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
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
     What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

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
     She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, 
     For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

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 forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
     That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd, 
     A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? 
     To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
     And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore, 
     Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, 
     Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore 
     Will silent be; and not a soul to tell 
     Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

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
     "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,"—that is all 
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


  1. The poem concludes with a now-famous aphorism: "'Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.'" Here Keats establishes an equivalence between two of the transcendental properties of being articulated by Plato: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. There is no simple summary of Keats's formulation. Indeed, the final wisdom of the urn has been a source of ongoing debate among poets, readers, and scholars for the last two centuries. There are debates over both Keats's intended meaning and the veracity of the aphorism. One way to parse the phrase is to say that objects and scenes of great beauty contain some form of truth for the beholder. That is to say, things occur to us as beautiful for a reason. Conversely, truth itself—the elegant articulation of the world—brings its own illuminating beauty into the world. One might say that, in the context of the poem, the urn offers beauty to be transmuted into truth ("Beauty is Truth") and that Keats's poem is, as an artifact of language, an assertion of truth that is also beautiful, both for its precision of form and its clarity of thought ("Truth Beauty").

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. The urn is not literally made from silence and time, but since the death of its artist, Keats has adopted it into that family. He is drawing a line between the human who made the urn and the historical and artistic weight the urn has taken on.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Although it is suggested metaphorically earlier in the poem, this is the first instance in which the speaker acknowledges human death. The urn, however, will live on. This imminent sense of finitude heightens the speaker's encounter with the ancient urn, from whom he solicits the timeless wisdom of the final lines.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. "Attic shape" is a reference to Attica, the Greek peninsula whose most prominent city is Athens.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The noun "brede" is an interwoven pattern—it comes from the same root as "braid." Although Keats is using it literally to describe the art presented on the urn, notice how it also characterizes the rich weave of thoughts, images, and philosophical questions the poem itself presents.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. 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.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. This stanza suggests that the narrator is looking at a different side of the urn, considering a different aspect of the painting. The speaker specifically calls the altar “green” to tell the reader it is an actual image, not merely a figurative altar. That being said, sacrifice can be understood here as serving a figurative function, symbolizing that art is not simply eternal happiness, but also eternal pain.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Here Keats presents both a double entendre and a paradox. Keats is comparing the silence through which the urn tells its stories to the sounds he imagines coming from the pipes painted on the urn. To Keats's speaker, the silence is "sweeter."

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

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Keats further establishes the urn as a character when he names it "Sylvan historian." Because the urn has been around so long and seen so many people come and go, its timelessness and resilience makes it an active part of history. The epithet "Sylvan historian" almost figures the urn as a mythical deity who has become wise from its many years on earth.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Tempe is a valley in Greece known for its pastoral lands of great beauty. Arcady refers to the ancient Greek state of Arcadia. The allusions to Arcadia and Tempe establishes the the old age of the urn and brings to mind images of pastoral, idealistic beauty.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. In the first line the speaker addresses the Grecian Urn as the “unravish’d bride of quietness,” suggesting the object he admires cannot literally speak. Using personification to address the urn communicates the importance of the archaic object to the speaker and to the poem itself.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. 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.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. 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 is synonymous with "mortal" and "temporary."

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  15. Keats represents the "Bold Lover" as a figure frozen in time, doomed by virtue of being painted to the eternal position of wanting, but never having, his lover. The speaker laments this fact, bringing the reader to a deeper understanding of the scene and his feelings about it.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. The speaker turns our attention away from the physical ear, attuned as it is to the auditory world. Rather, the speaker refers to the ear of one's heart or mind, which responds to the "sound" of the pipes played in this scene. Thus, Keats refers to a "spirit[ual]" or intuitive hearing that picks up on deeper meanings.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  17. The adjective "loth" means "reluctant" or "unwilling," as in "bashful maidens." From this description, we can assume that there is a scene depicted on the urn wherein several men or gods address a group of women, likely in a romantic overture. These women, though beautiful, shy away from their advances.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  18. For Keats, the figures on the Grecian urn have been immortalized by virtue of their being frozen in time. Just as Keats's speaker expresses admiration for the urn, he may also feel jealous of its immortality, perhaps yearning to live a long life full of beauty.

    — William Delaney
  19. The "mysterious priest" would most likely be the priest of Hera, queen of the gods, or Hymen, god of marriages. In ancient Greece, both of these gods traditionally presided over weddings, requiring that a heifer (or cow) be sacrificed in order to bless the marriage.

    — Karen P.L. Hardison
  20. Broadly speaking, the "pastoral" refers to the ideal state of nature. Its roots are Latin, pastoralis meaning the tending of livestock. In poetry, the pastoral is a type of poetry that glorifies the natural world. The urn is characterized as a "Cold Pastoral" because its scenes move from the ideal to the realistic, incorporating images of sacrifice and suffering.

    — Karen P.L. Hardison
  21. The verb "tease" here operates in both the amorous sense (a nod to the "marble men and maidens" teasing one another) and the literal sense—that is, to provoke or disturb. The the urn, with its antique, layered images of timeless human stories, stuns the speaker into a confrontation with eternity.

    — Karen P.L. Hardison
  22. Here, "overwrought" can refer either to the urn's interwoven (overly elaborate) decoration or to the maidens' state of heightened emotion, which now appears to the speaker as being melodramatic or "cloy'd," as the aforementioned "human passion."

    — Jason Lulos