Ode on a Grecian Urn: Analysis & Interpretation

Page content

The Title

The first step in completing an analysis of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is to read it, several times if necessary. After reading it several times, I noted the following observations on the title as part of my analysis:

Title Analysis: The first question I have is in regards to the title. It’s not an ode to a Grecian urn; it’s an ode on a Grecian urn, which would indicate, at least on the surface (no pun intended), that there is an ode on the actual urn. The poem begins as an ode should, with an apostrophe, the act of speaking to someone not there, or to an object, such as an urn, which means either the urn is speaking, unlikely even in a poem, or the poet is translating a picture on a Grecian urn into an ode.

As I continue reading, however, it’s obvious the poet is speaking to the Urn about what’s on the urn; it is, therefore, both an ode on a Grecian urn and an ode to a Grecian urn. The title, I’m guessing, is “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in order to emphasize the painting on the urn and not the speaker of the poem.

Observations on the Content

  1. Rhyme Scheme: ababcdedce, ababcdeced, ababcdecde, ababcdecde, ababcdecde
  2. Rhythm: iambic pentameter
  3. The poem begins with an apostrophe to “thou still unravish’d bride of quietness” (1). This is a metaphor comparing a maiden to the urn, which has not been tainted by neither impurities or, as the next line implies, time. The urn is then compared to a woodlands historian, who is able to tell a tale much more clearly than even a poet.
  4. The poet uses rhetorical questions in the second half of the first stanza, questions he attempts to answer in the remainder of the poem.
  5. The poem’s structure reminds one of a five paragraph essay: (1) The first stanza introduces us to the topic, the picture on the urn, and presents several questions; (2) The second stanza speaks of music and love; (3) The third stanza continues with music, nature and love; (4) Stanza four deals with religion and sacrifice; (5) Stanza five gives a recap of the problem and the descriptions, followed by the truth revealed by the Urn–that beauty outlasts all.
  6. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (1-2). This reminds me of Plato’s forms. There is a perfect music in existence somewhere; all other music seeks to replicate it, yet falls short. This perfect music exists on the urn. It is not the sensual ear that perfection appears to, but the soul (13).
  7. Lines 15-20 give a description of the ideal. It is the form of beauty, of youth, of music that remains engraved upon the urn, the enacting of which would lessen its perfection. It’s a beauty that has existed before objects.
  8. Stanza 3 - The trees will never go old and deteriorate. The picture on the urn is Edenic. Evil has not been introduced. it does not go through the cycle of life where all deteriorates.
  9. Eternity speaks in the final six lines of the poem: the entire scene is beauty, which has no beginning and no end, just like truth.
  10. The last two lines: “that is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Does this indicate that there is more we learn after our life on Earth?

*Follow this link for an explanation of the process undergone in analyzing this poem.

Sample Paragraph

Though analyzing this poem in one paragraph may prove to be difficult. I’ll try:

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats describes a perfect scene of beauty and peace sprinkled with philosophical truths regarding Truth, Beauty, and Eternity. The scenes on the urn are frozen in time, frozen in their perfect form, as only an artist, or a poet, could depict them. Keats asserts, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (11-12). Music exists in perfection only in art. Any attempt to replicate it lessens its beauty. He writes of “happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (21-22). In the perfect world, youth, synonymous with beauty, can only exist in the artist’s mind. As it progresses, it loses its perfection. The final stanza concludes the poet’s thoughts with an eternal suggestion that perfection exists, Beauty exists and “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (49-50). In other words, learn that perfection exists and don’t worry about figuring out the rest.

Disagree? Feel free to voice your dissent with my conclusions in the comments.

This post is part of the series: John Keats Poetry Study Guide

John Keats is good at writing poetry.

  1. An Analysis of Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
  2. Understanding La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats
  3. Interpreting the Odes of John Keats
  4. Analysis of Poems by John Keats: “To Solitude” and “Bright Star”
  5. An Analysis of “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”