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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Ode on a Grecian Urn Themes

The three main themes in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are time, art and experience, and love.

  • Time: The urn is frozen in time, and the figures on it will never change or age.
  • Art and experience: The urn is beautiful and true because it is self-contained and has no need for answers.
  • Love: The urn’s vision of love is one of unrealized relations and the eternal chase.

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Themes

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Time

The main thing that captures the speaker’s attention about this urn is that the figures on it are frozen in time in the middle of what they were doing and will remain there, unchanged, for eternity. The “bold lover” will never kiss the girl he is pursuing, but then, she will never age either. The boughs will never lose their leaves. The piper will be “For ever piping songs for ever new,” and the ceremonial procession will always be on its way to the sacrifice. Of course, these claims are only true in the imaginary sense, since there are no real lovers, trees, musicians, or procession but only a picture of them; so it is not that they will always be doing what they are but that they never have. In asking us to take the leap of imagination that would let us pretend that these pictures have real lives, Keats is skipping over one of the basic facts about time: time is motion. Another way to say the same thing is to point out that time is change. Age is not just a product of time, it is time. Time passes for people because their bodies wear down, but if that did not happen, time would still pass because they have done different things today than they did yesterday. When Keats presents the figures on the vase as having had life but being frozen in eternity, he is casually getting the reader to accept a bigger contradiction than it seems at first, because the figures actually do have some pull of time if they exist at all.

In stanza 4 Keats extends one half of his contradiction by speaking of a little town that is not even shown on the urn. If the ceremonial procession had moved, it would have come from this place, and if it could move, it would go home to it. The members of the procession, however, have never really existed anywhere except right where the poet sees them. By imagining another place in their world, he is imagining a change of time in their world while also saying that everyone in their world is frozen in place.

Art and Experience

For almost two hundred years, critics have wondered what to make of this poem’s last two lines. These lines sound convincing, but the ideas of “truth” and “beauty” do not really have anything to do with this frozen slice of life. In fact, Keats makes it sound a far cry from beautiful when he calls it “Cold Pastoral” in the middle of the last stanza. But the poem is not claiming that “beauty is truth” is all that we know in this world. Throughout the poem—from the very first word—the speaker is talking to the urn. This form of poetry is known as an apostrophe. There is no reason to believe that the “ye” of the last line is any different. The crucial phrase is even introduced with “to whom thou sayest” and is put in quotation marks, indicating that this is all that the urn knows or needs to know. So “truth is beauty, beauty truth” only applies in the place where all activity is stuck in one moment. We can certainly see the beauty: the lovers are in love, the music of the pipe is sweet, the trees are always full, and the people attending the sacrifice have the joy of anticipation. But where is the truth in all of this? It is a limited truth. The poem draws attention to how many questions this urn cannot answer, and those answers are therefore not part of these people’s world. The urn has no answer for questions about the people and place it shows or what the sacrifice is all about. These are facts that will be no more real a thousand years from now than they were a thousand years before Keats’s time. One way of looking at the “truth and beauty” statement is to consider that the scene on the urn is true and beautiful because it is self-contained: it has no need for answers, and so it will always have found its truth, unlike real life, where new details always rise up and make truth and beauty elusive. This fits with the usual idea of beauty being at least partly a mystery, but we do not usually think of truth as only being true within a sealed, narrow context. The common factor to both truth and beauty in this poem is that they both occur when you know all that you need to know, regardless of what is happening around you. What Keats does not answer in this poem is whether such fulfillment is possible for a human being or if it can only happen to an inanimate object.

Love

The vision of love that this poem presents is not one of lovers coming together, as if love is all anticipation and is only ruined when lovers have a chance to stop anticipating and reach their goal. According to this poem, then, love is never a happy circumstance: either the lover is struggling to get what they want or else love is reached and therefore becomes less interesting. It is either untouchable or unwanted. Neither option seems very desirable, although the poem tells us that, if we were able to choose one, the eternal chase would be a “happy” state of affairs. The poem’s premise that unrealized relations are the best is consistent with the idea that “unheard melodies are sweeter,” making the imagination more responsible for happiness than anything that occurs outside of it. We cannot be certain, though, that this is what Keats meant or if he was being ironic about the way society emphasized the pursuit too much. An artist with his extraordinary verbal ability might use a simple word such as “happy” once to express what is in the lovers’ hearts, but there seems to be a little sarcasm involved when the same voice that has the agility to say “She cannot fade, though thou hast thy bliss” goes on to repeat with insipid insistent cheer, “More happy love! more happy, happy love!” Either the speaker is chanting this way because he is caught up in the joy of the urn-people’s love or he is mocking the over-simplicity of their situation. If his tone is actually mocking, and if he actually does believe that happiness and togetherness cannot exist at the same time, then the poem’s message appears to be that both youth and pursuit are overrated.

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