Beauty Is Truth Truth Beauty

In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," what do these lines mean? "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know." Are they spoken by the narrator or the urn?

These lines from "Ode on a Grecian Urn" mean that beauty and truth are the same, because both put us in touch with the eternal. Other than that, these concepts shouldn't be overthought. A surface reading is that the urn makes the statement about truth, and the statement being in quotes emphasizes this. But, in fact, the speaker is putting his own words into the mouth of the urn.

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The famous last lines of Keats's poem have been the subject of heated critical debate for over two hundred years. As such, we're not going to be able to settle the matter of their meaning here and now.

However, one can nonetheless offer up a possible interpretation, one that has gained a fair amount of critical consensus over the years. The final words of the “Ode” are spoken by the urn. The urn is saying to humankind the only thing that it, along with all other works of art, can say: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

This is because a work of art, though the product of a particular culture and historical epoch, has the remarkable ability to transcend the time and place in which it was produced. Even though the Grecian urn is thousands of years old, it can still speak to Keats as it has done to many, many people over the years. It can only do this because it is an embodiment of timeless truths that will continue to speak to humanity so long as humanity exists upon this earth.

In Platonic terms, Beauty and Truth—note the capitalizations—are not relative to a specific society or historical era. They are ideas, eternal absolutes that find their embodiment in great works of art such as the Grecian urn in the poem. Such absolute ideals are all that we on earth ultimately know. In other words, true knowledge, according to Plato, is only derived from ideas like Beauty and Truth.

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The lines

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou [you] say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"
occur at the end of the poem. In this stanza, the speaker is coming back down to reality after having experienced a period of ecstatic identification with the urn. Earlier in the poem, he describes that and expresses his desire to be one of the figures on the urn, forever young, forever in love, forever in springtime.
As he come "down," the speaker reestablishes the distance between himself and the urn. He is not going to achieve union with the urn. However, thinking more soberly, he says that the beautiful urn "tease[s]" him out of "thought" in the same way as "eternity" (death). What he means is that while he was contemplating the urn, he lost all sense of self and lived in the timelessness of the eternal.
He then tells the urn that it will remain a "friend," a comfort, in moments of sadness. He says in the quote that the urn reveals to him that truth and beauty are the same thing in that both bring us to the same peak of self-forgetting. Truth is eternal and unchanging and so is beauty. Beyond that, there is no point in overthinking the impact of beauty by trying too hard to intellectualize it.
As for who is speaking, this is tricky. The speaker wants us to believe it is the urn speaking to him. He says "thou" [you, the urn] sayest [say] and then puts the statement about beauty and truth in quotation marks to emphasize that these are the words of the urn. So on a surface level, yes, the urn is speaking. However, the speaker is telling the urn what it is saying to him.
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In brief: Art has the power to communicate the truth of human experience. 


The line in question is somewhat difficult to explicate, but when taken in context of the rest of the poem, Keats seems to be suggesting that the urn presents a set of messages. Taken together these messages can be identified as truth -- or the conclusive notions taken away from images of life that function as a comment on the nature of that life. 

One way to paraphrase the line "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is to say that art conveys human knowledge and insights better than any other conveyance of meaning (better than science, perhaps, or better than music).

The urn, after all, is depicting human life in various stages and engaged in various tasks. Youth and joy and sacrifice and, thus, religion are all represented. Furthermore, these ideas are presented in such a way as to maintain their mystery and their enigmatic significance. None of the magic of these aspects of life is lost when represented on the urn.

A repeated suggestion in the poem is that by not speaking and by maintaining an allegiance with silence, the urn is capable of articulating both the substance of life and its more mysterious nature.

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme
Thus a connection is implied that the urn, an example of beauty/art, is uniquely capable of expressing the "flowery tale" of human life. 
As to who "speaks" the line about beauty, Keats seems to be offering a voice to the urn at this point. The poet "speaks" the line but does so in a way that he is standing in for the urn and uttering the message that he feels the urn has to offer man. 
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st...
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Opinions are divided whether this is Keats' or the urn's comment. Due to the punctuation of the lines, it is conceivable Keats is declaring that beauty is the only time that a subject's true inner nature truly revealed.

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The urn speaks these lines to mankind. They address an age old philosophical question: what is truth? The lines mean that rather than seeking the answer to this question in pure reason, we should seek it in beauty: that beauty is the truest thing humanity can experience.

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