Ode on a Grecian – British & American Literature

Ode on a Grecian

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Author John Keats

Summary and Analysis

Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in May 1819, first published anonymously in Annals of the Fine Arts for 1819

The poem is one of the “Great Odes of 1819”, which also include “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche”. Keats found existing forms in poetry unsatisfactory for his purpose, and in this collection he presented a new development of the ode form. He was inspired to write the poem after reading two articles by English artist and writer Benjamin Haydon. Through his awareness of other writings in this field and his first-hand acquaintance with the Elgin Marbles, Keats perceived the idealism and representation of Greek virtues in classical Greek art, and his poem draws upon these insights.

In five stanzas of ten lines each, the poet addresses an ancient Grecian urn, describing and discoursing upon the images depicted on it. In particular he reflects upon two scenes, one in which a lover pursues his beloved, and another where villagers and a priest gather to perform a sacrifice. The poet concludes that the urn will say to future generations of mankind: “‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. Critics have debated whether these lines adequately perfect the conception of the poem. Critics have also focused on the role of the narrator, the power of material objects to inspire, and the paradoxical interrelation between the worldly and the ideal reality in the poem.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” was not well received by contemporary critics. It was only by the mid-19th century that it began to be praised, although it is now considered to be one of the greatest odes in the English language. A long debate over the poem’s final statement divided 20th-century critics, but most agreed on the beauty of the work, despite certain perceived inadequacies.

Ode on a Grecian Urn Analysis of the poem

In the first stanza the speaker stands in front of the ancient urn and addresses it. There are many pictures engraved on it which is frozen in time. He calls the urn as ‘historian” that can tell a story. He marvels at the legends who depicted these pictures. There are several pictures in it and the poem describes each of it. There are males and reluctant-looking females so he wonders whether this scene shows the chase and attempt to escape.

There are some musical instruments in the picture and says that unheard melodies are sweeter than heard melodies.

In the second stanza he asks the pipers not to stop playing the song, since this is a picture frozen in time he cannot stop playing and the trees will never shed their leaves. There is another scene where two lovers are about to kiss but cannot; they will love forever and she will be beautiful forever because it is frozen in time.

In the third stanza there is another scene where there is a tree which is happy because its leaves will never be shed. The speaker then returns to the piper, whom they perceive as happy and untiring—the piper will play new music for the rest of time. This fills the speaker with thoughts of happiness and love. He is happy that the love of the boy and the girl will last forever, unlike mortal love, which lapses into “breathing human passion” and eventually vanishes, leaving behind only a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”

In the fourth stanza, the speaker examines another picture on the urn, this one of a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. He wonders where they are going (“To what green altar, O mysterious priest…”) and from where they have come. He imagines their little town, empty of all its citizens, and tells it that its streets will “for evermore” be silent, for those who have left it, frozen on the urn, will never return. In the final stanza, the speaker again addresses the urn itself, saying that it, like Eternity, “doth tease us out of thought.” He thinks that when his generation is long dead, the urn will remain, telling future generations its enigmatic lesson: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The speaker says that that is the only thing the urn knows and the only thing it needs to know. (Sparknotes editors, 2002)


  • Mortality and immortality
  • Art, beauty and truth
  • History and imagination

Literary techniques

  • Symbolism: “plants and trees” are the symbols of youth and spring,
    “urn” itself is the symbol of time and life.
  • Personification: He addresses the urn as “bride of quietness” and “Sylvan historian”; “you soft pipe, play on” as if pipe and urn are humans that can perform certain acts.
  • Assonance: the sound of /o/ in “More happy love! more happy, happy love!” and /i/ sound in “Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede.”
  • Synecdoche: A figure of speech in which a part is meant to represent the whole., “burning love” that is fever and “parching tongues” is thirst.
  • Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sounds in the same line of poetry such as the sound of /n/ in “Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. And /t/ sound in “”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.”
  • Paradox:, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard”,.