An ode, typically a lengthy lyric poem dealing with lofty emotions, is dignified in style and serious in tone. Lyric poems, in general, explore elusive inner feelings. John Keats, a widely admired poet of the English Romantic period, composed his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in five stanzas (sections), each containing ten lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. Keats invented his own rhyme scheme for the ode.
In stanza one, the poet speaks of a ceramic urn from ancient Greece; such urns often were used to hold the ashes of the dead and were decorated with scenes from daily life or from myth and legend. The imaginary urn of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a composite of several urns that Keats probably had seen at the British Museum or in books. He also might have been influenced by the Elgin Marbles, decorated portions of the Parthenon in Athens that had been brought to England, not without much controversy, in the early nineteenth century. One could thus imagine the poet either standing in front of a museum exhibit or looking at an illustration in an art book.
In describing the urn, Keats is reflecting on what he sees, engaging in an internal debate. The term “ekphrasis” means a description of or a meditation on a visual work of art; there exist examples of ekphrasis in literature from the classical to the modern. The poet is impressed with the antiquity of the urn and its pictured scenes, images that appear to affect the poet more strongly than do the poem’s words—the poet, though, seems unsure of the exact legend being conveyed by the pictured scenes. The urn depicts several scenes, including a wild party in which men chase after girls, the playing of musical instruments such as pipes and timbrels (tambourine-like percussion instruments), and a sacrificial ritual. The poet is impressed by both the frenzy of action on the urn and the urn’s status as a still object—an artifact quietly persisting for ages—but is frustrated by the silent urn’s inability to answer questions.
In stanza two, the poet addresses particular parts of the urn’s images—the pipes and their imagined melodies and a lover attempting to kiss the maiden—and comments on their eternal sameness. He notes that although the melodies being played by the pipers on the urn cannot be heard, this silence is somehow better, perhaps because the melodies dwell in a higher part of the mind, or the imagination or fancy, as this part of the mind had been termed at the time: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter.”
The poet also addresses the youthful lover, presumably one of the pursuing men of stanza one. Though this lover will never catch his maiden for a kiss, she can never fade nor ever become less than fair, thus implying that the imagined world on the vase is superior to the real world of experience.
In stanza three, the poet seems to envy the figures fixed on the urn, whose happiness and love will remain forever. To some readers, however, the middle of the stanza shows the poet, in his progressive reflection on the urn, not so sure of the superiority of art (the pictorial representation on the urn) to experience. The repetitive language here is perhaps indicating an ironic tone, and there is a release from a rapt contemplation of the urn.
In stanza four, the poet describes a different side of the urn, which depicts a heifer being led to a ritual slaughter while a small town is abandoned by its inhabitants—a desolate scene, an apparent change of tone from the previous stanza (unless read as ironic). To some critics the second and third stanzas are digressions; the poet returns to the urn and its meaning in this fourth stanza.
Finally, in the last stanza, the poet makes his last pronouncements to the urn, which seems to speak in the final two lines. The poet is released from his reverie, or rapt contemplation, of the urn. The pastoral scene (the word “pastoral” brings to mind rural perfection and happiness) is thought of as cold, though it is reaffirmed as lasting longer than the present generation. In the final two lines, the poet tells readers what message the urn would pronounce, if it could speak: that truth and beauty are equivalent—an idea that was current in the Romantic criticism and philosophy of Keats’s time.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” addresses many of the same concerns that occupied Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale,” except that in this poem he turns his attention from the natural poetry of the bird to the human artistry of the urn. Unable to escape his sense of life’s transience through the immortal song of the bird, Keats looks to the timeless truth embodied in the urn. Keats once again encounters the paradox that is central to all of his art: To achieve immortality is to rid oneself of change, but it is change, not stasis, that produces the contrasts necessary for all that is good.
In the first stanza, the poet contemplates first the urn as a whole, which he characterizes as a “historian,” and then turns his attention to the detailed scene engraved onto the side of the urn. The urn first is described as an “unravish’d bride of quietness,” calling attention to the fact that it is only when the poet begins to think about the urn that it begins to tell its story. The urn cannot speak, in other words, until it is spoken to. That is a significant point, for it leads to the conclusion that the immortal urn exists in any meaningful way only when it comes into contact with, and is activated by, the inquiring intelligence of a mortal observer. Immortality, the poet again seems to be saying, depends in some fundamental way upon its opposite.
He then begins asking the urn questions about the people portrayed on the side of the urn. He wonders who they are, “deities or mortals, or of both,” and speculates about the location of the engraved scene, “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?” The setting is obviously ancient Greece, a time when mortals and gods often interacted. From the very beginning, therefore, the poet is concerned with the issue of immortality, both as it is represented by the immortal urn and by the godlike characters whose “legend” is engraved on the side.
Stanza 2 shifts from questions to observations. The first observation stems from the experience of the first stanza. Having tried to experience imaginatively the scene before him, the poet reaches the conclusion that the imagination, when engaged by art, produces an experience that is superior to reality. The sounds of the pipes are sweet, to be sure, but the sounds supplied by the imagination “Are sweeter,” because the imagination can alter and improve upon actual experience. Not bound by the material world, the imagination is capable of conjuring up sights, sounds, and emotions far beyond one’s physical human capabilities. It would seem, therefore, that Keats is suggesting that the world of the imagination, which is the world of art, is preferable to the world of actuality. In the ideal world of art, where life need not conform to the limitations of flesh and blood, everything is as it should be; there the leaves never fall from the trees, no one ever dies, youth never fades, and lovers are forever young and forever in love. Keats comes to that realization through the scene before him: Although the lover, poised to kill his beloved, will never actually complete the act, nevertheless it is not a loss, since his beloved “cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
This praise for the perfection and permanence of art continues through stanzas 3 and most of 4 until the poet pauses to wonder about the “little town by river or sea shore” that has been vacated by the people portrayed on the urn. In attending this celebration of life, they have left their village forever, never to return. In this detail the poet discovers a complication in his admiration for permanence, for even as the lovers will always be young and in love, so in turn will the village always be empty and silent with “not a soul to tell/ Why thou art desolate.” There is a shift in tone from the celebratory mood of the previous two stanzas to a somber, almost sad picture of the deserted town and its eternal silence. The celebration of life on the urn has its counterpart in the unspoken death of the village. Again Keats brings life and death together, but in this case both are made immortal through art. Keats’s point is that if there is much that is desirable in the immortality of his lovers and their eternal celebration of love and life, there is also much that is undesirable in this idealized world; not only will the lover never actually kiss his beloved (they will always remain right on the verge of touching each other’s lips) but also everything that surrounds this event likewise will be frozen in time, including the abandoned village.
In the end, the poet sees the urn as a friend to humanity, but that friendship resides less in the particular truth that the urn has to teach humankind and more in the fact that the message is truth, and truth (whether joyful or painful) is beautiful. The questions of whether the permanence of art is good or bad, whether immortality is better than mortality, or whether stasis is preferable to change are all set aside in the end in favor of a statement about the lasting importance of truth—all truth—and the capacity of art to convey that truth from one generation to the next. Whether or not one agrees with Keats’s poem is ultimately unimportant; what is important is that his poem discloses a truth, the great and enduring gift of art.