Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' deals with the perplexing and indefinable relationship between
life and art. Paradoxically it is the life of the urn that we would normally associate with
stillness, melancholy and bereavement that is shown to be representative of life. Indeed the decorative scenes on the side of the urn identify a world that is enriched through a myriad of senses, such as sight, sound and touch. Yet throughout this ode Keats has illustrated a number of ambiguities, 'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter'. Patently such incongruities compel the reader to question the enigmatical relationship between life and humanity and art and nature. Arguably in the extract above Keats is intimating that the pictorial world of the urn is far greater than our own existence. Clearly the beatitude of the urn is elusive to our own inane existence. However it could be argued that at the end of the ode Keats inaugurates beauty and truth to be synonymous with one another. This last line is problematical and is entirely dependent, like most poetry on personal interpretation. Indeed we are to perceive beauty to be the perpetrator and victim of torment? Seemingly there is no one answer, for it depends upon whether you read it as a purely emotional or intellectual or indeed philosophical piece of work.
Keats describes his reaction to a Grecian urn painted with images of maidens, pipers and other Greeks. While the melody of modern day pipes may be sweet, Keats finds the painted pipes sweeter. They are not mere sensual pleasure, but guide one to a higher sense of ideal beauty. Other images have a similar effect, as they are frozen forever at the moment of highest perfection. One part of the urn shows a youth about to kiss a maid. Keats envies the lover, for though he will never actually kiss his love, she will ever remain fair and they will forever be in love. The painted trees will also forever be perfect, never losing their leaves. When Keats' world passes away, this beautiful object will still remain and tell man that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."
Keats articulates a common Romantic belief that beauty is the path to truth--to higher knowledge and the proper basis of democratic society. The urn, like other art (including the poet's), functions to remind man of this basic truth, urging him to establish the most just of social realities.
This poem also captures a delicate sense of balance between pleasure and pain. The youth is caught, for instance, between the painful anxiety preceding his kiss and the pleasure of the kiss itself. The trees are at their peak, on the border of fall and their death. It is this moment, between pleasure and pain, death and life, that was most treasured by the Romantic poets.