John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

John Keats wrote one of his most famous poems, Ode on a Grecian Urn, in 1819, in the period of Romanticism. During his life, Keats never had a chance to experience respect and admiration of his work. He lived only a quarter of a century, and his contemporaries failed to recognise the outstanding talent of a young poet with middle-class origin. Keats did not leave much literary legacy, but even the small number of odes and poems written by him allows critics to contemplate on what superb fame he could have received if he had lived and created longer. Out of his several odes, Ode on a Grecian Urn is considered to be the most life-affirming and optimistic, full of beauty and romance, and belongs to the most talented pieces of Romantic poetry.

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Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in the same year when the poet got ill with tuberculosis. His health condition had an impact on his creative work, giving it the sense of lightness and filling it with the air of never-ending serenity and blissful happiness. In this poem, Keats describes how beautiful things frozen in time are. The young author uses many epithets, repetitions, and metaphors to make the poem amusing and engaging. The poet makes a dedication to love, life, and beauty as the greatest perfections when fixed and deprived of a possibility to get spoiled. Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn bears an inspiring and emotional tone and presents praise to life and history.

The explicit tenderness of the tone is revealed at the very beginning of the poem. Keats describes an ancient urn at which the narrator is looking with the words “unravish’d bride of quietness” (773, line 1), “foster-child of silence and slow time” (773, line 2), and “a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” (773 line 4). The author expresses admiration towards the simple beauty of the object he is observing and keeps wondering what secrets it is hiding. He emphasises that the objects frozen in time are covered in subtle mystery and are sending an invitation to contemplate on what meaning these people and things used to represent. Keats is passionate while describing the object of his affection. He mentions that the urn is probably hiding “mad pursuit,” “struggle to escape” (773, line 9), and “wild ecstasy” (773, line 10). Therefore, the tone of the poem can be described as ardent and romantic.

Keats’s attitude towards life is shown in the next stanzas. The poet picks the most exquisite words to express his overwhelming emotions. He notes that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (773, lines 11-12). By saying this, the author diminishes the importance of his own poetry and entitles the melodies played by young people depicted on the urn with much more artistry and harmony. Contrasting the pictures on the urn to reality, Keats emphasises that the pictures are eternal whereas people eventually fade away. Young people whom he sees on urn will stay young endlessly, they will love each other forever, and their feelings will never be marred by separation or death: “thou canst not leave / Thy song” (773, lines 15-16), “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair” (774, line 20). At the same time, there are notes of sadness and melancholy, as the author mentions that the young man in the picture will never be able to kiss his beloved girl: “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss” (773, line 17). However, this sadness is rather romantic than mournful, and Keats writes this line with dreamy and tender tone.

The author’s praise of life is reflected in further stanzas. By frequent repetition of the word “happy” (774, lines 21-25) Keats creates an air of euphoria and optimism. The tree will never have to part with spring: “nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (774, line 21), the musician will never lose inspiration and his songs will be “for ever new” (774, line 24), and the people will be “for ever young” (774, line 27). Keats’s description of life is so optimistic and cheerful that the readers get infatuated by such attitude and are inspired to share the author’s opinion. Even though Keats gets angry with the urn for being a “Cold Pastoral” (744, line 45), he continues admiring its elegance.

Ode on a Grecian Urn is a hymn to life and grace. As Keats remarks, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, and “that is all” people “need to know” about the world (744, lines 49-50). The author puts emphasis on the longevity of historical objects and deficiency of mortal beings. The poet describes the most charming and pleasant features of life – youth, love, beauty, harmony, and passion. The emotional tone of the ode makes it rather expressive and engaging. John Keats might have lived a short life, but he certainly knew how to value and praise it. He probably knew it better than many people who live a long life but cannot appreciate it to the full extent.

Work Cited

Keats, John. Ode on a Grecian Urn. Portable Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 9th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2016. 773-774. Print.

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StudyCorgi. 2020. "John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”." December 4, 2020.


StudyCorgi. (2020) 'John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”'. 4 December.

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