Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats: Summary and Analysis

Ode on a Grecian Urn is an ode in which the speaker addresses to an engraved urn and expresses his feelings and ideas about the experience of an imagined world of art, in contrast to the reality of life, change and suffering. As an ode, it also has the unique features that Keats himself established in his great odes.

John Keats (1795-1821)

The features of Keatsian Romanticism and Keats’ philosophy of art, beauty and truth are also important in this poem. Though it is a romantic poem, we find the unusual classical interests of Keats in the style and form of this poem. This is a romantic poem mainly because of its dominant imaginative quality.

Like Wordsworth’s nature, Keats' imagination is a means to understand life, a means of the quest for truth and beauty, and the most reliable mode of experience and insight. The speaker in the poem begins with reality- an ancient marble urn with engravings around it. He addresses to the urn as a virgin bride of quietness. Time is slow for it. It is unchanging, perfect and silent. The carving around the urn is expressing the story of the pilgrims, lovers and other mysterious people recorded in times of gods and men on its outside. In the poet's imagination, this world and people are made immortal and beautiful by art.

The Ode on a Grecian Urn expresses Keats's desire to belong to the realm of the eternal, the permanent, perfect and the pleasurable, by establishing the means to approach that world of his wish with the help of imagination. This ode is based on the tension between the 'ideal' and the 'real'. Keats here idealizes a work of art as symbolizing the world of art which represents the ideal world of his wish at an even deeper level. Then he experiences that world thus created through imagination. In this poem, the two domains of the transient real and the permanent ideal are the two facets of a deeper reality, the reality of imaginative experience. The perfect, permanent and pleasurable world of the Urn, or that of the ideal, stands against the destructive corrupting and painful effects of time. Keats’ fascination with the immortality of art is duly counterbalanced with his awareness that it is lifeless. He neither supports gross realism against truly imaginative art, nor does he wander in imagination alone. Life compensates for the incompleteness of art and art compensates for the transience of life.

This ode which represents Keats mature vision consists of one of his central philosophical doctrines of art itself: "Truth is Beauty and beauty truth". This famous maxim of Keats has an intellectual basis of truth and also an emotional basis in beauty. Art may appeal to the sensuousness or just the emotion of common people, but Keats' response extends from the sensuous to the spiritual and from the passionate to the intellectual. Keats establishes a balance between the real and the ideal, and art and life, and he finds the deepest of reality in its balance. This ode gives a much importance to passion as to the idea of permanence. It is not a lyric of the escape of a dying young man, unwilling to face bitter life into the realm of everlasting happiness, but is a poem that embodies his mature understanding.

Keats indicates a contrast between the unchanging 'Urn' and temporal life in the very beginning of the poem, but shifting to the other side from where he seems to prefer warm life against the 'Cold Pastoral' where he finally resolves the duality in his doctrine of beauty and truth. The Ode begins with an apostrophe to the urn: "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness, / Thou foster child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian". Keats addresses the urn as a bride of quietness that is still unravished by time. That reminds us of life that is ever ravished by time. The urn narrates its history in a silent but musical form. The silent music which Keats, the addressee, feels he can hear is sweeter than the music of the human voice for it is permanent. Unlike the temporal presentation of poetry which is prone to narrate the histories of human being, the urn narrates a 'leaf-fringed legend' as if it were in space rather than in time. The narration of the urn is itself liberated from time.

The worlds of reality and of imagination (or the real and the ideal) are explicitly contrasted in this ode. But the permanence of art created out of imagination is a complement to the temporary aspect of life. The creation of art and its realization in the contemplation of a higher reality is a complement to the tragic awareness of temporal and painful life. Even the realities are of two kinds: the reality of life or the objective reality and the reality of art or the world of imagination. On the one hand, the lover in the world of the urn can never kiss his beloved as one can in real life. But on the other hand, the lover on the urn has the privilege that the beauty of his beloved can never fade away – as it happens in real life. This is why the poet is seeking for the reality of life to be like that of the ideal art. The urn's immunity to the time could not be an absolute ideal without the consummation of love. But the temporary satisfaction in life only intensifies the awareness of transience by consummation itself. The act of imaginative experience can bring together the unheard into a lasting melody. The poet who is emotionally involved with the picture of passion also has the unifying vision that reconciles the real with the ideal by idealizing the real.

In short, the permanently ideal world of the urn is presented in the urn that is lifeless thing when seen from the viewpoint of real life. But the idea that comes under the domain of imaginative reality is reconciled in the act of imaginative creation of the urn’s legend. Therefore, the real life is complemented and enriched by this ideal. Thus, the two domains of the real and the ideal coming into conflict as usual, ultimately reconcile to make a more permanent truth as asserted in the 'truth and beauty' maxim. To sum up, in this ode, Keats begins by idealizing, personifying, and immortalizing a real object. This ideal at first clashes with the real but is reconciled by imagination and insight at the end. The poem begins with an address to the Grecian urn and with almost envious amazement, but it ends with the realization that beauty or ideal is also a dimension of the truth of the real; the beauty of imaginative experience is a part of reality or truth and the knowledge of all truth is beautiful.

In the Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats tries to state that neither the beauty of nature nor the beauty of art can console us for the miseries of life. The life of the figures on the urn possesses the beauty; the significance, and the externality of art; and this, in the third stanza explicitly, and throughout the poem implicitly, is contrasted with the transitory-ness, the meaninglessness, and the unpoetic nature of actual life.

The Ode is constructed pictorially in spatial blocks, for the eyes to take in serially. Keats had a genius for drawing vivid and concrete pictures mostly with a sensuous appeal. The whole of this poem is remarkable for its pictorial effects. The passion of men and gods, and the reluctance of maidens to be caught or seized is beautifully depicted.

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Sharma, K.N. "Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/ode-on-a-grecian-urn.html.