Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flow'ry tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed 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 endeared,
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 enjoyed,
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
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 drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its 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 sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Keats I did for my A-Levels, and I think the above was the first of his odes our class was asked to deal with. I remember that in the lesson we made SOME progress, but that our teacher kept pushing further. I can never know what it was she was trying to get us to find. Re-reading it now that I'm older and wiser, I've pushed my own way, and have arrived at an interpretation I'm happy with.

Although on the first lines of the poem... I'm stumped. What to make of "still unravish'd bride" and "foster-child", two familial bonds ("bride" and "child") given an unconventional twist? The urn is pure and unbroken (although it could break), and it has been adopted by "silence" (though wasn't always so). A very ponderable opener, I think. Well done, Mr. Keats!

The rest of the stanza is dominated by the word "what". The poet is looking for answers, and it looks like the urn is unforthcoming. Instead it teases endlessly. It is full of movement, energy, life: "pursuit", "escape", "mad", "wild". The pictures burst out of their borders, and a sweet and flowery tale is played to the poet's mind and imagination. All very well, but no answers.

Stanza two seems to have a thing for the words "not", "no", "nor" and "never". A pretty sad stanza, it would appear. There is no resolution to these scenes. It's all tension. But there is a perfection in such stasis. "Never" becomes "for ever". Love and beauty will eternally be encapsulated in the pictures painted on this urn.

"Happy" seems to be the winning word in stanza three. Eternal perfection is a joyous thing, is it not? But again, the last lines flip the script. All this enthusiasm has made the poet hot, sweaty, thirsty, uncomfortable. Not perfect. He is in the real world. And the real world sucks.

Not that the worlds evoked in art are always cozy. The whos, the whats and the whys return in stanza four, and here "mysterious" sounds sinister, and there's an air of oppression to "lowing at the skies". The town is "desolate", and no eye-witness can return to our own day to tell us why. Woe can be just as eternal as love.

The last stanza is full of mixed feelings: we have "branches" and we have "trodden weed". The word "attic" suggests irrelevance as well as age, the word "cold" implies aloofness -- an unfeeling attitude. The urn defies meditation and easy judgements. The whos, the whats and the whys cannot arrive at any truth. History is no friend of man, the poet finds only woe in it. Rather: "beauty is truth". Politics, religion, health, money, reality is unimportant. ART is the only truth we can be sure about, and the only one we really need.

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