Sylvan Historian

Whom does the poet call the 'Sylvan historian'? Why?

Expert Answers
amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Urn is the sylvan historian because it is rather like a picture frame.  It has many carvings along its sides which tell the story--and each story will never change as long as the urn itself is in tact.

Among those scenes are the trees (sylvan reference) which will never lose their leaves and will stand forever strong against all elements of weather.

Under the trees are the lovers who are caught forever just before they kiss...the moment of highest expectation and the height of love...which will never be lost as they are frozen in time.  They will always be young with the buds of spring blushing in their cheeks.

The town which is deserted of people will always stand peacefully overlooking the water as the priest leads the garlanded heifer to her sacrificial ceremony.

The lute player will always be playing his "silent" music which is even more beautiful than that music we can hear because we each imagine our own version of the music--guaranteed to be lovely to our ears.

The urn is a historian because it captures each of these scenes and preserves it forever in time.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty and that is all you need to know."

Rebecca Owens eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Keats calls the Grecian Urn itself a "Sylvan historian." On the urn is a painted record of some ancient ceremony. Because it holds this record, it is a historian of sorts. 

For a more in-depth discussion of the poem, see the link below: 

rani16 | Student

Excellent! Thank u very much!!!

momruoff | Student

The poem begins with "thou" which means "you" and so you can assume that the narrator is talking to someone or something.  In this case, the "you" is the Grecian Urn.   He is talking to the urn itself as he observes the carvings on it.  He has a variety of metaphors that he uses to describe the urn, one is an "unravished bride" and another is a "foster child" and another is a "sylvan historian". According to Wikipedia "Sylvan refers to an association with the woods. Specifically, that which inhabits the wood, is made of tree materials, or comprises the forest itself. The term can also refer to a person who resides in the woods or a spirit of the wood.[1] In mythology, the term also refers to deities or spirits of the woods.[2]"

So, maybe the urn is made of wood or has pictures of trees on it, which it does, or maybe the people on the urn are spirits of the woods.  In any case, the label, "historian" suggests perhaps that the urn is old and has become a record of history.  Perhaps it is a wooden urn that has recorded history on it. 

Read the study guide:
Ode on a Grecian Urn

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