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Behold the stillness of a moment captured forever on a Grecian urn, as John Keats unravels the mysteries of life and death through his immortal words. With each stanza, he invites us to ponder the complexities of existence and the fleeting nature of human experience. 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' (1819) is one of John Keats's 'Great Odes of 1819'. But what is it exactly that makes it so great? Let's take a close look at the historical and literary context behind this famous poem, before analysing its form and structure.
Below is a summary of the characteristics of Keats' poem.
|'Ode on a Grecian Urn' Summary and Analysis|
|Rhyme Scheme||ABAB CDE DCE|
|Poetic Devices||Enjambment, assonance, and alliteration|
|Theme||The contrast between immortality and mortality, the pursuit of love, desires and fufillment|
|Analysis||The poem is an exploration of the nature of art and its relationship to human experience. It is an exploration of mortality and the transience of life.|
John Keats did not live long, but the two historical contexts to be considered when reading this poem are Greek history and Keats' own personal life.
Urns were used to store the ashes of the dead. From the title, Keats introduces the theme of mortality as the urn is a tangible symbol of death. Tales of great Greek heroes were often inscribed on pottery, with images detailing their adventures and bravery.
In a letter to Fanny Brawne (his fiancée), dated February 1820, Keats said 'I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory.'
How do you think Keats' view of his own life influenced his view of the figures on the Grecian urn?
A specific urn is not described, but we know that Keats did see urns in real life at the British Museum prior to writing the poem.
In the poem 'On Seeing the Elgin Marbles', Keats shares his feelings after seeing the Elgin Marbles (now known as the Parthenon Marbles). Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He brought several Greek antiques to London. The private collection was then sold to the government in 1816 and displayed in the British Museum.
Keats describes the mingling of 'Grecian grandeur with the rude / Wasting of old time' in On Seeing the Elgin Marbles. How can this statement shape our reading of 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'? How does it help us understand his sentiment?
Keats was dying from tuberculosis. He had witnessed his youngest brother die from the ailment earlier in 1819, at only 19 years old. At the time of writing 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', he was aware that he also had the disease and his health was rapidly deteriorating.
He had studied medicine, before dropping it to focus on poetry, so he recognised the symptoms of tuberculosis. He died from the illness just two years later, in 1821.
How can a modern reading of Ode on a Grecian Urn be shaped through the lens of the recent Covid-19 pandemic? With our first-hand experience of a pandemic, how can we relate to the circumstances Keats was living through? Think back to the beginning of the pandemic when there was no vaccine: how did public sentiment mirror the sentiment of inevitability and hopelessness Keats felt and expressed?
Keats was introduced to the theme of mortality early on in his life, when his mother died from tuberculosis when he was 14 years old. His father had died in an accident when Keats was 9 and so he was left orphaned.
'Ode on a Grecian Urn' was written during the Romantic era and as such falls under the literary tradition of Romanticism.
Romanticism was a literary movement that peaked during the 18th century. The movement was very idealistic and concerned with art, beauty, emotions, and the imagination. It started in Europe as a reaction to the 'Age of Enlightenment', which had valued logic and reason. Romanticism rebelled against this, and instead celebrated love and glorified nature and the sublime.
Beauty, art, and love are the main themes of Romanticism - these were seen as the most important things in life.
There were two waves of Romanticism. The first wave included poets such as William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Keats was part of the second wave of Romantic writers; Lord Byron and his friend Percy Shelley are two other notable romantics.
Below is the full poem of 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.
Let's delve into a deeper analysis of 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.
The poem is an ode.
An ode is a style of poem that glorifies its subject. The poetic form originated in ancient Greece, which makes it a fitting choice for 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. These lyric poems were originally accompanied by music.
'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is written in iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is a rhythm of verse where each line has ten syllables. The syllables alternate between an unstressed syallable followed by a stressed one.
Iambic pentameter mimics the natural flow of speech. Keats uses it here to mimic the natural flow of conscious thought - we are taken into the poet's mind and hear his thoughts in real time as he observes the urn.
'Ode on a Grecian Urn' has no fixed tone, a stylistic choice made by Keats. The tone is ever-changing, from admiration of the urn to despair at reality. This dichotomy between admiration of art and the gravity of Keats' thoughts on mortality is summarised at the end of the poem:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know
Beauty represents Keats' admiration of the urn. Truth represents reality. Equating truth and beauty with each other in the conclusion of his discussion of the two is an admission of defeat from Keats.
The entirety of the poem presents Keats' struggle between the two concepts, and this statement represents the end of that struggle. Keats accepts that there are some things he does not 'need to know'. It is not a resolution of the struggle between art and reality, but an acceptance that there will never be one. Art will continue to defy death.
Let's take a look at the literary techniques used by Keats in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'.
First, let us look at the symbolism of the urn itself. Amongst the Elgin Marbles which inspired the poem, there were many different types of marble, sculptures, vases, statues, and friezes. So it is significant that Keats chose an urn as the subject of the poem.
An urn contains death (in the form of ashes of the deceased) and on its outer surface, it defies death (with its depiction of people and events immortalised forever). The choice to write about an urn introduces us to the poem's principal theme of mortality and immortality.
Keats uses alliteration to mimic an echo, as the urn is nothing but an echo of the past. An echo is not an original sound, just a remnant of what once was. The use of assonance in the words 'trodden weed' and 'tease' adds to this echoing effect.
Alliteration is a literary device featuring the repetition of similar sounds or letters in a phrase.
An example of this is 'she sang softly and sweetly' OR 'he crudely crammed the crumbly croissant into his mouth'
Assonance is a literary device similar to alliteration. It also features repeated similar sounds, but here the emphasis is on vowel sounds - in particular, stressed vowel sounds.
An example of this is 'time to cry.'
Keats asks many questions throughout the poem. The frequent question marks which punctuate 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' are used to break up the flow of the poem. When analysed for its use of iambic pentameter (which is used to make the poem feel like a stream of thought as Keats observes the urn), the questions he asks are representative of his grappling with mortality. This hinders his enjoyment of the art on the urn.
Contextually, we can see how Keats' own questions about the longevity of his life affect his appreciation of the Romantic ideals the urn represents. These ideals of love and beauty are explored through the image of the 'bold lover' and his partner. In a mocking tone Keats writes:
though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love
Keats thinks the only reason the couple will love 'for ever' is because they are suspended in time. Yet he thinks their love is not real love, for they are unable to act on it and consummate it. They do not have their bliss.
Keats uses enjambment to show the passing of time.
The way the sentence runs on from 'those unheard' to 'are sweeter' suggests a fluidity that transcends the structures of the lines. In the same way, the pipe player on the urn transcends the structure and confines of time.
Enjambment is when the idea or thought continues past the end of the line into the following line.
The repetition of the word 'happy' describing the art on the urn emphasises the desire Keats has to live forever. At this time in his life Keats was decidedly unhappy and his poetic art was his only escape. He envies the 'happy melodist' who gets to create his art forever, 'unwearied' by the burdens of reality.
The main themes for 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' are the passage of time, desire and fulfilment, and transience and impermanence.
The theme of pining for love was also seen in Keats' personal life. Shortly after writing this poem, Keats wrote his first love letter to Fanny Brawne, his fiancée. He grew increasingly obsessed with her, and his love for her was exacerbated by the belief that he was suffering from syphilis. He was haunted by the fact he'd never have his 'bliss' with her. 1
In the above quote, Keats cannot distinguish between men and gods. Metaphorically speaking, men are symbolic of mortality and gods are symbolic of immortality. Here the men and gods alike are unified in their pursuit of the maidens, representing love. The point Keats is making is that whether you live forever, or you live for a finite time, it is all the same.
The gods are just as concerned with love as the humans are. For both of them, it is a 'mad pursuit'. This fits the Romantic ideal that love is what makes life worth living. It is immaterial whether Keats will transcend time like the gods on the urn or whether he will live a short life. However long his life is, it will have no meaning if he can't have love.
This analysis is supported by the fact that Keats saw Greek and Roman mythology as allegories and metaphors for the human condition, not as literal belief systems.1
'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is a poem written by John Keats in 1819.
'Ode on a Grecian Urn' ponders mortality and the pursuit of love.
Keats writes in iambic pentameter with an ABAB CDE DCE rhyme scheme.
Keats wrote 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' after seeing the Elgin Marbles. He was inspired by feelings regarding his mortality.
Keats was a part of the second wave of Romantic poets, and 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is a famous example of Romantic literature.
1. Lucasta Miller, Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph, 2021.
The main theme of Ode on a Grecian Urn is mortality.
Keats wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn to express his thoughts on his own mortality.
Ode to a Grecian Urn is an ode.
Ode on a Grecian Urn is about human mortality. The death an urn symbolises is contrasted with the permance and immortality of the art inscribed on it.
Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in 1819, after Keats had seen the exhibition of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.
Which literary tradition was Keats a part of?
The Romantic period.
Which wave of Romanticism did Keats belong to?
Which collection of Greek antiques inspired Keats' writing?
Which illness was Keats dying from?
What is iambic pentameter?
A type of verse where each line has ten syllables. The syllables alternate between an unstressed syallable followed by a stressed one.
What is the effect of iambic pentameter in Ode on a Grecian Urn?
It mimics the flow of the internal dialogue in Keats' head.
What is the effect of the alliteration in "Oh attic shape! Fair attitude!" ?
It mimics an echo to show that the urn an echo of the past.
What is the effect of the many questions Keats asks?
The questions break up the flow of the poem created by the iambic pentameter. They show how Keats' fear of mortality hinders him from appreciating the art.
What was the name of Keats' lover?
Why did Keats discuss the pursuit of love so much?
Aside from being a common theme during the Romantic era, Keats was infatuated with his fiancée Fanny Brawne. He pined after her because he could not be intimate with her because he feared he had syphillis.
What is the effect of the enjambment used in Ode on a Grecian Urn ?
It mimics how art transcends time.
What are urns used for?
To store the dead.
What is the symbolism of the urn?
It both contains death and defies it. Urns contain ashes and remains of those who have died, yet on their outer surface, the characters shown live forever and will never die.
What is the tone of the poem?
There is no fixed tone. This is because Keats thoughts are in a state of flux
What is an ode?
An ode is a style of poem that glorifies its subject.
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