Ode on a Grecian Urn: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Ode on a Grecian Urn

The ode is literally a series of images which are described and reflected upon. The Grecian urn symbolises an important paradox for Keats: it is a work of applied art (urns being associated with death), silent, motionless and made out of cold materials, yet at the same time it moves him with its vitality and its imaginative depictions of music, passion and sacrifice. It is a symbol of beauty and of immortality, whilst at the same time reminding human beings of just how brief their own life and passions are in comparison.

The urn

The urn itself is referred to in a series of images:
  • As a ‘bride of quietness’
  • A ‘child of silence and .. Time’ 
  • As a teller of pastoral stories
  • A shapely yet silent ‘tease’
  • A friend to humanity
  • As a wise sooth-sayer.
The dominant image of the urn in the final stanza is as a ‘Cold Pastoral’. The phrase suggests that although its beauty cannot fade, it cannot be part of the warmth and emotional intensity which comes from being human.

Scenes depicted

Then there are the images depicted on the surface of the urn – and it is these which are offered for description and contemplation. These images undoubtedly tell a story, but at this distance in time we cannot know exactly what the story is. Instead the urn and its decorations now stand for an ideal of artistic beauty. The images are still bright and clear but the whole civilization that produced it has passed away – and so the questions which Keats poses about it can have no definitive answers.
The urn’s images are permanent and not subject to the death and decay that beset human beings. The urn is outside time and therefore avoids the fading beauty and destruction to which human lives are inevitably leading. The images suggest both the beauty of art and also its distance from everyday reality. The trees on the urn will never shed their leaves. The people depicted will never lose their sense of vitality; the lovers will always be young and passionate.
The fourth stanza and its image of the sacrifice prompts Keats to ask unanswerable questions about the town from which the people have come – a town now devoid of its inhabitants. Because life on the urn’s surface is frozen, the ‘little town’ will for ever have empty, silent streets. The image may be beautiful but its implications have darker overtones. The urn is immortal but reminds us of our own mortality.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Ode on a Grecian Urn

  • Some readers have suggested that the urn symbolises both the beauty of perfection on the one hand – and cold sterility on the other. Do you agree with this assessment?
  • Analyse the effect of the images Keats uses to convey the story of each scene on the urn.
  • Do the images suggest that art is good and that life is bad – or is their effect more complex than this?
  • Investigate the opening image of the urn as a ‘bride’.  How many associations does this word have? 
    • Is Keats exploiting both the idea of fruitfulness as well as the possible sterility of non-consummation?

Themes in Ode on a Grecian Urn

The temporal and the eternal

Keats dwells in this poem on the pleasure and pain of art. In stanza 4 the beautiful procession is made permanent by the artist’s skill, so the people cannot return to a town now made eternally desolate by their absence. The image also reminds us that the real people who inspired the image are now dead in the remote past. Because art fixes things and seems to make them eternal, it also reminds us that we have to live in a world of inevitable decay. 

Energy transfixed

Keats is also aware that, although the urn’s imagery is full of energy in its depiction of dance and erotic pursuit, it remains itself a ‘still unravish’d bride of quietness’, calmly transcending the excitement conveyed by its surface images. 
In contemplating the timelessness of pictorial art, Keats is also conscious that poetry works differently from pictures. An image can be seen and comprehended in an instant; but the poet has to construct a narrative of events that happen in a sequence. The poem’s speaker therefore imagines a story, even though it is one that the urn’s artist has had to freeze in time:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.     
Keats was particularly moved by the dynamic nature of the images on the urn. His friend Haydon was similarly impressed by this sort of art, writing in his diary:
the great principle of composition in Painting is to represent the event, doing and not done … The moment a thing is done in Painting half the interest is gone; a power of exciting attention depends … upon the suspense we keep the mind in regarding the past and future.     


Keats saw Haydon’s principle in the images on the urn: the coexistence of excitement and frozen time. It was this which made the object the perfect embodiment of the classical ideal (see Aristotle’s ideas on the golden mean.) 

Different viewpoints

What also fascinated Keats was the difference in viewpoint between the people depicted on the urn and that of the viewer. For instance in stanza 4 the mysteriously moving group fails to see the pathos of its own situation. No one in this group seems remotely aware that, for the group to exist, the town from which they have come has had to be emptied: the procession is beautiful but the town left behind is desolate.

Keats’ final aphorism

The poem’s final lines are famous but have also been much discussed and have caused much critical disagreement. One reason for this is that there is disagreement about the punctuation of lines. In the volume of poems that Keats published in 1820, they were presented as follows: 
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.     
The confusion arises from the fact that there are no quotation marks in the version printed in Annals of the Fine Arts later in the same year – or in the transcripts of the poem made by Keats’ friends. This has caused critics to disagree as to whether the urn speaks the whole two lines or whether the urn says just: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ and the rest is spoken by the poem’s speaker. And is the ‘ye’ in the last line addressed to the speaker, to the readers, to the urn or to the figures on the urn? 
There has also been dispute about what ‘all ye know’ means. Is it that we are meant to believe that ‘beauty is truth’ is a profound philosophical statement or a simplification of something very mysterious (i.e. all that we/ye are capable of understanding)? It certainly seems to be a very definite and emphatic statement - which concludes a highly indeterminate poem that dwells on mystery rather than simply defined truths!

Investigating themes in Ode on a Grecian Urn

  • How does the urn reflect Keats’ longing for permanence in a world of change?
  • What does this poem suggest about the role of art?
  • What evidence is there that, in Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats is meditating on what happens when one creative imagination interacts with another?
  • How does the poem treat the theme of time? 
    • In what ways does the urn link Keats’ present with the classical past? 
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