What is the theme of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats?  

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One major theme of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is that a beautiful work of art brings comfort and joy to the viewer. In this poem, the narrator gazes at the picture on an ancient Greek urn. It shows a pagan springtime festival, with musicians and young lovers ready to kiss. As the narrator contemplates this scene, he becomes more and more ecstatic. How "happy" the scene is and always will be! It will always be springtime, the leaves will always be on the trees, the lovers will always be young and in love, the musicians will be always playing their tunes. The narrator, as his enthusiasm rises to a crescendo in the third stanza, repeats the word happy six times:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves ...
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
                For ever panting, and for ever young ...
To the narrator, the scene of the vase captures immortality and eternal youth, two deep desires of the heart. Isn't this better to be a work of art, he thinks, than to face "breathing human passion" that can leave us sorrowful and unfulfilled?
Yet the narrator also wonders about the problems freezing time could bring: what about the town that has been emptied of its people for the festival? Won't it be forever "desolate?" Isn't the flip side of freezing the moment the danger of being caught in the wrong moment?
But the narrator quickly moves back to his ecstatic contemplation of the urn, praising it in the next stanza with exclamation points: "O Attic [Greek] shape! Fair attitude!" He ends by saying that when his own generation is old and gone, the urn will still remain and bring comfort and joy to future generations.  
dandeeprose | Student

One of the main themes of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is that human life is fleeting and often painful, but that those woes can be transcended through the timeless beauty of art. In the opening stanzas, Keats explores how brief and sorrowful our lives are. The scenes decorating the urn are frozen in time, and Keats contrasts this with the brevity of human life. The "fair youth" (15) will never stop playing his pipes beneath trees that will never shed their leaves. He exists in a world of perpetual summer and music. Likewise, the "bold lover" (17) will never be able to kiss his lady, but this is a positive thing because it means that the lady's beauty "cannot fade" (19). In real life, beauty fades, love is lost, and lovers inevitably grow old and die. Because the figure on the urn are frozen images, however, their love and youth will last: “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” (20) This is contrasted with love in the real world, which "leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,/A burning forehead, and a parching tongue" (29-30). Human life and love are ephemeral—that is, they are fleeting and will quickly end—and they are filled with sorrow. The urn, on the other hand, will live on, unchanging: "When old age shall this generation waste,/Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe"(46-47). Human lives will be wasted and destroyed by time and old age, but the urn will remain forever beautiful.

Keats suggests not only that the figures on the urn live in comparative happiness, but he also provides a solution: through the urn and artworks like it, humans can achieve a similar state of bliss. The speaker gets drawn farther and farther into the world of the urn, ascending into a state of frenzied pleasure that rises from the “wild ecstasy” (10) of the first stanza to the “More happy love! more happy, happy love” (25) of the poem’s midpoint to the passionate apostrophe that begins the final stanza: “Oh Attic shape! fair attitude!” (41). Through his appreciation of art, he achieves great heights of joy and manages to glimpse the beauty of eternity. Thus the urn, representative of all art, provides a key through which humans can transcend their ephemeral, mundane lives: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (49). Human exitence is nasty, brutish and short, but art can bring to it meaning, pleasure and beauty.