Study Guide

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats in New Criticism

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"Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats

Keats was a favorite of the New Critics—probably because he loved a good paradox. In The Well Wrought Urn (Chapter 8, "Keats's Sylvan Historian"), Cleanth Brooks takes a microscope to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and moves through it stanza by stanza. You know, like you might in your senior thesis. (We're not trying to plant ideas in your head or anything. This is all just a dream…)

Now, it's not like the "old" critics thought this poem was terrible. But, before Brooks, many critics thought that it had one major flaw: its super strange ending. The whole "beauty is truth, truth beauty" thing just didn't seem quite right to them.

Like, Is it a moral? Does it even make sense? And did the urn seriously just start talking to us?

In musing on these questions, Brooks says that we could totally go through all of Keats's letters. You know, since we have nothing better to do in our spare time, we could spend it tracing Keats's use of words like "truth" and "beauty" over his whole lifetime, and try to use that information to parse the end of the poem.

But Brooks thinks that such an exercise wouldn't actually help us interpret the end of the poem at all. It might help us interpret what Keats's idea of the end of the poem was. But it would never help us better understand those lines in the context of the poem itself. In the context of the world the poem had created for us.

So, now on to The B Man's analysis of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." He says that since the piece is all about paradoxes, this strange ending is perfectly fitting. A silent urn speaks. The warm, active pastoral scene is actually occurring on cold, unmoving marble.

These are stark contradictions that still ring true for us as readers—A+ paradoxes, if you ask us. No wonder Keats's Urn speaks in riddles.

To get deeper into this notion of the paradox in Keats, and how the New Critics analyzed the poem through a fresh lens, let's take a close look at the third stanza and the final lines of "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

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