In the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, poet John Keats uses an ancient Greek earthenware urn to represent the function of artistic objects as the silent witnesses of time and the vehicles through which their human creators achieve immortality. John Keats employs the metaphor of the urn to reveal to the reader how certain elements of art surpass death and become witnesses to all human endeavour.
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In essence, the artistic product – in this case the urn – survives its creator and achieves immortality, not to mention the ability to absorb and encapsulate all of the human experience that existed at the time of its creation, as well as all of the human experience that has occurred in the interim.
As critic Wesley D. Sweetser notes, the experience of reading Ode on a Grecian Urn becomes an “experience [that] is at once felt and an indelible contrast etched between the transience of the human condition and the relative permanence of art” (10).
All tangible and tactile products of art – poems, paintings, and urns included – contain a permanence that their human creators will never experience. The poem therefore becomes a commentary on the impermanence of the human condition, and the means by which humans transcend their mortality through art.
John Keats employs the first two stanzas of the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn to introduce the idea of the silent witness to time that the urn represents to the reader. The artistic object, though fashioned by human hands in time, immediately stands outside of time and outside of human experience, once it is created.
These first two stanzas of Ode on a Grecian Urn support John Keats’ notion that the concrete presence of the urn serves as a portal for the reader’s imagination, via which the past can be accessed. The physical proximity of the urn gives the reader proximity to all that the urn has witnessed over the course of its existence; in this regard, the urn absorbs all of the human experience that surrounded its creation, as well as all of the human experience that has occurred since that time.
The important lines that John Keats uses to purvey this idea are lines five and six from the first stanza, “What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both,” and “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter (Keats 32). In these two lines, John Keats refers to the ancient Greek culture that created the urn, through the reference to Greek mythology, and also makes reference to the “unheard” melodies that the urn personifies, the past, of which the only record is the urn itself (Keats 32).
As Keats scholar Bruce King notes, “the urn itself…has its own kind of eternity” (King 1). In essence, this particular piece of art bears witness to the past culture that created it, and simultaneously gives the reader imaginative access to that past culture, through its physical presence.
Once John Keats has established the metaphor of the time portal that the urn represents, he uses several important lines in the fourth stanza of Ode on a Grecian Urn to extend the metaphor and bring the reader in to the poem and the imagined past to which the urn gives the reader access. John Keats uses imagery to move the reader through time and give the reader access to all of the epochs of human history that the urn has witnessed.
The most salient lines that achieve this end include lines 31 through 34, “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?” a reference to the sacrificing of animals that was common among the pagan peoples (Keats 33). These lines are especially effective at bringing the reader in to the past and shaping his or her experience of it.
Several lines in Ode on a Grecian Urn also bear witness to the people that have died while the urn lives on. As King notes, as human beings, “our lives not only pass, but at the end we become waste. The urn, however, remains—a work of art that speaks to others” (1). This is perhaps the most relevant element of Ode on a Grecian Urn.
In essence, John Keats is “making his own claim to permanence” in Ode on a Grecian Urn, and arguing one of the key functions of art, as a tribute to human life and a record of human life (King 1). The urn becomes a testament to the lives of all the humans that its existence has touched; in so doing, the urn achieves a sort of immortality on their behalf.
The reader sees this in the fourth stanza in the lines 38 through 40, “And, little town, thy streets for evermore / Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return” (Keats 33). The only record of these souls, according to the poem, is the urn itself and the memories that it represents.
Similarly, John Keats writes in the fifth and final stanza, “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” (Keats 33).
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The artistic product therefore functions as “friend to man” because it simultaneously allows human beings access to their own past and their own ancestors while functioning as a record of their lives and their accomplishments (Keats 33). Time may indeed “waste” each successive generation through death; however, the urn itself will ensure that these lives are not forgotten.
In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the poet John Keats employs the metaphor of an ancient Greek funerary urn to expand the role of artistic products beyond their aesthetic function to a function as a record of human existence. In Ode on a Grecian Urn therefore, John Keats relays to the reader the ability of artistic objects to transcend death; works of art such as the urn contain the power to go beyond mortality and bear witness to immortality.
The ability of the urn to exist over millennia ensures that its creator and all of the people it has come into contact with over the course of its existence are spoken for and remembered by successive generations. The poem speaks to the function of artistic products such as the funerary urn as testaments to the lives of their creators.
Keats, John. Ode on a Grecian Urn and Other Poems. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Print.
King, Bruce. “An Overview of Ode On A Grecian Urn.” Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 2012. Print.
Sweetser, Wesley D. “Ode on a Grecian Urn: Overview.” Reference Guide to English Literature. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Print.