What are the literary devices in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

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teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Literary devices cover just about any technique a writer or poet uses to communicate a message to the reader. Before looking at the devices Keats uses, we can start with the message that he is trying to convey and see what devices he uses to reinforce his points. In this poem, Keats hopes to communicate how mesmerized or enchanted he is as he gazes at the picture on a Grecian urn. He wants us to see the picture on the urn just as he does. He also wants us to understand how excited he is at the emotions the picture evokes in him. As he looks at the young people merrily headed to a pagan festival, he thinks, wow, because they are works of art, they will never age! They will never get sick! They will always be as happy as they are at this moment, which is a very happy moment for them. How cool is that? As he thinks about this, he experiences an outburst of joy that he wants us to feel too. He also wants us to think, as he does, about whether it is better to be mortal or to be a work of art, and then to follow his thoughts to their ambiguous conclusion.

To help us see the picture on the urn, Keats uses imagery, such as the "soft pipes" the musicians play and "fair youth, beneath the trees." These are images because we can hear or see them in our imagination. He shows the "bold lover" at the point--forever--of kissing (but not quite kissing) his "fair" beloved. He tells us of the spring leaves forever on the trees. We see the heifer "with garlands drest" and the little town that is empty because everyone has gone out to the country for the festival. 

To help us feel how exciting the idea of never aging or dying is to him, he directly addresses the picture on the urn in ecstatic or passionate language. This form of direct address is called apostrophe. As the poem hits its emotional highpoint, Keats is so absorbed in the urn that he cries out to the branches of the trees, the piping musician, and the lovers, saying:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; 
And, happy melodist, unwearied, 
         For ever piping songs for ever new; 
More happy love! more happy, happy love! 
We know he is feeling emotionally ecstatic because he uses exclamation points, as well as the literary device of repetition by saying "happy" five times, and begins the apostrophe with "ah," an emotional exclamation. In the final stanza, he uses apostrophe again, this time directly addressing the urn:"O Attic shape!"
 
Keats uses alliteration, repeating words that begin with "s" when he starts to come down from his emotional high and begins to question the limits of art: yes, the young people will be forever young and happy, but the town will be forever deserted, "streets...silent...and not a soul to tell," a sad image. And his use of negative imagery--"Cold pastoral!" in his final apostrophe calls into question the throbbing warmth he earlier described in the figures and scene itself. After all, he communicates, this is simply a scene painted on a piece of pottery. This final apostrophe thus becomes an antithesis or contrast to his earlier joy, and relates that he is weighing the benefits of being a piece of art. 
 
At the end of the poem, Keats uses personification, calling the urn a "friend" as if it were a human. Personification comes into play again, because Keats imagines the urn saying "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" to him. The epigram is also an example of ambiguity, a device meant to make us think, because what exactly does it mean that beauty is truth and truth beauty?
brendawm's profile pic

brendawm | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is characterized by a highly lyrical tone with specific stanza forms and rhyme schemes.  There are five ten-line stanzas with a single rhyme scheme that combines the “quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet with the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet.” Check the link below for specifics on the rhyme scheme and other literary devices.  With the devices above you should be in great shape.

gbeatty's profile pic

gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Oh, this is a tough one, because there are so many used.
Let's start with the basics.
Keats uses personification in the first line.
He uses metaphors throughout.
He uses allusions.
He rhymes.
He uses archaic speech.
He uses consonance.

How's that for a start? ;-)
Greg

kaliesoccer184's profile pic

kaliesoccer184 | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

And I do not believe the answer above is accurate; there are positively 5 stanzas on my copy of Ode on a Grecian Urn.

revolution's profile pic

revolution | College Teacher | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted on

Actually, the above answer is not entirely accurate. This sentence "There are five ten-line stanzas with a single rhyme scheme that combines the “quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet with the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet.”" is wrong. It should have been:

"There are eight (not five) ten-line stanzas with a single rhyme scheme that combines the “quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet with the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet.”

The other literary device used in the story is as follows:

  • alliteration
  • personfication
  • rhyming
  • assonance and more.

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