Ode on a Grecian Urn

Original Text: 
Annals of the Fine Arts, 15 (Dec. (?) 1819). Reprinted with minor changes in John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970. PR 4830 E20AB Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
2     Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
3Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
4     A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
5What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
6     Of deities or mortals, or of both,
8     What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
9What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
10          What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
11Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
12     Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
13Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
14     Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
15Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
16     Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
17          Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
18Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
19     She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
20          For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
21Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
22      Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
23And, happy melodist, unwearied,
24      For ever piping songs for ever new;
25More happy love! more happy, happy love!
26      For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
27           For ever panting, and for ever young;
28All breathing human passion far above,
29      That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
30           A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
31Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
32      To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
33Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
34      And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
35What little town by river or sea shore,
36      Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
37           Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
38And, little town, thy streets for evermore
39      Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
40           Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
42      Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
43With forest branches and the trodden weed;
45As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
46      When old age shall this generation waste,
47           Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
48Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
50           Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."


1] No Greek vase has been found which corresponds to Keats's description; it is supposed to be based rather on his general recollection of various works of Greek art as found in the British Museum and as depicted in engravings. Back to Line
7] Tempe: a valley in Thessaly famous for its beauty.
Arcady: Arcadia, a district of the Peloponnesus, a pastoral country; associated with pastoral poetry. Back to Line
41] brede: a variant of "braid," an interweaving. Back to Line
44] tease us out of thought: draw us out beyond the limits of thought. This phrase occurs also in Keats's Epistle to Reynolds, written in March 1818: "Things cannot to the will/Be settled, but they tease us out of thought." Back to Line
49] Beauty and truth are associated several times in Keats's letters: "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth" (Nov. 22, 1817); ". . . in close relationship of Beauty and Truth" (Dec. 21, 1817); "I can never feel certain of a truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty" (Dec. 31, 1818). When the poem was first published in Annals of the Fine Arts, the last two lines were without quotation marks. In Lamia, etc., "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" was set in quotation marks as words of the urn, the rest being comment by the poet. This reading has caused unnecessary grammatical confusion. Keats was ill when Lamia, etc., was being prepared for the press, and we do not know who introduced the limited quotation. Our text follows the example of the Riverside edition (Douglas Bush, ed.) in putting the last two lines in quotation marks. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
J. R. MacGillivray
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.651.