Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase by Keats
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem written by John Keats in May 1819 and published anonymously in the January 1820, Number 15 issue of the magazine Annals of the Fine Arts.
Divided into five stanzas of ten lines each, the ode contains a narrator’s discourse on a series of designs on a Grecian urn. The poem focuses on two scenes: one in which a lover eternally pursues a beloved without fulfillment, and another of villagers about to perform a sacrifice. The final lines of the poem declare that “‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.
The poem begins with the narrator’s silencing the urn by describing it as the “bride of quietness”, which allows him to speak for it using his own impressions.
The urn is a “foster-child of silence and slow time” because it was created from stone and made by the hand of an artist who did not communicate through words. As stone, time has little effect on it and ageing is such a slow process that it can be seen as an eternal piece of artwork. The urn is an external object capable of producing a story outside the time of its creation, and because of this ability the poet labels it a “sylvan historian” that tells its story through its beauty.
In the third stanza, the narrator begins by speaking to a tree, which will ever hold its leaves and will not “bid the Spring adieu”. The paradox of life versus lifelessness extends beyond the lover and the fair lady and takes a more temporal shape as three of the ten lines begin with the words “for ever”. The unheard song never ages and the pipes are able to play forever, which leads the lovers, nature, and all involved to be.
The fourth stanza opens with the sacrifice of a virgin cow, an image that appeared in the Elgin Marbles, Claude Lorrain’s Sacrifice to Apollo, and Raphael’s The Sacrifice at Lystra:
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 its 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. (lines 31–40)
All that exists in the scene is a procession of individuals, and the narrator conjectures on the rest. The altar and town exist as part of a world outside art, and the poem challenges the limitations of art through describing their possible existence. The questions are unanswered because there is no one who can ever know the true answers, as the locations are not real. The final stanza begins with a reminder that the urn is a piece of eternal artwork
The audience is limited in its ability to comprehend the eternal scene, but the silent urn is still able to speak to them. The story it tells is both cold and passionate, and it is able to help mankind. The poem concludes with the urn’s message:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (lines 46–50)