“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
By: John Keats
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 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.
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 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.”
There have been many disputes throughout history as to the meaning of those two lines, and it seems that only the poet himself was able to fully comprehend their meaning. This is obviously a way in which Keats was able to leave a sense of hope for the reader, however this hope must be acted upon by the reader. The solution is neither easily accessible or completely able to be put into practice.
Everything about the urn is immortal, but everything within the persona’s life is not, and it’s a balance between the flux of human experience
and the fixity of art,
Keats describes his reaction to a Grecian urn painted with images of maidens, pipers and other Greeks. While the melody of modern day pipes may be sweet, Keats finds the painted pipes sweeter. They are not mere sensual pleasure, but guide one to a higher sense of ideal beauty. The other images have a similar effect, as they are frozen forever at the moment of highest perfection.
One part of the urn shows a youth about to kiss a maid. Keats envies the lover, for though he will never actually kiss his love, she will ever remain fair and they will forever be in love. The painted trees will also forever be perfect, never losing their leaves. When Keats’ world passes away, this beautiful object will still remain and tell man that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
Keats articulates a common Romantic belief that beauty is the path to truth–to higher knowledge and the proper basis of democratic society. The urn, like other art (including the poet’s), functions to remind man of this basic truth, urging him to establish the most just of social realities.
The poem also captures a delicate sense of balance between pleasure and pain. The youth is caught, for instance, between the painful anxiety preceding his kiss and the pleasure of the kiss itself. The trees are at their peak, on the border of Fall and their death. It is this moment, between pleasure and pain, death and life, that was most treasured by the Romantic poets.