Ode on a Grecian Urn
By John Keats
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-fring’d 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?
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,
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.
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.
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.”
About the author
John Keats was born in London on 31 October 1795, the eldest of Thomas and Frances Jennings Keats’s four children. Although he died [of tuberculosis] at the age of twenty-five, Keats had perhaps the most remarkable career of any English poet. He published only fifty-four poems, in three slim volumes and a few magazines. But over his short development he took on the challenges of a wide range of poetic forms from the sonnet, to the Spenserian romance, to the Miltonic epic, defining anew their possibilities with his own distinctive fusion of earnest energy, control of conflicting perspectives and forces, poetic self-consciousness, and, occasionally, dry ironic wit.
Although he is now seen as part of the British Romantic literary tradition, in his own lifetime Keats would not have been associated with other major Romantic poets, and he himself was often uneasy among them. Outside his friend Leigh Hunt‘s circle of liberal intellectuals, the generally conservative reviewers of the day attacked his work as mawkish and bad-mannered, as the work of an upstart “vulgar Cockney poetaster” (John Gibson Lockhart), and as consisting of “the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language” (John Wilson Croker). Although Keats had a liberal education in the boy’s academy at Enfield and trained at Guy’s Hospital to become a surgeon, he had no formal literary education. Yet Keats today is seen as one of the canniest readers, interpreters, questioners, of the “modern” poetic project-which he saw as beginning with William Wordsworth—to create poetry in a world devoid of mythic grandeur, poetry that sought its wonder in the desires and sufferings of the human heart. Beyond his precise sense of the difficulties presented him in his own literary-historical moment, he developed with unparalleled rapidity, in a relative handful of extraordinary poems, a rich, powerful, and exactly controlled poetic style that ranks Keats, with the William Shakespeare of the sonnets, as one of the greatest lyric poets in English.