The Urn as a Perfect Symbol of Contrast in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016
12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2.1 Keats's contrary attitude towards the urn
2.2 The urn as an active speaker
2.3 The use of questions as communication instrument

3.1 The story of Daphne and Apollo as an image of contrasting feelings
3.2 The pursuit for counterparts
3.3 The desolate town as a contrast between eternity and remoteness

4.1 Paradoxes as an instrument of contrast between real and imagined world
4.2 Exaggerations to conceal the narrator's view

5. Conclusion

List of works cited

1. Introduction

“There is a greatness which the Paradise Lost possesses over every other Poem - the Magnitude of Contrast, and that is softened by the contrast being ungrotesque to a degree” (Keats 293). As this quote from Keats's “Notes on Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’” shows, John Keats was well aware that using contrasts was one of the criteria which caused a huge prestige to Milton's “Paradise Lost” (cf. Slote 32). But also in Keats's works, especially in his odes which he wrote in 1819, forms of oppositions and contrasts appear to play a major role in these poems. His odes deal with existence and imagination, while they often contrast transient life and eternal death. One of these odes which exemplifies this pattern is the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

At first glance, it is not significant that Keats composed an ode which portrays a Grecian urn. But after some time, the reader might ask himself, why Keats has chosen an urn for his poem and what kind of urn he is talking about. It is not clear, whether Keats is writing about an urn which is used to contain the ashes of a dead body, if it is just a decorative element or if it contains something else. It is not even clear, whether he is talking about a real or an imagined object. This term paper therefore deals with the purpose of the urn in Keats's ode and answers the question what function this object occupies. Taking Keats's quote on Milton's “Paradise Lost” in account, it is to assume that Keats uses the urn as an ideal symbol for contrasting the real, transient world with an apparently perfect, imagined world. With the urn as a basis, Keats constructs a poem which portrays the variety of contrasts on three different levels, namely a conversation level between narrator and urn, a level with regard on the stories portrayed on the urn and a stylistic level of the poem itself. In the course of this paper, the contrasts in the conversation level are portrayed at first, followed by contrasts and oppositions in the stories on the urn pictured by the narrator and in a third section the contrasts on a stylistic level are illustrated.

2.1 Keats's contrary attitude towards the urn

The way the narrator communicates with the urn, a lifeless object, portrays the contrariness which characterises the whole poem. At the beginning of the poem he addresses the urn by giving it human attributes, which makes the whole scenery absurd. The narrator addresses it by saying “[t]hou unravish'd bride of quietness” (1). With this depiction of the urn Keats provokes several questions to the reader: Why is the urn the “bride of quietness”? Why is it “unravish'd”, i.e. “not raped”, and thus, how could it, in contrast, be ravished? It appears that the urn is somehow in relation to quietness, since it has a marital connection to it, as it is the bride. Consequently, “quietness” itself also becomes a form of personification because it has to occupy the role of the groom. If one supposes that the quietness, by being the urn's groom, prevents the urn from being ravished, it is likely that the narrator contradicts his own depiction of the urn as a “bride of quietness”, since he is disturbing this quietness by talking to it. In addition, he calls the urn a “foster-child of silence and slow time” (2), which again attributes human characteristics to it. Similarly to the first address, the relation between the urn and “quietness” or “silence and slow time” is portrayed, though it appears that this is not a natural relation, since the urn is a “foster-child”. That means that “silence and slow time” are not, metaphorically spoken, the urn's biological parents. Therefore, on the one hand, the urn appears to have parents, but on the other hand, they are not the urn's real parents. Thus, by depicting the urn as an “unravish'd bride” and as a “foster-child” the narrator conceals whether the urn's situation is either good or bad, because both of the pictures mentioned imply positive and negative connotations at the same time. They also illustrate the urn as a somehow living object, since it is personified. Concurrently however, these pictures make the urn appear lifeless, since it is connected to silence and quietness.

2.2 The urn as an active speaker

The penultimate line in stanza five has caused big discussions in the debate on who is saying “[b]eauty is truth, truth beauty”. The most obvious way is to read this line line as being uttered by the urn, since in line 48, which is the antepenultimate line of stanza five, the narrator, by saying “to whom thou say'st”, clearly shows that the urn is talking. Since, almost throughout the whole poem, the urn is addressed by the vocative “thou”, it remains the only addressee. Hence, the urn receives animate attributes again, as it appears to talk in the penultimate line. Though, the fact that in stanza five Keats is talking about the future of the urn, saying “[t]hou shalt . . .” (47), makes it dubious, whether the urn is really speaking or if Keats is only putting words into the urn's mouth. But both possibilities still imply that the urn is somehow speaking, which underlines once more the strange way of communication between narrator and the urn. Even if it is only a construct of imagination, the theme of contrast between inanimateness and liveliness again appears, making the scenery seem even more unreal.

2.3 The use of questions as a communication instrument

Apart from personifying the urn and putting words into its mouth, the narrator keeps asking the urn questions, as if he expected it to answer:

What leaf-fring'd legend

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Although these questions might be read as rhetorical questions, the situation between narrator and urn still appears abstruse, since these questions create the effect of a pretended conversation which, however, has only one speaker, i.e. the narrator. If those questions are not read in a rhetorical way, it seems like the narrator expects the urn to answer and therefore anew attributes animate traits to it.

Additionally, by asking the urn questions instead of describing what is happening in the pictures on the urn, the narrator gets an apparently objective point of view, as he is thereby only giving fragmentary information. The reader is thus forced rather to rely on his own imagination, evoked by Keats’s questions, than to hope for a detailed description. Thereby, the strange conversation mode between narrator and urn does not only portray the abstruseness of the whole poem, but also shows the contrariness between what the narrator tells and what he consequently expects from the reader's imagination. The urn becomes the “[s]ylvan historian” (3) who creates the stories in the reader's mind. Hence, the urn, an actual lifeless object, becomes a story- teller, which again generates an animate image.

3.1 The story of Daphne and Apollo as an image of contrasting feelings

The stories on the urn which Keats describes in the course of the poem are full of oppositions. The first story that he mentions is the “leaf-fring’d legend” (5). In contrast to Walter Jackson Bate's claim that the described pictures cannot be identified (cf. 77), there are possibilities to identify what is actually portrayed on the urn. Keats gives several hints which indicate that he is talking about the myth of Apollo and Daphne. To illustrate this assumption, it is necessary to render a short summary of the myth: Cupid, having been taunted by Apollo, prepares two divergent arrows, one of gold and one of lead. He shoots the golden arrow on Apollo, which makes him instantly fall in love with Daphne. Daphne on the other hand, is hit by the arrow of lead, which causes her to disapprove Apollo's love. Being then chased by Apollo, Daphne desperately begs her father, the river god Ladon, to help her. As a result, Ladon transforms her into a laurel tree to prevent her from Apollo’s kisses. If the reader is acquainted with the myth, he will understand that Keats’s choice of words evokes the imagery of this legend. The first indicator is the phrase “leaf-fring’d” (5), which portrays Daphne being already transformed into a tree. In addition, the “leaf-fring’d legend haunts” (5) , which evokes the image of Apollo hunting Daphne. With his question “[i]n Tempe or the dales of Arcady?” (7) the narrator again leads the reader to a very specific point, although he himself does not appear to know the exact place of action. Tempe is the location of where the myth of Apollo and Daphne took place.

The legend of Apollo and Daphne clearly portrays the opposition between two lovers showing contrary feelings to each other. If the ode is read at first, the story of Apollo and Daphne might not come to the reader's mind, and he thus cannot discover the divergences between the two lovers. But by taking this myth into account, the whole scenery of the contrary ode becomes much more obvious. In stanza two Keats even climaxes in this legend by reflecting contrastively on Apollo’s situation which is recorded on the urn. He, on the one hand, explains to the “[b]old Lover” (17), i.e. Apollo, that “never canst thou kiss” (17), but on the other hand consoles him by saying “yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair” (17-20). Bearing the story of the two lovers, Apollo and Daphne, in mind, Keats's way of consoling the “[b]old Lover” makes it hard to decide, whether Keats appreciates the fate of Apollo, who is illustrated on the urn, or not. The portrayed god, on the one hand has got the eternal opportunity of loving his beloved and being next to her everlasting youth, but, on the other hand, will always be rejected by her, since she will never love him. On this subject, Albert Gérard concludes that “. . . even the positive statements are couched in negative terms. It sounds as if the poet were in two minds about the happiness that he is describing” (24). Additionally, Charles Patterson sees Keats's way of consoling rather as “partly an ironic offer of spurious comfort” (212-13), underlining once more the narrator’s equivocal expressions.

3.2 The pursuit for counterparts

The second image on the urn portrays an action similar to that of Apollo and Daphne. Keats again uses questions to construct an image in the mind of the reader by asking “[w]hat men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” (8-10). The content of the story must thus be deduced from these questions. Therefore, the reader has to suppose that the story deals with a sort of chase, namely a “pursuit” (9), on “maidens loth” (8). The image of these maidens equals to that of Daphne, who is l oth to accept Apollo’s love. Keats’s question “[w]hat men or gods are these?” (8) suggests that there must be some creatures which cannot clearly be defined. Though, by asking “what pipes and timbrels?” (10), the narrator hints at the identity of the creatures that are portrayed. Pipes and timbrels are instruments which are famous to be played by satyrs, creatures being said to be the male counterparts of nymphs, which appear to be the “maidens loth”. Now, these satyrs are chasing their counterparts, the nymphs, like Apollo is chasing Daphne. Interestingly, Daphne herself is also a nymph. The opposition in this story is similar to that of the prior one, namely contrasting feelings between the satyrs and the nymphs. But, this opposition becomes even clearer now, knowing that the acting figures are counterparts of each other. This choice of action again highlights the contrary form of the poem. It should also be mentioned that chasing nymphs belonged to the satyrs’ favourite activities. Their pursuits took place regularly, a fact which also illustrates the everlastingness of this story. At the same time, however, the story is captured on an image and thereby loses its liveliness because there is no active motion in it.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Urn as a Perfect Symbol of Contrast in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
John Keats, Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, poetry, Romanticism, Gothic, English Literature
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2016, The Urn as a Perfect Symbol of Contrast in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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