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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What does the Grecian urn symbolize in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

Quick answer:

The Grecian urn symbolizes a paradox, that in attempting to immortalize youth and beauty, often believed to be the most valuable or beautiful parts of life, we actually destroy them.

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For Keats, the Grecian urn symbolizes a paradox: it depicts so much of what makes life worth living—music, love, youth, beauty—but in representing these things as static and unchanging, it seems to represent death as well; even the very shape of the vessel, which is an urn, is often synonymous with death.

For example, the bold lover's beloved described in the second stanza "cannot fade" and will "be fair" forever, while he will love her forever. Likewise, the season of spring will never pass, and the boughs, so full of flowers, "cannot shed" their leaves and petals. The "happy melodist" will be forever "piping songs" and will never tire of playing and singing. There will always be "more happy, happy love" to be enjoyed by these who will never grow old. In this way, then, they seem to achieve immortality.

However, it is a "Cold Pastoral" too. The musician and the lovers "canst not leave," and the lover can never actually kiss his beloved. He will never have his "bliss," because he can only ever be just about to kiss her. They will seem to love forever, but there is also something of an emptiness conveyed by the fact that this love will be forever "warm and still to be enjoy'd"—it is not "breathing human passion." Somewhere, there is a "little town" that is emptied of its people, and it will be desolate forever. This is death.

Thus, for Keats, the painting on the urn seems to immortalize something beautiful about life and, in immortalizing it, actually kills it, suggesting that what makes life—and youth, beauty, love, and so on—so beautiful is its changeability, its dynamism, the fact that it does not last forever.

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