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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  • 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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