the urn seems to “tease us out of thought” (line 44) supports such an interpretation. Nevertheless, art—here personified by the urn—has great value to serve as a form of pleasure and solace; it “remain[s]” a “friend to man” in the “midst of other woe” (lines 47-48). Keats is making a case for art on its own terms; he wants readers to see that appreciation of art for its own sake is as valuable as—perhaps even more valuable than—the extraction of meaning from works intended primarily to uplift the spirit of man simply by conveying a sense of the beautiful.