Literary Devotional: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Note: This will be my LAST Literary Devotional in 2010 and, well, EVER if I can’t find something with which to replace it. Sad, I know. Keep on the lookout for more on this later in the week. How fitting that it should be “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” one of my favorite poems and the one that made me love English romantic poetry all those years ago.

Thou still unravished 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-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities and mortals, or of both,
In Tempe of 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?

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Or 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

Among the English romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, John Keats (1795-1821) is an enduring favorite. His most famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), remains an object of fascination for readers and critics alike, who still dispute the subtle meaning of its key passages. In a way, this ongoing debate is a fitting fate for the poem, which itself expresses wonder about the stories frozen in time on a Greek vase.

Throughout “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poet’s words are aimed at the vase itself. This technique of addressing a concept or inanimate object directly, called apostrophe, is a staple of Keats’s poetry in general and his odes in particular. The poet is captivated by the vase both as an object of aesthetic beauty and as a thought-provoking symbol, a sliver of permanence in a world of transience and change.

In the first of the poem’s five stanzas (only the first and last of which are reproduced above), the poet characterizes the urn as an embodiment of the ages themselves, calling it an unspoiled “bride of quietness” and a “foster-child of silence and slow time.” He marvels at the images painted on the vase, eager to know the stories behind them: “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?” But this mystery and uncertainty only adds to the images’ appeal; as the poet says in the second stanza, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” Likewise, he envies the vase’s two lovers, who images are frozen eternally on the verge of embrace: “(T)hough thou hast not thy bliss / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

Few lines in poetry have come under as much scrutiny as the final two of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It is clear that the vase itself addresses the poet with the words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” which are themselves a cipher. But because of uncertainty about the punctuation in Keats’s original written manuscript, it is unclear whether the last thirteen words of the poem are spoken by the urn or by the poet himself—a timeless mystery fitting for a poem about timeless mystery.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

One thought on “Literary Devotional: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon: Jan. 2, 2010 | Paperback Fool

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