Ode on a Grecian Urn-Critical Appreciation

Ode on a Grecian Urn-John Keats-Critical Appreciation

Ode on a Grecian Urn :  John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a finest specimen of fine art and ample testimony to the poet’s great calibre in construction and harmony. It is the most exquisite expression of his genius. The poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was composed in 1819 and published in 1820. The poet has expressed the nature of human love and happiness in flux and eternal quality of art through the poem. The poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” also reflects his inherent ‘Greekness’ of temperament.

Ode on a Grecian Urn-Critical Appreciation

It is well known fact that John Keats, who did not get recognition as a poet in his life-time, is now deemed as one of the greatest English Romantic poets. It believed that if Keats had lived longer he would have attained Shakespearean height in poetry.


The poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” begins with a symbol, an inanimate object, namely the urn which has survived through many centuries and which therefore represents the immortality of art. Keats gives us a contrast between the permanence of the urn and the mutability of life.

“Beauty is truth, truth Beauty – that is all.

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Secondly, the lines, have troubled almost all critics who have dealt with Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was inspired by a collection of Greek sculpture which he saw in the British Museum. Partly, perhaps, the inspiration for the poem was derived from a marble urn which belonged to Lord Holland.

In giving us the imagery of the carvings on the urn, Keats was not thinking of a single urn but of Greek Sculpture in general. He addresses the Grecian urn as an “unravished bride of quietness and a foster-child of silence and slow time.”

Thus, Keats conveys to the readers the idea of the silent repose and the great age of this piece of Greek Sculpture. He also calls the Grecian Urn a “Sylvan historian” because of the rural and forest scenes carved on its surface. In a series of questions, which are also vivid pictures, he gives us an idea of what those carvings represent. He refers to the men in a passionate mood chasing maidens who are struggling to escape from their clutches. Then there are the flute-players playing wild and ecstatic music.

The poet goes on to say that music which in imagined is much sweeter than the music which is actually heard. The music of the flute-players depicted on the Grecian urn cannot be actually heard by us: we have to imagine what tunes they must be playing.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,”

These unheard, but imaginable melodious notes are sweeter than the songs that we actually hear. Besides, the lover who is trying to kiss his beloved on the urn will always be seen in the same state of mind and mood of pleasurable anticipation. In real life, love and beauty fades away and decline, but the love and beauty depicted on the urn will remain ever constant and fresh.

In real life, the season of ‘Spring’ is short, and the trees must shed their leaves. Similarly, in real life a musician will at least feel tired of playing his music and will cease to play in the passage of time. The enjoyment of the pleasures of love in real life is followed by disgust and satiety.

“Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

Forever piping songs forever new.”

But the trees depicted on the urn will never shed their leaves, the melodist will forever play his tunes, and the heart of the lover will always throb with love and passion while the beauty of the beloved will never fade. In this way, the poet wishes to convey the idea that art is, in one sense, superior to real life.

Then, there follows a picture of a crowd of people going to some place of worship. A priest leads a heifer which has been decorated with garlands and which is to be offered as a sacrifice.

“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing to the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garland dressed?”

The worshippers have come from some little town situated close to a river or on a sea-shore or at the foot of a hill on which stands a fortress. The town which has been emptied of its people will always remain desolate because the people shown on the Grecian urn will always be seen going away to the place of worship but never returning to the town.

John Keats then addresses the Grecian urn as ‘Attic Shape’, ‘Fair Attitude’, and ‘Cold Pastoral’. These expressions convey the beauty and the poise of the urn and refer also to the rural scenes carved on it.

“O Attic shape! Fair Attitude! With brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” 

The feelings which the urn awakens in the poet are like the overwhelming feeling which arises when the poet thinks of eternity. The Grecian urn, says Keats, will always be a friend to man. The generations of men will come and pass; and will perhaps undergo suffering and sorrow of which we have no idea at present.

But the Grecian urn will have a valuable message for those generations, the message namely, the ‘Beauty and Truth’ are not separate things but two sides one and the same thing. The knowledge of this fact is of supreme importance and this fact represents the essence of wisdom. Having this knowledge, mankind needs no other knowledge.

Keats ‘Hellenism’ can be observed in his poems in “Ode to Psyche” and ‘La Belle Dame sans merci”. Émile Legouis has rightly remarked, ‘Keats lingered in thoughtful contemplation of all the beauty there had been in the past of mankind and all the charms displayed by Nature in the present. His pole-star was beauty, in nature, in mankind, in art.”

 Read it also: Once Upon A Time – Critical Analysis

1 thought on “Ode on a Grecian Urn-Critical Appreciation”

Leave a Comment