Melodies Unheard Essays On The Mysteries Of Poetry

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Notes on Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

In this ode, Keats studies a marble Greek urn and contemplates the story, history and secrets that lie behind its carved pictures. Throughout the poem, he constantly juxtaposes the immortality of art with the mortality of man. His feelings seem confused, as he is torn between jealousy and bitterness that the urn will live forever and be remembered when he is long dead and forgotten, and pity for this inanimate object that has no experience of life, despite its endurance through the ages.

“Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time”

From the start, Keats addresses the urn directly, using the pronoun 'thou', and continues throughout to personify it.
The word 'still' in the first line is key to the poem, as it is polysemic: it could mean 'yet', reflecting the sense of anticipation present in the poem, or 'motionless', because the urn does not move.
Keats contrasts the urn's peaceful quality, ('quietness' and 'silence and slow time'), with undertones of violence, suggested with 'unravished bride' and 'foster-child'.
He uses words with long vowel sounds, such as 'silence' and 'slow' to keep the pace slow.

“A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both?”

With 'flowery tale' and 'leaf-fringed legend', Keats uses natural imagery, a central feature of Romantic poetry. It links the urn to nature's transcendence.
He contrasts 'sweetly' with 'haunts', which highlights the two juxtaposing sides of the urn.
On line 7, he introduces the contrast of mortality and immortality, with 'deities or mortals'.

“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

With the last three lines, Keats increases the pace with quick-fire questions, which reveal his longing to know the urn's secrets. Do the questions need to be answered?
'Men or gods' continues the juxtaposition of the mortality with the immortal.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone”

Keats uses describes the scene on the urn, in which musicians are pictured, yet their music is unheard. Because he cannot hear the music, in his imagination it is perfect.
He again addresses the inhumanness of the urn – it has no senses, so the pipes cannot play to 'the sensual ear'.
He employs very deliberate assonance with 'ear'/'endeared', 'spirit'/'ditties' and 'no'/'tone', which makes the language very obviously poetic and lyrical – perhaps to show that the poem is art, like the urn.

“Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

There seems to be a sense of wasted or unfulfilled life, as the 'bold lover' will never reach his goal, though he is so near to it, because he remains in the same moment in time forever. The repetition of 'never' aids this thought.
Keats presents the idea that the urn is caught in an eternity of bliss and love.

“For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”

The repetition of 'for ever' shows the urn's immortality, whilst the duplication of 'happy' suggests that all is not happy.
Like in the first stanza, the word 'still' is key, acting again polysemically.
'Panting' and 'breathing' represent life's breath, and reminds the reader that the urn is not alive. Keats again contrasts human mortality with 'for ever young' immortality. 'Far above' is linked with the gods.
He ends the stanza with the idea that love causes illness: 'a burning forehead, and a parching tongue'. The last two lines are a further reminder of man's mortality and inevitable death.

“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green alter, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies?”

Keats describes the next picture on the urn, and introduces a new enigma, which will never be answered, as expressed by the adjective 'mysterious'.
There is a semantic field of religious language and imagery throughout the fourth stanza, starting with 'sacrifice' and 'priest'.
Like in the first stanza, the unpleasant image of the 'heifer lowing at the skies' reveals an undertone of violence.

“…Emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.”

The word 'empty' could also be seen as key to the poem, as it seems to describe Keats' feelings about the urn; despite its beauty, mystery and many stories, it is without life and therefore empty, and therefoe “for evermore will silent be”.
Where in Stanza 2, the urn was presented as being in an eternity of love and bliss, here it has changed to being eternally 'desolate'. This shows Keats' shifting feelings about the urn. It also represents the two paradoxical sides of the urn: in one way its immortality is a positive and joyful thing, but on the other, it is full of desolation, isolation and emptiness. This also has a more literal meaning, as the urn can be physically turned round by the observer, to see the various scenes.

“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, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'.”

In the final stanza, Keats seems to be pointing an accusing finger at the urn, labelling it a 'silent form', which teases the reader/observer. 'Eternity' could be a link to death.
His exclamation 'Cold Pastoral!' could be seen as one of anger or frustration, and ultimately a rejection of the urn and its lifeless immortality.
'A friend to man' links with the earlier poem Sleep and Poetry, in which Keats writes that poetry should be “a friend, to soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of man”.
He continues his juxtaposition of the mortality of man, demonstrated by 'old age', 'waste' and 'woe', with art's immortality: 'thou shalt remain'.
Keats offers an ambiguous conclusion with the final two lines. Depending on where the quotation marks are placed, it could all be the urn's message, with Keats taking a step back, or it could be his own thoughts. Is he being ironic, as he has learnt, and become less naïve, since he wrote Endymion (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”)?

Ode on a Grecian Urn - Further Notes

In the first stanza, the speaker stands before an ancient Grecian urn and addresses it. He is preoccupied with its depiction of pictures frozen in time. It is the "still unravish'd bride of quietness," the "foster-child of silence and slow time." He also describes the urn as a "historian" that can tell a story. He wonders about the figures on the side of the urn and asks what legend they depict and from where they come. He looks at a picture that seems to depict a group of men pursuing a group of women and wonders what their story could be: "What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"

In the second stanza, the speaker looks at another picture on the urn, this time of a young man playing a pipe, lying with his lover beneath a glade of trees. The speaker says that the piper's "unheard" melodies are sweeter than mortal melodies because they are unaffected by time. He tells the youth that, though he can never kiss his lover because he is frozen in time, he should not grieve, because her beauty will never fade.

In the third stanza, he looks at the trees surrounding the lovers and feels happy that they will never shed their leaves. He is happy for the piper because his songs will be "for ever new," and happy that the love of the boy and the girl will last forever, unlike mortal love, which lapses into "breathing human passion" and eventually vanishes, leaving behind only a "burning forehead, and a parching tongue."

In the fourth stanza, the speaker examines another picture on the urn, this one of a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. He wonders where they are going ("To what green altar, O mysterious priest...") and from where they have come. He imagines their little town, empty of all its citizens, and tells it that its streets will "for evermore" be silent, for those who have left it, frozen on the urn, will never return.

In the final stanza, the speaker again addresses the urn itself, saying that it, like Eternity, "doth tease us out of thought." He thinks that when his generation is long dead, the urn will remain, telling future generations its enigmatic lesson: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." The speaker says that that is the only thing the urn knows and the only thing it needs to know.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" follows the same ode-stanza structure as the "Ode on Melancholy," though it varies more the rhyme scheme of the last three lines of each stanza. Each of the five stanzas in "Grecian Urn" is ten lines long, metered in a relatively precise iambic pentameter, and divided into a two part rhyme scheme, the last three lines of which are variable. The first seven lines of each stanza follow an ABABCDE rhyme scheme, but the second occurrences of the CDE sounds do not follow the same order. In stanza one, lines seven through ten are rhymed DCE; in stanza two, CED; in stanzas three and four, CDE; and in stanza five, DCE, just as in stanza one. As in other odes (especially "Autumn" and "Melancholy"), the two-part rhyme scheme (the first part made of AB rhymes, the second of CDE rhymes) creates the sense of a two-part thematic structure as well. The first four lines of each stanza roughly define the subject of the stanza, and the last six roughly explicate or develop it. (As in other odes, this is only a general rule, true of some stanzas more than others; stanzas such as the fifth do not connect rhyme scheme and thematic structure closely at all.)

If the "Ode to a Nightingale" portrays Keats's speaker's engagement with the fluid expressiveness of music, the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" portrays his attempt to engage with the static immobility of sculpture. The Grecian urn, passed down through countless centuries to the time of the speaker's viewing, exists outside of time in the human sense--it does not age, it does not die, and indeed it is alien to all such concepts. In the speaker's meditation, this creates an intriguing paradox for the human figures carved into the side of the urn: They are free from time, but they are simultaneously frozen in time. They do not have to confront aging and death (their love is "for ever young"), but neither can they have experience (the youth can never kiss the maiden; the figures in the procession can never return to their homes).

The speaker attempts three times to engage with scenes carved into the urn; each time he asks different questions of it. In the first stanza, he examines the picture of the "mad pursuit" and wonders what actual story lies behind the picture: "What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?" Of course, the urn can never tell him the whos, whats, whens, and wheres of the stories it depicts, and the speaker is forced to abandon this line of questioning.

In the second and third stanzas, he examines the picture of the piper playing to his lover beneath the trees. Here, the speaker tries to imagine what the experience of the figures on the urn must be like; he tries to identify with them. He is tempted by their escape from temporality and attracted to the eternal newness of the piper's unheard song and the eternally unchanging beauty of his lover. He thinks that their love is "far above" all transient human passion, which, in its sexual expression, inevitably leads to an abatement of intensity--when passion is satisfied, all that remains is a wearied physicality: a sorrowful heart, a "burning forehead," and a "parching tongue." His recollection of these conditions seems to remind the speaker that he is inescapably subject to them, and he abandons his attempt to identify with the figures on the urn.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker attempts to think about the figures on the urn as though they were experiencing human time, imagining that their procession has an origin (the "little town") and a destination (the "green altar"). But all he can think is that the town will forever be deserted: If these people have left their origin, they will never return to it. In this sense he confronts head-on the limits of static art; if it is impossible to learn from the urn the whos and wheres of the "real story" in the first stanza, it is impossible ever to know the origin and the destination of the figures on the urn in the fourth.

It is true that the speaker shows a certain kind of progress in his successive attempts to engage with the urn. His idle curiosity in the first attempt gives way to a more deeply felt identification in the second, and in the third, the speaker leaves his own concerns behind and thinks of the processional purely on its own terms, thinking of the "little town" with a real and generous feeling. But each attempt ultimately ends in failure. The third attempt fails simply because there is nothing more to say--once the speaker confronts the silence and eternal emptiness of the little town, he has reached the limit of static art; on this subject, at least, there is nothing more the urn can tell him.

In the final stanza, the speaker presents the conclusions drawn from his three attempts to engage with the urn. He is overwhelmed by its existence outside of temporal change, with its ability to "tease" him "out of thought / As doth eternity." If human life is a succession of "hungry generations," as the speaker suggests in "Nightingale," the urn is a separate and self-contained world. It can be a "friend to man," as the speaker says, but it cannot be mortal; the kind of aesthetic connection the speaker experiences with the urn is ultimately insufficient to human life.

The final two lines, in which the speaker imagines the urn speaking its message to mankind--"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," have proved among the most difficult to interpret in the Keats canon. After the urn utters the enigmatic phrase "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," no one can say for sure who "speaks" the conclusion, "that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." It could be the speaker addressing the urn, and it could be the urn addressing mankind. If it is the speaker addressing the urn, then it would seem to indicate his awareness of its limitations: The urn may not need to know anything beyond the equation of beauty and truth, but the complications of human life make it impossible for such a simple and self-contained phrase to express sufficiently anything about necessary human knowledge. If it is the urn addressing mankind, then the phrase has rather the weight of an important lesson, as though beyond all the complications of human life, all human beings need to know on earth is that beauty and truth are one and the same. It is largely a matter of personal interpretation which reading to accept.

Ode on a Grecian Urn activity sheet

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?

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?

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?

Add your own readings to these ideas; what does the paradox mean to you?

Ode on a Grecian Urn

THOU still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

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?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
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, to whom thou say'st,
«Beauty is truth, truth beauty,»- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

One of the leading poets of his generation, Anthony Hecht is known for his masterful use of traditional forms and linguistic control. Extraordinarily erudite, Hecht’s verse often features allusions to French literature, Greek myth and tragedy, and English poets and poetry stretching from Wallace Stevens to John Donne. Hecht, who died in 2004, was often described as a “traditionalist.” George P. Elliott contended in the Times Literary Supplement that “Hecht’s voice is his own, but his language, more amply than that of any living poet writing in English, derives from, adds to, is part of the great tradition.” Though his early work was often slighted as ornate or Baroque, his collection The Hard Hours (1967) is generally seen as his break-through volume. In that book, Hecht begins to use his experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II. The often unsettling and horrific insights into the darkness of human nature told in limpid, flowing verse that characterize the poems in the collection would become Hecht’s trademark. According to Dana Gioia: “Hecht exemplifies the paradox of great art. … He found a way to take his tragic sense of life and make it so beautiful that we have to pay attention to its painful truth.”  

Anthony Hecht was born in New York City in 1923. Though a self-described mediocre student, he nonetheless counted his first three years at Bard College some of the happiest of his life. His college career was interrupted, however, when he was drafted into the army to serve in World War II. As an infantryman, he fought in Germany, France, and Czechoslovakia. His division also helped liberate Flossenburg concentration camp. Ordered to collect evidence from the French prisoners, the experience marked him for the rest of his life. Hecht returned to the United States and finished his degree at Kenyon College where he studied under John Crowe Ransom. At Kenyon he also formed friendships with poets like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Tate, and Randall Jarrell. Hecht’s first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954) displays great technical skill, but for some critics, the style seems mannered and dated. Donald Davie wrote in Shenandoah that “the poems are full of erudite and cosmopolitan references, epigraphs from Moliere and so on; and the diction is recherche, opulent, laced with the sort of wit that costs nothing. Here and there too the poet knowingly invites what some reviewers have duly responded with, the modish epithet ‘Baroque.’ But … the right word is the much less fashionable ‘Victorian.’”

The Hard Hours (1967) broke with many of the mannerisms that marked The Summoning of Stones. According to Laurence Lieberman in the Yale Review: “In contrast with the ornate style of many of Hecht’s earlier poems, the new work is characterized by starkly undecorative—and unpretentious—writing.” Hecht’s mature style was evident in poems like “More Light! More Light!” one of his most famous poems and, some argue, the finest poem in English to address the Holocaust. The poem opens with the burning of a Christian heretic in the Tower of London, but swiftly moves to “outside a German wood,” recounting a horrific event of the Holocaust in an attempt to capture how “barbarism dehumanizes its victims,” according to poet Edward Hirsch. Also described as a depiction of the “end of Humanism,” Hecht’s poem is one of his most frequently anthologized and discussed. Other poems that treat the Holocaust and Jewish trauma, such as “Rites and Ceremonies,” as well as lighter verses such as Hecht’s response to Matthew Arnold, “The Dover Bitch,” have become standards in the 20th-century canon. The Hard Hours won the Pulitzer Prize.

Hecht’s next collections, Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) and The Venetian Vespers (1979), return in some ways to the high style and diction of his first. According to Steven Madoff in the Nation, Hecht is much like Wallace Stevens in his interest in music “as a medium and transcendent force,” and he is especially influenced by “the melodic intricacy of expression, and the expansive discourse that is propelled through its argument as much by the perfection of the words’ sound as by the thesis that they construct” in Stevens’s writing. Unfortunately, said Madoff, “the complexity of this marriage [of sound and meaning] makes for a certain inscrutability.” The Venetian Vespers, whose title poem Hecht admitted was his favorite, continues to demonstrate the smoothness of Hecht’s line, and his ability to jump registers, write metrically and adhere to complicated rhyme schemes without ever abandoning a conversational, easy tone. As Michael Dirda noted in his Washington Post Book World recommendation, “there is never a jarring line, never a word out of place; everything fits together with the inevitable rightness of the classical poet.” Though known for such formal, intense poetry of great moral and ethical scope, Hecht also engaged seriously with light verse. With John Hollander, he invented a humorous form known as the double dactyl, which is similar to the limerick but significantly more difficult to write. Hecht and Hollander edited an anthology of double dactyls called Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls in 1967.

Hecht’s final books, Flight among the Tombs (1998) and The Darkness and the Light (2001) take weighty subjects such as death, war and the dark sides of love as their central themes. Flight among the Tombs also contains elegies to Hecht’s fellow poets Joseph Brodsky and James Merrill. Poetry contributor John Taylor found that in Flight among the Tombs, “Hecht’s formal mastery is of the highest order. Priceless lessons can be learned: the way a skillful poet manipulates a variety of traditional forms (including the ever-tricky villanelle), the naturalness of his meters and rhymes, his bold displays of consonance … his concision, his descriptive powers.” While The Darkness and the Light was often described as formally “less perfect” than earlier work, William Logan found that the imperfection made the poems more emotionally accessible. “The moody valedictory poems of The Darkness and the Light are more ravaged and humane than any Hecht has written,” remarked Logan. Logan saw a “loosening of control” that “has made Hecht a warmer, more sympathetic poet.”

Hecht was also a noted critic. His volumes of literary criticism are highly regarded. Obbligati (1986) contains critical essays on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Emily Dickinson, as well interpretations of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. A proponent of close reading and engagement with the text itself, Hecht’s critical work on the poetry of W.H. Auden, The Hidden Law (1993) originates less from a “critical orthodoxy than from the admiration of a working poet,” noted Sidney Burris in the Southern Review. Hecht’s other volumes of prose include On the Laws of the Poetic Art (1995), which contains six lectures Hecht gave at the National Gallery of Art in 1992 as part of that institution’s Andrew Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, and Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry (2003), the last work he published before his death in 2004. Hailed as ground-breaking from nearly all corners, the book contains essays that elucidate a lifetime of reading and thinking about literature and poetry. Wide-ranging and extremely learned, the essays, according to poet Mark Strand, “are models of civility, candor, and grace.” Encompassing almost all of the English literary tradition, Hecht’s essays also treat formal concerns such as the implications of the sestina and the structure of the sonnet. Strand went on: “I know of no other poet, certainly none of Anthony Hecht’s stature, who sheds as much light on the intricacies and hidden designs of poems and who does it with such style.”  

A longtime professor of poetry at the University of Rochester, Hecht also taught at institutions such as Georgetown, Yale, Harvard, and Smith College. He was the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1982 to 1984, and won many of America’s most prestigious poetry awards, including the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award and the Frost Medal. His collected poems were published in two volumes, Early Collected Poems (1993) and Later Collected Poems (2005). His death in 2004 was marked by a great outpouring of tributes and eulogies. In the New York Times, David Yezzi offered this praise: “It was Hecht’s gift to see into the darker recesses of our complex lives and conjure to his command the exact words to describe what he found there. Hecht remained skeptical about whether pain and contemplation can ultimately redeem us, yet his ravishing poems extend hope to his readers that they can.”

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