What poetic techniques are used in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are numerous poetic techniques employed in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by the Romanticist poet John Keats. Among these are elements of the sonnet form and rhyme, imagery, symbolism, alliteration, and personification.

Within the theme of how Art has the power to convey the truth of human experience, Keats uses several poetic devices:

  • Personification

Addressing the urn as "bride of quietness" and "Sylvan historian," Keats gives human traits to the Grecian urn as he acknowledges that it contains a "flowery tale" that is sweeter than the poet's rhyme. Further, he comments, "Ah, happy, happy boughs!" 

  • Imagery

In stanza I the poet describes the painting on the urn with its deities and mortals, maidens, and men. There is a "leaf-fringed legend," "pipes and timbrels." The urn depicts religious celebration and sexual play among other aspects of life. However, these images are frozen in time and the lovers will never kiss as they are arrested in their movements because they are painted on the urn.

In stanzas IV and V there is visual imagery with such descriptions as the "green altar," the heifer's "silken flanks with garlands," "river or seashore," the "red-breast," "a garden croft" and "gathering swallows."

  • Alliteration

There is the repetition of the /th/ in line 18: "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss."

In another example, the /s/ is repeated in this line: "Will silent be; and not a soul to tell." And the /h/ is repeated throughout this line: "More happy love! more happy, happy love!"

  • Symbolism

Employing the symbols of "trees" for Nature, "song" for Art, and "Bold Lover" for procreation, Keats explains the tension between what is on the urn and what is real. For the urn, "truth is beauty, beauty truth" (a literary device called chiasmus). This beauty lasts because it is frozen in time. However, for the poet who knows that beauty does not last, the truth is not restricted to the images on the urn. He realizes that the lovers will never consummate their love but will remain only in their moment.  

  • "Sonnet" form

Keats uses iambic pentameter, and his poem resembles a sonnet as it is laid out on the page; however, there are only ten lines in each stanza. Still, the stanzas have a pattern to them as the rhyme scheme is nearly consistent throughout: The first four lines are ABAB, and the next six are CDE and then some variation of CDE (CED).

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One poetic technique that is used in this poem from the outset is metaphor. The speaker compares the urn he is talking about to a series of different images that each point towards the centrality and importance of the urn as a symbol of eternal beauty. Note the comparisons that are established in the first couple of lines:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
     Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express...

The urn is compared to a "still unravish'd bride of quietness," a "foster-child of silence and slow time" and a "Sylvian historian." These metaphors are very important in the way that they establish the sense of how this urn represents a transcendent beauty for Keats. For him, the urn is "unravish'd" in the sense that it stands for how true beauty and art does not diminish or fade over the years. True beauty dwells in a realm of "silence and slow time" that allows Keats to develop the contrast between the urn and the frail humans who are left to contemplate such beauty in their brief mortal spans. Therefore metaphor is one poetic technique that Keats uses with great effect in this poem.