Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
- The branches of the trees never lose their leaves because the world of the urn never changes.
- The urn is to the Ancient Greek world what a Norman Rockwell painting is to 1950s America: it captures a moment in time in which everything seems to be wholesome and happy.
- In this case, it’s always springtime, and the trees are always green.
- After repeating the word "never" twice in line 17, the speaker seems to have decided that repeating words is his new thing, and he does it a bunch of times in this stanza. He uses the word, "happy," twice in a row in line 21. He also continues to talk to objects that can’t respond to him, like the "boughs" or branches of the trees depicted on the urn.
- Finally, he continues to treat the urn as a real place, and one where things never change.
- (As you can see, Keats keeps playing the same tricks over and over again, and once you figure them out, the poem isn’t so tough.)
- To bid "adieu" is to say "goodbye" in French with the expectation that you won’t see someone again for a long time. If someone goes down the street to the corner store, you say "au revoir," but if someone moves to another state, you say "adieu."
- Fortunately for the tree branches, they never have to say goodbye to the Spring, which will never be replaced by summer in this world.
- Some readers have thought that the repeated use of the word "happy" smacks of desperation on the part of the speaker, as if he were trying to convince himself that eternal springtime would be a great thing, rather than a huge snooze-fest.
- After all, how long can you sit around looking at tree leaves?
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
- These lines make us think that the speaker is still talking about the second scene of the urn: the young musician playing the pipes under a tree.
- Now he calls him a "melodist." Unlike, say, the piano, you can’t play both melody and harmony on the pipes. You have to pick one, and the most obvious choice is to play a melody.
- The "melodist," you probably won’t be shocked to learn, is also "happy," like everyone else in this world. He is also "unwearied," which means he never gets tired.
- In your version of the poem, you might notice that the word has an accent at the end, so that it reads, "un-wear-i-ed." What’s that about? It means that Keats wants you to pronounce the word with four syllables, instead of three.
- He does this to preserve a perfect ten-syllable iambic pentameter, which you can read more about in the "Form and Meter" section.
- But you can think of the accent as being like a notation on a piece of sheet music, which might be important in light of the fact that the speaker is talking about music at this point. Is he comparing himself with the "happy melodist"? We think so.
- In line 24 the speaker says that the songs played by the musician are always fresh and new. Again, that’s because the world of the urn never changes.
- It would be as if our world froze while you were listening to the radio, so whatever was on the Top-40 station would always be considered hip and catchy.
- Of course, in the real world, we know that most pop songs don’t last in the Top-40 for more than a few weeks. We get sick of the old songs and crave new ones, which is why there will always be a need for young teen pop stars to replace the older teen pop stars of the year before.
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
- This is the place where a lot of readers think the speaker starts to go off in his own world.
- Three "happy"s in one line? We imagine our speaker is the kind of person who puts 25 packets of sugar into their iced tea. In case you hadn’t noticed, he likes sweet things. But do these "happy" thoughts have any substance?
- If you want to be less cynical, you could also read these lines as the speaker encouraging the musician to keep playing by calling for more songs.
- He thinks the music and "love" go hand in hand, so more music means more love. He’s like the crowd at a concert clapping its hands and shouting, "Another! Two more songs! Ten more songs!"
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
- OK, it’s time we had "the talk." The birds and the bees. When it comes to sex, lots of people think that the most exciting part is definitely before the act itself. It is the time of attraction and pursuit.
- By contrast, "after" is the time when people often wonder what they were so worked up about. On a longer time scale, the same holds true for love affairs. They are usually most exciting in the beginning, before things settle down into a routine.
- The speaker seems to have returned to the first image on the urn, that of the "men or gods" chasing a bunch of women, and he imagines that everyone in the scene is at the peak of their erotic excitement.
- The men are just about the catch the women, but they haven’t yet, so they always have the big moment ahead of them.
- Line 26 refers to the bodies of the women, which are "warm and still to be enjoy’d."
- Line 27 refers to both men and women, who are "panting" from their chase.
- Keeping in his mode of repetition, the speaker keeps using the words "for ever" to make the point that the people on the urn are frozen in time. The world of art is eternal.
- We’re now going to argue in favor of a different interpretation. Our speaker is showing definite symptoms of sexual excitement himself, like the pulsating rhythm of his speech and the repetition of his words (being sexually excited isn't the most creative human state). He might need a cold shower.
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
- Line 28 has somewhat awkward grammar.
- Generations of readers have not known what to make of these lines. Line 27 told us about the "panting" of the lovers, but now these lines might suggest that the lovers are better than or "far above" the "breathing human passion" of the normal world.
- That’s one interpretation. But here’s a different one.
- In this second interpretation, "far above" refers to the perspective of the speaker, our excited guy who is "breathing" on the display case at the museum as he salivates over the urn.
- The word "all" suggests that the speaker knows he belongs to a much wider and more populous world than the people on the urn. In other words, the urn is like a tiny planet that is frozen in time while all around it people are moving and breathing and carrying on with their lives.
- So if the speaker represents the "human passion" that looks down on this little world from "far above," then line 29 must refer to his "heart," not just any old heart.
- (It’s like when you need advice about something but don’t want to talk about yourself, so you say, "Well, I have this friend, see…" The speaker says, "Well, there’s this heart, see…")
- When he looks at the happy lovers, the speaker’s heart becomes "high-sorrowful and cloy’d." In other words, he feels a dramatic, woe-is-me kind of sadness.
- To be "cloy’d" is to have too much of a good thing. The speaker is overpowered by his excitement, and instead of a warm and pleasant "panting," he feels feverish, with a "burning forehead," and desperately thirsty, with "a parching of tongue."
- He’s like a guy stuck in the desert. But instead of water, he craves love.