artistic illustration of a Grecian urn set against a backdrop of hills and columns

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

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What could be the meaning of the last lines of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" concerning Truth and Beauty?

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The interpretation of the last two lines of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is controversial, primarily because it is unclear whether the urn speaks some or all of the words. Quotation marks would elucidate the situation; unfortunately, different versions of the poem published during Keats’ lifetime present these lines with different punctuation. In one version, the words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” are enclosed in quotation marks, but not the rest of the lines. In another version, no quotation marks are used at all. Given this ambiguity, it is left for the reader to decide what construction makes sense in view of the poem’s title, other content, and the mindset of the Romantic Era.

Here are some of the possible interpretations of the last two lines:

  1. The urn says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and also says to the lyric speaker and other people viewing the urn that this is all they know and all they need to know.
  2. The urn says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and the lyric speaker says to the figures on the urn that this is all they know and all they need to know.
  3. The urn says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and the lyric speaker says to the urn that this is all it knows and all it needs to know.
  4. The urn says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and the lyric speaker says to his readers that this is all they know and all they need to know.
  5. The urn says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and John Keats says to his readers that this is all they know and all they need to know.

 Of these, the last option can be easily eliminated. It makes the error of attributing the words of the poem to the poet rather than to the poem’s persona. Unless one has outside corroborating evidence from the poet that he is speaking in his own voice, this is an assumption that leads to faulty interpretation of poetry. Although later in the 19th century John Keats was claimed by the followers of Aestheticism, they actually were placing on him notions that did not exist in his era, at least not in the way aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde understood them. 

The fourth interpretation seems less supportable by the work. Although it might seem to fit with the title in that the lyric speaker is commenting in the last lines “on a Grecian Urn,” in the rest of the poem the lyric speaker addresses the urn and the figures in it, not the reader of the poem. To break this perspective at the end of the poem would be inconsistent with the voice in the rest of the poem. 

The third interpretation might be acceptable, except “ye” is a plural form of “you.” In other parts of the poem where the lyric speaker addresses the urn, he uses “thou,” as in “thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st.” That Keats would switch to “ye” two lines later seems unlikely. 

The second interpretation seems valid. The lyric speaker has addressed previously in the poem some of the figures depicted on the urn, including the youth, the lover, and the melodist. These figures, since they are suspended in time and action, always depicting the beauty and truth of their roles and emotions, only know that beauty is truth, and truth beauty. Since they are themselves art, they represent beauty and truth at the same time, and as they are preserved forever as they are, they will never have a need to know anything more in life. They are untouched by any other influences, and they have no need of any other input—they are perfect just as they are. This interpretation is consistent with the title because the lyric speaker finishes his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by addressing and commenting on the figures portrayed on the urn. 

Finally, the first interpretation may be the one that rings truest with the poem’s title, content, and Romanticism. If the urn speaks the last two lines in their entirety, then the statement is made from the limited perspective of the urn. It does not mean the statement about beauty and truth is true—only that it is true from the urn’s perspective. The urn is a work of art that has obviously captured the imagination of the lyric speaker. It has drawn him into a drama and an experience that brought him great pleasure and release from any other cares he had in his life. Art has the ability to transport us, however temporarily, into a world where all that matters is the beauty of the sights, sounds, and emotions the piece conjures up within us. A piece of art persuades us that it is everything we need to know: a perfect intertwining of truth and beauty that transports our spirit and even transcends time and space. Debating the validity of the claim is superfluous; it is not a metaphysical proposition after all, but merely hyperbole from a personified object. This explanation is supported by the title, since the poet allows the urn itself to have the last word about itself in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It also makes sense for the urn to speak back to the lyric speaker after he has been speaking to it throughout the poem. It is consistent with the Romantic mindset of valuing imagination. For Keats to have allowed this poem to end with a didactic metaphysical statement would seem at odds with the awe and wonder he has treated the urn with in the rest of the poem. Since via his imagination he has entered fully into the world of the urn, it seems he would end the poem still within that magical world and give the urn the final say on the matter.

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