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Keats calls the urn an “unravish’d bride of quietness” because it has existed for centuries without undergoing any changes (it is “unravished”) as it sits quietly on a shelf or table. He also calls it a “foster-child of silence and time” because it is has been adopted by silence and time, parents who have conferred on the urn eternal stillness. In addition, Keats refers to the urn as a “sylvan historian” because it records a pastoral scene from long ago. (“Sylvan” refers to anything pertaining to woods or forests.) This scene tells a story (“legend”) in pictures framed with leaves (“leaf-fring’d”)–a story that the urn tells more charmingly with its images than Keats does with his pen.
Keats speculates that the scene is set either in Tempe or Arcady. Tempe is a valley in Thessaly, Greece–between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa–that is favored by Apollo, the god of poetry and music. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vale_of_Tempe
Arcadia has its present-day capital at Tripoli. It forms the largest prefecture on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Arcady is Arcadia, a picturesque region in the Peloponnesus (a peninsula making up the southern part of Greece). Arcadia remained a rustic, secluded area, and its inhabitants became proverbial as primitive herdsmen leading simple pastoral unsophisticated yet happy lives, to the point that Arcadia may refer to some imaginary idyllic paradise, immortalized by Virgil's Eclogues , and later by Jacopo Sannazaro in his pastoral masterpiece, Arcadia (1504)
Keats wonders whether the images he sees represent humans or gods. And, he asks, who are the reluctant (“loath”) maidens and what is the activity taking place?
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know .
Keats begins by addressing the urn as an “attic shape.” Attic refers to Attica, a region of east-central ancient Greece in which Athens was the chief city. Shape, of course, refers to the urn. Thus, attic shape is an urn that was crafted in ancient Attica.
The urn is a beautiful one, poet says, adorned with “brede” (braiding, embroidery) depicting marble men and women enacting a scene in the tangle of forest tree branches and weeds. As people look upon the scene, they ponder it–as they would ponder eternity–trying so hard to grasp its meaning that they exhaust themselves of thought.
Keats calls the scene a “cold pastoral!”–in part because it is made of cold, unchanging marble and in part, perhaps, because it frustrates him with its unfathomable mysteries, as does eternity.
At this time in his life, Keats was suffering from tuberculosis, a disease that had killed his brother, and was no doubt much occupied with thoughts of eternity. He was also passionately in love with a young woman, Fanny Brawne, but was unable to act decisively on his feelings–even though she reciprocated his love–because he believed his lower social status and his dubious financial situation stood in the way. Consequently, he was like the cold marble of the urn–fixed and immovable.
Keats says that when death claims him and all those of his generation, the urn will remain. And it will say to the next generation what it has said to Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” In other words, do not try to look beyond the beauty of the urn and its images, which are representations of the eternal, for no one can see into eternity. The beauty itself is enough for a human; that is the only truth that a human can fully grasp. The poem ends with an endorsement of these words, saying they make up the only axiom that any human being really needs to know.
What roles do the following play in the poem? 1. The urn 2. The figures on the urn 3. The poet 4. The reader(s)
References: http://englishhistory.net/keats/contents.html John Keats's sketch of the Sosibios Vase