Study Guide

Ode on a Grecian Urn Art and Culture

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Art and Culture

Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: (lines 2-4)

We’re dealing with a poem in a Greek form about a Greek artifact, so it’s only appropriate that we whip out the technical Greek term from the study of rhetoric to describe what Keats is doing here. It’s called "Ekphrasis," and it refers to the representation of a visual artwork in speech or writing. Keats is trying to "show" us the urn using words. He praises a particular kind of art form – sculpture – using a different art form. Thus, he says that the urn is actually a better storyteller than he is.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: (lines 11-14)

He continues to knock his own skills and praise other artists. Poetry is similar to music, and a poet is a kind of melodist. The speaker pulls a surprising move and says that silent music (an obvious paradox) is sweeter than stuff you can hear, like words. It’s interesting to consider which art form is praised the highest in this ode: music or sculpture. The original Greek ode, by the way, was originally set to music, which only strengthens the connection between genres.

And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
For ever piping songs for ever new; (lines 23-24)

If you hear the same thing over and over again, you’re bound to get tired of it, even it’s the most earth-shattering, beautiful song in the world. The solution? Freeze time so that the same song is playing forever, and it always sounds new. If this were possible, however, there would be no need for new artworks to replace older ones.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought, (lines 41-42)

He gives the urn a backhanded compliment, praise it’s shape and beautiful posture ("fair attitude") but then adding that the carving of the men and maidens smacks of too much effort. Are there places where this poem, too, seems "overwrought"? Do you think this is intentional?

Cold Pastoral!(line 45)

This is almost like a paradox, because "pastoral" poetry usually concerns sunshine, warm-blooded maidens, and hard-working shepherds. "Cold" is not a word a poet would normally attach to "pastoral." The urn is starting to seem remote and indifferent to the speaker.

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' (lines 49-50)

If you’re a poet, or any kind of artist, you have to love this last claim. You can say to philosophers, "See? You thought you guys had a monopoly on truth, but it turns out to be me, after all!" Then again, it’s far from an uncontroversial statement, and many critics have attacked it harshly. Also, "beauty" is a very vague term. Do you think it necessarily refers to art, and, if that’s the case, how do we define "art"?

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