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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How then can a "Cold Pastoral" be called a "friend to man" in the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

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Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" addresses the titular urn directly and praises its unchanging nature. The urn—upon which images have been placed, conveying a pastoral scene from Ancient Greece—is important to us because it enables us to see something of how people once lived. Keats suggests...

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Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" addresses the titular urn directly and praises its unchanging nature. The urn—upon which images have been placed, conveying a pastoral scene from Ancient Greece—is important to us because it enables us to see something of how people once lived. Keats suggests that it does this better than modern poets are able to in their writing. It is "silent," in the sense that it does not change and it forces us, the viewers, to make our own deductions about the parts of the scene depicted which are not instantly clear to us. However, it is also straightforward and unchanging, which are praiseworthy qualities in it.

In the final stanza of the poem, Keats concludes memorably that "beauty is truth, truth beauty." He is saying that the beauty of the urn, the "cold pastoral," is part of its value—it represents a truth to the viewer, which will outlast "this generation." After those who are living today succumb to old age, the urn itself will continue to communicate its message, and will, with its beauty, lift viewers out of their own "woe." It is therefore a friend to man because it is a distraction from present-day miseries, communicating an image of how things once were, a snapshot frozen in time.

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In the final stanza of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats refers to the urn as "a friend to man." Three ways in which the urn is a friend are contained in the stanza.

Keats refers to the urn's "Attic shape," "fair attitude," "silent form," and "Cold Pastoral." He refers in general to the men, women, and flora depicted in the urn's drawings and states that the urn and its drawings "tease us out of thought as doth eternity." He means that the urn provides an ongoing source of contemplation. Just as men can never fathom the concept of eternity, so too can they never exhaust the rich source of imaginative speculation that the urn provides. In this way, the urn is a "friend to man" because it continues to enthrall his mental faculties.

In addition, the urn is a friend to man because it will not abandon him. Since it has already endured for centuries and will continue to exist, without dying or aging in the way humans do, it offers steadfast companionship not just to individuals, but to the whole human race. It will outlast the current generation and still be around to please people to come.

Finally, it is a friend because it speaks words of advice to humanity. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the sentiment the urn expresses, it does "speak" a message to humans, and in that way it acts as a friend.

The "Cold Pastoral" is a friend to man because it stimulates man's imagination, remains a steadfast companion, and offers an insightful message.

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The image that absorbs Keats (or, more precisely, the poem's narrator) on the Grecian urn is a "Cold Pastoral" because it is a picture frozen in time of a pastoral or outdoors scene. It is not something alive. It is cold, a piece of pottery, not warm like human flesh. Unlike human life, it will never change. Yet, paradoxically, it is a "friend to man" precisely because it will not change. Keats becomes ecstatic about the image on the urn being "happy" because the lovers depicted are forever destined to be young and in the full bloom of love, because it will always be spring there, and because it will always be a festival day on the urn. He contrasts this to human life, in which people fall out of the first raptures of love, then age, have problems, and die. Therefore, as Keats says, "When old age shall this generation waste" (in other words when he and his friends get old), the urn "shalt remain, in midst of other woe/Than ours." It will, he means, outlive the narrator's generation and be there for other people, yet unborn, who have their own problems, and who will need to escape from them as he has into the timeless beauty of the urn. Thus, Keats writes, the urn will remain:
a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
         "Beauty is truth, truth beauty ..."
In other words, it will be a friend because, no matter how unhappy we are, it will continue across the generations to remind us of beauty and the truth in beauty. 
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