The Extended Ages of an Urn
John Keats’s poem “An Ode to a Grecian Urn”, is written encompassing both life and art. Keats uses a Grecian urn as a symbol of life. He refers to the Greek piece of art as being immortal, with its messages told in endless time. Walter J. Bate explains that the Sisobas Vase that Keats traced at the home of his artist friend Haydon, the Townly Vase at the British Museum, or the Borghese Vase in the Louvre, are suggested by scholars to possibly be the ones that Keats had in mind while writing his poem (510-511). Being that Keats had quite a respectable knowledge of Greek art, it is also quite possible that he had no particular vase in mind at all. Outside of that, our chief concern is the meaning of the poem itself. As author Jack Stillinger proposes, “the speaker in a romantic period begins in the real world, takes off in mental flight to visit the ideal then returns home to the real.” However, because of his experiences during flight, he never returns to where he began and will be, however slight, forever changed (3).
The purpose of this paper is to primarily focus on the first stanza. In the first line of the poem, “Thou still unravished bride of quietness,” (1), Keats refers to the urn as the unravished bride, or a thing of beauty, but not just simply pleasing to the eye. It is a bride of silence, or so it may seem. Later, we read that the “silent bride” had recorded annals to deliver. As Patterson explains, “he suggests its changeless ungenerative descent through the ages; it does not reproduce itself and transmits itself and it’s meaning directly” (49).
“Thou foster-child of silence and slow time” (2). Keats now refers to the urn as a foster-child. Perhaps he uses this to tell us how the urn has been adopted to tell us a story of Greek times. Or perhaps even more simply, who were its original parents? The phrase “Now he belongs to the ages,” comes to mind here. The words, “slow time” seems so exact in describing the urn. After all, the urn is matter and is no more immortal then man. Time may not stand still for it; however, as with anything immortal, time shall move slower. Keats speaks of the urn as a “sylvan historian who canst thus express / a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” (3-4). He projects the urn as a historian forwarding tales and knowledge to us from the ages extended past. The urn has frozen lovely moments of history from the erosion of time.
As the second stanza begins, Keats once again projects the stories told by the urn as timeless. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes play on;” (11-12). Unheard melodies may contain an infinite number of notes. Thus, to whoever is listening, each hears a different sound, a sweeter sound. Though it may be different in tone, it is always the melody that pleases each individuals ear. Measurements as we know them no longer exist. The urn to be is apart from the constant flowing stream of time.
“Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave / Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;” (15-16). Keats describes two figures on an urn as a pair of young lovers beneath some leafy trees. The trees will forever shade these lovers, and their love song will play on in an infinite duration of time.
“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know (49-50). These last two lines have been those of the highest controversy in all of Keats poetry. The controversy being: Is this brilliance of a failure. “Although the line, ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty?’ is nonetheless a brilliant failure? I believe that the poet tries to say too much” (64-65). Patterson observes that ‘it was simply written different than “To Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightengale.” It lacks the even finish and extreme perfection.” But is much superior in other qualities. “In fact, the Ode to a Grecian Urn may deserve to rank first in the group [of Odes] if viewed in something approaching its true complexity and human wisdom” (56-57).
In the closing line, “beauty is truth, truth beauty (49), it summarizes the whole intellectual content of the poem. The beauty of the urn has preserved life of Greece and passed it on in truth. Keats inspiration of Greek art has been interbred with life. The poem is a hybrid of life and Greek art.