Ode on a Grecian Urn Questions and Answers
by John Keats

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Beauty Is Truth Truth Beauty

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?

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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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debayan101 | Student

The chiasmus in the final two lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” have proved among the most difficult to interpret in the Keats canon. No one can be certain who is the speaker of, “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” It could be the poet as an envoy of mankind addressing the urn, or it could be the urn addressing mankind.

The first probability is, the Keats is addressing the urn, then it would indicate Keats’s awareness of its limitations: The urn may not need to know anything beyond the equation of beauty and truth, but the perplexity of human existence is not so simple. If we consider the second probability, the urn is speaking to the envoy of mankind, then the phrase has a timeless didactic value - beyond all the complications of life, all human beings need to know on earth is that beauty and truth are one and the same. But again, human existence is not so simple and cannot be confined within a binary structure. Going beyond the scope of this single poem to solve this perplexity, taking cognizance of the larger theme seen in the Great odes of 1819, it seems more plausible to assume that Keats is addressing the urn. Beginning with Ode on a Grecian Urn and concluding with To Autumn, all of them are preoccupied with transience and agonies of life. Likes Yeats would a century after him seek refuge in the permanency of art in Sailing to Byzantium, “Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing” Keats is also trying to find solace in the timeless beauty of the urn.

Keats had equated truth with beauty more than once in his letters. ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey in November 1817. Through the poet's imagination, the urn has been able to preserve a temporary and happy condition in permanence, but it cannot do the same for Keats or his generation; old age will waste them and bring them woe. Yet the pictured urn can do something for them and for succeeding generations as long as it will last. It will bring them through its pictured beauty a vision of happiness (truth) of a kind available in eternity, in the hereafter, just as it has brought Keats a vision of happiness by means of sharing its existence empathically and bringing its scenes to emotional life through his imagination. All you know on earth and all you need to know in regard to beautiful works of art, whether urns or poems about urns, is that they give an inkling of the unchanging happiness to be realized in the hereafter. When Keats says "that is all ye know on earth," he is postulating an existence beyond earth:

“When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Although Keats was not a particularly religious man, his meditation on the problem of happiness and its brief duration in the course of writing "Ode on a Grecian Urn" brought him a glimpse of heaven, a state of existence which his letters show he did think about. In his letter of November 22, 1817, to Benjamin Bailey, he mentioned: "another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated." While looking forward to the afterlife, Keats makes the best of his negative capability to cope up with the personal tragedies that besieged his life.

The ending of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ may be ambiguous, but this is in keeping with the ambiguity that pervades the whole poem; an aesthetic tactic that enacts his idea of negative capability—to embrace contradictions and uncertainties “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Walter Evert precisely interprets the final lines "The poem, then, accepts the urn for the immediate meditative imaginative pleasure that it can give, but it firmly defines the limits of artistic truth. In this, it is wholly consistent with all the great poetry of Keats's last creative period."

The idea is learning to live with enigmas.

The idea is learning to live with enigmas.

kaybrennan874 | Student

In lines 49-50 of this poem, the speaker is implying that beauty, which is art, is all that people should consider and admire. In reality, there are things in life that are ugly, such as poverty and war. Individuals should only pay attention to the positives, rather than contemplating other things that involve negativity.


aura4 | Student

These lines are teachings from Urn.

"Beauty is truth,truth beauty"

This line says that truth and beauty are one and the same thing. Just like an infant is the most beautiful person as his heart knows no malefic and his tongue says no lie.

"that is all Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know"

These lines mean that knowing the importance of truth is the main thing peole nowadays need to understand.

mattphin | Student

   This poem is about 'living in the moment', the 'getting is better than the having'. Why should one be remembered lifeless (trans. urn)? That perception will always be someone elses perception; not your being.