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...
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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 song played by the piper on the urn. Therefore, we have a piece of music portrayed through a painted urn that is in turn portrayed through a poem.
- For discussion: Discussing the piper’s tune, the speaker claims that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” What might that mean?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Keats’s Tone can be Exuberant: The romantic poets generally looked down on satirical writers, particularly the English poets of the generation before them, such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. English romantic poetry is very earnest in contrast. For John Keats, this earnestness emerges in his often exuberant tone, which can be seen in lines such as “More happy love! more happy, happy love!”
- What to do: Students may laugh at some of Keats’s writing, so let them laugh. Remind the students of the joy Keats felt in writing poems—he may have been laughing when he wrote it!
- What to do: Most students probably won’t understand why someone like Keats would be so devoted to writing poetry. Try to explain Keats’s seriousness of purpose; for him, poetry was a matter of life and death. Keats probably didn’t mind sounding exuberant if it meant getting his ideas across.
Mortality is a Challenging Topic to Discuss: One of the central themes of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is the finitude of human life. The poem asks us to consider mortality and, by extension, the larger themes and patterns in which our lives are embedded. As central as it is, death is often difficult to think about and discuss.
- What to do: Avoid making it personal, unless you know your students would wish to do so. Rather than asking students to contemplate their own experiences with death, talk about the shortness of one lifetime compared to a broad historical timeline. Capturing that sense of scale is one of the keys to the poem.
The Poem’s Themes and Ideas are Unclear Until the End: Because “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a long and philosophically rich poem, its themes and ideas are not obvious at first. Students may be confused as they make their way through the stanzas.
- What to do: Encourage students to read it again. And again. And again. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem that invites and requires repeated readings. Like most classic literary works, the poem is dense and subtle. Even if students seem to “get” the different themes and ideas, it may take a while before they have a real “aha!” moment with the poem. Patience is key.
- What to do: Place students into groups and assign individual members a stanza. Have the students read their assigned stanzas and explain it to their group members. Have the groups reconstruct the poem and paraphrase their readings for the class during feedback.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
Encourage Memorization: The best way to get to know a poem is to memorize it. Not only does memorization require a great deal of repetition, it also sharply attunes the reader to the sound and structure of the poem. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a particularly satisfying poem to memorize because of its musical qualities. The meter and rhyme make the fifty lines easier to absorb.
As a Class, Recite the Ode like a Greek Chorus: Odes performed in Greek dramas were often recited by the chorus as commentary on the plot. The strophe-antistrophe-epode structure of the ode came through in the recitation. One half of the chorus would recite the strophe, then the other half would perform the antistrophe, and finally the entire chorus would join together for the epode. Try dividing the class into the sections of the chorus and reciting “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in a similar way. For each stanza, consider the first two lines the strophe, the next four the antistrophe, and the final two lines the epode. Encourage students to reflect on this approach to reading the ode. What is new? What is different?
Teach the Poem Alongside Another of Keats’s Odes: Keats wrote his five odes during a prolific stretch in 1819. As a result, the five odes reflect a similar style and contain many of the same themes. Teaching “Ode on a Grecian Urn” next to “Ode to a Nightingale,” for example, will enrich the students’ encounter with both poems and expand their sense of Keats’s world.