artistic illustration of a Grecian urn set against a backdrop of hills and columns

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

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Ode on a Grecian Urn Summary

Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem by John Keats in which the speaker admires an ancient Grecian urn and meditates on the nature of truth and beauty.

  • In the first stanza, the speaker describes the scenes depicted on the urn: a party, a group of musicians, and a ritual slaughter.

  • In the second through fourth stanzas, the speaker describes the scenes in detail. He lingers on several scenes, speaking about them intense, joyous detail. 

  • In the final stanza, the speaker states that if the urn could speak for itself, it would declare, “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.”

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Last Updated October 20, 2023.

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the speaker admires a Grecian urn and the intricate scenes decorating it. Confronting this relic from the past, the speaker grapples with the idea of immortality and what it means to preserve life through art.

Lines 1-10

The speaker begins by approaching the urn and addressing it. Knowing the urn is an inanimate object, the speaker comments on its lack of agency: It can neither speak nor change with time. The urn, the speaker explains, is an “unravish’d bride of quietness” and a “foster-child of silence and slow time.” 

The speaker makes comments and raises questions about the scenes depicted on the urn, saying the urn is a historian of a kind. Through its pastoral scenes, the urn retells history better than any poet of the speaker’s time. Gazing at the urn, the speaker wonders about the figures and stories (“leaf-fring’d legends”) painted on the urn, questioning if they are gods, men, or both and wondering in which part of Greece they originated. 

Then, the speaker turns to individual scenes, identifying men, gods, women, and musical instruments. The figures are all either escaping some “mad pursuit” or joining a wild ecstasy, and the speaker wonders who they were and what they were doing.

Lines 11-20

Speaking in great detail, the speaker describes specific scenes: A musician playing under trees and a young couple in love. Though the speaker cannot hear the musician’s music, they argue that imagination is superior to reality and the “unheard” melodies are sweeter. The speaker hopes the musician will “play on” their “spirit ditties of no tone.” They rejoice that the musician is preserved forever on this urn and will play on in perpetuity beneath trees that will never lose their leaves. 

By focusing on both the musician and the tree’s immortality, the speaker indicates the joy they find in the urn’s preservational power. This theme continues as the speaker discusses the couple depicted on the urn. Even though the couple will never kiss (only “winning near the goal”), they should not grieve, as their love has been immortalized, preserved in perpetual beauty.

Lines 21-30

Overjoyed by the immortality the urn represents, the speaker focuses again on the trees it depicts. They exult at the idea of a tree with leaves that neither fall nor disappear, one which will never have to “bid the Spring adieu.” 

They are joyous for the musician, delighted they will play on forever “unwearied,” and how the songs they play will somehow forever be new. They express their joy for all those depicted on the urn by repeating the phrase “happy love!” and insisting there will always be happiness on the urn. This happiness is undying, as the people will stay forever young, kept separate from the sufferings and tragedies accompanying mortal life, such as “a burning forehead and a parching tongue.”

Lines 31-40

The speaker now begins to question the urn, wondering about the lives and contexts the urn portrays. They consider a scene depicting a ceremonial sacrificial procession in which figures lead a cow adorned with garlands toward a “green altar.” The speaker questions who they are, where they are from, and the purpose of the altar they lead the cow toward. 

Then, the speaker turns their attention to that which was not included on the urn. The speaker becomes distressed, realizing they will never know what place these people came from—the streets of their town will forever “silent be.” Those leading the cow are forever frozen in time in the act of leaving their town, and there is “not a soul” who might tell where they came from or why they left.

Lines 41-50

The speaker again addresses the urn directly, returning to the scenes of men, women, trees, and “trodden weed.” When looking at the urn—a physical manifestation of a moment frozen in time—they remark that it is an arresting experience that stops all thought for eternity. The speaker then has a revelation, realizing that although the urn depicts warm, rural, and loving scenes, it is ultimately an unchanging and frozen “Cold Pastoral!” 

Even when time takes the speaker and their entire generation, the urn will remain, witnessing the suffering and tragedies of many more generations to come. The speaker says that someone new may come to look at the urn and will initially see it kindly, as the speaker did. The speaker insists the urn will speak to this new viewer and tell them that beauty and truth are the same. This simple fact is all that can be known on Earth and is all that one needs ever know.

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