Ode on a Grecian Urn
by John Keats
Stanza V Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
- Compared to the steamy stanza III, stanza IV was a mellow, low-key affair. But in the last stanza the speaker suddenly gets excited again.
- It’s like someone stuck a shot of adrenaline in his arm. He starts yelling about the beautiful appearance of the urn, as if noticing it for the first time.
- He has raptures over its "Attic shape," which just means it has a distinctively Greek appearance, and its "fair attitude," which means a graceful posture. (A "brede" is a braid, like a braid of hair.)
- The lovers are "braided" together in the chiseled marble, which is a wild image. It makes the carving sound complicated and ornate.
- Indeed, the speaker calls the depiction "overwrought," or too complicated.
- There’s just too much detail and craftsmanship. This might remind us of the use of the word "cloy’d" in stanza III, another occasion where the speaker thought that the urn’s artistry was just too rich.
- We already mentioned that the urn has decorative images of plants all over it, and now the speaker is annoyed with the "forest branches" and the "trodden weed" that seem to be choking the poem with vegetation. They get in the way and make the urn look crowded.
- He’s starting to have some serious mixed feelings about this urn. He praises it and disses it within two lines. He’s basically saying, "You have a nice body, but you’re trying way too hard to look fancy."
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
- If you thought his feelings were mixed before, these lines will really throw you for a loop.
- He starts out by pointing his finger at the urn: "You! That’s right. You, the quiet one." So far, it’s been a fairly one-sided conversation (that tends to happen with inanimate objects), and now he’s trying to get the urn to be more involved.
- He says that the urn is so mysterious and baffling that it’s impossible to think about.
- Our speaker uses the word "tease," which has at least two meanings. The first is the one we’re familiar with: mockery. The second is to separate or disentangle, like you might "tease" apart the nest of wires behind your computer.
- We think this second meaning is actually the primary one here. The poet compares the experience of looking at the urn to thinking about eternity, an idea so lofty and hard to understand that trying to think about it is like not thinking at all.
- Huh? Yeah, you can see why this poem is so complicated.
- The speaker has been setting up this comparison between the world of the urn and eternity for the entire poem. He views the urn as a world where things never change and can never be destroyed, which is pretty much the definition of eternity. Except, of course, if the urn breaks.
- Finally, he calls the scenes depicted on the urn a "Cold Pastoral." Pastoral imagery concerns nature and simple country life, so it’s an appropriate word in the context of images of peaceful towns, young lovers, and bright, green trees.
- But "cold"? Are these lines supposed to be a put-down, or are they actually a form of praise. They sound more like a put-down – like the speaker changed his mind after all his talk about happiness and warm bodies. He might be accusing the urn of being distant and uncaring.
- But maybe he likes how the world of the urn seems so foreign from human life that it’s hard to even think about.
- You might compare the feeling to looking at remote stars and planets, which seem cold and indifferent but also provide a sense of beauty and comfort.
- Overall, it seems he understands the urn even less at the end of the poem than at the beginning.
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,
- Whoa, here comes "old age" like the villain with a flamethrower in an action movie to "waste" an entire generation of people – the speaker’s generation.
- The speaker imagines that after everyone in his generation is dead, the urn will still be around.
- (We think Keats would have been a big fan of the Flaming Lips song "Do You Realize?" with its lyric, "Do you realize, that everyone you know someday will die?" Kind of a conversation stopper – but great song).
- The problems or "woe" of the present generation will have been replaced by new problems.
- But the urn, like a good therapist and "a friend of man," won’t be lacking in advice to give new generations.
- In fact, it has always given the same advice to everyone, throughout history, which is.
- Okay, get ready, because the next two lines are some of the most immortal ever written.
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
- Ah! It’s all so simple! Beauty and truth are the same thing.
- Wait, no. That makes no sense at all. If beauty and truth are the same thing, then why do we have two different words for them?
- One of the sneakiest things about these lines is how they sound so darned confident, as if "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" were on a par with "Gravity makes things fall down."
- We want to respond: "First of all, we didn’t already know that beauty and truth were that same thing. Second, if you think we already knew that, why are you telling us? Third, why do you think this is all we ‘need to know.’ How does this information help us, at all?"
- To our knowledge, the urn has yet to respond to our inquiry. But we can try to say a bit about what these lines could mean.
- To say that beauty and truth are the same thing has usually been taken to mean that there is no truth outside of art. We’re talking about BIG truths, like meaning-of-life truths.
- We also think he’s using "beauty" to refer to more than just pretty pictures and writings. He’s referring to anything that gives us that sense of grandeur and a meaning larger than ourselves, including the art of the universe: nature.
- Truth is not something that can be "thought." It’s too remote and complicated, like the idea of eternity. It can only be felt.
- The speaker thinks that we don’t need truths that can be expressed in words. The experience of beauty is enough. Enough for what? Well, perhaps to lead a good, fulfilling, meaningful life. There are lots of things we’d like to know about the world, like why suffering exist. But we don’t need to know such things. Beauty is the only absolutely necessary idea.
- This last point is actually super-radical, and it’s what makes Keats one of the most Romantic of the Romantics. If you take it to the extreme, you don’t need any of the truths of religious or philosophical texts, history books, celebrity magazines, or wherever else people get their ideas. You don’t need truths that are passed down through tradition.
- Needless to stay, British conservatives hated Keats, whom they considered a wild-eyed liberal, which he kind of was.
- You may just want to throw up your hands and decide these lines are absurd. Which is fine. You’d be in good company. T.S. Eliot, a poet, was never shy about voicing his opinions.
- But for many people, they express truth in exactly the way they suggest: not with some kind of intellectual argument, but through their rhythm and melody – their beauty.