Ode on a Grecian Urn: John Keats

 "Ode on a Grecian Ode" is based on a series of paradoxes and opposites:
  • the discrepancy between the urn with its frozen images and the dynamic life portrayed on the urn,
  • the human and changeable versus the immortal and permanent,
  • participation versus observation, 
  • life versus art.
As in "Ode to a Nightingale," the poet wants to create a world of pure joy, but in this poem the idealized or fantasy world  is the life of the people on the urn. Keats sees them, simultaneously, as carved figures on the marble vase and live people in ancient Greece. Existing in a frozen or suspended time, they cannot move or change, nor can their feelings change, yet the unknown sculptor has succeeded in creating a sense of living passion and turbulent action. As in "Ode to a Nightingale," the real world of pain contrasts with the fantasy world of joy. Initially, this poem does not connect joy and pain.
      Understanding some lines in this poem is a challenge to any reader, particularly the last two lines:
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'--That is all
     Ye know of earth, and all ye need to know.
Some of the difficulty arises because there is no definitive text for this poem. No manuscript in Keats's handwriting survives. Although the poem was included in a volume of poems published in 1820, Keats may have been too ill to correct typesetting errors. Also, there exist two other versions of the poem which have some claim to authority. The differences among these versions are significant and affect meaning. Click here to read the three versions.
      Aside from textual considerations, the final couplet is ambiguous and has resulted in an extensive critical controversy over its meaning. Jack Stillinger comments, "As to critical interpretation of who says what to whom, no single explanation can satisfy the demands of text, grammar, consistency and common sense." Some readers write off this couplet; T.S. Eliot calls these lines a "serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."
      So if you have trouble understanding these last two lines, you are in good company.


Stanza I.      Stanza I begins slowly, asks questions arising from thought and raises abstract concepts such as time and art. The comparison of the urn to an "unravish'd bride" functions at a number of levels. It prepares for the impossisbility of fulfillment of stanza II and for the violence of lines 8-10 of this stanza. "Still" embodies two concepts--time and motion--which appear in a number of ways in the rest of the poem. They appear immediately in line 2 with the urn as a "foster" child. The urn exists in the real world, which is mutable or subject to time and change, yet it and the life it presents are unchanging; hence, the bride is "unravish'd" and as a "foster" child, the urn is touched by "slow time," not the time of the real world. The figures carved on the urn are not subject to time, though the urn may be changed or affected over slow time.
      The urn as "sylvan historian" speaks to the viewer, even if it doesn't answer the poet's questions (stanzas I and IV). Whether the urn communicates a message depends on how you interpet the final stanza. The urn is "sylvan"--first, because a border of leaves encircles the vase and second because the scene carved on the urn is set in woods. The "flowery tale" told "sweetly" and "sylvan historian" do not prepare for the terror and wild sexuality unleashed in lines 8-10 (another opposition); the effect and the subject of the urn or art conflict. Is it paradoxical that the urn, which is silent, tells tales "more sweetly than our rime"? Twice (lines 6 and 8) the poet is unable to distinguish between mortal and immortal, men and gods, another opposition; is there a suggestion of coexistence and inseparableness in this blurring of differences between them?
      With lines 8-10, the poet is caught up in the excited, rapid activities depicted on the urn and moves from observer to participant in the life on the urn, in the sense that he is emotionally involved. Paradoxically, turbulant dynamic passion is convincingly portrayed on cold, motionless stone.
      Paradox and opposites run through the rest of the poem. As you read and reread the poem, you should become aware of them.

Stanza II.      The first four lines contrast the ideal (in art, love, and nature) and the real; which does Keats prefer at this point? What is the paradox of unheard pipes? Is this an oxymoron?
      The last six lines contrast the drawback of frozen time; note the negative phrasing: "canst not leave," "nor ever can," "never, never canst" in lines 5-8. Keats says not to grieve; whom he is addressing--the carved figures or the reader? or both? Then he lists the advantages of frozen time; however, Keats continues to use negative phrasing even in these lines: "do not grieve," "cannot fade," and ""hast not thy bliss." Keats may have made a mistake, or there may be a reason for this negative undertone, a reason which will become clear as the poem continues.

Stanza III.      This stanza recapitulates ideas from the preceding two stanzas and re-introduces some figures:  the trees which can't shed leaves, the musician, and the lover. Keats portrays the ideal life on the urn as one without disappointment and suffering. The urn-depicted passion may be human, but it is also "all breathing passion far above" because it is unchanging. Is there irony in the fact that the superior passion depicted on the urn is also unfulfillable, that satisfaction is impossible?
      How does he portray real life, actual passion in the last three lines? Which is preferable, the urn life or real life? Note the repetition of the word "happy." Is there irony in this situation?

Stanza IV.      Stanza IV shows the ability of art to stir the imagination, so that the viewer sees more than is portrayed. The poet imagines the village from which the people on the urn came. In this stanza, the poet begins to withdraw from his emotional participation in and identification with life on the urn.
      This stanza focuses on communal life (the previous stanzas described individuals). What paradox is implicit in the contrast between the event being a sacrifice and the altar being "green"? between leading the heifer to the sacrifice and her "silken flanks with garlands drest"?
      In imagining an empty town, why does he give three possible locations for the town, rather than fix on one location? Why does he use the word "folk," rather than "people"? Think about the different connotations of these words. The image of the silent, desolate town embodies both pain and joy. How is it ironic that not a soul can tell us why the town is empty and that the vase communicates so much to the poet and so to the reader? Is this also paradoxical?
      In terms of the theme of pain-joy, what is Keats saying in lines 1-4, which describe the procession? in the rest of the stanza which describes the desolate town? Is he describing a temporary or a permanent condition?
      Is the viewer, who is the poet as well as the reader, pulled into the world of the urn?

Stanza V.      The poet observes the urn as a whole and remembers his vision. Is he emotionally involved in the life of the urn at this point, or is he again the observer? What aspect of the urn is stressed in the phrases "marble men and maidens," "silent form," and "Cold Pastoral"?
      Is there a paradox in the phrase "Cold Pastoral"?
      Yet the poet did experience the life experienced on the urn and comments, ambiguously perhaps, that the urn "dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity." Is this another reference to the "dull brain" which "perplexes and retards" ("Ode to a Nightingale")? Why does Keats use the word "tease"? By teasing him "out of thought," did the urn draw him from the real world into an ideal world, where, if there was neither imperfection nor change, there was also no real life or fulfillment? Or, possibly, was the poet so involved in the life of the urn that he couldn't think? Was the urn an escape, however temporary, from the pains and problems of life? One thing that all these suggestions mean is that this is a puzzling line.
      In the final couplet, is Keats saying that pain is beautiful? You must decide whether it is the poet (a persona), Keats (the actual poet), or the urn speaking. Are both lines spoken by the same person, or does some of the quotation express the view of one speaker and the rest of the couplet express the comment upon that view by another speaker? Who is being addressed--the poet, the urn, or the reader? Are the concluding lines a philosphical statement about life or do they make sense only in the context of the poem? Click here to read the three versions of the last two lines.
      Some critics feel that Keats is saying that Art is superior to Nature. Is Keats thinking or feeling or talking about the urn only as a work of art? Your reading on this issue will be affected by your decision about who is speaking.
      No matter how you read the last two lines, do they really mean anything? do they merely sound as if they mean something? or do they speak to some deep part of us that apprehends or feels the meaning but it is an experience/meaning that can't be put into words? Do they make a final statement on the relation of the ideal to the actual? Is the urn rejected at the end? Is art--can art ever be--a substitute for real life?
      What, if anything, has the poet learned from his imaginative vision of or daydream participation in the life of the urn?
      Does Keats, in this ode, follow the pattern of the romantic ode?


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