Ode on a Grecian Urn
By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Writing, Publication Dates
Situation, Setting
Complete Poem
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Keats
Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised and Enlarged in 2010

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 nineteenth 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 BC) 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 BC) and Catullus (84-54 BC) wrote odes based on the Greek model, but their odes were not intended to be sung. In the nineteenth 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.

Bright Star
Award-Winning Film About Keats and Fanny Brawne
(Rated PG)
.......Now available at Amazon.com is Bright Star, a DVD centering on the soulful love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne when he was at the height of his poetic powers and in the throes of disease that ended his life when he was only twenty-five. Amazon.com says it is "rich, sensuous, quietly thrilling," a film to be added "to the very short list of admirable films about writers." The review continues as follows:
.......The movie, set during his last several years, focuses on his playful friendship with and evolving love for Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the independent-minded young woman who lived next door in Hampstead Village and was, in her own fashion, an artistic spirit. Completing an ineffably fraught constellation—not exactly a romantic triangle—is Keats's host Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who loves, esteems, and regards Keats with both pride and envy, and engages in an unstated rivalry for Fanny. All three performances are superb, with Whishaw adding to his gallery of artist figures (the olfactorily obsessed murderer in Perfume, one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There), and Cornish and Schneider taking top acting honors for 2009. As in Campion's The Piano, others are party to the central story, and they have identities, personalities, and claims to intelligence and understanding that we appreciate without having it announced in dialogue. Kerry Fox (redheaded wild girl of Campion's An Angel at My Table nearly two decades ago) evokes Fanny's mother with a few brushstrokes, and Fanny's young sister and brother are watchful presences and de facto co-conspirators in the courtship. In addition, Bright Star is the rare period movie to convey—without being insistent—what it was like to be alive in another era, the nature of houses and rooms and how people occupied them, the way windows linked spaces and enlarged people's lives and experiences, how fires warmed as the milky English sunlight did not. And always there is an aliveness to place and weather, the creak of boardwalk underfoot and the wind rustling the reeds as lovers walk through a wetland. Poetry grows from such things; at least, Jane Campion's does.—Richard T. Jameson

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 personhence, 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)

Study Questions and Writing Topics
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!