Ode on a Grecian Urn Summary

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a poem by John Keats in which the speaker admires an ancient Grecian urn and meditates on the nature of truth and beauty.

  • In the first stanza, the speaker describes the scenes depicted on the urn: a party, a group of musicians, and a ritual slaughter.

  • In the second through fourth stanzas, the speaker describes the scenes in detail. He lingers on the scene of the party, where several amorous men pursue women.

  • In the final stanza, the speaker states that if the urn could speak for itself, it would declare, "Beauty is truth, and truth beauty."

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” addresses many of the same concerns that occupied Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale,” except that in this poem he turns his attention from the natural poetry of the bird to the human artistry of the urn. Unable to escape his sense of life’s transience through the immortal song of the bird, Keats looks to the timeless truth embodied in the urn. Keats once again encounters the paradox that is central to all of his art: To achieve immortality is to rid oneself of change, but it is change, not stasis, that produces the contrasts necessary for all that is good.

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In the first stanza, the poet contemplates first the urn as a whole, which he characterizes as a “historian,” and then turns his attention to the detailed scene engraved onto the side of the urn. The urn first is described as an “unravish’d bride of quietness,” calling attention to the fact that it is only when the poet begins to think about the urn that it begins to tell its story. The urn cannot speak, in other words, until it is spoken to. That is a significant point, for it leads to the conclusion that the immortal urn exists in any meaningful way only when it comes into contact with, and is activated by, the inquiring intelligence of a mortal observer. Immortality, the poet again seems to be saying, depends in some fundamental way upon its opposite.

He then begins asking the urn questions about the people portrayed on the side of the urn. He wonders who they are, “deities or mortals, or of both,” and speculates about the location of the engraved scene, “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?” The setting is obviously ancient Greece, a time when mortals and gods often interacted. From the very beginning, therefore, the poet is concerned with the issue of immortality, both as it is represented by the immortal urn and by the godlike characters whose “legend” is engraved on the side.

Stanza 2 shifts from questions to observations. The first observation stems from the experience of the first stanza. Having tried to experience imaginatively the scene before him, the poet reaches the conclusion that the imagination, when engaged by art, produces an experience that is superior to reality. The sounds of the pipes are sweet, to be sure, but the sounds supplied by the imagination “Are sweeter,” because the imagination can alter and improve upon actual experience. Not bound by the material world, the imagination is capable of conjuring up sights, sounds, and emotions far beyond one’s physical human capabilities. It would seem, therefore, that Keats is suggesting that the world of the imagination, which is the world of art, is preferable to the world of actuality. In the ideal world of art, where life need not conform to the limitations of flesh and blood, everything is as it should be; there the leaves never fall from the trees, no one ever dies, youth never fades, and lovers are forever young and forever in love. Keats comes to that realization through the scene before him: Although the lover, poised to kill his beloved, will never actually complete the act, nevertheless it is not a loss, since his beloved “cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

This praise for the perfection and permanence of art continues through stanzas 3 and most of 4 until the poet pauses to wonder about the “little town by river or sea shore” that has been vacated by the people portrayed on the urn. In attending this celebration of life, they have left their village forever, never to return. In this detail the poet discovers a complication in his admiration for permanence, for even as the lovers will always be young and in love, so in turn will the village always be empty and silent with “not a soul to tell/ Why thou art desolate.” There is a shift in tone from the celebratory mood of the previous two stanzas to a somber, almost sad picture of the deserted town and its eternal silence. The celebration of life on the urn has its counterpart in the unspoken death of the village. Again Keats brings life and death together, but in this case both are made immortal through art. Keats’s point is that if there is much that is desirable in the immortality of his lovers and their eternal celebration of love and life, there is also much that is undesirable in this idealized world; not only will the lover never actually kiss his beloved (they will always remain right on the verge of touching each other’s lips) but also everything that surrounds this event likewise will be frozen in time, including the abandoned village.

In the end, the poet sees the urn as a friend to humanity, but that friendship resides less in the particular truth that the urn has to teach humankind and more in the fact that the message is truth, and truth (whether joyful or painful) is beautiful. The questions of whether the permanence of art is good or bad, whether immortality is better than mortality, or whether stasis is preferable to change are all set aside in the end in favor of a statement about the lasting importance of truth—all truth—and the capacity of art to convey that truth from one generation to the next. Whether or not one agrees with Keats’s poem is ultimately unimportant; what is important is that his poem discloses a truth, the great and enduring gift of art.

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