Poetry: Ode on a Grecian Urn – John Keats

Ode on a Grecian Urn is a poem by the famous poet John Keats. Keats wrote it in 1819 and it was first published, anonymously, in January 1820. The basis for the poem is his belief that classical Greek art was idealistic and captured Greek virtues. Keat’s contemporaries did not like the poem, praise for it only started in the mid-19th century and it is now considered as one of the greatest odes in the English language.

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John Keats

The ode is about a narrator discussing a series of designs on a Grecian urn. Two designs in particular: a lover pursuing a beloved without capturing them, and villagers about to perform a sacrifice. But we don’t know this at first, the reader revels in the mystery of what’s going on. Ultimately, that is what this poem does: it shows the complexity the relationship between art and life. Because with art, we don’t need to understand everything. Keats sums that up perfectly in the last two lines:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It doesn’t matter what is going on, all that matters is that we appreciate the beauty of it.

The poem is divided into five stanzas, with each ten lines. Keats actually established a new type of ode, not a sonnet but not like a classic pindaric ode either. He uses ekphrasis, the poetic representation fo a painting or sculpture in words. He replaces actions with a series of questions and focuses only on the external attributes of the characters. He uses a basic rhyme scheme variation of ABAB throughout, with slight variations in the order.

If you want to read it in full, you can do so here.

Happy reading,

Loes M.

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