As an English major in college, I was very interested in the Romantic writers. I had read Keats before, but studying his works gave me a deeper appreciation of his skill as a poet. It had been a while since I read Keats, so I figured I would read one of his more well-known poems today, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” (Click here to read the poem online.)
The first thing that one should notice about this poem is the title. It is an ode on and not an ode to a Grecian urn. Keats is not writing a poem dedicated to the urn; he is writing about the poetic beauty that he sees within the imagery on the urn. The ode is comprised of the pictures that decorate the vase.
Keats claims that the urn expresses “A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” It appears that he feels words and poetry are less evocative than the silent visual impressions. While words and cadence of poetry can certainly stir emotions, Keats feels that visual imagery can do so much more effectively.
The following lines are possibly my favorite in the poem:
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:
There are two ways to interpret these lines. First, one could say that the unheard music is simply the lost songs of the ancients, which appear more desirous because we can never actually hear them. But I see a second interpretation, one that I feel is what Keats was actually getting at, which is that the divine, or what Keats calls Beauty later in the poem, cannot be expressed verbally, but can only be experienced by visual impressions projected upon one’s psyche. The music without sound is the symphony of images dancing within his consciousness.
I know that not everyone appreciates poetry, but this poem is so good it deserves to be read at least once. Personally, I am seriously considering dusting off my old school books and revisiting more of Keats’ works. It’s amazing how my reading list keeps growing!