Poet's Pick April 22
John Keats:
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Selected by James Arthur
National Poetry Month 2013

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James Arthur's Poetry Month Pick, April 22, 2013

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
by John Keats (1795–1821)

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."


* James Arthur Comments:
I first encountered “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in college. But I developed a more personal relationship to the poem years later, in grad school, when required by one of my mentors, the wonderful poet Richard Kenney, to commit “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to memory. The ode’s subject, an ancient marble vase, is carved with the scene of a Dionysian revel. And because the revel exists only as an image on the urn’s surface, Keats imagines that the feast-goers live in a static world, in which spring can’t progress into summer, in which young lovers remain young forever, leaning toward each other, never kissing—a world in which a piper plays without making any music that we can hear. The ending of the poem is mysterious. Living people, unlike the revelers, must change, grieve, and die… and the urn’s message to them, according to Keats, is that beauty and truth are one and the same. Does Keats mean for us to take that message to heart? Or does he mean for us to read the utterance skeptically, thinking of the great distance separating our reality from that of the people on the urn? Or is the poem’s meaning more complicated still?

About James Arthur:
James Arthur was born in Connecticut and grew up in Toronto, Canada. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, Ploughshares, Best New Poets 2010, and Best Canadian Poetry 2008. He has received a Stegner Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, and a residency at the Amy Clampitt House, as well as fellowships at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. He now lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife and son.

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