Characters and speaker

The most important characters in the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats are the speaker and the urn itself, which receives human attributes. Apart from them, the poem depicts a whole variety of people who are painted on the urn and seem to come to life in the speaker’s imagination.

The speaker

The speaker can be associated with an alter-ego of the poet himself. He is a person standing in front of an ancient Greek urn which has a strong impact on him. This speaker appears to be almost mesmerised by the piece of pottery to which he attributes human attributes such as wisdom, calling it a “Sylvan historian” (l. 3).

Initially, the speaker is very inquisitive and curious. He addresses the urn, inquiring about the meaning and the history of its drawings:

“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?”
(ll. 7-10)

Subsequently, he abandons the questions and starts analysing each image painted on the urn. The speaker is clearly a sensitive person, inclined towards reflection and meditative states. In some ways, we can call him an idealist. He prefers submerging in a world of imagination, in which a distant ancient past comes to life:

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;”
(ll. 11-12)

This is why he deems the songs of the piper better than his own art; unheard, these songs always remain new and fresh. The same goes for the love between the piper and the girl, whic...

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