How John Keats Writes a Poem: A Line-by-Line Breakdown of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

The Greek term ekphra­sis sounds rather exot­ic if you sel­dom come across it, but it refers to an act in which we’ve all engaged at one time or anoth­er: that is, describ­ing a work of art. The best ekphras­es make that descrip­tion as vivid as pos­si­ble, to the point where it becomes a work of art in itself. The Eng­lish lan­guage offers no bet­ter-known exam­ple of ekphras­tic poet­ry than John Keats’ “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn,” from 1819, which pulls off the neat trick of tak­ing both its sub­ject and its genre from the same ancient cul­ture — among oth­er virtues, of course, sev­er­al of which are explained by Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, in his new video above, “How John Keats Writes a Poem.”

Puschak calls “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn” “arguably the best poem from arguably the best roman­tic poet,” then launch­es into a line-by-line exe­ge­sis, iden­ti­fy­ing the tech­niques Keats employs in its con­struc­tion. “The speak­er craves the ide­al, ever­last­ing love depict­ed on and sym­bol­ized by the urn,” he says. “But the way he express­es him­self — well, it’s almost embar­rass­ing, even hys­ter­i­cal, fever­ish.”

Keats uses com­pul­sive-sound­ing rep­e­ti­tion of words like hap­py and for­ev­er to “com­mu­ni­cate some­thing about the speak­er that runs counter to his words. It reminds me of those times when you hear some­one insist on how hap­py they are, but you know they’re just try­ing to will that fact into exis­tence by speak­ing it.”

In the course of the poem, “the speak­er begins to doubt his own crav­ings for the per­ma­nence of art. Is it real­ly as per­fect as he imag­ines?” Through­out, “he’s looked to the urn, to art, to assuage his despair about life,” a task to which it final­ly proves not quite equal. “In life, things change and fade, but they’re real. In art, things may be eter­nal, but they’re life­less.” The famous final lines of “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn” arrive at the con­clu­sion that “beau­ty is truth, truth beau­ty,” and how lit­er­al an inter­pre­ta­tion to grant it remains a mat­ter of debate. It may not real­ly be all we know on Earth, nor even all we need to know, but the fact that we’re still argu­ing about it two cen­turies lat­er speaks to the pow­er of art — as well as art about art.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightin­gale” and Oth­er Great Works by Shake­speare, Dante & Coleridge

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vas­es Come to Life with 21st Cen­tu­ry Ani­ma­tion

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Reads Shakespeare’s Oth­el­lo and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightin­gale” (1940)

Learn to Write Through a Video Game Inspired by the Roman­tic Poets: Shel­ley, Byron, Keats

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • David Hickey says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this inter­pre­ta­tion is seri­ous­ly flawed. It works out of the par­a­digm of the so-called “New Crit­i­cism” of the ear­ly and mid­dle 20th cen­tu­ry. In oth­er words, it ignores Keats’ life. Keats was dying when he wrote this and he knew it. The urn, like his ode, is being cel­e­brat­ed because they will both live for­ev­er. And he is glad of this.(In fact, Keats’ poem may very well out­live the urn!) It sim­ply would­n’t be called an ode if it was­n’t cel­e­bra­to­ry.

  • Anna Bystrik says:

    Yours is a valu­able remark. Addi­tion­al­ly, the rep­e­ti­tions in the Ode are nei­ther “hys­ter­i­cal” nor “embar­rass­ing”, con­trary to the arti­cle’s inter­pre­ta­tion. These tools are affirm­ing. Estab­lish­ing the truth and the beau­ty as forms of each oth­er is yet anoth­er affir­ma­tion of immor­tal­i­ty, by acti­vat­ing read­ers’ famil­iar­i­ty with Shake­speare’s son­nets that entail the same inter­pre­ta­tion of beau­ty as a form of truth.

  • Aashir says:

    Hey David,
    Are you will­ing to have a chat on this top­ic? We dis­cussed it a few days ago in my Eng­lish class and I would love to hear your thoughts on this poem.
    Msg me here so we can arrange a web meet­ing.

  • Chhana says:

    The poem itself shows the praise of the per­ma­nen­cy of art over the mere enjoy­ment of tem­po­rary life alone, but also a clos­er inspect into the urn shows some doubts and reveals a flaw on his praise over the per­ma­nent objec­tiv­i­ty of art. He sure wrote it while he was dying but he seemed to be well aware of it all to be not self­ish to prause only the remem­brance a per­ma­nent object can give. The flaws he noticed on the urn as a whole is THE TRUTH and also THE BEAUTY it con­tains REMIND US the TRUTH of LIVING, and it reveals to him the beau­ty of liv­ing, which is tem­po­rary but is the truth, and for his dying body, it reveals the beau­ty of art cre­at­ed with­in the tem­po­rary life depict­ing tem­po­rary things in life. The repi­ti­tion of words can sure be inter­pret­ed as over prais­ing objec­tiv­i­ty alone which fore­shad­ows itself and is admit­ted by the poem lat­er when it inspects the urn as a lit­er­al object, reflect­ing “is prais­ing per­ma­nent over the truth of life just because it is tem­po­rary mean­ing­ful?”. Hence, the poem works as “The per­ma­nent art remind­ing the beau­ty of life for the com­ing tem­po­rary lives to live it and make more art” instead of “Prais­ing art alone over tem­po­rary life”. And,that’s what the arti­cle is say­ing.

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