Illustrations for Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

 

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Illustrations for Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn

The poem was written at a time of great interest in the literature and artifacts of ancient Greece. It seems unlikely that any specific vase can be found that served as a model for this poem. In fact his reference to marble in line 42 suggests he may have been thinking of a Roman copy of a Greek vase. Also the term ‘urn’ is more of a reference to Roman culture than Greek. Still the poem documents the impact that the art of ancient Greece had on Keats and other artists of his time. I have tried to provide ancient illustrations of the imagery that Keats chose to include in his poem. These illustrations are from ancient Greek vases.

Illustrations

  1. Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!
  2. Thou foster-child of silence and slow time
  3. Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
  4. A flow’ry tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
  5. What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
    • Maenad, with a wreath on her head.
  6. Of deities or mortals, or of both,
  7. In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
  8. What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
  9. What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
  10. What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
  11. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
  12. Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
  13. Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
  14. Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
  15. Fair 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,
  18. Though 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!
  21. Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
  22. Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
  23. And, happy melodist, unwearied,
  24. For ever piping songs for ever new;
  25. More happy love! more happy, happy love!
  26. For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
  27. For ever panting, and for ever young;
  28. All breathing human passion far above,
  29. That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
  30. A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
  31. Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
  32. To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
  33. Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
  34. And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
  35. What little town by river or sea shore,
  36. Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
  37. Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
  38. And, 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.
  41. O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
  42. Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
  43. With forest branches and the trodden weed;
  44. Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
  45. As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
  46. When old age shall this generation waste,
  47. Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
  48. Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
  49. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
  50. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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The Portland Vase has some characteristics related to the poem but it is Roman glass and not Greek. See Click here. For the record at the Bristish Museum Click here.

The following passage from Homer suggests a similar scene to one Keats describes but it seems unlikely that there even ever existed a shield with this magical image. Homer, Iliad, 18.561 “Therein he set also a vineyard heavily laden with clusters, a vineyard fair and wrought of gold; black were the grapes, and the vines were set up throughout on silver poles. And around it he drave a trench of cyanus, and about that a fence of tin; [565] and one single path led thereto, whereby the vintagers went and came, whensoever they gathered the vintage. And maidens and youths in childish glee were bearing the honey-sweet fruit in wicker baskets. And in their midst a boy made pleasant music with a clear-toned lyre, [570] and thereto sang sweetly the Linos-song1 with his delicate voice; and his fellows beating the earth in unison therewith followed on with bounding feet mid dance and shoutings.”

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