First of all, the urn in John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is not any particular urn. It’s something that looks like this: usually red on black or black on red, with various pictures of people or gods doing this and that. It’s not a real urn; it’s a composite urn that Keats produced out of his own imagination. And you don’t have to know much about Greek art in order to appreciate it. In fact, much of the poem consists of the speaker looking at the urn and not being able to understand what it means.
There are only a few unfamiliar place-names in the poem, including Tempe and Arcady. They are places in Greece. (OK, I suppose Tempe is also a place in Arizona, but I can’t imagine that’s what Keats had in mind.)
The rest of the poem contains some dictionary words, but it’s not particularly obscure in any respect. So my task here is less to explicate it than to argue for its placement at #2 of all time.
Very few critics would disagree, except perhaps to place the Ode at #1. Though not quite as perfect as “To Autumn,” the “Grecian Urn” ode has everything going for it: exquisite verbal music, profound ideas, great humanism, and inevitable phrasing.
We’ve remarked on Keats’s sheer lyricism before, and the “Urn” ode is where he shows it off to its fullest. Lyric beauty is a subjective thing, but I’d argue that Keats’s odes might fulfill the function that, at the start of this countdown, Rilke’s sonnets filled for us, if you didn’t know the English language: to serve as an example of pure linguistic music. And that’s in part Keats’s point, one of his profound ideas:
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
This is part “Too Marvelous for Words,” part art appreciation, and part negative capability: sound, form, and yes, even silence, can express beauty better, and more directly to the soul, than pyrotechnics.
Some critics have pointed out that the biggest idea in the poem (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”) would be a pretty banal truism on its own. Yet here, as we’ve seen before, the poet “earns” the big ending by setting up a net of tensions first. The speaker’s love for art, for life, for love itself; his despair at mortality; his almost frantic belief that beauty can transcend suffering and make life worthwhile – all these things have to be set in place before the payoff.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain
We’ve heard this idea in other poems (“An Arundel Tomb,” “Sailing to Byzantium”): art will survive us all. But it has never been so resoundingly expressed. By reflecting on art itself, Keats made an even more imperishable work of art.