The poem “ode on a Grecian urn” by john Keats was written in 1819. This poem is an ode because the poet is praising the Grecian urn for its beauty and art. We see that instead of just praising one specific image, he has used images from different urns and has made it into one imaginary urn. This poem has a few prevalent themes, which I will be talking about.
One theme included is that of silence. We see this in almost every stanza.
The opening line “thou still unravish’d bride of quietness” makes the reader sense the tone of stillness and silence. This gives the poem a subtle start. In the second stanza the poet says “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” This is again brings the theme of silence. The poet has portrayed the theme of silence in a very beautiful way in the previous instances.
In the fourth stanza he brings up this theme again by portraying an empty town.
He questions about why the town is so empty but towards the end of the stanza he realizes he will never know because the picture will stay the same forever and no one will ever resolve the question as to why its so desolate. This stanza has a sense of mystery to it that the theme of silence has brought out. We see that silence is a theme because t is an urn that the poet is talking about and nothing on the urn can be really heard.
Another theme brought out in this poem is that of innocence. The urn represents an innocent world unaffected by the suffering and hardship that comes with change. We see that in the images, the tress never have to deal with losing their leaves and even the urn itself is described as “unravish’d” or pure and it will remain this way forever. The poet might portray this theme of innocence because he wants to show that this urn is beautiful and still fresh and pure. It also shows that it is never changing.
This poem also contains the themes of eternity and time. In the second and third stanzas we see that the poet is attracted to the eternal newness of the piper’s song and also the eternally unchanging beauty of his lover. He tries to engage with this aspect of eternity but soon realizes that it is impossible because in real life and time, everything moves and cannot remain still. Another thing he mentions is that the tress can never be bare in the image on the urn. This again emphasizes the unchanging time and eternal blossom.
Keats might have used eternity as a theme because we know that there were many tragedies and deaths around him and so he might have chosen eternity because he wanted to escape reality and not face death. However he realizes that this is impossible and abandons his attempt to identify with the figures on the urn. The theme of eternity could also signify his want for eternal love with Fanny because he is talking of the image on the urn where that couple’s love will be forever even though they would not be able to attain physical affection which he finds to be weary.
Eternity is defined as time without end and we see that time does not move forward in the urn in this poem and everything is at a stand still. The urn exists in the real world and is therefore subject to time. However the lives it presents are unchanging. The figures carved onto the urn are not subject to time though the urn itself might be affected over “slow time”.
In another poem of his titled “on first seeing Elgin marbles”, he also uses the theme of time. Towards the end of that poem, he wonders what will happen to his poem after it has been exposed to time. He compares himself to the Greeks, feeling that he is under-achieved. He wants to be like the Greeks and have his works of art remain the way the Greeks have been able to preserve their art.
Another theme that is common in both these poems is art. In the Elgin marbles, we see the feelings of a poet when he is exposed to art. He is in awe of the sculpture by the Greeks and describes it as “godlike”. In the Grecian urn too he is in awe towards the art that the Greeks have created. He tries to relate with them but feels he is under-archived. He also often time wonders about his poems and questions whether it will withstand the test of time or not. In these poems we see his appreciation towards art of all forms.
Another theme portrayed in “ode on a Grecian urn” is nature. In the first stanza he says “who canst thus express a flowery tale more sweetly that our rhyme:”. He is associating nature with sweetness and flowers to show how he appreciates art through in the form of nature too. Keats loves nature and often uses nature in his poems. In the second and third stanzas he associates the eternal love depicted in the image with nature, he says “fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.” He also says “ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed your leaves adieu.” Here he is making the image of love look even more beautiful with his nature associations.
Keats’ attitude towards nature is very simple because he describes it as he sees it and does not try to find a hidden meaning in it. In “ode to a nightingale” he uses the nightingale as the symbol of joy and with its songs, he is able to forget his sorrows. Similarly in “ode to autumn”, he looses himself in the loveliness of autumn. The lines “where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too” show his full appreciation and praise for autumn. Keats is able to paint pictures with his words and we often see it in his poems when he uses beautiful images to signify a certain meaning.
In this poem ode on a Grecian urn, we see that he has tried to relate himself to the urn but in the final stanza realizes that he is unable to do so because the urn is a separate and self-contained world. It can be a “friend to man” but cannot be mortal and is therefore insufficient to human life.
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