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.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Ode on a Grecian Urn

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“ODE ON A GRECIAN URN” is one of the loveliest and most richly puzzling of English lyrics. In five short stanzas of ten lines each, Keats vividly presents the scenes adorning an ancient urn, which he personifies and addresses directly as “still unravished bride,” “Foster child of silence and slow time,” and “sylvan historian.”

The urn’s frieze eloquently if wordlessly proves that art offers a permanence impossible in the real world. The pictured trees beneath which a piper forever plays will never lose their spring leaves. The “bold lover” pressing his suit will never stop loving, nor will his lady cease to be fair. On the other hand, the kiss sought can never be granted, the melodies can never be heard, the trees can never bear summer fruit--so the changeless state conveyed by art clearly has its drawbacks.

Having reflected on the living moments frozen into decorative “attitudes” on the urn--love, flight and pursuit, music making, ritual sacrifice--Keats backs away to view the urn as a whole. The “cold pastoral” of the urn lives forever precisely because it has never lived. However the reader chooses to interpret the poem’s cryptic final lines, which because of a punctuation discrepancy in early editions permit sharply different readings, the urn’s message of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is a statement of triumph and limitation entirely valid in the realm of art where the urn exists.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Keats’s meditation on the significance of the pictures on this piece of classical pottery shares many of the characteristics of the Horatian ode. It consists of five stanzas of equal length (ten lines), with a consistent rhyme scheme in each: The first four lines are rhymed abab, and the final six lines contain three rhymes, arranged in various patterns (cdecde or cdeced). The limited number of rhymes, coupled with the many end-stopped lines, give the poem a restrained quality; readers are forced to pause often and are constantly, if subtly, brought back to previous lines by the rhymes. As with any rhymed composition, the reader comes to develop a sense of expectation at the end of a line; that expectation is fulfilled when the rhyming pattern is fulfilled. The regularity of stanzaic pattern and rhyme scheme is further reinforced by the poet’s use of iambic pentameter as his basic meter. The slow cadence of this conversation-like line gives the poem a quality of meditation and seriousness. All these techniques work together to achieve Keats’s aim: to get readers to pause, as his narrator does, to contemplate the significance of the two scenes on the urn.

The regularity of these formal devices is undercut, however, by Keats’s use of ambiguity in his language. He makes extensive use of double entendre and paradox in describing both the urn itself and the scenes displayed upon it. For example, in the opening line, the narrator refers to the urn as a “still unravished bride.” The word “still” can be read as an adjective meaning “unmoving” or “at rest,” or it can be an adverb modifying “unravished,” in which case it means “not yet.” The urn is the “bride of quietness” and the foster-child of “silence” and “slow time,” yet the narrator calls it a “Sylvan historian”—suggesting that it has a story to tell. Certainly such ambiguities create a tension within the poem; the reader is not really sure what kind of story can emerge from such a storyteller. That tension is reinforced by the pictures themselves, in which people seem to be arrested in the midst of activity. In the first one, the narrator sees a figure playing an instrument; no sound comes forth, however, and the only melody possible is that which the narrator imagines. Similarly, in the same scene two lovers are about to kiss, yet they remain as if in suspended animation. That situation is seen as both good and bad—“never, never canst thou kiss” (line 17), the narrator observes sadly to the young man pictured on the urn, but he immediately follows with the admonition, “yet, do not grieve,” because the youth’s beloved “cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss.” These lovers are “For ever panting and for ever young” (line 27); they will never suffer the tribulations of real passion, which leave “A burning forehead, and a parching tongue” (line 30). This may be true, but the possibility lingers that they will never feel the joy of consummated passion either.

Similar tensions are present in the narrator’s discussion of the second scene. Though the group taking the heifer to sacrifice appears happy, the narrator realizes that the “little town” from which these people have come will “forever” be “silent” and “desolate” (lines 38, 40). The implication is that, despite the joy depicted in the scene, there will remain an unexplained loss to counterbalance the apparent euphoria this work of art exhibits.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

The ode is an ancient form originally written for musical accompaniment. The word itself is of Greek origin, meaning "sung." While...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1819: Parliament passed a series of repressive laws known as the Six Acts to stop angry farmers who had been staging violent protests...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Consider a painting that you know, and write a list of questions about what is going on in the scene. What do your questions tell you about...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Both an audio cassette and a compact disc titled "Great Poets of the Romantic Age" is available from Audiobooks.

An audio...

(The entire section is 32 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Keats's poetry is collected in a definitive edition printed by the Oxford University Press called The Poetry of John Keats. The first...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Brooks Jr., Cleanth, "History Without Footnotes: An Account of Keats's Urn," The Sewanee Review, Vol. LII, No....

(The entire section is 263 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.