What is a brief stanza-by-stanza explanation of the basic meaning of "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?
In the first stanza, the speaker directly addresses an ancient Grecian urn, remarking upon its age and the pastoral image it depicts. Lovely young men and women, immortals perhaps, are lounging and frolicking, and their antics tell a story.
In the second stanza, the speaker says that the melody played by the person piping on the urn is lovelier than any that could be heard because it can last forever; likewise, the trees will never lose their leaves, and though the lover will never get his kiss, the beauty of his love will never fade. In a sense, then, they will never die, but they will also never live.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes the branches that will never be leafless and the season of spring that will last forever. Similarly, the love depicted will always be warm and full, never becoming — like real human passion — too much or painful or uncomfortable. Real love can feel like an illness, but the love depicted on the urn never will. This makes it pretty but untrue.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker asks about those people who approach, leading a cow decorated with flower garlands. He wonders about the little town, now emptied because all its people are walking through the countryside on their way to some mysterious religious service. It will be desolate forever.
In the fifth and final stanza, the speaker remarks on the urn's Athenian appearance, its artistry, continuing to address it directly (this technique is called apostrophe). He says that its silence makes him stop and think, and he calls it "cold." The scene may be lovely but it is not truly alive, and so it will live on even after the poet and his generation have died. The urn will continue to exist, to show people that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'" In other words, then, the scene is gorgeous, but it is not truly beautiful because it is not truly alive. Real passion, for example, can go wrong, can fade, can die, but that is what makes it so beautiful while it lasts; the passion depicted on the urn is lovely, but it isn't truthful. Therefore, what is really beautiful in life is truthful, and what is truthful will also be beautiful.