Keats was an important figure in early 19th century poetry and arguably wrote some of the most beautiful and moving poetry in the English language, despite dying at a very young age. Many of Keats’ themes and concerns are quintessentially Romantic. Keats seems troubled by a quest for beauty and perfection and this is especially evident in his odes. These lyric poems were written between March and September 1819 and Keats died in 1821. In Ode On A Grecian Urn he has turned to art (unlike in In Ode To A Nightingale, Keats turned to the song of a bird in his quest for perfection.
) Instead of identifying with the fluid expressiveness of music the speaker attempts to engage with the static immobility of sculpture. This is done by examining the pictures on the urn and by the speaker describing them and interpreting their meaning. Finding a paradox in nearly all that he finds, it is as if Keats examines both sides of every coin using the urn as a base of perfection and the mortal desires of man and the passage of time on nature as the flip side.
The choice of an urn as the subject is in itself interesting, a container designed to keep things safe from decay. However, by keeping something safe from harm by enclosing it, you also prevent it from being released. This symbolic struggle is a theme repeated throughout the poem. The urn’s perfection is established in the opening lines being referred to first as a bride and then as a child, both of which imply a sexual undertone but by being unravished and fostered, the urn retains a God like purity, never tainted by the desires of man.
The long vowel sounds of individual words such as ‘thou’ ‘still’, ‘bride’ and ‘quiet’ intrinsically imply a passage of time which the urn is unharmed by – it is still a child and therefore young, again separating it from the decay which both man and nature are subject to. Stanza one ends with a series of questions directed at the urn by the speaker as he imagines who and what the figures are. Stanza two begins with another paradox: Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore ye soft pipes, play on: Not to the sensual ear… This introduces the idea that the unheard songs of the piper on the urn and by extension all experience gained through means other than the physical senses, are more perfect and lasting than those understood through the ‘sensual ear’ as they withstand the passage of time and nature. This concept of the very best sound being one you can never physically hear but one you imagine is then applied to further images on the urn.
Despite the fact that the ‘bold lover’ can ‘never, never’ kiss the ‘fair youth’, they are told not to grieve as being frozen on the urn, they nor the trees around them will ever fade – their love will last forever in anticipation of their kiss – the very best feeling comes from the imagination as with the unheard melodies. Stanza three continues in the same vain of joy in discovering that time will never change the images on the urn. The repetition of the word ‘happy’ seems to imply a build up of joy that can only go on growing as it will never be winter, always spring and ‘for ever new’.
Line 26, ‘For ever warm and still to be enjoyed’, again reminds the reader that the pleasure is always in the anticipation. The results of going beyond this point are then given with ‘breathing human passion’ leaving ‘…. a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. ‘ The satisfaction of passion only leaves man with a wearied physicality which the urn will never have to experience. The fourth stanza returns to more images on the urn, this time of a sacrificial procession of people and the speaker begins to imagine the town which they have left empty.