The complete poetical works and letters of John Keats/Ode on a Grecian Urn

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For other versions of this work, see Ode on a Grecian Urn.


Lemprière's classical dictionary made Keats acquainted with the names and attributes of the inhabitants of the heavens in the ancient world, and the Shakesperean Chapman introduced him to Homer, but his acquaintance with the subtlest spirit of Greece was by a more direct means. Keats did not read Greek, and he had no scholar's knowledge of Greek art, but he had the poetic divination which scholars sometimes fail to possess, and when he strolled into the British Museum and saw the Elgin marbles, the greatest remains in continuous series of perhaps the greatest of Greek sculptures, he saw them as an artist of kindred spirit with their makers. He saw them also with the complex emotion of a modern, and read into them his own thoughts. The result is most surely read in his longer poem of Hyperion, but the spirit evoked found its finest expression in this ode.

The ode appears to have been composed in the spring of 1819 and first published in January, 1820, in Annals of the Fine Arts. There are then about four years in time between the sonnet, 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer,' and this ode; if the former suggests a Balboa, this suggests a Magellan who has traversed the Pacific. It is not needful to find any single piece of ancient sculpture as a model for the poem, although there is at Holland House, where Keats might have seen it, an urn with just such a scene of pastoral sacrifice as is described in the fourth stanza. The ode was included by Keats in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and other Poems.


Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed 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 mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?10


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 canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,19
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor 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 enjoy'd,
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.30


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 flanks 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.40


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
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 shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a 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.50