Ode on a Grecian Urn is a poem written by John Keats.
The sight of the Urn sets the poet’s mind working. The opening invocation is followed by a string of questions, which flash their own answers upon us out of the darkness of antiquity – questions which are at the same time pictures –
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
The next two stanzas express the vital difference between life and art. Life has no doubt the vividness and warmth of reality, but it is subject to change and decay, whereas art is the unchanging expression of beauty. The happy piper would forever remain standing under the tree, and the tree will never shed its leaves. The lover depicted on the Urn would always be loving, without feeling the satiety or anguish of love of real life. The static figures on the surface of the Urn become dynamic and instincts with life and motion and energy. There is another picture on the Urn-that of a sacrifice and an assemblage of men and women. The poet’s imagination goes beyond the actual scene represented on the Urn; he imagines how the town from which the people have come to attend the sacrifice, must be forever in desolation.
The pastoral legends represented in cold marble shall outlive future generations amidst their various moods, and shall remain forever a source of consolation to the world. They proclaim the noble message: Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty. This is the noblest ideal man can have because it provides to man, a shelter from the mutability and transitoriness of life.
The sight of the Grecian Urn raises in the poet’s mind a host of associations. His mind goes back to the past and he reconstructs in his imagination the details of the pictures carved on the Urn. The beauty of the figures left intact even after the lapse of ages makes the poet think of the permanence of art as contrasted with the transience of human life and of sensuous beauty. Human emotion and human happiness are brief, but Art can enshrine them with an ideal beauty that never fades.
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
The actual men and women represented on the Urn are gone, but art has conferred upon them a permanence which age cannot wither.
In this Ode, Keats attains to a higher degree of philosophic thought than in any other of his poems. It touches the philosophy of Art and the ethics of human life.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn is not a sad poem – no inquietude of spirit troubles its deep calm. “The spirit of the untroubled past, living in artistic expression, unchanged and unchanging, possesses and soothes the poet’s mind.” All personal emotion is stilled in the vast silence of the past; the poet thinks objectively of life and art. “The hush of personal emotion leaves him free for objective thoughts, and hence he can soar higher and range wider than when chained to the joys and sorrows of the moment. There is no doubt an undertone of pathos where he speaks of the pain attendant on passion and pleasure-but this subtlety elevates the general thought, which rises into the sphere of pure contemplation -the contemplation of the Beautiful”. The poet’s contemplation leads him to the realisation that beauty is identical with truth and that beauty is the highest ideal of mankind. Thus we find in this Ode, “the poetry of truth and the poetry of beauty”. The poet enters the realm of metaphysics when he discusses the superiority of plastic art over human life in respect of permanence, and “in the celebrated words which close the poem, he treats the great ethical question of summum bonum (greatest good of human existence as consisting in a knowledge of the equivalence of Beauty and Truth.)
The Ode takes us away from the world of time to the world of eternity, as in the Ode to a Nightingale. The beauty which art has enshrined on the Urn belongs to the world of time; it is concrete beauty – beauty of form, and the concrete form of beauty is liable to decay and death in the world of time. But the poet says that art has preserved the beauty though its living form perished long since. Thus the eternal spirit of beauty – that is, from the finite to the intinite. A concrete corm of beauty perishes but the spirit of beauty is eternal. To the seeing eyes, however, the spirit of beauty which is eternally true, is presen in the finite form of beauty which is perishable. Those who can see in the finite form of beauty the eternal spirit of beauty which is truth are true seers and Keats says that there is no higher knowledge attainable by man than this realisation of the infinite in the finite.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn is not a dream of unutterable beauty, nor is the Urn itself the sign of an impossible bliss beyond mortality. It has a precious message to mankind, not as a thing of beauty which gives exquisite delight to the senses, but as a symbol and prophecy of a comprehension of human life which mankind can attain.
The Ode is thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Hellenism. Beauty, with Keats as with the Greeks is the first word and the last word of Art. Keats worshipped Beauty as did the Greeks, and the Greeks alone in all the world could say with Keats, “Beauty is Truth“. The poem is full of happy, and well chosen epithet which makes the pictures leap into the imagination. “The most original character of the poetic art of Keats is density; each epithet is extraordinarily rich in suggestion; the long lingering of each word in a thought which lovingly enfolds it, has loaded it with a whole spiritual crystalization” and this quality of density is illustrated in this ode more than anywhere else.