Perhaps this is because although the urn exists in a real world that is subject to change and the effects of time that the images depict remain unaffected. Not also the phase ” sylvan historian” in line 3, whilst not answering any of the poet’s questions, does have a message depending on how you interpret the, final stanza. The urn is “sylvan”, firstly because it has a border of leaves around the vase and the scene is set in woods. The wording “flowery tale” and “sweetly” do not prepare the reader for the fear and wild sexuality depicted in lines 8-10, a Bacchanalian ritual that involves a sexual chase.
Also note that twice during lines 6-8 the poet appears unable to distinguish between mortal and immortal, men or gods. Could he be suggesting there is a co-existence and inseparableness or blurring of the differences between them. This discussion of opposites becomes more apparent as you re-read the poem. Moving on to the second stanza let us consider the first four lines. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard, Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tune:
Here the poet appears to contrast his ideals with reality again and what does he mean by the paradox of the unheard pipes? “Sensual” could mean his thoughts of art, love and nature. Yet, in the final six lines he appears to discuss the negativity of frozen time, notice the language and the negative phrasing employed here. “canst not leave! , “nor ever can” and “never, never canst” Lines 5-8. In line 17 Keats addresses someone and asks them not to grieve but who is he actually talking to. Is it the reader or the cavorting figures on the vase, or even to both.
This negativity must have some significance. Consider Keats life at the time of writing, suffering from depression and very ill this is obviously reflected in his writing. Stanza three returns to the concepts of the previous stanza’s of the trees which are unable to shed leaves, the musician and th lover. The life depicted here is an ideal unaffected by disappointments or pain. There also is an element of irony in this stanza as the human passion depicted by the figures is also unchanging. “All breathing passion far above”.
This is ironic as the passion is also unfulfillable and that this satisfaction is unattainable and therefore impossible. Looking at the final three lines Keats attempts to depict real life. Again there is a return to negative phrasing; “high-sorrowful, burned forehead and parching Tongue”. I believe here the poet prefers the urn life to reality. Notice the repeated use of the word “Happy”, and a perfect unchanging worked. Looking now at Stanza four, the narrative moves away from descriptions of individuals to communal life as he moves on to the effect that art can have on life.
How art can evoke your thoughts and imagination. Not considering individuals but creating a village in his imagination where the people would live. An empty town as the people are witnessing the sacrifice of the cow. As the reader we too are drawn by Keat’s into the imagined world of the urn. During the final stanza of the poem the poet observes the urn as a whole and draws on his memories. The poet appears to become involved in the life of the urn and then returns to the position of the observer. Notice how he describes the figures on the urn as “marble men and maidens”, “silent form” and cold pastoral”.
However, the use of the words cold pastural creates a paradox, an opposite as this pertains to the rural life of shepherds connotations of a simple and peaceful life. Again a contrast to the image of the Bachanalian ritual. Also notice the use of the word tease in line 44. It could be said that in his use of this word that Keats’s felt that the images on the urn draw the observer out of the real world and in to an ideal world. Looking at the poem as a whole, notice how much of the text takes the form of the couplet thus allowing the flowing rhythm of the prose.
The poem has been written in five stanza’s. The rhyming scheme of the poem is highlighted by the punctuation and the use of indentations. Notice too that each stanza is made up of ten lines each of approximately the same length. In the final couplet Keats states that “pain is beautiful”. This leads us to the discussion of the voice within the poem. The reader has to decide whether this is the urns’ voice or that of Keats. It could be here that Keats is casting a philosophical eye on life in general and not merely on the life depicted in context of the poem.
Critics of this poem have stated that Keats is saying that art is superior to nature. Whether this statement can be agreed with would depend on whether or not the reader considers Keats to be discussing the urn simply as a piece of art or with a deeper appreciation.
Ode on a Grecian Urn By John Keats Romantic writings: An Anthology edited by WR Owens and Hamish Johnson Approaching Poetry – Prepared by Sue Asbee Romantic Writings – Edited by Stephen Bygone ch 1-3 Nadine Rogers TMA 03 ID Number M4638132