General: "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
"The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth."
- the discrepancy between the urn with its frozen images and the dynamic life portrayed on the urn,
Understanding some lines in this poem is a challenge to any reader, particularly the last two lines:
Aside from textual considerations, the final couplet is ambiguous and has resulted in an extensive critical controversy over its meaning. Jack Stillinger comments, "As to critical interpretation of who says what to whom, no single explanation can satisfy the demands of text, grammar, consistency and common sense." Some readers write off this couplet; T.S. Eliot calls these lines a "serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."
So if you have trouble understanding these last two lines, you are in good company.
This stanza recapitulates ideas from the preceding two stanzas and re-introduces some figures: the trees which can't shed leaves, the musician, and the lover. Keats portrays the ideal life on the urn as one without disappointment and suffering. The urn-depicted passion may be human, but it is also "all breathing passion far above" because it is unchanging. Is there irony in the fact that the superior passion depicted on the urn is also unfulfillable, that satisfaction is impossible?
How does he portray real life, actual passion in the last three lines? Which is preferable, the urn life or real life? Note the repetition of the word "happy." Is there irony in this situation?
Stanza IV shows the ability of art to stir the imagination, so that the viewer sees more than is portrayed. The poet imagines the village from which the people on the urn came. In this stanza, the poet begins to withdraw from
his emotional participation in and identification with life on the urn.
In imagining an empty town, why does he give three possible locations for the town, rather than fix on one location? Why does he use the word "folk," rather than "people"? Think about the different connotations of these words. The image of the silent, desolate town embodies both pain and joy. How is it ironic that not a soul can tell us why the town is empty and that the vase communicates so much to the poet and so to the reader? Is this also paradoxical?
In terms of the theme of pain-joy, what is Keats saying in lines 1-4, which describe the procession? in the rest of the stanza which describes the desolate town? Is he describing a temporary or a permanent condition?
Is the viewer, who is the poet as well as the reader, pulled into the world of the urn?
The poet observes the urn as a whole and remembers his vision. Is he emotionally involved in the life of the urn at this point, or is he again the observer? What aspect of the urn is stressed in the phrases "marble men and maidens," "silent form," and "Cold Pastoral"?
In the final couplet, is Keats saying that pain is beautiful? You must decide whether it is the poet (a persona). Keats (the actual poet), or the urn speaking. Are both lines spoken by the same person, or does some of the quotation express the view of one speaker and the rest of the couplet express the comment upon that view by another speaker? Who is being addressed--the poet, the urn, or the reader? Are the concluding lines a philosphical statement about life or do they make sense only in the context of the poem? Click here to read the three versions of the last two lines .
Some critics feel that Keats is saying that Art is superior to Nature. Is Keats thinking or feeling or talking about the urn only as a work of art? Your reading on this issue will be affected by your decision about who is speaking.
No matter how you read the last two lines, do they really mean anything? do they merely sound as if they mean something? or do they speak to some deep part of us that apprehends or feels the meaning but it is an experience/meaning that can't be put into words? Do they make a final statement on the relation of the ideal to the actual? Is the urn rejected at the end? Is art--can art ever be--a substitute for real life?
What, if anything, has the poet learned from his imaginative vision of or daydream participation in the life of the urn?
Does Keats, in this ode, follow the pattern of the romantic ode?