Last Updated October 20, 2023.
Throughout “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the speaker experiences a wide range of emotions and feelings regarding the urn’s immortalization of the figures it depicts. The poem’s tone shifts throughout, transitioning from admiration and reverence to cynicism and doubt. Keats accomplishes this shift through evocative diction, effusive imagery, and allusions to both historical events and his own life.
In the first stanza, the speaker appears apprehensive. They struggle to identify what they are looking at and spend a lot of time questioning the urn. Their abundant questions imply an initial uncertainty, which foreshadows the speaker’s shift in mindset toward the poem’s end.
Though the speaker is uncertain about the urn’s specific details, they contextualize its setting by referring to Greece, asking: “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?” Tempe and Arcady are both regions in Greece; if it was not already clear from the title, this allusion reaffirms the urn’s place of origination. By emphasizing the ‘foreign’ nature of the urn, Keats creates an object displaced not just in time but also in space. This displacement emphasizes the almost alien-like otherworldliness the speaker experiences when looking at the urn. They are not just looking at a piece of art but rather at a mysterious, almost magical artifact that requires deep questioning and thought.
In the second stanza, the speaker is much more certain about their admiration for the urn. They speak positively, referring repeatedly to the music the musician produces as “sweet” and made from “soft pipes” and frequently describing the couple as “fair.” At this point, the tone is overwhelmingly positive, as the speaker is overjoyed by the idea that these people will exist forever, making art and being in love.
The speaker finds nothing wrong with the scenes, proclaiming that it does not matter that these figures are frozen in time, as at least they will never fade away or change in any negative ways. They fixate on this idea that no harm will come to those on the urn, which brings them great happiness and joy. Even still, they seem almost jealous of this immortality.
The sense of overarching joy and happiness continues throughout the third stanza; the word “happy” is repeated six times. This repetition creates a thread of joy that sets the tone for the whole stanza. Though the tone grows increasingly exultant, the imagery is similar to the second stanza. The speaker returns to the imagery of nature, the musician, and the lovers. Returning to this imagery, they reaffirm their delight over the state of these scenes. The uncertainty of the first stanza has entirely dissipated.
The fourth stanza is where the tone shift subtly begins. The speaker spends this entire stanza exploring a scene depicting a ceremonial procession. Instead of showering the scene with praise and joy, the speaker questions it. The diction here is much more unsure, reminiscent of the first stanza. The priest in the image is described as “mysterious,” and instead of glowing imagery, the speaker wonders what place was “emptied” by the loss of the people.
Now, the diction has grown darker, with the speaker focusing on the hidden, lingering questions that accompany this kind of immortality. They wonder who the people in the scene are and what kind of lives they had. The speaker, however, realizes at the end of the stanza that they will never know the answers to these questions. By returning to questioning, the speaker begins to realize there are hidden consequences to this frozen immortality and that it is not as wonderful as they initially assumed.
In the final stanza, the speaker begins to...
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think about the urn as an object instead of just thinking about the scenes depicted on it. They describe it as “trodden” and “overwrought,” and refer to the urn constantly as a “silent” object and, particularly, as a “cold pastoral.” A pastoral is a literary genre relating to rural scenes; typically they are warm, love-filled scenes. “Cold pastoral” creates a paradox, expressing the speaker’s confused, changing feelings towards the urn.
Although the speaker once saw the urn as an object of wonder and joy, they now see that the urn’s type of immortality does not preserve life but instead illustrates lifelessness. As generations come and go, the urn remains unchanged.
The poem ends with the speaker imagining what the urn will say to subsequent viewers. By saying “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” the urn (through the speaker) expresses the idea that beauty comes from truth and that truth is the sole source of all things beautiful. The speaker here finds a sense of resolution with the urn—perhaps immortality is not what makes the urn beautiful; instead, its beauty stems from the truth of life and the human experience it displays.
The speaker decides it is fruitless to look for any answers in the world, ending their grappling with the urn. The questioning and shifting tone goes away, as the speaker determines that the answer is simple: Life simply is what it is, and that is the most beautiful thing of all.
John Keats is recognized by all as a central figure in the Romantic literary movement, and “Ode On A Grecian Urn” is considered one of his greatest works, although some of its elements are pre-Romantic. This brings up one of the biggest problems modern readers have in discussing the Romantic age. We cannot avoid talking about it and using the term to put historical literary figures in context with one another, especially not when we are discussing works of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but the traits that we use to recognize Romanticism can appear and then disappear within any author’s collected works—even within any given poem. There have been qualities of Romanticism existent since poetry was first written, and there are poets today whom we would call mainly Romantic due to their view of the world.
The period that we consider the Age of Romanticism was the time in history when most of the significant artists created works displaying these traits. If there could be a starting date put on this idea, it would have to be 1798, when Lyrical Ballads, a volume of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was published. These poems solidified a way of thought that had already existed in the atmosphere; it placed a high value on spirituality and nature. The works in this volume, the majority of them being Wordsworth’s, made the artist the main focus of a poem. They also showing a renewed interest in human individualism, after poets of the Enlightenment of the 1700s had instead valued abstract, esoteric ideas such as reason and ancient history. Historically, we can see the ascent of the individual rising as an international concern in the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, which both promoted the idea of democracy and respect for people regardless of their social position. The French Revolution led to anarchy, which might have made the general public around the world think twice about supporting the Romantic ideal of liberty, except that the anarchy led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. Napoleon named himself emperor and started expanding his empire in the early 1800s, which gave defenders of liberty an enemy to unite against. The fact that the Napoleonic Wars altered the balance of power between the three superpowers of the time—France, England, and Russia—and disrupted lives across Europe also helped the revolution in ideas proceed, since new ideas always flourish in times of turmoil. In 1819, when Romanticism and democracy were promoting ideals of freedom throughout Western culture, Keats wrote “Ode On A Grecian Urn.”
Romanticism is a movement that we generally associate with literature, although traces of it exist in all arts and, to some degree, in all manners of thought. The Romantic frame of mind is chiefly emotional, not intellectual. In this poem, for instance, the interest in the urn is not expressed in an intellectual way, such as trying to determine its date or history, but the speaker is writing about his direct experience concerning the vase. Concerns of Romantics included love, of course, since it is one of the most personal emotions the individual can have, and nature, since it is nature that individuals actually experience in the world. The abstract idea of God is not the direct focus of most Romantic works, but it is related to what Nature tells us about the spirit that runs through all things. One more theme that occurs often in Romanticism is the retelling of ancient tales, such as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which is presented through a mist of heroism and emotion, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott,” which includes Sir Lancelot of the Arthurian legends. Most often, Romantic stories draw on their own country’s history for sources. Focusing on subject matter from ancient Greece is a trait that we generally associate with the intellectual concerns of the Enlightenment, although it could be argued that this poem is about something that existed in Keats’s modern time—that even though the urn was made in ancient Greece, the poem is not antiquity.
Writers that are included in the Romantic age include, of course, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats. Also included are Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Tennyson, and both Percy and Mary Shelley. In America, traits identified as Romantic show up in the works of Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. Worldwide, we consider Victor Hugo, Henri Stendahl, Goethe, and Alexandre Dumas to be Romantics.
Romanticism did not die, but after Queen Victoria ascended to the throne of England in 1836, the mood of the country gradually shifted from individual self-expression to social formality. American Romanticism lived slightly longer, probably because formal society was not yet established well enough in the early 1800s to overtake it, and because the Transcendental movement, a subcategory of Romanticism, gained popularity with writers in the United States, and the catastrophe of the Civil War in 1861–1865 distracted the nation away from lofty Romantic thoughts.
The ode is an ancient form originally written for musical accompaniment. The word itself is of Greek origin, meaning “sung.” While ode-writers from antiquity adhered to rigid patterns of strophe, antistrophe, and epode, the form by Keats’s time had undergone enough transformation that it really represented a manner—rather than a set method—for writing a certain type of lyric poetry. In general, the ode of the Romantic era is a poem of thirty to two hundred lines that meditates progressively upon or directly addresses a single object or condition. In addition to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats wrote odes about the season of autumn and the song of a nightingale as well as about indolence, melancholy, and even the poet John Milton’s hair. Keats’s odes are characterized by an exalted and highly lyrical tone, and while they employ specific stanza forms and rhyme schemes, these can vary from ode to ode.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” consists of five ten-line stanzas, each following a single rhyme scheme that combines the quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet with the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet. Thus, the first four lines of each stanza rhyme abab, while the predominant rhyme scheme of the last six lines is cdecde. The reader will notice that the sestet's rhyme scheme varies in each of the first two stanzas: in the first, it is cdedce; in the second, it is cdeced. In these stanzas, however, the poem’s order—the hierarchy of its three principle symbols— has yet to be resolved. In the third stanza, “wild ecstasy” yields to a controlled interpretation of the urn’s representations, and from that point the sestets assume the traditional Petrarchan order.
Thematically, Keats attempts to compose the stanzas in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are just as their hybrid rhyme scheme would suggest. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the three quatrains present some problem or question to be reconciled in the final couplet. In a Petrarchan sonnet, a similar concept is reconciled in the last six lines. Thus, in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the quatrain tends to present a problem or condition that is addressed, explained or elaborated in the sestet. Consider, for instance, the first stanza. While the quatrain tells us that the poet cannot adequately express the "flowery tale" depicted on the urn, the sestet reveals why. The urn's pictures raise a string of questions that language alone cannot answer.
1819: Parliament passed a series of repressive laws known as the Six Acts to stop angry farmers who had been staging violent protests against the Corn Laws. The Six Acts put limits on public meetings and on journalistic reporting and gave police greater authority to search people and seize their property.
1846: The Corn Laws were repealed; they had kept corn prices low, which impoverished many farmers and made them move to the city. As a result of this surplus of labor, England became a main force on the Industrial Revolution.
1854: Charles Dickens's book Hard Times was published. The novel exposed inhumane treatment of employees in London factories, including child labor, and new labor guidelines were passed because of the book’s impact.
1945: Destitute because of the damage incurred during World War II, Britain elected a Labor Party government, which nationalized banks, utilities, and industries and implemented a welfare state.
1979: Margaret Thatcher was elected English Prime Minister. In the next eleven years she cut inflation by twenty percent and privatized many of the industries that the government had owned since 1945.
Today: England’s healthy economy has made it a central force in the European Economic Community.
1819: The first paddle-wheel steamship, the Savannah, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in only thirty-nine days. The ship carried no passengers because people were afraid that the pressurized steam engine would explode.
1825: An English inventor developed the first steam-powered locomotive.
1843: The first propeller-driven, iron-hulled ship crossed the Atlantic.
1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first successful airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
1939: The first helicopter designed for mass production was invented.
1957: The first satellite, Sputnik I, was launched into space.
1969: The first man walked on the moon.
Today: NASA’s Pathfinder Mission is successful as the rover Sojourner explores the surface of Mars and sends live video back to Earth.
Both an audio cassette and a compact disc titled “Great Poets of the Romantic Age” is available from Audiobooks.
An audio cassette titled “The Poetry of John Keats” is available from Audiobooks.
Brooks Jr., Cleanth, “History Without Footnotes: An Account of Keats’s Urn,” The Sewanee Review, Vol. LII, No. I., Winter, 1944, pp. 89–101.
Finney, Claude Lee, The Evolution of Keats’s Poetry, Vol. 2, New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.
Fraser, G. S., editor, John Keats: Odes, London: Macmillan, 1971.
Hough, Graham, “Keats,” in his The Romantic Poets, Hutchinson’s University Library, 1953, pp. 156–94.
Unger, Leonard, “Keats and the Music of Autumn,” in his The Man in the Name: Essays on the Experience of Poetry, University of Minnesota Press, 1956, pp. 18–29.
Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
For Further Study
Frye, Northrup, A Study of English Romanticism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.Frye, one of the most respected and influential literary critics of this century, takes the study of Romanticism back to ancient times and probes into obscure aspects of nineteenth-century life in this thorough examination.
Jordan, John E., Why the “Lyrical Ballads”? Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.This entire short volume is focused on one influential book published on 1798; it was the spark that began England’s Romantic period.
Reeves, James, A Short History of English Poetry,1340–1940, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1962.Despite the great deal of information that he has to cover in 228 pages, Reeves manages to do a tremendous job, remaining interesting and informative due to the clarity of his style.
Ward, Aileen, John Keats;The Making of a Poet, New York: The Viking Press, 1963.This prize-winning biography, written by an American scholar, tells all the facts about the poet’s life and examines his writings with a sharp eye.
Barnard, John, ed. John Keats: The Complete Poems. 3d ed. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988. This comprehensive collection of Keats’s poetry includes an excellent short commentary to “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. A superb critical biography of Keats, despite its age. Bate is accurate with biographical details, subtle in his analyses of Keats’s psychology and how it influenced his poetry, and always reliable when discussing the style and themes of the poems. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is discussed in chapter 19.
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. 1947. Reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Literary scholar Brooks, in this analysis that includes discussion of Keats’s famous poem, helped to inaugurate the then-new area of literary criticism called New Criticism.
Christensen, Allan C. The Challenge of Keats: Bicentenary Essays, 1795–1995. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Contributors to this volume reexamine some of the criticisms and exaltations of Keats to find a new analysis of his achievements. Delivers an appraisal of the historical and cultural contexts of Keats’s work and a detailed discussion of the influences and relationships among Keats and other poets.
Cox, Jeffrey N., ed. Keats’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 2009. In addition to notes on “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” this edition of Keats’s poetry and letters contains critical essays on his work. A good place to start for students new to Keats.
Motion, Andrew. Keats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. A biography that emphasizes Keats’s politics as well as his poetry and personality. Highlighting the “tough” side of Keats’s character, Motion clarifies the image of Keats as little more than a sickly dreamer.
O’Flinn, Paul. How to Study Romantic Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A useful study guide for introductory students that includes overviews and outlines for Keats as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Blake.
Vendler, Helen. The Odes of John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. A well-known literary scholar examines “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Includes an analysis and interpretation of the poem.
Wolfson, Susan J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Keats. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Leading scholars discuss Keats’s work in several contexts, covering topics such as Keats’s life in London’s intellectual, aesthetic, and literary cultures, and the relationship of his poetry to the visual arts. A comprehensive collection from a respected and trusted source.
_______. John Keats. New York: Longman, 2007. Gives a sense of the poet’s thinking by interspersing poems, letters, and publications of reviews and contemporary works. The material is positioned alongside the author’s poems in order of composition or appearance in print. Helpful in making clear his poetic style.