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Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Disher-Campbell. Background.

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Presentation Transcript
  • Odes are lyrical, elegaic, complex, and grandiose in theme/language, serious in structure, and Romantic Meditative odes are usually developed by theme rather than through a formal structure (see handout for clarification)
  • “Twin odes” on the themes of beauty and poetic inspiration (“Ode to Psyche” is also related to inspiration, but each ode approaches the subject differently)
  • “Nightingale”—spoken to a nightingale
  • “Grecian Urn”—referring to an ancient Greek urn (remember his fascination with the classics?)
  • If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, you know why “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”—they do nothing but sing, so they do not harm humans in any way. They do not destroy property, they eat pesky insects, and their singing is beautiful.
  • Commonly known for singing at night (when few other birds sing), but sings throughout the day.
  • The bird’s Anglo-Saxon name, “nihtingale,” means “night songstress.”
ode on a grecian urn
Ode on a Grecian Urn

Written in 1819 during his nine month “intense creative flowering.”

The original manuscript of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is lost. We have one in George Keats’ handwriting, but John’s is gone.

Third of the five “great odes.”

Discussion of beauty (permanence of art vs. fleeting beauty)

paradox and meaning
Paradox and Meaning

"Ode on a Grecian Ode" is based on a series of paradoxes and opposites:

  • the discrepancy between the urn with its frozen images and the dynamic life portrayed on the urn,
  • the human and changeable versus the immortal and permanent,
  • participation versus observation,
  • life versus art.

As in "Ode to a Nightingale," the poet wants to create a world of pure joy, but in this poem the idealized or fantasy world  is the life of the people on the urn. Keats sees them, simultaneously, as carved figures on the marble vase and live people in ancient Greece.

Existing in a frozen or suspended time, they cannot move or change, nor can their feelings change, yet the unknown sculptor has succeeded in creating a sense of living passion and turbulent action. As in "Ode to a Nightingale," the real world of pain contrasts with the fantasy world of joy.


Grecian Urns did not have the connotation of death that we associate with them today.

  • Used for carrying water/oil/wine, holding flowers, storytelling, decorative purposes
  • Often depicted important events (weddings, victories) or stories about the gods
beauty truth couplet
Beauty-Truth Couplet

There are three different versions of the “truth-beauty” couplet at the end of the poem. No one knows which is the one intended by Keats (the published or noted copy of the poem), and each changes the meaning slightly.


Version 1

This version is based on a comparison of the four transcripts by friends. They agree on the wording, but not on capitalization.

Beauty is Truth,--Truth Beauty,--that is all      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Version 2This version appeared in the Annals of the Fine Arts, for MDCCCXIX. It was probably published in January 1820.

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.--That is all      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Version 3This version appeared in the volume of poetry published in July 1820, during Keats's lifetime. It is not clear that he was well enough to correct typographical errors.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.