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 is the overall tone of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

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The overall tone of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is both admiring and melancholy.

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The overall tone of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is simultaneously admiring and melancholy. The speaker is no doubt impressed by the artistry of the images adorning the sides of the urn. He admires how lively the images appear and wonders what story the images might be trying to tell. The constant questions regarding the context of the images (such as why the men are chasing the women or why the cow is about to be sacrificed) show how enraptured the speaker is by this work of art. He wishes to know more about it, but all he can do is endlessly contemplate it.

And yet there is an undeniable element of bittersweetness to the poem's tone as well. The speaker constantly points out how these images are frozen, capturing a time long past and keeping it perfectly preserved despite the passage of centuries. Because the urn's images are static, they can never fully progress, such as the young lover pursuing his beloved. The lovers will never kiss, because they are trapped in still images. The medium preserves the beauty and youth of the subjects, but their love will never be consummated. The poet is both comforted and saddened by this eternal stasis.

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What is the tone of "Ode on A Grecian Urn"?

What a great question!  Count how many times "happy" appears in the 3rd stanza, and then count the "never" in stanza 2, and this conflict produces an irony the speaker can't resolve.  He sees this ode to love on the urn, but the urn, too, is a "cold pastoral" because it depicts an ideal that can never be consummated (those lovers will never kiss), a type of love never realized in this our real world. But then the last couplet about Beauty and truth: why would the urn tell us this as the essential knowledge we "need"? I would guess the urn tells us,that we might experience beauty, and through beauty truth, but love will always escape us.  Keats was a Platonist, believing that truth exists in a different realm than our reality, and that our access to it is through art. This, perhaps, is the message of urn, so that if what you want in life is beauty, that's good, but if you want love, that message is less good. 

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What is the tone of "Ode on A Grecian Urn"?

At the beginning of his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats’s tone seems admiring of the urn and the scenes on it.  This fascination with the urn continues throughout the poem.  The concern is, however, that the figures on the urn, though lovely, are “Cold Pastoral” (45) and not living.  Certainly the unending love on the urn could be “more happy, happy love” (25), and the sylvan scene will never “bid the Spring adieu” (22).  Unfortunately, though, the love and the scene are not real, so one could also read the poem in an ironic tone since the urn will never actually experience real life.

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What is the tone of "Ode on A Grecian Urn"?

Surfacely, the tone seems very light...a poet describing a sublime piece of visual art.  The speaker calls the beauty of the object,  “A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme."  

 However, on deeper inspection, the tone is actually pretty morbid.  An urn, like this ornate one, was an object for the ashes of a dead person.  Conversely, the figures on the urn are "forever young."  But youth and everlasting beauty are lies in the real world.  Only in art can the illusion be sustained. 

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