Study Guide

Ode on a Grecian Urn Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By John Keats

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

The Urn

The urn is the star of the show, and it is described in several different ways. In the beginning of the poem, it’s a married bride (but still virginal). Then the speaker looks more closely at the specific scenes depicted on its sides. He praises its shape but disses its "overwrought" decoration. Finally, he treats it like a sage with wisdom to impart. By the way, the whole idea of using a poem to describe another kind of art form (sculpture) is known by a very specific term: ekphrasis.

  • Lines 1-2: The poem opens with an apostrophe, by addressing something that cannot respond. Also, the speaker uses a metaphor to compare the urn to an "unravish’d" bride and "foster-child." The urn is being personified, or treated as if it were a person who could actually get married.
  • Line 3: Through metaphor, the urn is compared to a "sylvan historian," or someone who tells stories about forest life.
  • Lines 41-42: The speaker praises the urn’s shape and posture and provides the image of "marble men and maidens" that form a kind of "braid."
  • Line 44: The apostrophe and personification continues ("Thou silent form").
  • Lines 48-50: The urn is personified as speaking to the humans. The urn uses a simple chiasmus in the expression "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

The First Scene: Men and Maidens

Of all the scenes on the pot, the speaker gets most jazzed about this one. And we can’t really blame him. It looks like a wild party with attractive young people. He contrasts the perpetual excitement of the men and maidens with the experience of unfulfilled desire.

  • Lines 5-10: The speaker uses a series of rhetorical questions as a he tries to explain what’s happening on the urn. These questions produce anaphora, where each sentence clause begins with the same word, "What."
  • Line 17: Another example of apostrophe. This time, the speaker addresses the "Bold Lover" who is chasing the women.
  • Lines 29-30: The speaker uses metonymy to link his "heart" to his feelings of being "high-sorrowful and cloy’d." Then he uses two examples of synecdoche to explain the downside of love. A "burning forehead" stands for a fever, and the "parching tongue" stands for thirst.

The Second Scene: A Young Musician

The speaker and the beautiful young musician have a lot in common. They are both solitary artists trying to produce melodic lines. Their music is directed not at the ears but to the inner "spirit." But the musician has a leg up on the speaker: his songs are always as fresh as the first time they were played.

  • Line 11: The idea that a "melodies [. . .] unheard are sweeter" is a paradox. The melodies are heard by the "spirit" and not by the ears.
  • Line 12: Apostrophe. He tells "ye soft pipes" to "play on," as if the pipes could hear him.
  • Line 14: "Ditties of no tone" is another paradox, because it’s hard to imagine a song that has no notes.
  • Line 15-16: Apostrophe, this time in the address to the "youth." There is also parallelism in the structure of the phrase, "thou canst not leave they song, nor ever can those trees be bare."

The Third Scene: A Sacrifice

The scene of the priest leading a young female cow to be sacrificed seems to come out of nowhere after the steamy, agitated third stanza. What purpose does the scene serve? Is it necessary to the poem? Unlike the other two scenes, it has a more communal and religious atmosphere.

  • Line 31: The fourth stanza begins with a rhetorical question, as the speaker continues to ask about the events depicted on the urn.
  • Lines 32-34: Here’s a lovely example of pastoral imagery, which appeals to our mind’s eye with descriptions of a "green alter" and a "heifer lowing at the skies" with "silken flanks" dressed in flowers.
  • Lines 36-38: These lines contain imagery as the speaker imagines what the town might look like.
  • Lines 38-40: Boy this speaker is chatty. Now he’s addressing the "little town." You guessed it: it’s apostrophe.

Plants and Trees

It’s practically a jungle in this poem. There are trees, flowers, weeds, and branches all around. It’s a pastoral poem, so we might expect to see a lot of vegetation. By the end, however, it’s a bit too much for the speaker, who feels that the plants provide too much decoration and take away from the simplicity of the urn.

  • Line 3: The word "Sylvan" comes from a Latin word meaning "forest." The urn is a historian of the forest.
  • Line 4: "Flowery tale" is a triple pun! First, we call a tale "flowery" when it has a lot of complicated twists and turns. But this tale is also "flowery" because the urn has images of flowers and other plants all over it. Third, the urn tells its tale "sweetly," like the nectar of a flower.
  • Line 5: Another pun along the same lines. The tale is "leaf-fringed" because it is set in the forest, but Grecian urns also frequently had a border or "fringe" with a decorative design of plants.
  • Line 7: "Tempe" and "Arcady" are allusions to two regions of Ancient Greece known for being particularly lush and green. They become stock symbols in English poetry for places where people lived in the forest.
  • Line 16: The trees can’t be bare because the seasons never change on the urn.
  • Lines 21-22: The tree branches, or "boughs," are personified as being "happy," and they never say goodbye, or "adieu," to the Spring.
  • Line 43: The speaker returns one last time to the imagery of "forest branches and the trodden weed," which now seem suffocating instead of fresh.