In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the speaker closely examines a decorative urn from ancient Greece. He praises its richly ornamental sides and compares the urn to a
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.
To the speaker, pictures are more expressive than words. Like an archivist of the woods or chronicler of rustic life, the urn is a “Sylvan historian” who records events of a rural scene. It tells a “flowery tale” in two senses: ornate and complex.
The seemingly cheerful actions depicted in the decorative images take place in a lovely, bucolic, “flowery” setting. The speaker wonders if the alliterative “leaf-fring'd legend” is about
deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Unsure of the exact events depicted by the urn, the speaker emphasizes the complexity of the images. “Legend” suggests that the story is mythological and definitely occurred in the valleys (“Tempe,” “dales”) of Arcadia in ancient Greece. Nonetheless, this innocent and idyllic setting frames ambiguous actions of love and lust. The speaker wonders if the depicted characters are gods or humans and who they actually are.
Even more unclear is if the “flowery tale” is one of revelry or perhaps rape. The male lover is in pursuit of the female: Is the chase all in good fun and flirtation? Or are the males attacking the females? Music from pipes and ancient tambourines accompany this scene. Is the music light and celebratory for playful lovers? Or is the music more ominous to provide a soundtrack for the hunters?
Similarly, the term “wild ecstasy” is complex in meaning. Do both the males and females feel joy, or is the uncontrolled lust pleasurable only to the males as they pursue and capture the maidens? This “flowery tale” remains ambiguous, as it is unclear if it tells a story of love, physical lust, or rape.