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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Why is the urn addressed as "Cold Pastoral" in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

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Keats refers to the urn as a "Cold Pastoral" to because it illustrates an image of life in the Ancient Greek farmlands. The pastoral is cold because it is literally made of stone and because it figuratively freezes a moment in time, preventing the actual actions of the story from taking place through preservation.

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According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "A pastoral piece of art, writing, or music represents the pleasant and traditional features of the countryside." When Keats refers to the urn as a "Cold Pastoral," he is describing the function of the urn as an object used to communicate a story about the Grecian countryside. For example, earlier in the ode, Keats meditates on a part of the urn that illustrates a woman leading a calf to slaughter, which was a common event in the farmlands of Ancient Greece and often features in Greek literature:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

Calling the pastoral "cold" is likely a reference to the temperature of the urn itself; if you've ever touched clay ceramics, you've likely experienced the cold sensation of a non-living object. In addition to this very literal meaning, Keats is also referring to the urn's preservation of the events it illustrates. For example, earlier in the poem, Keats meditates on an image of two lovers leaning in for a kiss below a tree:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Because the lovers' almost-kiss is preserved in cold stone, they will never actually kiss, and they will never grow old together. The pastoral is cold because it is not unfolding before our eyes, but is preserved in stone, never to be enacted. In other words, the pastoral is cold because it preserves a moment in time by freezing it, effectively preventing the story from reaching its climax.
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When Keats talks of "cold pastoral," he's referring to the rural scene frozen in time on the side of the Grecian urn. As the speaker closely scrutinizes the urn, he can see all the features one normally associates with the depiction of a pastoral scene, such as a heifer lowing at the sky, or the forest branches and the trodden weed. But because this is a scene frozen in time, it is a dead scene, not a living one. In other words, it is a cold pastoral, a pastoral tableau from which all the warmth, life, and vigor has been removed.

To be sure, the urn is still a ravishingly beautiful object, one that is greatly admired by the speaker. But when all's said and done, it cannot capture what's truly special and unique about the countryside and all its joys. This is not because the urn is defective in any way; it's simply the nature of art. And like all great works of art, the urn transcends the temporal world in which we live and in which it was created to provide us with a brief glimpse into eternity. Eternity, of its very nature, isn't subject to the ravages of time, and so remains, in metaphorical terms, cold and unchanging.

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Keats spends a lot of time discussing the paintings that adorn Grecian urns and sings his praises more to these images than to the earthenware entity itself. He speaks of the beauty caught in the stories, whether it be by a flute whose tune can only be imagined, in a lover just about to win a kiss, or in the images of people engaged in religious rituals.

The word "pastoral," especially in poetry, refers to an idyllic representation of lives that are considered distant and romantic, often because they are rural or engage in behaviors that connect them to the earth in some way. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the phrase "Cold Pastoral" refers to the coldness of the urn as a physical object and to the picturesque nature of the stories that are told on urns.

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A "pastoral" is a poem that idealizes rural life and landscapes. By referring to the Grecian urn as a pastoral, Keats equates it to a literary work. Indeed, he has spent the previous stanzas recounting the tales that the urn tells and even some it doesn't tell (when he imagines the vacant "little town" that the characters on the vase have left behind). The urn's etchings contain characters, such as the youth and the maiden he pursues, and actions that suggest some kind of plot to Keats. If poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquility," as Wordsworth suggested, then the urn could potentially qualify. Keats, at any rate, draws much emotion from the drawings, including "more happy, happy love!" In the first stanza, Keats compares the urn to a poem when he calls it a "sylvan historian, who canst thus express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme." In the final stanza, he returns to that metaphor by addressing the urn as "Cold Pastoral."

It is easy to see, then, that Keats's metaphor of the urn as a poem idealizing country life is valid. Why would he call it "cold" when he finds it expressive of such warm emotions? It is cold in two ways. Glazed ceramic pottery has a cold sensation to the touch. In addition, Keats means that it is not alive. The scenes it captures are of life: active people, growing plants, lowing animals. But since it isn't alive, it can never die; therefore, its message will live on to inspire and delight people in ages to come. Although "cold" may seem to have a negative connotation, Keats shows how its coldness is a benefit because it makes the urn almost eternal.

By calling the urn a "cold pastoral," Keats means that it is a form of poetry that will endure for ages to come, continuing to spur the emotions and imaginations of many others just as it has delighted him.

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Keats muses on the power of the urn to defy contemplation. He compares the urn to eternity. In trying to understand eternity, we can gain no answers to our many questions by contemplation and musings. Similarly, we can gain no answers to our many questions about the images painted or carved or raised in relief on the urn by contemplation and musings. This is because, like with eternity, facts are not available for the scenes on the Greek urn. Even its purpose is obscured over time. Was it a funeral urn for cremated ashes or a wedding urn for celebratory wine, or something else?

Keats addresses the urn in an apostrophe that is a play on words, "Cold Pastoral!" meaning the pastoral (country) wedding scene is "cold" because it unfeelingly won't communicate its truths and it is "cold" to the touch because it is "marble men and maidens." "Cold" also means that the everliving (ancient) yet lifeless urn has no warmth from flowing blood and changing events and fortunes.

The cold pastoral wedding scene, under "forest branches" and "leaf-fring'd" garlands, tells the tale that "Beauty" is all that endures through the countless ages; all else crumbles to dust. It tells the "Truth" of the lives captured for a moment thereon and the "Truth" of life's fragility, its fragile, changeable condition. This "Truth" is seen in the "Beauty" that remains because the urn and the lives held on it still remain. The poet understands that this "Beauty" and "Truth" are all that is knowable, thus all we need to know.

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Why does the speaker address the urn as “Cold Pastoral” in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”?

In answering this question, we first of all need to understand the meaning of the word “pastoral.” A pastoral is an idealized portrait of rural life, often populated by mythological figures such as nymphs and dryads. One such pastoral scene is depicted on the side of the urn that forms the subject of Keats's poem.

All the familiar elements of pastoral are openly on display. We have “deities and mortals,” maidens, “pipes and timbrels,” and a “Fair youth” sitting beneath the trees. This is a lively scene with much joy, laughter, and sweet music.

Yet at the same time, this pastoral scene is cold in the sense that it does not, and indeed cannot, come to life. The “soft pipes” may play on, but of course, we cannot hear them. And the “happy boughs” will never shed their leaves, nor will they “ever bid the Spring adieu.” In the scene depicted on the urn, it will always be springtime.

What Keats seems to be driving at here is the timeless nature of great art. All works of art, including the urn, are the products of a specific time and place. And yet the very greatest works of art have a certain timelessness about them, which enables them to transcend the narrow confines of the historical and cultural eras in which they were created.

It is this timelessness that allows great works of art to speak to successive generations, even though they no longer adhere to the cultural norms and values of a bygone age such as ancient Greece.

The pastoral scene depicted on the side of the urn may well be cold in that it does not come to life. But the flip side of this is that it can also never die. And that is because the truth it contains—beauty with a capital B—is indestructible.

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