Ode on a Grecian Urn
by John Keats
Stanza II Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
- In this stanza, the speaker seems to have moved on to another of the pictures on the side of the urn.
- (We think there are a total of three different scenes depicted on the urn, and this is the second.)
- As in the first scene, there is music playing. The music is being played on "pipes," which is like a primitive version of a flute. Unlike the wild party music of the first stanza, these pipes are "soft."
- The speaker arrives at a totally counter-intuitive conclusion. He says that the melodies you don’t hear are "sweeter" than those you do.
- This claim is a paradox: it doesn’t seem to make sense. No one listens to their music player with the volume at zero so they can "imagine" the music they aren’t hearing.
- This is the first example of a trick that Keats is going to play over and over again for the rest of the poem.
- He treats the scenes on the urn as if they were real places and events, and not just a depiction of a place. Real people are actually "living" on the urn, but they are frozen in time.
- The pipe-player actually is playing a song, but you can’t hear the song because urns don’t make sounds. The speaker is imagining what the song would song like, and he thinks this imaginary song inside his head is better than anything he has heard with his ears.
- In other words, he prefers to the world of fantasy to the physical world.
- He tells the "soft pipes" to keep playing, even though he’s the one who is making the pipes play, by imagining them.
- In this sense, it’s almost like he’s talking to himself. He is both musician and audience.
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
- Talk about a weird. The speaker is still giving orders that only he can obey.
- He tells the pipes not to play to his "sensual" or physical ear, but to the metaphorical ear of his "spirit," or imagination. This spiritual ear is "more endear’d," or cherished, than his flesh-and-blood ears.
- As if that weren’t strange enough, he asks the pipes to play "ditties of no tone," that is, songs that don’t have any notes or sounds, at least in the real world. Imaginary songs.
- Haven’t you ever composed an awesome song in your head, and you’re sure it’s as good as a Top-40 hit, but you also know that if you ever tried to sing or perform it, the result would be a total disaster? That’s kind of what’s going on here.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
- Aha! The identity of our mysterious musician revealed! It was Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the Lead Pipe. Oh wait, no: it was a good-looking young guy ("fair youth") sitting under the trees, and his pipe was probably made of wood.
- Here comes Keats’s trick again. He treats the urn like a real place, and because this place never changes, it means that the guy under the tree will always be playing the same song, in the same pose forever!
- It’s like Bill Murray’s life in Groundhog Day, but with even less variety.
- But for the speaker, this is actually a good thing. Because the seasons never change, the weather will always be nice and the trees will never be "bare," without leaves.
- It’s Eden. Eternal spring.
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
- Now he turns back to the first scene, the guys chasing the women, and he starts talking to one of the guys.
- He calls him "bold," presumably because he has taken the initiative the chase his lady around the forest. In modern-day terms, he’s like a guy who is never afraid to ask for a girl’s number.
- To paraphrase, the speaker says, "I know you’re hoping to make it with that nice girl you’re chasing, but I’ve got bad news for you: It’s not going to happen. Ever. I don’t think you realize this, but you live on an urn, you’re just a picture, and you can never move or change. But there’s a definite upside to the situation: you’ll always feel just as strongly about her, and she’ll always be really beautiful. Not such a bad deal, right?"
- This is an absurd thing to say, and it tells us more about the speaker than it does about the lover. The speaker wants to imagine a world in which nothing changes and good things never come to an end.
- (By the way, if you want to check out a poem whose speaker takes the complete opposite view, visit Shmoop’s analysis of Wallace Stevens’s "Sunday Morning.")
- The speaker isn’t the most tactful guy in the world, and he repeats the word "never" twice as if to rub in the bad news. He also describes the chase scene as if it were an athletic race, for which having sex is considered "winning." It’s like the Romantic poetry equivalent of locker-room banter.