Description

This is a copy of one of the most famous poems in the English language, John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1819), probably in his brother George’s handwriting. Along with ‘Ode on Indolence’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on Melancholy’, it is one of five great Odes Keats wrote in spring 1819. 

What is its form? 

Having expressed frustration with the sonnet form in the poem ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chained’, and finding the available forms of the ode – a poetic address on a subject – similarly restrictive, Keats developed an ode better suited to the language. It consists of a stanza of 10 lines of pentameter, opening with four lines (a quatrain) rhyming a b a b, and closing with six lines (a sestet) of various rhyme schemes. 

What are this poem’s subjects? 

Though Keats had made a drawing or tracing of the ancient Sosibios vase, no specific ‘urn’ has been identified. The focus seems to be the exemplary qualities of ancient Greek art more generally; a popular contemporary subject taken on by writers such as William Hazlitt and Benjamin Haydon, particularly in reaction to the Elgin marbles, which were acquired by Britain in 1816. Keats referred to them in a sonnet and in the ‘heifer lowing to the skies’ in this poem (line 33). The poem works the contemplation of these objects into a reflection on art itself, culminating in two lines which some critics see as an immature muddle, and others as a perfect distillation of what has gone before.

Transcript

                                 Ode on a Grecian Urn             1819.
                                               1
               Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
                        Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
               Sylvan Historian, who can’st 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 love? what dance? what struggle to escape?
                         What pipes and timbrels? what wild extacy?
                                 _______________________

                                               2
             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 can’st not leave
                       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare, -
                                 Bold lover, never, never can’st thou Kiss.
             Tho’ winning near the goal, 0, do not grieve!
                       She cannot fade, tho’ thou hast not thy bliss
                       For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

  1. Transcript

                                     Ode on a Grecian Urn             1819.
                                                   1
                   Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
                            Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
                   Sylvan Historian, who can’st 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 love? what dance? what struggle to escape?
                             What pipes and timbrels? what wild extacy?
                                     _______________________

                                                   2
                 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 can’st not leave
                           Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare, -
                                     Bold lover, never, never can’st thou Kiss.
                 Tho’ winning near the goal, 0, do not grieve!
                           She cannot fade, tho’ thou hast not thy bliss
                           For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

  2. Transcript


                                             3
               Ah! happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
                        Your leaves, no 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 enjoyed,
                                     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.

                                            4
              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 sides 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.

  3. Transcript


                                                                                        56
                                              5
               O Attic shape! fair attitude! with bride
                        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 wilt remain in midst of other woe
                        Than our’s, as 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.
                                  ------------------------------

                      [printed clipping]
                                                    SONNET,
                                  ON THE DEATH OF THE POET KEATS.
                         And art thou dead ? Thou very sweetest bird
                         That ever made a moonlight forest ring !
                         its wild unearthly music mellowing !
                         Shall thy rich notes no more, no more be heard ?
                         Never ! Thy beautiful romantic themes,
                         That made it mental heaven to hear thee sing,
                         Wrapping the enchanted soul in golden dreams,
                         Are mute ! Ah ! vainly did Italia fling
                         Her healing ray around thee - blossoming
                         With blushing flowers, long wedded to thy verse !
                         Those flowers, those sunbeams, but adorn thy hearse ;
                         And the warm gales, that faintly rise and fall,
                         In music’s clime - themselves so musical,
                         Shall chaunt the minstrel’s dirge far from his father’s hall.
                         ----------------------------------------------------------------------