Themes in Ode on a Grecian Urn

Text of the Poem 8
""Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,"—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know..."   (Text of the Poem)

Here the narrator speaks from the point of view of the urn and learns his final lesson from art. Although he has envied the urn’s immortality he learns here that the beauty of life is in its truths, and the greatest truth is that one day all living beings die. In this way, the conclusion of the poem is Keats’s celebration of mortality, saying that seeking truths is an unnecessary voyage to find the beauty we are given in life.

"When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain..."   (Text of the Poem)

Although it’s inferred metaphorically earlier in the poem, this is the first instance the narrator just states that humans die, but the urn will live on. This represents the narrator’s dwindling romantic vision of what it means to be an eternal piece of art, perhaps suggesting the narrator prefers to be mortal, learning a lesson through his struggle with the urn.

"art desolate..."   (Text of the Poem)

The urn itself is a symbol of both life and death: life in the timelessness of its art and death in the intended use of the urn (ashes). By presenting images of joy and sacrifice on the urn, Keats tells the reader we can’t have joy without despair, we can’t have life without death, and the immortality of art means it must withstand both forever.

"What men or gods are these..."   (Text of the Poem)

Literally speaking, the narrator is addressing the art on the urn. However, taking into account the previous lines that address the urn’s ability to tell stories, this is the narrator’s plea for the urn to answer questions about life, death, and art to uncover what the urn has learned during its extended time on earth. With these questions, Keats establishes the relationship between art and its audience as a means to discover truth, a main theme of this poem.

"a parching tongue..."   (Text of the Poem)

Keats compares the effects of "breathing" or mortal passions with a disease whose symptoms include fever ("a burning forehead"), dehydration ("a parching tongue"), and a broken heart. The word "cloy'd" also suggests that human passion is sappy or overly sweet, where the immortal love on the urn is timeless and refined.

"All breathing human passion far above..."   (Text of the Poem)

That is, the "happy love" portrayed on the urn proves itself to be far better than human love or "passion," which necessarily decays with time and becomes less beautiful and less pure as it goes. "Breathing" here may as well mean "mortal" or "temporary."

"in midst of other woe..."   (Text of the Poem)

Keats implies that this eternal state of lifelessness is a kind of "woe" or sorrow that the urn and its figures suffer. In this, the speaker departs from his previous glorification of the urn to make an insightful comment about the tragedy of immortality.

"tease..."   (Text of the Poem)

Tease here meant in both the romantic sense (as if the maidens are teasing the male figures) and the literal sense, that is, to provoke or disturb. Thus neither the urn nor eternity can be understood by the speaker or, by extension, humanity.