“Ode on a Grecian Urn” Analysis

You probably don’t care, but this is my favorite poem by my favorite poet. I like football, too.

This “Ode on a Grecian Urn” analysis is one of many interpretations. You’re more than welcome to create your own analysis and share it with your poetry pals. I don’t mind.

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“Ode on a Grecian Urn”

English Romantic Poetry Lesson Plans

Yes, you can spend multiple class periods on poetry without the dreaded 2-minute reading followed by 49 minutes of stammering. The British Romanticism Teaching Guide includes an overview of British Romanticism and an analysis of selected poems by William Blake, William Wordsworth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Keats.

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-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
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?

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
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!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

Poetic picture with link to poetry lesson plans.

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And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
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.

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,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this 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.
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!
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.”

The Title

The first step in completing an analysis of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is to read it, several times if necessary. After reading it several times, I noted the following observations on the title as part of my analysis:

Title Analysis: The first question I have is in regards to the title. It’s not an ode to a Grecian urn; it’s an ode on a Grecian urn, which would indicate, at least on the surface (no pun intended), that there is an ode on the actual urn. The poem begins as an ode should, with an apostrophe, the act of speaking to someone not there, or to an object, such as an urn, which means either the urn is speaking, unlikely even in a poem, or the poet is translating a picture on a Grecian urn into an ode.

As I continue reading, however, it’s obvious the poet is speaking to the Urn about what’s on the urn; it is, therefore, both an ode on a Grecian urn and an ode to a Grecian urn. The title, I’m guessing, is “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in order to emphasize the painting on the urn and not the speaker of the poem.

Observations

  1. Rhyme Scheme: ababcdedce, ababcdeced, ababcdecde, ababcdecde, ababcdecde
  2. Rhythm: iambic pentameter
  3. The poem begins with an apostrophe to “thou still unravish’d bride of quietness” (1). This is a metaphor comparing a maiden to the urn, which has not been tainted by neither impurities or, as the next line implies, time. The urn is then compared to a woodlands historian, who is able to tell a tale much more clearly than even a poet.
  4. The poet uses rhetorical questions in the second half of the first stanza, questions he attempts to answer in the remainder of the poem.
  5. The poem’s structure reminds one of a five paragraph essay: (1) The first stanza introduces us to the topic, the picture on the urn, and presents several questions; (2) The second stanza speaks of music and love; (3) The third stanza continues with music, nature and love; (4) Stanza four deals with religion and sacrifice; (5) Stanza five gives a recap of the problem and the descriptions, followed by the truth revealed by the Urn–that beauty outlasts all.
  6. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (1-2). This reminds me of Plato’s forms. There is a perfect music in existence somewhere; all other music seeks to replicate it, yet falls short. This perfect music exists on the urn. It is not the sensual ear that perfection appears to, but the soul (13).
  7. Lines 15-20 give a description of the ideal. It is the form of beauty, of youth, of music that remains engraved upon the urn, the enacting of which would lessen its perfection. It’s a beauty that has existed before objects.
  8. Stanza 3 – The trees will never go old and deteriorate. The picture on the urn is Edenic. Evil has not been introduced. it does not go through the cycle of life where all deteriorates.
  9. Eternity speaks in the final six lines of the poem: the entire scene is beauty, which has no beginning and no end, just like truth.
  10. The last two lines: “that is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Does this indicate that there is more we learn after our life on Earth?

Paragraph Analysis

Though analyzing this poem in one paragraph may prove difficult. I’ll try:

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats describes a perfect scene of beauty and peace sprinkled with philosophical truths regarding Truth, Beauty, and Eternity. The scenes on the urn are frozen in time, frozen in their perfect form, as only an artist, or a poet, could depict them. Keats asserts, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (11-12). Music exists in perfection only in art. Any attempt to replicate it lessens its beauty. He writes of “happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (21-22). In the perfect world, youth, synonymous with beauty, can only exist in the artist’s mind. As it progresses, it loses its perfection. The final stanza concludes the poet’s thoughts with an eternal suggestion that perfection exists, Beauty exists and “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (49-50). In other words, learn that perfection exists and don’t worry about figuring out the rest.

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