Ode on a Grecian Urn Poem by John Keats

Written in 1819, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ was the third of the five ‘great odes’ of 1819, which are generally believed to have been written in the following order – Psyche, Nightingale, Grecian Urn, Melancholy, and Autumn. Of the five, Grecian Urn and Melancholy are merely dated ‘1819’. Critics have used vague references in Keats’s letters as well as thematic progression to assign order. (‘Ode on Indolence’, though written in March 1819, perhaps before Grecian Urn, is not considered one of the ‘great odes’.)

This ode contains the most discussed two lines in all of Keats’s poetry – ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ The exact meaning of those lines is disputed by everyone; no less a critic than TS Eliot considered them a blight upon an otherwise beautiful poem. Scholars have been unable to agree to whom the last thirteen lines of the poem are addressed. Arguments can be made for any of the four most obvious possibilities, -poet to reader, urn to reader, poet to urn, poet to figures on the urn. The issue is further confused by the change in quotation marks between the original manuscript copy of the ode and the 1820 published edition. (This issue is further discussed at the bottom of this page.)

Crop from George Keats's manuscript copy of 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'

Crop from George Keats’s manuscript copy of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

You can view part of the earliest known manuscript below. Please note that it is a transcription in George Keats’s handwriting; Keats’s original manuscript / first draft is lost.

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 haunt 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.

Note: In 1997, Dennis Dean published an article in the Philological Quarterly titled ‘Some Quotations in Keats’s Poetry’. In it, he discussed the problem of the final quotation, linking it with the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds. I think it reasonably settles the ‘quotation issue':

“In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Keats will say exactly the same thing, more elegantly but more cryptically also: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”–surely the most famous equation in English literature and precisely correct in suggesting the Newtonian origin of the unstated “proof.” Many readers of Annals of the Fine Arts would probably have recognized the source of Keats’s equation in the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds because of their familiarity with Reynolds and because the whole technique of allusion (or even short quotation) was fundamental to the neoclassicism in which both Reynolds and his readers had been educated.

In the second published version of 1820, moreover, Keats represents this portion, and this portion only, of the urn’s utterance as a quotation–but as a quotation within a quotation. If one were free to punctuate the final pair of lines in the “Ode” according to present-day editorial practice, they would (in my view) look like this:

“‘Beauty is truth; truth, beauty’–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The urn, in other words, begins by quoting Sir Joshua (for Keats and his readers, the world’s greatest authority on art of all kinds), implicitly affirms the sufficiency of human intellect, explicitly affirms the equation of beauty and truth, and pronounces this knowledge entirely sufficient to create the elegant geometry of such superb art as the urn.

Because of the uniformity of human minds and passions, moreover, the figures inscribed on the urn (which puzzle the observer at first glance) become intelligible as we relate them to our own experience. The first stanza of the poem is filled with questions; the last, with none. Being art, the urn retains its ability to “speak” to all who observe it, reminding us of our paradoxical dilemma as mortals who exist in finite time.”

Source: ‘Some Quotations in Keats’s Poetry’ by Dennis R. Dean. From the Philological Quarterly. Volume: 76. Issue: 1, 1997.