Greek History and Mythology: While many of the British romantic poets held a fascination with classical antiquity, John Keats was particularly enchanted by it. Many of Keats’s poems reflect his deep and wide knowledge of the ancient Greek world. In the case of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the classical allusions begin in the very title of the poem.
A “Grecian urn” is a Greek amphora, a ceramic vessel usually used to contain wine. In ancient Greek culture, amphorae served an additional purpose as canvases for elaborate paintings, many of which depicted myths and stories. The subject of Keats’s poem is just such an amphora.
Keats references two locations in Greece: “Tempe” and “the dales of Arcady,” both of which bear significance for Keats’s vision.
- Tempe is a valley in the northern Greek region of Thessaly. Tempe was thought to be often visited by Apollo, the god of music and poetry, and the Muses, the goddesses who deliver artistic inspiration.
- “Arcady” is an outdated term for Arcadia, a region in the heart of the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece. Because much of Arcadia is ringed by mountains, it has long been an isolated region mysterious to outsiders. As a result it has also long stimulated the imagination. In ancient Greek times, Arcadia was considered the home of the nature god Pan. In Renaissance and romantic-era Europe, Arcadia was imagined as a pastoral Utopia, a kind of heaven on earth.