Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...©
and Enlarged in 2010
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.
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.
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").
and Publication Dates
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
on a Grecian Urn
By John Keats
End-Rhyming Words Are
Thou still unravish’d bride
of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst
A flowery tale more
sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend
haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals,
or of both,
or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods
are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?
What struggle to escape?
and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
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;
Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the
goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade,
though thou hast not thy bliss,
wilt thou love, and she be fair!
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,
For ever warm and
still to be enjoy’d,
panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion
That leaves a heart
high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the
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,
with peaceful citadel,
of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets
Will silent be; and
not a soul to tell
art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude!
Of marble men and
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,
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
on earth, and all ye need to know.
Summary and Annotations
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
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.
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."
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
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.
Award-Winning Film About Keats and
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:
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
Figures of Speech
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:
of quietness, / Thou foster-child
of silence and slow time
of silence and slow
/ Sylvan historian,
who canst thus
men or gods are these? What maidens
mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
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)
Questions and Writing Topics
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").
Write a one-stanza poem that imitates the rhyme scheme of "Ode on a Grecian
Identify ancient artifacts (perhaps objects that you have seen in a museum)
that would make fitting subjects for poems.
Explain the following lines from the second stanza:
youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
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!