If you haven’t guessed already, we’re referring to John Keats, the young poet who is best known for his set of five Odes that were literary masterpieces, which reflected skills that were unfortunately never shown much appreciation during his short lifetime. Nonetheless, his poems are some of the most anthologized of works, and his legend has been passed down for countless generations; we will go as far as to say that it has transformed and taken English Literature to a whole new level.
We will focus on one of his greatest pieces of poetry―”Ode on a Grecian Urn”, which starts out with an appreciation for an art piece and ends with a universal message. We will provide you with a line-by-line breakdown of the summary, followed by an in-depth analysis of the poem.
As the poem begins, we realize that it is an ekphrasis that is describing a piece of art, i.e., the urn. Keats personifies it by calling it an “unravish’d bride”―a bride who is still a virgin―thus calling it a pure and innocent piece of art that has sat silently for a long time. Then he goes on to say that it is a “Sylvan beauty”―something that portrays the forest and its flora. He says that it tells a sweeter and more beautiful tale than his own piece of work, or “rhyme”.
✎ Line 5-7
He asks the urn what “leaf-fringed tale” it hides; in simpler terms, he is asking the urn what stories it holds in its artwork that is bordered by the ornate leaves (Ancient Greek urns were known to have borders that depicted intricate flowers and leaves). He asks if the people depicted are the Ancient Greek gods, or the men, or if it was both. He questions if it was set in the lush, green ancient cities of maybe Tempe or Arcady.
✎ Line 8-10
Keats slowly and smartly describes the images on the urn through questions that pertain to them. He asks who these men or Gods were that chased the women, who in turn were trying to avoid them (playfully or otherwise). He is asking why there was such a wild chase and struggle to escape, and what was it with the pipes that seem to be playing, and why there was such excitement. Keats has portrayed an underlying sexual tension that he relays through the images.
The speaker tells us that music is like bliss to the ears, but he cannot hear what is being played by the piper depicted in the urn, yet this silent music is sweet to the ears and soul, and that the piper will forever play on. He uses paradox by saying that the pipes produced melodies that had no tune.
✎ Line 15-17
He continues addressing the musician, saying that the latter will always stay perched beneath the tree and can never leave his spot, and that tree will always provide him with shade as it will never shed its leaves. Keats then turns back to the imagery of the wild chase between the lovers and says that they will always have a passion, but will never be able to share a kiss.
✎ Line 18-20
He tells the lover that he will always have reached his prize (the woman), but never quite earned it. Yet he should not grieve, because she will never go away; she will always be young and beautiful, and they will always remain in their blissful bubble of love.
The speaker addresses the trees and says that they will forever bear their leaves, never shedding, always lush, and thus, will never have to bid goodbye to the season of Spring. He goes back to the scene of the musician and tells him that he will forever play his pipe, never tiring and always seeming to be playing a new melody.
✎ Line 25-27
He looks at the images of the lovers and music and exclaims on how happy and loving it all seems. He says that the lovers would always share the excitement of the chase, hot and panting because of it (considered and allusion for the act of sex) and they remain eternally youthful.
✎ Line 28-30
Looking from above at this passion, he draws a parallel with real life saying that in reality, love sends the heart in a state of choked sorrow, giving you a fever (“burning forehead”) and leaving you drained (“parched tongue”).
The speaker then turns his attention to the depiction of a procession heading to sacrifice a cow. He wonders who all these people are, and from where they have come. He wonders to which altar the priest is leading the sacrificial cow to, the one that was adorned with colorful garlands.
✎ Line 35-37
Here, the speaker goes beyond the imagery to wonder which little town must have been emptied by this procession of people. He questions whether it was by the seashore, a river, or some mountain top.
✎ Line 38-40
Still thinking of the town, the speakers say that this unknown town will forever remain empty because the people in the procession will never be able to return to it.
Keats brings us back to the real world, the one he is in, and addressed the urn, rather than the things and people in it. He calls out to its Greek shape and says that it seems to have a braid (“brede”) of men and women intertwined, and its vast forests that have floors covered in weed that has been repeatedly trampled upon. He changes the tone by asking the urn not to tease him with all the images that it depicts.
✎ Line 45-48
He calls it a cold pastoral, an insensitive forest figure that seems to be playing with his thoughts. He goes on to say that as times passes and the people of his generation grow old, the urn will remain eternal and will never age. Amidst all the chaos, confusion, and frustrations, it will stand the test of time and will teach people some important lessons in life. And what lesson is that, you ask? Wait for it!
✎ Line 49-50
One of the most controversial endings seen ever, Keats changes the whole atmosphere of the poem with these two universal lines―”beauty is truth, truth beauty’–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Many have debated and criticized his decision to end the poem on such a note as some say that it takes away from the poem’s beauty by stating something that is grammatically incorrect and doesn’t seem to make sense.
Now that you have understood the meaning of the poem, let us look at the themes depicted and the literary devices used.
The urn is an innocent and pure piece of art that depicts human life in the simplest and purest of forms, and there is something very God-like about it.
Beauty and Nature
Keats was a romantic poet, and Romanticism often involved depictions of nature and people or characters that are in tune with it. His “Ode” was an appreciation of beauty that is found in nature and in the innocence of human relationships.
Being an appreciation poem for an urn, it is no wonder that art is one of the major themes. Greece was known for its art, and he took something as simple as an urn to compliment the agelessness and beauty in art.
Another major theme in the poem was love. Keats drew parallels between the kind of love that was eternal and joyful as shown on the urn, to love in real life that ends in pain, frustrations, fever, and yearning. (Poor Keats might not have had much luck in that department!).
The men and women were the symbols of life, youth, and love.
There was a lot of musicality that has been used in the poem through its form and meter, and by depicting a musician in the poem, Keats has cleverly highlighted that.
Trees, plants, flowers, and an animal have been portrayed, all encapsulated by or rather forming what we would call “nature”.
By naming his poem an “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Keats has brilliantly used the pun. An ode is essentially a Greek poem, which gives praise. And the urn depicted in the poem is Grecian. The animal sacrifice (which was done in worship of the Greek Gods), and the references to “Tempe” and “Arcady” all pertain to Greece.
John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the tender age of 25, owing to tuberculosis. Since his death, his work has been largely debated upon and analyzed, and although delayed, he is now praised and respected as one of the greatest English poets of all time, and his work is largely anthologized.