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
          loth? 
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
          grieve;
     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
          say'st,
     "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,"—that is all 
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Footnotes

  1. 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
  2. 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.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. "Attic shape" is a reference to Attica, a historical region of Greece that includes Athens. This line tells the reader where the urn was crafted, but more importantly comes in direct contrast with the tone of the first stanza when the narrator embellished the urn as a bride. Now the urn is nothing more than a “shape,” implying the narrator’s fading amazement with it.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Brede is an interwoven pattern. Although Keats is using it literally to describe the art presented on the urn, notice how it also describes the tangled nature of the thoughts and philosophical questions the poem 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 the narrator is looking at a different side of the urn with a different aspect of the painting. The narrator specifically calls the altar “green” to tell the reader it is a visual image not a figurative altar. Now we understand sacrifice is another decoration on the urn, 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 referring to the silence in which the urn tells its stories and the sounds he imagines coming from the pipes painted on the urn.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. 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.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Keats 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. "Sylvan historian" is a way of saying the urn is a mythical deity who has become wise from so many years on earth.

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

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. In the first line the narrator addresses a Grecian Urn as the “unravish’d bride of quietness,” suggesting his admiration for an object that can’t literally speak. Using personification to address the urn communicates the importance of the archaic object in consideration of the narration of the poem.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. Keats writes this poem in iambic pentameter and uses an alternating rhyme scheme in the first four lines of each stanza. The rhymes are not always perfect rhymes, and the best example of this is the slant rhyme in the fourth stanza. Although he uses rhyme throughout the piece, he does not use a strict rhyme scheme anywhere else, except in the first four lines of each stanza.

    — Evan, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. 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
  15. 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."

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. Keats represents the Bold Lover as a figure frozen in time, doomed by virtue of being painted to hold the same position (as wanting to but never being able to kiss his lover). The speaker laments this fact, bringing the reader to a deeper understanding of both the scene and the speaker's feelings.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  17. Meaning, not to the physical ear or to the one attached to the senses. Instead, the speaker refers to the ear of one's heart or mind, which responds to the "sound" of the pipes played in this scene as if they were, in fact, real.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  18. Loth meaning reluctant or unwilling, bashful maidens. From this description, we can assume that there's 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
  19. For Keats, the figures on the Grecian urn have been immortalized by virtue of their being frozen in time (and no doubt preserved by collectors and museum coordinators). Keats's speaker is not so much expressing admiration for the urn as he is revealing his jealousy of its immortality and his yearning to live a long life full of beauty.

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

    — Karen P.L. Hardison
  21. 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.

    — Karen P.L. Hardison
  22. In ancient Greece, the pastoral referred to the ideal state of nature. In poetry, the pastoral is a type of poetry that glorifies that ideal nature. It's described here as being "cold" because, though not technically alive (or warm), it still lives forever.

    — Karen P.L. Hardison
  23. 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.

    — Karen P.L. Hardison
  24. 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," like human passion.

    — Jason Lulos