The poem by John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn", is one of the most memorable and enduring of all the poems to come from the Romantic Period. “Ode on a Grecian Urn" is notable for its profound meditation and persuasive conclusions about the nature of beauty, particularly as beauty is portrayed in artistic media. The meaning of the poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats conveys, perhaps paradoxically, the “speechlessness of the true language of art" (Klaus 251). In doing so, it demonstrates “the most universal power [of all nineteenth-century poets] to move readers in our own time" (Bloom & Trilling 494). This effect is achieved through the cohesive development of the meaning of the entire poem, but is especially concentrated in the concluding lines that have become so well-loved and often recited: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (ll. 49-50). In these two seemingly simple lines, Keats conveys his entire philosophy about art, beauty, and life to the reader so that he or she can offer an interpretation. While it should be noted that these concluding lines of the poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn” frequently appear alone, the true meaning of them is not lost without the rest of the poem to compliment them, but the gravity of what Keats is trying to suggest is certainly diminished.
It makes sense, structurally speaking, that the stanzas of “Ode on a Grecian Urn" which precede these two closing lines build up, both thematically and formally, to the assertive declaration made by the speaker. After spending four full stanzas, each of ten lines, contemplating the characteristics of the Grecian urn in careful detail, the speaker, Keats himself, answers the ten questions that he has posed earlier in the poem with the simply and directly worded phrase, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’" (l. 49). This part of the final two lines is compelling for a number of reasons. First, its apparent simplicity belies its latent symbolic meaning. One of the first superficial qualities that the reader notices in this phrase is the economy of language that characterizes this part of the line. Keats avoids extraneous words, such as an “and" to connect the two parts of the statement, and a second “is." Instead, he favors a pared down, streamlined statement that is facilitates easy recall and repetition. When compared to the rest of this poem from the Romantic Period, particularly in terms of language and form, these final lines strike the reader, not only because of what they mean, but because there has been a formal attempt to attract the reader’s attention through structure. The poetic phrase, then, becomes a maxim that can move beyond the poem and circulate in a wider social and artistic dialogue. As Bloom and Trilling observe, the enduring popularity of this poem seems to suggest that the maxim has a certain timelessness and universal appeal about it as well (494).
When offering a summary of the poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats and attempting to discern the meaning of the poem, the reader must move farther into the poem. The second part of the line—“that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (ll. 49-50)—also seems simple enough but is one of the important quotes from “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by Keats. First, it is important to point out that this part of this important line from “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is divided from the first by a hyphen, which forces the reader to pause between the two interrelated conclusions Keats wishes to convey to the reader. The fact that the first part of the line is also enclosed within quotation marks, as if it came from a source outside the poem itself, and the fact that this second part of the line is not, also calls the reader’s attention to the matter of differences and similarities in the concluding lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn." While —“that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (ll. 49-50) is more verbose than the “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’" (l. 49) sentiment, its parallel construction helps reinforce the lesson it contains. The parallel construction also serves to imitate the similar construction of the first part of the line. The repetitive structure of both components of these last two lines is an important formal poetic device. The fact that this repetition occurs at the end of the poem, and not at any other point—at least not in quite the same way—earlier in the ode also underscores that Keats expected the reader to take away a particular message from the poem. The repetition makes the message memorable and transportable. In addition, again this is a direct effort to engage the reader at the end of the poem and through this repetition, reinforce the point and perhaps give one cause to go back up and reread previous stanzas with a fresh eye now that the poet’s message seems clearer. While this is certainly speculation on why Keats chose this structure and closing lines, it did have this effect after reading it several times through each time.
Moving to a deeper analytic level, however, yields even more compelling observations about these apparently simple, almost sing-songy lines. Beyond functioning effectively as a formal poetic device, the parallel construction of both parts of the lines reveals two paradoxes Keats wishes the reader to consider. Upon a second reading and a reconsideration of these beguilingly easy lines, the reader might notice that Keats might not mean what he is saying at all. At this interpretive level, the poem yields up at least one alternate meaning. If the reader understands the lines “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’" (l. 49) on a level that is only superficial, then he or she might react the lines with admiring and assenting sentiment. However, if one studies the lines beyond and beneath the first impression that they evoke, the paradoxes become evident. These lines, as is true of the poem itself, must be considered within the broader historical context of the Romantic movement. The lines must also be considered against the knowledge of Keats’s own concerns and precoccupations. When this information is considered alongside a reading of the poem, then it is possible that the reader may react and respond very differently to these lines, which seemed so optimistic and positive on the first reading. In fact, this second reading, in which the paradoxes are identified and considered, may provoke a sense of existential despair in the reader. Keats is suggesting that beauty can only truly exist in an artificial state, such as on the frozen, immutable, lifeless form of the Grecian urn.
Such an argument may raise a number of provocative and uncomfortable questions. The reader may ask, What is the reason for living, then? Why continue to pursue and attempt to create and define beauty? One may even ask, Why go on living? Beauty is so central to humans’ most cherished beliefs and pursuits, that Keats’s forceful lines seem to challenge important aspects of our very selves. Once the reader moves beyond this reaction, though, it becomes possible to see that Keats’s truth is liberating. If humans no longer need to strive to create the perfect beautiful form in whatever medium, then it frees them to be imperfect. Imperfection, in turn, liberates humans to make and remake art, and to recognize that one form dies with each individual death, and is then born again with each new birth– a common theme in poetry from theRomantic period. Bloom and Trilling refer to this realization as Keats’s “gift of tragic acceptance" (495), which the poet hands to the reader and urges him or her to accept and then contemplate.
Such tragic acceptance did not cause pain or persistent despair for Keats, nor should it cause such feelings in the reader, although it might evoke a temporary sense of “unbearable ecstasy" (Mitrani 102). This ecstasy, though, is itself paradoxical because it is, eventually, bearable. In fact, this ecstasy is at the root of the perpetual “aesthetic conflict" identified by psychoanalysts (Mitrani 102), a subject which has also preoccupied poets and artists since the beginning of human attempts at artistic expression. The aesthetic conflict, as it is represented by Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn", is this: the art object does not reflect reality as we experience it. In fact, the art object cannot reflect reality as we experience it. The art object only reflects ideals, ideals which are never achievable in real life. Keats describes the beautiful urn by sharing his detailed observations, noting its decorations and conveying its scenes to the reader. The urn is made of marble, a precious material, and it is etched with carvings of sacred gods. By referring to the mythological heroes of the past, Keats evokes a particular nostalgia for the supposed perfection of the preceding ages, a nostalgia which will be contested and then swept away in the declarative concluding lines.
The overall sense, at least until the concluding stanza, suggests a feeling of pleasure, bliss, and eternity, rather than of death. At the end of the poem, though, Keats returns himself—and the reader—to reality by noting that the world is a “Cold Pastoral!" (l. 45). The eternity initially suggested by the urn exists only artistically; it does not reflect life, which is not eternal. This is the aesthetic conflict Keats provokes and also resolves in “Ode on a Grecian Urn." These paradoxes suggest that the urn discloses a particular truth to man. The urn’s truth lies in its beauty. Yet that truth is that perfect beauty can only exist as it does on the urn: captured, frozen, artificial. The beauty in this truth is that we do not have to strive for perfection, then, because it is not possible for mortals. It was only possible in a world populated by deities.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn", then, is a journey into the interior of Keats’s mind and the soul, as well as a disclosure of his most closely held beliefs. The poet uses an external object, a Grecian urn, to provoke the reader to contemplate the same aesthetic conflict which has preoccupied him and his fellow Romantic poets so deeply. This particular ode, among all of his oeuvre, shows Keats in a particularly contemplative state. His observations of the urn have provoked considerations about the nature of truth, beauty, and the function of art, all of which were the primary concerns of the Romantic poets. While the urn keeps the reader grounded in the realities of the outside world, the reader is a companion to the poet, who manipulates extreme emotions and ultimately concludes that life can only be captured by living it experientially, not trying to replicate it in art forms. The ultimate irony, of course, is that Keats uses one art form, the poem, and specifically, the ode, to achieve the transmission of this artistic philosophy.