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In this lesson, learn about Romantic poet John Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' which is considered one of the greatest odes ever written. In the poem, Keats has a surprisingly emotional reaction to staring at an old piece of pottery. We'll examine the story of the poem, its meaning and its form.
'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is one of John Keats' most famous poems. He's a Romantic poet, and he wrote it in 1819 along with a bunch of other odes - he was kind of going through a little bit of an 'ode period.' They're known as his 'Great Odes of 1819.' Some of the other ones are 'Ode to a Nightingale,' 'Ode on Melancholy' and 'Ode on Indolence.' An ode is really just a kind of poem that usually focuses on a single person or a thing or an event, and it's kind of a tribute to that thing. So if you were in love with someone you could write them an ode. You could write an ode to Chipotle if you love burritos as much as I do. You can really write an ode to anything; you just have to really be 'once more with feeling' about it.
Before we get to 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' we're going to talk about Grecian urns in general. When you hear 'urn,' you might think of those containers you put your dead relatives in after they've been cremated or something like that. That's kind of the modern connotation of it. If you've ever seen Meet the Parents, you might think about that urn getting knocked over and then the cat going and doing its business all over the grandma. Anyway, that's not the kind of urn that we're talking about. Greek urns were a type of pottery used for holding water, wine, olive oil - they really liked olive oil. What was interesting to Keats about all of this, and what's still kind of interesting today about Grecian urns, is that they were really heavily decorated. They had all kinds of drawings all around the outside of them. In the poem, Keats is basically looking at an urn that depicts a whole bunch of different scenes - you know, it was 1819; I guess he didn't have TV or the Internet or anything else to do, so he had to be entertained by sitting around and staring at old pottery.
So, the poem - in total, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' has five stanzas. Each of these is ten lines. We're going to start by just talking about the dramatic situation of the poem, which is just a fancy way of saying what's happening in the poem. The first stanza begins:
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time
He's talking to the urn in this opening. That's the 'foster-child of Silence and slow Time' and all that stuff. He's fascinated by how the images on the urn are captured in a single moment. They're silent and they're not moving forward in time - that's the 'foster-child of Silence and slow Time' - they kind of evoke this stillness or frozenness of the images on the urn. Then he starts to describe the first image. He says:
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
So some dudes are chasing women, and since this is Greek art, they are likely naked. So Keats kind of naturally presumes that all these scenes might be kind of about sex, which sounds reasonable given that there's a bunch of naked people chasing each other around.
Second stanza - Keats is looking at a different part of the urn that has a different picture on it. This one basically has a man and a woman lying under a tree and the man is piping on a pipe. He describes:
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:
So he's kind of saying that, alright, the songs that you hear are great - songs you can hear with your ears - but the songs that you don't hear with your ears are better, so keep playing, soft pipes. What does this mean? What are songs you don't hear with your ears? Maybe Keats has been staring at one too many urns! Really he's just saying that, you know, as good as music is that you play and you hear - literal music - the music that the man is playing on the urn (that's kind of frozen in time and you obviously can't hear because it's just a painting) is better because it's kind of there and it never ends. He's always playing this piping tune.
Keats goes on, and he says:
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!
So, dude, don't worry that you can't ever kiss your woman or 'have thy bliss,' if you all know what that means - the whole 'frozen in time' thing kind of gets in the way of that - but it's okay because she's never going to get old. That's a benefit of being frozen on an urn. You can't have sex with her, but she's never going to get old; you're kind of perpetually stuck in this wooing stage; you're gazing at her for all time and she's always going to be pretty. They're captured in their youth; they're never going to not be youthful and they're never going to not be in love.
Next stanza is just more of the same. There's happy, happy boughs; there's more happy love! more happy, happy love! It just sounds great, doesn't it? Keats gets pretty excited about the fact that the leaves on the trees are going to stay green forever and that this couple will always be in love. Those things kind of go along together. Then Keats reminds us what happens to young lovers. He says:
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
People have debated about what this line means, but what they're essentially saying is that when young love is consummated - or maybe even just when a couple spends more time together; it might not have to do with sex - bad things happen. Maybe you have sex and you're not quite as into each other, you find out he's got some weird fetish, you start fighting or whatever. Whatever he really means, he's kind of saying that it's better to be captured at that moment where you're just hanging out in the tree, playing your pipes. You're kind of perpetually frustrated but you're also perpetually in love. Nothing bad can happen. Not only can she not get old, which is what he said in the last stanza, but you're never going to start fighting or not liking each other so much, so that's good, I guess.
Fourth stanza - we're kind of getting in the home stretch now. We get those two stanzas about the young lovers, and now he moves on to another picture on the urn. I guess it's a big urn with lots of drawings. He says:
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green alter, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
So some folks are taking a cow to a sacrifice, and it's not quite as fun as men chasing naked women around or lovers hanging out under a tree. So, Keats starts thinking about where these drawings on the urn might have come from - where they're coming from in the picture.
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
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Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
So he's kind of saying these folks are here forever on the urn with the cow, and the town that they came from is always going to be empty in this frozen moment in time. So he starts imagining this world beyond the urn, which is kind of interesting. If you ever think about your house or your car being lonely and sad when you're not there, that's pretty much what Keats is doing with these people and their town. The town is said because they're not there.
Fifth stanza - we're almost done. It's time to kind of sum it all up. Keats talks to the urn again. He says:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man
In case you missed it, that stuff on the urn will always be there. You, me - we're all going to die, and we're all going to be forgotten. But the urn is forever. There will be other people in the future who will look at the urn and maybe will talk to the urn (if they're as nuts as Keats). The urn is forever, and kind of by extension here, art is forever. Art freezes things in place, including, maybe, this poem that we're reading, because Keats is dead and we're still looking at it. He says that the urn will say to people:
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'-that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
You might have heard this line before; it's a pretty famous one, and it basically is Keats outing himself as a Romantic poet. He's having this urn talk about truth and beauty - the object that is being admired is basically talking to you and to Keats and to everyone. The Romantics had rejected the idea that religious authority, political leaders, science, any of those things could really answer the big questions about the universe. They really believed more in imagination and emotion and nature as kind of being where to look for answers to stuff. It was a big shift from the Age of Enlightenment that came before the Romantic era, when reason and scientific fact ruled the day, which kind of is where we are now again, except in some corners of this country. You might say that the Romantics are kind of the crunchy granola hippies of their day. They're kind of saying 'this urn is beautiful, so are the people on it. That's the truth, man. That's what matters.' That's kind of the tone of the end of the poem.
To sum things up, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is one of Keats' most famous poems. It's about him studying pictures on an urn, which you can get from the title. He thinks the people on the urn are frozen in time and perfect, or at least more perfect than us, because we're kind of miserable and time goes on and we die and whatnot. On the urn the lovers are always in love, the trees never lose their leaves, the empty town is kind of sad. He concludes that 'beauty is truth, truth beauty,' a very Romantic poet kind of sentiment, because beauty matters most of all and is preserved forever in art. And that is Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.'
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