Poem – Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats | Summary and Analysis


The Poem – Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats is one of the most popular poems by the famous English romantic poet John Keats.  John Keats who was born in 1795 died at a very young age of 25 years in 1821 after a severe bout of tuberculosis.  Many of his poems became famous after his death and have been widely read.  The poem Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in 1819 along with a number of other odes like Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on Melancholy.  The title of the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” sounds rather obscure.  What does ode mean?  What about Grecian Urn?  Odes were lyrical poems which were written expressing a strong feeling of love, respect or praise for something or someone.  It seems bizarre that John Keats wrote an ode on a Grecian Urn.  This is because John Keats had a strong artistic sensibility and was a great connoisseur of art pieces.  When you see a piece of art like a painting or a piece of pottery, does it not sometimes leave you elated?  Well, John Keats expressed his elation in the form of a poem.   A Grecian Urn is a piece of antique Greek pottery which depicted many interesting scenes.  On this note, let us briefly discuss this poem.

Poem – Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats | Summary and Analysis

The poem begins with the following four lines and consists of 5 verses of 10 lines each.  The rhythm used in the poem is iambic pentameter which consists of five pairs of syllables in each line:

“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:”

The poem begins with John Keats addressing the Grecian Urn in a metaphorical manner and praising it for standing the test of time and silently preserving ancient historical scenes for posterity.  We cannot go back in time to witness what life was like 1000s and 1000s of years ago.  However, looking at antique pieces with paintings and carvings on them, can give us a clue of what life was like back then.  It is as if time has been frozen and stands still.  John Keats wonders what kind of legends the engravings or etchings on the urn depict.  Are they about Gods or mortal human beings?  The urn hailed from the Grecian regions of the valley of Tempe and Arcadia.  Maidens are depicted as being chased by men.  There are also musical pipes and instruments.  This shows that various scenes or tales were intricately depicted on a single pottery which is quite fascinating.

The next verse begins with the following line which is a popular line of discussion.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter;”

By looking at the Grecian Urn, John Keats wonders what kind of music is being played and is so awe-struck that he concludes that the music must be sweeter than any that he has heard.  This music is quietly preserved in the pottery.  John Keats also admires the lovers that have been depicted in the evergreen surroundings and notes that such eternal love has been preserved for posterity and cannot fade away.

John Keats further continues along the same lines in the next verse by stating that everything is so evergreen and love is eternal.  Realization that life is temporal while the Grecian Urn will continue to remain with its depictions of love leaves him feeling very miserable.  The irony is that John Keats lived a very short life but wrote about the beauty of immortality and eternal life.

The next verse talks of a depiction of a cow being led to a ritual slaughter by an ancient priest.  It also depicts a quaint ancient ghost town.   In the last verse, John Keats expresses the fact that the pastoral scenes seem rather cold or crude.  However, he is still awe-struck by the overall intricate and captivating depiction.  He proclaims that even though, this and other generations will pass, the Grecian urn will remain in its beautiful state.  The last two lines are also very popular.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The mirroring of the words “beauty and truth” show John Keats’ obsession with the theme of beauty and truth, and with his artistic sensibility, he feels that art pieces are things of beauty which mirror truth.



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