By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised and Enlarged in 2010
Type of Work
......."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.
......."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,
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.
.......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
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Summary and Annotations
.......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?
.......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.
.......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.”
.......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.
.......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
1. Write a romantic ode. 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”).
2. Write a one-stanza poem that imitates the rhyme scheme of "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
3. Identify ancient artifacts (perhaps objects that you have seen in a museum) that would make fitting subjects for poems.
4. Explain the following lines from the second stanza: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!