Ode on a Grecian Urn is a poem written by John Keats.
Keats gazes at the Grecian Urn and contemplates with wonder its long existence on earth for centuries. It is wedded to quietness as it were. It stands silent through the slow march of time as if it were the adopted child of Time. The poet sees the scene depicted on the urn and feels the charm of the pastoral story. The Urn has turned to him into the historian of a piece of pastoral life. Indeed, it seems to the poet as though sculpture can express a story of rural life much better than poetry. He enquires wonderingly as to what legend in rural surroundings is depicted on the urn. Is it a story of the gods who frequent the valley of Thessaly? Is it a story of men who lead a pastoral life in the Peloponnesian Arcadia? He is struck with wonder at these vital figures of men and maidens, of pipers and trees represented on the urn, and feels all their abandoned joy.
On the Grecian Urn the poet sees the figure of a piper playing on his instrument. He cannot hear the music made by the piper, but he can imagine it. However great the pleasures of the senses maybe, those of the imagination are still greater. The unheard music is far sweeter than the music heard by the mortal ears. Keats here affirms the power of the imagination to create and enjoy which surpasses the music heard in reality. For Keats “what the imagination creates on Beautiful must be true whether it existed before or not. Imagination has ample scope for divine enjoyment of music that on earth is not.” So the poet asks the sculptured piper to play on softly breathing instrumental music consistently, so that the imagination may ceaselessly enjoy the ‘unheard music’ far sweeter than any real pipe can make.
Keats then compares the permanence of art with the transitory nature of human life. The figures created by him enjoy an immortal existence. The sculptured young musician under the trees has not to give up his song as the earthly musicians have, nor the sculptured trees can ever shed their leaves. The sculpture lover need not regret that he can never kiss his beloved, though, as depicted on the urn, he is almost on the point of attaining his object, i.e., kissing his beloved. Keats asks his lover not to feel sad at his inability to kiss the girl. The lover should find sufficient consolation in the fact that this girl will never grow old and that his love for her will never decline. Thus in sculpture, the various forms of life are eternalized, the artist has been able to make immortal the changing aspect of life, he has depicted the situation of the moment and it is to last forever. The piper beneath the trees and the trees themselves in their inanimate life, the lover and his object in real life, have long passed away; but here upon the surface of the urn, in the life of Art, they will remain for all times to come.
The poet contemplates with joy the happiness of the trees that cannot shed their leaves nor take leave of the spring season. He congratulates the happy musician who sings untiringly new songs forever and ever. Even happier is the lover represented on the urn. His love is eternally fresh and enjoyable, eager, zestful and unique. The love of the bold lover never actually materializes but he is always, as painted on the surface of the vase, in a mood of expectancy and this expectancy is more delightful than fruition. This mood of expectancy does not know “love’s sad satiety”. Everything in this picture betokens a love that is higher than human love in real life; it is also free from human love’s palatable after-effects. Human passions or earthly love leaves behind a heart steeped in sorrows and worries. Earthly love generally results in sorrow and weariness caused by unsatiety and great physical agony. Hence, sculptured love is above all earthly passions. In these lines, an undercurrent of deep sorrow is perceptible. You know about the frustrations of the poet and his passionate love for Fanny Browne.
Keats presents a picture of a little town situated by the side of a river or on the seashore or surrounded by mountains which must have been left by its inhabitants on this morning for worship. Just as the visible sacrificial scene is vividly expressed, so also the invisible town, though it has not been depicted. From where did all these people come? It must have been some little town. And that town must have been emptied of its entire pious folk. This little town whose folk has come out on this happy morning will remain empty and silent forever. Not a single soul will return to its streets to tell why it was emptied. In other words, the inhabitants represented on the urn as engaged in the ritual of the sacrifice are forever fixed on the urn and will never return to follow their usual vocation in the little town.
Keats in the final stanza interprets the lesson taught by the urn. Our thoughts can no more compass the ideas and feelings awakened by the urn than it can comprehend eternity itself. The same kind of baffled feeling is produced when we strive to grasp the infinite. When the present generation will lose the freshness and vigour of youth with the arrival of old age, the urn will remain unwithered by old age amongst the coming generation of men on earth. It will soothe and comfort humanity with its beauty, like a friend conveying to them the great lesson.
In this way, the urn will inspire mankind to seek shelter in the ideal eternity of Art. And the knowledge of the identity between what is true and what is beautiful is all that we need to have. We need not know more than this fundamental maxim which Keats considers to be the sum and substance of wisdom for man.