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A Summary and Analysis of John Keats's Famous 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'

A Summary and Analysis of John Keats's Famous 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'
There is art and beauty all around us, starting from the trees, to the flowers, to the birds, to the people. But it takes a true romantic to open our eyes to the grandeur that is present in simplicity. We bring you the "Ode on a Grecian Urn", with a complete summary and analysis of the poem.
Rashmi Sunder
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
Better Late Than Never!
When John Keats first published his work, he was met with a lot of criticism and some went as far as saying that he was better of as an apothecary (for which he trained) rather than being a poet. It was only after his untimely death that he was truly regarded as one of the greatest English poets ever to have lived.
The 18th century was abound with Romanticism, especially in the field of literature. There were many noted Romantic poets during that time, including names like William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But then came a young, rebellious poet who addressed the same elements like those before him in a manner that inspired, captivated, and educated the many that followed.

If you haven't guessed already, we're referring to John Keats, the young poet who is best known for his set of five Odes that were literary masterpieces, which reflected skills that were unfortunately never shown much appreciation during his short lifetime. Nonetheless, his poems are some of the most anthologized of works, and his legend has been passed down for countless generations; we will go as far as to say that it has transformed and taken English Literature to a whole new level.

We will focus on one of his greatest pieces of poetry―"Ode on a Grecian Urn", which starts out with an appreciation for an art piece and ends with a universal message. We will provide you with a line-by-line breakdown of the summary, followed by an in-depth analysis of the poem.
Stanza 1
✎ Line 1-4
As the poem begins, we realize that it is an ekphrasis that is describing a piece of art, i.e., the urn. Keats personifies it by calling it an "unravish'd bride"―a bride who is still a virgin―thus calling it a pure and innocent piece of art that has sat silently for a long time. Then he goes on to say that it is a "Sylvan beauty"―something that portrays the forest and its flora. He says that it tells a sweeter and more beautiful tale than his own piece of work, or "rhyme".

✎ Line 5-7
He asks the urn what "leaf-fringed tale" it hides; in simpler terms, he is asking the urn what stories it holds in its artwork that is bordered by the ornate leaves (Ancient Greek urns were known to have borders that depicted intricate flowers and leaves). He asks if the people depicted are the Ancient Greek gods, or the men, or if it was both. He questions if it was set in the lush, green ancient cities of maybe Tempe or Arcady.

✎ Line 8-10
Keats slowly and smartly describes the images on the urn through questions that pertain to them. He asks who these men or Gods were that chased the women, who in turn were trying to avoid them (playfully or otherwise). He is asking why there was such a wild chase and struggle to escape, and what was it with the pipes that seem to be playing, and why there was such excitement. Keats has portrayed an underlying sexual tension that he relays through the images.
Stanza 2
✎ Line 11-14
The speaker tells us that music is like bliss to the ears, but he cannot hear what is being played by the piper depicted in the urn, yet this silent music is sweet to the ears and soul, and that the piper will forever play on. He uses paradox by saying that the pipes produced melodies that had no tune.

✎ Line 15-17
He continues addressing the musician, saying that the latter will always stay perched beneath the tree and can never leave his spot, and that tree will always provide him with shade as it will never shed its leaves. Keats then turns back to the imagery of the wild chase between the lovers and says that they will always have a passion, but will never be able to share a kiss.

✎ Line 18-20
He tells the lover that he will always have reached his prize (the woman), but never quite earned it. Yet he should not grieve, because she will never go away; she will always be young and beautiful, and they will always remain in their blissful bubble of love.
Stanza 3
✎ Line 21-24
The speaker addresses the trees and says that they will forever bear their leaves, never shedding, always lush, and thus, will never have to bid goodbye to the season of Spring. He goes back to the scene of the musician and tells him that he will forever play his pipe, never tiring and always seeming to be playing a new melody.

✎ Line 25-27
He looks at the images of the lovers and music and exclaims on how happy and loving it all seems. He says that the lovers would always share the excitement of the chase, hot and panting because of it (considered and allusion for the act of sex) and they remain eternally youthful.

✎ Line 28-30
Looking from above at this passion, he draws a parallel with real life saying that in reality, love sends the heart in a state of choked sorrow, giving you a fever ("burning forehead") and leaving you drained ("parched tongue").
Stanza 4
✎ Line 31-34
The speaker then turns his attention to the depiction of a procession heading to sacrifice a cow. He wonders who all these people are, and from where they have come. He wonders to which altar the priest is leading the sacrificial cow to, the one that was adorned with colorful garlands.

✎ Line 35-37
Here, the speaker goes beyond the imagery to wonder which little town must have been emptied by this procession of people. He questions whether it was by the seashore, a river, or some mountain top.

✎ Line 38-40
Still thinking of the town, the speakers say that this unknown town will forever remain empty because the people in the procession will never be able to return to it.
Stanza 5
✎ Line 41-44
Keats brings us back to the real world, the one he is in, and addressed the urn, rather than the things and people in it. He calls out to its Greek shape and says that it seems to have a braid ("brede") of men and women intertwined, and its vast forests that have floors covered in weed that has been repeatedly trampled upon. He changes the tone by asking the urn not to tease him with all the images that it depicts.

✎ Line 45-48
He calls it a cold pastoral, an insensitive forest figure that seems to be playing with his thoughts. He goes on to say that as times passes and the people of his generation grow old, the urn will remain eternal and will never age. Amidst all the chaos, confusion, and frustrations, it will stand the test of time and will teach people some important lessons in life. And what lesson is that, you ask? Wait for it!

✎ Line 49-50
One of the most controversial endings seen ever, Keats changes the whole atmosphere of the poem with these two universal lines―"beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Many have debated and criticized his decision to end the poem on such a note as some say that it takes away from the poem's beauty by stating something that is grammatically incorrect and doesn't seem to make sense.
After years of debates and brain-racking (that is never-ending, by the way), people have come up with two possible explanations. One, that if it was the urn that was giving the message, it is telling people that all we need to understand and appreciate in life is that beauty is the ultimate truth and there is honesty in beauty that goes untainted forever. We don't need to go in search of deeper meanings, but just acknowledge what's in front of us. Second, if we view it as Keats' message, then he is trying to tell the urn that for the latter, it has only to know of its beauty and consider it to be the ultimate truth, but in real life, that is not possible because there is a whole lot more to mankind that just art and beauty.

Now that you have understood the meaning of the poem, let us look at the themes depicted and the literary devices used.
The urn is an innocent and pure piece of art that depicts human life in the simplest and purest of forms, and there is something very God-like about it.

Beauty and Nature
Keats was a romantic poet, and Romanticism often involved depictions of nature and people or characters that are in tune with it. His "Ode" was an appreciation of beauty that is found in nature and in the innocence of human relationships.
Being an appreciation poem for an urn, it is no wonder that art is one of the major themes. Greece was known for its art, and he took something as simple as an urn to compliment the agelessness and beauty in art.
Greek Art
Grecian Urn Art
Another major theme in the poem was love. Keats drew parallels between the kind of love that was eternal and joyful as shown on the urn, to love in real life that ends in pain, frustrations, fever, and yearning. (Poor Keats might not have had much luck in that department!).
Immortal Love
Immortal Love
Men and Women
The men and women were the symbols of life, youth, and love.

There was a lot of musicality that has been used in the poem through its form and meter, and by depicting a musician in the poem, Keats has cleverly highlighted that.
Immortal Piper
The Piper
Trees, plants, flowers, and an animal have been portrayed, all encapsulated by or rather forming what we would call "nature".

Ancient Greece
By naming his poem an "Ode on a Grecian Urn", Keats has brilliantly used the pun. An ode is essentially a Greek poem, which gives praise. And the urn depicted in the poem is Grecian. The animal sacrifice (which was done in worship of the Greek Gods), and the references to "Tempe" and "Arcady" all pertain to Greece.
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece
Greek Sacrifice
Ancient Greeks at an Alter
It is an art form that describes another work of art.
Form and Meter
Keats was a master poet who used complex form and meter in his Ode, yet portrayed it so effortlessly that it is hard to catch on unless you closely analyze the poem. It follows the iambic pentameter, with ten lines in each stanza. It has a two part rhyme scheme, where the last three lines are variable. The first four lines follow the ABAB pattern, whereas the next three lines have variations of the CDE rhyme scheme. In stanza one, it is DCE, in stanza 2 it is CED, in stanza 3 and 4 it is CDE, and in five, it is DCE again. This is one complex poem for sure!
It is a Romantic poem, and an ekphrasis, which is a poem that describes another work of art. Here it is poetry that describes the craftsmanship and imagery depicted on an urn.
The world depicted in the urn is all Ancient Greece, and the speaker's world is shown when he retracts from the descriptions and draws parallels to his world. It is also pastoral, with lush green forests and trees forming the backdrop.
The speaker is a romantic, which is reflected with the way he describes and converses with the different images depicted on the urn. He also seems insecure with himself as he suggests that the urn teases him and throws him into a chaotic thought process. He is also reminiscing about Ancient Greece, its culture, and its people.
The urn itself has been personified and given a human form. Also, the boughs of the tree are called "happy".
The urn is referred to as a "Sylvan historian"―one who imparts knowledge about forests or nature.
The poem is abound with imagery. This is seen in "green alter", "silken flanks", "heifer lowing at the skies", the description of the unknown town, and with "forest branches and trodden weed".
It is a figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the clauses display inverted parallelism. This is seen in the second last line―"Beauty is truth, truth beauty."
It is a type of repetition where words or phrases are repeated at the beginning of each sentence. Here, it is shown using "What" and "For ever". It is an exclamatory figure of speech. It is seen in lines 1 and 2, 15-17, line 38-40, and line 44.
It is an exclamatory figure of speech. It is seen in lines 1 and 2, 15-17, line 38-40, and line 44.
It is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name, but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept. In the poem, the word "heart" is linked with his feelings of being "high-sorrowful and cloy'd".
It is a type of metaphor where the whole represents the parts and vice versa. Here, it is seen with "burning forehead" (fever) and a "parching tongue" (thirst), which are both linked to "love".
The line "Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone" is a paradox because music cannot exist without sound, yet the pipers are playing a melody that can't be heard but rather felt or imagined.
"Thou canst not leave Thy song ..." draws parallels with the idea of immortality that is underlying in the whole poem.
The speaker seems to be addressing the urn with questions to which he knows he will never get an answer to. Thus, it is rhetorical.
The title itself is a pun because an Ode is a Greek style of poetry that is used here to praise a Grecian Urn. The line "flowery tale" is a triple pun as it refers to the flowers in the poem; "flowery" also stands for sweet, so a sweet tale is being told, and finally "flowery" also refers to a complex tale, which we can undoubtedly say describes the poem to a T! Also, the phrase "leaf-fringed" is a pun, as it refers to both the leaves that form an integral part of the nature that is depicted as well as the fact that the ancient Grecian urn generally had a fringe or border that was made with detailed leaves and flowers.
The places "Tempe" and "Arcady" are allusions to Ancient Greece that form the setting.
It is a complete pause in a line of poetry. The last two lines are an example of a caesura.
Anachronistic Diction
Anachronistic diction stands for the usage of older language, seen here with the old-school English words like "thou", "thy", "canst", "Sylvan", "loth", "timbrels", "ditties", and "brede".
Here "Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone" is an oxymoron because if there is music, there can be silence and vice versa.
The words "happy","never", "for ever", and "what" have been repeated to build emphasis.
John Keats
John Keats
John Keats, who was born on October 31, 1795 in England is a part of the revered second generation of Romantic poets, along with contemporaries like P. B. Shelley and Lord Byron. While studying at John Clarke's school, he met Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster's son, who introduced Keats to Renaissance work, and thus, he became both a mentor and friend. He began studying at Guy's Hospital in October 1815, registering as a medical student. But that took away from his free time and writing, and eventually he returned to his true calling. After the publication of his first poem, he received his apothecary's license, but he was now fully invested into his writing career. By the time his set of five "Odes" were published, he didn't gain the recognition and respect that he had hoped for as a poet, and instead was met with a lot of crushing and hurtful criticism. He unfortunately never got a chance to celebrate the fruits of his hard work or witness the kind of impact he had.

John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the tender age of 25, owing to tuberculosis. Since his death, his work has been largely debated upon and analyzed, and although delayed, he is now praised and respected as one of the greatest English poets of all time, and his work is largely anthologized.