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?
ode on a grecian urn 1

The last in a series on Romantic poetry, Ode on a Grecian Urn is another of Keats’ greats which  embodies much of Romantic ideology. It culimates with Keats’ own thematic focus “Beauty is truth, truth is Beauty.

In this poem, Keats addresses a Grecian vase, a “bride of quietness” and “child of silence” since the narrative upon its stone surface is wordless. Time has had little effect on the clarity of its images, freezing them as though in an eternal depiction of beauty. A “sylvan historian” it tells a tale of Greek detities and mortals, a scene Keats can barely understand but marvels at.


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!
 ode on grecian urn 3

Keats dwells on the eternity of this natural scene in which youth will never age, the trees will never wither, but also the lover can never attain his love, forever pursuing. The scene embodies for the romantic poet the goodness of life before beauty fades and grief takes hold.

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.
ode on a grecian urn 2

Happiness is as though frozen in time – forever desire is held in place, for ever panting and forever young.

Keats concludes the poem, admiring the stone pot for its eternal form.  The poet himself died of tuberculosis at the young age of 25 years,  and he had already seen many loved ones die. To him, this art form lived through the transience and sorrow of life, as a friend to man, and as an emobodiment of truth and beauty and so everything good and important to the world.

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.”

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