What is the significance of the fourth stanza?

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In the earlier stanzas, the speaker has described the scenes of beauty on the urn, the young lovers and beautiful natural features. He assures the young man on the urn that, though he will never get the kiss for which he longs, his lover's beauty will never fade and their love will never age or wither. In the fourth stanza, however, the speaker considers the town from which all of these people have come, the town which has been "emptied of this folk, this pious morn." He realizes that those streets will be silent and empty forever, now, because all of the people have come here, and they will never be able to return home. In other words, while this scene of beauty and joy exists, another scene of desolation and apparent sadness has been created, invisibly, elsewhere. This draws attention to one of the poem's main ideas: that true beauty lies in what is fleeting and ephemeral; death and mortality lend importance and beauty to people and scenes. It is the desolate town that lends greater beauty to the scene of delight; we cannot fully enjoy the feelings associated with one without understand, by experience, the feelings produced by the other.

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The fourth stanza can be thought of in terms of a volta, a change in tone or mood. The first three stanzas reflect the happy emotions of the speaker; he is entranced by the urn's beauty and the depictions of joyous emotions captured forever in a collection of scenes that will never change. Images of growth, fertility and sexual attraction are forever preserved. However, at stanza four, the speaker's mood shifts. He describes a scene of animal sacrifice for a religious rite that has brought everyone out of their homes and left the town desolate. He is disturbed at the thought of this eternal scene, and his thoughts darken as he begins to understand that the urn and its scenes will be eternal and that others will replace him in regarding it. The speaker realizes that unlike the urn, he will not be immortal, and he finds the thought sobering.

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Critics find it hard to agree on exactly what Keats is describing in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Some suggest that stanza 4 is a digression away from the urn he is either imagining or recalling. The reason for this analysis is that stanza 1 mentions the bride ("unravish'd bride") and stanza 2 mentions the groom as "Bold Lover" with "More happy love!" in stanza 3, yet stanza 4 talks about a "sacrifice" and a "desolate" town. Still, the logic of a Grecian wedding supports a sacrifice processional and an empty town just as the logic of an urn supports the appearance of a complex scene that would include all the variables questioned by the poet in stanza 1.

The seeming digression in stanza 4 logically reflects back to the wedding because the townspeople would be among the wedding guests and would represent the musicians, some of the "men," and the "maidens loth" [archaic for "loath"] in stanzas 1 through 3. Grecian weddings of necessity required acknowledgement of the gods, especially of Hymen, the Greek god of weddings, and perhaps also Hera, the goddess of marriage and family. A wedding might also honor the town's local deity. A procession, including a sacrificial animal, going from a town to a sacrifice in honor of Hymen on the occasion of a wedding would logically adorn an urn commemorating the event. Seen in this light, stanza 4 is not a digression but another part of the wedding celebration recorded on the urn.

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