By Jacqueline Schaalje
Did you know that one of the most revered* poets in the English language died when he was only 25? And this was way before the time when famous singers and rockers became immortal (= live forever) when they died of drug overdoses.
The poet I’m talking about is John Keats (1795–1821). He had the bad luck to contract tuberculosis, which at that time was often fatal. His mother and uncle died of the same nasty disease. This was after his father died as the result of a horse riding accident.
John Keats, a lively boy who loved fighting but was well loved by his friends, became an orphan (= without parents) at the age of 14.
His grandma took in the future poet, who read voraciously and won one essay contest after another at school. However she lost a great part of her money to a crook.
After he finished school, Keats studied as a surgeon. At the time, this profession was a safe bet; a surgeon was a kind of doctor who didn’t need to finish a degree, as he was in charge of dressing wounds, setting bones and other straightforward (= uncomplicated) procedures.
Bored with the medical profession, Keats read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which opened his eyes to the world of fairy tale and splendid verse. Soon he was writing poetry.
The main theme in his poetry is the relation between the “beautiful” world of art, and suffering, of which Keats knew a thing or two, as you can understand from the above short biography.
I have to add here that art in the time wherein Keats lived had as its object to render true and beautiful representations of life. Not human suffering or emotions were its subject.
This only changed with the Romantic Period, to which Keats can be counted. In our own, post-modern times, we can only see plenty of suffering and subjective feelings in paintings, poems and books, but when Keats lived this was something new.
The underneath poem, the Ode on a Grecian Urn from 1819 is one of Keats’ most famous poems. It is an amazing poem both for some beautiful language, vivid (= lively) images and its intellectual depth (= it’s deep).
Before we start reading let’s just explain two things:
1. What’s an urn?
An urn is a sort of vase. See picture. It can be used to hold flowers, or be placed in a garden. But most likely you will know this word as a container that holds ashes of a dead person after he has been cremated (= burnt).
Whilst you’re reading Keats’ poem, have a think what kind of use Keats has in mind for the urn. The urns that were made in classical times, by the Greeks and Romans, had decorations on them of figures dancing, playing sports, fighting, and even having sex. The figures on the urns could be humans or gods.
The Portland Vase (from the Roman Period) in the British Museum
2. What’s an ode?
This is a classical kind of poem that was originally meant to be sung. The ancient Greeks used to sing their odes.
The ode can have various (= different) structures: it can be long or short, the stanzas can be regular or irregular. The subject of an ode is something that is loved; and something serious that invites thought.
Odes aren’t usually comical, although of course if a poet wants to make fun of odes there are plenty of examples of it. This is one of them: To a Mouse by Robert Burns. Or try this hilarious Ode to the Alarm Clock.
Enough said. Let’s read the poem.
Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819)
|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-fringed legend haunts about thy shape||5|
|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?||10|
|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||15|
|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!||20|
|Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed|
|Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;|
|And, happy melodist, unwearièd,|
|For ever piping songs for ever new;|
|More happy love! more happy, happy love!||25|
|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.||30|
|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,||35|
|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.||40|
|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!||45|
|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.’||50|
Okay, ready to talk about each line?
The Poem Line for Line
Let’s analyse this thing! Here we go:
On a Grecian Urn means to or about a Greek urn. The urn is addressed (= talked to). Talking to a thing is a thing that poets do in odes. (You will see that In this ode, the poet also addresses the things he sees on the urn.)
|Line 1: THOU still unravish’d bride of quietness,
The urn is the virgin (“unravished” means she has not been touched) bride of quietness. A bride is a woman who gets married. In this case the vase is the bride of quiet.
|Line 2: Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
The urn is also the foster-child (= not a biological child but one that is taken care of by someone else than its parent) of Silence and Time. Usually time is fast, but here not, because we are talking about an urn which is not alive, so time passes slowly for it.
|Line 3 & 4: Sylvan historian, who canst thus express|
|A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
Sylvan (or sylvian) means of the woods. The word has a pleasant, peaceful connotation. So sylvan historian means the maker of the urn who presents a pleasant scene in the woods. Maybe one such as this:
Canst is an old-fashioned form of can.
|Line 5: What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
What legend (= old story) framed with leaves can be found around your shape (= the urn).
|Line 6: Of deities or mortals, or of both,
Deities are gods, and mortals are humans (mortal comes from the French mort = dead.)
|Line 7: In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
Tempe is a valley in Greece. A dale is also a valley. Arcady is a region in Greece that is associated with a peaceful and simple country life.
| Line 8: What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
A maiden is an old word for girl. Loth means not willing (the girls don’t want to). What don’t the girls want? Well, probably to be kissed or more than that.
|Line 9: What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
Mad pursuit may refer to a classic scene where fauns who are always horny pursue (pursuit is the noun, and pursue means chase) the girls or nymphs. The nymphs/girls then struggle (fight) to escape the men’s grabbing arms.
|Line 10: What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Pipes are flutes. A timbrel is an ancient tambourine.
The music is played and the people or gods in the picture are going wild. They’re ecstatic. They’re probably dancing wildly. You get the idea.
|Line 11: Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard|
|Line 12: Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
This stanza speaks of things that are not in the scene on the urn. When we look at the urn, we might hear music in our imagination, but that music isn’t really there. The speaker of the poem draws our attention to this, and he says the music that you can’t actually hear, that imaginary music, is actually better than real music. Quite an interesting statement to make. Do you agree with the poet?
|Line 13: Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
The pipes (= flutes) in the picture on the urn play not to our physical (“sensual”) ears, but to the ears of our imagination. And these are better loved (“more endear’d), or at least the speaker of the poem thinks so, than our real ears.
|Line 14: Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
A ditty is a simple song. The flutes are asked to play with the songs, but they are spirit songs = sung by ghosts. The songs don’t exist either; they have no tone, as they exist only in the imagination of the person who is looking at the urn. But hey, wait, even the urn itself doesn’t actually exist, as it exists only in the mind of the poet. After all, the poet didn’t refer us to an existing urn. He never said: “Please go to the British Museum and have a look at the famous Apollo urn.” Or whatever other famous pot. In fact, we have no idea which urn Keats is talking about. Even the urn is in the imagination.
|Line 15: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave|
|Line 16: Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
These lines and the ones until the end of the stanza teach us another aspect of art. Visual art captures only one moment, and makes it eternal. The youth are always under the trees. Fair means beautiful. The people are in the scene are always hearing the same song. The trees will never lose their leaves.
|Line 17: Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
The lover will never get the kiss he is waiting for.
|Line 18: Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
But the lover still has won a few points. He doesn’t need to be sad.
|Line 19: She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
The woman he wants will not fade = she will not grow ugly and old. On the other hand, he will never be happy,
|Line 20: For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
His love will be forever, and she will forever be beautiful.
|Line 21: Ah, happy happy boughs! that cannot shed|
|Line 22: Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
Boughs are branches of a tree. The branches will never lose (“shed”) their leaves. We knew that already. They never bid the Spring adieu = they never say goodbye to spring. It’s always spring.
|Line 23: And, happy melodist, unwearièd,|
|Line 24: For ever piping songs for ever new;
The happy musician, unwearied (= not tired), is forever playing his flute songs that are also forever new.
|Line 25: More happy love! more happy, happy love!|
|Line 26: For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
The word “happy” is overused a little bit in these lines, don’t you think? Does the poet really think that the creatures on the urn are happy? What do you think? I’m beginning to doubt it.
Anyway, everything looks good. The love is forever warm and fresh, on the point of being enjoyed.
|Line 27: For ever panting, and for ever young;
The lovers are forever young and out of breath with excitement.
|Line 28: All breathing human passion far above,
The lovers are “above” human passion, which means they are at a distance from it; they’re at a better place.
|Line 29: That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
Human passion makes you worried and tired (cloy means wear out because something is too sticky, too heavy, or too sweet).
|Line 30: A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Passion can make you feel ill, as if you have a fever, with your forehead burning, and your tongue sticking in your mouth (“parching” means dried out/very thirsty).
So what have we been reading so far?
Let’s stop to try to understand Stanza 3.
This stanza develops the thought from stanza 2 that nothing can change in the world of the picture on the urn. It gives some more examples of that.
Then it stresses the idea that as little as human passion is not a part of the scene on the urn, neither is human suffering “all breathing human passion far above.” Passion and suffering go together, is the idea here, and art is clean of that. Or at least the conventional art in Keats’ time was.
Suffering and/in Art
As I’ve remarked above, before we started reading the poem, today we have plenty of paintings and poems full with suffering. But probably that wasn’t what Keats was looking for in his own art. He was looking for a way to say something meaningful about how art could talk about life and how art can help us tolerate suffering.
Stanza 4: Time for a change of scene.
We’re now looking at another picture on the urn.
Line 31: Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
Some people are coming to a sacrifice = event of animal burning as offer to the gods.
|Line 32: To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Altar = the high place where offerings are made to the gods.
|Line 33: Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
The priest is leading a young cow (“heifer) to be sacrificed. The cow is lowing = mooing.
|Line 34: And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
Drest = dressed. The cow’s legs (“flanks”) are decorated with flower chains.
|Line 35: What little town by river or sea-shore,|
|Line 36: Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
A citadel is a fort. The people in the scene on the urn are imagined to be from a little town.
| Line 37: Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
Is empty of people, on this morning of worship. Morn = morning. Pious means believing, worshipping.
|Line 38: And, little town, thy streets for evermore|
|Line 39: Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell|
|Line 40: Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
The people in the scene are on their way to the sacrifice, so their town will forever be empty and silent. No one (“not a soul”) will ever come back to explain what the reason is the town is empty.
The “you” (thou) is the town here.
Again it’s an example of how the scene on the urn is frozen in time, and is devoid (= empty) of humanity and life.
|Line 41: O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede|
|Line 42: Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
Attic means from Athens, the capital of Greece. “Brede” is an interwoven pattern, like a braid but here it’s in marble. The urn is decorated with marble men and women
|Line 43: With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Amongst green trees and plants under their feet.
|Line 44: Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
Thou = you. The poet is talking to the urn again. The quiet urn which doesn’t speak challenges our thoughts
|Line 45: As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
As much as eternity = endless time. Pastoral = the sweet, peaceful country life.
The speaker calls the scene on the urn cold and not sweet, so cold pastoral is a paradox.
We’ve already discussed why the scene is cold. No real passion is going on; the scenes on the urn are frozen. But they may look sweet and attractive.
|Line 46: When old age shall this generation waste,
When people who live now will grow old and die,
|Line 47: Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
You (the urn) will stay, in the middle of all kinds of trouble
|Line 48: Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
That is not ours. You’ll be a friend to man, to whom you will say:
|Line 49: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all|
|Line 50: Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Where Should the Quotation Marks Be?
There is a problem here. We don’t know where Keats intended to have the quotation marks placed. There are two editions without quotation marks. In a version I have at home the quotation marks are only around “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
The rest of the closing lines may be said by the speaker of the poem.
But I must say that quotation marks around the whole last lines seem more logical. The speaker wouldn’t say “That is all you know on earth,” as if he himself weren’t a human being who lives on earth. So more likely this is said by the urn.
What We Learnt from the Urn
Well, what did we learn from our analysis of the urn’s wisdom? Not much, in my case. After I finish reading this poem I feel that I am as baffled (= confused) by its meaning as I would have been if I were looking at the Grecian urn itself.
It’s clear to me that the ode tries to answer the question why we need art. It’s a great exploration of this question.
But I don’t feel there is a clear answer. The urn is a “friend of man,” because it is always with us, and it gives us pleasure and beauty when we watch it.
But why it is important to us, or how beauty can be truth and truth beauty, sorry, wasn’t clear to me. I certainly don’t know how to answer that question just by reading the poem.
If you have some ideas about this, I’d be happy to read your comments.
Hope you enjoyed reading this!
Want to read more?
This article is an insightful review of Keats’ work and life.