A Summary and Analysis of John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is one of the best-known and most widely analysed poems by John Keats (1795-1821); it is also, perhaps, the most famous of his five Odes which he composed in 1819, although ‘To Autumn’ gives it a run for its money. The best way to analyse ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is by going through the poem with a stanza-by-stanza summary; as we go, we’ll offer an analysis of some of the most important features of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

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?

Keats begins by looking at the ancient Greek urn, and trying to figure out who the people are who are depicted on the outside of it. (A ‘timbrel’ is a kind of tambourine; ‘Tempe’, or the Vale of Tempe, was a favourite haunt of the Muses in Greek mythology. ‘Arcady’ is another name for Arcadia, a beautiful unspoilt wilderness in ancient Greece.) Keats emphasises the ‘quietness’ or silence of the urn: it cannot explain the meaning of the figures that appear on it, and is silent about them, and who created them.

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!

Keats acknowledges that although he cannot hear the pipes and timbrels (depicted on the urn) being played, this actually makes their (imagined) sound even ‘sweeter’ to the ear. Their ‘spirit ditties’ which Keats imagines the pipers on the urn playing are more powerful than any actual music (heard by the ear) could be. In this world depicted on the urn, the trees will never lose their leaves, nor will the piper ever leave off playing. The lover who is trying to woo a woman will never get to kiss her (because they are both frozen in time, with him ‘winning near the goal’ but not quite getting what he wants); but he shouldn’t grieve over this, because she will always be fair and young, and he will always love her, as they are frozen in this particular moment. (There’s also a point here about the desire for someone being more delicious than the experience of winning them ever can be, because, as Jacques Lacan well understood, as soon as you get what you want you cease to desire it.)

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
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.

Keats now praises the boughs of the trees carved into the urn, because their leaves will never fall, nor will it ever cease to be spring in the world depicted on the Grecian urn. The ‘melodist’ who plays the music will always be piping; and the lover pursuing the girl will continue to be happy in his love, because it is ‘still to be enjoy’d’. Note the ambiguity of this phrase: ‘still to be enjoy’d’ suggests both ‘the enjoyment lasting forever’ and ‘the enjoyment [i.e. the gratification] still lying ahead in the future, not yet satisfied or achieved’. But of course the word ‘still’ also conveys the static nature of the scene: the figures are frozen in time. Once again, Keats emphasises that the anticipation of love is more heady and enjoyable than the having. Keats then reminds us that pining away for love leads to a feverish state where the sufferer feels ill, with a ‘burning forehead’ and ‘parching tongue’. This puts the dampener on the idea of this being a ‘happy’ scene, until we recall that, because the lover is fixed in the delightful moment of falling in love, he hasn’t yet suffered the after-pangs of pining away with unrequited love; that comes next. But it won’t come next for this lover, because he will forever remain as he is on the Grecian urn.

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.

The swerve at the beginning of the fourth stanza of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – with Keats posing several questions – indicates that Keats has turned the Grecian urn round, and is now viewing another picture depicted on it. Some people are coming to a sacrifice at an altar fashioned from nature (‘green altar’), to which a ‘mysterious priest’ is leading a cow that is mooing at the heavens. The cow or ‘heifer’ is dressed in garlands ready to be killed before the gods. Keats wonders which ‘little town’ in ancient Greece is being shown here, with all of its citizens turned out for the ceremony. Once again, as in the first stanza of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Keats reminds us (and himself) that he will never learn the answer to these questions, because the townsfolk are all dead and will remain silent. And the Grecian urn, too, will not offer up the answers.

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.’

We now come to the final stanza of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. John Keats praises the beauty of the Grecian urn as a whole, celebrating its ‘Attic shape’ (i.e. its Athenian form, as it’s an ancient Greek or ‘Grecian’ urn) and its ‘Fair attitude’. Keats praises the ‘brede’ of ‘marble men and maidens overwrought’ (‘brede’ is an old word referring to plaiting or embroidery, although given the run-on line or enjambment leading us into ‘Of marble men’, there’s probably an intended pun on breed of men; similarly, the maidens are ‘overwrought’ because they have been carved over the men, although there’s perhaps also a secondary suggestion that the maidens are being emotionally strained). Once again, Keats draws attention to the ‘silent’ nature of the Grecian urn as a work of art. Keats says that the urn ‘doth tease us out of thought’, i.e. presents us with teasing riddles (who are these people, and what are they doing?) without providing us with the answers. We are thus teased ‘out of thought’, out of our minds. He seems to become frustrated with the urn for being so mysterious and suggestive; for Keats, the Grecian urn is ‘Cold Pastoral’, a phrase which suggests the urn has qualities of the pastoral (i.e. art representing the countryside, usually in an idealised form) but it is cold pastoral, because it raises more questions than it provides answers to. But in the final lines of the poem, we come to realise that Keats appears to approve of this quality of the urn: it provides it with its timeless wonder and power. When Keats and his generation are all long dead, this Grecian urn will remain for future generations who experience similar woes to Keats, and the urn will be ‘a friend to man’, a consolation. And finally, in the last two lines of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, the urn ‘speaks’ – Keats sums up the message of this timeless work of art as:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

In other words, beauty is all we need in order to discover truth, and truth is itself beautiful. This is all we, are mortals, know, but it’s all we need to know: we shouldn’t impatiently go in pursuit of answers which we don’t need to have. Implied in these last lines of Keats’s poem is the suggestion that we shouldn’t attempt to find concrete answers to everything; sometimes the mystery is enough.

Some critics have suggested that these last two lines of Keats’s poem are ironic: they are, after all, spoken not by Keats himself (or by his speaker) but by the urn, to which Keats has attributed them. In such an interpretation of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, then, Keats is dissatisfied with the ‘Cold Pastoral’ of the urn which smilingly sits there, with its pretty pictures, and says, ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, and that’s all you’re getting. Like it or lump it.’ (We’re paraphrasing, of course.) In such a reading of the poem, Keats is pouring scorn on the urn for being so tight-lipped, so smugly and wilfully ‘silent’, in its refusal to tell more about the history and culture it depicts. Is Keats, then, bemoaning the limits of art, lamenting the fact that it offers only partial ‘messages’ and doesn’t provide us with wholesale meaning?

This reading seems unlikely, as we can see if we turn to Keats’s beliefs about art, expressed elsewhere in his letters. ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is a fine poetic example of Keats’s theory of ‘Negative Capability’, a concept he outlined, and defined, in a letter of December 1817:

several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

Keats’s Negative Capability is evident in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in the ‘mysterious’ nature of the urn, which offers the viewer partial glimpses and hints of a long-vanished civilisation. But Keats doesn’t seem to find this a bad thing. Indeed, he reminds us that imagined melodies are sweeter than those which we physically hear, which rarely live up to our expectations. Similarly, the desire and anticipation felt by the young lover seeking to woo his sweetheart outdoes any romantic or sexual gratification he might win. In other words, Keats liked the fact that not all facts are readily available to us. Elsewhere, in his long narrative poem ‘Lamia’, he criticised science for removing the mystery of the rainbow (he’s thinking specifically of Isaac Newton’s work unravelling the structure of the colour spectrum):

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine –
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade

So if those final two lines of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ are ironic, it’s because they are too glib a summary of the urn’s worth and meaning; not because Keats dislikes art’s reluctance to offer up wholesale meanings, facts, or philosophical solutions.

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is arranged into five 10-line stanzas, rhymed ababcdedce. The metre is iambic pentameter, with some variations: observe, for instance, the trochaic substitution at the beginning of the penultimate line, where ‘Beau-ty’ lends the urn’s ‘pronouncement’ a bold, strong air.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.