Study Guide

Ode on a Grecian Urn Transience

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Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time, (line 2)

Time moves slowly on the urn. Its lifespan is much longer than ours, and so changes happen to it much more gradually. But "slow" is only a relative term. In the history of the universe, for example, the time between Ancient Greece and modern times is a mere blink of the eye.

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;(lines 15-18)

The speaker keeps playing the same card again and again: pretending that the people on the urn live in the same moment forever. There is no transience in this world. For the lover, it’s a trade-off. He never gets to make out with his lady, but he always wants to make out with her. You may have heard the famous Tennyson quote, "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." This poet adds a twist. He’s like, "The best thing would be to always be in love but never to ‘have loved.’" This, obviously, is a contradiction and a fantasy, but that doesn’t lessen the power of the idea.

For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. (lines 26-30)

Line 26 sounds more like a steaming steak dinner than a person, but you get the idea: the lovers are always on the verge of satisfaction but never achieve it because things don’t change in the world of the urn. Where there is transience, there is the possibility of getting sick of the things you love: instead of a tender desire, love becomes a frustrating "thirst" that keeps coming back.

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return. (lines 38-40)

It’s weird to image a town that will never have people in it. Without people, wouldn’t it just be a bunch of buildings? The word "desolate" has a slightly negative connotation, as if we were supposed to identify with the spurned and abandoned town. Also, the word "silent" reminds us of the urn, the adopted child of silence. But unlike the town, the urn gets to interact with humans because it exists in a transient world. Without transience, things that are abandoned cannot be found again.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe (lines 46-47)

The poem speeds up at the end, reminding the reader of his or her own transience, and of the mortality of the speaker, by now long dead. This poem, like the urn, has continued to speak to new generations and address new problems. How are our "woes" different form those of Keats’s audience?

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