Keats’ ode could be approached from two perspectives – a literal and a figurative one. As long as the poem belongs to a style of writing known as ekphrasis (poetry that concerns itself with the visual arts), and the speaker describes several scenes he observes on the urn, we can just follow his eye. In doing so, we could say that the end of the first stanza introduces us to a number of young men and women involved in a scene of sexual passion: “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? ” Stanza II and III offer a marked contrast to this atmosphere of intense desire.
The speaker depicts here a scene of romantic courtship (a young man piping songs to his beloved). The temptations of the flesh are suppressed and the relationship has a platonic character: ”Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss…” Importantly, the speaker devotes two stanzas to this scene, which could serve as evidence that it is of key importance to him. In stanza IV the ritualistic scene of a pagan sacrifice is depicted. Stanza V, most probably, takes us back to the first scene of passion. The speaker refers to “men and maidens” again and we could assume that “the trodden weed” is an image meant to remind us of the “mad pursuit”.
So we could claim that the poem comes full circle and actually repeats the circular form of the urn. As far as the figurative perspective is concerned, it is first important to note that the urn bears two different identities: historical and aesthetic. In other words, it is both an object that can provide some knowledge about the past and a work of art which should be appreciated for its beauty only. If approached as a historical object, the urn will speak about particular moments in time; if approached as a work of art, it will speak about eternity.
Throughout the poem, the speaker is divided between these two identities and only in the final stanza does he manage to achieve some kind of synthesis between them. In other words, the poem could be read as representing the dramatic conflict in the speaker’s mind between the desire to know the facts and the realization that beauty is more fundamental than factual knowledge. At the very beginning of the ode the reader is confronted with a paradox. The urn is referred to as a “historian” but at the same time its key attributes are said to be “quietness” and “silence”.
A historian who refuses to speak seems to be a contradiction in terms. The paradox begins to be resolved with the awareness that that this “sylvan historian” has a “flowery tale”, a “leaf-fringed legend” (“leaf-fringed” also literally refers to the fringe of leaves depicted on the urn, see picture above) to tell. In other words, the realization that the urn speaks through its beauty the way Nature speaks to us begins to take shape in the speaker’s mind. However, he is not, as it were, ready for this revelation and the second part of the stanza presents his frantic obsession with factual knowledge.
The series of syntactically identical questions, and the very repetition of the pronoun “what”, reveals an overwhelming desire to learn about the specific circumstances of a particular historical scene. What also reveals this ambition is the reference to geographical locations (“In Tempe or the dales of Arcady”) as well as the repetition of “or”, which tells us that the speaker wants to go beyond the uncertainty of alternative and acquire a reliable knowledge of what really happened. Importantly, the questions lack predicates, which lends them a staccato rhythm.
This conveys both the intensity of the speaker’s uncertainty and the intense passion of the “mad pursuit” depicted on the urn. The opening line of the second stanza presents the reader with a philosophical insight. After the hectic series of questions concerning historical fact, the speaker seems to have found the right words to give shape to the conclusion that the urn has a more fundamental message to communicate to its modern observer. The message lies beyond the physical and that’s why it cannot be expressed in the form of words or sounds.
It is not a message addressed to “the sensual ear”; the urn “pipe[s] to the spirit ditties of no tone. ” The scene of platonic love seems to be in harmony with this realization. What matters for the young lover is not the consummation of his passion but his love’s eternity as well as the eternal beauty of his beloved (“For ever wilt thou love and she be fair! ”). In other words, the transcendence of the physical in the young lovers’ relationship opens the speaker’s eyes to the more essential, aesthetic identity of the urn.
Actually, in stanza III the speaker seems to be in a state of mind close to ecstasy. All questions are now gone and what remains is the readiness to experience a fundamental unity with a beautiful object. The speaker is, as it were, at a loss for words. The whole stanza centers around the obsessive repetition of a mantra: “More happy love! More happy, happy love! ” This reveals the poet’s difficulty in speaking about the unspeakable beauty of the urn as well as about his empathy with it.
However, at the end of the stanza he manages to shape a coherent statement about the value of the urn. It presents us with an eternal ideal world lying beyond our earthly passions, which leave us suffering: “A burning forehead and a parching tongue. ” Somewhat surprisingly, in stanza IV the speaker lurches back to the historical pole. The ritualistic inscrutability of the sacrifice revives his desire to learn more about the particular circumstances surrounding the event.
The rhetoric of the first stanza returns: the questions, the repetition of “or”, the reference to particular sites. The stanza ends in a rather pessimistic note. The fact that the link between past and present has been irrevocably lost fills the speaker’s heart with disappointment: And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return. In an abrupt transition, disappointment recedes and makes room for elation in the opening line of the final stanza. The solemn tone of the apostrophe (“O Attic shape!
Fair attitude! ”) prepares the synthesis that the speaker is now able to achieve. The urn is here referred to as a “cold pastoral”. In other words, it combines in a dialectical unity the coldness of a historian who refuses to speak and the warmth of the tale of beauty and love that it will carry through the ages. It seems, however, that one of these poles prevails in the speaker’s relationship with the urn. The aphoristic closing lines of the poem suggest that factual knowledge does not give humanity access to truth. The only truth that matters is beauty.