Ode on a Grecian Urn: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in Ode on a Grecian Urn

Ode on a Grecian Urn transcribed by George Keats 1820Energy

Keats’ language has an energy which matches the intensity of the images he describes and the strength of feeling they evoke. He apostrophises (directly addresses) the urn, trying to ascertain its secrets, asking ten urgent questions and exclaiming with emotion and frequent repetition as he discovers new truths. That this intensity of focus might be a welcome distraction for the poet is hinted at by the pervading images of loss that characterise ‘breathing human passion’. 


Keats plays with the meanings of words, creating the oxymoron ‘Cold Pastoral’. Pastoral is the artistic genre which depicts shepherds in an idyllic, sunlit landscape, so the word ‘cold’ seems a contradiction – until we realise that the decorated urn, though seemingly immortal, is also cold and inhuman. 
Wordplay is also important in stanza 5 in which ‘brede’ puns on ‘breed’ and ‘brede’ (another spelling of braid, used to mean something interwoven or plaited). Similarly ‘overwrought’ means created over the surface of the urn, but it could also mean in Keats’ day, as in ours, ‘exhausted by overwork/worked up to too high a pitch/over-excited’.


The poem’s ambiguous and uncertain tone is part of its richness. With wit and irony the poet has imagined a response which, coming from the urn’s eternal perspective, is appropriate and understandable. However, from the human perspective, the ending seems like an elusive riddle.

Investigating language and tone in Ode on a Grecian Urn

  • The urn was created at a specific moment in time – but in this poem it seems to be beyond the reach of time and to abide in an eternity of beauty. Note in two columns how Keats uses language to suggest both a) the specificity and b) the timelessness of the urn?
    • What do you notice about the verb tenses he employs?
  • What is the effect of repetition in the poem?
  • There are several invocations and exclamations in the poem. How do they affect its tone?
  • What examples can you find of ambiguity in the poem? 
    • What does the uncertainty of meaning add to the poem’s overall effect?

Structure and versification in Ode on a Grecian Urn

Stanza 1 opens with an address to the urn and this is followed by a series of questions about the scenes that are painted on it, which stanzas 2 and 3 describe in detail.
Stanza 4 again asks questions, this time focused on a scene of sacrifice: who are the people coming to it? What is happening to the empty town from which they have come?
Stanza 5 reflects on the speaker’s own reactions to the art which the urn represents. It has a sort of immortality, surviving into an age very different from that which created it. It is a glimpse of eternity but also a reminder that all which is human fades away.
Ode on a Grecian Urn follows the same ode-stanza structure as the Ode on Melancholy, although there is more variety in the rhyme scheme. Each of the five stanzas is ten lines long, each one written in 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 rhyme ababcde, but the second occurrences of the cde sounds do not follow the same order in the five stanzas. For instance, in stanza 1, lines 7-10 are rhymed dce; in stanza 2, ced and so on. 
As in other odes, 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 broadly set out the subject of the stanza, and the last six generally explain or develop it. 

Investigating structure and versification in Ode on a Grecian Urn

  • Central to the poem’s structure is the contrast between life and art. Explain how the shape of the poem helps to shape the reader’s responses to these two concepts.
  • Do you agree that both the structure of the poem and its versification draw attention to themselves? 
    • Does Keats intend to give the impression that his poem has been as artfully constructed as the ode about which he is writing?
  • How do structure and versification contribute to the poem’s formal tone?
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