[Text of poem]
Stanza One (lines 1 through 10)
1. Explain how the poem opens simultaneously with a pair of apostrophes, a pair of metaphors, and an effusion.
2. Why can the illustrated urn "express / A Flowery tale" more effectively than poetry?
3. Presumably the vase-painter has depicted the figures against a solid colour; why, then, does the persona mention as possible physical settings the Thessalian valley of Tempe and the pastoral dales of Arcadia?
4. Why can the persona not determine whether the figures painted on the urn are mortals ("men"), immortals ("gods"), or both?
5. The "maidens" depicted on this side of the vase are "loath" — why?
6. From the key words that the poet uses to characterize the scene in the last three lines, explain what is depicted.
Stanza Two (lines 11 through 20)
1. An example of oxymoron (a deliberately steep paradox) is "those unheard," for the antecedent of "those" is "melodies." How can the melodies here be real and yet be unheard?
2. What "goal" does the lover nearly achieve? Why, although he does not achieve his goal, is he nevertheless fortunate?
3. What does Keats imply about music, love, and the power of the imagination in this stanza?
4. How does Keats relate music to love in this stanza?
5. Why do the "ditties" have no "tone"?
6. The operation of what two kinds of "ears" does Keats describe?
Stanza Three (lines 21 through 30)
1. The word "happy" as used in this stanza has two possible meanings: of a cheerful frame-of-mind, and fortunate. Why is each of the following "happy" in either one or the other sense (or both at once)?
A. the "boughs" of a tree in the background.
B. the "melodist" or singer.
C. "love" as depicted on the urn.
D. the viewer or observer of the urn.
E. the urn itself.
2. Why do the words "happy" and "forever" occur so many times in this stanza? What are these words describing? How does the poet use them to characterize various elements of the scene?
3. Although the artist who painted the vase's figures modelled them upon reality, how are they now very different from their real counterparts?
4. Why will the boughs never "bid the Spring adieu"? Why does Keats use the French expression rather than the English "farewell" or "goodbye"?
5. What are the four negative or unpleasant consequences of real "human passion," according to Keats? We note that the figures on the urn will NOT suffer any of these.
6. Explain the two different types of love that Keats contrasts in this stanza.
7. Again and again, Keats in this stanza describes qualities that the urn's figures do NOT possess and experiences that they cannot undergo. In stanza two, the "fair youth" can never finish his song. What other examples can you find where Keats emphasizes experiences not embodied in the scenes on the urn? Why does he praise the urn's figures for not being able to have such experiences?
Stanza 4 (lines 31 through 40)
1. We now move to other side of the urn: how does the series of rhetorical questions here reflect those the observer asked in the first stanza?
2. The procession, the priest, and the sacrificial heifer are all depicted: what elements does the poet's imagination supply?
3. Explain how the questions and the answers that the observer supplies demonstrate the working of the poet's imagination.
4. Keats describes the priest as "mysterious." Consider, in addition to the sense of a "mystery" as an unsolved crime which challenges a detective's problem-solving skills, the following definitions of "Mystery" from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Harper and Row, 1981), then apply as many of these definitions as possible to the priest:
Mystery, meaning something hidden, inexplicable, or beyond human comprehension, is from Lat. mysterium (through French) and Gr. meusterion, from muo, to close the eyes or lips. [This sense may be related to the so-called "mystery religions" or cults of ancient Rome, Greece, and the Middle East.]
It is from this latter sense that the old miracle plays, mediaval dramas in which the characters and story were drawn from sacred history, came to be called Mysteries, though they were frequently presented by members of a guild or mystery. (Ivor H. Evans, p. 768)
5. The "thy" of line 38 refers to the imaginary "little town" from which the priest and procession have come: why does Keats address it directly in apostrophe?
6. Why can the poet not determine which of the three places mentioned is the locale of the "little town"?Stanza Five (lines 41 through 50)
1. The oxymoron "Cold Pastoral" requires us to consider how a poetic form dedicated to spring, love, and the life force can be "cold." What is a pastoral, and how are the scenes depicted on the urn specifically "pastoral"?
2. The urn teases the viewer "out of thought" and into what states beyond reason and logic?
3. Explain why Keats addresses the urn as "fair attitude."
4. Keats was an advocate of artistic "negative capability," a critical term that implies the artist possesses the ability to lose himself in the contemplation of and self-identification with his subject. How does this last stanza of the poem exemplify "negative capability"?
5. Explain the last two lines, pointing out the antecedent of "Ye."
6. What does Keats mean by "this generation"?
7. Keats specifically classifies this poem as an ode. According to Chris Baldick in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1991), an ode is
An elaborately formal lyric poem, often in the form of a lengthy ceremonious address to a person or abstract entity, always serious and elevated in tone. There are two entirely different classical models: Pindar's Greek choral odes devoted to public praise of athletes (5th century BC), and Horace's more privately reflective odes in Latin (c. 23-13 BC). Pindar composed his odes for performance by a chorus, using lines of varying length in a complex three-part structure of strophe, antistrophe, and epode corresponding to the chorus's dancing movements. . . . Close English imitations of Pindar, such as Thomas Gray's "The Progress of Poesy" (1754), are rare, but a looser irregular ode with varying lengths of strophes was introduced by Abraham Cowley's "Pindarique Odes" (1656) and followed by John Dryden. . . . . Odes in which the same form of stanza is repeated regularly (see homostrophic) are called Horatian odes. . . . (p. 155)
Explain which of the above definitions of "ode" apply to this Keats poem.
For research and further discussion
A. First published in the journal Annals of the Fine Arts (London, January 1820), probably a month after it was written, the poem is the product of "emotion recollected in tranquility," namely those feelings that John Keats experienced when visiting the British Museum in 1817 to see the Elgin Marbles, Phidian low-relief friezes and high-relief sculptures from the Athenian Acropolis acquired by the British government from Lord Elgin the year before. After studying these sculptures, formulate how these operated on his imagination.
B. All three scenes on the urn obliquely allude to the story of the god Pan. How may we relate specific details of these scenes to the mythological account of the god of fertility and flocks?
C. Late in 1817, in other words two years prior to the composition of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats began formulating the artistic theory of "Negative Capability," a quality he thought essential in both writing and interpreting poetry. In a letter written to his brothers George and Tom Keats between 21 and 27 December 1817, he described the ideal emotional state in which to approach poetry thus: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (quoted in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, ed. Ian Ousby, p. 672). To what extent may we apply Keats's conception of "Negative Capability" to this poem?
Last modified 12 October 2007