Reflecting upon “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – by John Keats

Mar 4, 2021 | Journal


At first I started writing this critical approach only based upon my own thoughts, but then I have read several other critical writings on the works of John Keats. I realised, that most of my findings are not new, and other authors have made a better and more complete research on this topic. Therefore, I started citing their works. In the end, this essay was born. I decided to share it, because I believe that it is thought provoking.

You can do many things with an urn. You can pursue your hobby within pottery, by making it, you can collect urns, or you can fill them with various things… Especially meanings…

I kindly ask the dear reader to treat this essay as a token of appreciation towards John Keats, and not as a full academic research. I used many appropriate and academically accepted material for my work, but it is not a complete research, just a reflection and collection of my thoughts.

Critical Approaches:

Truth be told, after I read some critical approaches from various authors, I grew to like many of them. Some here are used to support my claims towards this masterpiece by master Keats. And to be completely honest, I could not really choose between William R. Wood’s and Jacob D. Wigod’s approaches.

Wigod’s approach rang very similarly with my view on the poem, and it supported my thoughts. However, Wood’s approach brought up an alternative view, which could support my claim about the Urn being God’s urn, and the last two lines are not for us, but for the urn, to just stand there, eternally and watch us go by. Going further within Wood’s explanation I realised that indeed the line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” could really mean, how beauty and truth are just artistic ideals, and there is a greater picture in the background.

In my opinion Geraldine Friedman’s approach may steer us away from the truth by focusing too much, on the erotic aspects of the poem, in a raw form. However, it was a useful thought provoking work, which could give the base of what I think about feminine symbols.

David Kerner’s approach was very interesting to read, and I could see the wisdom in his words. He inspired many great ideas in my. Like a spark setting things into motion.

If I, by any chance, have to choose, I would like to combine William R. Wood’s and Jacob D. Wigod’s approaches into one, because they wrote down what I think and feel as well. However, Kerner gave me a very interesting journey into how else I could see Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

Therefore I arrived to the conclusion that since we cannot truly know what Keats intended, all these approaches could be true at the same time, and might just make up the pieces of the puzzle.

Thoughts and Reflections:

Keats starts the poem form the heights of the Havens to descend into the mortal plain. The metaphors he uses are beautiful, and in the end compile a strong allegory about our existence and its purpose. The poem returns to the cradle of western culture, to ancient Greece.

Keats describes an ideal past, through the place names he uses, which are metaphors at the same time. Arcady, which is Arcadia, the mountainous region in the middle of the Peloponnese, in Keats’ time, meant an ideal, innocent and pure region. Combining Arcady with the beauty of Tempe is giving the poem a peaceful, ideal background. This metaphor however carries a little sense of duality, because in ancient times, Arcadia among the Greeks meant the land of barbarians, a secluded region, which civilization cannot reach. In me a question arose while reading this name, which one could he meant? Or maybe combined both? Idealizing the ancient past, where humanity could live a simple and peaceful life, not yet tainted by culture? Perhaps, or perhaps a foreshadowing of our descent into the darkness that inhabits that urn.

While moving on, reading about the forever lasting songs, the forever young maidens and this sweet paradise, I felt something wrong. This could not, and never will be true. The land of forever Spring, where no human can ever enter, but forever wishing to. In there, gods are born, souls are created.

Then, like a lightning strike, we fell from this dream. Tainted by the civilization, borne by the Snake, humans bringing sacrifices. Can we ever return to Paradise? Why does the herd need a shepherd?

All this painted on the Grecian Urn… Ever still, ever unchanging. The remains of something once alive closed inside a promise, a wish, frozen in time… Yet we the reader are not. We can describe the poem as a painting, a still image. However, it is a flowing, ongoing journey, that we the readers follow…

The Urn makes me think of Death, of where Life ends. But at the same time, it makes me think of life. How can an Urn make one think of life? Our path, let it be of any kind, ends within the cold embrace of Death, this one is the only certainty we have. There is no lie in it, no false promise. Moreover, this very thing, this certain end, give our life value. This is the only thing we have to know, to make life worth living.

I often wonder about our purpose in life… A person just looks upon an urn, giving it a deeper meaning. It becomes art. The poem made me remember of what I used to say “Everything can be art”. This only depends on us, if we can or want to fill things with meaning. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, are we destined to create beauty? Is art, a way to achieve that? If we were created by God, in God’s own image then we are creators too. However, we are far from perfect, or I can say that we are yet to grow up to the task. Humankind can create horrors and can create wonders. Therefore, I think that our purpose in life is to create. Like God has done so. Nevertheless, can this urn, be of God’s or maybe our own?

Today our world is oversexualised, and while Keats used many erotical icons and metaphors, I would like to draw attention to how images of women can mean other greater ideas, not just erotic scenes.

The feminine spirit of the poem can be also associated with civilisation. This line “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness”, could mean the virgin bride, not yet tainted by sin. Thus, we can draw in some similarities from the Bible, for example the story of Adam and Eve, or the Virgin Mary.

A feminine image or metaphor can mean not just a young woman, the image of intercourse, but the saint image of the mother. The one who guards the Cradle of Humanity. What makes us human? Why are we human? What raises us above animals?

One answer could be the soul, our souls, given to us by God. However, many religions believe that animals have their own souls as well. So, in my opinion, this soul was only the spark to ignite the fire. Only a woman can birth humanity, The Mother. The saint cult of the mother. If we draw a line between the feminine spirit and civilisation, then either it is our cradle or our mother, of fertility. Civilisation is the other pillar that makes us human. Therefore, it can be associated with a woman, a mother. We were borne by civilisation. And raping a woman can only be done by another human being.

Therefore, the raping that Keats is talking about is in fact the tainting of Civilisation. He draws a line between the two sins, and emphasising that tainting and twisting civilisation are just as great sins, as raping a woman. This is how the poem is contextualised if we view it from this perspective. With the Sin we can once again bring in the Bible.

In conclusion, we humans are responsible for raping and tainting our civilisation, from which hideous things are born as a result…


Some other thoughts about the poem:

Since Keats lived in the early 19th century, he uses this (what we now call archaic) old English language. I am fascinated by this earlier form of English, I love to use archaic words, when I write my own little things. Keats used the language as a fine tool to weave his poem, his choice of words is exemplary.

Works cited:

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats

“Keats’s ideal in the Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Jacob D. Wigod – PMLA, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 113-121

“An Interpretation of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”” by William R. Wood – The English Journal, Vol. 29, No. 10 (Dec., 1940), pp. 837-839

“The Erotics of Interpretation in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn“: Pursuing the Feminine” by Geraldine Friedman – Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 32, No. 2, Romanticism and the Feminine (Summer, 1993), pp. 225-243

“The Problem of Evil in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn“” by David Kerner – Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 28, No. 3, Literature of the Nineteenth Century (FALL 1986), pp. 227-249