Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

John Keats was an exemplary second-generation romantic poet who lived in the early 19th century. The romantic period refers to several literary movements that were characterised by their highly subjective form of writing, which was essentially a breakaway from the traditions of more rigid writing followed by the Neoclassical poets. Keats belonged to a group of poets who were later dubbed as the ‘second-generation romantics’ and it included other poets like Shelly, Wordsworth and Byron. The romantic age in England is generally marked by the publishing of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1789.

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time...

One of the main characteristics that set the romantics apart from the others is their intensely personal subject matter. It ranged from their own internal conflicts, to their philosophical thoughts, to praising the glory of nature and its effects on humans. Their poetic style was free and untamed (not that it did not have any metrical compositions, they were comparatively flexible in relation to the neoclassic poets.) like the vast untamedness of nature. They found their sources of poetry from particularly unique and seemingly unlikely experiences. For them, poetry conveyed its own truth and the sincerity was the true criterion for judging a poetry.

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:...

Several of Keats’ poetry questions the mortality and impermanence of human life with relations to art and its everlasting life on earth. In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, the speaker comes across an old Grecian artefact and admires all the paintings on it. The urn contains several pictures of characters including a fair youth who sings beneath an evergreen tree, two lovers who are almost kissing, a melodist playing a pipe, a town of people on a procession with a sacrificial cow and so on. He takes a moment to think about each of their stories and wonders how it is to remain immortal.

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

He starts off the poem by describing the beautiful shape of the urn. He addresses it by several names and revels in the beauty and satisfaction that it gives him. He then addresses the sweetness of the music that might be coming out of the painted instruments. He assures himself by saying that the unheard melodies are sweeter because it speaks directly to our inner soul. He then moves onto the loves and assures them that though they may never kiss, they will forever remain young and fair. He complements the beautiful boughs of the trees and tells them that they will never wilt and will forever remain beautiful. In the later stanza, the poem takes a little turn as the speaker as he examines how they will live forever while humans living in the real world are all eventually bound to die one day. He then examines a procession of people who are carrying a sacrificial heifer and wonder which town or village is empty of this folk.

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

In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker once again admires the beauty of the urn and decides that even after his lifetime, the urn will forever remain and tell its story for generations to come. The speaker finally neds the poem with one of the most beautiful verses in the poem going “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” which he confirms is the only eternal truth that one needs to know on earth.        

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