The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It is important to apprehend the dramatic situation in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” both to understand the poem on a literal level and to glean any larger meaning from it. A narrator looks at the pictures that decorate the outside of an urn; between the “leaf-fringed legend[s]” (line 5)—literally, the decorated borders on top and beneath the painted figures on the vase—the narrator sees two distinct scenes, consisting primarily of figures engaged in two activities common to Greek life: raucous sexual play and religious celebration.

The speaker in the poem addresses the urn directly, as if it were a living object. Viewing the first scene, which consists of a collection of young people engaging in some form of revelry, the narrator asks about the identity of the people and about their motives: Are the women escaping from the men, or is this a courting match? Why is there music (represented by a figure on the urn who is playing an instrument)? The scene makes the narrator realize that he can only imagine his own answers—but in a sense, the “unheard” melodies that he imagines are “sweeter” than those he might actually hear (lines 11-12). Gazing at what he believes to be two lovers about to embrace, he observes that, though they can never consummate their relationship, they will never change, either; instead, they will be forever in that heightened state of anticipation that precedes the climax of a love affair.

At the beginning of the fourth stanza, the narrator shifts his gaze to the second scene on the urn; in it, some townspeople are leading a calf to an altar for sacrifice. Once more the narrator asks questions: Who are these people? Where do they come from? Again he realizes that he cannot get the answers from viewing the urn; the questions will be forever unanswered, because the urn is not capable of providing such information. Rather, it sits silently, provoking his curiosity.

In the final stanza, the narrator recognizes the futility of his questioning and acknowledges that the urn is simply capable of teasing him “out of thought” (line 44)—leaving him unable to come to some logical conclusion about the stories depicted on the urn, and hence about the value of the urn itself. The narrator concludes by calling it a “Cold Pastoral” (line 45) whose ultimate worth lies in its beauty, not in its message.