Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

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Teaching Approaches

A Turn to the Pastoral: One of the ideals honored by artists and thinkers in the romantic era was that of the pastoral world. The pastoral—“pastor” meaning shepherd in Latin— concerns the rural, natural world. Pastoral poetry has held a long tradition, dating back to Hesiod, who lived in Homer’s time at the turn of the 7th century BCE. In pastoral verse the poet typically expresses a mode of reverence and humility towards nature. 

  • For discussion: Nearly all of the imagery depicted on the urn is united by the pastoral setting. How does this setting determine the mood of the poem? 
  • For discussion: For each stanza, discuss the role the pastoral world plays. Does the pastoral world serve as a setting for mythological material? To what extent is the pastoral idealized? 
  • For discussion: In the final stanza, the urn is said to “tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” What do these lines tell us? What makes the urn a “Cold Pastoral”? 

Looking to the Past for Truth and Inspiration: While many of the British romantic poets were interested in ancient Greece and Rome, Keats was particularly enraptured. Along with the neoclassicists and the Renaissance humanists, the romantics looked to the classical past for truth and wisdom. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats is not so much interested in Greek thought as he is in Greek art. 

  • For discussion: How necessary are the poem’s allusions? To what extent does the poem require readers to be familiar with Greek culture? 
  • For discussion: The fourth stanza depicts a scene of ritual sacrifice within the ancient Greek religious tradition. What is this sacrifice about, and why might it be important to the poem? 

One particular passage draws directly from Greek philosophy. Plato, who lived in Athens around the turn of the 4th-century BCE, outlined three transcendental properties of being: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. These transcendental properties orient humans at all times and form the foundations of the three basic philosophical disciplines: epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. At the conclusion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats boldly declares that “‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.’” 

  • For discussion: What does Keats’s equation mean? How does Beauty equal Truth? 

The Ephemerality of Human Life: Throughout the poem, the speaker is aware of mortality as an ever present force. The speaker, standing before an ancient urn, is acutely aware of the shortness of a single human life compared to the vast stretches of history reflected in the artifacts of antiquity. This perspective is revealed in the lines “When old age shall this generation waste / Thou shalt remain.” So, too, are modern readers of Keats’s poem aware of their finitude in the face of this two-hundred-year-old poem. 

  • For discussion: In which passages and images does Keats present the idea of human ephemerality? 
  • For discussion: Does Keats have a specific message about this theme? In light of this recognition of human finitude, does Keats offer a solution? 

Art as a Space for Timeless Reflection: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is considered a classic example of ekphrasis, a literary work which describes a piece of visual art. The poem brings its subject to life while showing how a piece of art can create a space for reflection. While humans are mortal, we can leave behind works of art that preserve what is most important to us. Thus, when we confront art from the past, we see what is familiar and therefore eternal. That is to say, we recognize what “cannot fade”: the patterns of human experience that persist across centuries and millennia. 

  • For discussion: Keats’s appreciation of the urn takes the form of another style of art: poetry. What is the effect of this recognition that we are encountering a work of art through another work of art? Can Keats’s ode be seen as an urn in its own right?

On the theme of art within art, it can be argued that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” contains a third layer of artifice:...

(The entire section is 1,444 words.)