Immortality That is Present in the World of Art in John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn
Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats explores the possibility that human immortality might exists in a world of art. There are three images that Keats presents in the poem. He presents a youth playing the pipe, a couple and a sacrifice. Throughout the poem, Keats writes of the struggles of accepting mortality and his envy of the immortal. As he does in the poem Bright Star, Keats forces the reader to recognize the difference between life that is always in flux and the permanence that is captured in art. The images on the urn enraptures Keats away from reality and into this imaginary world where he imagines he’ll be immortal. Through the artwork on the urn, Keats expresses his yearning to bring the aspects of reality and the world on the Grecian urn together. Stylistically, Keats uses rhymes and iambic pentameter, but his word choice and imagery impacts readers to have a longing for immortality. The images on the urn will never fade and never grow old. Ode on a Grecian Urn is a way for Keats to escape his own reality and his imminent death.
In the first stanza, Keats introduces the urn itself as a work of art. In the first three lines, Keats describes the urn as three things: a “still unravished bride,” “a child of silence and slow time,” and a “Sylvan historian” (Lines 1-3). When Keats writes that the urn is a “still unravished bride of quietness” or a “foster-child of silence and slow time,” he means that the urn is as beautiful as a bride and its images will be untouched by time. This alludes to the recurring theme of eternal beauty and youth. Comparable to the stars, the urn is also alone and quiet. Following those lines Keats writes, "Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:" (Lines 3-4). The flowery tale that is painted on the urn is better than words of a story. He prefers looking at this urn rather than reading a story from a book because there is room for interpretation. Looking at artwork leaves room for interpretation to wonder what life could be like in this world. Keats immerses himself into the imaginary world of the urn leaving his grasp on reality. Keats asks whether if the images on the urn could be “Of deities or mortals, or of both,” (Line 6). He is curious, as he is with the urn's entirety, about who these people are and where they came from. The deities or mortals could be from either Tempe or Arcady (Line 7), which Keats deems to be better than his own reality. But, nonetheless, Keats is envious that the characters are frozen in time and forever in wild ecstasy.
The second and third stanza both emphasize the idea of immortality present in the scene depicted. He introduces the first image on the urn with a youth playing the pipe underneath the trees. He writes, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;" (Lines 11-12). The melody that this piper is playing is not painted on the urn or is actually heard. But Keats is explaining that this song is sweeter than those he can actually hear. Those unheard come from within and Keats can imagine any melody that he wants to. He urges the boy to play on to keep this sweet melody continuous for eternity. Keats repeats his desire in the third stanza by writing "And, happy melodist, unwearied/For ever piping songs for ever new;" (Lines 23-24). Keats continues to describe the image that the “fair youth” who is playing the pipe, suggesting that he will neither grow old nor will the setting. He writes, "Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;"(Lines 11-16). The piper's youth, beauty and song cannot leave for he is painted on the urn which lasts forever. The seasons will never change and the trees "…cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;" (Lines 21-22). The fact that the characters will live on forever and Keats does not know what will happen for eternity is why the melody is unheard or unwritten. Keats does not know how the song will end but he can only imagine that it will be played continuously with the beauty of the characters.
In the latter portion of the second stanza, Keats presents the image of a couple before they kiss. Keats writes, "Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;" (Lines 18-19). Although the young man will never be able to touch his lover's lips, he, and Keats, are able to gaze at her beauty forever. Her beauty will never fade and their love will never grow old. The couple is frozen in the moment of love and he contrasts that feeling with a glimpse of reality. Keats writes, "All breathing human passion far above/That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd/A burning forehead, and a parching tongue" (Lines 28-30). Unlike this love in the imaginary world of the Grecian urn, love for mortals come to an end. The broken-hearted are left heavy hearts, sorrow and bitterness. Keats gives a glimpse of reality in the last lines of Stanza Three in order to convey that mortal love is ephemeral.
The last image that is present on the urn is a scene of a sacrifice. Out of the aforementioned images above, Keats is most intrigued with the last scene. The two other images were designed for the reader to celebrate youth and yearn for immortality. The seasons will never change for either the youth and their feelings of happiness will never fade. But scene of sacrifice is a turning point for the poem because Keats does not know who these people are, the reason they are holding this sacrifice nor the town they come from. Keats writes,
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return (Lines 35-40).
These people who are at the sacrifice will never return to this town that they once came from. This town does not exist because it is created from Keats’ imagination. They’re never going to return their town because their town doesn’t actually exist but more importantly it is as painted that they will never leave the sacrifice. Continuing the theme of images frozen in time, the people at the sacrifice will be at the sacrifice for eternity. Keats presents the image of the sacrifice as a metaphor for his yearning for immortality dually with the ability to be able to go back to where he once came from. Albeit Keats is envious of the characters' immortality he does not want to be frozen in time. In the last line of the third stanza, Keats is almost sorry that the townspeople will never return and realizes this flaw of the Grecian urn. In order to be immortal, Keats realizes that he would have to stop living through life and be frozen in one scene of the urn for eternity.
In the last stanza, the readers finally get the image of Keats looking at the urn. This last stanza refers to the idea presented in Lines Three and Four that the images on the urn tell a better story than actual words. Keats writes, "Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought" (Lines 43-44). Keats does not look at the urn and sees it as storage for ashes. The urn, with its beauty, engrosses him into the imaginary world away from reality. It is also a message to the urn that when we are old, or when new generations have come, the urn will remain the way it is. It will never change amongst all the troubles of reality reinforcing that the urn itself will live forever. Keats writes, "When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain in the midst of other woe” (Lines 46-47). When everything else changes with old age, the urn will still remain as it is, forever beautifully painted. The famous last two lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn reassess the question of what "truth beauty" really means. It can be interpreted that the lines "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'" are the urn's messages to Keats. Keats writes, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (Lines 49-50). The urn's truth to Keats is that beauty lies in both the real and imaginary world. There are flaws in each world but there are aspects of each that are truly beautiful. In the world of the Grecian urn, everything in everyone is eternally beautiful. The mortal world contains the ability to change. Seeing the world change through its seasons and its woes is also as beautiful as being immortal. Knowing that beauty lies in both worlds that is all he needs to know.
Keats is enraptured by this Grecian urn because it fuels his imagination and allows him to escape his own reality and imminent death. Keats expresses his yearning to be immortal throughout out each stanza but in order to achieve that, one would have to stop living. Life would not progress and that is an aspect of reality that Keats wants to bring into the world painted on the urn. This paradox of wanting to be progressive but to also be in the immortal and imaginary world is an inconceivable fantasy. Keats, at the end of the poem, doesn't realize that beauty lies in both worlds. The urn is a metaphor for his poetry. Throughout the poem Keats says that urn will be everlasting and unaffected by time and like the images on the urn, Keats will live forever through this poetry.