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.
- Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!
- Thou foster-child of silence and slow time
- Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
- A flow’ry tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
- What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
- Maenad, with a wreath on her head.
- Of deities or mortals, or of both,
- In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
- What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
- What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
- What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
- 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:
- Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
- Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
- Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
- Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
- She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
- For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
- Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
- Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
- And, happy melodist, unwearied,
- For ever piping songs for ever new;
- More happy love! more happy, happy love!
- For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
- For ever panting, and for ever young;
- All breathing human passion far above,
- That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
- A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
- Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
- To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
- Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
- And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
- What little town by river or sea shore,
- Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
- Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
- And, little town, thy streets for evermore
- Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
- Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
- O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
- Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
- With forest branches and the trodden weed;
- Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
- As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
- When old age shall this generation waste,
- Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
- Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
- “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
- Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
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;  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,  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.”
- Rosemary Hill:
Cockney connoisseurship: Keats and the Grecian Urn
- Volute krater, by Sosibos the Athenian, c. 50 BCE, Italy?
- Ode on a Grecian Urn
- A Drawing keats rendered of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase