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Analysis of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats

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Ode on a Grecian Urn

John Keats was born in 1795 and he was one of the greatest Romantic poets of all times. Nothing was easy for Keats. He was not born to rich parents and he lost his parents very early in life to tuberculosis. One of his brothers also died of tuberculosis and another one migrated to America. Poverty kept him away from the woman he loved; he could not marry her. Though his life was full of grief he never allowed his passion for poetry die and was committed to write. He published three books of poetry during his life but most of his critics dismissed him as middle-class intruder. It was after his death in 1821 that he won lasting fame and to this day his poems are taken for literary study.

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is one of the most popular poems of Keats. He describes the pictures on an urn, a pot. There are so many scenes on it but before he goes on to describe the scenes he call it the bride of ‘quietness’ and ‘foster-child of silence and slow time’.  The urn is now a historian who has some tales to tell and they are mostly flowery tales. There are ‘deities, mortals, men or gods’. There are pictures of pursuit and escape. Pipes and timbrels play some music. There is ‘wild ecstasy’ about the painting. The music that is heard is sweet but those unheard are sweeter. The young boy plays the pipes on the urn and those unheard melodies go on. Another scene on the urn is that of a lover. The’ bold lover’ is moving towards his girl to kiss her. But he can never do so for he is frozen in time however his girl would never fade and their love would never die too.

The happy tree will never shed its leaves for it is spring time all the time. There is a happy musician piping his songs, ‘unwearied’. There are some young people, ‘breathing passion’. They are passionate about their love but it stops there and the scene does not move to the sexual culmination. There is more pleasure in the acts before the final act and it is this pleasure that is captured on the urn. The third scene is totally different – it is one of sacrifice. The cow is being led by the priest to its ‘green altar’. The cow knows is fate as it is flanked by garlands and so it is ‘lowing at the skies’. There are many people heading for the sacrifice so the poet feels that they have left behind a desolate town with silent streets. He feels no one will ever return to the town to tell the story.  In the last stanza the poet is back to being excited on seeing the urn which is ‘attic shape’ which clearly states it is a Grecian urn. There are ‘men and maidens overwrought’, ‘forest branches and trodden weed’. All the scenes on the urn are silent but they tease the ones viewing it. Pastoral scenes are depicted on the urn but they are cold because it is only an urn yet these scenes will remain for eternity. People might come and go but the beauty of this Grecian urn will remain forever. To sign off the poet says

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

An ode is a kind of poetry which is addressed to someone or something and it is usually in praise of that person. The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is a fifty line ode to a beautifully crafted urn. There are five stanzas; the rhyme scheme is ABAB for the first four lines followed by a variable sestet. The first and fifth stanzas end with CDEDCE, the second is different and it ends with CDECED. The third and the fourth stanza end with CDECDE. The word ’happy’ is used so many times in the third stanza.  The most famous enjambment is seen in this poem.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter;

The last two lines is a message to mankind

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Ode on a Grecian Urn: