Keats' poem is an ode, a lyrical style of poetry often written in celebration of a person, place, thing or idea. In fact, his ode celebrates a thing: specifically, an object that leads him to a revelation. He ponders a Grecian urn on which a scene of love and revelry takes place. Because the object about which he writes is a work of art, Keats' poem takes on the ekphrastic style, meaning a poem vividly describing a scene or work of art. By using art as a catalyst to contemplate life, Keats already contrasts the two.
John Keats reflects on the identity of the lovers on the urn, questioning who they are, what they are doing, and how they are feeling. He observes the paradox that, though frozen in time, they appear to perpetually move: dancing and playing music. In the second and third stanzas, the paradox becomes more apparent. He notes the permanence of love and music, frozen forever on the urn. However, he advises the reader not to grieve for the couple and observes that their passion can never be consummated. Keats shows that, though seemingly ideal, life on the urn is static and, therefore, no life at all.
Poet and Reader
Keats guesses at the feelings of the couple, thus moving beyond a mere ekphrastic description of the scene. He includes his own thoughts on the nature of art and life. By involving himself in the contemplation, his experience of observing the urn becomes an important aspect of the poem. Keats also describes a scene not portrayed on the urn: the perpetual emptiness of the village from which the urn's characters come. With this further imagining, he invites the reader to join in his speculation. He therefore involves himself and his readers in comparing art and life in the poem.
Keats ends his poem with a controversial quotation: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Esteemed poet and critic T.S. Eliot actually questioned his own understanding of the lines, ultimately declaring them a blight on an otherwise beautiful poem. Because that ending couplet is published with quotation marks, scholars question who is speaker and audience at the end: poet to reader, urn to reader, poet to urn, or poet to figures on the urn. By ending the poem with a controversial set of lines, Keats leaves the reader questioning the nature of art and life and if one can exist without the other.