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Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats: Poetry Explication / Meaning

Updated on December 5, 2015

It’s an alarming experience to be shocked while reading poetry. It’s certainly one of those moments when an extra cappuccino is necessary. But it’s the poem that makes a reader suspicions that will entice a deeper interpretation of the text on the page. John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ does well to transcend the written word of poetry by being passionate while somehow urging upon the reader the uncertainty of floundering in life without a definitive meaning.

The comparison of the urn to a “foster-child of silence” (line 2) is unnervingly enchanting in that the image evokes is distressing and yet, startling true. The image conveyed is that of a poor creature that has been passed around from home to home for years, unable to feel the passion of human contentment and literally all alone for generations where no one can hear the horrid cries. Such strong imagery pervades the entire ode; however, this image alone was the most striking because it is the very essence of what the urn represents.

In fact, this “foster-child” reference can mean that there is no ‘real urn.’ The urn is the struggle of the speaker’s troubling inner conflicts. It is a depiction of time passing for eternity without meaning or answers. In addition, it saturates the reader with the same frustrations of uncertainty. It is a perpetual inner struggle for explanation – just as the deity-sculpted urn is an eternal artifact without a defined meaning.

John Keats
John Keats | Source

The core to this struggle is established in the last few lines, “beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (lines 49-50). Truth is the answer. Truth gives life meaning and it equals freedom. It takes a great amount of courage to be truthful and the fact that the urn refuses to answer the secrets of the past is a reflection on the speaker’s inherent frustration. Simply, the urn is an inspiration to discover meaning. Seasons will change and generations will pass into eternity without ever finding answers. Truth is, the, the point of existence.

John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ expresses the uncertainty of a life without meaning. It inspires images of a youth crying out for answers with literally none available. It is a life of a perpetual sacrifice of answers, and the horror that never knowing the truth elicits. The urn is a powerful image because it represents the retched “foster-child” abandoned by its creators. In this, a reader will find their own disturbing truth about truth.

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