Imagine walking into a room of a museum and seeing a young man talking to an ancient pot. That’s what entering this poem is like. We’re all, "Did we interrupt something? Maybe we should leave you alone with this urn . . ."
(If you haven’t already, find a picture of a Grecian urn online. The poem won’t make much sense if you don’t have some idea of the urn itself.)
He talks to the urn as if it were a beautiful woman, like many people do nowadays with their cars. (My, my, Doris: your chrome rims are looking mighty shiny today!) He calls her the "unravish’d bride of quietness," which, if taken literally, would mean that the urn is married to a guy named Quietness. But wait – urns can’t get married, so he probably just means a really old pot and quietness go hand in hand. Imagine the speaker standing in some big, empty room of a museum, and it’s easy to see where the quietness thing comes from.
What about "still unravish’d"? It might not seem like it on the surface, but this is a sexy poem. The word "ravish" means to take or carry away something by force, and, more directly, it means to have violent, passionate sex with someone. The writers of bodice-ripper romance novels love the word "ravish."
But this urn hasn’t been ravished – yet. Even though "she" is married to quietness, they haven’t consummated the marriage by having sex. It looks youthful and pure, even though it’s really old.
Don’t worry, if you think the whole sex-and-marriage metaphor for a pot doesn’t make much sense, you’re not alone. But you have to admit that it sounds cool.
If you want to boil the first line down to something very simple, he’s saying that the urn has lived its life in "quietness," in a museum or buried in some Greek ruins, but it’s still in great condition and hasn’t suffered any major damage.
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
The urn is called the "foster-child" of Silence and slow Time. A "foster-child" is a kid who is adopted and raised by people other than his or her own parents.
In this case, the urn has been adopted by "Silence" and "slow Time," which, if anything, sounds like an even more boring couple than Mrs. Urn and Mr. Quietness.
The point is that the pot is thousands of years old, and it has spent most of its time buried in ruble or tucked away in the corner of some museum or some private collector’s house. But these were not its "original" circumstances.
The true "parent" of the urn would have been the Greek artist who created it. Furthermore, the pot might have had a ceremonial use rather than just being a pretty thing to look at.
But after the decline of Greek civilization, the pot lived on to age in silence, outside of the vibrant culture in which he was created.
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
So far, the speaker has addressed the urn by a bunch of different names and titles. It’s like saying, "You, John Doe, husband of Jane Doe, son of Susie and Richard Doe, lawyer at the firm of . . ." Now this line gives us the urn’s job or profession, which is "Sylvan historian."
Bet you’ve never seen that one on a business card, huh? "Sylvan" is a just a word derived from Latin that refers to woods or forests. This makes the urn a historian of people who live in forests. It’s a storyteller (the word "history" is derived from a Latin word for "story" or "tale"), and a darn good one.
In fact, the urn is a better storyteller than the poet.
The urn tells stories using pictures, while the poet uses "rhymes." (You’ll notice that Keats uses a lot of nature imagery to talk about art and poetry.) The tale told by the urn is "flowery" and "sweet," as if you could bury your nose in it like a bee inside a daffodil.
This is appropriate, because this particular urn depicts scenes that are set in nature.
Moreover, "flowery" works as a pun. A tale is "flowery" if it’s complicated and has a lot of ins and outs.
But the story told on an urn is also "flowery" in a more literal sense: the illustrations on urns were often framed by a pattern of leaves or flowers.
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape Of deities or mortals, or of both, In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
Having established that the urn is a storyteller, now it’s time to get to the story.
This is the point when our speaker leans in to take a closer look at the urn. He’s trying to figure what’s going on in the carved pictures that encircle it.
(We know this because every sentence for the rest of the stanza is a question that begins with "What," as in "What’s that?" Imagine him squinting at the urn and stroking his chin thoughtfully.)
Remember how we told you that the illustrations on Greek urns were bordered with a pattern of leaves and/or flowers?
Well, we got the flowers in line 4, and now we get the leaves. The story or "legend" on the pot is "leaf-fringed," which builds on the idea of the "Sylvan" or forest historian.
But this "legend" suddenly sounds a lot like a ghost story: it "haunts." This is another pun, because "haunt" can just mean to exist in a certain place, but it has that obvious connection to the dead. Indeed, we would expect that all the characters of a story that was first told thousands of years ago would be dead by now.
And who are these characters, the speaker is wondering. Are they gods ("deities") or just normal human beings ("mortals")?
In Ancient Greece, all the gods were represented as looking like people, so you wouldn’t always be able to tell the difference between them and people in a picture. The gods also liked to hang out with humans.
Needless to say, it’s hard to tell if these people are mere mortals or gods.
The speaker is also wondering where the story takes place.
With his knowledge of Ancient Greece, he throws out a couple of names as guesses: Tempe and "Arcady," or Arcadia. (A "dale" is just a valley.)
(These places are stock names that refer to really beautiful, rural regions where farmers, shepherds, and other country folk live. Think of blue skies, babbling brooks, lush trees, and fluffy white sheep.)
What men or gods are these? what maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Keats is playing a clever trick here. Under the guise of having the speaker try to figure out what’s on the pictures, Keats is really telling us about the story.
The speaker repeats the question about "deities or mortals" in more causal language: are they "men or gods"?
Here it helps to have a little background into a very common Ancient Greek theme: a bunch of lustful guys chasing a bunch of nice girls around and trying to get some action. Very often the males would be half-man, half-goat-type creatures called "satyrs," but Keats doesn’t mention anything about satyrs so we can’t jump to that conclusion.
If you want to have a more sinister interpretation, you can imagine that the women are being chased against their will.
(Unfortunately, the line between rape and consensual sex was often extremely blurry in Greek myths.)
We’re going to give these couples the benefit of the doubt, though, and imagine that the women are just being playful.
They are "loth," or "loath," to have sex, which means they are reluctant, but it could just be a teasing reluctance.
In the picture, the guys are chasing the women in "mad pursuit," which the women "struggle to escape."
This cat-and-mouse scenario seems to be a game. It wouldn’t make much sense to depict a serious chase scene and then include people playing instruments like "pipes and timbrels" (a timbrel is like a tambourine).
On the whole, everyone looks happy.. But not just happy as in simply content.
We’re talking rowdy, crazy, best-party-of-my-life happiness. We’re talking "wild ecstasy." Everyone is running around and dancing.