The Romantic Movement came to prominence towards the end of the 18th Century; the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats reacted against the more socially committed poetry of the Augustan age, also known as the ‘Age of Reason’. They insisted that poetry ought to be personal and about one’s emotions, and indeed Wordsworth famously described poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Romantic poetry was all about nature, emotions, imagination, inspiration and freedom – all of which would have made the Augustans uneasy.
‘Ode On a Grecian Urn’ is one of John Keats’ many odes, the most famous being ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Many of Keats’ poems, particularly his odes, focus on the transience of human-life, and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is no exception. This was such a common topic of his largely because he witnessed the death of his younger brother from Tuberculosis, and also contracted the disease later on. It was as if death encompassed his life, and so the fragility of humanity became a recurring feature of his poetry. ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is in varied iambic pentameter, with ten lines per stanza. Throughout the poem the speaker, presumably Keats, is standing before and addressing a Grecian urn, questioning the pictures it displays.
Keats begins his poem with the famous lines: ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness/ Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.’ Keats is highlighting the fact that, even though the urn is ancient and has experienced thousands of years, it exists outside time in the human sense – it does not age or die. This idea is continued by the use of the word ‘historian’, which shows Keats’ interest in the urn’s story, and also its age. We must remember that Keats was particularly interested in Greek mythology and Classical literature (due to its magical and timeless ideas), and so being presented with a Grecian urn would have fascinated him. He implies that the urn, has been around so long that it has hundreds of stories to tell. As he is detached from the time of the painting, he wonders at the pictures on the urn, which depict a group of men and women in ‘mad pursuit’. Keats employs a number of questions that he addresses to the urn, which accentuate his pure wonder and engagement with the static art form – it also highlights the silence and immutability of the urn, and its inability to tell him more. This stanza, therefore, ends rather abruptly with no reply, making his questions seem almost rhetorical and frustrated.
In the first three stanzas Keats is keen to highlight the beauty of the urn and its pictures. He describes its pattern as a ‘leaf-fringed legend’, and says that the urn ‘canst thus express/A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme…’ He explains that a silent tale is far more beautiful simply because the narrator will remain ‘unwearied’, and will be ‘forever piping songs forever new’. This idea is then repeated by Keats’ saying: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ He explains that the ‘ditties’ of the urn’s depiction are far sweeter than any played by pipes, even though they cannot be heard. Again this underlines the theme of transience, and he believes that a melody in one’s spirit will last forever, whereas a melody heard by a ‘sensual ear’ will not. The urn is satisfying his spirit and imagination, and not just his senses. This is a typical theme of Romantic poetry, and imagination is key to Keats’ odes; he focused on the idea of being led away from reality (which he did not particularly enjoy), and this is precisely what the urn is doing to him.
The second stanza sees the introduction and examination of a new painting: two lovers sitting beneath a tree. Again, Keats emphasizes that those in the painting are transcendent and unaffected by time, and he writes ‘nor ever can those trees be bare’. Keats is then confronted with a rather strange paradox, in that the lovers are free from time, but are also frozen in time, so that they cannot experience things, and Keats emphasizes this by writing: ‘never, never canst thou kiss’. However, on further consideration Keats comes to the conclusion that this is a good thing (‘yet, do not grieve;’), and that because they are unaffected by time the girl ‘cannot fade’ and he adds that both she and their love will forever be fair. Again Keats is focusing on the unfortunate transience of humanity, and this is possibly a reference to his lover, Fanny Brawne, whom he was forced to leave when he contracted Tuberculosis. Keats was engaged to Fanny at the time of his death, and in his love sonnet ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art’ he expresses his wish to ‘live ever’ in Fanny’s ‘ripening breast’. In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ Keats is expressing his distress that human life and love cannot be eternal, like the images on the urn.
The third stanza focuses on the transience and short-life of human passion. He employs the words ‘unwearied’ and ‘new’ to emphasize that the love of the images is eternal, and we infer this again from the repetition of the word ‘forever’. This contrasts with the lines about human love, which is introduced by ‘All breathing human passion far above’. This juxtaposition is used to stress the imperfection of human passion and sex, that ‘leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed’, and as it is so brief it leaves ‘a burning forehead, and a parching tongue’. Keats is showing his wonder and envy of those youths in the painting, who are able to have love that is ‘forever warm’ and ‘forever panting’. He is jealous that he and Fanny could not experience this same love, but in stead had to part from one another. However, he is also appreciating the beauty of the urn’s eternal life, and this is suggested by his repeated use of the word ‘happy’. Nonetheless, this is particularly overshadowed by Keats’ experience of unfulfilled desire.
The fourth stanza sees Keats examining a new image, one of a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. The stanza begins with a question, which again implies the tone to be one of wonder and curiosity, and the employment of the word ‘mysterious’ supports this. Keats’ use of pastoral language (such as ‘sea shore’ or ‘lowing at the skies’) here is a theme very common to the Romantics, who found most of their inspiration through nature, and it gives the reader a slight sense of realism. Keats looks at the stanza as if the villagers are experiencing time, and he asks the villagers where they are coming from, and where they are going. This sees the introduction of another interesting paradox: as they are frozen in time, they are unable to return to their village, which presumably will remain empty (‘thy streets for evermore/Will silent be’). Keats then realizes that they are unable to return (‘not a soul to tell/…can e’er return’) and at this point he reaches the limit of static art, and asks no more questions. He recognises that the villagers, although free from time, are also frozen in time, and can therefore experience nothing.
In the last stanza Keats contemplates what he has seen and what he has learnt from it. He suddenly grows excited again, and indeed his repeated exclamations (‘O Attic shape! Fair attitude!’) underline his wonder, a central theme of the ode. He seems to be angry at the urn for being ‘overwrought’ (complicated) and crowded with ‘forest branches’ and ‘trodden weed’, which seem to be encompassing both the poem and the urn. He then addresses the urn saying that it is so mysterious that it ‘dost tease us out of thought’, emphasizing his wonder, and he then compares this to eternity, which is also extremely hard to understand. This juxtaposition and contrast has been set up throughout the poem, with constant references to ‘forever’.
The next exclamation ‘Cold Pastoral!’ is considered the crux of the poem, and it throws the reader completely off. Pastoral scenes are usually deemed to be warm and homely, and so to juxtapose the word with ‘Cold’ is a direct oxymoron. Keats intends to show the reader his turbulent and unsettled thoughts by employing this oxymoron. Perhaps he finds the pictures on the urn comforting and warm (‘Pastoral’) but is also envious (‘Cold’) and feels ‘teased’ – as he says before – by its distance from reality and its perfection. This could also be a rejection of the urn’s temptation, and he is perhaps realising that it is better to have experienced and then to have lost, rather than not to have experienced at all. Perhaps while writing this he is thinking fondly of his experiences with Fanny Brawne, rather than regretting them.
However, this contradicts the majority of the poem’s message, and so it seems as if Keats is more perplexed at the end than he was at the beginning. The imagery of the sacrifice in stanza four perhaps suggests that Keats understands that humanity must make a sacrifice; we must either give up our immortality, or we must give up our chance of experience, and it seems as if Keats himself has not yet come to a decision, but due to his Negative Capability, he is able to simply accept his doubt.
The urn is described by Keats as ‘a friend to man’ that will give its advice to new generations. The final two lines of Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ are two of the most complicated in the entirety of the Keats canon. Perhaps this final line is Keats’ way of saying that we don’t need to know the truth, but that beauty is the only absolutely necessary idea. It could also be a way of admitting the urn’s superiority: it tangled and teased Keats’ thoughts, making Keats unable to discover its truth. However, the urn’s beauty was enough for him, and so he accepted it.
Keats’ lexical choice, particularly regarding both his Classical (‘legend’ and ‘Attic’) and pastoral (‘flowery’ and ‘mountain-built’) language, is very typical of the Romantic style. Also, Keats’ use of archaic diction (such as ‘adieu’ and ‘lead’st’) is very common amongst the other Romantic poets because of its timelessness. Furthermore, Keats’ repeated juxtaposition and contrast of the human senses and the human spirit is characteristic of Romantic poetry, particularly because both the senses, and also the imagination, were central themes of the Romantic period.
However, it is undeniable that the main theme of the poem is transience, and indeed the ‘Big Six’ often focused their poems on this concept, and often contemplated on the idea of eternity and immortality. It is also possible that Keats was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Plato, and that the notion of escaping reality either through music or art could be a direct reference to leaving the world of appearances, and entering the world of the forms. Keats, particularly displayed by his last two lines, was the most radical of the Romantics, and was considered by some as a wild-eyed liberal. Overall, Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is not only typically Romantic, but is perhaps the sum of all the Romantic concepts and contemplations, and therefore the apotheosis of Romanticism.