In his 1944 essay, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Cleanth Brooks offered an analysis of John Keats’s famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” A key feature in the analysis is part of the last line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty . . . ” Brooks used this line to challenge the prevailing opinion, first voiced by TS Eliot, that this line was a flaw, which seemed tacked on rather than an integral part of the poem.
Looking at the entire poem in a different way than Eliot, Brooks argued that Keats had established a central paradox that unified the poem. That central paradox, Brooks claimed, was the relationship between “beauty,” as embodied in the poem, to “truth” as the message of the poem. In this interpretation, the subject of the poem is poetry and, by extension, art.
The paradox of the urn recurs in each stanza, reiterating the theme of tension between the dynamism depicted in the scenes on the urn and the frozen character that holds them in place. In each stanza of the poem, as in each location on the urn, that paradox of motion contained in stillness is reestablished. An example is the depiction of sexual activity contrasted to the purity of a vessel which is “still unravished . . . ” Brooks argues that Keats thereby effectively prepares the reader for the final line, which is the reconfirmation of that paradox.