Ode on a Grecian Urn By John Keats (1795

Ode on a Grecian Urn
By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Writing, Publication
Figures of
Biography of
Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Type of Work
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a romantic ode, a dignified but highly lyrical
(emotional) poem in which the author speaks to a person or thing absent
or present. In this famous ode, Keats addresses the urn and the images
on it. The romantic ode was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the 19th
Century. It was the result of an author’s deep meditation on the person or
object. The romantic ode evolved from the ancient Greek ode, written in a
serious tone to celebrate an event or to praise an individual. The Greek
ode was intended to be sung by a chorus or by one person to the
accompaniment of musical instruments. The odes of the Greek poet
Pindar (circa 518-438 B.C.) frequently extolled athletes who participated
in athletic games at Olympus, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Nemea.
Bacchylides, a contemporary of Pindar, also wrote odes praising athletes.
The Roman poets Horace (65-8 B.C.) and Catullus (84-54 B.C.) wrote
odes based on the Greek model, but their odes were not intended to be
sung. In the 19th Century, English romantic poets wrote odes that
retained the serious tone of the Greek ode. However, like the Roman
poets, they did not write odes to be sung. Unlike the Roman poets,
though, the authors of 19th Century romantic odes generally were more
emotional in their writing. The author of a typical romantic ode focused on
a scene, pondered its meaning, and presented a highly personal reaction
to it that included a special insight at the end of the poem (like the closing
lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”).
Writing and Publication Dates
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" was written in the spring of 1819 and published
later that year in Annals of the Fine Arts, which focused on architecture,
sculpture, and painting but sometimes published poems and essays with
themes related to the arts.
Structure and Meter
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" consists of five stanzas that present a scene,
describe and comment on what it shows, and offer a general truth that the
scene teaches a person analyzing the scene. Each stanza has ten lines
written in iambic pentameter, a pattern of rhythm (meter) that assigns ten
syllables to each line. The first syllable is unaccented, the second
accented, the third unaccented, the fourth accented, and so on. Note, for
example, the accent pattern of the first two lines of the poem. The
unaccented syllables are in lower-cased blue letters, and the accented
syllables are in upper-cased red letters.
thou STILL..|..un RAV..|..ished BRIDE..|..of QUI..|..et NESS,
thou FOS..|..ter CHILD..|..of SI..|..lence AND..|..slow TIME
Notice that each line has ten syllables, five unaccented ones in blue and
five accented ones in red. Thus, these lines--like the other lines in the
poem--are in iambic pentameter. Iambic refers to a pair of syllables, one
unaccented and the other accented. Such a pair is called an iamb. "Thou
STILL" is an iamb; so are "et NESS" and "slow TIME." However, "BRIDE
of" and "FOS ter" are not iambs because they consist of an accented
syllable followed by an unaccented syllable. Pentameter--the first syllable
of which is derived from the Greek word for five--refers to lines that have
five iambs (which, as demonstrated, each have two syllables). "Ode on a
Grecian Urn," then, is in iambic pentameter because every line has five
iambs, each iamb consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an
accented one. The purpose of this stress pattern is to give the poem
rhythm that pleases the ear.
Situation and Setting
In England, Keats examines a marble urn crafted in ancient Greece.
(Whether such an urn was real or imagined is uncertain. However, many
artifacts from ancient Greece, ones which could have inspired Keats, were
on display in the British Museum at the time that Keats wrote the poem.)
Pictured on the urn, a type of vase, are pastoral scenes in Greece. In one
scene, males are chasing females in some sort of revelry or celebration.
There are musicians playing pipes (wind instruments such as flutes) and
timbrels (ancient tambourines). Keats wonders whether the images
represent both gods and humans. He also wonders what has occasioned
their merrymaking. A second scene depicts people leading a heifer to a
sacrificial altar. Keats writes his ode about what he sees, addressing or
commenting on the urn and its images as if they were real beings with
whom he can speak.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
By John Keats
End-Rhyming Words Are Highlighted
Stanza 1
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Stanza 2
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Stanza 3
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied, [un WEER e ED]
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Stanza 4
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
Stanza 5
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Summary, and Annotations
Stanza 1
Keats calls the urn an “unravish’d bride of quietness” because it has
existed for centuries without undergoing any changes (it is “unravished”)
as it sits quietly on a shelf or table. He also calls it a “foster-child of silence
and time” because it is has been adopted by silence and time, parents
who have conferred on the urn eternal stillness. In addition, Keats refers
to the urn as a “sylvan historian” because it records a pastoral scene from
long ago. (“Sylvan” refers to anything pertaining to woods or forests.) This
scene tells a story (“legend”) in pictures framed with leaves (“leaf-fring’d”)–
a story that the urn tells more charmingly with its images than Keats does
with his pen. Keats speculates that the scene is set either in Tempe or
Arcady. Tempe is a valley in Thessaly, Greece–between Mount Olympus
and Mount Ossa–that is favored by Apollo, the god of poetry and music.
Arcady is Arcadia, a picturesque region in the Peloponnesus (a peninsula
making up the southern part of Greece) where inhabitants live in carefree
simplicity. Keats wonders whether the images he sees represent humans
or gods. And, he asks, who are the reluctant (“loth”) maidens and what is
the activity taking place?
Stanza 2
Using paradox and oxymoron to open Stanza 2, Keats praises the silent
music coming from the pipes and timbrels as far more pleasing than the
audible music of real life, for the music from the urn is for the spirit. Keats
then notes that the young man playing the pipe beneath trees must
always remain an etched figure on the urn. He is fixed in time like the
leaves on the tree. They will remain ever green and never die. Keats also
says the bold young lover (who may be the piper or another person) can
never embrace the maiden next to him even though he is so close to her.
However, Keats says, the young man should not
grieve, for his lady love will remain beautiful forever,
and their love–though unfulfilled–will continue through
all eternity.
Stanza 3
Keats addresses the trees, calling them “happy, happy boughs” because
they will never shed their leaves, and then addresses the young piper,
calling him “happy melodist” because his songs will continue forever. In
addition, the young man's love for the maiden will remain forever “warm
and still to be enjoy’d / For ever panting, and for ever young. . . .” In
contrast, Keats says, the love between a man and a woman in the real
world is imperfect, bringing pain and sorrow and desire that cannot be
fully quenched. The lover comes away with a “burning forehead, and a
parching tongue.”
Stanza 4
Keats inquires about the images of people approaching an altar to
sacrifice a "lowing" (mooing) cow, one that has never borne a calf, on a
green altar. Do these simple folk come from a little town on a river, a
seashore, or a mountain topped by a peaceful fortress. Wherever the
town is, it will be forever empty, for all of its inhabitants are here
participating in the festivities depicted on the urn. Like the other figures on
the urn, townspeople are frozen in time; they cannot escape the urn and
return to their homes.
Stanza 5
Keats begins by addressing the urn as an “attic shape.” Attic refers to
Attica, a region of east-central ancient Greece in which Athens was the
chief city. Shape, of course, refers to the urn. Thus, attic shape is an urn
that was crafted in ancient Attica. The urn is a beautiful one, poet says,
adorned with “brede” (braiding, embroidery) depicting marble men and
women enacting a scene in the tangle of forest tree branches and weeds.
As people look upon the scene, they ponder it–as they would ponder
eternity–trying so hard to grasp its meaning that they exhaust themselves
of thought. Keats calls the scene a “cold pastoral!”–in part because it is
made of cold, unchanging marble and in part, perhaps, because it
frustrates him with its unfathomable mysteries, as does eternity. (At this
time in his life, Keats was suffering from tuberculosis, a disease that had
killed his brother, and was no doubt much occupied with thoughts of
eternity. He was also passionately in love with a young woman, Fanny
Brawne, but was unable to act decisively on his feelings–even though she
reciprocated his love–because he believed his lower social status and his
dubious financial situation stood in the way. Consequently, he was like the
cold marble of the urn–fixed and immovable.) Keats says that when death
claims him and all those of his generation, the urn will remain. And it will
say to the next generation what it has said to Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth
beauty.” In other words, do not try to look beyond the beauty of the urn
and its images, which are representations of the eternal, for no one can
see into eternity. The beauty itself is enough for a human; that is the only
truth that a human can fully grasp. The poem ends with an endorsement
of these words, saying they make up the only axiom that any human being
really needs to know.
Figures of Speech
The main figures of speech in the poem are apostrophe and metaphor in
the form of personification. An apostrophe is a figure of speech in which
an author speaks to a person or thing absent or present. A metaphor is a
figure of speech that compares two unlike things without using the word
like, as, or than. Personification is a type of metaphor that compares an
object with a human being. In effect, it treats an object as a person-hence, the term personification. Apostrophe and metaphor/personification
occur simultaneously in the opening lines of the poem when Keats
addresses the urn as "Thou," "bride," "foster-child," and "historian"
(apostrophe). In speaking to the urn this way, he implies that it is a human
(metaphor/personification). Keats also addresses the trees as persons in
Stanza 3 and continues to address the urn as a person in Stanza 5. Other
notable figures of speech in the poem include the following:
bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian, who canst
thus express
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? (The images move even
though they are fixed in marble)
those [melodies] unheard
peaceful citadel (citadel: fortress occupied by soldiers)